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Beats Studio 2013 review: A better Beats

Beats' "reimagined" signature headphones are sturdier and lighter, and offer improved sound quality.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.

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6 min read

Ever since Beats by Dr. Dre severed its relationship with Monster, we've been waiting for the company to come out with a new version of its signature headphones, the Beats Studio, which were released in 2008 and became a cultural phenomenon. Now, five years later, we get the new, "reimagined" Studio headphones, and they're definitely a significant improvement over the original -- both in terms of design and sound.

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8.0

Beats Studio 2013

The Good

The new <b>Beats Studio</b> headphones are lighter, sturdier, and better-sounding than the original Studio headphones. They offer a comfortable fit and active noise cancellation, which works well but not great. The noise cancellation is powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery that offers up to 20 hours of battery life. The headphones fold up to fit in a nice carrying case (included).

The Bad

Very faint hiss from noise cancellation; if the internal battery dies, the headphones don't work; fairly pricey at $300.

The Bottom Line

They may not be a bargain at $300, but the new Beats Studio headphones are lighter and better-built, and sound significantly better than the original Beats Studio model.

Design and features
For starters, the new Studios are 13 percent lighter, are built more sturdily, and have more-detailed sound. They also boast softer earcups and an "ergonomic bellow to create a flexible, custom fit for every head shape." I'm not sure what "ergonomic bellow" means, but they do seem very comfortable, offering a snug fight and a fairly tight seal without feeling too tight. I was able to wear them for long stretches without a problem. However, like any over-the-ear model, they will steam up your ears in warmer environments.

The ear cushions are now softer and the headphones are more comfortable (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

While they're still made mostly of plastic, the new Studios, which come in white, black, or red, are better constructed and seem like they'll hold up better over time. Personally, I think the white model looks the best because the darker red and black models come across as more plasticky and thus, more cheap-looking. Also, the black attracts fingerprints (a small cloth for buffing the headphones is included). I don't think it was an accident that Beats sent me the white model to review.

Beats says the new Studios have no "visible" screws, which is good, because those tiny little screws on the headband of the original made a habit out of unscrewing themselves and falling out. However, when you break the headphones down -- they fold up (though not flat) to fit in a nice carrying case -- you'll notice Torx screws on the joints on each side of the headband. That joint does have some metal in it and snaps nicely into place when you unfold the headphones.

Beyond that carrying case, you get a few other extras, including both a straight cord and one that integrates an Apple-friendly remote and microphone for cell-phone calls. (The remote features may not work with non-Apple devices but the microphone will.)

The headphones fold up to fit in an included carrying case (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

On the inside, there's a new, "improved" DSP (digital signal processor) and software that Beats has dubbed the Beats Acoustic Engine for marketing purposes. These are active noise-canceling headphones and they now come equipped with two modes of "adaptive" noise cancellation. According to Beats, one mode is for music listening and offers "balanced" adaptive noise cancellation between your music and your environment, and the other mode has stronger noise cancellation for when you're disconnected and just want to shut out the world.

Instead using a standard AAA battery to power the noise cancellation circuitry, the new Studio headphones have an integrated lithium rechargeable battery that you juice up via a Micro-USB connection (a cable is included). Battery life is rated at 20 hours and there's a five-light LED "battery fuel gauge" that indicates how much charge is left. There's also an auto on/off feature for automatic shutdown once you unplug the headphones. That's a nice feature that all noise-canceling headphones should have.

What you get in the box (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
The original Studio model led to the rise of headphones that overemphasize the bass and wasn't really true to its name ("studio" headphones are supposed to be accurate). And while the new Studios may not be true audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser Momentum ($350 list), they don't overwhelm you with bass. I'd describe the sound as "exciting" -- lots of detail and bass energy. If anything, there's some treble push.

Compared with the Momentums, the Studios aren't as accurate, but they're still a lot of fun to listen to, and one of the better-sounding active noise-canceling models I've heard. The Momentum headphones have less emphasis on detail, so they sound more natural.

Bass-wise the Studio pair certainly delivers -- it's powerful, but the Momentums' bass sounds better-balanced. Vocals sound more natural on the Momentum headphones (the Studios lack some of the richness that makes voices sound human).

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.

04Beats_Studio_2013_35823632.jpg
8.0

Beats Studio 2013

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 8Value 7
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