Celebrity headphones: Are they any good?

Headphones from 'Beats' inspire many copycats. But are celebrity headphones worth the money?

Colorware/PRNewsWire
Beats by Dre celebrity headphones.

Just as Apple persuaded many young music fans to forgo a stereo for a music player that fits in their pocket, rapper Dr. Dre has persuaded many to ditch their cheap, white earbuds for a pair of $300 headphones.

Since debuting in 2008, Beats by Dre has gobbled up 64 percent of the premium-headphone market, pushing out well-established names such as Bose, according to consumer market researchers NPD Group. And last month, an investment firm reportedly bought a minority stake in Beats that valued the company at more than $1 billion.

Hot on the trail of that success, close to a dozen celebrities have slapped their names on headphones, including Tim McGraw, Jay-Z, Rohan Marley, and Lady Gaga. Are these high-priced headphones (ranging from $80 to $400) worth the price?

Not really, says David Carnoy, an executive editor for the product reviews website CNET.

"We tend to steer people away from celebrity headphones," he says. Too many of them appear to be marked up versions of previously unremarkable headphones. Some feel flimsy. Others lean too heavily on bass, which delivers a powerful sound for hip-hop, but often muddies songs from other genres.

Mr. Carnoy notes that the 2013 Beats Studio headphones are "significantly better sounding than the original. They've taken some of the criticism from audiophiles to heart."

Still, if shoppers are willing to spend several hundred dollars on a pair of headphones, Carnoy suggests they take a look at companies such as Sennheiser or Bowers & Wilkins. CNET named the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 as its best full-size headphone. A pair of those costs $200 ($140 on Amazon).

That said, if you just want a decent pair – or if you tend to lose your headphones – Carnoy says that Panasonic's $10 ErgoFit Inner Earbud performs really well, considering the price.

"It's funny: I tend to be anti-celebrity headphones, but other headphone manufacturers like to point out that Beats was able to sell a $300 headphone to the masses," Carnoy says. "They lifted the base line for what people were willing to pay for a headphone – even if they weren't worth it."

Maybe this shift can also persuade people to invest in higher quality digital music. After all, expensive headphones are only as good as the song files they play. The ubiquitous MP3 file format forgoes high-fidelity sound in exchange for small file sizes. Apple's iTunes Store has largely switched to higher resolution AAC files, and several online retailers offer the even less compressed FLAC music format.

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

The original version of this article ran in the October 14 issue of the Christian Science Monitor magazine.

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