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Do the New Beats Headphones Sound Good?

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The day after Apple announced that they were acquiring Beats, the company released a new version of their Solo headphones. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The new model is described as follows, on Apple’s online store:

A complete update of Beats’ most popular model, the Beats by Dr. Dre Solo2 headphones offer improved acoustics, a wider range of sound and enhanced clarity for all the music on your iPhone, iPad or iPod.

And, a bit further down in the description:

The Solo2 headphones have a more dynamic and wider range of sound, with a clarity that can bring you closer to what the artist intended you to hear. You’ll feel the higher fidelity audio no matter what type of music you play.

The description on Amazon includes the following:

Redesigned from the inside out, Beats’ most popular headphones have been updated with improved acoustics. Solo 2.0 headphones let you feel your music with a wider range of sound and enhanced clarity.

And:

Updated acoustics for enhanced clarity

This strongly suggests that the previous model didn’t sound good, which is the general consensus among people who are familiar with high-end headphones.

I’ve never listened to any Beats headphones, other than for a few minutes in a store. They were all very bassy, and had a sound that veiled the music I was listening too. But at $200, I’m not going to take a chance with these.

Will Apple Allow Headphones to Use Lightning Ports? What’s the Point?

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Apple has reportedly introduced specifications for headphones that use a lightning connector; that’s the one you plug into your iOS device to sync and charge it. According to 9to5Mac:

Apple will allow two configurations for the headphones. Standard Lightning Headphones are described by Apple as using minimum components when paired with a digital-to-analog converter supported by the Lightning Headphone Module. It also has an Advanced Lightning Headphones specification that allows digital audio processing features like active noise cancellation and uses a digital signal processor and digital/analog converter.

This makes no sense. The 3.5mm headphone jack is a standard around the world; you know that any headphones you buy will work with that jack, unless they have a larger plug, 6.5mm, which only works on amplifiers. (In that case, you generally get an adapter.)

Would you buy headphones that you can only use on Apple devices? I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy such headphones. Why spend money on good headphones – because these specs aren’t talking about earbuds – and not be able to use them on other devices? Also, you wouldn’t be able to use the headphones when charging a device. I sometimes do this to talk on my iPhone while it’s charging.

Financially, this would make sense for Apple, since they own the lightning specification, and charge licensing fees for its use. But for users? Ridiculous.

This sort of specification makes sense for other devices: DACs, headphone amplifiers, docks, and DJ tools. But for headphones, it requires that the devices have batteries; it’s sending a digital stream, and it’s not clear if it can also send an analog stream. There are times when you want powered headphones, for things such as noise cancellation. But powered headphones don’t sound as good as passive analog headphones, which don’t alter sound in any way.

The future for powered headphones is wireless, using Bluetooth technology. If you’re going to have powered headphones, the idea of connecting them with a wire is foolish. There are better Bluetooth codecs, such as aptX, whose lossless version can even handle 24-bit 96 kHz audio. It would make a lot more sense to work in this direction, and eschew the cord.

Some comments I saw suggest that removing the headphone jack from an iPhone will allow it to be thinner. I think people making such comments have never seen an iPod touch, which has a headphone jack, and is substantially thinner than an iPhone. When you look at it, you can see that the lightning connector and the headphone jack are about the same thickness.

If this rumor is true – and it’s healthy to be skeptical, given some rumors that have run rampant recently – I don’t see this as being for headphones, but rather for other audio devices.

Update: Turns out that this is true. However, nothing suggests that this would replace the standard headphone jack. I’d still not buy headphones that can only plug into that connector.

Why Would Apple Buy Beats?

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beats_wireless_headphones_white.jpgRumors have circulated for the past few days that Apple is in discussions to buy Beats, the headphone and streaming audio company, for $3.2 billion. Assuming this turns out to be true, and not a hoax, like the recent story about earbuds with blood pressure sensors, which the gullible tech (and non-tech) press reported gleefully, the question to ask is: Why?

Beats makes headphones, earphones and speakers (both portable speakers and car stereo systems), and also runs the Beats Music streaming music service. While the Beats Music service could make sense – there have been rumors about Apple launching a full à la carte streaming music service, like Spotify, to replace or complement iTunes Radio – the rest of the company doesn’t.

