It seems everywhere you look, someone’s wearing Beats headphones. Are they that good? At over US$120, what are you getting? Is there an alternative?
According to my own ears, and the opinion of other people who like me, are fussy about their music and the headphones they use, Beats aren’t all that bad. Decent sound, slightly heavy on the bass, though.
Are they worth their price? Well, now, that’s where the fight begins. Let’s look at the quantifiable criteria (the stuff we can measure).
Vibrations that make sound are measured in cycles per second or Hertz (Hz). Pluck a guitar string, and the string moves back and forth in the air, making a sound. Going from its rest position to one direction then all the way past its original point into the other position, and moving back over its original rest position is one cycle. The faster the string moves, the higher the sound (treble). The slower the string vibrates, the lower the sound (bass).
Few instruments can reproduce sounds in the full range of human hearing. Some pipe organs can get all the way down to 16Hz (you feel that more than hear it), while cymbals can go as high as 16,000 Hz (16kHz). Violins go from about 200Hz to 3.2kHz. Human voices can go from about 90Hz (bass) to 1050Hz (soprano).*
Human ears supposedly can hear from 20Hz to 20kHz, although I doubt you’d find one person with that range.
Headphones, in order to produce sounds identical to the recorded music have to be able to reproduce all those sounds without favouring one range or another, otherwise you are not listening to the music as it was recorded, but hearing it coloured by the inaccuracies of the headphone.
Based on what was just stated, the quickest way to eliminate lesser headphones is by frequency response.
Check out headphones.com‘s Build a Graph. It’s a great place to compare headphone models. Let’s use Beats as our first model, the 30 year old Koss PortaPro as our second model, and Grado’s SR60 as our third model.
The models of Beats on amazon.com, range from about US$120 for the discontinued models to around $264 for the more expensive ones.
The Koss PortaPro is almost embarrassingly low-cost by comparison at US$35.
The Grado SR60 was around US$70 when I bought them, but those have been replaced by the SR60e which is US$80.
You can see right away that none of these has a perfect “flat response” (ie. not favouring certain frequency ranges), however, the Beats falls off sharply in the really low bass range, while the others taper off more slowly, encompassing more of the lower sounds. In the high (treble) end of the graph, the Koss is the most peculiar, dropping sharply between 5kHz and 7kHz. The Grado and Beats are closer in the race here, with the Grado having better response than the other two between 10kHz and 11kHz.
From the frequency response results, it looks like the Grado is a better all-rounder at half the price of the cheapest Beats.
If you’re an audiophile, however, your headphones aren’t any of these. Let your ears be your guide, but you may be more interested in the Beyerdynamic DT880 (32 ohm version), but that’s about US$300. It’s in the list at the headphone.com’s build-a-graph page. Have a look and stack it against your own favourite headphones.
If, on the other hand, headphones for you are more of a fashion accessory, then I can’t offer you any advice other than to encourage you to get frequent hearing check-ups. Poor headphones can do more in damaging your hearing than judicious use of good ones. Many people buy low cost headphones which aren’t clear, so the wearer inevitably cranks the volume in an attempt to hear better.
As always, shop around, do research before parting with hard-earned money. It maybe more satisfying to have headphones that sound great than ones that are just fashionable, because after all, once you are wearing them, you can’t see them.., unless you’re in front of a mirror! 🙂
*You can read more about instruments and their ranges here.