Regarding Beats Headphones

This is a response to this article that’s going around regarding Beats headphones’ build quality. In quoted passages, bolds/italics are mine.

Beats has been extremely successful in marketing its headphones and now enjoys large market appeal. But with a sky-high retail price of $199, is there more to Beats than meets the eye?

This isn’t a headline, but it is the end of the opening paragraph, so I would argue Betteridges’s law of headlines applies. By describing the Beats Solo2 retail price as “sky-high”, they’re opening with the premise that Beats products are expensive, which begs the question whether they’re overpriced. This is a complicated statement, because Beats (now part of Apple) sells a shit ton of headphones. Clearly, the market has not found a $199 retail price excessive, which I’d think would be a pre-requisite to being considered “sky-high.” Really, all this says, right up front, is that the authors do not think spending $199 for headphones is normal. I’ll come back to this point.

One of the great things about the solo headphones is how substantial they feel. A little bit of weight makes the product feel solid, durable, and valuable. One way to do this cheaply is to make some components out of metal in order to add weight. In these headphones, 30% of the weight comes from four tiny metal parts that are there for the sole purpose of adding weight.

First, it’s hard to deny that Beats feel more expensively-built than they are, but are not as well-built as many people think they ought to be given their retail price. But let’s set aside the premise that Beats’s retail price has to bear some direct relationship to their cost of goods, and dig into this statement: that the metal inside a Beats Solo is only there to add weight.

When I read that sentence, I didn’t think “those swindlers! They tricked me into not buying uglier, less comfortable headphones from Bose or whoever”

I thought instead, of course they added weight. Beats makes a product you wear on your head. The weight of the object, in particular the weight of the ear cups pressing against your head, is one of its most essential qualities, perhaps even more important than its sound quality. If headphones aren’t comfortable—if they’re too tight or loose, so heavy they cause neck strain or so light you worry they’ll fall off—you’re not gonna wear them. It makes total sense to me that Beats would add weight to a mostly plastic headphone so that they can precisely control the weight, and in turn the user experience.

I don’t wear Beats Solos; I opted instead for the heavier Beats Studios. Even though they are bigger and cover more of my ears, the weight feels perfect. They feel substantial without feeling too heavy, or adding too much weight to my bag.

The article goes on to say Beats has found ways to manufacture these weights cheaply and at massive scale. Good for them. There’s an old joke/parable about an engineer who’s called in to fix a problem. It turns out that he only needs to tighten a bolt, which he does. Then he presents his client with an invoice for a ridiculous sum of money. For the sake of this post, let’s say it was $199. The client is outraged and demands an itemized bill. The engineer crosses out the old one and writes two lines: “Tightening bolt $1; Knowing which bolt to tighten: $198.”

…do Beats by Dre headphones really enhance the bass? I couldn’t tell from the product teardown but the generic drivers make it seem unlikely.

I’m not an audio engineer, or any kind of hardware expert, and so am not qualified to analyze either Beats’ products or this other person’s analysis of their product. Maybe it’s a placebo effect. Maybe they order drivers from a commodity-parts vendor, but tuned or tailored specifically to Beats without looking obviously like a Beats-custom part.

All I can say is that I’ve tried a lot of headphones, and Beats do sound different. They don’t sound tremendously different, and in recent years they’ve dialed back the differences to appeal to a more mainstream audience. It could be more noticeable when comparing Beats to similarly priced models from Bose or Sennheiser, whose drivers and other hardware are not “generic”.

I estimate that the COGS without labor or shipping is $16.89 – yet Beats is able to successfully retail these headphones for $199+. This is the power of brand; Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have leveraged their personal backgrounds and a sleek design to launch a remarkable brand that’s become fundamental to music pop culture.

The first part of this (and the table that precedes it) is pure speculation, in a tabular, schematic format that looks an awfully lot like indisputable fact. A COGS estimate is based on numerous assumptions, like the assumption that Beats’s audio drivers are generic and therefore generically priced. That’s not to say they definitely aren’t generic, or that custom audio hardware would necessarily be more expensive. At Beats’s scale—or, for that matter, Apple’s—you’d be amazed how cheap the per-unit cost of something can be. My point is that this number is the product of assumptions, which were reached by simply taking a pair of consumer headphones apart and making some educated guesses about how they were made, and how much they cost to make. Educated guesses are better than nothing, but they aren’t facts. This graf appears to answer the initial framing question—are Beats headphones worth their “sky-high” price—with a resounding no. Like I said, Betteridge would be pleased.

The second half of this graf goes beyond speculation, into the realm of bullshit. It’s familiar bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Let’s repeat the lines in question:

This is the power of brand; Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have leveraged their personal backgrounds and a sleek design to launch a remarkable brand that’s become fundamental to music pop culture.

At times, I get so fucking tired of hearing about or discussing the “power of brand.” In my experience, the basic power of a brand is to force itself into a conversation, but its ability to influence people’s behavior ultimately comes down to the experiences associated with the brand.

It’s hard to deny that Dre and Iovine’s “personal backgrounds” were essential to starting their business. It’s also hard to deny that Beats have a “street cred” that many other brands lack. In the beginning, these two things were probably close to the same: Beats were from Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and people bought them for the association with artists they love.

Today, however, Beats’ defining quality is that they are everywhere. You don’t buy them because Dre endorsed them, you buy them because half your friends own them, and implicitly endorse them. They look good, they feel good, they’re what your friends use, and at $199, they’re a slightly luxurious purchase, but one that many, many budgets could bear. Beats’s brand isn’t artist cred or endorsements—it’s ubiquity.

At the same time, it’s quality. Not absurd, audiophile quality that most people will never experience, but the tactile feel of a pair of headphones that sound good and feel good, that come in a nice case and have a satisfying rubberized clicker. Beats are ubiquitous, but they’re more Chipotle than McDonalds. No one would say Chipotle makes the best burrito, and they certainly don’t make the cheapest. But they make a satisfying burrito that you can get in many, many places.

Finally, “sleek design” here feels like the old reductive nonsense about design being how a thing looks. Beats’s design is sleek and pleasing, which is essential for something they hope you’ll wear all the time. Good design isn’t a sweetener or a trick. For wearable devices, even basic ones like headphones, it’s the whole game.