First, lets look at Beats Music. Beats bought MOG, a streaming company, in 2012 for $10 – $16 million. The Beats Music service was rolled out in January, 2014, and, while it’s garnered good reviews, it’s a new player in a crowded market. There’s no reason for Apple to pay $3.2 billion for a service like that. (According to Digital Music News, Beats Music has only 111,000 subscribers.)

As for the headphones, Beats’ products are very popular, but they’re generally considered to be all style with little substance. The sound of Beats headphones may be appropriate for certain types of music, but pretty much all objective reviews of their sound quality are negative. (This forum thread on Head-Fi gives a good idea what people who care about sound quality think of them.)

Beats Audio is a thing – a process? – that Beats says provides “sound as the artist intended,” but we’ve heard that a lot. It seems that it’s nothing more than some equalization and different wiring, but the company doesn’t seem forthcoming; nothing on their website explains what’s so special about their products. Beats Audio is available on some mobile phones and PCs, but it doesn’t seem like something Apple would want to add to its products.

There’s a core disconnect between Apple and Beats. Apple makes products that are more expensive than others, but that are, in most cases, objectively better; Beats makes headphones that are more expensive than others, but that seem to be fluff. Their bass-heavy sound and fashion-based marketing approach – it’s true that certain people think these headphones are stylish – don’t fit with the way Apple sells products. Apple is understated; they focus on design and quality; Beats is brash and loud. (I’ve only listened to Beats headphones for a few minutes in stores; they are not at all what I look for in headphones.)

The history of Beats is interesting. Mobile phone maker HTC bought 50.1% of Beats in August, 2011, presumably to try and make their phones seem hip with younger users. Less than a year later, HTC dumped half of its stake, and a year later sold back the rest, making a small profit on the deal. The private equity firm The Carlyle Group – that had investments from the bin Laden family, and the Bush family – invested $500 million in Beats, in September, 2013, giving the company a value of around $1 billion. Could the company suddenly be worth three times that amount, just months later?

This all strikes me as odd. While we may be witnessing a sharp change in direction from Apple, Beats simply doesn’t seem to fit with Apple’s image. While it could give Apple more creed with younger users, I doubt the company really needs that to sell iPhones. If it’s about expanding the iTunes Store, and adding streaming music, that cred only touches certain users; the iTunes Store is more than hip-hop, rock and loud pop. And, again, the streaming service is certainly not worth what Apple is rumored to be paying.

It will be interesting to see if this is true.

Use Headphones to Snap Shutter on iOS Camera

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Sennheiser px100IIiAn article on TUAW today pointed out something I didn’t know: you can use Apple earbuds to snap the shutter on an iOS device when taking pictures. The article mistakenly says that you must snap the Volume + button; both volume buttons work for me.

But what’s interesting is that it’s not just Apple earbuds that will do this. I tried with a pair of Sennheiser PX 100-IIi headphones, which are my standard wired headphones. This, like many other headphones these days, has similar buttons to the Apple earbuds.

This feature is great to know about. I have a tremor, and find it difficult to shoot photos without blur using my iPhone. Now, I’ll keep a pair of earbuds with me for when I plan to take pictures, and don’t have my digital camera.

The Headphones I Use (Updated)

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I often get e-mail from readers asking about what audio equipment I use. While I’m not an audiophile, I do listen to music on decent equipment, in my office (I have a DAC and amp, with bookshelf speakers, connected to my Mac), in my living room, and when I use headphones.

While I like listening to music with headphones, I do realize that it is, in some ways, artificial to listen with them. Instruments that are off to one side sound much further away from the center of the soundscape than when you listen to a stereo. I like the effect of having the music “in my head,” but for some types of music, and some recordings, this isn’t ideal. This is the case with some symphony recordings, and some recordings of string quartets, where the instruments are separated too much. Generally, rock and jazz sound fine with headphones, but with any kind of music, good headphones are unforgiving. It’s much easier to hear any weaknesses in a recording when listening with headphones. Nevertheless, I do use headphones often. Here are the five headphones I use.

