Celebrity Headphone Deathmatch - Monster and Beats by Dr. Dre

Monster Beats by Dr. Dre
My experience with Monster and Beats by Dre headphones is that they range from mediocre to abysmal. What I don't understand is how they claim they're all about getting people to hear the sound they hear in the studio, and then they so dramatically change the equalization of the headphones. In a recent interview in Time Out Hong Kong, Jimmy Iovine is quoted as saying:

It's all about authentic feel. There's a feel that happens in the studio, and a sound. The sound is a combination of capturing what actually was mixed in the studio. Most producers mix on similar curves. A lot of studios in the world are all to a similar curve and that produces a certain playback. So the producer mixes to that playback. And these headphones are made to service that --- to get the authentic feel out of the music.

I would think most recording studios in the world use a curve called "flat." That way they know what they're hearing on the monitors is what's going onto the disc. The Audio Engineering Society is filled with engineers who write papers and learn about how to achieve a flat and neutral audio response, and then design and build the gear that goes into recording studios. I've measured four of the Beats full-size headphones, and a handful of their in-ear models, and they deviate significantly from flat.

I'll add here that I have no problem with adding a little extra bass to headphones. Because you don't get the chest cavity compression and bone conduction from strong low notes on headphones that you would on speakers, I think it may be legitimate to dial up the bass a bit to compensate. On the graph below, the Etymotic and Sennheiser plots are quite flat below 1000Hz. The Jerry Harvey Audio JH16 has what I consider reasonable additional bass response with about 5dB of extra bass. But the Monster Turbine Copper has a whopping 12dB of extra energy in the lows, which is way too much. The Beats Solo really doesn't have any extra bass --- it's got a big hump around 200Hz and a very far from flat response.


Frequency response plots of five headphones showing deviations from flat for elevating bass.

Another thing I keep hearing from the Beats team is that the iPod earbuds have ruined people's opportunity to hear good music. Again from the Time Out Hong Kong article:

Now, you can't get that [authentic] feel out of a $1 headphone. So when you buy a $400 mp3 player and $1 headphones, it gets clogged. So, I don't care where you are. I don't care if you're on the moon. You want the feel of the record to be authentic. And we've lost it --- almost two generations --- to bad sounds. Because everyone thought the iPod must have had a good headphone when it didn't. People said: "Oh I have to have the white headphone." Well, that white headphone didn't sound great. The mp3 player sounded great but the headphone is there to see if the thing works. Then you go and get a pair of decent headphones. Yes, everyone in the world, you want good-feeling headphones. Beats is good for anyone.

Recently I measured a couple of current iPod earbuds. I'll note here that I do think they have improved over time, but I think it would be educational to compare an iPod earbud to the very commonly purchased Beats Solo.


Frequency response comparison between Beats Solo and current Apple iPod earbud.

While the iPod earbud is seriously deficient in the bass response, between 200Hz and 10kHz it is significantly flatter than the Beats Solo. In my view, Iovine's comments above are 180 degrees off. Apple's iPod earbud is pretty darned good for a "$1" headphone, and we are now losing a generation of people too the bad sound of the Solo headphone. Additionally, those people will have paid not $1 but $200 for their headphones. I think it's shameful for a company that so strongly profits from headphone sales to tell people they'll be getting great sound and then deliver the type of performance I've measured.

Let's go through a couple of their headphones specifically:

Beats by Dre Studio ($349)
111212_feature_celebrityheadphonedeathmatch_beats_studioThis was their first product, and I think probably their best. The good thing about these cans is that they don't fail in any way. The bad thing about them is they don't excel in any way either. Well ... they're good looking.

The sound quality is uneven and loose; the noise canceling is one of the poorest I've measured in noise canceling headphones; and you need batteries to keep them running. They are marginally better than the Ludacris SL300, though. My alternative suggestion is the Skullcandy Mix Master for a celebrity headphone, or the Bose Quite Comfort 15 for a noise canceling headphone.

