Let me get this out of the way up front- I’m no audiophile. I’ve spent more time with my cheap $7 earbuds in my ears than I’d really care to admit. But as an unofficial Velocity Agency Music Snob, I’ve also spent my fair share of time with professional quality headphones, listening to music on top-of-the-line studio monitors, and have spent enough time in recording studios to make Axl Rose cringe. And all of that time and knowledge has led me to my most important realization yet- that Beats by Dre are horrible. Maybe not horrible by all counts- I believe they’d make a suitable alternative as lawn fertilizer- but at the very least, they have no place being sold for upwards of $400 as professional quality headphones.
Ok, maybe they don’t necessarily sound horrible. Compared to the cheap earbuds that come with most iPhones and iPods, they sound downright decent. But although I may be exaggerating a bit, it’s old news that a significant quantity of audio enthusiasts agree that they sound drastically inferior to other headphones in the same price range. The bass is overrepresented, and the artificial dynamics on the low end cause unwanted distortion. These aren’t so much opinions as they are facts; facts that point to the conclusion that Beats by Dre sound objectively bad. But that’s not why I’m fascinated by Beats. I mean, there are literally hundreds of bad sounding headphones in the world. The reason Beats has captured my interest is that they account for 57% of the market share of premium headphones. That’s right, a company that has only been around for 5 years has secured the majority of a 1.8 billion dollar market that has practically been around for as long as recorded music has existed. But how can headphones that most experts agree sound objectively bad have such dominance over the market? These are the types of questions that keep me up at night.
Above all else, Beats succeeded by recognizing a huge gap in the marketplace. Not just headphones- it runs deeper than that. What percent of Americans have some sort of personal audio player? As long as you include smart phones, practically everybody. But until the last few years, the number of those people who even knew such a thing as sound quality existed was slim. Beats recognized an opportunity to take something- sound quality- that was previously only relevant to a niche market, and convert it into something with mass market appeal. It’s a textbook example of recognizing an opportunity if there ever was one. And while other, arguably better, premium headphone manufacturers were stuck marketing exclusively to sound engineers and audiophiles, Beats recognized that the idea of making music sound good was much more universal than that. It was just a matter of how to communicate the idea to a mass market.
This is where the design came into play. If there’s one thing that can be said about marketing in the 21st century, it’s that design is every bit as important as content. Beats are as much of an accessory or statement as they are a device for listening to music. From the pristinely contoured shape to the beautiful simplicity of the “b” logo on the side, there’s no denying that they are impeccable from a design standpoint. As much as I love my top of the line hi-fi studio headphones- let’s face it- they’re hideous. If I wore them out in public people would probably ridicule me. And of course it doesn’t hurt that they’ve managed to have so many celebrities wearing their headphones in public. And now you can even get your favorite artists’ signature headphones (as long as your favorite artist is Lady Gaga).
This day and age, products tend to speak for themselves more than ever. We rely less heavily on traditional forms of advertising, and tend to favor the opinions of our friends or what we see on social media platforms. This is both a curse and a blessing from a marketing standpoint. When a product is truly great, it basically does the advertising itself. On the other hand, products that aren’t exceptional are harder than ever to effectively promote and sell. But every now and then, there’s such a perfect storm of clever marketingand fortuitous timing that a product even as mediocre as Beats can become a phenomenon. As a fan of music, I’m genuinely happy that Beats has gotten such a widespread enthusiasm for sound quality, even if I don’t like the way their products sound. Now if they could just make some Mastodon artist series headphones…