A music mogul's tech audio makeover

October 14, 2009: 7:00 AM ET
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Interscope Chairman Jimmy Iovine wants to get the iPod generation hooked on high-quality sound. Photo: Beats by Dr. Dre.

The camera crew is setting up for our interview, and Jimmy Iovine wants me to listen to something on his iPod.

The chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope Geffen A&M Records is holding forth about how great his Beats Solo headphones sound; and as the overlord of a music empire that includes Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Eminem, and U2, he should know. He hands them to me and nudges the volume higher. The music thumps through, all rich bass and clear vocals.

"These sound pretty amazing," I tell him, which is a bit like telling Frank Lloyd Wright he has decent taste in houses. Iovine takes this personally; he developed them alongside legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre.

The headphones are just one part of an audiophile movement Iovine and Dre are trying to spark in the under-30 crowd, the core music-buying audience. The Internet and digital revolution have greatly increased music's availability -- you can download it, stream it, and take it practically anywhere -- but at the expense of quality. Says Iovine: "The sound has been degraded to such an extent that it's, at times, not even representative of what went on in the recording studio." He points out that the youngest music buyers, many of whom have never heard an LP, don't know what they're missing.

He's right, of course. We compress digital files enough to shoot them across the Internet and squeeze them into iPods, then listen to them on cheap earbuds. By the time the sound meets our eardrums, the richness is gone; cymbals sound like plastic rattles, and bass like cardboard thunder. It's like taking a photograph shot with a Hasselblad and smooshing it down into a website thumbnail. The original art is recognizable, but barely.

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The Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, the first project from Beats Electronics, retail for $350. Photo: Beats by Dr. Dre.

The way Iovine tells it, that inspired him and Dre to start Beats Electronics, a licensing company dedicated to making music sound better. They don't license technology, exactly; they license their discriminating ears. Dre first lent his talents to Monster Cable for the development of the stylish and critically acclaimed "Beats by Dr. Dre" noise-canceling headphones -- those will set you back a hefty $350 ($260 if you bargain shop). The Beats Solo headphones I listened to, a slimmed down version without the noise-canceling, will begin selling in a few weeks for just over $200.

But I've come down to Santa Monica to see a different Beats product: a laptop. Beats Electronics has linked up with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) to offer the limited-edition Beats Envy 15, a sleek black number. It'll set you back $2,299 when it goes on sale next week, bundled with the headphones and audio-mixing gear. For the price, you get a laptop with a top-of-the-line Intel (INTC) processor, a specially tuned chip that handles sound, and other touches that enhance the music output.

HP says its engineers worked for months to tweak the laptop to fit an exacting audio profile Dr. Dre provided. Before you start rolling your eyes at the thought of engineers taking orders from a rapper, remember that Dre is more than another pop artist; he's a perfectionist producer known in the industry for his exacting standards. Dre likes to use studio musicians instead of samples, and legend has it that he once made a rapper lay down a track more than 100 times to get it right.

The Beats Envy is what brings me to this interview in one of the back rooms at Iovine's Thom Thom Club, an exclusive Santa Monica den where A-listers kick back after the Grammys. Normally there would be a large guy at the front door to keep people like me from getting into a place like this.

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The HP Envy 15 Beats limited edition has the look, and price, of a piece of high-end audio equipment; it will cost $2,299 bundled with high-end headphones and basic audio gear. Photo: HP

For HP, the collaboration with Iovine and Dre exemplifies a new chapter in its marketing strategy. The old "Computer Is Personal Again" campaign highlighted how celebrities use PCs. In this next phase, HP is working with celebrity tastemakers to actually design new machines.

The hope is that projects, like mini laptops designed with Vivienne Tam and Tord Boontje, will inspire discriminating consumers to pay a little more to make a statement. (The Beats Envy tests whether audiophiles will pay a lot more.)

Will it work?

The Beats Envy has a few things working against it. First there's the price: $2,299 is a lot to pay in a rough economy. Perhaps more important, though, is the subjectivity factor.

With visual technology, judging quality is easier: We can tell the difference between a YouTube video and a high-definition movie playing on a 60-inch screen. It's harder for most consumers to judge the improvement in sound coming out of the Beats Envy.

Iovine unintentionally illustrates that point when he has me listen to his iPod through the Beats Solo headphones. After I compliment him on the sound quality, I ask what kind of file he just played for me. "It's an MP3," he says -- a decent-quality file at 256 kbps, but still an MP3.

Therein lies the challenge: If he can impress this much with just the audiophile headphones hooked up to plain-old iPod circuitry, it might be hard to convince youngsters to shell out for an audiophile laptop to match. (AAPL) (DELL)

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