A flash of light, a loud crack and the universe is created. A vacuum made from one fundamental force of electromagnetism, gravitation and nuclear interaction, forged in an unquantifiable heat, before expanding and cooling: 150 million years of supersymmetry, nucleosynthesis, recombination and reionisation until finally a star emerges from the hydrogen, helium and lithium exploded out of that first galactic emulsion; it provides a mere glimmer in blackness. More stars, a phantasmagoria of twinkling iridescence until a cloud of hydrogen collapses to form a sphere surrounded by a disk of planets, asteroids and comets. Like marbles in a drawstring bag these rocks bounce against each other in a volatile orgy of nebulae until a glancing blow draws the moon into the Other’s orbit and gravity fixates it as a satellite. Stability, finally, and it only took 10 billion years. The Earth spins, solar winds create intense heat, impact degassing vaporising solids, unlocking carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water. Cooling: clouds are formed, rain fills the oceans, surrounding the land mass, which then divides and drifts to create continents. Bacteria, archea, cells splitting and multiplying, fungi and green shoots. Jellyfish, sea anemones, the first stirrings of sentience, sea stars and urchins, tetrapods and the early amphibians, lungs evolve and limbs form, inchoate experiments with land develop into a predilection for dryness. Reptilian bipeds prey on the weaker forms and some take to flight. These dinosaurs grow strong, sustained by new and broad plant coverage; enormous and domineering, destined to rule for eternity until they are mysteriously wiped out and the nascent mammalian forms take shape and become apex predators with their superior intelligence, flexible ankles and, eventually, opposable thumbs. One day an ape puts down his banana and stands to attention. Another follows. They high five: man is evolving! Hunt. Gather. Subsistence living. Farming. Our mercantile nature begins to develop: food is exchanged for shelter, civilisations are formed, units of currency are agreed upon. Self-awareness conflated with a primitive understanding of our inherent nature leads to myriad religions being invented. War, famine, pestilence, brief interlopings of peace. A man dies. Land is discovered and extremists are expelled to its far-flung bounty. More wars, much more deadly than before; Manifest Destiny; more wars, considerably more deadly than before. 18 February 1965: Andre Young is born in Compton, a place he gets straight out of to partner with Jimmy Iovine to cofound Beats in 2006.
Eight years later, in April 2014, Berlin Messe held its annual launch press conference for IFA in Antalya, Turkey. This presser is always held in April so it was just a coincidence that the Istanbul airport was teeming with Australians flying in and out of these antique cities on various Gallipoli and World War I tours. SQ391 from Istanbul to Singapore on 28 April was like a Fanatics tour, such was the green and gold presence. I was sat next to a couple of teenagers from the choir that had sung the national anthem at the dawn service to mark the Anzac’s ill-fated campaign in the Dardanelles. These two teens — one boy and one girl — were lamenting how poor the economy class headphones were; how they didn’t block out any of the engine noise and you can barely hear the audio track of whatever film you’ve selected from the in-flight entertainment system. To pass the time before being able to descend into iPads and Kindle, we made small talk about technology.
The reason this otherwise instantly forgettable moment in plane take-off history sticks in my mind is because the teenage boy, envisioning 24 hours of tedious engine noise ahead of him, on seeing my pair of Soul noise cancelling headphones, said, “I need to get a pair of Beats”. Not headphones — not even the brand of headphones I was using — Beats: The marketing phenomenon that brings together gangster rap, Lady Gaga, Tom Daley and Tim Cook. It’s such an oddity that one particular brand can bridge so many cultural divides: credibility’s Dr Dre, discredibility’s Justin Bieber, sobriquets’ Sean Combs, prodigal sons’ LeBron James, smoking’s Jack Wilshere and spellcheck’s Nicki Minaj. The common denominator is distinct mainstreaminess — while some of these celebrity endorsers can be polarising, there is nothing particularly niche about any of them — and it runs in peculiar contrast to Dr Dre’s original proclamation in 2008 that, “People aren’t hearing all the music. With Beats, people are going to hear what the artists hear, and listen to the music the way they should: the way I do”.
