You can trace the resurgence in the popularity of over-ear headphones back to the release of Dr Dre’s Beats Headphones in 2008. Due to some expert marketing the bulky headphones suddenly became the must-have fashion accessory for footballers, celebrities and the world’s most successful hip hop producer, Dr Dre.
Four years later, Beats has finally decided to re-imagine their flagship headphones – so how do the company’s new Studio Beats compared to the original Studio HD headphones? Well, quite well actually. Beats have tried to address several of the flaws that plagued the original design. Having owned two pairs, I know first-hand where the last headphones fell down compared to the competition.
First of all, Beats thought that having battery-powered headphones was a good idea. But in practice it was one of their biggest flaws. There’s nothing worse than getting on a plane or a train to find out you’ve forgot to turn them off, and you’ve drained the batteries. Now, you might think that’s fine: they’ll still work just minus the noise-cancelling tech, right? Well you’re wrong, with no juice they’re rendered completely useless and for the £269 price tag that’s almost unforgivable.
This time around the company has looked to improve this situation with the inclusion of a 20-hour rechargeable battery, which powers the headphone’s adaptive noise cancelling technology, now as soon as you unplug the headphones from your device they shut down completely.
Beats have also gone to great lengths to make their flagship cans as light as possible, shaving 13% off the total weight, which makes them a lot more comfortable during prolonged listening periods.
Despite the eye-watering price tag, and the word “studio”, Beats’ headphones should never be let near a studio, let alone a music producer – this is because they’re famed for being incredibly inaccurate when it comes to sound reproduction. Beats’ headphones are notoriously bass heavy, incredibly punchy and while that might turn some audiophiles off there’s no doubt they sound relatively impressive despite the woeful sound accuracy. The decision to go bass-heavy is Beats’ realisation that your average music fan is listening to crappy mp3s where quality takes a back seat to overall audio fidelity.
The decision by Beats to continue to utilise noise-cancelling tech is once again a double-edge sword; at its best it can pretty much cancel out, say, the drone of an aircraft engine. But at worst it requires power and if you haven’t got any left you’re essentially left with a rather expensive headband.
And that’s the main problem with Beats’ Studio headphones; they’re less about audio fidelity and more about a fashion statement – if you want highly accurate headphones we’d recommend you checking out some other headphones, but if you want to make a fashion-statement then Beats headphones offer a premium price alongside solid branding.
Here’s what some of our fellow critics had to say about the Studio headphones:
“What is irritating is the hiss you get with the Studio’s active noise-cancelling technology. That hiss is cranked up a notch when there is no music being played through the headphones, which means that the Studio can’t be used to just provide some peace and quiet on things like a noisy aeroplane.” – DigitalSpy
“The Beats Studio are fine-sounding headphones, but they don’t have the qualities that separate a good £100 headphone from a good £270 one. The Beats Studio improve upon their predecessors with simpler active noise cancellation and a more streamlines design. They’re enjoyable headphones, but thanks to a few sound issues we’d recommend checking out a few other sets for becoming part of the Beats brigade.” – TrustedReviews
“There’s another port to be aware of: the micro USB port is an essential as this is where the headphones need to connect to charge up their built-in battery. That’s right, they’re not passive so you’ll need to juice up these cans to listen to your favourite beats. That’s better than the lesser-lasting AAA batteries of the original model, and while a full charge claims to deliver 20-hours of audio – we’ve run them non-stop and, fresh out the box on first charge at least, the time claim rings true – outside of the charge and it’s audio out. Radio silence. Nada. Zilch.” – Pocketlint
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you love the idea of an iPad but wish you could cram it into your pockets you can either get bigger pockets, start wearing one of these or invest in HTC’s new Sensation XL. Three were kind enough to send me a smartphone-cum-tablet to test for a week or two.
As you might have inferred from my opening remarks, this is a big phone, much like that other whopper the LG Optimus, and the Sensation XL packs a 4.7″ punch. The sharp HD screen and 8mp camera play nicely together and you can take some nice enough images if the lighting is being co-operative. I was a little less impressed in the dark, and the Sensation XL completely failed to capture the magic and wonder for fireworks as well. However this merely makes it like most smartphones. The lack of Instagram on Android remains annoying, but there’s plenty of fun to have with a screen this decent and a camera this big and you can even play with wide-angle shots.
The other headline feature of this handset, aside from it’s gargantuan size, is NWA co-founder Dr Dre’s famous BeatsByDre audio system is built into the phone and the handset comes bundled with some in-ear BeatsbyDre headphones. BeatsByDre headphones, whilst not as amazing as their East London ubiquity (I keep seeing that word everywhere) would have you believe are still really good headphones. And to have them bundled with your smartphone, at a time where Apple has the gall to sell £800 smartphones with headphones so bad I refuse to leave house with them, is a definitely plus in the Sensation XL’s book. They are pretty good at drowning out external sound too, so the chorus of people shouting “look at the size of his phone!” will be lost on you.