Beats by Dre Pro ($449)
111212_feature_celebrityheadphonedeathmatch_beats_proThis DJ headphone is not bad either. They play very loud and are quite easy to drive, but they're somewhat slow sounding with substantially rolled-off highs. They also have a lot of metal in their construction, which makes them quite heavy. The price is outrageous, in my opinion.

My favorite celebrity DJ headphones are the Skullcandy Mix Master and the V-Moda V-80 True Blood, both of which are very good sounding. Other very good DJ headphones are: the Pioneer HDJ2000; Beyerdynamic DT1350; V-Moda M-80; and the Sennheiser Adidas Original HD 25 (the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II is the same headphone).

InnerFidelity Beats Pro Full Review Here

Beats by Dre Solo ($199)
111212_feature_celebrityheadphonedeathmatch_beats_solo I've talked about these already on this page, but I'll restate that I believe these headphones are a disservice to their purchasers and the music played on them. They're very widely available, and are sold with the promise of being able to hear what the artists hear in the studio. I think most people will say to themselves, "This is what studio quaity reproduction sounds like? Meh." I think these headphones are giving hi-fidelity a bad name.

Similarly priced celebrity cans that I woud recommend as alternatives are the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviators; V-Moda V-80; and House of Marley Exodus. Non-celebrity alternates would be: the Sennheiser PX 200II; AKG K81DJ; and AKG K518LE.

InnerFidelity Beats Solo Full Review Here

Beats by Dre Solo HD ($229)
111212_feature_celebrityheadphonedeathmatch_beats_solohdWith only modestly better sound than the Solo, I find it shocking to see the "HD" moniker for High Definition being placed on these headphones. With the highest treble octave some 35dB down from the level of the lowest octave, these seem to me to be very far away from "High Definition."

Similarly priced celebrity cans that I'd recommend as alternatives are the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviators; V-Moda V-80; and House of Marley Exodus. Non-celebrity alternates would be: the Sennheiser PX 200II; AKG K81DJ; and AKG K518LE.

Let's move on to the Ludacris cans ...

nunh's picture

article and site - thank you!

MrSaikes's picture

Gotta love the image, Tyll =D

jvlgato's picture

Great article, and great picture! Thanks!

Brentagon's picture

A lot of work obviously went into this article. Nice job, Tyll! Here's hoping that, in 2012, we'll be able to see a similar round-up of all the new headphones being produced by speaker companies, which seems to be the trend for the next year.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It's a dirty job ... but someone's gotta do it.
RPGWiZaRD's picture

Haha, epic picture!

Draygonn's picture

I hope the V-Moda custom engraving catches on.

Pars's picture

Keep it up, this is great! And love the pic, BTW :)

JoeMarioZ's picture

Hi Tyll! Are those GREEN V-Moda a special edition they sent you? Or can you costumize them besides de engraving? Because I see the bezel is green also... I love green but I can't seem to find them at any online store...

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'm afraid I don't know. Val is coming up with new stuff fast and furious at the moment. Just call V-Moda and ask, I suppose.
shstrang98's picture

headphones endorsed by Dr Dre to actually sound decent?

Dr.Phil's picture

Reading the comments on youtube I find it amazing that the crowd looking for this kind of headphones can be so lazy to the point of watching your video and then go asking how the headphone you just reviewed in the article sound.

What does this tell us?

dalethorn's picture

I bought a couple of expensive headphones partly because of the look. I say partly as my personal disclaimer, so I don't come off looking dumb here when I look so smart and natty with my bling-bling headphones.

The sound? No problem. You don't have to buy the worst of them, after all. That's how Innerfidelity helps, by screening out the crud so we can make these decisions with a clear conscience.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
So wudja buy, Dale?
dalethorn's picture

Well, er, the Vmoda V80 for one. I couldn't resist the extra red and the True Blood insignia. However, I didn't get the extra custom plates yet. But since I use it every day now, I'm gonna have to take the plunge. Note to Dale: Order the plates.

