My son is here with me today and... he brought up Beats headphones. I was wondering if you’ve seen/have them and your thoughts. He’s sold on how “cool” they are but I’m curious if they’re all hype or not.
I get in a lot of headphones but hadn't gotten extended time on the beats until HP gave me a pair to test with its new TouchPad tablet (the TouchPad has a special Beats Audio mode. I tested it with the mode enabled and disabled, the difference is too subtle for most people to notice, but it’s a nice branding initiative).
The beats are certainly a style icon, and since most people seem to choose them based on looks I was surprised that the sound quality is quite good. The bass is excellent (boosted but still natural – a tough combination to pull off), the midrange and highs are fair, and there is only some lightly audible distortion in the midrange from the noise cancellation (all active noise cancelling headphones have some distortion, as quite literally that’s what noise cancellation is). They are closed over-ear headphones with mandatory noise cancellation – they don’t work without batteries, and there’s no way to turn the cancellation off. The noise cancellation itself is very good, though not as good as Bose's QuietComfort line.
Overall, I still prefer a good pair of passive in-ear headphones from etymotic, Shure, or Ultimate Ears – especially if you can get custom earpieces, though that usually means spending more than the $300 or so that the beats cost (except when it doesn't). Sennheiser makes slightly better sounding headphones at the same price, and Bose has better noise cancellation around the same price. However, the Sennheisers do not have have noise cancellation, and I think most people might still prefer the Beats for bass-heavy music regardless. (Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten in the new Bose QuietComforts for a full review, so I can’t say which has better overall audio, but the noise cancellation on the Bose is the best I’ve heard when I've tried them on at retail and in airports).
Bottom line: while the beats would not be my first recommendation for all types of listening, I can easily recommended them, and they are particularly good if you listen to a lot of hip-hop and dance. If you want the beats' style you can be comfortable that you aren’t throwing away your money on hype, as they do offer quite good sound overall.