Headphone Shootout: The Best and Worst Celebrity Cans
The success of Dr. Dre's Beats sent up a signal flare that alerted the rest of the celebrigentsia - who've realized that there's no safe money in music anymore - that there was cash to be had in them thar 'phones. They've since had at it in a big way, with everyone from Justin Bieber to Quincy Jones to the estates of Miles Davis and Bob Marley slapping their names on hardware.
But are any of these headphones any good? We set out to figure out which - if any - of these celebs deserve your hard-earned dollars. We called in a team of expert listeners to pick 'em apart, and then put each headphone through some rigorous lab testing to figure out what was really going on underneath those fancy designs.
We gathered seven of the latest artist-approved models. As the pseudo-progenitors of the breed, we brought in two examples from Beats, namely the top-of-the-line Beats Pro and the Justin Bieber-endorsed JustBeats Solo. Tangentially related to these (they're also built by Monster Cable) are the in-ear Miles Davis Trumpets. Quincy Jones added some class to the table, with the Q 701, part of his Signature Line from AKG. Jay-Z's Roc Nation paired with Skullcandy for the Aviator, while Ludacris's Soul brand was represented by the SL300WB noise cancelling headphones. Miles wasn't the only formerly living artist on our list, joined as he was by the House of Marley Freedom Collection's Exodus.
Fellow tech editor Brent Butterworth (who setup the hardware and did all the measurements) and I got to work.
"What is a Bieber?" he asked. As is usually the case, I wasn't entirely sure if he was joking.
"A haircut," I replied.
We were clearly off to a good start. But I figured our lack of interest in most of the artists represented here had little relevance to our goal. After all, it doesn't matter to us what the branding is - we're interested in the sound quality. We took a two-pronged approach, with Brent measuring the frequency response and sound isolating capabilities of all the headphones (more on that later in this article), and - given how deftly versed in popular music we are - we figured it'd be best to convene a listening panel, so we brought in a couple of other experts to help us pick the best of this bunch. Lauren Dragan is a professional voice actress and singer. She also has a history in radio and has a fantastic ear, being an occasional audio reviewer herself. Will Huff is a LA-based jazz musician with a finely tuned ear and while new to the headphone faceoff game, his responses show he has a knack for it.
The members of our listening panel individually ranked the headphones from best to worst, then we collected and tabulated everyone's votes to come up with our list of overall winners and losers.
Did the data back us up? Yes and no.
First off, the charts in this article may look a little strange if you're used to seeing frequency response graphs for speaker systems (If all frequency response graphs look strange to you, check out Brent's informative post on the subject). In short, while a speaker with a flat frequency response (exhibiting a gentle rolloff in the bass, but otherwise approximating a straight line from around 80 Hz all the way on up to 20 kHz) sounds best to most people, that's not the case for headphones. Heaphones are designed to compensate for the fact that when we're wearing them, we're not hearing sound moving through the air or interacting with the room around us. So a good headphone design includes a bass boost, a dip in the low mids, boost in the high mids, and a rolled-off high end.
But the perceived sound of headphones is very subjective, since it is so heavily dependent on the shape of the wearer's ear. You might hate a pair that measures well on a KEMAR, and the next guy might love them. And, lo and behold, while the headphones with the most "textbook" response curves were generally better liked, not only did our panel not agree on most of these 'phones, but our overall winner wasn't the model with the best-looking graph.
Read on for details - and our winners and losers.