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Monster Inspiration (Black) review: Monster's Inspiration headphones beat the Beats.

While the Monster Inspiration headphones aren't a bargain, their combination of excellent sound, solid build quality, and a decent accessory package makes them worth a long look if you're considering a pair of full-size headphones in the $250-to-$300 range.

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.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
5 min read

As many of you already know, Monster had a partnership with Beats to manufacture Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, which now come in a variety of styles and sizes. Not too long ago the two companies severed ties, but that hasn't stopped Monster from making new headphones, and its Inspiration models compete directly with models from its old partner.


Monster Inspiration (Black)

The Good

The <b>Monster Inspiration</b> headphones are comfortable, have good build quality, and offer impressive, rich sound with good detail and punchy bass. They come with three detachable headphone cables, microphone options for iOS and Android mobile devices, and an extra headband cover you can swap in. Also, they fold up and come with a nice carrying case.

The Bad

The Inspiration is a fairly bulky headphone set and pretty pricey -- and the extra headband covers are priced too high at $30.

The Bottom Line

While the Monster Inspiration headphones aren't a bargain, their combination of excellent sound and solid build quality, plus a decent accessory package, makes them worth a long look if you're considering a full-size pair of headphones in the $250 to $300 price range.

The Inspiration comes in two versions -- the $299.95 (MSRP) model with "passive" noise cancellation reviewed here, and a $349.95 model with active noise cancellation. They each come in a few different color options and the way to tell the two models apart is that the active model has a shiny finish on the earcups while the passive model has a matte finish. Both types feature a swappable headband cover so you can customize the look of your headphones; Monster includes an extra headband cover in the box and you can purchase additional headbands for a ridiculous $30.

The headphones come with a protective carrying case and three different cords. Sarah Tew/CNET

I've been using the "passive" Inspiration for several weeks, though my first review sample was only 90 percent cooked and not a final product. The shipping product I received indeed sounded slightly better, with slightly tighter bass.

The first thing you should know is that these certainly don't have the same sound profile as the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, which accentuate the bass and treble. Instead, the Inspirations accentuate the midrange and come across as warmer and more natural-sounding. They don't quite have the accurate tonal balance of studio headphones, but they're closer to studio headphones than the Beats. That said, the sound has still got some nice zip to it. By that I mean the Inspirations' sound isn't laid-back. It has a slightly aggressive edge yet at the same time it's smooth enough not to induce listening fatigue.

While the bass doesn't go incredibly deep, there's plenty of low end to go along with good clarity. Overall, the Inspirations sound punchy, seeming designed to make your music pop and sparkle, though not particularly airy. They're well suited to a variety of musical genres.

I liked the Inspirations a lot -- and liked their design, including the square earcups. So did CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg, who writes the Audiophiliac column. The build quality seems quite good (though CNET editor Justin Yu wasn't certain the hinge design would hold up well over time) and I appreciated the fact that the headset has an integrated microphone for making cell phone calls. By comparison, one of our favorite over-the-ear models, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headset, doesn't have the integrated microphone but it does offer slightly more refined sound and costs significantly less.

I found the Inspirations comfortable -- the earcups are nicely padded -- and was able to wear them for an hour straight without a problem. That said, in warmer environments, your ears will get steamy, and the headphones are heavy enough and tight enough that you'll definitely feel them on your head. On the plus side, while these will leak a small bit of sound, they leak much less than the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. That's probably because you get a good, tight seal from the earcups.

The headphones are fairly bulky but have excellent build quality. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the over-the-ear Beats, the Inspirations are designed for both home and mobile use, and my iPhone had no problem driving these headphones. The headphone cord is detachable and Monster includes three cords with the headphones along with a nice carrying case, which the headphones fold up to fit into.

The cover on the headband can be changed. Sarah Tew/CNET

One cord, which has an inline Apple ControlTalk remote and volume controls, is designed for iPhones, while a second cord has a "universal" ControlTalk remote that leaves off the volume controls and is geared toward non-Apple phones. Both let you answer and end calls. Finally, for audio purists, Monster includes a third cord that has no inline remote.

While Beats headphones are targeted at a more youthful crowd, Monster seems to be going after more mature professionals -- sort of a slightly hipper version of the crowd that Bose is targeting with its headphones. In that sense, the Inspiration's sound profile probably has more in common with the Bose sound than the Beats sound, but these are a little faster and more aggressive than Bose headphones (I'm speaking generally) and the bass is slightly tighter.

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

I got a chance to compare the passive Inspiration model with the more expensive active noise-canceling Inspirations, and unsurprisingly this passive model sounds a bit better. While I liked the active noise-canceling model (I thought the noise cancellation worked well), this model offered slightly cleaner sound. It's worth noting that you can use the step-up "active" model without engaging the noise-cancellation circuitry, which is powered by two AAA batteries -- meaning that if the batteries die, you can still use the headphones. However, even when I turned the noise canceling off, this model offered cleaner sound.

Both passive and active noise-canceling models of Monster Inspiration headphones come in titanium, white, or silver. Sarah Tew/CNET

There are a lot of strong headphone models in the $200 to $300 range, and you can argue over the degree to which they are overpriced. The list price on this passive model is $299.95, but its street price at the time of this review is $249.95, while the active model streets for $299.95. I can't tell you that's a bargain and I think the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s deliver sound that's a bit better, for $160. But that model is less suited to on-the-go use.

I also like the Harman Kardon Classic (also known as the CL) headphones, which retail for $199.99. The CL is a somewhat lighter, on-ear model that's got a distinct look and can be used at home and on the go. The Bowers & Wilkins P3 ($199) and P5 ($299) headphones are also in this price range. They both have really nice designs and offer very good performance, though their sound tends to be a little creamier and lush than the models I've mentioned here. Of course, everybody has slightly different sound tastes, and whether you like one model over another is usually a matter of taste.

What I can say is that overall the Monster Inspiration is an impressive pair of headphones. They're comfortable, seem well-built, and offer rich, detailed sound and bass that while not superdeep is tight and punchy. I can't call this model the ultimate $250 headphone, but I do think a lot of people who are looking for full-size headphones will like it, especially those who are trying to avoid headphones with overpowering bass.


Monster Inspiration (Black)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8