“So, Mary — what do you want for Christmas?”
My 12-year-old daughter says she wants Beats headphones. I’m not surprised since she’s the go-to girl for our family’s tech headaches. I take a look online and they remind me of a pair I used to have in my roller-skating days: heavy-duty, over-the-ear types, with a thick headband. “How quaint,” I think. But then my eyes scan down to the price: $300.
“Is this really what you want?” I ask. Mary smiles, her eyes full of hope, and head nodding enthusiastically. But I’m still skeptical.
Over Thanksgiving, I run into some friends who tell similar tales. My neighbor’s twins are crazy about them; so are my brother’s boys who, last year, picked up the “Beats or bust” drumbeat, claiming nothing else would do. It seems everywhere I turn the devotion, and high prices, shocks every parent into regularly checking for discounts during the Christmas season.
On the surface, that enthusiasm seems a result of slick marketing, but it’s not just kids buying into it — parents are joining the crowd, as well, entertaining the idea of shelling out several hundred dollars for a pair. What’s the big deal about Beats, anyway?
Sure, headphones have always sold in tandem with mobile devices, but they remained accessories to iPods, laptops and, later, smartphones and tablets. Serviceable earbuds cost less than $20, and for the most part, they worked — and nobody complained.
Then, hip hop artist Dr. Dre, from the seminal 1980s gangsta rap group N.W.A., along with Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records, introduced music enthusiasts to better-quality sound in the form of the fashionable “Beats by Dre” line. As a music-industry insider, Dre’s background and icon status fueled its cool-factor, while his music experience gave substance to the claim to improved sound.
Momentum came in expanding premium headphones beyond the limited audience of audiophiles. Before Beats, a discerning group who dissected bass and treble and compared impedance and decibel levels, bought high-end headphones by makers like Sennheiser, Grado and Beyerdynamic. Meanwhile, the masses used headphones while riding public transportation, or during recreation, and were content with a cheap pair that wasn’t expected to last longer than a couple of months.
When Dre introduced his “Studio” headphones, audiophiles weren’t impressed. It didn’t perform better than top-end products, but that didn’t matter — it was aimed at the regular Joe. Rather than compete on audio, like rivals, Beats differentiated itself by promoting a lifestyle. Savvy marketing played a key role, as Beats was placed in countless music videos, such as Lady Gaga’s hit “Poker Face,” and in the lockers of NFL and NBA influencers. Even Justin Bieber and LeBron James lent their names, giving priceless endorsements for an audience hungry for star-affiliation.
“It didn’t hurt that the slick and glossy Studio struck a chord with young, fashion-conscious buyers,” Steve Guttenburg, wrote at CNET. “The Studio was exactly the right product for its target market.”
Perhaps the greatest innovation of Beats was making headphones as much a fashion accessory as it was a listening device. According to Time, if you wore a pair of Beats, it told the world you understood music, and teens and young adults often dangled them from their necks, like necklaces or scarves.
The gamble struck consumer gold, as Beats hit a vein of untapped sales. According to retail analyst NPD Group, U.S. sales of premium headphones, which cost over $100, increased 73 percent in 2013, from a year ago, far outpacing overall headphone sales. In fact, last year, 43 percent of all headphone sold were premium products, and according to CNET, consumers who buy come back for more, with owners having, on average, more than two pairs.
My daughter is eager to join the legions of loyal Beats fans, but I’m leery of her mindlessly buying into what might be a passing trend. I tell her how advertising works, and give her a lesson in smart consumerism, hoping she’ll develop an identity around doing good in the world. I want her passion and career in life to be her interests, not what she buys.
“Really, Mary — that is an awful lot of money” I say, confident I can talk her down to something very similar, but more budget-friendly. But she pleads. “I know, Mom, but they are the best. Like five girls on the volleyball team already have them.”
I press on.
“Well, look at these,” I say, as I search for headphone on Amazon.com. “They look very similar, but cost much less. How about we pick one of those and you can get some other presents to go along with it?”
“But Mom, I really like just these,” she says.
I realize I’m not making any headway, so I decide to go full-on ultimatum. “Well, if this is all you want, I’ll have to think about it. But it will be the only thing — and I mean only,” I say. “No lip gloss, no gift cards, no cozy socks, nothing else… not even a candy cane.”
I have her, as she pauses for a moment.
“Okay — it’s a deal, because all I want for Christmas is these Beats Studio Headphones.”
Checkmate. But I’m still leery: what message do I send if I cave and get her this over-indulgent gift? What can I do now? Maybe everyone is buying in these days.
The great lure of Beats isn’t its sound quality. While the audio is improved over earbuds, it simply can’t match rivals with products at similar price points. Guttenberg joins audiophiles to echo sentiments that the mediocre Studio is bass-heavy. For a premium product, which, ironically, spearheaded the headphone boom, Beats’ detractors say the headphones suffer from excessive bulk, a tendency to leak sound and heavy power drain. It’s great for television or gaming, but it isn’t a great value.
