If you watched Lemonade, you saw them: the retro-gorgeous headphones Beyoncé wears during “Sandcastles.” Those headphones, called Pryma, weren’t just a product placement, their chief designer told me. Though Pryma did make a deal with Tidal, and did give free headphones to Jay Z and Beyoncé’s staff, the decision to wear them in the video was Beyoncé’s alone, I’m told. She just happened upon them and liked the look.
Beyoncé has a better wardrobe than I do, I remember as I slide World of McIntosh’s Pryma headphones ($499) onto my head and start to leave the office. The headphones look great — and the rest of me looks like the American outdoors store REI barfed on a pair of Levi’s. I rock a much-bedraggled tote bag, whereas these headphones would look excellent with an Hermés bag, something I had never previously contemplated purchasing.
Consider: the headband is Italian leather, and I'm told it's made from the same source as Bottega Veneta. The cans themselves are lovely, with a retro look and gold plating. And I am about to take them for a ride on the Bay Area’s BART system, probably better known for poop escalators and general microbial diversity than for style. While wearing my beat-to-hell street clothes. I can't help but feel like the headphones deserve better.
This isn’t just limited to when I take the Pryma headphones on their maiden voyage. A few weeks later, as I’m getting ready to go to a friend’s birthday party, I feel the headphones staring at me so intensely — you’re going to wear that? — that I change out of my battered jeans and T-shirt and into leggings and a gray tank top. It’s minimalist, I inform the headphones, which seem skeptical about my new choices, but less skeptical than they were about the old ones. The headphones think I would look better if I put some makeup on; I capitulate and put on mascara.
I understand it’s a little weird to talk about the sartorial effects of headphones — don’t worry, I’m going to get to sound in a moment — but that’s because chief designer Livio Cucuzza deliberately made sure to treat them as a fashion item. "We designed like a fashion accessory, more than a technological headphone," he tells me. That’s what inspired the headphones’ gorgeous snap design. To a certain flavor of audiophile, the buckles might feel kitschy or unnecessary — but for a clotheshorse who wants to look unique, they offer the opportunity to replace the standard model with limited-run headbands. It’s ingenious: everyone wears headphones, so if you want to show off, you can take something that’s a utility and make it a fashion statement. We do this all the time, of course, or else high-heeled shoes wouldn’t exist.
And unlike a lot of headphone manufacturers, Cucuzza says Pryma’s makers are also aiming at women; that’s why part of the emphasis for the design is in considering headphones the same way one considers accessories for bags or belts. "We know our customer — one who buys Italian fashion goods like bags or belts, every kind of luxury good," Cucuzza says. "The materials have the same standards of the best Italian goods."
In this sense, the Pryma headphones are the logical conclusion of what started with Beats: considering one’s headphones part of the outfit. Beats, which was acquired by Apple, were (and still are) headphones people wore even when they weren’t listening to music. But their materials, though brightly colored and in varying designs, were cheap, creaky plastic. Cucuzza spent a great deal of time talking to me about his visions for Pryma: collaborating with major fashion brands to create unique, limited-run headphone bands.
The guts of the thing are built by Sonus faber, an Italian company best known for its tower speakers. ("Sonus faber" is Latin; it translates, roughly, to "sound maker," though Latin has a smaller vocabulary than English and for this reason "faber" can also mean "artisan," "smith," or "creator.") The cord situation is old-school; not only does it plug into both headphones, with a red stripe to indicate which one is right, it also comes with two adapters, a 6.35mm and a 2.5mm, just in case I want to listen to music from something other than my phone. The Sonus faber components are probably why the headphones sound as good as they look; in fact, I was tempted into checking out adding their speakers to my at-home system until the prices dissuaded me.
Amusingly, one of the reasons I’ve stuck with in-ear buds is fashion. No, hear me out: headphone bands can really do a number on my hair. And I value portability in headphones — my earbuds can be easily wadded up and shoved in a pocket if I don’t feel like carrying a bag. But the Pryma headphones aren’t as much of a hit to my dirtbag-on-the-go style as I worried they’d be. Though they come with two cases — a bag for the headset and a bag for the detachable cable, which is about four inches longer than it needs to be — I usually just wear them around my neck. This means a lot more conversations; for instance, it turns out the guy I buy avocados from at the farmers’ market is an audiophile. (He loved both the headphones’ style and sound; he was somewhat taken aback at the price.)
As for my hair, the pressure from the Prymas' leather band is pretty light, possibly because I’m wearing the buckles on the third setting. (My editor inquired if there was pressure buildup at the top of the band; I was unaware this was even a consideration, as I never felt one.) The light clamping force means my hair isn’t getting screwed up. The earcups stay firmly, comfortably, over my ears. I can still hear street noise — I consider this a plus, as hearing a car coming when you cross the street is kind of important — but it’s distant. There isn’t much spill-over, either; I can go from Tegan and Sara to Megadeth without anyone being the wiser.
