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Top 5 Picks From the 'Celebrity' Headphone Bubble


The "cans" are back, and some sound better than others.


When Sony (NYSE:SNE) unveiled the Walkman to US consumers in June 1980, its headphones were hailed as one of the portable cassette player's most innovative features. Until this point, the personal audio experience tethered listeners to the home stereo console with ungainly globoids that engulfed the head, weighed upwards of a pound, and made its wearers look more like they were tuned into airspace traffic rather than the concept LP of the moment.

But the stroke of engineering genius that swapped the conventional loudspeaker with circuits and a headphone terminal on a playback-only unit changed all that. The MDR-3L2 headphones bundled with the Walkman sported an adjustable headband in gray plastic, foam-covered speakers not much bigger than a silver dollar, and a lightweight design that shaved 12 ounces off the "cans." Suddenly Lipps Inc fans could literally boogie down to "Funkytown" while simultaneously listening to it.

Portable headphones took their next evolutionary turn in 2001 when Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) stripped down the design with the release of its inner-ear headphone meant to fit in our pockets alongside the first-generation iPod. Natural selection favored the white EarPods' sleek look, and every competing brand spent the rest of the decade approximating and perfecting the form -- and while commonly catering to the thrifty consumer.

"For years, earplugs and headphones were stuck as $10 to $15 throwaway products," said Stephen Baker, the vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group.

Cut to present day and, wouldn't you know it, what's old is new again. The fashion accessory in Apple's retro-futuristic EarPods has given way to just plain retro. That's right, the cans have made a comeback. And they haven't come back cheap.

Thanks to the business/creative collaboration between music industry legends Dr. Dre & Jimmy Iovine, we are now in the era of the must-have, around-ear headphone with a triple-Benjamins price tag. The hip-hop producer and Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman formed Beats by Dre in 2008 to reinvent headphones for the low-fi-listening, MP3 generation by raising the bar on sound quality and also on how much much the average consumer was willing to shell out for them.

"People thought we were crazy," says Beats by Dre CEO Luke Wood. "They said the marketplace would never support a $300 headphone."

Half a decade (and a Great Recession) later and headphones have become one of the fastest growing categories in the consumer electronics industry, with sales of high-end offerings far outpacing the rest of the space. By 2012, brands in the $100-plus range captured 43% of business -- and leading the charge was the Beats by Dre brand, which banked nearly two-thirds of the whole shebang.

(Another nod to the history of headphones repeating? Sony's critics didn't think the music-consuming masses would go for a portable cassette player without a "record" button either.)

Though Bose had already charted high-priced headphone territory, its products appealed to either the affluent or the niche audiophile. For years, the listener-at-large remained tone deaf to the premium market. It wasn't until a rap superstar with a Hummer-load of street cred endorsed a pair of the can-style headphones that they were elevated from functional device to fashion statement.

"If you're wearing a pair of Beats, it says, 'Music's really important in my life,'" says Wood. "I've seen people wearing them at parties with hundreds of people, and they've got their Beats around their neck. It's no different than somebody wearing a Run DMC T-shirt and Adidas shoes, or the guy who always wears a Metallica T-shirt."

Right behind Dr. Dre -- and right on cue -- is the usual lot of copycats with their own high-end versions of famously endorsed cans. With help from a report by Fixya on consumer troubleshooting requests, we sort through what's legit and what's a gimmick among the the celebrity headphone market's top performers.

The Best

House of Marley
Shameless exploitation of an artist and activist hero aside -- and never mind the company's namesake isn't alive to actually endorse it -- the eco-friendly options from House of Marley have the highest approval ratings of the celebrity headphone sets.

"As with every product there are going to be some issues, but the quibbles here were fewer and farther in between..." the Fixya report says. The most common complaint was that the earpads weren't comfortable enough for extended use.

Our vote is for the cringing "Liberate yourself from bad sound" company motto. Price: $60-$200.

Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviators by Jay-Z
Not the most obvious name to be attached to a snowboarding/skateboarding brand, but Jay-Z has done Skullcandy (NASDAQ:SKUL) a solid with a "truly splendid headphone that can match up with the best in the market," reports Fixya.

The partnership between Roc Nation and Skullcandy produced a consumer favorite in the Aviators. Unlike many celebrity-pushed competitors, the sets aren't too bass-heavy and are well-suited across a variety of music genres. Price: $150-$180.

The Pretty Decent

Soul by Ludacris
Before Signeo USA's Soul Electronics enlisted certain mixed martial artists and one-hit-wonders as ambassadors, Ludacris was the big name attached to its brand. Fixya lauded Soul by Ludacris for comfort and accessories but found the brand to fall short in one of its biggest selling points: noise-cancelling technology.

Also, unless hip-hop or dubstep is pumping through the cans, users didn't tend to appreciate their bass-favoring sound design. Price: $125-$350.

The Worst:

Beats by Dre
Admittedly, we buried the lead with this late entry.

As it turns out, the father of the celebrity headphone doesn't know best. Beats sets are plagued with uneven sound and buzzing malfunctions and get only "halfway decent" marks in noise cancellation.

Despite disappointed users, this brand continues to dominate in sales. Perhaps the mass market's eye for style is a bit sharper than its ear for quality. Price: $200-380.

SMS Audio 50 by 50 Cent
Fiddy's rapping got him rich and -- considering the gripes from Fixya users -- he needn't keep trying with his electronics company.

"Decidedly worse than Beats by Dre and Soul by Ludacris, the SMS Audio 50 is bursting with uninspiring music quality, overwhelming bass, and various other issues that make the headphone one of the most disappointing amongst celebrity headphones," read the review.

Good thing he can always fall back on da club -- and about a dozen other business ventures. Price: $400.

(Some of) The Rest

AKG's Quincy Jones Signature Line, $90-$200; BiGR Audio Ayo's Bruce Lee Line, $140; JBL's Tim McGraw Line, $80; Koss TBSE1 Tony Bennett Signature Edition, $71; Live Nation KISS Headphones, $200; Monster's Diddybeats by Dr. Dre (in-ear), $50-$100; Monster's Heartbeats by Lady Gaga (in-ear), $50-$90; Monster iSport LiveStrong by Lance Armstrong (in-ear), $180; Parrot ZIK by Philippe Starck, $400; Skullcandy Mix Master, $300-$330; Snooki Couture by Nicole Polizzi, $50; Sol Republic's Lizard King Tracks, $150; and WeSC Chambers by RZA, $170-$275.

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