Just because you're sat in the boardroom battling to win the big Henderson account doesn't mean you can't wear big, boisterous headphones. The Beats Executive aim to please the jet-set business crowd with noise-cancellation tech, while maintaining the ostentatious style and sound that's made the brand popular. At £270 they're the opposite of cheap however, so are they worth considering?
Style and features
The Executives are recognisably Beats cans, as the gigantic lowercase 'b' on the sides will testify. The construction is weighty, solid, and involves dollops of aluminium and stainless steel. 'Classy' might be a bridge too far, but these are some good-looking headphones that feel well put-together.
That's on the outside at least. I noticed that I couldn't get the right sound levels out of the right earcup unless I pressed the speaker toward my head for a moment. Doing so did fix the sound, but I had to do this a few times during my testing. That could be an isolated problem with my review unit, but doesn't make me feel immensely positive about the build quality of the Executives' insides.
There's a hinge above each earcup, which lets you fold the Executives up to a more portable size. Atop the right cup is a power switch that turns on the noise-cancelling tech (more on that below), while the 'b' on the left side conceals a magnetically attached battery compartment. To power these metallic monsters you'll need two AAA batteries.
If you press the 'b' on the right earcup it kills the sound -- for as long as you keep the button depressed -- but doesn't pause your music. Presumably this is a feature for listening in on train, plane or airport tannoy announcements for a few seconds at a time.
In the box you get two bright-red cables, one of which has a microphone-remote to control music playback or take calls on your iPhone. Android phone owners may find their luck varies -- on the Nexus 4 for example I was able to use the built-in microphone and press the central button to play and pause music, but the volume keys didn't work.
You also get a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor, and an airplane jack as well -- a nod to the Executives' business-class ethos. A carry case completes the list of in-the-box goodies.
The Executives are comfortable to wear -- a pleasant surprise considering the Beats Pro over-ear cans were not at all comfortable, crushing your ears in a way that rapidly becomes intolerable. By contrast these cans feel soft around your lugs, while being secure enough that you'd have to really shake your head to dislodge them. Each earcup can be extended by about two centimetres if you feel the need to adjust them.
Unfortunately it's the Executives' headline feature that lets them down, for two reasons.
Firstly, these headphones don't work at all unless you have the noise cancellation turned on, which feels like a bizarre choice, as you won't always be on a plane or in a location where you really need those sound-suppression features. Unless you have batteries installed and the switch turned to the 'on' position, you won't get any sound through these cans, and if you accidentally leave them switched on for a few days as I did, expect to find the batteries sucked dry.
That means if you run out of batteries then you're out of luck, so if you do opt for these headphones be sure to carry a couple of spares. The problem is compounded by the second problem with these monolithic noisemakers -- an audible hiss.
If you've got the headphones switched on but no music playing, the hissing sound of white noise is extremely obvious, and very distracting. You'll notice it most during song intros and fade-outs, when the music you were enjoying is gradually replaced by disorienting sound-cancelling buzz. If you're listening to music at a low volume that hiss will remain audible below your tunes, like a snake lurking underneath your chair.
In the Executives' defence, they do a pretty good job of cancelling out noise, and even with music at a low volume I struggled to make out conversation among my nearby CNET colleagues. Unfortunately that prominent hiss also cancelled out any desire to pay £270 for these headphones.
Instead sound is boisterous with plenty of low-end kick, and works best with hip-hop and rock music. Public Enemy's Harder Than You Think comes through with a bassy punch, with the piercing horns still audible at the high-end of the sonic mix. Foo Fighters' All My Life meanwhile sounds suitably chaotic, though you won't lose track of minor details like cymbal hits, or the buzzing distortion subtly layered over the vocals.
You should always take care not to do your ears a mischief when listening to loud music through headphones, but I can't deny that the Executives' performance at high volumes is a redeeming factor, with even raucous tunes sounding very balanced with the volume cranked up. If you do dial the noise levels too high you'll find sound leaking out however, potentially earning you an annoyed glance from colleagues or fellow commuters.
Choose some less-than-subtle music, and it's possible to have a great time rocking out with these noisy cans. That just makes it more of a shame that the noise-cancelling feature is non-optional -- ideally I'd like to bypass the sound suppression tech and its accompanying hiss, and enjoy these headphones in their raw state.
If you can tolerate the ever-present hiss and the fact that you'll need to keep feeding them batteries, you may learn to love the Executives' larger-than-life sound. That's a big ask though, and for £270 you shouldn't have to compromise. You'd be better off taking a look at the Sennheiser Momentum, or shopping around for noise-cancelling headphones with better sound-eliminating technology.