The Beats by Dr. Dre range of headphones has only been around since 2008, but in the few years of its existence, it has become the most popular "trendy" range of cans in the western world. It has arguably brought headphones into the consciousness of normal gadgets buyers more than any other range in living memory. But are the Beats Solo HD, the higher-end version of the range's on-ear Solo set, any good?
A big part of the reason for the Beats range's success, other than that big, bad rap singer name, is design. All the headband sets maintain a consistent look that is undeniably stylish. They're simple enough to appear genuinely tasteful but distinct enough to become iconic - edgy enough to nudge its way into youth culture without causing an instant, despairing sigh in anyone over the age of 22. Of course, step back during the commuter rush and you realise they're really just the youth-oriented high street alternative to Bose's now fully-grown range of headphones - but don't tell Dr. Dre.
Hardware-wise, the Beats Solo HD are fairly traditional, but do not put a foot wrong. Made largely of glossy black and soft-touch red plastic, they could easily appear cheap but the finish is in fact very good. There's also a thick band of metal that runs through the middle of the headband, giving it a good balance of strength and flexibility. All told they straddle the priorities of weight and build successfully.
The on-ear cushioning pads are topped with real leather, and are soft and comfy. They are among the most comfortable on-ear headphones we've tested. On-ear headphones can cause discomfort for those with more sensitive ears, as they rest directly on them but less so than usual here. The ear cups swivel a few degrees both horizontally and vertically, making them adjust to your head's lumps and bumps automatically, and eliminating most fit problems occasionally associated with this type of headphone.
There's just one odd choice to the Solo HD - the headband padding is finished with a squidgy rubbery substance that anyone who played with a Stretch Armstrong back in the 90s will remember. We would have expected padded leather, but this almost-sticky material lets the headband stay very slim while sticking on your head reliably and providing good comfort - although we can't attest to how it feels against a shaved head.
Noise isolation is fairly good too, the inch-thick pads creating a reasonable seal between your ears and the outside world. This makes the Beats Solo HD better-suited than many over-ear headphones for use on public transport - a good thing given how frequently we see them worn on trains and buses - though in-ear headphones or noise cancelling sets provide another level of noise reduction.
Another big win for the flexibility of these headphones is its removable cable. A standard 3.5mm stereo jack plugs into the bottom of the left ear cup, making it very simple to upgrade to a longer cable - you can snag a 5m upgrade from everyone's favourite auction site for a couple of quid. The bundled cables do offer some neat custom tweaks, though. The jacks bear the Monster and Beats branding, and the cable is finished in the trademark Beats red. Two cables are included in the box - both of just over 1m in length - one bearing a ControlTalk handsfree and remote housing, the other doing without.
Much in the same way as the iPhone design has become too common to be assessed without looking through the prism of its success, the Monster Beats range is too popular to be abstracted entirely from its associations. They are good-looking headphones, but we find their brash links to "urban cool" a little ugly.
Aside from the headphones and the pair of cables, the box also includes a neat neoprene carry case and a cleaning cloth (a red one, naturally). The case isn't there to provide absolute protection, but as the headphones fold up across a strong metal hinge in the headband, it makes more sense as an accessory than usual.