Bonnie Cha

Beats Electronics and Bose Help You Tune Out the World

Beats headphones by Dr. Dre are popular with celebrities and professional athletes, but their bold, shiny colors and in-your-face logo are too flashy for me. When I learned that Beats Electronics was releasing a pair of noise-canceling headphones with a more understated design, I was intrigued, and wondered: Do Beats headphones actually deliver good sound quality, or are they just a product of smart branding?

That’s what I set to find out when I donned a pair of the Beats Executive headphones. Due out on Oct. 16 for $300, they are made from high-end materials and come in an inconspicuous silver color that’s more suitable for business users. They also feature active noise-canceling technology to block out extraneous sounds, making them ideal for air travel. But they don’t offer quite the pristine sound quality or comfort of a close competitor, the Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones.

The first thing I noticed when I took the Beats Executive headphones out of their packaging was their weight. Made from aluminum alloy, stainless steel and leather, they definitely feel like a premium set of headphones, but at 12.2 ounces including the cable, you’re not going to forget you have these on your head. What’s more, they fit pretty tightly, and the ear cups pinned my ears down. The pressure wasn’t unbearable, but they were not the most comfortable pair of headphones I’ve ever worn.

Though the overall look of these Beats headphones is much more toned-down than the company’s other headphones, the signature “b” logo and red cable are still present. That said, I feel comfortable wearing these in public, and their large size definitely screams, “don’t bother me,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m a pretty social person, but sometimes I just want to drown the world out and retreat to my happy place, especially on public transportation and long flights.

I didn’t have the opportunity to test the headphones on a flight, but I used them on the bus, at the office and at home to listen to a variety of music on my iPhone 4, and to watch movies on my laptop. The Beats did a good job of blocking out noise in all of those situations, and I feel confident that they would muffle the engine sounds of an airplane. Fleet Week, which includes an air show featuring the Blue Angels, happened to be in San Francisco last weekend and even as the jets screamed past my window, all I heard was my music.

How’s the sound quality? Generally speaking, I was pretty happy with it — vocals sounded full and rich, but on many songs, the bass sounded a little too heavy. Also, with classical and jazz pieces in particular, I could hear a bit of hissing during quieter parts. The headphones do provide a great movie-watching experience. I watched “The Avengers” on my MacBook Pro, and I felt like I was in my own private theater as sound effects like punches and explosions boomed around me.

One thing to keep in mind is that the noise-cancellation feature is powered by two AAA batteries, and once the batteries run out, the headphones won’t work until you replace them. Beats Electronics says the Executive can provide up to 25 hours of continuous use. I used the headphones for several hours a day over the past week, and didn’t need to replace the batteries during that time.

To save battery life, be sure to turn off the noise cancellation by using the on and off switch on top of the right earpiece. When you’re done using them, you can fold them up and store them in the included carrying case.

The Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones, which also cost $300, were released in August 2009, and are still going strong. What I really like about these headphones are their fit. They use more plastic parts than the Beats Executive, but they weigh about half as much. The ear cups are also longer, so they enveloped my entire ear, rather than pushing it down. Overall, the Bose felt much more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time.

The headphones also feature a foldable design and come with a carrying case. I found it rather amusing that inside the case is a pack of “Courtesy Cards” that you can pass out to friends and strangers promoting the product. Yeah, no thanks.

Like the Beats Executive, the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones feature active noise cancellation, which needs to be turned on using the switch on the right earpiece. It’s powered by a single AAA battery, and once it runs out, the music dies with it until you swap in a fresh battery. Bose says the single battery can provide up to 35 hours of continuous playback. I’ve been using the headphones for several hours a day over the past few days, and they haven’t died yet.

Using the same testing environments as the Beats, the Bose QuietComfort 15 did a good job of blocking out extra chatter at the office and on the bus, as well as the distracting sounds of my home TV and the Blue Angels.

I also thought the sound quality of the Bose headphones were slightly better. Though I had to turn up the volume a couple of notches, I didn’t hear as much hissing, and there was also more balance between the vocals and bass than with the Beats Executive.

In the end, Beats Electronics proved to me that it’s more than just a brand name. But spending $300 on a pair of headphones is a serious commitment. For the money, I want something that sounds good and feels good, and the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones do just that.

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