The holiday shopping season has a long history with the audio-video sector, but mostly as a time to shave a few dollars off second-tier home theater equipment. There remain plenty of opportunities to trample someone for a $25 Blu-ray player, but looking through this year's Black Friday circulars and Cyber Monday email blasts revealed a new lure being dangled prominently: Beats By Dr. Dre headphones.
Let's give credit where credit is due: There likely wouldn't be as many consumer-friendly headphone options these days without Beats. Previously, headphones occupied a much smaller, older-skewing market of enthusiasts. Then came the iDevice revolution, and, in its wake, Beats, which offered a glossy fashion accessory that put style back in compressed audio. Hip-hop icons, video vixens and extreme athletes -- and therefore younger demographics -- adopted them without hesitation. And in the period leading up to Christmas, various retailers are promoting and even discounting Beats.
But before pulling the trigger, consider that this isn't a case of more for less; it's definitely less for more. Beats By Dr. Dre are the NASCAR of headphones. And not just because of their garish colors and exaggerated branding. Beats are all about rumble: Eventually you'll come to realize that, despite the excitement, constantly turning left can only get you so far.
Beats' popularity stems from the illusion that getting more is the same as hearing more. The headphones offer exaggerated bass and treble, which adds energy but sacrifices any semblance of precision (most of music's humanity is in the midrange, which Beats neglects). And the headphones aren't inexpensive (running $199 to $399, before any promotions). If all your music is bright, compressed pop from iTunes full of unrelenting subbass, Beats certainly seem to breath life into what gets previewed through tinny laptop speakers. There are, however, mobile-friendly headphones that better balance accuracy and appeal in the Beats price range. Consider the following iPhone-compatible cans, and note that the prices below don't reflect the lowest possible retail.
For the first five years of the Beats brand, the headphones were produced by Monster Cable (yes, makers of expensive interconnects known throughout the Best Buy and Guitar Center ecosystems). Recently, however, the partnership was dissolved, resulting in Monster introducing its own Inspiration line, available in both passive and active noise cancellation models ($279 - $349). Intended to have plenty of visual appeal, the Inspiration features a solid build with agreeably padded, square earcups softened at the corners and clad in either titanium-accented matte or glossy black, depending on the model. The Inspiration improves on Beats' amplified sound signature by pairing a slightly aggressive approach with more emphasis on the midrange. There's punch without as much bloat, and sparkle without too much sibilance. It's still an accentuated resonance, but the presentation is distortion-free and more warm and controlled, if not exactly natural. The Inspiration is crisp and pushes adequate air for tuning out ambient noise with modern pop, hip-hop, and rock -- genres that are less about subtlety anyway.
Also gunning for pole position on big-box store shelves are some polished, fastidiously machined options from a brand known primarily for computer accessories: Logitech. After acquiring Ultimate Ears, a company known for pioneering in-ear monitors, Logitech UE has released the noise-canceling UE6000 and the noise-canceling Bluetooth-enabled UE9000 ($199 - $399) over-the-ear headphones. The inverted teardrop-shaped earcups of the UE9000 are surrounded by pillowy, royal blue-trimmed memory foam and sit on an articulated headband that exudes sturdiness. The fit is cozy and isolating, authoritative without being overbearing. As for the sound, it's titled slightly warm and bassy, but that low end is tight and textured rather than distended. Treble is nicely timed, not airy but pleasingly active. And midrange sits level, its presentation wide. Bluetooth forces you to use noise cancellation, which embellishes certain frequencies, but it is occasionally handy and sounds great for what it is. Overall, these are impressively resolving across the board and offer clarity with kick.
Whereas American manufacturers are incorporating a lot of connectivity, German audio has always been about sonic evolution first and foremost, and the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro ($199) is no slouch in that arena. It does feature some fashion personalization, offering customizable earcup faceplates (similar to the brand V-Moda) and exchangeable padding, but its most distinguishing feature is the four-position sound slider on each ear. This port allows you to customize the amount of bass frequency response you'd like (Light/Linear/Vibrant/Heavy), making this essentially multiple headphones in one. While it sounds like a gimmick that could easily result in an uneven, washed out effect, it actually delivers. You can shift from analytical to drenched tonal characters, or find a preferred depth in between, and the treble and midrange remain snappish and relatively untouched. These unexpectedly light, highly comfortable cans let you have the occasional fling with Beats-style bass without locking you in. However, the Custom One Pro isn't as compact as other options, and with its slightly recessed midrange, it's ultimately best for fans of faster, fun, and less soul-based genres, such as dubstep, hip-hop, rock, or metal.
Finally, there's one more German entry, a choice that actualizes both aesthetic and aural sophistication: The Sennheiser Momentum ($349.99). Sennheiser has applied fashion to its headphones before (for example, on the recommendable HD 598, which offers enjoyably forward imaging and a wood-accented premium finish reminiscent of a luxury sedan's interior). Still, the company has often based models around a far-from-sleek house look (save for its technically brilliant, sci-fi styled audiophile flagships). With the Momentum, however, Sennheiser went all in, offering a feel and sound that is smooth and supple. The snug earcups, which adjust along a stainless steel track topped with finely stitched brown leather, are plush, balancing comfort with clamping force. The sound is rich and buoyant. Song presentation is spacious, a little loose, best called relaxed. That's not to say it's uncontrolled (a la Beats); rather, the Momentum is well rounded while dedicated to the midrange. It extends enough detailing to complement that core without being fatiguing. Indie rock, folk, acoustic, jazz, pop, blues, hip-hop, even EDM -- all of these work because the headphone is tuned to avoid peaks. With its inline iPhone controls, the Momentum is for those who are on the go, but not rushed, and who want their headphones to look as classy as they sound.