A few weeks before initial reports that Apple was planning to acquire Beats Electronics, I started AT&T’s three month trial of the Beats Music subscription streaming service.. Given that generous window of time, I felt more comfortable investing my time than I would with a one or two week trial. When news broke that Apple was in final talks to purchase Beats, I was caught off guard and immediately concerned that the subscription service that I was starting to really like would change under Apple’s watch. Since the deal has been made official, Apple has said that Beats Music will continue as it is (across multiple platforms even) as will the headphones line (Beats branded, not Apple branded) for now.
Because I was rather surprised by the appeal of Beats Music and Apple is now endorsing the headphones more than ever (even if only really for their massive profit margins), I got really curious Friday afternoon to try out a pair of Beats headphones first hand so I did just that. I’ve been using the Beats Studio Wireless headphones (Amazon) just about all waking hour of this weekend, and below you can read my thoughts on one of the products included in Apple’s biggest acquisition to date.
I’ll start by including a major disclaimer to which the majority of people can probably relate: I am not an audiophile. In a blind test, I probably couldn’t tell apart moderately decent headphones from professional studio headphones, but I can certainly recognize crappy headphones when I hear them.
Apple’s EarPods are better than those free ear buds that came with any CD player or MP3 player before the iPod debuted; they’re may not be incredible, but they’re not bad either. Beats are probably that way too, but over-the-ear headphones should sound better than any ear buds and be the direct upgrade path from the free ones that come in the box, and I think that Beats headphones probably serve that area well.
Now for more on my initial impressions with the Beats Studio Wireless headphones. These first few thoughts are not about the sound quality but instead about the experience before you actually push play.
The packaging on the Beats Studio Wireless headphones feels really premium like those Apple boxes in my office closet that I secretly collect. Too nice to throw away. It is, however, bulkier than it could be. While the packaging does note that it is recyclable, it’s an area in which I imagine Apple would want to improve like it has done with its own packaging in recent years.
The headphones are packed compactly in a Beats case. In sounds silly to say, admittedly, but they have this new car smell upon unboxing. Overall, the opening experience is similar to holding a box set collection of music and the included case with the headphones feels like a storing a nice pair of sunglasses. It’s not at all unlike the initial experience with opening a MacBook; Beats should just use less material to accomplish the same thing.
What’s in the box?
Included aside from the headphones is a number of goodies like the headphones case I mentioned above and a large Beats logo sticker as well as a nice carabiner with Beats branded on it. You also get a very Beats branded wall adapter and USB cable as well as two audio wires, one with phone and music controls and one without. The wire without phone and music controls in my set is black while the USB cable and wire with phone and music controls are both red. I’m less concerned with the color of USB cable, but I would have much preferred the wire with phone and music controls was black like the headphones. They’re matte black without the signature red accent so it’s not ideal to have a flashy wire attached. Luckily, the set I purchased is wireless. More on that later.
As for the actual headphones, the Beats Studio set is much more comfortable than my previous set of headphones (V-Moda Crossfades). In fact, a lot of over-the-ear headphones often feel too tight (okay, maybe my head is big), but this set feels especially lighter and more cushiony.
I would say overall comfortability is good, but not great as it still feels better to take them off rather than keep wearing them after lengthier periods of time (I’m talking hours here). My previous set was just bad, plain and simple, after even a few songs to the point where I just didn’t use them; I can tolerate several hours of listening with the Studios. They’re even relatively comfortable to wear around the neck if you need to slide them off for a bit, but there’s probably an opportunity here for refinements by Apple.
As for the look and design of the Studio Wireless set, both the matte black and titanium gray colors look very sharp. The other options including black with red accents, blue, white, and red probably have more personality if that’s what you’re looking for, but the glossy material looks more plasticky for the same price (and I still wish the audio wire with phone and music controls was black, not red, in the matte black set).
The headphones fold inward and compact quite impressively into the included carrying case. It’s almost like folding a pair of nice sunglasses and casing them. This comes in handy when packing them, I imagine, as I’ve cracked larger headsets in my backpack in the past.
You can also adjust the height up and down to fit looser or tighter. My only complaint here is that when you make either side taller the inside of the band is exposed and much narrower. This has an incomplete look to it that could be handled better. If nothing else, I hope this is a detail that Apple improves.
About the audio quality: music sounds loud and full, podcasts sound loud and full, you don’t hear the noise around you much if at all. Compared to EarPods? Blow away. Compared to my V-Modas? Definitely better, and I would expect that given the big gap in price ($180 difference reguarly), but it’s probably the design and feature set that I’m attached to the most. That’s why I opted for the more expensive Bluetooth set; wireless plus design is a winning combination if the audio quality is better than my last set. It is.
