Beats: Fighting Against the YouTube Audio Experience

By Gerald Lynch on at

Get on a bus or a tube, walk through a school playground -- if there's a kid there listening to music, chances are it's doing so with a pair of Beats headphones. The chunky red and black cans are as synonymous with modern, youthful music tastes as dubstep or so-called EDM. Audiophiles argue that the Beats sound lacks subtlety. But Beats isn't fighting against studio-grade cans -- Beats's battle is in the trenches, fighting against the shrill sounds of mobile and laptop speakers.

"We talk about a lot of things around music -- we talk about charts, we talk about celebrity, we talk about commerce, we talk about digital distribution, but what we don't talk about enough is sound," said Beats by Dre President Luke Wood at the Beats Sound Symposium event in London today.

"One of the things I've spoken a lot about over the last three years, and what I want people to think about is -- and I've got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this -- is the evolution of digital consumer electronics products. Video has gone from 'SD' to 'HD', TV from 'SD' to 'HD' to 'OLED' to '4K' -- there's an obsessive fetish about video. What's completely forgotten is audio."

Though he's now a senior executive at one of the biggest audio companies in the world (nay, the biggest following the Apple buyout), Wood is genuinely passionate about music, and audio production in general. This is the man who represented alt-legends Sonic Youth and grunge kings Nirvana at Geffen Records, who played guitar in the band Sammy and cult heroes Girls Against Boys. If the bass-heavy Beats sound is one that's at times criticised, Wood's ear and passion can't be.

"As TVs have gotten thinner, the speakers have begun to disappear. You put 18 speakers in a car but the fact they're only providing left and right channels has been ignored. And then there's the laptop as the receiver -- when I was at college on my first day, I set up a Technics receiver and a pair of JBL speakers, with the best cable I could afford, I put the first album on and that was like the clarion call to every girl in the dorm: 'I'm here now, this is who I am in the world'.

"It had to sound great. Nowadays people open up their computer and they stream something off YouTube, and that's the listening experience. We're trying to fight against that."

If you take the company's bottom line out of the equation (the company's financial success, and that of its streaming service, is going to be under even closer scrutiny since partnering with the behemoth Apple), Beats' ultimate goal remains a simple one -- staying true to the recording artist's original intentions.

"When I think about my life around music, I remember sitting around listening to Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground. Technically that's an almost-unlistenable record, some might say. It spoke to me so deeply, I heard every secret in the universe in it.

"These hidden transcripts, these secret messages, the sense of community I was getting -- embedded in that is the production. These are very deliberate things from an artist trying to convey something. If it's distorted, it's distorted for a reason, if there's a lot of bottom end it's saying something, if the vocals are buried it's saying something. That's all in the production of music."

Between Apple's iPhones, iPods and iTunes store, and Beats' dominance in the headphones market and its intentions to crack the world of streaming, one could argue that the pair has the beginnings of a monopoly on music distribution -- from the way it delivers a track to a device to the way that song hits your eardrums. You could also argue therefore that Beats has a responsibility to both musicians and music fans to deliver the best-quality audio from its buds and over-ear headphones that it possibly can -- especially considering in the future it'll likely be Beats headphones packaged in with iPhone and iPods. For many, those packed-in earphones will be all they ever invest in. But Wood's enthusiasm is infectious -- it's easy to trust a man so clearly in love with music to steer Beats along the right aural path.

"It's an emotional experience listening to music -- if the sound is not right, the emotion is not right," says Wood.

"What we want to get back to is how do you let people hear that production so that you hear the meaning of music again."