How Beats maximizes cheap hardware for luxurious profits

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Beats by Dre teardown
This is what the inside of a set of Beats by Dre Solo HDs looks like.
Photo: Bolt. Used by permission.

A teardown of a set of Beats headphones, which sell for hundreds of dollars at retail, revealed that the hardware contains less than $18 in components. And that sounds like the ‘phones are an insane ripoff, but that’s not even the most interesting thing we learned from the examination.

We’re used to hearing about how our expensive gadgets “only cost” whatever amount, but of course you’re not just paying for the parts when you pick something up. That price includes labor and manufacturing, as well as the research that went into designing it and future iterations, post-purchase support, and a bunch of other invisible costs like the non-specific luxury and status values of the product.

Cheap materials aside, Beats contain a bunch of very cool design decisions that also help keep the real costs down for their makers.

The Beats breakdown, which involves a set of Solo HDs that sold for $200 when they launched in 2013, comes courtesy of prototype engineer Avery Louie. It gets pretty deep into exactly how the hardware is designed and built. Here are some of the things we learned about the premium headphones.

Each set contains fewer than 40 components

When you think about deconstructing sophisticated and expensive hardware, you probably expect to end up with hundreds of tiny bits spread out all over your table. Not so with Beats, which contain a relatively modest 37 pieces.

This isn’t incredibly surprising, considering a set of headphones, however “premium,” is typically not going to have all of the chips, batteries, and moving parts of a desktop computer or a smartphone. And the newer Solo 2s and Mixr models almost certainly have a few more bits stashed inside them. But it is strange to see them all spread out and taking up so little space.

Beats Solo HDs
Above: $90 in hardware that you originally could have bought for $1,000.
Photo: Evan Killham/Cult of Mac

Only eight of those components are screws

To save time and money during construction, most of Beats’ parts snap or are glued together. This is a pretty common manufacturing technique, since it’s easier and faster to push pieces together or apply glue than it is to install hardware.

But even Beats couldn’t avoid them entirely, and the designers had to resort to tiny bits of metal to fasten the speaker grills to the ear cups.

Four pieces of metal exist only to make the headphones heavier

This sounds like some shady practice, but Louie says that “a little bit of weight makes the product feel solid, durable, and valuable.” And he’s right; a solid-feeling product is really just something that people like to have. For example, I use a $40 headset for Skype and audio recording, and they feel like they cost $40. They’re light, the moving pieces rattle around, and the part that fits over my head flexes pretty easily even though it’s a single piece of plastic. Despite how useful and long-lived as they actually are — and they’re pretty great, don’t get me wrong — they just don’t give off an air of quality.

Beats are made to project luxury and premium status, so the manufacturers want to make sure that they feel solid and durable. And that’s why almost a third (29.5 percent) of a set of Beats’ weight comes from four pieces of zinc with no other purpose but to add that heft.

These headphones aren’t built or designed differently from any other high-end electronic, but this teardown provides some really interesting insight into what happens before our stuff shows up on shelves or in our mailboxes.