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Beats updated its Studio over-ears (MSRP $299.95) for 2013, and while the company managed to do several things well, the Studios still have a very misleading name: If you're into mixing or equalizing your own sound in a studio, run for the hills.
However, if you're on the lookout for noise canceling cans with bass-forward beats and fashion du jour, the Studios do a standup job—but not for a particularly inspiring price.
Lift the lid of your new Beats and enjoy the aroma: The impressive smell of manufactured plastic unfurls as you unpack each goody. Inside the sturdy box you'll find two removable cables, a cleaning cloth, a micro USB with power adaptor, a miniature carabiner, and a zippered hard case. Oh, and a pair of headphones.
The Beats Studios are image obsessed, and the spiffy design is largely what you pay for here. Yet the form is highly functional, as well: The glossy plastic bands come in black, red, orange, and white varieties; the removable, tangle-resistant red cables are made with quality materials; the three-button remotes are responsive and easy to reach. Best of all, these cans are comfortable. The adjustable band, pivoting ear cups, soft leather pads, and over-ear design makes for pleasant extended listening—though I wish the ear cups were a bit larger, since they don't envelope my ears completely.
The Studios are active noise cancelers (ANC), too, but there's no need to ransack your battery drawer for AAAs. The headphones use an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery that juices up via micro USB and standard wall adaptor. But take note: If you fail to manually power the Studios off via the annoying button on the left ear cup, the battery will die—which kills functionality as a whole. Because it isn't just an on/off switch, the tiny ANC button doesn't clearly indicate whether the headphones are on or off—and since you can't listen to music if the battery dies, avoid accidentally wasting power by unplugging the cable from the left ear cup when you're finished listening—that will shut everything down.
The only other notable feature is the hidden button on the left ear cup. By lightly pressing the "b" icon on the left side, you can mute your tunes and disable noise cancelling. It's a handy feature, because simply pausing music via the remote doesn't actually shut noise cancellation off. Thus, if you're hurrying through checkout, or listening for your train stop, there's no need to remove the whole headband.
Despite the name, the Beats Studios are not nearly so niche. The sturdy build indicates a potential for travel, and the active noise canceling suggests the presence of unwanted sound—not exactly the traits of a studio environment. The biggest tell, though, is the actual audio quality: It's that of traditional consumer cans, not studio performers.
Although the active noise canceling (ANC) feature on the Beats Studio is not the most effective we've tested all year, or even the second-most effective, it does offer a huge perk: The pressure that occurs in your ears as a result of electrical noise canceling signals is very mild compared to competing models.
For instance, I recently tested the Bose QC20i and the Audio-Technica ANC7b and both applied far more pressure to my inner ear than the Beats Studio did. True, the former were also better at noise blocking, but if you have highly sensitive ears, the Studios are worth a test drive. And be sure to note that there are two ANC modes: While listening to music, ANC strikes a balance between outside noise and your tunes, but if you want more powerful noise blocking, just unplug the cable from the left speaker cup (which turns everything off) and press the ANC button—now you're in the most powerful ANC mode.
Just one more note before I get to the sound quality: I normally run two sets of data on ANC models, one with ANC, one without. But the Beats Studio headphones don't offer a mode for music listening without ANC. If you turn ANC off, you turn the entire rig off. That said, listening to headphones as you walk home alone at night is always a bad idea, but it's an even worse idea with the Beats Studio, so beware.
Special features aside, the Beats Studios balance the task of canceling noise and producing music quite well, even though their moniker is highly misleading. I'll say it plain: These are not for the studio. Users can expect a bass-forward, detailed soundscape. Specifically, energizing bass notes play a very prominent role, but daintier instruments like flutes, violins, and guitars aren't blasted out of the picture. Whether low, middle, or high, every note gets a fair shake. I do wish the bass was just a bit quieter and that points of the high midrange were just a tad louder, but on the whole music sounds properly balanced.
So why isn't the score a bit flashier if things sound so good? Distortion isn't the culprit, thankfully, and sound leakage isn't a notable problem either. I did note some issues with the balance of volume between left and right speakers, though. Sound is ever-so-slightly louder in the right ear than in the left, especially in the high-mid and upper range, but most people probably won't ever notice this mild issue.
The Beats Studios have plenty going for them. The sound production is what many prefer, with strong bass and detailed mids and highs. Users won't be bothered by distortion, and the active noise cancellation offers a soothing environment without applying unreasonable pressure to the inner ear. As icing on the cake, the design is as comfortable and sturdy as it is hip.
Yet for all that, the Beats Studios still don't top similarly and even lower-priced competition for raw performance, like the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro (online for around $156) or the Sony MDR-V6 (online for around $87). Do you really want $300 headphones that don't work when the battery dies? And we hate the name. These aren't engineered for the studio, so why are they called the Studio?
Of course, if you just want hot style, big bass, and a bit of peace and quiet all rolled into one overpriced package, then these sleek Studios might be just the thing. For everyone else, a battery-free, less-expensive option is always just a few clicks away.
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