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The engineers who worked on the original iPhones must have gotten tired of hearing how bad the little white earbuds that shipped with their product sounded. Why would a company helmed by a professed audiophile like Steve Jobs allow that to happen?

Of course, they eventually improved the headphones with the EarPods that shipped with the iPhone 5.

But Apple may be headed into the same kind of conundrum with Beats headphones. If you ask people who know what good headphones sound like, most will tell you that Beats headphones are mediocre at best — heavy on design, heavy on low-end bass, and heavy on price. The last Beats product I reviewed, the large over-ear Studios and the in-ear Tours, both sounded boomy and flat.

I’m in good company here. Whole websites have sprung up to decry the lacking quality in Beats phones, while audiophiles talk lengthily on forum groups about ways Beats could improve its product.

Beats announced today one last headphones release before the company becomes part of Apple. The new ‘phones are an upgrade to the popular “Solo” line, of which four were sold every minute around the world last year. The Solo 2 units, Beats says, feature a new design, wider range of sound, and enhanced clarity. It’s that last thing, clarity, that I’ve found lacking in previous Beats phones.

The new Solo 2s will also be the last designed by Beats’ long-time design house, Ammunition. Ammunition CEO Robert Brunner said in a blog post shortly after the Beats/Apple deal was officially announced yesterday that his company would no longer be in the mix. The future design of Beats headphones will roll over to Jony Ives’ team at Apple.

But that’s just the outside of the phones. In some nondescript building in an office park somewhere in Cupertino, a group of audio engineers is sitting around talking about the future of the audio guts of the Beats headphones — about the quality of the speaker cones, magnets, and audio chips inside them. The question is whether or not that engineering group will be allowed to reinvent the insides of the Beats Audio products. Only Apple and Beats know that.

Today, the real value in Beats headphones — the reason millions whipped out the card and paid the premium price — is in the brand names. Not the Beats brand name, but the Dre, Iovine, and Reznor brand names. I’d wager that most consumers didn’t read those names as an assurance that the phones would sound good, but rather that they would deliver some street cred.

It will be truly sad if the Beats acquisition signals the beginning of an Apple that markets products that look cool but don’t perform especially well and that have prices based mainly on the accumulated value of that Apple logo on the front.

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