Who, What, Why: What is the attraction of Beats headphones?

Beats by Dr Dre headphones Image copyright Alamy

Apple is said to be in talks to buy headphone-maker Beats. What is the attraction of their £250 ($422) cans?

It would be a bold deal - Apple's biggest ever purchase. If media reports are correct, Apple is set to pay as much as $3.2bn (£1.9bn) next week to buy headphone and music streaming firm Beats.

Beats is best known for its big, brash, brightly coloured headphones. That lower case B - marked on each "can" - is worn with studied nonchalance by NBA basketball players, Premier League footballers and affluent young commuters. And sometimes even a middle aged spin doctor arriving at Downing Street.

They are lightweight and easy to wear. One of the company's founders - legendary hip hop producer Dr Dre - imbues them with automatic street cred. But the image comes at a price - a wireless pair is £250. The full collection on Beats' website ranges from £170 to £390. They have a bass-heavy sound popular with fans of RnB and hip hop.

"But the real audio cognoscenti wouldn't touch them with a barge pole," says technology blogger Tom Cheesewright. "Ultimately they're a fashion brand."

It can be hard for a technology company to become cool, he says. Beats' cunning idea is in taking a "fashion first" approach backed by music industry kudos, then adding technology.

Apple has always had a problem with sound quality, says Jonathan Margolis, technology expert for the Financial Times. And yet Beats is a surprising choice. "Beats is a brilliant marketing trick," he says. You can buy better quality sound for £100 less, he argues. To traditional Apple fans, "Bose and Harman Kardon would have been far less off-putting".

That could be deliberate, he concedes. Ride the New York subway and it seems nearly every black and Hispanic male is wearing Beats or imitations. Apple will reach a new demographic other than its white, hipster, arty, media crowd.

Then there's the streaming service, Beats Music. As an approving NPR blogger wrote, the system showed "that music is not a product, but a process grounded in the human impulse to connect". This service rather than a pair of street-savvy cans might be the real prize.

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