The Playback editorial staff has been increasingly impressed with the efforts that Monster is applying to its burgeoning line of headphones and earphones. The Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition and Miles Davis Tribute in-ear models in particular have captured our attention. Meanwhile, the Beats By Dr. Dre headphone line has been entertaining, if not exactly the thing for maximum accuracy.
Recently, Monster sent us the Beats Solo HDs, which are on-ear headphones priced just under $230. On ear headphones slot into the market between full circumaural (surrounding the ear) headphones on one hand and in-ear ‘phones on the other. Some people find that circumaural models feel oppressive. They may also find in-ear headphones uncomfortable or too hard to insert and remove (especially in an office). On-ear headphones have neither of these problems, and so they have their proponents and a niche in the market. In addition, on-ear designs can be much more compact than full-sized headphones, making them more suitable for use when traveling.
In keeping with the mobile usage them, Monster has designed the Solo HDs to be driven by a portable music player or phone. They also have Monster’s ControlTalk system to integrate phone and music usage. ControlTalk provides music playback control, including volume, play/pause and tracking, as well as a microphone. This feature works with iPods, iPhones and some Blackberrys.
Monster claims that the Solo HD is designed for highly accurate music reproduction. Titanium coated drivers are employed, and a good level of sound isolation is claimed. We admit to having some doubts about headphones co-branded with a rap star, even one with extensive studio production credits. But, proof is in the listening not the label on the box.
Consider this headset if: you want headphones with a warm, relaxed sound yet you don’t want to give up much in the way of resolution or balance.
Look elsewhere if: you need maximum detail and ambience, or if you demand the punchiest dynamics on wide bandwidth music.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)
• Tonal Balance: 9
• Clarity: 8.5
• Dynamics: 8.5
• Comfort/Fit: 9.0
• Sensitivity: 9.5
• Value: 9.0
The Solo HDs provide a sound that can be characterized as smooth, warm and inviting. If you listen to them without comparison to other headphones you might conclude that there is little room for improvement. This unobtrusive aspect of the Solo HDs can be a big deal if you listen to a lot of music, because it equates to a lack of listener fatigue. However, like every headphone we’ve heard, the Solo HDs have limits, and in the case of the Beats these are subtle, but may be very important to music lovers.
First let’s catalog the strengths of the Solo HDs. As we noted in our recent review of the Shure HD 440s, clarity without edginess is tough to achieve. The Solo HDs focus resolutely on controlling edginess while sacrificing only a bit of clarity. That’s because they have excellent instrumental separation and thus avoid the musically disastrous muddle that can be imposed by some headphones in this price range. Add to that a tonal balance slightly tilted to the bass end of the spectrum (imparting a slightly warmish sound) and you have a musical presentation that matches what many people can intuitively connect with the experience of live music. The Solo HDs also lack the more obvious frequency balance bumps and plateaus of some of the competition, which is very helpful in avoiding distracting unnaturalness.
A more analytical exploration of the tonal curve reveals a few small issues. First, some of the sense of smoothness results from a small upper midrange dip. This makes voices sound a little closed in at times. Second, the mid and upper treble seems slightly rolled off. This means that cymbals, for example, don’t shimmer as much as they do in live music. More importantly, it removes some of the sense of ambience from well-recorded music. Finally, bass on the Solos lacks the ultimate articulation and depth. Balance is good and the sound isn’t bloated, but definition and impact aren’t quite up to the sound of the real thing.
The beauty of all this is that we’re mostly talking about small subtractive errors that don’t really annoy. Of course, what is minor to one listener can be aggravating to another, so you’ll have to judge this for yourself. But, importantly, the nature of the Solo HD’s errors is unobtrusive. The downside here is that music sounds somewhat less dynamic than you might hope for, though not so diminished in this regard as to be even remotely boring.