To understand what Beats Audio does — or what its maker claims it does — you first have to know a little bit about the science of recording and reproducing sound.
Whether you’re a fan of Gotye or Beyoncé, the music you enjoy goes through a complex, at times convoluted route from the recording studio to your ears. When you’re listening to, say, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” what you’re actually hearing is a bunch of different sounds — the singers’ voices, the bass line, the drums, a synthesizer mimicking the sound of a string section — that are vibrations of molecules in the air at different frequencies. Those frequencies are picked up by your eardrums and other structures in your ear, which are capable of detecting frequencies from just 20 Hz (20 vibrations per second) all the way up to 20,000 Hz, and noticing and analyzing tiny shifts in frequency, intensity, duration and direction. They also can differentiate between parts of complex sounds such as a guitar chord. With that sort of sophisticated gadgetry connected to your brain, it’s no wonder that we tend to be picky in our musical tastes
But it gets trickier. Remember that when you listen to a song, you’re not actually hearing the singer or the backup musicians, but rather a digital reproduction of them. It’s not an exact copy, or really even close to it. In the studio, a producer digitally records the various players, converting their sounds into a mess of ones and zeros, and then blends them together, using record-producing software such as Pro Tools. Along the way, he actually alters the sound of the song — sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically — by using electronic filters to boost some frequencies and suppress others, until he gets something that he thinks sounds good enough to rock the socks off music lovers. He may strengthen the bass, for example, or accentuate or dampen certain frequencies in a singer’s voice, to make her sound smoother. The process of tinkering with frequencies to get a more pleasing combination is called equalization. The resulting digital collage is then compressed to create the MP3 file that you download.
But that’s just part of the aural journey of a song. It goes through other filters, including your headphones and your computer sound card and speakers, and they act as equalizers, too.
Basically, as the digital version of a song is translated back into physical vibrations by the speakers in your computer or your headphones, Beats Audio again tinkers with the frequencies, altering them in a way that’s supposed to sound good to your ears. How exactly Beats headphones do that isn’t easy to discern, since the Beats Electronics Web site is slim on technical info, and there isn’t much in the five U.S. patents that the company owns, all of them actually created by Silicon Valley-based industrial designer Robert Brunner and colleagues. The features cited in the filings are mostly “ornamental” flourishes, and there’s little explanation of what would make them produce a more accurate sound .
We do know that Dre and Iovine reportedly spent two years trying different headset prototypes with their own finely-tuned ears until they found a design that, in their judgment, offered the best sound. They also had various music stars — Jay Z., Mary J. Blige, and Bono and The Edge from U2, among others — try out the headphones to confirm their verdict. “There is no benchmark reference for what absolute perfect sound is,” Kevin Lee of Monster Cable, an audio company that partnered with Beats from 2008 through 2012, told USA Today. “That’s where Dr. Dre comes in. We probably ran about 150 prototypes before we got it just right”
The Beats Audio technology in computers and phones is a bit less of a mystery. HP, which uses it in laptops, was kind enough to post a YouTube video that details its distinctive performance-related design features. The latter includes a redesigned headphone jack that’s been grounded to reduce distortion, and a more powerful amplifier with better stereo separation. Also, the audio components on the computer’s system board are isolated, away from other parts that might mess with the signals. But the key feature seems to be something called the “Beats Audio profile,” which audiophile critics say is a fancy name for the equalizer setting, or EQ, on the computer’s software operating system.
What that means, basically, is that when the computer plays a song — specifically, the sort of a bass-heavy hip-hop music that Dre produces — its software automatically jumps in and tweaks the frequencies a little more, for your benefit.