by Craig Anderton
There’s no doubt that headphones are in the spotlight, and by enlisting Dr. Dre as a reality check, Monster was the first to take headphones out of the realm of the utilitarian to something with a bit more panache. While the Beats Pro phones aren’t quite the “headphones as fashion statement” products we’re seeing today (primarily for DJs), they hit the “sweet spot” between hi-fi and hi-fly, and are available in black or white.
I hadn’t had much experience with Monster headphones until I checked out their Turbine Pro “in-ear speakers.” I took them with me on a trip to Europe during which I needed to do some mixing for video soundtracks, so I used the Turbines with the anticipation they’d get me in the ballpark, and I’d tweak the mix when I got home and listened on “real” speakers. I was very much taken aback when I didn’t have to change a thing—the mixes sounded just like they did on the Turbines. The Turbines also exhibit truly exceptional transient response finesse, and they’ve become a permanent part of my travel bag. If nothing else, airplane movies never sounded so good (nor has my MP3 player).
So would Monster’s headphones stand up to scrutiny too? Time to find out.
The first impression is the packaging, which is substantial. There’s the headphones, a detachable cable with locking connector you can plug into either earcup (the two connectors are in parallel, so someone can plug a second set of headphones into yours), and carrying pouch. The headphones use aluminum construction, which aside from being sturdy also looks very classy, and the cable has a coiled end that allows extending it to over six feet.
The ear cushions are downright sensual—soft, smooth, and washable. They provide excellent isolation through natural means (i.e., no noise-canceling technology), and vocalists will appreciate that you can rotate one earcup so you can sing with one earcup off, yet the headphone still hugs your head, and the other earcup stays exactly where it should. Perhaps that’s a small feature, but once you experience it, you’ll wish all headphones could do the same thing. This also makes it easy to fold the phones up for transport. I suspect the tight coupling of earcup to ear also accounts for why the bass is so solid—more on this later.
However the earcups are circular, not oval, and smaller than some headphones. I found them acceptably comfortable, but if my ears were much larger or my head shaped differently, I’m not so sure I’d be happy with the comfort level. Try on a pair before you buy; if you’re good with them after ten minutes, I’m pretty sure you’ll be good with them for extended listening. Another potential “gotcha” is that the cable is very cool in how it locks into the headphones, but it’s non-standard. It’s probably a good idea to pick up a spare, just in case.
Call me crazy, but I think these need to be broken in. Although I have no way of replicating my experience with a controlled experiment, it sure seemed like there was a “bump” around 2.7kHz when I first tried the phones. I compared the Beats Pro to several other phones, and found that if I broadly notched out a bit of the response around 2.7kHz, the upper mids evened out compared to the others. Okay . . . it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard phones with a little lift here or there.
Then several hours later, the headphones seemed to lose a little definition in the upper mids. I reduced the EQ, and all was well again. I again compared the Beats Pro to other phones, and now the bump seemed somewhat less. The only variable was time; the music, headphone amp, everything else was the same. The only conclusion I can come to is that they need a break-in period, because they’ve sounded the same ever since—there’s still a little bump around 2.7kHz, but it sure seems like considerably less than it was originally, and what is there may be on purpose to give a little more definition for vocals.
While well-constructed, stylish, functional headphones are a plus, ultimately it’s the sound that matters and all headphones have their own special characteristics. I have several “favorite” headphones, and started the comparison process with an Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (at $199 list and $159 street, my first choice for “bang for the buck”), AKG K271 Mk II ($299 MSRP, $249 street—a solid all-around set of headphones), AKG K702 ($539 MSRP, $349 street with a high-end, accurate, non-hyped sound), and Ultrasone Pro 750 ($409 MSRP, $389 street and known for its distinctive high end).
Compared to all the phones, the Beats Pro had the most even and tightest low end—if you want to know what’s going on with your bass and kick, look no further. Over-ear headphones naturally give good bass because of the coupling to the ear, but I played one track that had a descending low frequency sine wave, and there were no “holes” in the slide. Kicks gain a real thump, but it’s not hyped; the sound is more like speakers with a solid low end than what you’d expect from headphones. Fortunately, it’s not mushy, nor does it overpower the highs or unbalance the sound. These are also pretty sensitive, high-output phones.
Compared to the ATH-M50, the biggest difference was the low end, and the Beats Pro’s even response throughout the spectrum. Still, the comparison reminded me why I consider the ATH-M50 to be good value for money. The K271 Mk II was more comfortable but bass-shy; pressing the earcups more tightly against my head improved the bass, but it still wasn’t in the same league as the Beats Pro. One aspect where the K271 Mk II had an edge was in high-frequency “airiness”—which seems to be an AKG specialty—but its overall sound was a little boxier than the Beats Pro, due to the lesser low end.
The K702 is a different type of design. It’s low sensitivity, accurate, extremely comfortable, and doesn’t isolate very much. Although it too lacked the Beats Pro’s authoritative low end, in terms of balance, clarity, and accuracy the K702 gives an excellent account of itself. However, vocalists will find the lack of isolation problematic if they listen at high volume or keep an earcup off the ear, and the Beats Pro have a certain “personality” that’s warmer than the K702. Bottom line is they’re both excellent headphones, but if I had to make an analogy, I’d expect to see the K702 in a post-production suite and the Beats Pro in a recording studio.
As to the Ultrasone, it’s apples and oranges. Ultrasones have a “sound” that involves a unique approach to high-frequency imaging and clarity, but they’re quite bass-light. They’re almost like polar opposites: someone who loves Ultrasones probably wouldn’t like the Beats Pro, and vice-versa.
Once you get acclimated to the excellent construction, design, and fashion sense, what stands out the most for me is the low end. But I need to emphasize it’s not hyped—it’s not like someone turned up the bass compared to other phones, but instead put the bass back in that would otherwise be missing. Hyped bass sounds mushy to me, but this is tight. You really hear the attacks on bass, and the kick has a visceral character compared to standard phones—it’s more like the visceral feel you get from speakers, which is extremely difficult to pull off with headphones. Beats Pro manages to do that.
I wouldn’t classify the highs as “airy,” but rather as defined and non-fatiguing. Even after the break-in period, here’s still that slight upper mid lift—although nowhere near as much as, say, Sony’s MDR headphones. In some ways, this has an advantage: If you mix so as to accommodate the bump, your mix will avoid any whiff of “screechiness.” And for DJing, the slight midrange lift helps give more intelligibility in bass-heavy music. Add that to the excellent isolation, and you basically have hi-fi phones for DJing.
About the only caution would be the comfort factor. I didn’t have a problem wearing the Beats Pro for an extended period of time, and I’m not a little guy; but this is a try-before-you-buy situation, as one size does not always fit all.
If I had to describe the Beats Pro in one word, it would be satisfying. The balance from low to high is excellent, with an even, realistic sound that I can’t help but keep comparing to listening to music on speakers. And don’t let the Dr. Dre connection throw you: These aren’t “hip-hop headphones” but are excellent for metal, rock with a decent bass component, and any kind of dance music. The biggest surprise was classical music. I played back some classical nylon string guitar and harpsichord albums I’d engineered and mixed, so I knew the sound of the instruments both in terms of how they sounded acoustically in the studio, and over excellent monitors. They acquired a big, detailed vibe that was slightly larger-than-life and . . . well, satisfying.
I’m very impressed with the Beats Pro, not just because they’re good, but because they were more general-purpose, more stylish, and paid more attention to detail than I expected. They’re not cheap, but then again—they’re not cheap.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.