The JBL Synchros S700 ($350) over-ear headphones are a durable, booming, sparklingly clear piece of tech, the flagship model of JBL newest line. They're what you get when you put the sound, rather than the experience of wearing the headphones, first. In other words, this ain't Beats.
First, the sound. The S700s come with LiveStage, Harman's precision-tuned signal-processing technology aimed at making music seem like it's coming from somewhere other than the middle of your head. You'll notice it when the echo of a voice or drum carries off over your left shoulder or the abrupt last note of a song sails off into oblivion in front of you. You'll hear guitars and vocals bouncing off of the walls in the dank basement of the Villa Nellcôte, the French chateau where the Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main St. Fifty millimeter drivers mean the bass on, say, Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle" boom harder than most home speakers. Most importantly, you can hear all of these distinct sonic experiences clearly, without distortion. I've been more successful at permanently damaging my hearing than I've been at getting these phones to distort at high volumes.
Style-wise, these things only look cool if you're into how a jet engine looks head-on (which I kind of am). Feel-wise, the S700s are heavy. That's good news for people like me, who destroy most headphones like its my job—and I swear all I'm doing is occasionally wearing them to jog (don't try this with Synchros) or stuffing them into a backpack. Is that so wrong? But the weight and thick, metal construction could be bad news for someone planning to wear these for more than a couple of hours, say, on a flight. They get heavy. Plus, two words: Ear sweat.
But back to the sound, because that's what Synchros is all about. Harman and its associated brands make a diverse range of audio products. It's slogan is "where sound matters." The company expected to pull in $4.25 billion in 2013, and it invests a significant portion of those revenues into acoustics and audio research. Its R&D lab has arrays of "pneumatic speaker shufflers" that adjust speaker heights to the heads of its trained listeners (it makes the software to train them, too). There are three anechoic chambers at Harman, rooms so quiet that you start to hear the sound of your internal organs and begin hallucinating if you spend more than 45 minutes in there. Harman has built fake ears for in-ear headphone tests and they have a dummy equipped with binaural "hearing" for testing speakers in cars. It's named Sidney, after the company's founder Sidney Harman.
Much of the research is spearheaded by Dr. Sean Olive, Harman's Director of Acoustic Research and past president of the Audio Engineering Society. In recent years, Olive has taken umbrage with the wave of stories claiming young people preferred lower-fidelity sound. He set out to prove that most people did, in fact, care about good sound. So about a year ago, he set up a double-blind study, in which he rigorously cloned a bunch of headphone sounds, including Beats by Dre's high-end model, and ran each sound through a generic over-the-ear headphone for test subjects. In an October 2012 white paper for the Audio Engineering society, titled "The relationship between Perception and Measurement of Headphone Sound Quality," Dr. Olive and Todd Welti of Harman reported that test subjects overwhelmingly preferred headphone sounds that were spread across the audio spectrum, not overly bass-y like Beats or other popular models. (Many critics have speculated that heavy bass is the secret sauce in the rebellious brand identity Beats has created.)
Specifically, Olive found, "There was no evidence that these kids preferred headphones with boomy, bass-heavy sound." His test subjects (trained and untrained listeners alike) ranked Beats last or next to last on a variety of measures associated with the concept of "good." In a scientific setting, kids didn't prefer bad sound.
Synchros is the product of that research and its findings. And the S700 represents this line in the sand drawn by Harman and JBL in the "good enough revolution." Thing is, good enough sells. And in the last few years, particularly in the headphones space, Harman has witnessed an onslaught of competition.
Beats By Dre have found so much success not just because they' re bass-ier than most. The look, feel, visual design, logo, and marketing all unite to create this idea of belonging to a club of hip-hop-loving, creative rebels. The growing line of audio gadgets and services from Beats Electronics are all part of what CEO Jimmy Iovine calls a "complete musical thought." They're lifestyle signifiers—and damn popular ones. Beats owned 64% of the market for headphones costing more than $100 in 2012, according to the NPD group. The company is expected to pull in $1.2 billion in revenue in 2013—after just five years in business. (Harman's been around since 1953.)
But enough about Beats. The JBL Synchros S700 headphones are some of the best headphones you'll buy at this price. They'll last through thick and thin and pump out some of the most lifelike sound you've ever heard, sometimes even making you aware of instruments or melodies in songs you didn't know were there before.
And when someone catches you moving to the music you're blasting, they'll have no idea what kind of music it is. JBL leaves it up to you to share that.