Beats by Dr. Dre is a sub-brand of Monster Cable whose stated goal is to make true, studio-grade sound (as approved by Dr. Dre, of course, as well as his long-term collaborator/producer Jimmy Iovine) available to consumers at accessible prices. But apart from sonic qualities, Beats by Dre products are designed to look cool, too, sporting a distinctive red-and-gloss-black design motif that’s very attractive. Toward the end of 2008, and following closely on the heels of the launch of the now-iconic Beats By Dre Studio noise-cancelling headphones (reviewed in Playback Issue 14), the firm announced its Tour “high-resolution in-ear headphones.” The Tours are said to convey a sound similar to the full-size Beats Studio over-the-ear headphones, but for less than half the price and in a convenient “earbud” format.
Consider this headphones if: you favor a sound that is clear, well-detailed, and dynamically alive, but that has subtle (and not terribly excessive) touches of bass and upper midrange/lower treble enhancement that add a quality of “excitement” to many kinds of music. Also consider the Tours if you like “earbuds” that simply look cool and that incorporate clever tangle-free signal wires that really work.
Look elsewhere if: you are passionate (and finicky) about sonic neutrality and want in-ear headphones that offer the most accurate, uncolored, evenly-balanced voicing possible (if those are your priorities, you might find Monster’s new Turbine in-ear headphones a better choice).
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced in-ear headphones):
- Tonal balance: 8
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 9
- Comfort/Fit: 8
- Sensitivity: 8
- Value: 9
I think Dr. Dre’s Tour in-ear ’phones not only equal but actually surpass the sound quality of the famous full-size Beats Studio headphones. Here’s why. The Tours retain the best qualities of the Studios—clarity, detail, and lively dynamics—while mitigating their most significant flaw—audibly colored voicing that overemphasizes bass and upper midrange/lower treble frequencies to a distracting degree. Granted, the Tours add a touch of bass and upper midrange/lower treble emphasis of their own, but they do so in a much subtler, more subdued way than the Studios. The result: better-balanced sound all around. Whereas the Studios definitely exaggerate certain frequencies, the Tours merely underscore or “dramatize” them a bit, in the process delivering a more accurate sound that works better with a broader spectrum of musical styles. Note, too, that the Tours’ minor colorations can become a plus in environments (such as jetliners) where there are high levels of background noise to cut through.
A richly layered recording such as Lucinda Williams’s “Wrap My Head Around That” from West [Lost Highway] nicely shows off the Tours strengths. The recording opens with a delicate, reverb-drenched motif being plucked on a guitar as we hear Lucinda Williams’s half of a fragmentary phone conversation, her voice saying, “Yeah, … Um-hmm, … Uhh-huh, …” The Tours give such a vibrant, up-close perspective that we have the uncanny sense of listening in on a private, intimate conversation. But what is the conversation about? The song soon provides an answer.
As a dark and richly syncopated bass and drum rhythm propels the song forward, we hear Williams sing (in a voice that is unmistakably leveling not just a complaint, but an indictment), “You told me you loved me/said you want to be with me… You looked right into my eyes/said I’m not like the other guys…” The ability to capture small but crucial details such as these inflections in the singer’s voice, or the driving, springy feel of the rhythm section is precisely what the Tours are all about. Yes, they give the acoustic bass a little more punch than is accurate, and yes, they make high percussive transients and vocalist’s sibilant “S’s” sound a bit “hotter” than they should, but these ‘phones are so darned expressive and engaging that you may find (as I do) that their minor excesses are not only forgivable, but just plain charming.
Can you get even more clarity and expressiveness than the Tours offer? Yes, if you’re willing to invest about twice the price. But for many listeners, I suspect the Tours will represent a comfortable and satisfying point of diminishing returns.
The Tours are quite light and their soft silicone eartips feel great and seal well. I particularly like the way the Tours’ angled earbud housings are designed, providing generous amounts of offset between the eartips and driver enclosures, and leaving plenty of room for signal cable run-out (with the Tours, you’ll rarely have a sense of the signal cables dragging across the outer surfaces of your ears).
The design of the Tours’ tangle-free signal wires (patent pending) is a clever innovation: the wires are molded into thin, flat “ribbons” that roll-up neatly in the case, rather than curling up into a “rat’s nest” ball of wires. Good thinking, Dr. Dre.
The Tours are just what the doctor ordered (pardon the pun) for those who want highly expressive in-ear headphones that offer almost-neutral voicing plus a touch of dramatic flair courtesy of subtle amounts of bass and upper midrange/lower treble emphasis. The Tours ‘phones also sound better than most when used in noisy environments. Though a matter of personal taste, I found the Tours’ gloss black and red styling motif very appealing. The ‘phone’s cool, tangle-free red signal cables not only look slick but actually work (try them and you’ll wish everyone made cables this way).
SPECS & PRICING
Beats by Dre Tour in-ear headphones
Accessories: three pairs of round rubber eartips (S, M, L), two sets of triple-flange “airlock” eartips (S, L) and carrying case
Weight: Not specified
Sensitivity: Not specified