I've never been a fan of Beats headphones. I thought (as did many other reviewers) that they were extremely bass-heavy and, when I worked at an Apple Store, I told my customers as much. I let them compare the Beats against other headphone brands to see the difference. My customers often agreed with me, but they'd buy them anyway.
This is the power of marketing. Overwhelmingly, the Beats headphones were bought by younger folks more concerned with appearances than actual audio quality — or they were bought by parents and grandparents who had "Beats headphones" written on a post-it note for someone's birthday or graduation present.
At the end of the day, this is the problem with audio snobs. They can rant and rave against Beats headphones and Bose surround sound systems, but both companies will still sell truckloads of product because marketing, slick presentation, and athlete endorsements matter more to the vast majority of consumers than frequency response and sound stages.
However, Beats is aware of its reputation and has taken steps to improve its lot. The new Solo2 on-ear headphones are priced at $200 (USD) and come with "updated and improved acoustics" to let you "feel your music with a wider range of sound and enhanced clarity."
Marketing buzzwords aside, the Solo2's do sound way better than the Beats of old. They are much more balanced and are only slightly bass-heavy. They're not as crisp on the high-end as my $85 Sony MDR7506 over-the-ear phones, but the average listener wouldn't notice unless they tried the two side-by-side — and most would probably need to be told exactly what to listen for.
The Solo2 comes in a well-designed box that's easy to open, a removable and color-matched cable with iPhone/iPad-compatible volume up/down and play/pause buttons, plus a microphone for hands-free calling. I got a number of compliments on the clarity of the microphone during calls, and the headphones fold up into a very compact unit for traveling. A removable cord and zip-up storage bag complete the package.
So, yes, the Beats Solo2 are much better than the old Beats. In fact, they're good enough for most folks, though you can get better quality for half the price elsewhere. The excellent gadget recommendation The Wirecutter has an entire article that suggests alternatives to all of Beats headphone products, but much like my demonstrations to Apple Store customers, I suspect it's all for naught.
Much like some competitors to Apple's products may technically be superior to Cupertino's offerings, people will still continue to buy Beats because they have a "B" on the side and because the Solo2's come in six different colors. My review unit is the (beats)RED edition, with a portion of headphone sales going to the (RED) Global Fund to fight AIDS. And, let me tell you, these headphones are REALLY red.
You aren't buying Beats for subtlety. They're the yellow Lamborghini of headphones. You're making a statement and that statement is "LOOK AT ME!" If that's what you're going for, the Beats are an excellent choice for headphones. If you've been watching the World Cup at all, tons of world-class soccer players have been spotted wearing their Beats headphones while getting off their buses ahead of games — tons of free publicity for Beats and that famous "B" logo are driving even more young fans to Apple Stores to pick up those same headphones.
So, what did Apple get for their $3 billion? They got hugely popular, mostly decent headphones, along with a marketing juggernaut, and a ton of celebrity endorsements. Back in the day, Apple relied on its extraordinarily loyal fan base to convince friends and family to buy its products. That still-loyal fan base won't be able to make a dent in growing its 150 million iPhone-per-year sales numbers, so it's time for Apple to expand.
The more I think about it, the more Apple's acquisition of Beats — equal to about 30 days of profits — makes sense. This Tim Cook fellow might just be onto something.
The Beats Solo2 are available in Black, Red, White, Blue, Pink and Gray for $200, from the Beats website, Apple Retail Stores, and many other retailers.
Do you think Apple will take the marketing savvy from Beats and apply it to the rest of its product lineup? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.