If you had asked me a year ago to review anything from Beats I’d have laughed. But the company has been going through a transition period of late, separating from Monster in January of this year and now it has released its first two post-Monster products. I’ve been testing the Beats Executive over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones to see if they live up to their $300 MSRP. What I’ve found might just surprise you, but only so much.

First let’s talk aesthetics. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Beats look, finding them to be overall too flashy and without the substance to make that excusable. The Executives, fortunately, have been toned down from the typical glossy plastic, instead relying on matte silver finishes for the largely-metal components. The leather-style (yes, that means it’s not leather) ear cups and headband are colored a darker slate. Unfortunately there’s still a huge Beats logo on each ear cup, and an embossed Beats on the top of the headband.

Looks meet function when we talk about how the Executives are packaged. You’ll open a huge box which contains the headphones themselves in a travel case, plus a selection of cords and an adapter to go from stereo mini to 1/4-inch. One of the cords is a straight stereo mini on both ends, but the other includes a microphone and remote to use the Executives with your mobile. Full control is included for iOS devices, and limited controls work for Android or BlackBerry.

The headphones fold flat, and the included case should keep them nicely protected. It’s not a fully-rigid enclosure, but there’s enough stiffness to keep your headphones relatively safe in your bag. Since these are active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones, a pair of AAA-cell batteries finds a home in the left side ear cup. Kudos are due to Beats on its design here, as the cover is magnetic. It’s strong enough to hold up to road abuse, yet easy to take off without worrying about breaking plastic clips. The right side Beats logo functions as an on/off switch for the ANC function, and a power switch on the top of the right ear cup saves battery life.

photo 2 730x547 Beats by Dre Executive Review   The Doctor tries to teach a lesson, but ends up getting schooled

The Executives are a bit large for my taste. They’re considerably larger than the Bose alternative QuietComfort and the ATH-ANC7B from Audio Technica. They’re not quite as huge as offerings from Beyerdynamic or AKG, but when you’re talking about headphones that are designed for travel the size becomes an issue pretty quickly. They’re incredibly comfortable, however, and wearing them for 4-5 hours at a time I never found myself wishing that they were lighter.

Now let’s talk sound, because that’s what really matters, and it’s the part that will (at least in some regards) surprise you. I griped loudly about how Beats tend to over-emphasize the bass frequencies, falsely inflating them to the point where they sound about as high quality as a beat-up car with subwoofers and a rattling license plate. It appears that the method of operation at Beats is changing, because this is the first set of their headphones that I can say manage to avoid the problem.

Yep, you read that right. These don’t sound like your head is in the air chamber of a bandpass box. It’s about freaking time.

Unfortunately that’s where the compliments stop. Instead of pounding bass, the equalizer (EQ) curve appears to be a steadily climbing line toward the higher frequencies. In fact, the upper end of what would normally be considered a EQ curve is so emphasized that it literally hurts. At anything other than somewhat low volumes, the Executives absolutely will give you ear fatigue with a quickness. Instead of hours, I found myself literally breathing a sigh of relief when removing the Beats after 5 songs.

photo 41 730x547 Beats by Dre Executive Review   The Doctor tries to teach a lesson, but ends up getting schooled

The noise cancelling is fair at best. It tends to do an admirable job of blocking out low end frequencies such as jet engine rumble but I could still make out every word of a Skype chat that my wife was having across the room. On top of that, requiring the headphones to have batteries to even function is disingenuous. If your batteries die mid-flight you’re screwed. Hope you packed a set of ear buds.

Now for the proverbial nail in the coffin. The first set that was sent to me had a strange problem. There’s a bit of a suction created between the ear cup and your ear. This is natural for well-fitting headphones. But every time that I’d break that suction on the left ear cup I’d hear a very loud “pop”, quite like the membrane on the driver getting pulled out of position. When this pop happened, volume level went down dramatically. If I’d push the ear cup back, the pop would happen again and the sound would return to normal.

I thought that I might have just had a lemon, so I contacted the agency to provide me another set. Unfortunately this appears to be an ongoing issue because the exact same problem can be replicated by the second pair. For a $300 set of headphones it’s positively inexcusable.

For my money, I’d take a set of great-sounding over-the-ear headphones any day. The V-Moda Crossfades are one of my current favorites, but traditional options from Sennheiser, AKG and even AiAiAi will leave you very happy. If you’re going to pay $300, get a set of headphones that are worth the money. This time around, the Doctor needs to go back to class.