I've never really liked Beats headphones. I think they look gaudy, they're overpriced, and they're aimed at buyers more concerned with fashion than frequency response. For all these reasons, I'm really conflicted about the new Beats Solo2 -- since they're actually pretty damn good.
What Is It?
The $259 Beats Solo2 is the newest pair of headphones from the company just snapped up by Apple for $3.2 billion. Available in pink, blue, grey, black, white and red, the headphones are on-the-ear models made almost completely of plastic, with thick leatherette on the earcups.
I trialed a blue pair of Solo2 headphones for a week of straight listening, after giving them around 12 hours to break in with music playing on a loop -- Pharrell's new album, if you were interested -- at moderate volume. They're relatively small for Beats headphones, they're quite light, and they're actually quite comfortable.
Weighing in at a total of 210g including the iPhone-friendly 'RemoteTalk' cable -- which includes a microphone, volume controls and play-pause-stop multifunction button -- the Beats Solo2 headphones are entirely portable, as real headphones go. The earcups don't swivel flat, but the headband does articulate over a decent distance, and each earcup has a locking hinge so you can fold the Solo2 up and fit the entire device in its relatively compact carry-case.
What Is It Good At?
The reason I'm conflicted over Beats' Solo2 headphones is that they actually sound pretty good. I compared them to a few other new pairs of on-ear headphones sitting around the Gizmodo office, and the Solo2 actually came out near the top of the pecking order. The reason for this is a combination of good ambient noise cancellation, surprisingly wide and expansive frequency response, and simple, straightforward operation.
Beats headphones have traditionally, in my experience, been heavy on the mid-bass and light on detail in just about any other frequency range you could think of. That's why I haven't given them too much time -- up until now. The Solo2 still does have relatively strong mid- and lower bass for its design and the size of its headphone drivers, but it backs that up with surprisingly clean and detailed and present treble and excellent midrange detail. These aren't just EDM or D&B 'phones; they do a good job of flattering any pop music that I've thrown at them.
The Solo2, being quite a small pair of headphones, has a relatively small headband, and the natural curve of that headband means that the Solo2 has quite a high clamping force. This is great for securing the headphones' earcups against your ears and blocking out outside noise, having the dual effect of boosting the volume of your music and requiring less overall volume to overcome the ambient noise of your listening environment, saving your hearing in the long term.
There's no Bluetooth in the Beats Solo2. There's no internal battery, and no noise cancelling. All of these are available in other $259 headphones, and some people would (rightly) consider these as deleterious omissions from the Solo2. But I think the Solo2 is better for it; you don't need to fiddle with charging or noise cancelling modes or syncing wirelessly. Just plug them in and listen to music -- no, it's not "as the artist intended" or any of that crap, but it's refreshingly straightforward.
The carry case that comes with the Beats Solo2 is basic -- it's just a simple zippered black neoprene case with a white fabric liner, and the standard cheap aluminium carabiner -- but it's just the right size to hide away folded headphones and cable, even if the cable is wrapped around earcups and headband willy-nilly. Sony does better carry cases, as does Audio-Technica, but Beats' one is well-built and shouldn't fall apart during the life of the headphones.
When it comes to design, I'm not a huge fan of ostentatious chrome or bling or bright colours. I opted for the blue Solo2 because these are fashionable headphones whether I like it or not, and I have to say, I don't hate them. The blue in particular is quite subtle -- the colour is consistent across both the glossy plastic of the earcups and headband and the firm foam and leatherette of the earpads, and both the Beats logo and Solo branding marks are actually unobtrusive and attractive. These are headphones that I would wear out in the real world.
What Is It Not Good At?
The Beats Solo2 is an expensive pair of headphones, there's no denying that. $259 for a relatively small pair of headphones, no matter how well they're built and how fancy they look, is always going to be a big ask. And there's a lot of brand value being tacked away on that price tag, too -- Beats is one of those brands that the cool kids wear. If you can find them on sale -- say, below $200, ideally around the $150-180 point -- that's when I'd start to say that the Solo2 becomes good value. But you're not overpaying excessively for these 'phones even at RRP.
As with almost every pair of headphones on the market, it is possible to get the Beats Solo2 to distort by driving them too hard. Bass distortion creeps in first when you're listening to bass-heavy music (or if you're using a bass-boosting equaliser setting), as you'd expect -- the relatively small speaker drivers just can't move enough air to give you clean bass at max volume from an iPhone or Galaxy S5 or any other modern smartphone. There's a bit of treble break-up at max power, too, with music getting a little hissy and excessively sibilant. These are the kind of headphones that will be blasting at max power from some yoof's neck, and I would like to Officially Implore you not to do the same, because they're so much nicer at a moderate listening level.
The high clamping force of the Solo2 is, as I mentioned earlier, quite good for blocking out ambient noise, but there's a downside: if you wear these headphones for more than a couple of hours, or for more than an hour while you're being active -- walking or running or even dancing in your chair at work -- your ears will start to hurt. This effect is lessened for anyone with a smaller head, of course, and you can lessen the clamping force by leaving the Solo2 on a blown-up balloon overnight, but those of us with normal-to-large skulls will have to take a break every now and then or risk a headache.
Not being able to swivel the headphones' earcups to lie flat is a minor issue. When I'm sitting and writing I tend to leave my headphones off, occasionally listening with one earcup pressed to my ear -- y'know, like a fully sick DJ. You can't do this with the Solo2, and while it's hardly an important feature and I'd take the locking-hinged earcups any day for compactness and portability, I do miss it a bit.
Should You Buy It?
After weighing up the pros and cons of the $259 Beats Solo2, I have to say I'm slightly shocked to be coming out in favour of these headphones. I fully expected the Solo2 to have significantly worse sound and worse build quality than it did. The bundled headphone cable isn't excellent, and the clamping force can be a bit excessive after a little while, but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise genuinely high quality pair of headphones.
It's likely these will be the last Beats made without Apple influence. If this is the starting point for that partnership, Beats could really make some strides in terms of its transition from fashion icon to actually-premium headphone company, competing with the Sennheisers and Audio-Technicas and Ultimate Ears of this world. The Solo2 is a great piece of kit for both