Beats and Apple: A match made at inception?

 

Beats by Dre, the headphones brand that has become a luxury accessory and status symbol, is reportedly in line to be purchased by Apple.

The match could make hip hop musician and producer-turned-businessman Dr. Dre into a (maybe) billionaire, as model and actor Tyrese Gibson triumphantly declared to the world.

It  would also mean the seemingly inevitable merging of a powerhouse technological and cultural brand with Apple, a company that has itself transformed the music industry.

Among other things, the two companies share a cult-like following and cultural cache that has allowed their brands to defy the economics of consumer technology.

While advancements in technology and fabrication allow their competitors to lower prices and appeal to the masses, both Apple and Beats thrive in the space occupied by consumers willing to pay $300 for a pair of headphones, or $2,000 for a laptop. (Apple already sells Beats headphones online and in its stores so there is clearly an overlap in their customer base.)

By now, most people have seen LeBron James, Lil Wayne and controversial Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman sporting the headphones.

Bright red earmuff-style headphones began as a defiantly urban statement, but like sneakerheads, speakerheads have gone mainstream, as my colleague J. Freedom du Lac wrote in ESPN Magazine last year:

Beats by Dre are ubiquitous, which surprises even the Doctor himself. “We were just trying to uplift sound and change the way people listen to music,” says Dre, the rap icon who started Beats with music mogul Jimmy Iovine. “Our thing was to make music sound the way we hear it in the studio. We had no idea this was going to happen.”

Has he seen the Internet photo of the guy who’d shaved his head and left a hair-on-scalp b-branded headphone above his ear? He has. He chuckles. “That’s crazy,” Dre says. “That means something.” It means that Beats has gone from zero to full-blown cultural phenomenon in less than five years.

But it isn’t just that Apple wants to make sure it’s on a train as it is speeding out of the station. Beats by Dre, from its inception, was inspired by part of Apple’s core identity as a company — that function should not outweigh design.

Robert Brunner, Apple’s first design chief, who also designed the Beats studio line, described the concept this way:

When we started Beats there was this belief that there was this generation lost to sound. That they grew up listening to compressed audio through cheap white earbuds. They weren’t really getting the full appreciation of the spectrum of sound that a song should encompass. …

Technology tends to be pervasive so any lead you have there is short-lived. What’s become important, or understood to be important, is how thats delivered to people and how they can use it and how they relate to it. What that has done is sort of put the designer in the drivers seat…Technology makes it work, but its the experience that makes it valuable.

If that sounds like a dig at Apple’s signature “cheap white earbuds,” that’s probably because it is.

Apple upgraded its headphones over the course of several generations of the iPod then the iPhone, improving both quality, design and comfort. But after transforming digital music with the iPod and iTunes store, Apple appears to be acquiring through Beats the next inevitable step in that process of giving consumers the higher quality sound delivery that they expect.

Unlike Apple, which is known for insisting on perfection in its products before they reach the mass market, Beats by Dre headphones are not even close to being universally praised for quality.

For its price range, reviewers have often been savage in their criticism of the brand’s weaknesses — the principal complaint seems to be that bass is generally exaggerated. And it was released before they had worked out kinks in the sound quality according to Gizmodo:

The Dr. Dre task force took Monster’s audio gear and pimped it, tirelessly, as a gadget status symbol without rival. That was the plan—period. Marketing, Iovine told Kevin Lee, would take too long. Education would take too long. Instead, the strategy was to enchant the public: Beats would be “the hottest product to have, and sound will be a Trojan horse. And that’s what we did. Beats was in every single music video,” says Kevin. Iovine made sure Beats had prominent placement across Interscope’s sterling roster, infiltrating the money and product lust-addled brains of video-watching America.

Does that matter to Apple? Perhaps. But it hasn’t seemed to matter much to consumers.

Beats by Dre has dominated the high-end headphones markets since its debut in 2008. In 2012, two of every three pairs of premium headphones belonged to the brand. The fashion world has also taken notice — last year, designer Alexander Wang debuted a lavish variation of the devices.

Similarly, it’s arguably possible to get more performance bang for your buck from a $1,000 PC than from a similarly-priced Apple computer, but the brand has thrived by creating loyal customers who value ease of use and the expectation of excellence (which has sometimes come back to haunt) around its products’ design, simplicity and function.

Not surprisingly, some are not so sure the Beats/Apple match makes sense at all. Others question whether the critics of the acquisition are conveying racially-tinged biases against a brand that is perceived as targeting a different (read: urban) demographic compared with Apple products. At worst, the response can be seen in the comment gutters of YouTube, which are rife with outright racist commentary in response to Gibson’s video celebration of the deal.

In the end, no one knows exactly how Apple plans to use this reported acquisition, but it is a move that, at the very least, could help the brand keep its cool factor through the acquisition of an ascendant brand.

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Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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