The new Beats Studio: $300 worth of ... what?August 7, 2013: 2:02 PM ET
Better headphones or more of the same?
FORTUNE -- It's been five years since Beats introduced its first pair of headphones. Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine's personal audio company has become somewhat of a sensation, with celebrity endorsements, even knock-offs. (Chinese electronics malls, for instance, are full of them.) Stroll down a city street, and you'll probably catch someone wearing a pair sporting that round "b" logo, which is quickly becoming iconic.
The new Beats Studio ($300) marks a reinvention of sorts. Company president Luke Wood says virtually none of the parts from its predecessor made it into this version. Externally, the Studio remains unmistakable as anything but a Beats product, with that thick plastic frame and bold logo, but the profile is streamlined: corners are more rounded, the seams far less obvious, lending the product a more durable look and feel. It's also 13% lighter than the old Studio and more comfortable to wear for longer stints.
Beats has beefed up the insides, too. The company's signature sound profile is either something to love or hate, often over-emphasizing bass and sacrificing mids and highs, resulting in cranium-rattling audio that lends itself well to hip-hop, rap, and many of today's Top 40 but far less desirable for any other music. In the case of say, the Beats Solo HD, I found their sound muddy, even on my favorite pop tracks.
In comparison to basically every Beats headphones that've come before, the Studio is a serious improvement. There's still an undeniable bass emphasis -- it's Beats, after all -- so contemporary stuff like Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" sounds right at home. But the bass has also been dialed back, with somewhat more attention placed on the mid-to-high-range so even modern acoustic and classical music sound decent, though not incredibly detailed. In comparison, the Beyerdynamic DT990, a pair that lists for $395 but goes for roughly half that second-hand, pumps out a more open, nuanced sound, where even the cello from Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor sonically glistens and sings with each bow stroke.
The Studio also uses what Beats calls "Adaptive Noise Canceling," a feature that's automatically turned on with the headphones and powered with a built-in rechargeable battery that offers nearly 20 hours in-between charges. There are two modes: one while music plays and another stronger mode when music is off, in case the owner just wants to block out the outside world. On my flight to Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., last month, the Studio tuned out roughly 80% of in-flight engine noise, one of my traveling pet peeves. The same held true when I strolled around the streets of San Francisco. But that was less the case with voices: they didn't do much to quell a loud argument happening upstairs in my apartment building last night.
The new Beats Studio will sell well, just as previous models have. It's sturdier, but lighter, and with an improved sound that still offers the deep, satisfying bass loyalists appreciate but with a better balance that will also appeal to listeners who have yet to clamber aboard the Beats train. Still, for some audiophiles or casual listeners who just don't dig the flashy Beats aesthetic, there are other headphone options that serve up more nuanced audio for $300.