Somehow it’s hard to fathom that the MC who took us a ride we’d never been on befo’, “a producer who can rap and control the maestro”, who will “continue to put the rap down, put the mack down and if yo bitches talk shit” will “have to put the smack down”, is sitting in a studio wearing bright purple headphones blaring ultra-loud overproduced music into his aural canal. Few artists are more responsible for bringing rap mainstream than Dr Dre but it was his headphones, not his music, that made him mainstream.
The first set of Beats by Dre were released as a manufacturing partnership with Monster, a company famous at the time — perhaps maybe still — for a gazillion per cent mark-up to the cost of cables. It was Friday 25 July 2008 and for just under $350, eager consumers could rush to Apple Retail Stores and Best Buy outlets and pick up a pair. The media release said this first set had “extreme clarity, deep bass and full power, which [has] been lacking in conventional headphones”.
In the first Beats headphone review I could find on the internet, two days before the on-sale date, the headphones cognoscenti at head-fi.org said “audiophile types [will be] pleasantly surprised”, and said the sound quality was “pretty articulate”.
The following day at TechCruch, John Biggs said his review pair compared quite favourably to other high-end headphones of the day. “They were quite comfortable and cancelled a lot of plane noise…I was happy to sit back and ignore whatever artifacts (sic) were happening in amplifier.”
Biggs did complain about the price, as did Joel Evans at Geek.com, who perhaps wasn’t prepared for the packaging revolution about to hit electronics — a tree felled for every unit — “The box that the ‘kit’ comes in is quite large, unnecessarily so, in my opinion. I can only assume that it’s because the headphones are pricey and that they wanted you to feel something substantial,” he wrote in a quote that seems both prescient and quaint at the same time. When it came to audio quality, however, Evans echoed his contemporaries: “I was pleasantly surprised,” he said, praising the “crisp highs” and “bass pumping lows”; he even heard some background noise from a James Taylor record for the first time. Despite this joyous experience, Evans reported feeling nauseas while listening to the headphones, though he assures us that’s a personal malady and not a fault of the headphones (or James Taylor, one assumes).
The Solo subset of Beats headphones followed in the coming year and these too were met with tempered praise. Caleb Denison didn’t review that pair, he “auditioned” them, so I guess this means he is one of those wanky audiophiles worthy of quoting:
“There’s a distinct difference between the dimensionless sound of a cheap pair of headphones vs the richness and depth you experience from a well-made set. Thankfully, the Solo falls firmly into the latter category, offering up depth, warmth and detail rather well.”
Jasmine France at Cnet said the Solos had a “killer, travel-friendly design” that was perfect for on-the-go use, but she criticised the “muddy” sound quality and said the cans “leak a fair amount of sound”.
Exactly a year later, in December 2010, Beats had become “nothing short of a phenomenon”, according to Jeremy Horowitz at iLounge. He was reviewing Beats’ then good/better/best set, comprising Studio, Solo and the then new Beats Pro. Horowitz actually scored the entry-level model the best, saying it offered the “most balanced sonics, active noise cancellation, and an iPhone-ready cable option”. He wrote that the expensive Beat Pro, retailing for $450 in the States, were “fine rather than great” and compared them with derision to similarly priced JBL and AKG models. In a telling line, Horowitz wrote that he can’t dispel “the lingering sense that nothing we heard is actually worth the price tag”.
And from there the theme was set. In one of the more amusing reviews, the withering Andrew Robinson at Home Theatre Review called them “atrocious” and labelled them “expensive electronic ear warmers”.
James Rivington at TechRadar said Beats by Dr Dre headphones were “a triumph of marketing” that “don’t sound half as good as they look”. Fellow Briton Hugo Jobling told Trusted Reviews’ readers that Beats headphones have “a serious problem with…audio reproduction”. Earlier this year, The Guardian’s Gibbs and Phipps — they could be a rap duo — called the high-end Studio Wireless “mediocre”. The general theme of ‘nice marketing shame about the product’ reached its obvious zenith when Geoffrey Morrison penned a Forbes article titled ’10 Headphones Better Than Beats’. All this overwrought handwringing makes the humourless Marques Brownlee viral video ‘The Truth About Beats by Dre!’ seem cliché.
