Beats SUCK at being headphones, but it’s not what you’re buying – it’s what you’re buying into

On June 25, 2015

Since Beats rose to popularity, it’s had lovers and haters. For quite a while, Beats headphones have been under scrutiny for their sound and component quality. Avery Louie, Ben Einstein and the team at Bolt cover this in detail. Their post breaks down each component and ends with key takeaway points: $200 headphones only cost approximately $10 in parts and $7 in packaging, extra weight is added to make the quality seem higher and the approach to tooling and mould injection has kept costs even lower.

Beats exploded

So why are consumers paying $200 for $10 worth of parts? Why are Beats ‘tricking’ consumers with weights and cheap parts but selling as if they are the ultimate in headphones? Well if it isn’t obvious, I’ll put it in capitals…MARKETING.

Beats Lebron

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Marketing is expensive. Maybe not expensive enough for a $150+ markup, but still pretty expensive. For instance, in 2008 when Beats supplied headphones to the entire USA basketball team at the request of their sponsored athlete Lebron James, none of those athletes paid $200. When football and basketball stars show up at press conferences donning headsets, they don’t pay $200 either (although they might end up getting fined, like the $10k Colin Kaepernick got hit for back in October when he violated the endorsement regulations set by the NFL – but even then Beats decided to foot the bill). They even managed to skirt Locog and the IOC’s rules on branding at the London 2012 Olympics by sending units to many athletes in their team colours. Hundreds of units have now been shipped to athletes, pop stars and celebrities all over the world to help endorse the product, with many of these public figures not on the Beats payroll but still under the impressionable eye of some of our greatest consumers: teenagers.

In a brand marketing study conducted by PiperJaffery & Co and Statista in 2014, US teens were found to prefer the Beats brand over many of the others…by quite a lot.

Teens love beats

Of course this isn’t a new tactic. Celebrities and athletes work with teams of agents and managers to secure lucrative endorsement deals. For pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Beyonce, it can be one the largest proportions of their income. Beats are all about creating an item that teenagers need if they are going to be a part of the ‘cool kids’. The quality of units from Sennheiser, Grado and Beyerdynamic is much higher, but I can’t imagine many 14-year-olds choosing them – especially as they don’t even feature on this graph.

I’m not a fan of Beats headphones. As a sound engineer, I much prefer the Beyerdynamics DT770 and even the M-Audio Q-40, which are both cheaper and give a lot more detail. But I require a very different headphone than a teenager trying to impress his peers. So I’m not the demographic Beats are after and that makes sense. They aren’t chasing audiophiles, champions of vinyl and heroes of lossless audio. They are after kids with cash, like most of the music industry.

So is this a real problem for Apple, the new parent company of Beats? Apple is used to building products which have low build costs compared to the final price tag. However, Apple products are mostly perceived as high quality, with the exception of their headphones (which are in 2nd place to Beats despite their general awfulness). With all the other battles around Apple Music and Beats Radio, this clearly isn’t the biggest of PR problems for the crew over in Cupertino, but it is something that Apple needs to address. It will need to decide whether brand loyalty or brand quality will be their focus as they push the big red B on the side of your head. The crappy internal design of both Apple and Beats headphones clearly hasn’t damaged their brand loyalty among teenagers, so why spend the extra money to change now?

Now there are some obvious costs in R&D, labour, delivery etc. which contribute to the final pricing, but the point is that these headphones are given a perceived value defined by market research, not by the literal sum of its parts – the same way your $200 Nike fashion trainers may not be the best running shoes, or your $500 Michael Kors fashion watch isn’t the world’s best quality timepiece. Or my personal favourite – the way an expensive diamond engagement ring’s value is set by a completely fabricated system! Beats are a fashion item and shouldn’t be perceived as anything more.

beats lil wayne

So next time you go to bash a Beats user, take a look at your shoes, your watch or your bling and ask yourself how you value other items which are about flash and marketing rather than quality. If you can go head to toe and around the room and you are still convinced all your purchases are ‘holier-than-thou’, and all bought for function rather than fashion, cast the first stone yo!

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