Beats Electronics headphones are now commonplace, and models bearing the distinctive lower-case "b" can be seen wrapped around the necks—and jammed into the ears—of an awful lot of consumers. With the launch of the stylish Beats Studio Wireless model, we wondered whether these new Bluetooth headphones could justify their lofty $380 price tag.
Like Bose, Beats can be a polarizing brand, with tons of fans and tons of detractors. But Beats helped to create the celebrity-endorsed headphone market, and today the fastest-growing segment of the headphone market is the premium-price range, with models costing $100 or more. So if you care as much about how your headphones look as you do about how they sound, Beats may be on your short list of 'phones.
Entering the wireless Bluetooth fray are the Beats Studio Wireless headphones, which also include active noise reduction. With some Bluetooth headphones, we see a tradeoff in sound quality for the convenience of wireless operation. If you're a Beats detractor, then you may be sorry to hear that the Studio Wireless model Beats is a very-good-sounding headphone that does a nice job of reducing outside sounds. Our full review of this model—and about 150 other headphones—is available in our latest headphone Ratings.
If you like the Beats look, then you'll find the Beats Studio Wireless to be a stylish, distinctive-looking headphone. You can choose from colors that range from staid (matte black) to striking (glossy royal blue, pictured). Of course all are festooned with the now-familiar Beats lower-case "b" logo on the earcups. The Beats Studio Wireless offers wireless and wired operation, and controls generally let you switch tracks without pulling out your music player. The headphones have an integrated microphone, plus volume and music controls, and the ability to wirelessly answer or disconnect calls when using a Bluetooth-enabled phone.
The company claims that the rechargeable battery has a 12-hour life when used in Bluetooth mode, and 20 hours when you're connected via a cord. You can monitor battery life either using the LED indicators on the earcup, or via an icon if you're using an iOS device. The headphones, which can be charged via USB or the included AC adapter, come with two rubbery, red cables —one with the inline controls, the other without—plus an attractive carrying case.
These headphones have a closed design, so in addition to using active noise cancellation they also muffle some external sounds and limit the amount of sound that escapes from the headphones. The headphones can be used solely to cancel external noise, without music playing. In this mode, the level of active noise cancellation automatically increases to provide a higher level of noise reduction. But the headphones work only with the noise-cancellation turned on, so if the rechargeable battery dies, the headphones won't work at all.
In our tests we found that the Studio Wireless headphones provided very good noise reduction, especially on lower-frequency noise—not quite as good as the very best models, such as the SMS Audio Street by 50 ANC ($280), the Bose QuietComfort 15 ($300), the PSB M4U 2 ($400), or even the much less expensive Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphones ($110)—but better than most. We did notice a very faint hiss in quieter musical passages where there wasn't any higher-frequency content to mask it.
Find the best model for your needs and budget: Check our headphone buying guide and Ratings.
The Beats Studio Wireless headphones also delivered very good sound quality, though not quite as good as the $300 Beats by Dre Executive (also in our headphone Ratings). The headphones have a warmish character, with an open overall sound and decent dynamics. We didn't find much difference in sound quality whether the headphones were wired to a phone or music player, or connected via Bluetooth. The headphones provided very good noise reduction on a wide range of noise, with the most reduction occurring on low-frequency noise.
Since many headphones are used with lower-powered portable devices—smart phones, tablets and iPods—sensitivity can be important in order to hear your music and conversation at sufficient volume levels. That was no issue with the Studio Wireless headphones, which have high sensitivity when used in the wired mode.
At $380, the Beats Studio Wireless model is at the upper price range of the Bluetooth headphones we've tested, but it currently tops our Ratings of home/studio-style noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones. If you don't need Bluetooth connectivity, there are probably better, less expensive options, including Beats' own Executive model.
But consumers who can afford the price will get a well designed, stylish set of headphones that can deliver very good sound quality—provided you like Beats' sonic signature—and very good noise reduction. In addition, it offers a nice complement of features. We liked its ability to quiet outside sounds with or without music playing, and the auto on/off feature that will shut the headphones down automatically when they're not being used. (But you have to remove the cable to activate this feature; if you forget to remove the cord or manually shut off the headphones before they're stored, the battery will continue to drain.)
But the allure of Beats headphones has never been limited to the simple basics of providing good sound quality. Beats headphones appeal to those also looking for a distinctive design, instantly recognizable aesthetics, and a personal identification with a brand. And as with most categories of consumer goods, you'll pay a premium for that experience.
—James K. Willcox
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