New Beats Studio: Best-Selling Headphones Made Better

Beats is releasing an all-new version of Beats Studio, its original model of headphones.

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With software, you can assume that any product that hasn’t been abandoned by its maker will get upgraded sooner or later. Gadgets such as Apple’s iPads and Samsung’s Galaxy S phones get upgrades, too, typically on a yearly-or-so basis. But have you ever heard of a pair of headphones being upgraded?

Me neither. Until now, that is.

Beats — formerly in business with cable-maker Monster but now a free-standing consumer electronics company — is releasing an all-new version of Beats Studio, its original model of headphones. As in the case of Apple’s current iPad, which is known as the iPad, the company hasn’t bothered to bestow the new model with a new name: The Beats Studio is being replaced by…the Beats Studio.

These new $300 over-the-ear headphones tout improved design and sound and are due to arrive in stores this August. They will come with a standard audio cable and one with a microphone for phone calls, and a very fancy zippered case. Three colors will be available — black, red and white — with more on their way. (The current version comes in ten variants.) The company provided me with a set for review.

Born of a partnership between Dr. Dre and über-producer Jimmy Iovine, the original Beats first appeared in 2008. They made a splash and shook up what was then a pretty musty product category, went on to utterly dominate the market for premium headphones and spawned a variety of Beats products in different form factors at different price points. (Dre’s stamp of approval also inspired everyone from 50 Cent to Snooki to rustle up an endorsement deal; it’s a wonder there are any souls left in the music business without headphones to call their own.)

The aesthetics of the new Studio haven’t changed much — the overall feel remains decidedly luxe and the build quality seems solid, if not as ostentatiously lavish as the more buttoned-down Beats Executive. If you compare the new Studio with the old Studio, though, it’s obvious that plenty of details have been reengineered. Beats says that the revised headphones are both stronger and lighter than their predecessors, with improved components such as the red gaskets that help the cans rest comfortably on your ears.

The original Studio were powered by two AAA batteries. This time around, they’ve been replaced by a sealed lithium-ion battery, which you can charge using the included AC adapter or by plugging the headphones into your computer’s USB port. (Beats says it’ll run for 20 hours on a charge.) As before, you can’t listen if the battery conks out, but now the headphones cleverly shut themselves off when you remove the audio cable, making it tougher to unwittingly drain the battery down to zero while the Beats sit in their case.

The battery is needed to power the Studio’s noise cancellation, which electronically filters out distractions from the world around you, most notably the drone of airplane engines. In fact, if you’re on a plane and would rather snooze than rock out, you can yank out the Studio’s cable and use the headphones purely to zap ambient noise; if you do, they’ll automatically crank up the level of noise cancellation to compensate for the lack of music. (As before, you can temporarily mute audio and  cancellation by pressing the “b” logo on the left can.)

There’s no question that Beats has been a phenomenon at least in part because of canny marketing: The brand has been so successful and influential that it’s easy to forget that it’s only five years old. Its red cords have become at least as iconic as Apple’s white ones, an obvious sign that owners have a generous headphone-buying budget and have something in common with Dr. Dre. But the original Studio headphones also received some reasonably decent reviews, at least from publications that don’t cater to super-serious audiophiles. (Back in 2008, our own Josh Quittner loved them.) How does the revised version sound?

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be a typical representative of the Beats Studio’s intended customer base. My personal headphones tend to be much cheaper in-ear models without active noise cancellation — something I can cram in a briefcase, backpack or pocket. Most of my favorite music is pop and jazz from the 1950s and 1960s; stuff which only occasionally benefits from the sort of booming bass for which Beats is known. And no sophisticated listener would call me a sophisticated listener.

Still, I enjoyed what I heard — and when Beats President Luke Wood invited me to listen to the same music over the old Studio headphones and their replacement, the new model sounded unmistakably bigger and better. I didn’t have the opportunity to listen on a plane, but the noise cancellation effectively snuffed out my household’s background noise, even when I shut off the music. And the headphones were comfy enough for hours of listening pleasure, which isn’t a given considering the fact that my head is ridiculously wide.

Oh year, one other thing. Unlike the original Beats Studio, the upgraded version has no reference to Dr. Dre on the headband. That startled me: Dre is so synonymous with Beats, and such a potent spokesperson, that eliminating his imprimatur felt like KFC eradicating mention of Colonel Sanders from its signage.

Wood told me not to read anything into the branding change. People know of Dre’s association with the headphones he helped create, he said, so it isn’t necessary to stamp it on the Studio. Fair enough. The box still carries Dre’s quote about how Beats let their owners listen to music the way he does — and while I’m not even sure if I understand exactly what that means, I do know that I liked listening to the new Beats Studio.