Listening on the go

When I’m out walking, I want light, comfortable headphones, but I don’t want to scrimp too much on sound quality. I don’t like earbuds, and I especially dislike in-ear headphones. For years I used Sennheiser’s PX 100, a light, foldable headphone, but one with excellent sound. Last year, these headphones died, and I bought a newer model, the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. This is essentially the same as the PX 100, but it has an inline volume control and mic. This means that if I’m walking, and listening to music on my iPhone, I can take a call without removing the headphones. For other uses, the volume control and play/pause button make it a bit easier to listen to music. The sound quality of this headphone is surprisingly good, though don’t expect a lot of bass from this headphone. (Though these have been supplanted for mobile listening by the Philips Bluetooth headphones I discuss below. I now mainly use these to talk on my phone when I’m home.)

Blocking out noise

There are times when I want to listen outdoors and not hear the sounds around me. This was a particular problem last year, when there was construction next to the house I was living in. Having moved since then, there is, at times, a bit of street noise around my new home. So sometimes I like to sit outside and listen to music, and I want to hear just the music. Following a recommendation from my Macworld colleague Dan Frakes, I bought Audio Technica’s ATH-ANC7B, a noise-canceling headphone. While this suffers from the problems inherent in this type of headphone – the sound is good but not great, and wearing them makes your ears warm – they do offer good enough sound that I am not disappointed. I could have spent twice as much and gotten Bose noise-canceling headphones, but I didn’t want to, as I don’t use them enough to make it worthwhile. I find the Audio Technicas to be quite good, and certainly good enough for my use.

Serious listening

Finally, I have a set of full-sized headphones for “serious” listening. I used to have a Sennheiser HD-580, an excellent headphone at an affordable price, but after about 15 years, they started sounding a bit dull. So I asked around, and my friend Doug Adams, of Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes, recommended Beyerdynamic’s DT 990. I bought them from Amazon so I could return them if I didn’t like them – I don’t have a local store that sells headphones of this type – but I quickly realized that this was the kind of sound I like. The bass isn’t overdone, the treble is clear, and the definition is subtle and balanced. These are open headphones, so you don’t want to use these if you’re listening to music with other people around you. The foam rings are soft and plush, and the headband is comfortable. I can wear these for hours and not get tired, which isn’t always the case with full-sized headphones. Oh, and I got the 32 ohm version, so I can use them with my iPods, as well as with my stereo.

In-between listening

Following comments to this article – both posted below and by e-mail – I decided to try out Sony’s MDR-V6 monitor headphones. These are available at around $75, and were recommended by both casual listeners and people I know who work in the music industry. These are interesting headphones. They are closed, and offer a bit of passive noise reduction. They are light and comfortable, and the earpieces fold up, making them easily portable. And they have a coiled cord, which can get less tangled than a long, straight cord. As far as listening, I’ve only had them for a short time, and they are very bright, very clear headphones. The bass response is limited, but this could be because they aren’t broken in yet. But the resolution and spaciousness of the sound is excellent. While I prefer the warmth of the Beyerdynamics, especially for classical music, these Sonys sound great with music that has energy. This is an excellent sub-$100 headphone.

Wireless listening

I’d been looking for a Bluetooth headset for a while, and tried a Sennheiser, MM 400 model. I was very disappointed. The sound was terrible, and they were very uncomfortable, so I returned it. Then I came across this Philips SHB9100/28 Bluetooth Stereo Headset, and I think I’ve found the right one. It’s light, and very comfortable, with large ear pads that cover my ears entirely. This means that they provide some passive noise reduction, so if you’re in the street, listening to music, you won’t hear the cars as much. They’re obviously not noise-canceling headphones, but they do a good job of reducing chatter. The sound is excellent. The bass is sufficient for a small headphone, and the stereo separation is excellent, with clear midrange and treble. They also come with a cable, so you can use them as wired headphones if the charge runs out. The charge with a USB cable, and are rated to last about 8 hours (though I’ve always charged them before they run out).

What’s next?

There are many brands of headphones I would like to try, notably Grado and Stax. As I said above, I don’t have any stores where I live where I can hear these headphones, so I’ll have to wait until I visit a larger city and find a good audio store. (These brands are not widely sold.)

