Over-ear headphones have become the must-have accessory for fashion conscious audiophiles over the last couple of years. This audio quality revival was started, in part, by Dr Dre and his Beats headphones. Since then a number of imitators have made their way to market, but are they any good, and are Beats still the benchmark? Well, we got our hands on a pair of headphones from Beats, Fanny Wang (no we didn’t make that name up) and Sol Republic, to see who makes the best set of over-ear and on-ear headphones for the fashion conscious music lover.
Sol Republic Master Tracks
Sol Republic might not be a name that you’re a familiar with, originally founded by Kevin Lee, the son of Monster Cable founder Noel Lee and a longtime Monster executive, his new headphone venture is to offer affordable high performance headphones to the masses.
Compared to the competition, Sol Republic’s design team has gone out of their way to standout from the crowd. First of all their headphones use special removable speakers, where the actual speakers can be slid off from the headband, it’s not exactly a game-changer, but it does mean you can replace the headband or individual speakers without having to shell out for a brand-new pair of headphones – so that’s something.
This does mean that the headphones use a proprietary cable that fits into both cups, which isn’t ideal as you won’t be able to use any spare cables that you might have lying around the house.
Elsewhere the Master Tracks are incredibly lightweight, which is actually really important, as no one wants a pair of headphones that are so heavy you get neck strain, and compared the competition they’re the lightest. As well as the headphones, you get a nice carry case and a 6.5mm jack converter.
Sound quality-wise the Master Tracks do a sterling job, basslines are crisp and full of depth, high notes come across with a great fidelity and mids punch just like you’d expect. We’d concede the overall sound quality is not as good as the Beats, but this is mainly down to the lack of noise cancelling technology. But for the £100 saving compared to the Beats, the quality difference is marginal and certainly not worth the extra money.
Overall the Master Tracks have great build quality, especially the indestructible headband, great looks, and a reasonable price tag.
Sol Republic Tracks HD
Sol Republic, like all three companies, do a diet version called the Tracks HD, they’re very similar to their more expensive sibling, but don’t enclose the ear but rather sit on top of them.
Apart from that there’s very little difference, except of course the price and how loud they go. For every day listening they’re very good, but if you’re listening to stream or a YouTube clip that’s not very loud, there isn’t a lot of headroom to make it louder. So for some situations where you need to drown out background noise, like trains or planes, they might not be loud enough for – but for half the price, and the ability to dismantle them, they’re a great travel companion.
Sol Republic Tracks HD: $129
Beats By Dre Studio HD
Beats are the most expensive pair of headphones out of the six we tested, but does the extra money get you a better listening experience? Well: yes and no. There’s no doubt that the packaging, design and build quality, at first, does seem a lot better than the competition, but there are some disadvantaged to the Beats, too.
Monster has made the decision to add noise-cancelling technology, so the headphones will require two AAA batteries to work. So, if you run out of juice on a flight or train and can’t replace the batteries – they will not work at all.
Now, for a pair of headphones that cost over £250, that’s a glaring omission. I personally picked up a pair when they came out a couple of years ago and unfortunately they developed a loose connection and stopped working altogether. But the annoying thing is the noise-cancelling tech is actually amazing; it completely blocks out exterior noise to the point that if you’re on a plane or train you won’t be able to hear the usual humming that fast travel creates.
Cable-wise, Beats has done the sensible thing and use a standard single jack headphone cable. The headphones come with two cables: a normal one and an iPhone-enabled cable, so you can handle calls, change tracks and adjust the volume. Comfort-wise they’re very good, although compared to Sol’s Master Tracks they are a bit on the heavy side, and after a couple of hours you will need to take them off to give your head and neck a rest.
Overall the Beats By Dre Studio HDs are great, but I can’t help but feel their decision to complicate the listening experience with noise-cancelling technology is a double-edged sword – it’s clear to us that the build quality is unlikely to see the headphones last more than a few years with daily use, and for the current asking price that just isn’t acceptable. Especially when you can get a pair of in-ear Apple headphones for 10th of the price and they’re likely to last considerably longer.
Overall, we love the Beats, they offer the best overall sound quality, but their decision to add noise-cancelling tech might detour some from picking them up. There’s also a big question mark about the quality of some of the internal wiring and components, which for the price is more than a bit worrying.
Beats By Dre Studio HD: £280
Beat By Dre Solo HD
Beats also do cut down version, the Solo HDs and for half the price you’d expect them to loose a bit of quality, and you’d be right, they don’t keep the noise-cancelling technology, and again the cups don’t cover the ear, but sit on top of them. Compared to the Track HDs they have quite a bit more punch than you’d expect. They also keep the crab like folding mechanism for when you want to put them away in a travel bag, both reducing their size and protecting the all-important ear cups.
For the money, they’re very good, and don’t suffer the same problems as their more expensive cousin, whereby they completely stop working when they’ve run out of batteries.
Beat By Dre Solo HD: £169
Fanny Wang’s Over-Ear 3000 Headphones
From the moment you open the Fanny Wang’s you’ll immediately think “low-rent Beats,” it’s a sea of cheap, shiny plastic and while that might seem harsh, there’s little or no difference in application, design or quality compared to the Beats or Sols.
Where the Wangs do score points is the high quality cable that comes with the headphones. It’s also has a splitter jack, meaning you can daisy chain pairs of headphones together, perfect for a couple who want to watch a DVD on the train, but don’t want to disturb the rest of the passengers.
Another advantage the Over-Ear Wangs have over Beats Studio is their ability to work even without battery power -when Monster’s headphones run out of juice, they go silent until you replace their AAAs. While the audio quality and volume levels are both compromised in Fanny Wang’s design, you can still continue to hear music through them.
The Over-Ear Wangs also have a three-position power switch, which for some reason offers separate “on” and “bass” positions. Fanny Wang explains this as being a “selectable Bass Boost” to let users have the choice between balanced or skewed sound, but the standard “on” position sounds so unimpressive that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to listen to it.
In both sound quality and comfort the Over Ear Wangs pale in comparison to both the Beats and the Sols. The padding around the cup just isn’t quite as soft or malleable as their competitors. Sound quality isn’t too bad, but they just don’t do anything to improve certain aspects of the music, something the Beats do very well. Basslines are muddy, mids do punch but they lack some clarity, while highs are actually surprisingly good.
Fanny Wang’ Over-Ear headphone’ can’t compete with Beats Studio or Sol Republic Master Tracks on design or sonics. If you’re obsessed with the way Beats Studio look and sound, then the choice should be obvious.
But we’d actually recommend the Sol Republic’s Master Tracks; they’re incredibly light, look great and are well made. We especially like the modular design, meaning if you blow a speaker, or break the something, you can simply replace the broken part.
Fanny Wang’s On-Ear Headphones
Fanny Wang also have an On-Ear variant of their headphones, and compared to the more expensive version they don’t drop as many functions and features as you’d expect. The bass button is cut, as is the noise-cancelling technology, but you do get the daisy chain headphone cable, that makes the headphones ideal for anyone who is looking to share sound – so perfect for friend or couples to who want to watch a DVD together on long journeys.
They’re still made of the same plastic as the Over-Ear Wangs, but you do get some incredibly sturdy hinges where the headphones collapse on themselves, which compared the Beats, is almost certainly going to last longer when it comes to everyday wear and tear.