Beats, of course, isn’t alone in “upscaling” a product in ways beyond better quality. Watches, for example, transformed from a functional tool to a statement accessory. A Timex that costs $50 does just as well to keep time as a Rolex for $5,000. While luxury timepieces use gears, pinions and other complications, for value buyers, quartz works just as well, if not better. And the same can be said for purses, pocket knives and even dolls, such as the American Girl brand.
Beats doesn’t lure teens on quality alone, so the “must have” compulsion comes from good, old-fashioned marketing — it’s all about the brand, which is cannily aimed at a vulnerable yet headstrong age.
Children are bombarded by so much marketing about the importance of identity and image, that brands have altered the way kids connect and interact with each other, and view themselves and the world, according to child psychologist Allen Kanner, author of “Psychology and Consumer Culture.”
Marketing campaigns confuse teens, which have trouble distinguishing what they truly like, and what marketers tell them to want. “It’s the meta-message that you can solve all of life’s problems by purchasing the right products that’s having the most profound effect,” he told the American Psychological Association, and commercials usually encourage the disapproval of anything different, characterizing parental viewpoints as belonging to a “different generation,” and therefore, easily dismissed.
I can understand the feelings Mary is going through. In my teenage years, I thought buying a certain brand of jeans, or make-up, could fast-track me to social acceptance, too. They didn’t, so I can’t shake the feeling that these headphones will send the wrong message — that consumer goods can somehow fill a gap in her life.
I tell her maybe Katy Perry, and the other musicians she listens to, won’t translate into big improvements in the audio experience. But she quickly counters, saying they are vital not just to music, but also to movies she streams on her iPad, and privacy when she FaceTime chats with friends, which worries me on a different level — but that’s another story.
In fact, her argument is a practical reason the market can support $300 headphones for reasons beyond music. The industry skyrocketed not only due to canny marketing and hype, but also from the rise of smartphones and tablets, according to Noel Lee, founder and CEO at Monster Cable, the manufacturing partner of Beats.
Wherever people are, they want to be able to hear music and see films and clips, Lee noted. “A good sound quality is extremely important for enhancing the experience.”
Visual improvements are common in gadgets, and we don’t think twice about paying more for the Retina display of the iPad, or a fine pixel density of a high-definition television. But the pace of audio innovation is slower. As consumers shift from listening to music to watching movies and enjoying interactivity on-the-go, higher-end audio is largely still relegated to the home, in the form of hi-fi speaker systems.
With the exception of premium headphones, the mobile market has seen no further push to audio quality, despite an increasing importance of sound with movies and apps incorporated more than ever into smartphones and tablets.
But Beats is picking up on a desire for our devices to sound as good as they hear. And the company is working hard to keep its market dominance as rivals, like Skullcandy and Soul, sign rappers Jay-Z and Ludacris in a scramble to claim a piece of the expanding premium-headphone pie. Recently, Beats moved into audio systems for cars, and this fall it released a standalone product, dubbed the “Beats Pill,” a Bluetooth enabled wireless speaker, for $200.
The consumer demand of premium audio is only getting bigger. Monster’s Lee, himself a musician, engineer and audiophile, noted that while cooperation with musicians is an effective way to draw attention to products, even wider nets need to be cast. Endorsements that extend beyond the music industry — into fitness and hardcore gaming, for example — are the next frontier to tout headphones and accessories for a specialized experience. Lee expects “the influence of the influencers,” as he calls it, to snowball. After all, we all want to know what our idols use.
Mary’s argument helps me to understand that headphones are more than simply music — they’re technology, fashion and lifestyle rolled into one product. But I’m still on the fence, until my 17-year-old niece Clare says something to me to finally make up my mind.
“All kids want are accessories for their devices,” she told me. “Before, we wanted a DVD player for the car, or a new camera or watch, but now, we have all that in an iPhone. Headphones are just an extension of that desire.”
Clare is right. I bought Mary an iPad last Christmas, and since then, she used the device thoughtful, and carefully, for several activities. She’s already demonstrated that she isn’t merely a mindless consumer, but a conscientious one that gauges her needs to get the full use, and value, from what she already owns. Compared to a $400 iPad, I suppose, a $200 pair of headphones is almost a deal.
I give in, but not completely. With a budget in mind, I look at refurbished Studio headphones. To me, it’s a compromise between what she wants, and will definitely use, and what I want by not fully caving to give her a top-end product.
She’ll fit in on the volleyball bus, but more importantly, hopefully she’ll get the message that she’s better off distinguishing herself by good play on the court, and not the headphones that adorn her neck. Besides, I know this dilemma will repeat. If it’s not Beats this year, it’ll be another hot must-have next Christmas.
I have a young son who is becoming a tween, too — so much to look forward to.
Like most parents browsing gifts, I try to find a delicate balance of keeping a happy holiday spirit, while influencing the decision to help them understand the limits of consumerism. It’s a tough tide to fight against.
Wish me luck. ♦