The bass is certainly heavy, I think everyone has already well established that, and initial reviews of the new Solo2 headphones say Beats is addressing that by upping the high end as well. I kind of like it myself. When you turn the volume up way higher than you should probably be allowed to, the speakers actually thump like a stereo pushing out air. This excited me, but I admit it can’t be safe. If you’re listening to music through something with a customizable equalizer, you can even adjust the sound to something more balanced to a degree.
It terms of audio quality, they’re certainly the best headphones I have owned, and I think that’s the point. I’m not an audiophile and I’m really not certain I would know how to recognize and appreciate something more high end. What can I say?
As for the wireless aspect of this particular set, I find it to be a really cool feature to have. Wearing headphones when doing different things around the house like vacuuming or unloading the dish washer is noticeably less frustrating with the absence of a cord dangling between my head and pocket. It also feels really appropriate using a MacBook Air, which if of course wireless and light, with wireless headphones. You’re not tethered to your laptop by the wire and that’s really cool.
The range when using Bluetooth is rated at 30 feet according to Beats, and I’ve found that I can be as far as 45 to 50 feet before the connection experiences any interruptions. But AirPlay support of some kind is an obvious wish list item for an Apple-owned Beats headset. I have an AirPlay-supported speaker and a Bluetooth-connected speaker around my house, and it’s so much easier to manage and connect to AirPlay over Bluetooth hands down. The range when using AirPlay is also much better as my Wi-Fi network extends not just across rooms but beyond my house by several feet.
The playback and phone controls could also improve compatibility with iOS with Apple’s guidance. For example, you can use Siri on a paired iOS device when in wireless mode, but you have to prompt Siri from the home button on the device. When in wired mode, of course, you can prompt Siri from the music playback and phone controls without actually touching the device. For this reason, I would love to see a future version with more of Apple’s influence include a way to interact with Siri in your pocket from the controls on the headphones in wireless mode.
The current product offers standard playback that you have on the music controls of Apple’s EarPods: play, pause, skip forward, skip back, and volume up and down.
Noise canceling & battery life
A few other areas to note include support for adaptive noise canceling and battery life. The headphones do produce a small degree of white noise if no audio is playing when powered on in either wired or wireless mode, which is really useful when trying to focus on working in a noisy environment or zone out and relax in any environment. Battery life is rated at 12 hours of playback in wireless mode, which is longer than the battery life on an iPad and as long as the battery life on a 13″ MacBook Air, and playback in wired mode nets you 20 hours of usage. Charging is also pretty fast; I went from drained to full in less than three hours using the included power adapter. The battery indicator light on the headphones is sleek, too, in an Apple way.
The charger uses Micro USB like many battery-equipped accessories and Android phones. I’d like to see this move to Lightning when Apple designed Beats headphones start shipping eventually. As an iPhone and iPad user, I always know where a Lightning cable is, but I don’t keep up with a Micro USB cable nearly as well. Beats headphones, however, aren’t just accessories intended for use with iOS devices so moving to Lightning isn’t likely (and maybe not smart). Oh well.
As for additional “what different under Apple” ideas, I think it would be useful to have fewer options, or at least better differentiate between models, in the Beats headphone line. Admittedly, I decided based on design and feature set, but it’s not immediately obvious the differences between each model with the current lineup in the way it is between iPad Air and iPad mini or iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c. With the current lineup, I think design and price point are probably the two biggest deciding factors, but I’d like to see more clear differentiating factors in future lineups without having to be a Beats connoisseur.
At any rate, I’m certainly pleased with my set of Beats Studio Wireless headphones for now, including sound quality in music playback and podcast playback. I’m actually kind of addicted to using these probably more than I should be at this point. Being able to connect wireless via Bluetooth to my iPhone, iPad, and Mac is really futuristic feeling and especially convenient. I’m not as certain I would appreciate a wired pair as much, personally; I think it’s worth the extra expense to opt for wireless if you’re already making the purchase.
As for the price point, I would much prefer to have the design and feature set of the Studio Wireless Beats at a lesser cost. At $379 (Amazon Prime), they’re not exactly dispensable like a set of ear buds, but they are very nice once you accept that you’re buying a decent set of headphones to last a while.
I’d certainly like to see improvements with the amount of packing material included, increased Siri compatibility, support for AirPlay, and maybe even Apple TV connectivity in the future.
With that being said, I wouldn’t expect any major changes in the Beats line any time soon as Apple doesn’t expect the Beats acquisition to gain regulatory approval until likely the end of September, and there’s some degree of novelty in owning a pair of Beats before they’re officially Apple commissioned headphones. There’s definitely a lot to like here.
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