Beats Solo3 'Decade Collection' Bluetooth Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jun 4, 2018.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Youtube review:

    Photos:
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/iPhone7p/Headphone_Beats_Solo3_Decade_01.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Beats_Solo3_Decade.jpg

    Sources: iPhone7+ with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC/amps, various computers using the AudioQuest DragonFly Red/Lehmann Traveller DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the Beats Solo_3 headphone (Solo_3 hereafter) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly those that resemble its design (On-ear Closed-back Bluetooth), but also to a few premium headphones for reference. I'll describe how I relate to the Solo_3 (i.e., my objectives and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the technical issues. Note that my comparisons are not to suit "personal taste", but rather to compare the headphone sound to the sound of live acoustic music.

    The Solo_3 bass resembles the Beats Studio3 bass pretty closely (moderate emphasis), but then things get really different. The Studio3 has an equal-sized recess in the mid-treble, and combined with the bass emphasis, the overall effect is a muffled sound. The Solo_3 on the other hand has some emphasis through most of the treble, and the overall effect there is a "v-shaped" sound. The upper treble for these headphones is the opposite of that, where the Studio3 has a significant emphasis from 7 khz up, the Solo_3 has a recess from 8 khz up. Generally, I prefer the so-called "v-shaped" sound, since the simplest EQ to apply would be a modest boost somewhere in the midrange, whereas the Studio3 would require treatment on both ends to obtain a more hi-fi type of sound. The good news is that Apple's quality control in manufacturing these headphones means the drivers are good quality and closely matched, so they will tolerate EQ's and other tweaks pretty well.

    This "Decade Collection" version of the Solo_3 should be no more than a cosmetic variation of the other Solo_3's, which were released in late 2016. The Studio3 headphones were released in late 2017 and may have an improved Bluetooth codec, or maybe not. The Bluetooth experience I've had with the Studio3 seems the same as I've had with the Solo_3 this past week, so whether the Solo_3's Bluetooth codec is the same as the late 2016 version or has improved since, I don't know. Both the Studio3 and Solo_3 come with a cable for wired use, but whereas the Studio3 electronics always turn ON when the cable is plugged in, the Solo_3 electronics remain off. In the case of the Studio3, I'd plug in the cable and then turn the Noise Canceling off, and that seemed to work the same as a passive mode connection in spite of the electronics being ON. With the Solo_3, it's a moot point. In any case, for mobile listening, the Bluetooth sound should be more than satisfactory.

    NOTE: I don't find a significant difference in the sound signature of the Beats Solo_3 'Decade' version whether listening with Bluetooth ON, or plugged into the music player with the included cable.

    The Solo_3's isolation is pretty good for an on-ear headphone, albeit not nearly as good as having Noise Canceling (which it doesn't). Leakage is fairly low, but playing loud music in a quiet office or library won't be feasible when sitting right next to another person. The Solo_3's earpads are soft and squishy, and covered with a good grade of plastic that should hold up well. The clamping force is just enough to keep the Solo_3 stable when walking around, but if it becomes uncomfortable or pinches the ears, just grasp the earcups and pull them out slightly to allow the ears to "settle" under the earpads, and that works well for me. The headband has a thin rubberized padding, but the headphone isn't heavy so there's probably no worry there. The adjustment range is 19/16 inches on each side, but since my head fits near the smallest setting, I'd say that the Solo_3 is designed for heads ranging from large to slightly less than average. The earcups don't swivel, but there's enough flexibility for most users.

    LAST WORD: I really like the Beats Solo_3 because: 1) The EQ'd sound and soundstage are good. 2) The functionality seems very reliable. 3) I can wear the Solo_3 around my neck all day when not listening with no bother of any kind. 4) It looks pretty good if you like red and black. 5) It folds up into a smallish (but very soft) clamshell zippered case that's provided with the headphone. CAVEAT: Apple has maintained (as of this past week) the original prices on their Solo_3 headphones, in spite of heavy discounting at most other retailers. Since the Solo_3 "Decade Collection" edition is new, I can't guess how they'll be priced across the market.

    In previous reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the Solo_3 compares with each individual track. These tracks were evaluated using the EQ settings linked above or found on my website. Note that this EQ is not to "personal taste", but rather to approximate the headphone sound to the sound of live acoustic music.
     
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2018
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has good detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Solo_3 plays this pretty well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled well by the Solo_3.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel some of the weight they carry with the Solo_3.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The Solo_3 plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the Solo_3.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The Solo_3 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are bright, crisp, and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The Solo_3 reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the Solo_3 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Solo_3 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Solo_3 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Solo_3 plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have a taste of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a minimally effective deep-bass response. Overall, the Solo_3 plays this music very well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The Solo_3 plays this track extremely well.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce just OK with the Solo_3. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The Solo_3 provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Solo_3 plays those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The Solo_3 plays this with enough weight and detail that you can hear/feel some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2018, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the Solo_3 is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle but firm with the Solo_3.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the Solo_3 renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Solo_3's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is lighter than ideal.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The Solo_3 conveys that drama quite well. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the Solo_3 renders the tones and transients extremely well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The Solo_3's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The Solo_3 delivers the impacts with decent weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.
     
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    This is a good point at which to interject some observations on the actual and potential tonal quality of this headphone versus others. I've been an advocate of saving money by "buying low and EQ'ing up" (or modifying headphones) to get better sound for the money, for about 5 years now.

    If you check my recent review of the AudioQuest NightOwl here, you'll see where I mention a couple of music tracks that are good tests for accurate tonality, where the NightOwl was fairly accurate in reproducing a tambourine and some wooden blocks, and this headphone not so accurate. I hold out the possibility that with better EQ (more sliders, more time working on the curve), those weak areas of the Solo3 could be improved even more than what I achieved so far. But my gut instinct says no, because I think the Solo3 is already at its resolution limit.

    Looking at things from the other end, the NightOwl has a strong and narrow emphasis just shy of 4 khz and a deep recess just below 2.5 khz, which makes certain voices shrieky or harsh due to the combination of those effects. Recordings can contribute to that, but the NightOwl exacerbates the problem. Most NightOwl customers who use little or no EQ will probably not be bothered by it because of the NightOwl's overall recess in the mid-treble. My EQ leaves 3 sliders unused now, so fixing the problem should be a simple matter of adding more sliders with high 'Q' (narrow bandwidth) values to use in those areas. So far, I haven't been successful due to the new sliders' influence on their adjacent frequencies, despite the narrow bandwidths.

    So as of now, the Solo3 is giving me a smoother sound in the upper mids to the low-mid treble, but lacks resolution compared to the NightOwl. And that to me is the way things usually go in the world of budget hi-fi.
     
  4. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Last night, after 22 days using this Beats Solo3 Bluetooth On-Ear headphone, the original factory charge finally ran out and so I recharged it. I averaged at least 2 hours per day listening in Bluetooth mode for the past two weeks, and 4 hours/day or better the first week, while listening and running tests. That amounts to about 60 hours by my estimate, whereas the Solo3 is rated for 40 hours runtime per charge. This battery performance adds to my other impressions of quality for this headphone. But I must reiterate that this Solo3 was purchased at an Apple Store, whereas many if not most of the Beats reviews seen on Amazon U.S. and U.K. are from customers who purchased clones from non-authorized sources.
     
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