The other was the red/blue earcup Beyerdynamic.. Pure indulgence? No, no - it was, ummmm, it goes good with my red and blue netbooks. (It does, actually...)

helluvapixel's picture

Can someone tell me if the Marley Stir it Up are truly decent? I tried the others in the line and found the bass too bloomy... too artificial.

I'm looking for something more smooth and laid back to compliment when I'm not using my P5's and while I'd like the Senn HD25-ii, $300 is hard to drop.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The Stir It Up is very bassy and has very withdrawn highs. I thought the Exodus was great though. May I suggest the V-Moda M-80 or V-80, very nice for $200.
helluvapixel's picture

Tyll, I am tempted. I liked the Crossfade LP for their construction but found the bass a bit boomy and the highs too subdued. Although, funny enough decent enough to watch tv/movies since shows seem quite amped in mid to high.

You mention the new M/V-80 are more neutral. I may give them a shot, I'm a sucker for just buying headphones... it's almost an addiction :)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Addicted maybe, but you won't be the only one around here with that afliction.
dalethorn's picture

I don't use the V80 (M80) in the house a lot because I have a couple other items I use more, but it's my exclusive portable headphone. There's nothing I can think about it that I don't like. It looks pretty good as is, and you can snazz it up with custom side-plates too.

helluvapixel's picture


You find the isolation good too? I thought they were quite good, definitely more so than P5 since they have the large ear cup.

dalethorn's picture

I tested the isolation of the M80 in my small apartment with someone in the kitchen making kitchen noises about 15 feet away, and there was not much isolation. Now that's a plastic earpad and the humidity was low, so I'm wondering if I waited longer if maybe the earpads would seal a little better when they got warmer and conformed better to my head. But it still isn't as good as a lot of closed circumaural 'phones.

MittWaffen's picture

If you could buy the Stir It Up for 99 instead of 199 would you recommend them over the M-80's?

Let me know ASAP so i can order them or not.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
MittWaffen's picture

Thanks, I tried a whole bunch from future-shop.
Bose, were OK.
Beats, they sucked.
Marley, they sucked.

I ordered the M80s, thank you VERY VERY much for your advice and reviews; seriously you must save thousands of people from making product purchasing mistakes.

jimmyjames's picture

Tyll, as always, U DA MAN! but the AKG K701's were the worst sounding headphones I ever owned and I've owned a lot in the $0 to $600 price range. Maybe they never broke in but if not then I would never have lived long enough for them to do so.

Your article is very timely as it seems Consumer Reports just came out with a Xmas Headphone round up and it came out just like you might expect any CR review of audio equipment would. Argh!

Cheers! Merry Xmas! and keep out of my neighborhood, I mean keep up the good work!

souluser12's picture

I was choosing between the skullcandy aviators and the soul by ludacris sl 150. i ended up getting the souls just because the passive isolation was there where as with the skullcandy it wasnt and also because the bass was a lot more prominent. thank you for helping me with a big decision your reviews are very helpful considering you know what true audio is. Thanks again.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You're welcome, mate.
amateriat's picture

...is that it's basically lifting a page from the athletic-shoe marketing playbook: Monster's Beats by Dr. Dre are the audio industry's Air Jordans, overinflated price-tags and all, with others falling over each other for the proverbial piece of the action. It might be a bit cutting to liken Noel Lee to a 21st-century P.T. Barnum, but I'm having a hell of a time shaking that analogy.

I recently auditioned, among others, AKG's K450s while in search of an iPod-friendly headphone, and, like you. found their sound quality close to execrable. Putting Quincy Jones' imprimatur on those 'phones was a major marketing misfire from a company that should know better. (I ended up with non-rebranded Sennheiser HD 25-1 II 'phones...love 'em.)

Great work you've done here, and great site!

Shop's picture

Great article by the way. Would like to find out which one would be better out of the two, Soul sl150 or the V-Moda V-80? I've tested the sl150, and they were great, just wondering if the V-80 would be similar or better. Thanks in advance.