Music impresario Dr. Dre, né Andre Young, is known as many things: an iconic hip-hop alpha male, a prolific music producer, and a permanent fixture in the West Coast rap firmament. But a style-oozing product design maven? Not so much.
Yet earlier this year, Dr. Dre partnered with high-end audio equipment manufacturer Monster to launch a new brand, mixing equal parts marketing acumen and design. Called Beats by Dr. Dre, the brand's first product is a $349 pair of über-headphones for music afficionados.
To design the Beats, the doctor partnered with respected industrial designer Robert Brunner (BusinessWeek, 10/22/07), an Apple (AAPL) alumnus, who now runs San Francisco design firm Ammunition. Brunner's approach (BusinessWeek.com, 9/3/08) is to create specialized hit products that also go a long way towards establishing a new brand.
Shrink-Wrapping Your Brain
The collaboration turned out a good-looking, great-sounding set of 'phones. Like other headsets in the same price range from Bose, Sony (SNE), and Panasonic (PC), the Beats employ so-called noise-canceling technology. A tiny, built-in microphone records ambient noise, and sophisticated electronics then generate a corresponding sound wave that more or less eliminates background chatter.
Turning on the Beats is a little like having your head shrink-wrapped. A flick of the switch on the side of the headphones instantly muffles sounds of the outside world with an eerie whoosh. The effect is impressive, as a colleague of mine, who wears headgear from a shooting range to escape the din of our boisterous newsroom, happily testified when he tried the Beats.
With the ambient noise out of the way, the Beats produce deep, rich bass as well as clear, distinct treble. Does this stellar sound enable one to, as Dre hoped in conceiving the product, "hear what the artists hear and listen to the music the way they should—the way I do?" Hard to say. But to my ears, from Mariah Carey to Mozart, the Beats outperform similarly priced headphones, including the industry standard Bose QuietComfort 3.
Aesthetically, the headphones are decidedly rap don, made from austere black rubber with brooding red accents. The mix of soft-touch plastics and sculpted metal bezels give the headphones a luxurious heft. But Brunner's design prints—and his Apple heritage—are all evident in the Beats' sumptuous detailing and intricate packaging. The simple act of opening the box—with its multiple compartments and folding doors—is full of ceremony, like a religious service in which, for me at least, Lil' Wayne will deliver the homily.
More practically, the Beats come with an airline adaptor, a padded carrying case, and several cables, one of which is compatible with the original iPhone's recessed audio jack.
I had a few quibbles. First, the headphones require two triple-A batteries and cannot be used without enabling the juice-sucking, noise-canceling feature. (In other words, it's important not to forget to turn off the headset when not in use.) And at $349 a pop, I would think twice before tossing the headphones into a backpack unprotected. Unfortunately, the carrying case that's included is as clunky as it is crucial. The Beats is not the only ultra-expensive set of headphones to suffer from this flaw, however.
Still, I seem not to be alone in my admiration. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their provenance, the headphones have appeared in countless music videos, donned by the likes of music industry figures such as Ludacris, The Pussycat Dolls, and Weezer. Even without those endorsements, Dr. Dre's Beats would be a remarkable combination of impressive audio engineering and stylish design.
6 months ago