So as I sit here tapping away while witnessing the strength of street knowledge on a pair of Beats Solo2 on-ear headphones (RRP $249), my expectations managed to the subterranean, I can’t help but feel they sound pretty good. Like most people, I am not an audiophile: I’m just a dude who like listening to popular music on public transport while commuting to and from work, tuning out while at work, or plugging a pair of noise cancellers into an in-flight entertainment system while on a longhaul flight. I am normally content with Apple Earbuds.
So, shock! Horror! There’s a lot to like about these headphones thumping noise into my brain.
On If It Ain’t Ruff, MC Ren’s wit bounces from can to can and the detail is surprisingly fresh and distinct; the scratches and cymbals resonate with flare. The ivory tinkles on Parental Discretion Iz Advised are quite delightful. The bass is phenomenal and it still sounds really good when the volume is cranked up to maximum, even if that causes everyone in the cubefarm to pop up like meerkats to see who is listening to gangster rap in the office. This is an unsubtle pair of headphones.
When listening to more nuanced music, Beats’ deficiencies are more pronounced. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs has a tinny redolence; Amnesia by 5 Seconds of Summer is distorted; Katy Perry sounds like an alien on This Is How We Do and the folk stylings of Vance Joy sound distant, though that may just be his loneliness.
Podcasts sound hollow and nigh on unlistenable: I returned back to the Apple earbuds for my doses of Football Weekly and How Did This Get Made?.
It’s on the heavier, deeper tunes that Beats is at its best. The deep bass renaissance of 2014 must be a Godsend for headphone manufacturers looking to present a very large, heavy sound, immersing the user like at a pentecostal baptism into the rich tapestry of corpulent poundings exuded by this new wave of producers, all of them growing up listening to far too much KLF (or maybe even Scooter: some of them are so young).
Animals by Martin Garrix sounds amazing, Robin Schulz’s remix of Prayer In C is orgasmic, Klingande’s Jubel is jubilant. Somewhat ironically, All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor sounds overproduced, though that may be intended.
So much of Beats’ appeal comes down to the type of music you will be playing on it. If you listen to a lot of dance and rap, then Beats is ideal. If you are planning on doing up your top button, mixing a dark and stormy and pressing play on Ezra Koenig’s b-sides then best look elsewhere. If you want to listen to a mixture of styles then Beats receives a qualified pass. For the most part they are surprising fresh, full bodied and fantastically loud, with just some slight imperfections that occasionally present themselves when the tune doesn’t match the tuning.
Enjoying music is only half the Beats experience. The point of these ultra-stylish if decidedly plasticky headphones goes well-beyond audio consumption. Beats are not just a headphone choice but a lifestyle choice: the wearer is making a very pointed social statement when they walk down the street with these bulbous cans — blacks, reds and whites muddled into a chic pastiche of tech style — banded over their noggin in an ostentatious display of wealth, grandeur and pride. Beats are like an inverse branding: they are the social marker idealised by slaves to consumerism.
I definitely experienced a heightened sense of self-worth while walking down the mean streets of North Sydney wearing Beats Solo2 in black with red piping. The shimmer of the ebony plastic band reflecting the sun; the super-tangle-free cord in brilliant crimson clashing delightfully with my lime green Modest Mouse t-shirt; that ‘b’ on the exterior of each can in a perfect circle extended perpetually at the north is a symbol of both understatement and bold expressionism: Schrödinger’s Logo.
While walking around indulging in the covert glances of passers-by intrigued by Interpol leaking out of these on-ear style headphones, I constantly had to adjust their positioning on my skull and it must be said that the breadth of band adjustment is woefully inadequate. At their tightest, these headphones still slip from place — and I have a big head — and only when I put on my trusty Arsenal cap were they finally able to stay rigid. While the ear cushions have a tasteful thickness, they are hardly pillowy clouds for the ear, and after a long session of use my left ear especially started to feel the strain of their levity brevity. This could be random, like late 90s/early 00s French Open winners, but I suspect it’s a common affliction, like late 50s/early 60s rugby league winners. Philips Citi Scape Downtown headphones currently hold the proud mantle of my at-desk headphones (and I suspect plenty of desk-bound music-lovers appreciate this significance), not just because of their excellent sound quality, but because they treat my ears with luxury, like a glass of Johnny Blue treats my tongue or business class on an A380 treats my person.
