Beats Studio 2013 review: A better Beats

The original Studio on the left, new Studio on the right (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

As noted, the new Studio and original Studio models sound very different. The originals have less treble detail push, but there's a hollow, canned character that just sounds odd. The new Studio headphones have no such aberration, and offer much-improved overall clarity; they're radically better-sounding.

The headphones charge via USB and have a five-LED battery life indicator (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

Just like most of the other noise-canceling headphones we've tried, the Studio's built-in electronics introduce a small amount of hiss to the sound that's barely audible in quiet rooms. Of course you don't need noise cancellation in quiet rooms, but you can't turn the noise-canceling circuitry off and get any sound out of the headphones; it has to be engaged for them to work.

The noise cancellation worked well in the New York subway and city streets, but isn't as quite as effective as that of, for example, the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones. In other words, if taming environmental noise is your first priority, the Bose QC 15s remain the headphones to get. That said, the Studios sound more dynamic than the Bose QC 15 headphones, which have a creamier, less detailed sound.

Interestingly, the Studio headphones' more forward and detailed sound does have some advantages in that it "cuts" better in noisy environments. In the quiet of your home, the hyped treble emphasis may be a turnoff to some (for instance, listening to Spoon's track "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," the tambourine playing throughout the tune ends up overwhelming the vocals). However, in noisier environments that treble push seems less evident, so the headphones sound better overall.

Yes, that sounds a little strange, but headphones do sound different under different listening conditions, and these seem to have been tuned for more on-the-go listening.

Close-up of the cord with the Apple-friendly integrated remote/microphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
I can't say I was a fan of the original Beats Studio model, so that's probably why I was pleasantly surprised by the new Studio headphones. For over-the-ear headphones, they're very comfortable. Maybe not as comfortable as the Bose QuietComfort 15s, but it's a pair you should be able to wear for long periods so long as it isn't too warm where you are.

If you're looking for a pair of very accurate headphones, this isn't it. But I liked the bass -- it seems understated compared with the original Studio bass -- and the treble push improved my listening experience during my noisy commutes on the New York subway. As CNET editor Ty Pendlebury remarked, "I don't know if I'd buy them, but they do a lot of things well," and I agree with that.

As far as value goes, there are plenty of swanky-looking, very good-sounding headphones in this price class, including the on-ear KEF M500 (more laid-back than the Studio), the Sony MDR-R1, and the on-ear Bowers & Wilkins P5. Other models, like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50, sound slightly better and cost significantly less but aren't as suitable for on-the-go use.

However, if you're looking for premium active noise-canceling headphones, the choices narrow a bit. There's some good stuff out there. I like the Harman Kardon NC (around $250), the NC version of the Monster Inspiration, and, if you're willing to go up to $400, the PSB M4U 2. Beats' own Executive may actually offer better build quality, but I preferred the sound of the new Beats Studio model, as well as the fit.

As for the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones, they're still the most comfortable noise-canceling pair and they offer the best noise cancellation. But other NC headphones, including the new Beats Studio model, arguably sound better.

Anyway, at the end of the day, I'm not going to sit here and tell you the new Beats Studio headphones are a bargain. They're not. But the good news is, they're a better value than the original Beats Studio. So that's a step in the right direction.

CNET Blog Network writer Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.

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