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Monster Inspiration headphones: Hands-on

Going its separate way from Beats, Monster launches its new Inspiration headphones in Apple stores today. So, how good are they?

The Monster Inspiration headphones come in titanium, white, or silver, as well as 'passive' ($249.99) and active noise-canceling models ($299.99).
Sarah Tew/CNET

As many 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 officially arrive today, making their initial appearance at retail in Apple stores.

The Inspiration comes in two flavors -- a $299.99 model with active noise-cancellation and a $249.99 model with "passive" noise-cancellation. It's also available in three colors and it features a swappable headband cover that allows you to customize the look of your headphones (Monster includes an extra headband cover in the box and you can purchase a three-pack for $15).

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

I got my hands on an early sample of the passive model and did a little jury testing with some fellow editors, Ty Pendelbury, Justin Yu, and Matthew Moskovciak, and quickly came to the conclusion 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 Inspiration accentuates the mid-range and comes across as a warmer and more natural-sounding headphone. There's good detail and ample bass but the bass doesn't go terribly deep. Overall, they sound punchy (they seem designed to make your music pop and sparkle), though not particularly airy.

I liked them -- and liked their design, including the square earcups. Their build quality seems quite good (though Justin Yu wasn't certain the hinge design would hold up well over time) and I appreciated the fact that they have a built-in microphone for making cell-phone calls. By comparison, one of our favorite over-the-ear models, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50, does't have the integrated microphone but it does offer arguably more refined sound and costs less.

I found the Inspiration comfortable, with nicely padded earcups, 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 Inspiration is designed for both home and mobile use and my iPhone had no problem driving these headphones. The headphone cord is detachable (a nice feature) and Monster includes three cords with the headphones along with a nice carrying case (the headphones fold up to the fit in the case).

The cover on the headband is changeable. Sarah Tew/CNET

One cord, which has an inline Apple ControlTalk remote and volume controls, is designed for iPhones, while a second cord is 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 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.

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

Alas, I didn't have a chance to compare the passive Inspiration with the more expensive active noise-canceling Inspiration, so I can't tell you whether you lose any sound quality by going with the higher-end model (active noise cancellation is tricky to deal with and sometimes makes headphones sound worse). It's worth noting that you can use the step-up model without engaging the noise-cancellation circuitry, which is powered by a single AAA battery. That means that if the battery dies, you can still use the headphones.