Celebrity endorsements are nothing new. Late night show hosts shill for Microsoft, directors show up at product announcements and movie stars appear at product unveilings. There is one type of product, however, that’s become notorious for its epidemic of endorsements; headphones.
You’ve probably heard of some already. Beats by Dr. Dre. Soul by Ludicrous. House of Marley. These are just the most common of what’s become a burgeoning business. While these headphones may seem attractive at first glance, savvy buyers should be cautious. They’re usually not worth the (often inflated) price.
The Beats That Started It All
Celebrity headphones weren’t always a thing. Their recent surge of popularity occurred only after Beats by Dr. Dre hit the market in 2008. Arguably, Beats aren’t really an “endorsement” because Dr. Dre actually founded and owned the company, but whatever your thoughts on its authenticity, there’s little doubt that Beats paved the way forward.
Beats came into the market to serve a specific purpose; heavy bass. Dr. Dre no doubt picked up on the fact that fans of hip-hop and pop love to listen to their music on sound systems with earth-shaking sub-woofers, and headphones often sound weak by comparison.
The first products from Beats were met with mostly favorable reviews. The Beats Solo received a four out of five stars from Digital Trends in 2009 and the Monster Beats received 4 stars out of five from What Hi-Fi? earlier the same year.
Not a bad start. But then things started to go wrong.
Here Come The Clones
Other celebrities took note of Dr. Dre’s success, and a long list of copy-cats followed. 50 Cent founded his own company, SMS Audio in 2011. Ludacris became involved with Soul Electronics to produce the SOUL by Ludacris. A company called House of Marley cropped up to make Bob Marley-themed audio gear. Jay-Z got in bed with Skullcandy to spawn the Roc Nation Aviators. JBL put out the Tim McGraws. Koss designed the Tony Bennett TBSE1. And so on.
So, are any of these headphones good? To find out, I spoke with Digital Trend’s Ryan Waniata, a professional audio reviewer and former sound engineer. He told me that the common-sense notion that celebrity headphones are overpriced isn’t wrong.
“There’s no doubt that some of these headphones offer quality performance, but you’re also paying for the marketing,” he told me. “People tend to lean towards them for the style, or possibly just to mimic their favorite sports star, but sound quality is rarely the best available for the money.”
This tends to show up in reviews. The new Beats Studio received only 3.5 out of five stars at Digital Trends. The latest Soul by Ludacris earbuds received a 3.5 out of five at PC Magazine. And the SMS Audio Sync wireless headphones were panned by Laptop Magazine, earning just three out of five stars. While none of these ratings are terrible, they obviously fall short of favorites like the Shure SRH1540, Sennhesier Momentum and Audio-Technica ATH-M50.
So Why Do People Buy Them?
We’ve now established that celebrity-endorsed headphones are often overpriced and underwhelming. Yet they seem to sell like hotcakes. Step onto a bus or into a gym and you’re almost certain to see Beats or SMS Audio within a few minutes.
There are a few reasons why they might be preferable. The first is audio profile. As mentioned earlier, Beats was originally founded to fill a gap in the market; bass-heavy headphones. They still fill that role to an extent, though improvements by competitors and the emergence of other bass-heavy cans have cut into their advantage.
Another is style. High-quality headphones are usually designed with audio quality, not looks, as a priority. That means they’re pretty dull. Some buyers consider headphones a fashion accessory and are attracted to the celebrity brands which, besides their name, often offer a variety of colors and inviting aesthetics.
And not all celebrity headphones are expensive. The Street by 50 Cent line, for example, is about $100. The cheapest Beats are about $120. And House of Marley sells on-ear headphones for $94.99. It’s not hard to understand why someone might wander into a store, see a sleek pair of celebrity headphones for around a hundred bucks, and walk out with them in under five minutes.
Don’t Fall For It!
In fact, you may at this point feel swayed. You may be thinking, “Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad. Can you even buy a decent pair of headphones for $100?”
Yes, you can. Examples of high-quality, low-cost headphones include the Sony MDR7506, the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x and the Harmon Kardon CL Precision. All of these provide surprisingly rich audio quality, yet sell for less than $100. That’s not to say they’ll beat every celebrity headphone, in every situation, but they certainly take the snot out of the Street by 50 Cent!
“Those may be good,” you might be thinking, “but man, they’re kind of ugly.” Let me let you into a secret; if you wear headphones in public, you’re going to look like a dork unless you’re the celebrity whose name is on the package. No one will care that you look like a dork, but that doesn’t make it any less true. If you’re concerned about looking cool, go buy a pair of half-decent earbuds and call it a day.
There’s no surprise ending here. Celebrity headphones sound alright, but there’s almost always a better option available at the same price. They sell on name and style and they’re not a good deal if you value sound quality.
Do you agree or (heaven forbid!) disagree? Let us know in the comments!