Kelley Zapata loves her Beats.

The University of Georgia junior first got a pair of Beats by Dre Studio headphones for Christmas in 2008. They were a revelation, she says, especially for someone used to Apple earbuds.

“I was blown away,” she recalls. She’s since invested in two more.

She’s not alone. The audio company’s lower-case “b” is ubiquitous on the ears of listeners across the country, seen on celebrities — Lil Wayne at a Lakers game, Katie Holmes on a movie set — and college students.

Indeed, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research company, Beats controls 27% of the $1.8 billion headphone market — and 57% of the market for “premium” headphones, ones that cost $99 or more. On- or over-the-ear Beats retail from about $200 to $400, so you can easily spend as much on the headphones as you can on your MP3 player or contracted phone.

That’s a lot of “b”uzz.

Producer and musician Dr. Dre wearing his Beats at a Boston Red Sox game in 2010.
Producer and musician Dr. Dre wearing his Beats at a Boston Red Sox game in 2010.

But along with the popularity has come a backlash. Beats have been criticized for being a marketing gimmick, a bass-heavy fashion accessory not up to the kind of high-quality audio sound they promote. Zapata admits she was initially seduced by the pitch: “I’m a big Lady Gaga fan, and she had them in her music video,” she says.

For audiophiles, Beats are a sacrilege. They’ve filled up message boards complaining about the popular cans.

“(A) Timex with Rolex’s price tag,” wrote one responder to a board titled “Why the Beats hate?”

“To a lot of people, the fact that someone took our hobby and our industry and vastly perverted it to the public at large borders on offensive for a variety of reasons,” added another poster.

But the audiophiles might be missing the point. What Beats has done, suggests Tyll Hertsens, is expand the market for better-quality headphones — as witnessed by the countless headphone makers jockeying for space at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

Building on the distinctiveness of Apple’s white earbuds — which announced their wearer owned a desirable iPod or iPhone — Beats essentially created a new niche.

“What they did was brilliant,” says Hertsens, editor of InnerFidelity, a site devoted to personal audio. “They somehow knew that people were aware enough of headphones that they could make them have some cachet.”

And cachet, he observes, comes with a price.

“It used to be that a $250 price of headphones were expensive. Now that’s just the norm. (Beats) raised the acceptable price of headphones,” he says.