Field Trip: Beats Summer Soundoff

This morning the Beats by Dr. Dre folks put on an interesting little listening party. Not content to rest on their laurels following the other day's HTC announcement, they invited a crowd of tech, fashion, and hip-hop writers and editors over to the legendary Quad Recording Studios, with the promise of demonstrating to us how the top-of-the-line Beats Pro headphones ($449.95, stacked up to the competition.

After a short hang in the Quad lounge (see the gallery, attached), we were ushered into the studio's smaller space, Q2, where überproducer Rodney Jerkins gave us a short intro to the Beats philosophy - he's been using the Pros as a reference in the studio (his pair lay on the mix desk) - and told us that he felt that not only were the bass-forward phones a fun listen, but they actually translated accurately enough that he could work wearing them and the results would be appropriate across the board. I asked him whether he was mixing with subwoofers in mind; he told me that he wasn't - the Beats Pros, for him, were as good a reference for real-world systems as the usual NS-10/Auralex/few-seconds-on-the-big-Genelecs rounds. Hmmmm.

Then it was on to the listening test. I was expecting something a bit different (maybe a comparison against some of Beats' consumer-market competition) but appropriately enough for the setting we were treated to a blind listening session of the Beats Pros against some studio mainstays: Sony's MDR-7509, Sennheiser's HD-280 and KRK's KNS-8400.

We were each handed a set of Beats-branded eyeshades, and once blinded, we got a set of cans. 50 Cent's "In Da Club" was the program material for comparison. Not my idea of critical listening fodder, but certainly a Dre landmark, and since the phones are tuned with his work in mind, it made some sense, I suppose. The Beats crew was very interested in our thoughts, and asked for a handwritten account, which I provided, however illegibly (I never mind sharing). When it was all over, I'd called a tie between the Pros and the very differently voiced Sonys, with significant caveats.

Next on the agenda was some open playtime with the test setup. We'd been asked the previous evening for a list of favorite headphone listens, and the Beats folks had dutifully assembled them for us. Each of us was handed an iPod Touch with our selections, and we spent some time trading the various headphones around the room.

I checked out a variety of sources that I figured might outside the expected range of the Beats' mandate: the title track of Steely Dan's Aja; Holly Cole's take on Tom Waits' "Train Song" from Temptation, a couple of tracks from Don Ross' solo acoustic guitar magnum opus Passion Session, and took a brief tour through the hip-hop and dance material that other writers had asked for. The Pros came through impressively well - guitars and vocals had great detail, the apparent soundstage was nice and spacious. It was hardly a scientific exercise, but wariness of celeb-branded product aside, these are a good-sounding set of cans. Not perfect, certainly - the upright bass on the Cole track wasn't done any favors by the huge amount of low end the Pros dished out, and I actually found the the bottom end a little excessive even for dancefloor-oriented material - but perhaps that's just a matter of taste.

A longer listen will tell. So watch S+V for more; we're hoping to check back with a technical look at the Pros in the not-too-distant future.