In the lead-up to Christmas 2013, in the pre-Apple acquisition days, the rush to have Beats was significant: summer was coming and that provided ample opportunity to show off Beats to an audience of hip young things, scantily clad and nominally at play.
Speaking in February 2014 about headphone sales during that period, Gwenno Hopkin from consumer electronics sales tracker GfK said, “Aided by the strong performance of mobile devices, gifting and some significant promotions and price cuts, the headphones segment enjoyed a strong quarter, reflected in a double-digit value sales growth”. Further strengthening its prominent place in the market, the headphone category overtook audio systems and DVD/Blu-ray Players in terms of total retail value.
There is a certain unavoidable feeling of cheapness to Beats Solo2, not just that corners were cut by using so much plastic but that the plastic itself was of poor quality. There is so much to like about these headphones — the sound quality (essentially very good), the accessories (cable with in-line remote, carry case, carabiner), the unequalled elegance of the packaging (the unpacking of which is like a spectator sport) — that it is such a letdown to be holding-cum-wearing something so fundamentally plastic, and not good plastic like the polycarbonate you get on an iPhone 5c: the Beats Solo2 feels like cheap plastic.
Appliance Retailer understands that Beats is the number one selling brand in the Australian headphones market, upsetting a number of traditional players that fancy themselves as manufacturers of superior headphones. “The market has turned and our competition has shown that headphones in any colour sells,” said Sennheiser’s local MD Bjørn Rennemo Henrikson. Sennheiser’s response is the Momentum series of robust, metallic headphones with a modest injection of colour and style while retaining a highly functional form factor that is so tactfully German.
The mindset expressed by Henrikson has fuelled the us-against-them mentality between audiophiles digging sound-quality-first brands like Sennheiser, AKG and Bose; and the image conscious, mega-marketing-backed brands, of which Beats is the poster child. The nasally criticisms of Beats that stemmed from its rapid rise do have sound groundings: these headphones definitely do not cost anywhere near $250 to manufacture — we saw similar but unDoctered models in Hong Kong 12 months ago with $16 unit prices — but how can you put a price on the intangible, like artificially stimulated self-esteem?
Californian brand Sol Republic emerged in the wake of the Beats’ derision, marketing itself as a heady mixture of style, sound quality and star power.
“The headphones were either very cheap and of poor quality or very expensive and high quality,” said company founder Seth Combs in an interview with Silicon Republic. “So our mission from the start has been to bring sound to the masses – headphones shouldn’t cost more than your smartphone.”
Combs talks about high-fallutin’ concepts like “our own sound signature” inspiring “aspirational” purchases while still being “accessible”: US $99 — as it were — a long way shy of Beats Solo2’s US $199 asking price (RRP $249 in Australia). It’s no surprise then that six months after Hopkin’s aforementioned excitement for the headphones category she was forced to dampen the mood:
“One of the stronger performing segments in recent times has been headphones. This dynamic segment experienced a significant slowdown in growth in quarter two, partly due to the plateauing of attachment categories such as smartphones and tablets. A year-on-year decline in the number of models available for sale, after several quarters of strong growth, provides further evidence of a maturing category.”
Obviously there is more to the decline in the headphones market than simply price erosion and there is likely to be a big surge in the lead-up to Christmas when glamourous new smartphones from Samsung and Apple hit the market.
And that brings us to the uncertain future: a Rip! A Crunch! A Freeze! HEAT DEATH! Now that Beats is owned by Apple there is a cockroachy certainty that they will survive the deep vacillations in market climates and emerge as one of the great survivors, even if the universe itself expires.
My contemporary, the very amusing Stilgherrian, today Tweeted that Beats is: “For when you want the whole world to know you’re a gullible tool”. Very harsh Stil — Beats is much more than that — provided the appropriate music survives in these capricious times.
This author is on Twitter: @Patrickavenell