It’s a “Beats” World, We Just Listen To It

Avi Greengart - Apr 1, 2012, 2:01 pm CDT
It’s a “Beats” World, We Just Listen To It

Did you see this product announced, back on March 5? I didn’t think so, but if you’ve been watching American Idol, you should have seen ads for Beat’s audio “Beatbox portable,” which is, “an AT&T exclusive.” I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea that a wireless carrier would want to procure exclusive distribution for a portable speaker, and then spend millions of dollars advertising it (a 30 second spot on American Idol costs approximately $500,000). Oh, and the price of the speaker itself? $399.

In its favor, the Beats brand has credibility, as it is tied to hip hop legend Dr. Dre and music industry legend (and American Idol advisor) Jimmy Iovine. There is more to Beats than just Jimmy’s impassioned speeches about how important audio quality is; beats headphones have become fashion accessories. I have conducted a completely unscientific survey by observing the public school teenagers walking in front of my home office window on their way to the deli around the corner. Conclusion: 70% of Beats buyers wear them entirely as fashion statement/collars (the cords are actually disconnected!).

HP was the first tech brand to hook up with Beats for its laptops and short-lived TouchPad. The Beats brand is apparently so valuable that HTC paid $300 million (three. hundred. MILLION. dollars.) to invest in the brand, put the Beats logo on its phones, and presumably get invited to really swanky parties with rock stars. I’m guessing AT&T wanted in on all that Beats goodness, but what could it do? HP still has the exclusive on laptops, HTC has Beats for phones, so that left a boombox.

HP gave me a pair of Beats headphones when it was still making TouchPads, and I tested the headphones with and without a Beats-compliant device supplying the audio. The $299 headphones are not a bargain, but they do sound good – the bass is excellent (boosted but still natural – a tough combination to pull off), the midrange and highs are fair, and there is only some lightly audible distortion in the midrange from the noise cancellation (all active noise cancelling headphones have some distortion, as quite literally that’s what noise cancellation is).

The noise cancellation itself is very good, though not as good as Bose’s QuietComfort line. The Beats audio mode on the TouchPad and HTC Rezound (a Verizon Wireless exclusive) are less impressive – as far as I can tell, it’s just an EQ setting. However, the headphones on the Rezound are much, much better than freebie headphones you usually get with phones or media players, and the combination works well.

So how does the Beatbox portable stand up? I got one in to test, and the good news is that it has nice industrial design, and it also allows iPhone/iPod users to choose whether to dock their device in the 40 pin connector, or use it (or any Bluetooth device) remotely as a Bluetooth speaker. The Beatbox’s carry handles make it ideal for lugging to start a party. This is actually the best reason to buy the product, because it plays LOUD. Ridiculously loud.

[aquote]It’s loud enough for a really good party according to the teenagers I consulted[/aquote]

Honestly, I have tested a lot of audio products, and when plugged into an AC outlet, the Beatbox portable plays louder without distorting than anything else its size. I got out my SPL (sound pressure level) meter and measured it solidly in the 90 – 95 db range from a distance of ten feet away. That’s more than enough to cause permanent hearing loss after just an hour’s exposure according to the alarmist websites I consulted. It’s also loud enough to drive a really good party according to the teenagers I consulted.

The bad news is that, unlike Beats headphones, the Beatbox portable’s audio quality is just fair at any volume. Vocals are clear but not warm, and highs are nothing special. There is a slight boxy coloration to the sound (you can hear the plastic cabinet), and there is no stereo separation whatsoever. The Beatbox portable does not appear to share other Beats products propensity to boost bass frequencies; that isn’t bad, just unexpected. At 7 lbs. it can get quite heavy to carry around – and that’s before inserting six D cell batteries (not included) or considering the 1 lb. power brick for AC (included). It is not waterproof or sand-proof, so if you do take it on the go, you’ll have to stay away from the beach or the pool.

Logitech’s $99 Z515 cannot play anywhere near as loud, but offers equivalent sound quality and an integrated rechargeable battery. Unless you absolutely need to blow the roof off – or you are captivated by the Beats brand – the $399 price tag is awfully hard to justify. But if you do decide to spend a fortune on the Beats brand, you will be in good company; buying into the Beats brand as a consumer will be a lot less expensive for you than it was for AT&T or HTC.

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