Sylvia Chind, head of handsets at Three said “There has already been a lot of buzz about this entertaining new HTC phone. Three is the perfect partner for the Sensation XL as our all you can eat data offerings mean that people can enjoy the full world of media apps like Spotify and YouTube on the go, without worrying about receiving a shock when their bill arrives.” And to be fair to her, Three’s network held up against my non-stop Spotify and YouTube use for two weeks.
The HTC Sensation XL is available from £34 a month or £40 a month on The One Plan with all-you-can-eat data, 2,000 anytime, any network minutes and 5,000 texts.
PAYG customers can get the HTC Sensation XL for £449.99. All in One 15 costs £15 and gives 30-days access to all-you-can-eat data along with 300 any-network minutes and 3,000 texts. Or All in One 25 costs £25 and offers 500 minutes, 3,000 texts and all-you-can-eat data for a 30-day period
HTC have recently just announced the arrival of the Sensation XE into the market, and for HTC fans that demand a big more bang from their portable music player it looks like being just the ticket.
HTC’s much publicised buyout of Beats Audio, the audio equipment company headed up by Dr Dre, was backed up by the promise of future integration of Beats Audio software into HTC hardware, with the Sensation XE is the first in what will no doubt be a long and fruitful partnership.
First off though, let’s look at the phone itself. The screen is a healthy 4.3 inch gHD with 540 x 960 resolution. Like the Sensation it’s also packing an 8 MP camera, so those pictures of Fit Lyndsey you took in Oceana will upload nice and crisply onto Facebook. It also comes with 1080p HD video capture functionality, so the video of her back at yours could viably find its way into the public domain if you so wanted that to happen. They’ve also upgraded the battery to a 1730Ah, which will be a big relief for all those who had the Sensation and were frequently frustrated by the shortness of its life; It seems you might actually be able to take the XE to a festival and risk using the thing.
It’s got the latest version of Android (2.3) so you’ll be free to whizz around the phone in the way you know best, with what with its Youtube integration. Maps, Apps, Gmail and all the other bits that the seasoned HTC user will want and indeed demand.
But come on, we know what you want to know; it’s all about the Beats with this cheeky litte number. How does it work? What goods will the Dr dish out? Well, the phone comes with some official Beats Audio earphones headphones (not over the ear ones though, unfortunately, so you might want to invest in some for full optimisation of the Beats experience). Every time you plug these in a Beats Audio profile automatically loads up and it is this that synchronises the phone to all the optimum sounds levels that should give you upgraded bass galore. Effectively, it’s a sound equaliser you don’t have to do all that faffy fiddling with. Reviews we’ve read of the XE have stated that there is certainly increased sound quality with the Beats profile and headphones, though so it seems they are doing their job.
The golden touch that HTC might just have achieved with the Beats Audio link-up is the instant credibility it garners. After being nudged down a notch by the Samsung Galaxy S2, HTC needed an ace up its sleeve to make it appear to the teen on the corner or the commuter on the tube. In days where iPhones are lauded (almost) as much for their image as for their functionality, you cannot ignore the relevance of Dre et al in the battle for bragging rights.
Since the launch of the iPhone, PCs have been comparatively boring. Their designs are dull, you can’t rotate them around and poking the screen just leaves dirty marks. Not anymore – HP noticed this desktop short-coming and created the TouchSmart610. It’s interesting to look at, moves in two directions and has multi-touch compatibility. But, and this is the big question – why?
No-one doubts that computer’s stats. The 23-inch, 1920×1080 (Full HD) screen is impressive, especially with the LED backlight. And the screen’s ability to recline 60 degrees, tilt 5 degrees forward and swivel back on itself is unique to the 610.
It’s not let down by poor internals, either. The TouchSmart can be configured with either Intel or AMD processors, RAM runs up to 16GB, a potential terabyte of storage (or a 160GB SSD version) and a Blu-ray drive.
And there’s also plenty-o’-extras, including a 1.3 megapixel camera and Beats Audio speakers, offering possibly the best sound available in a home desktop.
So why are we feeling a little cynical? Well, the problem is application. It’s a bit hard to know what the computer will be used for. The two variations, 610 and 9300 Elite Business, have decidedly different markets – and only one makes much sense.
The 610 aims at home users, with TouchSmart software, some media manager and the inclusion of strategy game R.U.S.E. The problem is that the screen is a bit too small to replace a TV, the touchscreen useless for the majority of games and the swivel function almost pointless. It’ll be great for ergonomics, but we can’t see much regular use otherwise.
For business, however, the purpose of the 9300 is much clearer. In showrooms, for example, an employee could tap away at a computer, then swivel it around for a client to interact with it via touch. PC sharing will be a lot easier and – and this is important – seem much more professional. The 9300 also boosts the webcam to 2 megapixels (why?), but loses Beats Audio (makes sense).
