The elegant bamboo box before me looks like an heirloom passed down within a family for generations. Among the engravings in the blond wood is a dragon, a Chinese symbol of prosperity. When I open it up, I'm greeted with a lovely soft black pouch that surely holds something precious and delicate.
Reaching in, I pull out a pair of Bruce Lee-branded steel headphones, leading me to wonder: Are these high-end cans that pack a punch like the action star they were named for, or are these something I can pick up at Chinatown?
From the packaging, you might assume the former. But everything about these headphones screams cheap — well, everything but the actual price tag. Relatively speaking, $139 isn't a lot of money to drop on headphones, but it is a price point where you begin to expect more quality.
Upon donning these, the disappointment was apparent: The audio's muddled. These cans are completely lacking in clarity, instead producing a very stifled sound. They perform decently delivering punchy bass, but at times, the highs come off as tinny. The congested audio makes it difficult to articulate between the different layers, so music becomes almost opaque. In short: not good.
But with celebrity cans, a high level of subjectivism and fandom sway buying decisions. How else could Beats be such a gadget mainstay when reviewers are consistently bashing them? Perhaps there was more to Bigr Audio's Bruce Lee headphones.
It's best to illustrate the Chinatown-esque qualities (read: tackiness) of these headphones with images.
The steel headband is reminiscent of the on-ear headphones that came with the Sony Walkman (side note: what a great music player). These contain some padding for comfort and include an esoteric Chinese inscription.
The headband slides to adjust to noggins of different sizes. Unfortunately, the smallest is still too big for my head, something I encounter occasionally with this type of design.
No complaints on how these cups feel. However, there are some icons printed in white on both cups' exterior. The left features a dragon (more on this later), and the right a yin-yang symbol. There are also icons where cups meet headband: a silhouette of the Hong Kong action star on the left, and an on/off power icon (not a functional button, mind you) on the right.
A wire on both sides? What are we — in the '90s? The cord isn't detachable and lacks robust in-line controls. Near the plug, which is difficult to remove because of its shape and slick exterior, the cord is coiled, harking back to old landlines.
Overall, the design is a bit dated and lacking in imagination.
The Dragon Star
It's an understatement to say Bruce Lee is an iconic Chinese star. His legend transcends that to the point where he has an almost Chuck Norris lore, to draw an American comparison. Google Bruce Lee facts and you'll see why. (My favorite is that Lee could catch a falling grain of rice mid-air with a pair of chopsticks.)
Though born Lee Jun-fan, he went by another Chinese name on screen: Li Xiaolong, the Mandarin pronunciation of "small dragon." Lee is often associated with the dragon motif. Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon were both blockbuster successes in Hong Kong and beyond. The action star was also born on the year of the dragon (fun fact: in San Francisco's Chinatown, a few blocks from where I live today).
In China, superstition is alive and well. If you ever make your way to Hong Kong, you'll notice that buildings not only lack a 13th floor but also any floors with the number four, a homonym for death. As a former Hong Kong real estate reporter, I can say this causes quite the controversy when a property developer unveils an 88-floor building that's actually only 46 floors tall.
The year of the dragon is incredibly auspicious, and many Chinese couples plan to have children then. (In fact, a Caucasian startup vice president in the Valley told me she had her son on the year of the dragon for precisely this reason, at the suggestion of her Chinese brother-in-law.) I myself am a dragon child, born on perhaps the most auspicious of dragon years. Just as the Chinese hate the number four, they love the number eight because it's a homonym for fortune. So the fact that 2012 is the year of the dragon means this year is mine to lose. Good fortune in life, work, lottery tickets (one can hope), etc.
I never much believed in any of these things until I lived in Hong Kong. But being surrounded by the culture — even at its most absurd — has instilled a sense of pride and to some degree superstition. When I tried this pair of Bruce Lee headphones, sure I saw tacky design, but it's hard to look at these from that lens alone. I've reviewed rapper headphones and have been quick to question why anybody would drop so much of their hard-earned money on nothing more than a brand. But now I feel like I finally understand.
At $139, these are on the lower end of celebrity-backed headphones (to mention the obvious: these aren't actually backed by Lee, who died in 1973). Certainly, I don't think the actual product is worth the money, but I'll be less judgmental the next time I see someone wearing Beats, SYNC or even Bruce Lee cans.
All photos by Alice Truong for DVICE.