If you’re curious about the different types of headphones, see this TechHive infographic that explains the differences.

If you have any favorite headphones, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Thoughts on Apple’s New EarPods

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It’s been years since I’ve used Apple’s earbuds with an iPod or iPhone. I’ve long been a fan of good, light headphones, and my go-to cans for when I’m moving around are Sennheiser’s PX 100-II i, a light, foldable headset with an inline mic and iOS device controller. But I got a set of Apple’s EarPods with my iPhone 5 last week, and thought I’d try them out.

First, the shape. It’s odd, but it makes sense. Not only the oblong shape in general, but the position of the sound point, pointing toward the ear canal, rather than just to the side of the ear. They fit fairly well, even if, in my left ear, it feels as though it’s not quite right. All in all, however, this is an earbud that won’t fall out easily, and that’s a good thing.

But then there’s the sound. These earbuds are totally devoid of bass, and even of low midrange sounds. At first, I tried them out when listening to some podcasts. The lack of bass actually makes spoken word a bit easier to understand. But when I put on some music – The Clash’s Train in Vain, from London Calling, for example, with a strong bass riff – the music was hollow and empty.

No, these don’t cut it for listening to music. They’re a bit better than the previous earbuds in terms of sound, and much better at staying in ears, but if you really want to listen to your music, try something else.

Why Is it So Hard to Find a DECT Telephone with a Headphone Jack?

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I need a new telephone for my home office, and I really like using headphones when I talk, so I can type while talking with clients, and so I don’t have to hold the phone in my hand and keep my arm raised at other times. I live in France, and there are essentially two brands of telephones available: Siemens (Gigaset) and Philips. (There are many other brands, but they only sell the most basic telephones.)

After doing some research, the only phone I could find that has the ability to connect a headset is the Gigaset SL400. It has a mini USB jack, which you can use to transfer data, and which also allows you to connect a headset. I bought this phone, and bought a mini USB > 3.5 mm adapter, but I get no sound out of my headphones. (I’ve contacted Siemens’ support, which is supposed to get back to me, but the call-center person I talked to didn’t even understand what I wanted to do.) The SL400 does have Bluetooth, but I hate Bluetooth earpieces, and the connection takes several seconds, which is annoying.

I like this phone a lot, but I want a DECT phone that allows me to connect headphones, period. I’m surprised that this seems to be rare, at least in Europe. One friend in the US has an older Motorola phone with a headphone jack, but Motorola sells very few phones here.

It’s odd that you are expected to hold a phone like this in your hand, while all mobile phones come with hands-free kits. This is especially the case for people who use these phones in offices, and may need to use their hands while talking, as I often do when working with clients on the phone.

So, any suggestions? Has anyone found a phone like this?

Headphone Review: Audio Technica ATH ANC7B Noise-Canceling Headphones

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Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

I don’t travel much, so I’ve never needed noise-canceling headphones before. But recently I had a need for them: there is construction right next to my home, and it should last for several long months. In addition, there’s a small stream next to my house, and it is, at times, noisy enough that I can’t listen to music outside with normal headphones.

To this end, I looked at what was available, and asked some colleagues (notably my Macworld colleague and headphone specialist Dan Frakes) for some advice. Many people recommend Bose’s QuietComfort headphones, but they’re a pricey $300 (actually much more here in France), roughly twice as much as the Audio Technicas I bought.

So, how do they sound? Pretty good, actually. The noise canceling is efficient and works well even without listening to music. When I just want silence as they backhoe is digging outside, they cover most of the noise. When I listen to music, the soundstage is good, with decent detail, but they are a bit bass-heavy and treble-weak. I don’t like using EQ on an iPod, but when I’ve got them plugged into my stereo, I alter the bass and treble settings.

These headphones come in a practical carry case, have cables that unplug from the headphones using a standard jack, and come with two such cables. They’re light, not too hot to wear, but they’re not very big. I have large ears, and they just barely fit, pushing my earlobes a bit upwards, but not to the point of discomfort.

I’ve not tried any other models, but can compare them with other headphones I have. They don’t have the best possible sound, but they do what they are designed for, and are affordable. So, if you want something that is an alternative to the pricier Bose models, you should try this one out.