Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when custom hotrods were at the apex of trendiness, every would-be motorhead wanted a hood scoop on his ride, even if he didn't actually have a clue how it would make the car go faster. Today, if you're a teen or twenty-something and into hip-hop music, the equivalent of the hood scoop is Beats Audio, a sound-reproduction technology that's as mysteriously amorphous as it is pricey.
Also known as Beats by Dr. Dre, the monster-selling hip-hop artist-turned-producer who ostensibly developed it in the mid-2000s, the Beats brand includes a variety of gadgets -- headphones, earbuds, laptop computers and phones -- that are touted as having the capability to reproduce the full spectrum of sound that musical artists and producers hear in professional recording studios [source: Beatsbydre.com].
"People aren't hearing all the music," Dr. Dre explains on the Web site for Beats Electronics LLC, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that he cofounded with Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, in 2006. "Artists and producers work hard in the studio perfecting their sound. But people can't really hear it with normal headphones. Most headphones can't handle the bass, the detail, the dynamics. Bottom line, the music doesn't move you. With Beats, people are going to hear what the artists hear, and listen to the music the way they should: the way I do" [source: Beatsbydre.com].
Eager to experience that aural nirvana, plenty of music lovers have been willing to plunk down as much as $300 for a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, or to choose an HP laptop or an HTC phone equipped with Beats technology. The brand captured 53 percent of the $1 billion headphone market in 2011, according to market researcher NPD Group [source: Edwards].
But how Beats Audio actually achieves superior sound -- or whether it does so at all -- are questions that work some Web writer audiophiles into a lather. "Besides a bunch of hype and a red 'b' sticker, what (if anything) is Beats Audio?" a reviewer for Tunelab once groused, after puzzling over the terse, cryptic descriptions on manufacturers' Web sites [source: Tunelab]. "Not even Dre can explain his own product," a British audio reviewer sneers [source: Lucidx.com].
Actually, there's a little more to Beats Audio than that.
The Art and Science of Recorded Sound
To understand what Beats Audio does -- or what its maker claims it does -- you first have to know a little bit about the science of recording and reproducing sound.
Whether you're a fan of Gotye or Beyoncé, the music you enjoy goes through a complex, at times convoluted route from the recording studio to your ears. When you're listening to, say, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," what you're actually hearing is a bunch of different sounds -- the singers' voices, the bass line, the drums, a synthesizer mimicking the sound of a string section -- that are vibrations of molecules in the air at different frequencies. Those frequencies are picked up by your eardrums and other structures in your ear, which are capable of detecting frequencies from just 20 Hz (20 vibrations per second) all the way up to 20,000 Hz, and noticing and analyzing tiny shifts in frequency, intensity, duration and direction. They also can differentiate between parts of complex sounds such as a guitar chord. With that sort of sophisticated gadgetry connected to your brain, it's no wonder that we tend to be picky in our musical tastes [source: Whitehead].
But it gets trickier. Remember that when you listen to a song, you're not actually hearing the singer or the backup musicians, but rather a digital reproduction of them. It's not an exact copy, or really even close to it. In the studio, a producer digitally records the various players, converting their sounds into a mess of ones and zeros, and then blends them together, using record-producing software such as Pro Tools. Along the way, he actually alters the sound of the song -- sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically -- by using electronic filters to boost some frequencies and suppress others, until he gets something that he thinks sounds good enough to rock the socks off music lovers. He may strengthen the bass, for example, or accentuate or dampen certain frequencies in a singer's voice, to make her sound smoother. The process of tinkering with frequencies to get a more pleasing combination is called equalization. The resulting digital collage is then compressed to create the MP3 file that you download [sources: LeLoup and Ponterio, Self].
But that's just part of the aural journey of a song. It goes through other filters, including your headphones and/or your computer sound card and speakers, and they act as equalizers, too.
How does Beats Audio make music sound different?
Basically, as the digital version of a song is translated back into physical vibrations by the speakers in your computer or your headphones, Beats Audio again tinkers with the frequencies, altering them in a way that's supposed to sound good to your ears. How exactly Beats headphones do that isn't easy to discern, since the Beats Electronics Web site is slim on technical info, and there isn't much in the five U.S. patents that the company owns, all of them actually created by Silicon Valley-based industrial designer Robert Brunner and colleagues. The features cited in the filings are mostly "ornamental" flourishes, and there's little explanation of what would make them produce a more accurate sound [source: Google Patents]. Similarly, in a 2011 lawsuit -- since settled -- between Beats Electronics and Signeo, a rival manufacturer that marketed a headphone endorsed by the rapper Ludicris, most of the dispute seems to be about whether the headphones looked too similar [source: Signeo USA et al vs. Beats Electronics LLC et al].
