Home / Opinions / Forget about design – Apple needs to improve Beats audio quality

Forget about design – Apple needs to improve Beats audio quality


Beats Headphones
Beats Headphones

Beaten into shape

All of the focus with Apple’s Beats acquisition seems to have been on what it might mean for the company’s music subscription efforts. Oh, and that $3 billion price tag.

Meanwhile, only passing mention has been given to the fact that Apple has been handed the reins of arguably the most over-achieving high-end audio company around.

The design company that played a huge part in establishing the Beats brand, Ammunition, has been relieved of its duties. That means that the Beats design baton (it’s a funky fold-up red plastic number) has been passed on to Jony Ive’s crew.

We’re sure the creative minds behind such iconic modern delights as the iMac and the iPhone 4 can maintain and even improve the look and feel of those blinger-than-bling cans. But really, that’s not the concern here.

Designing by ear

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What we want to know is, will Apple be willing and able to address the one glaring flaw with pretty much every set of Beats headphones we’ve ever used - that they don’t sound particularly great?

"As ever with Beats headphones the sound quality doesn't entirely match the price." That’s a line taken from our Beats Studio review earlier this year, and it’s a bit of an understatement.

Beats StudioDr Dre, the rap maestro behind the Beats brand, would assert vigorously (and has indeed done so on numerous occasions) that his products’ tendency toward heavy bass is a deliberate aesthetic decision. One that’s closely aligned with the kind of urban music the company’s customers tend to listen to.

However, this low-end emphasis also undeniably has a negative effect on sound separation. The sound of subtler, more detailed arrangements invariably suffers.

Now consider that Beats Studio is the flagship model of the Beats headphone range, and that they retail for around £270. For that price, you can purchase a set of Sennheiser Momentums or V-Moda Crossfade M-100s - both of which offer far superior sound separation and more rounded performance.

Put simply, such headphones offer more bang for your buck. Crisper, less muddy bangs at that.

Sound advice

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This isn’t just our subjective opinion either. An April TIME report gathered the specifications and review scores of some 3,000 pairs of headphones from 18 manufacturers. From this vast pool of data it was concluded that Beats was the second worst headphone brand on the market.

Of course, this overall rating disguises that some of the Beats headphones have scored quite well overall (the report mentions the Beats Solo HD as one such exception, though we weren’t particularly enamoured with those either). But it also shows that the general standard across the range is lower than it should be.

And yet Beats continues to dominate the field. One 2012 NPD Group report estimated the company was responsible for 64 per cent of all premium headphone sales in the US - a staggering figure given the strength and depth of the opposition.

And this is where Apple faces a bit of a task if it’s to overcome Beats’s style-over-substance tag. After all, Apple itself is hardly renowned for the audio quality of its own earbuds (though it did rank six places higher on the aforementioned TIME report).

Banging the (ear)drum

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Despite being the home of the iPod and iTunes, and thus a key figure in the way we consume music today, listening on a default Apple set-up is and has always been a little tinny, to say the least. For years now critics have been calling on the company to up its audio game, which it belatedly did with the Apple EarPods in 2012. Even then, its standard buds merely went from bad to average.

EarPodsHeck, even Beats co-founder and newly minted Apple employee Jimmy Iovine has taken a pop at Apple’s efforts.

Never mind the will. Does Apple even have the ability to improve the quality of Beats Electronic’s output? Something tells us it will need to extend its recruitment drive in order to do so.

Contrary to the generally gloomy sentiment surrounding the deal, it’s actually quite easy to see what Beats can do for Apple, besides a welcome injection of youthful cool that’s arguably been lacking from Apple's brand in recent times.

Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s company will instantly provide the Spotify-like subscription music service that Apple has badly needed for a couple of years now. You didn’t think iTunes Radio was really the answer to that particular shortfall, did you?

The deal also offers the tantalising possibility of Apple taking a direct hand in designing speaker docks and other peripherals for its own iPhone range, rather than simply relying on third parties such as Sonos to do the heavy lifting.

But what can Apple do for Beats, a company that already had its branding and design houses in order and is arguably more in need of specialist technical improvement? That question’s a lot tougher to answer from our perspective.

Next, get some tips on what headphones you should buy with our best headphones round-up


May 29, 2014, 3:59 pm

Did Apple really need Beats? It had a brand that could have easily been put on high end quality headphones etc already. It is market leader as a music retailer and could have easily expanded that into streaming... while the "beats" branding hardly turned around the fortunes of HTC or HP devices that boasted the technology inside.

Prem Desai

May 29, 2014, 6:29 pm

Happy for Apple to take over the design.

Please don't touch the sound quality - they'll only ruin it. No Apple product to date has awesome sound quality - merely okay quality.

Alex Walsh

May 30, 2014, 6:32 am

Beats are a fashion brand aren't they? They're like buying a Ted Baker t shirt- you can pay £70 for a t-shirt if you really want to but what you're buying is the brand and it's perception, not necessarily quality. It's the same with Beats, you can spend a couple of hundred quid on something wholly adequate if you really want to.

I can't think of a pair of Beats I'd rather have over my AKG 545s, and you can pick those up for £180 now.

John Miller

August 28, 2015, 4:50 pm

you can't hurt beats' sound quality. it cannot get any worse. you must only own one pair of headphones, and it's a beats.


September 23, 2015, 7:59 am

For having owned beats studio by Dr.Dre (yeah we all have friends with very bad tastes don't we?), I confirm quality is terrible for the cost (cost to the customers...).
Some no name Chinese headsets give me better quality, longer battery life for 5 times cheaper.
Apple bying that fashion company is not surprising at all.


September 23, 2015, 8:01 am

Don't underestimate Apple in levelling down, they excel in that domain.
But yeah hard to go lower than that...

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