On Bass Culture: Beats By Dr. Dre Headphones

by Thomas Brett

If you look around the streets of New York you see a lot of folks wearing Beats by Dr. Dre, those giant black and red (or white and red) plastic over-the-ear headphones with their iconic red cables. The Beats headphones are the result of a collaboration between Monster, an audio cable manufacturing company, and Dr.Dre, the hip hop artist, producer, and impresario. The headphones are expensive, but they also provide a whole lot of bass frequencies and low-end excitement.

Here is Dr. Dre. on the Beats website, making the pitch for his headphones:

“People aren’t hearing all the music. 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.”

Notwithstanding that vaguely threatening last sentence where Dre admonishes us to listen to music the way we should which is the way he does (gulp), the strange thing about this assessment of the Beats’ sound quality is that it gets it wrong. To my ear, the headphones have a ton of bass yet seemingly at the expense of detail and dynamics; they sound somewhat muffled–like someone cranked the bass dial all the way up and just left the treble in the middle. These headphones, then, certainly aren’t “normal”, but rather EQ’d in a way that accentuates their low frequencies at the expense of a balanced response across the full frequency spectrum. I’ve listened to music on them and heard the low-end of kick drums actually crackle and distort because they’re so accentuated.

Yet this assessment is not necessarily a criticism. Because if you like to listen to your music loud–which many people do–the thing that literally “moves you”, as Dre. puts it, is precisely those low-end frequencies. In fact, if you’re listening to a really loud playback in the studio control room or in a club, your body can take low-end at punishing decibel levels as long as the high-end isn’t too prominent and harsh. (But if the high-end is loud, then it won’t be long until your ears start ringing and that, my friend, is not at all a good thing–and is your cue to put in those foam earplugs.) So, making a set of headphones with an exaggerated low-end frequency response is actually a good thing if your goal is to simulate the (kinda thrilling) experience of listening to your music played back powerfully loud in the studio or in a performance space whose subwoofers can easily rattle your ribcage. In a way, the Beats headphones are a part of the global diaspora of bass-heavy sound system cultures characterized by what Steve Goodman (who is no stranger to bass frequencies through his musical work as Kode 9) calls “bass materialism” whose aim is nothing less than a sonic “rearrangement of the senses” (Sonic Warfare, The MIT Press, 2010, p.28). Wearing Beats is like having a soundsystem right around your head.

How to explain the popularity of the Beats? One explanation is that our bass-heavy musics–hip hop and also other varieties of electronic dance music especially–really shine and thrum with the bass turned way up. It just feels good to listen to those musics like this. Riding that slow oscillating wave of bass throbble goodness it can almost feel like you’re floating. Another more pragmatic explanation is that the noisy soundscapes of the city require us to either plug our ears, wear noise-canceling headphones, or otherwise compete with booming bass.

From what I see around me, a lot of listeners are choosing the bass option.

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(Triumphant New York Giants returning home after their Super Bowl Victory. Their choice of headphones? Beats By Dr. Dre . . .)