We do know that Dre and Iovine reportedly spent two years trying different headset prototypes with their own finely-tuned ears until they found a design that, in their judgment, offered the best sound. They also had various music stars -- Jay Z., Mary J. Blige, and Bono and The Edge from U2, among others -- try out the headphones to confirm their verdict. "There is no benchmark reference for what absolute perfect sound is," Kevin Lee of Monster Cable, an audio company that partnered with Beats from 2008 through 2012, told USA Today. "That's where Dr. Dre comes in. We probably ran about 150 prototypes before we got it just right" [source: Jones].
The Beats Audio technology in computers and phones is a bit less of a mystery. HP, which uses it in laptops, was kind enough to post a YouTube video that details its distinctive performance-related design features. The latter includes a redesigned headphone jack that's been grounded to reduce distortion, and a more powerful amplifier with better stereo separation. Also, the audio components on the computer's system board are isolated, away from other parts that might mess with the signals. But the key feature seems to be something called the "Beats Audio profile," which audiophile critics say is a fancy name for the equalizer setting, or EQ, on the computer's software operating system [sources: YouTube, Tunelab].
What that means, basically, is that when the computer plays a song -- specifically, the sort of a bass-heavy hip-hop music that Dre produces -- its software automatically jumps in and tweaks the frequencies a little more, for your benefit.
Is Beats Audio really better?
If you thought we had a tough time explaining how Beats Audio works, it's even tougher for us to say whether or not Beats Audio really produces superior sound. Part of the problem is that people have different opinions about what sounds good. Some people hate distortion for example, while others actually like it -- evidenced by the popularity of the Kinks' 1964 hit "You Really Got Me," for which guitarist Dave Davies mutilated the speaker cone on his amp with knitting needles [source: Buskin].
The tech Web site Endgadget, which in 2011 hired an independent lab to subject an HTC phone equipped with Beats Audio to extensive tests, came up with some intriguing findings. Contrary to its advertising, reviewer Sharif Sakr wrote, Beats Audio doesn't actually make music that's more faithful to what the musicians played in the studio. "For this to be true, the Beats Audio EQ would need to flatten the system's output, to make music sound more faithful to the source recording -- just as studio monitors do," he wrote. Instead, what the technology does is reproduce music the way that Dr. Dre likes it to sound. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It tweaks music to emphasize the bass and vocals, while depressing the "less interesting" middle frequencies. If you like hip-hop, reviewer Sharif Sakr concluded, Beats Audio makes it sound great. For orchestral music, in contrast, "activating Beats Audio does nothing good," he added [source: Sakr].
But since most people who buy equipment with Beats Audio are more concerned about Wiz Khalifa than Yo-Yo Ma, that probably doesn't matter. The Monster Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, released in 2008, garnered a positive review from the techie Web site CNET, which praised the sleek look of the headphones and also was impressed from a listening standpoint. The headphones had "an exceptionally -- one might say shockingly -- crisp" sound that was "balanced in the mids and truly impressive in their delivery of high-end detail" without the muddiness sometimes found in the bass-heavy microphones favored by hip-hop fans, it reported [source: CNET].
I have to admit to being amused by audio consumers' obsession with hearing a song that sounds exactly as the artist intended it. When I was a high school sophomore in the early 1970s, my introduction to rock was listening to a vinyl copy of the Rolling Stones' 1969 live record "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!" that one of my classmates surreptitiously played on the cheap turntable-in-a-suitcase unit in the audiovisual lab, instead of the French vocabulary records we were supposed to be studying. The sound that came through my headphones was mono, not stereo, and the pops and hisses from the badly worn phonograph needle probably made the Stones' live version of "Live With Me" sound even raunchier than if I had been in the front row of their concert. It sounded terrible, and I absolutely was enthralled by it. If some manufacturer can come up with a gadget that could bring back the feeling of that moment again, I'd pay just about any price for it.
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- Signeo USA, etal. vs. Beats Electronics LLC etal. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. "Defendant Beats Electronics' Answer and Counterclaim." July 7, 2008. (May 11, 2012) https://ecf.cand.uscourts.gov/doc1/03518266592
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- Whitehead, Gordon. "A Brief Journey Through the Ear." Digital-Recordings.com. (May 11, 2012) http://www.digital-recordings.com/audiocd/journey.html