Beats Studio Wireless Headphones review: A pricey Bluetooth headphone with premium sound
It's easy to confuse the Beats Studio (2013) headphones with the company's Studio Wireless over-the-ear headphones. That's because the two headphones look nearly identical, the big difference being the latter model includes not only active noise-cancelling but Bluetooth technology, which allows for wireless streaming from any Bluetooth-enabled device. Oh, and at $379.95 (AU$479), the Studio Wireless costs $80 more.
Both these headphones are based on a new "re-imagined" design of the original, uber-popular Studio, which didn't impress audiophiles and had other faults. These new models are lighter and built more sturdily. They also boast softer earcups and seem very comfortable (I know people who run in them), offering a snug fit and a fairly tight seal without feeling too tight.
I tested Studio Wireless for several weeks and came away really liking it. Soundwise, it measures up to many of the top Bluetooth headphones, and it's a big upgrade over the older on-ear Wireless in every way. The big question, of course, is it worth $379.95?
The answer really depends on whether you're OK with paying a premium for the Beats brand. But more on that in a minute.
Design and features
The Studio Wireless comes in six colors -- white, blue, red, titanium, and black (matte or glossy) -- and is better constructed than the original Beats Studio . For what it's worth, I like the look of the the matte black and blue models best (I started with a glossy black review sample, which I later swapped for a matte black sample).
While these are premium headphones, they are made mostly of plastic, but their finishes help them seem a little more swanky than the original Studios. The glossy models do attract fingerprints, which is why the headphones come with a small cloth for buffing them (the buff cloth is now becoming a common accessory for this type of high-end plastic headphone).
Like the standard Studio (2013), this model has no "visible" screws, which is good, because those tiny little screws on the headband of the original had a habit 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 for wired listening 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.)
Unfortunately, the cords come in red for all models, so there's a little bit of color clash when, say, you get the blue model and end up with a red cord. For $379.95, you should probably get cords that match the color of the headphones. Still, these are wireless headphones, and the vast majority of people will stow away those extra cords (except maybe the USB cable) and never use them, so color won't matter too much. However, it is worth noting that the headphone' internal battery has to have some charge for the headphones to work, wireless or wired.
On the inside, there's a new, "improved" DSP (digital signal processor) and software that Beats has, for marketing purposes, dubbed the Beats Acoustic Engine. These are active noise-canceling headphones, and they 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 offers stronger noise cancellation for when you're disconnected and just want to shut out the world (you can't play your music in this mode).
To power the Bluetooth and noise-cancellation circuitry, there's an integrated rechargeable lithium battery that you juice up via a Micro-USB connection (a cable is included -- again red). Battery life is rated at 12 hours of wireless listening and 20 hours of wired listening. A five-light LED "battery fuel gauge" under the power button on the right earcup indicates how much charge is left, and if you have an iOS device, a tiny battery gauge appears on your device next to the Bluetooth icon in the top right of your screen (as it does with all Bluetooth audio devices).
Like other stereo Bluetooth headphones, this model has a built-in microphone, and I thought the Beats Wireless worked very well as a wireless headset for making cell phone calls. Callers said they could hear me reasonably well, even when I was walking on the noisy streets of New York City on a fairly windy day.
The circular call answer/end button (with the Beats logo on it) is the middle of the left earcup and doubles as a one-button remote for music playback. Tap it once and it pauses your music. Tap it twice quickly and it advances to the next track. Three quick taps sends you back a track. Volume controls are also on the the same earcup, above and below the one-button remote.
Last but not least, there's an auto on/off feature for automatic shutdown once you unplug the headphones if you have them in corded mode. But beware of leaving them connected to your phone in Bluetooth mode and not turning them off. They will most likely run out of juice overnight.
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). As with the updated 2013 wired Studio model , Beats has gone to a better balanced sound profile that doesn't overwhelm you with bass.
I described the new standard Studio (2013) as "exciting," with lots of detail and bass energy. If anything, that headphone has some treble push. That hyped sound can be advantageous for mobile listening, where ambient noise can creep in and compete with your music. (Note: the headphones do leak some sound at higher volumes.)
The Studio Wireless also has some excitement to it, but it's a little more subdued of a headphone with less push to the treble, which gives it a smooth, fairly accurate sound. The bass is punchy without feeling over accentuated and the midrange (vocals, acoustical material) is forward leaning, though only slightly so.
It's a pleasant headphone to listen to, and one you can listen to for long periods, but it's not necessarily one that makes you hear things in your music that you haven't heard before.
Of course, for those folks who don't use so-called premium headphone on a regular basis, the experience may be quite different. But having listened to my fair share of high-end headphones, the Beats Studio Wireless isn't terribly special -- at least when compared to decent wired headphones in the $200-to-$400 price range.
But the key here is that this is a wireless Bluetooth headphone, and there isn't too much out there that sounds really good in the Bluetooth realm. For the money, I like the Harman Kardon BT , but its metal design and fit aren't for everybody. Another comparable model in this price range is the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster , which offers very good Bluetooth sound for around $350. And then there's the $250 Bose AE2w, which is arguably the most comfortable of the bunch, though a little gawky from a design perspective. (See CNET's list of top wireless headphones for the current hierarchy.)
I spent the most time comparing the Studio Wireless to the $400 Parrot Zik , which offers more high-tech features, including touch-sensitive controls, automatic pause when you take the headphones off your ears, and an app that allows you to tweak the sound profile. (Another comparable model in this price range is the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster , which also offers very good Bluetooth sound for around $350).
I like the Ziks' sound, but I thought the Beats Studio Wireless sounded a little more natural, with tighter bass (all these types of headphones risk making your music sound digitally "processed"). I also thought the lighter Beats headphone was more comfortable to wear. Though it's a relatively large headphone, it is usable at the gym and is more stable on your head than the Zik, making it better for active wear (no, it isn't sweat-proof, but it seems to handle a small amount moisture without a problem).
If you're wondering if this headphone sounds better in wired mode, the answer is no. Headphones that feature active noise canceling and Bluetooth tend to be tuned for listening under those conditions, and I thought these sounded more vibrant in Bluetooth mode.
It is worth mentioning that, just like most of the other noise-canceling headphones we've tried, the Studio Wireless' 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.
I should also add that the noise canceling isn't as effective as that in the Bose QuietComfort 15, which is better suited for airplane use. The noise canceling in the Beats offers more modest muffling (while you're listening to music). It worked well for me when I was on the noisy streets of New York, providing a little extra layer of noise cancellation on top of the passive noise cancellation that its snug over-the-ear design provides.
I don't know too many people who would call the Beats Wireless a bargain at $379.95. For what they are, they should probably cost less, but the market is what it is, and plenty of people seem willing to ante up the dough for Beats-branded headphones (and Bose headphones, for that matter).
On a positive note, these Beats are significantly better than the original (circa 2010) Studio and the old $279.95 Wireless on-ear. So while you're paying a premium for the brand, I think the majority of people will be very pleased with both the sound and fit of these headphones. And if I were choosing between this and the standard Studio (2013), I'd pay the extra $80 to get the wireless option. You don't lose anything on the performance front, and the convenience of cutting the cord is worth it, even if the price seems steep.