Every pair of Pryma headphones comes with a free three-month trial of Tidal, the music service owned in part by Beyoncé and Jay Z, her husband and muse. (Other owners include Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Jack White, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Usher.) But the headphones’ inclusion in Lemonade wasn’t product placement, Cucuzza insists. "It was totally unexpected for us," he says. "Very lucky."
For the several weeks I’ve had the headphones, my slight hesitation to leave the house with them never quite evaporated. I dress like a slob, and the headphones are gorgeous. But they sound so good that I can’t really stand to leave them at home, either. The sound is like listening to speakers — way better than the pedestrian Bose SoundSport in-ears I usually use. And that makes a difference on big, cinematic songs like the title track of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. On these headphones, it’s spacious, sprawling, and delightful. In fact, it’s almost impossible to listen to the album, especially songs like "Hit It and Quit It," without dancing down the street. Emmylou Harris’ version of "Pancho and Lefty," streamed on Spotify and heard through these headphones, sounds nearly as good as it does when I play the vinyl record through my speakers.
Okay, but how does Beyoncé sound? Turns out the Pryma cans are especially kind to vocalists. On "Pray You Catch Me," I can hear what sounds like Beyoncé’s movement relative to the microphone (though of course this could have been achieved in post-production). Pryma gives her room to expand, which is perfect for Lemonade — you can hear each rasp in "Hold Up," and "Six Inch" just bangs. I find myself hearing details in the songs my earbuds had obscured — a soft staccato tapping in the chorus of "Hold Up," what sounds like drumsticks on tin cans at the end of "Sorry," and gentle inhalations on "Love Drought."
Usually headphones privilege certain sounds or genres. But I can’t find a pattern for what will sound good with these. Some albums, like Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen sound oddly flat — the crisply articulated highs and lows I heard in Lemonade are absent here. John Prine and Rihanna, on the other hand, sound damn near perfect. The treble on Mastodon’s Once More ’Round the Sun is curiously muffled; the effect is almost of hearing the record from another room. Something similar happens with Iron Maiden — but Metallica’s black album sounds as sharp as it does on speakers. Anderson Paak’s "Milk and Honey" is bright and clear; Tupac’s "California Love" is muted.
These differences are especially pronounced between some of the songs Beyoncé samples and her recordings. For instance, Beyoncé’s "Freedom" is triumphant, with a broad dynamic range; Kaleidoscope’s "Let Me Try" — a song sampled in "Freedom" — is flat, without affecting highs and lows. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s "Spottie" also sounds faraway, but the horns are immediate and lovely on Outkast’s expansive "SpottieOttieDopalicious." The same horns are practically demure on Beyoncé’s "All Night Long," though they do sound sharper there than in "Spottie," for some reason. This isn’t the case for all the old tracks, though — "When the Levee Breaks," sampled on "Don’t Hurt Yourself," sounds so good I almost forget I don’t like Led Zeppelin. Something is going on with the mixing, but I couldn’t tell you what.
I had originally written here that I hated to send the Pryma headphones back. In fact, I think I will find it a relief. I buy $5 gas station aviators instead of Ray Bans because I know the longest I’ve ever gone without sitting on or losing a pair of sunglasses is six months. I have ruinously stained more white shirts than I can count; I now wear gray tank tops instead because at least the gray offers some camouflage. My ripped-up tote bag replaced a Longchamps Le Pliage, which is now hideously discolored from all the times I’ve dropped it on a floor so I could dance. The last silk dress I bought? I shredded that at a wedding by fooling around with a groomsman in some tall grass, which apparently contained burrs. I know perfectly well how I behave. It is why I don’t buy nice things.
Because I buy only things I am comfortable subjecting to my own personal destruction derby, I mostly don’t experience lifestyle creep. Using the Pryma headphones was like buying a new couch and then realizing that it was too nice for the room; the rest of the furniture would need an upgrade as well. Sure, I was better-dressed and more put-together for a few weeks — but I doubt the headphones’ uncanny habit of talking to me would have stopped with my outfits. Probably they’d eventually want to know why I was still using an iPhone 5; shouldn’t I at least buy a new case? Or, better yet, a new phone? My studio apartment is cramped; surely, I could afford a one-bedroom. That tote bag — well, what about an Hermés?
No, better to send these headphones back to World of McIntosh. I doubt the folks there would take very kindly to me telling them I’d dropped my precious in a volcano in a bid to save my sanity — or, worse, entirely by accident. I’ll box them back up, I swear. I’m just going to listen to "Sandcastles" one more time first.