If you’re a home user who needs flexible ergonomics and has trouble with mouse-and-keyboard input, then the HP is the only PC for you. Otherwise, we’re open to comments suggesting other home-uses. Business customers, however, look this way.
Celebrities endorse a lot of products, but so far computers have escaped such vicious marketing attempts. Maybe locking them up in Big Brother stopped their famous-paws from grasping at the computer market. As with the Channel 4 reality show, however, this is all about to end. HP have enlisted the help of Dr. Dre, the legendary artist and music producer. His mission? Turn HP’s ENVY laptop range into mini-boomboxes.
The ENVY systems now boasts Beats Audio, a “unique, high-performance technology developed by HP and Beats by Dre to provide the optimal sound experience.” Which sounds good on paper, although the problem is that we’re not entirely sure what Beats Audio is.
It appears to be some kind of advanced driver design, which allows for precise audio clarity. The exact optimisations are unclear however, and a lot of reviewers haven’t heard a difference when listening to playback through the computer’s speakers. The subwoofer included in the ENVY17 model might help, but the ENVY14 lacks the bass booster and reported sounds are average.
The internal audio hardware, however, is top-notch – which means quality external speakers are what make the system an audio giant. The problem is, with average sound coming out of the box, who has a laptop that they frequently plug in to dedicated speakers?
The black and red aluminium’ stylings and slot-loading DVD drive, however, make the laptops a treat for the eyes, even if the ears are left wanting. And they come with a pair of Monster headphones (also with Beats by Dr. Dre technology). These have been famously well received in the past, so there is definitely a headphone incentive to pick one of these systems up.
While the jury is still out on whether HP are giving us powerful beats straight from the laptop, the ENVY range is definitely providing some powerful beasts. The Intel processor, an i5 or i7, coupled with an ATI Mobility Radeon™ HD 5650 graphics card (1GB dedicated memory) and the LED display make the ENVY14 a hot prospect.
The ENVY17 bumps this up to an ATI Mobility Radeon™ HD 5850 graphics card, with a ridiculous maximum hard drive size of two terabytes. It’s also got a 3D display, so when you don the 3D specs you’ll be ready for a new age of interactive video and gaming.
Battery-life should also roll in at about 6.5 hours, with that going up to 13 with the option extended battery-life battery.
The headphones are a definite improvement over any cheap ones you might get out of a Christmas cracker (or bundled with an iPod), but does that warrant a complete laptop rebrand? Users looking for brilliant sound straight out of the laptop may be disappointed.
As this year’s Gadget Show Live draws to a close we round up the top tech that caught our eye during our trek across every inch of the NEC, Birmingham.
The foldaway Yikebike caught our eye as it looks to become the latest answer to personal travel solutions. It’s a sleekly styled piece of kit with carbon composite frame and a leather seat and looks to bring back the classic penny-farthing design. Expect to shell out £3,000 for one of Time Magazine’s top inventions of 2009, weighing in at a measly 21lb’s it can clock a top speed of 25kph and will have a range of 9km.
One of the best and cheapest things we came across was from Hong-Kong based Sumvision, called the Cyclone Micro. It’s a USB 2.0 1080p up-scaling HDMI media player adapter, which allows you to plug and play with any USB storage device and play your media files directly to TV via HDMI, and at £40 it’s great value.
The most expensive gadget we came across was the Sky Car MK2 from Wiltshire Company Parajet. Half car, half plane, the Sky Car is rear wheel off-road buggy, which can hit 110 mph and o-62 in 4.2 seconds. As well the impressive performance on the road, it can also fly with the attaching of a ram-air wing and is capable of take-off from a field or airstrip in less than 200 metres. It’s £55,320 and is on sale now.
We loved new headphones from US company Monster who in partnership with rap legend Dr Dre are looking to revolutionise headphones. Called Beats by Dre, they have been designed to allow you listen to music the way artists recorded it. The big powerful speakers dwarf the capabilities of in-ear buds and with excellent power, clarity and super-deep bass we were blown away by the sound quality. And with Monster’s powered isolation technology these headphones cut all external noise so all you hear is the music. On sale now they will set you back a premium price of £270.
At this year’s show, watch phone brand Swap unveiled the new Swap Lady and Swap Rebel designs. The former is “gorgeous” bangle-style watch and phone for the ladies and the latter a lightweight colourful version for the hip young lads. The new Lady design and Rebel design join the recently announced sporty, waterproof Active Design. Prices are predicted to be around £300.
And finally in the year 2010, no gadget show would be complete without 3D kit everywhere you look. To this end, Sony showed of its latest 3D gear, as did Panasonic, MSI, Nvidia, and the rest. We really liked Sony’s 3D TV, which looked impressive when hooked up to a 3D PS3, you can expect a software update this summer for your Playstation, but you will need to save £2,000 for their 3D TV which will be on sale later this year.