Beats Studio Wireless review: expensive headphones with lacklustre sound – The Guardian
Beats have always been big, bold, showy headphones that are as much a fashion statement as they are personal listening devices, but you might expect a company founded by a rapper would make sure the product sounds good too. Particularly when they cost £330.
The new design of the Studio headphone line, first introduced in 2013, the Beats styling has been almost toned down a little.
The result is a much more classy, almost understated look. Still big, but in some colour schemes like silver they look decidedly premium instead of gaudy.
The outer shell is all plastic with an inner metal hinged band for adjusting the size of the headband, which collapses down for travel. A rubber strip under the headband pads the top of the head, while the soft leatherette ear cups sit snugly around the ear, making the headphones comfortable to wear without squashing your head or being too heavy.
The left-hand ear cup sports a slim 3.5mm headphones jack for wired connections when at a desk, as well as pause-play and volume buttons. The right-hand ear cup has the microUSB port for charging the battery, as well as the power button and battery level indicator lights – a small strip of five LEDs that light up when the power button is pressed.
Sadly there are no separate track skip buttons, instead relying on a double and triple press of the big “B” pause-play button, which doesn’t always work. The headphones jack is also very narrow meaning that most cables will not fit correctly forcing you to use the included headphones cable.
The included cable does have a music remote on it, however, for pausing music on an iPhone or Android when wired.
Battery life is rated at 12 hours for Bluetooth listening, which in my testing proved to be about right, and is decent for the current crop of large wireless headphones but by no means stellar. Frustratingly, you cannot use the headphones via cable when the battery is flat.
Mid-bass and sharp highs
Previous variants of Beats headphones have focused on bass above all else, which certainly pleases some, but sadly, the new Beats Studio Wireless are style over substance when it comes to sound quality.
They are more balanced than previous Beats headphones, but as a consequence lack really deep bass, producing lows that sound like there is a bit missing – lots of punchy mid-bass with a lack of really low end, even when playing Dr Dre’s own bass-heavy tracks.
As a consequence anything with a solid bass line sounds a little muddy, although vocals are still relatively clear if a little sharp when listening to rap, contemporary soul or pop for instance.
Other music genres do not fare quite so well. Jazz, for instance, sees half the track disappear between overly warm bass and sharp high-end frequencies lacking any nuance or clarity between instruments. Classical music, like Holst’s Jupiter from the Planets suite, sounds dull and muted in the mids, with all but the highs lacking any sort of energy.
Rock and folk are also not suited to the Beats sound. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is butchered by the headphones. Known for his pedantic love of sound quality, having backed his own high resolution version of the iPod, the Pono Player, Harvest Moon is a track recorded in Nashville, the home of analogue recording perfection and this track is a tribute to that sound – rich, full, dense and rounded. To some it is like a great wine poured into your ear, but the Studio Wireless headphones managed to make it sound thin and flimsy, more Ikea than Conran, if we were talking furniture.
The pleasing nature of sound profiles, balance and quality are, of course, down to personal preference, which is why we had more than one person listen to the headphones and give independent, objective opinions. Everyone who listened to them came to similar conclusions, but your milage may vary.
It is safe to say, however, that the Beats Studio Wireless are not geared up for nuanced music listening, and unlike other decent £300-plus headphones will not show you anything new in the music that you might not have heard before.
As well as being wireless, the new Beats have active noise cancelling, which uses microphones on the outside of the headphones to detect ambient noise and emits sound waves to cancel them out blended with the music.
Combined with the relatively good sound isolation created by the thick, padded ear cups, the noise cancelling does an effective job of blocking out certain background sounds, especially the drone of trains, planes or automobiles. It is less effective at blocking out colleagues or people talking on the street.
It is also not possible to turn off the noise cancelling, which means in silent rooms where it is unnecessary there is a quiet hiss noticeable in the background.
The Beats Studio Wireless cost £329.95, which puts them in the top bracket for Bluetooth headphones, with most priced between £250 and £350. They’re premium looking and feeling, but they do not sound high-end.
Verdict: comfortable, quiet but will murder some music
Beats has made a leap forward in comfort and design with the Studio Wireless. The battery life is decent, the noise cancelling effective, while the folding band makes them compact for travel.
The problem comes to sound quality. Depending on your personal music preference, you might find the lack of deep bass and sharp highs pleasing, but the overall sound quality is not what you’d expect from a £330 pair of headphones.
While it is true that streaming music over Bluetooth can technically impact sound quality, with modern Bluetooth 4.0 technology the difference between wired and wireless music playback is negligible for all but the highest quality of music and highest-end headphones, which the Beats are certainly not.
With the Beats Studio Wireless you are paying for the brand name above all else. Your £330 buys an average pair of Bluetooth headphones with few, irritating controls and sound quality that doesn’t match their price tag, even for the music genres of their creator.
Pros: Comfortable, fold up for travel, OK battery life, active noise cancelling, wireless, optional cable
Cons: Cannot turn off noise cancelling, fiddly controls, weak sound, large profile, cannot be used cabled without battery