In 2008, Dr. Dre and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine unveiled Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones. With help from celebrities—among them Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber—the headphones became a part of pop culture, and soon there wasn't a subway or plane where they weren't ubiquitous. "It really was the pillar of our brand," says Beats Electronics president Luke Wood.
But after five years on the market, with countless offshoots and side products (Beats Pro, Executive, Wireless, Solo), the original Studio headphones have started to feel a bit dated. Toward that end, today, Beats Electronics introduced its first redesign of the Studio headphones in a half decade. The $300 headset doubles down on the Studio's simple aesthetic, while improving sound quality and power management. It's a sign that not all products require whiz-bang innovations; sometimes, incremental change is just what the Doctor ordered.
While it's hard to find much to complain about with the new Studio headphones, it's also hard to find much to rave about. The trim form factor looks more sophisticated than the original, with a stripped-down black and red color scheme. Audiophiles will argue about the acoustics and sonic engineering, but for the average consumer, the sound experience will be sufficient, an improvement over the original, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the interval between releases. It feels as if the Studio has spent the last half-decade working out: It's lighter, stronger, more solid. Whereas competing products like 50 Cent's SMS Audio headphones often feel cheap and bulky, the new Beats Studio feels toned. A redesigned headband, with no visible screws, fits snugly around your head; it features improved noise canceling and battery life, with a 20-hour rechargeable battery.
"We wanted to make the profile as thin as possible—the silhouette on your head is extremely clean," Wood says, of the Robert Brunner-designed gadget. "If you look at the headphones, you will not find a straight line."
For fans of Dr. Dre and Beats, perhaps that'll be enough to keep them coming back for more. There may not be as much opportunity for novelty in the headphone market, but after five years, consumers might be looking for something more, something new. Of course, we've seen novel features introduced in the space, from Parrot's Zik headphones, which feature a very elegant interface that's touch-sensitive, allowing users to play and skip songs by gently swiping their fingers across the puck-like earpiece. We've also seen tools that enable wireless group listening via headphones.
Wood says the most important thing is the improved quality and reliability—in other words, it wasn't broke, so they didn't fix it. "We wanted to make it simple and elegant and clear," he says. "I don't want to put our customer in a situation where it's maybe gimmicky and doesn't work [as well]."
Wood compares the updated Beats to the iPod, which, though incredibly disruptive for the music industry, saw its success through incremental advances. It wasn't until the iPod Mini and Nano, introduced years after the original iPod, that sales really started to take off. Before and after, Apple hammered the market with iPods of all sizes and styles, eventually shipping dozens of iterations, including a long-forgotten HP-branded iPod.
"I was that person who bought every single generation of iPod," Wood says. "There was always something [the new one] offered that the other one didn't do, and as slight as it might seem, it was pretty cool: Oh, this one has a camera; this one is a little smaller; this one has a color screen."
He adds, "I just think it's so important to bring real function and utility when you introduce new products."