In the Mix: What Makes a DJ Headphone? Page 4

A Familiar Face, in a New Light: Beats by Dr. Dre Beats Pro

Our "control" 'phone was the Beats Pro, which featured in our Celebrity Headphone Shootout of last year. The panelists in that roundup assessed the Pro as a daily driver listening phone, with mixed results, but since it's been marketed as a tool for professional DJs, we figured it deserved another listen.

While from an audiophile perspective the Pro's bass left most of our original panelists cold (all agreed that there was just too much low end), Brett pointed out that in its intended application, that's part of the point. Well, it really does sound the way it's supposed to in the mastering studio.

The Pro's unique folding system (the hinged cups tilt away from either ear, away from the axis of the headband) gave Brett the best fit of the three "it fits completely over your ear even when you tilt the other earcup entirely off of your ear - I like this functionality the most." And indeed, it seems the most comfortable of the bunch for single-eared listening.

But even given the ergonomics, with its burly aluminum frame and thick padding, the Pro weighs in at a substantial 14 ounces - a real downside for all three of us this time around, as it was for our original testers. Those who like the folding construction but not the weight might want to take a look at the Pro's pared-down younger sibling, the Mixr (which, on an admittedly short listen, I felt solved some of the Pro's outstanding comfort issues and certainly weight a whole lot less), though the smaller earcups may be a sacrifice for some DJs, depending on the size and shape of your ears, of course.

While they may not be the best-sounding cans from an audiophile perspective, sonically, the Pros really do deliver for hip-hop and electronic music. "The punch of these is just super tight and clean and it really can handle the low end," Brett pointed out. Listening to the Ulterior Motive remix of Klute's "We r the Ones" (a track with an almost ridiculous amount of low-end), the synced low-pass filter modulation on the kick drum that was near-inaudible on the Shure 550 and not-quite-all-the-way-there on the Mix Master came through loud and clear on the Beats Pro. That's significant rhythmic information for a working club DJ, and definitely points to the Pro's strengths (and gives the manufacturer's claim that this is a professional piece of gear some weight).

Brett even went so far as to say that on the dubstep and drum and bass tracks we checked out, "though this sounds funny to say, it really does feel like you're in the mastering studio. This is how this track is supposed to sound."

Sometimes there is truth in marketing - you just have to look at it in the proper context.

Bottom Line

For the working DJ, fit, comfort, and isolation are paramount, as is the ability to get comfortably and efficiently in and out of the mix, so a 'phone needs to be secure and somehow provide good isolation when listened to single-eared. And the 'phones need to be comfortable. Really comfortable - for long stretches, and that includes easy adjustability to compensate for the aches and pains of long-term wear.

It's not clear that any of the 'phones we've looked at check all of the boxes (the Beats Pro actually came close, though its unmatched low-end-handling capabilities were offset by its sheer mass), but they all have their appealing design points. What became clear during our listening tests and after comparing notes with Brett is that we needed to put aside some audiophile preconceptions in order to appreciate what factors go into making a headphone good for DJs. The Beats wouldn't be a first choice as a daily driver for any of us, but it did have a clear edge for monitoring bass-heavy dance music, and its fit features - despite the weight - made a lot of sense.

Likewise, the Skullcandy Mix Master, an overdesigned unit (at least from our perspective) with just too many bells and whistles for anyone's comfort, emerged as a real contender given the good balance it struck between weight and sonics. It sounded great with most any source as well, so for those looking to look like DJs (and you know who you are) you could do worse.

The Shure 550DJ, while probably not an appropriate choice for those serving up a diet of hip-hop or slamming four-on-the-floor techno tracks, would make a nice headphone for those spinning primarily rock tracks, someone looking for a backup headphone that won't weigh you down, or for those interested in a lightweight everyday headphone with a somewhat clinical profile (Grado fans interested in a closed-back headphone, perhaps).

Obviously, given the large number of DJ 'phones out there, we can't pretend to have made any kind of statement on the entire subcategory, so consider this a starting point.