Review: Beats New Studio

Has there ever been a headphone brand so controversial as Beats? It's undeniably popular; just walk around any downtown or airport in any industrialized country and you're almost sure to see a set. Yet audio enthusiasts-including the ones at Sound & Vision-often deride Beats' sound quality.

Even the origins of Beats' bass-heavy sound signature is in doubt. Although Beats claims its headphones were voiced by hip-hop artist/producer/icon Dr. Dre, Monster also claims to have voiced the headphones. Or maybe they were voiced by some unknown engineer working deep in the bowels of a faceless factory in Shenzhen. Who knows?

But Beats, like some other style-oriented headphone companies, is getting more serious about sound. I know because the distributor of the headphone measurement system I use told me Beats bought the same gear-an investment of at least $5,000 in hardware alone, and probably 15 to 20 times that when you include the cost of an engineer who can run it.

So what does it mean that Beats is getting all scientifical on us? The New Studio is, apparently, our first chance to find out.

The New Studio still costs $299, and it still carries most of the same design cues, but it's almost a whole new product. For starters, it features a "powerful, re-engineered sound."

An internal battery that charges through a micro USB jack replaces the two AAAs that formerly powered the noise-cancelling circuitry. The button that turns the NC on and off also triggers a five-segment battery level meter. Unplugging the cable that connects to your source (phone, tablet, etc.) automatically turns NC off to save the battery. You can turn NC back on if you want to use the New Studio purely for noise cancelling and not for listening. Unfortunately, the New Studio doesn't produce sound unless NC is engaged, so when your battery goes dead so does the sound. In this day and age, probably only Beats and Bose could still get away with that.

The styling is similar but, in my opinion, sleeker and less ungepatschke than the original. And as we'll see, the change in the sound is not subtle. (Our thanks to Beats for providing a sample of the original Studio for comparison.)

Feel the Beats

Before you ever listen to the New Studio, you'll like it better than the old one. I didn't hear people complaining about the comfort of the old one, but there's no denying the new one is far more comfortable, approaching the industry-leading comfort of the Bose QC-15. It's 13 percent lighter than the old model. The ear cups of the old one were a tad too small to accommodate my larger-than-average ears; the slightly larger cups of the new ones fit me just fine. And the ear pads feel almost buttery.

What a lot of people did complain about was the plasticky, cheap feel of the original Studio. I've heard tales of the company's headphones breaking easily. Sadly, I don't have a way to test the durability of headphones because I'm not free to break them. (Contrary to popular belief, reviewers are generally expected to return product samples to manufacturers in good condition; sometimes we have to sign contracts to that effect.) However, the New Studio definitely feels a little sturdier and looks less plasticky. It also creaks less when you twist it.