Step onto a plane these days and you’ll notice something different.
No, not Alec Baldwin pitching a fit over his right to Words With Friends, though you might see that, too.
Headphones have long been a ubiquitous part of flying, whether they are white iPod earbuds or generic on-ear varieties, but more and more, they feature a signature red cord and a small letter “b” on the ear. These are sleek and architectural, and depending on whom you ask, they’re becoming to headphones what iPods are to MP3 players.
Beats by Dre headphones are proliferating. In Pentagon City’s Nordstrom, they’re featured front and center in the men’s department, between expensive Thomas Pink cufflinks and swanky leather iPad cases.
They’re not just about sound. They’re stylish.
It doesn’t hurt that they bear the name of a hip-hop icon, either. In case you forgot about Dre, here’s a refresher: He helped popularize West Coast gangsta rap, especially a sub-genre called G-funk, and was one of the founding members of NWA (Niggaz With Attitude). His 1992 debut solo record, “The Chronic,” is a classic within the hip-hop pantheon. He’s also credited with launching the careers of Eminem and 50 Cent when he signed them to his record label, Aftermath Entertainment. His is the sort of cool that doesn’t fade in the wash.
“What does the man who has everything need?” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group. “I guess this year it’s a set of designer headphones.”
Dr. Dre’s headphones are the only thing 16-year-old Eli Newhouse wants for Christmas. He was eyeing the display at an Alexandria Brookstone while he and his brother were shopping for presents for their parents.
Eli, a student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, loves the deep bass the headphones provide, and how they allow you to become entombed in music. In his case, it’s ’90s rap: Tupac, Biggie, Dre and Eminem.
“When I put them on, I felt like I was in my own little space in the music, which is what all headphones are designed for, but these especially,” Eli said. “It’s just very nice music quality, period.”
The headphones are known for their clear, thumpa thumpa bass — a must-have for hip-hop heads — and how you can turn the volume up to ear-ringing levels without experiencing distortion. It’s like standing in an empty dance club right by the speakers.
It was only a matter of time before someone found a way to combine hip-hop and the headphones used to consume it.
The entire U.S. men’s basketball team arrived in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics with Beats Studio noise-canceling headphones by Monster. LeBron James had gotten them as gifts for his teammates. Between the sound and their distinctive look — the way the phones curl around your neck like a protective necklace — they were a hit.
Beats by Dre — which come in in-ear ($99), on-ear ($179) and noise-canceling ($299) versions — have been on the market for about three years. Celebrity branded and limited-edition versions can drive the price up to $499. According to company spokesman Rick Jennings, 2010 profits were triple those from 2009. Jennings said the company has seen a “strong increase” in this year’s sales numbers as well.
The marketing appears to be working. Retailers haven’t budged from the $299 price for Beats Studio, not even for Black Friday.
So far, Studios have been the most popular iteration, said Carlos Rivas, a sales associate at the Columbia Heights Best Buy.
He noticed older buyers gravitating toward Bose, the audio stalwart that’s been around since 1964. Teens and younger adults in their 20s and 30s were choosing stylized headphones like Skull Candy, Marshall and Urban Ears. But Beats distinguished itself from the pack.
“The designs are very, very cool,” Rivas said. “They’re very modern, very fresh. It doesn’t look like what you would imagine headphones to be, kind of futuristic.”
The success of Beats by Dre seems to have spawned a flurry of artists hawking audio equipment. Ludacris has launched his own brand of headphones, Soul by Ludacris, and 50 Cent has jumped on the action as well with Street (wired) and Sync (wireless) by 50. Maroon 5 is featured in JBL’s new “Hear the Truth” campaign.
Both headphone lines by Ludacris and 50 Cent feature the same streamlined aesthetic, with large over-the-ear cans and similar price points.
But Beats by Dre is still a step ahead: The technology isn’t just restricted to headphones anymore. The company’s first partnership was with Monster Cable, which manufactures the headphones. Now Beats Audio is available in HP computers. The company has a partnership with Chrysler, which put Beats in its 2012 Chrysler 300S. In August, HTC announced that it was investing $300 million in Beats, and last month it released the HTC Rezound, the first stateside smartphone with Beats audio technology.
“It’s not just $300 because it’s cool,” Rivas said. “They have excellent parts and they use high-quality materials.”