How Beats headphones changed the audio world

By Todd Leopold CNN | 1/13/2014, 11:37 a.m.
The University of Georgia junior first got a pair of Beats by Dre Studio headphones for Christmas in 2008. They ...
These wireless Beats by Dr. Dre headphones offer crisp, bass-thumping sound without a cord to get tangled up in. Beats headphones now dominate the $2 billion headphone market.

Few had eye-pleasing designs. The sound was what mattered, of course.

As Hertsens notes, what Beats did was change the formula. The brand dates back to the mid-2000s, when producer Dr. Dre and music mogul Jimmy Iovine were frustrated by their painstakingly crafted music being listened to through tinny earbuds.

In 2008, Beats put out the Studio, manufactured by Monster. The cans were an immediate hit.

The philosophy of the company hasn't changed, says Luke Wood, originally a consultant to Beats Electronics and now the company's president.

Digital production and technical advancements improved the sound of records but headphones were lagging, he says, thanks to a convenience culture put forth by laptops, earbuds and MP3 files. (Ironically, Wood observes, Steve Jobs "really cared about sound": "I don't think anybody at Apple thought those white earbuds were the end-all of premium sound.")

"With Beats, the idea was to take the energy and passion of how we market our music and marry that with a focus on premium audio and the excitement of what we hear in the recording studio," Wood says.

He's aware of the criticism, but points out that a fondness for certain elements of audio -- like music itself -- is subjective.

"It's really about point of view and taste," he says. He, Iovine and Dre have "all made hundreds of records and spent tens of thousands of hours in the recording studio," he says. "I think we have an educated point of view and a consistent point of view to sound, and I certainly think we come from a place where we know what we're talking about."

The value of competition

Beats competitors are now legion, and many have copied the Beats playbook in marketing their headphones.

There are headphones from 50 Cent (SMS, which also has a collaboration with Lucasfilm), Bob Marley's estate (House of Marley, which promotes an enviro-friendly aesthetic), Quincy Jones (manufactured by AKG) and Tony Bennett (by Koss). Lou Reed's last video was for the Parrot Zik, designed by Philippe Starck.

Even the low-key Grado now has a branded headphone, a collaboration with Bushmills Irish whiskey. Actor Elijah Wood and DJ Zach Cowie contributed to the design.

Monster, which no longer manufactures Beats, has launched a line with the producer Swizz Beatz -- a Monster investor -- called DNA. (Zapata, the Georgia student and Beats loyalist, says she's intrigued by them.)

NPD Group consumer electronics analyst Ben Arnold believes that, though the headphone market may be slowing from its double-digit growth of recent years, there's no sign of a crash. With December's sales, he expects 2013 to top $2 billion, and says sales should go up another 5-7% in 2014.

Hertsens remains lukewarm on Beats' audio quality. In a detailed "Celebrity Headphone Deathmatch" review a couple of years ago, he gave grudging marks to the Studio and deplored the slightly cheaper Solo. But he approves of the greater emphasis on design and expects the audio quality of headphones, as a whole, will improve.

"(Right now) there's nothing to compete against Beats when you're talking about, 'I'm going to give you style, I'm going to give you comfort, and I'm also going to give you sound quality,' " he says. "In a way we're indebted to Beats because they made more money available for manufacturers to compete in the marketplace and make better headphones."

Beats' Wood is planning on it. He says he's not worried about the competition, just maintaining Beats' quality.

"What we're seeing is this resurgence of premium sound. People really care and hear the difference," he says. "I think we'll see this, not just in headphones, but also in home stereos, in cars -- and ultimately the whole bar will be raised."

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