Headphones to die (or go into debt) for

25 May

Geoff even tested the Beats headphones with the lawnmower running. (Photo by Kenny Meeker)

May 25, 2009
By Geoff Meeker

Whilst browsing stereo headphones at Futureshop, I asked the sales guy if he could make a recommendation.

He got excited, and took me to the Beats display. Designed in consultation with rapper/producer Dr. Dre, and made by Monster, Beats are apparently the Next Big Thing in headphones. And, at $350, they’re certainly priced big.

Curiosity piqued, I bought a pair – but only after confirming the store’s 30-day return policy. I am not convinced I need to pay that much for a set of headphones, no matter how good they are. But I was willing to give them a rigorous tryout.

The headphones have an active noise cancellation feature, which uses electronics to supposedly remove unwanted noise in your surroundings (as well as amplify the signal). A little microphone reads the ambient sound and a battery-driven processor generates an “opposite soundwave” to mask it.

Yeah, I was cynical too. There is, after all, only so much padding around the earcups. Loud noises are going to penetrate this insulation and reach your ears, noise cancellation or not.

So, I tried the ‘phones with two questions in mind. First, would sound quality justify the price tag? Second, was noise cancellation a big crock?

I slipped them on. Snug, yet comfortable. Whirling through my iPod, I settled almost randomly on “Cut Me Loose” by Christa Borden. The song opens with a clean vocal and sparse instrumentation, with drums and guitar coming in later, so, yes, a good test. I clicked play.

Wow. It wasn’t the same song. The voice had more texture than I remembered, and the background instrumentation was completely different. I checked to see if it was a remix. It wasn’t. Wow again. It was like hearing the song for the first time.

Then, some Norah Jones, with those pure, sweet vocals and nice stand-up bass. It was superb. Trouble is, how do you explain superlative sound, without resorting to technical specs? Suffice to say, if you try them yourself, you will know what I mean. They are THAT good.

Then there’s the noise cancellation. I took them out for a walk down the Manuels River trail, which at one point bypasses the busy intersection at the bridge. With the power off, I could hear the traffic quite clearly. But when I powered on, the noise disappeared. Except for the occasional peak, like a motorcycle, truck or car horn, the thrumming noise of the traffic was gone. Impressive.

And this was before I started playing music. Needless to say, Hey Rosetta! sounded great, when I pressed play.

The next test was tougher. My lawnmower is too loud to use earbuds, which have no sound muffling capability. Would the headphones subdue the noise of the mower enough to enable full enjoyment of music? If so, this would be a breakthrough, as mowing grass bores me silly.

Same procedure again. I started the mower, then put on the ‘phones with power off and no music. The lawnmower was pretty loud but when I switched the Beats on, its noise was reduced noticeably – by about 50 percent. At that point, I could easily have blasted some AC/DC, but that would be too easy. This called for a challenge. I selected Damhnait Doyle’s superb “Lights Down Low” album, with its breathy, sensuous vocals and restrained, uncluttered arrangements.

The ‘phones passed with flying colours and, for the first time in living memory, I actually enjoyed mowing.

Incidentally, I did try the phones with some hard rock and heavy metal. The guitars were crisp and clear and the bass full and deep; almost like being in a car, with one of those 10,000-watt stereo systems blasting. If you like punchy sound, you will love these.

There are a couple of downsides. Beats take two triple-A batteries, and will not work without them. They should have included a line-in option that bypassed the electronics, for those inevitable days when there are no replacement batteries on standby. Not a fatal flaw, but an irritation.

As well, the connector cord is only four feet long, which is fine for mp3 players, but possibly inadequate to reach a receiver unit. (And not nearly long enough for my electronic drums. I would need to buy an extension, which is a pain.)

To sum up, the Beats do deliver ultimate sound quality. The noise cancellation might even ensure a good night’s sleep, if you live near George Street. If this is worth $350 to you, then fill your boots. To find out more, visit http://www.beatsbydre.com.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.


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