InnerFidelity Ranks Headphone Manufacturers
Surfing through my headphone news feed the other day I stumbled across an article on Picky Ear titled, "Best Headphone Brands: What We Can Learn from 310,067 Headphone Reviews." After reading through their conclusions I learned that aggregating thousands of reviews, no doubt largely populated by folks who really don't know what they're talking about, generally nets you a fairly random result. Maybe I shouldn't pick on Picky Ear; I've seen lots of these lists and have a hard time taking any of them seriously. Here's some examples:
- 50 Headphone Brands ranked from best to worst – based on more than 500,000 customer reviews (Grado over Sennheiser? Really!?)
- BEST HEADPHONE BRANDS | AUDIOPHILE ON (Ultrasone and Final Audio in the top eight headphone brands!?)
- List of Top 10 Best Headphone Brands in the World (Ultrasone #3!?)
There are lots more, but you get the idea. Interestingly, and not surprisingly upon reflection, to my eyes the best list came from a website named Ranker in an article titled, "The Best Headphones Brands," that just lets people vote up or down various brands.
I s'pose I shouldn't whine when I can sit here and make my own list. I'm not going to rank them in some artificial order, all these companies make both good and bad headphonesthough the proportions certainly differ. I'm going to group them in a few categories and make comments, the overall grading is from a sound quality perspectivenot taking the functionality of exercise headphones of the brands into consideration, for example. It's not all-inclusive; if you don't see a name it's probably because I see the company as not particularly important, interesting, or of noteworthy fail. Alright, here's my stab at it.
These are the Big Boys. Companies with significant current market share and well positioned to move forward into the coming age of smart headphones. Their competitive actions will frame progress in the world of consumer headphones and will influence others in determining the future of headphones.
In rough order of importance, mainly on their potential ability to champion good sound quality:
Beats is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room with an over 50% market share in premium (over $100 retail) headphones. Now, under Apple ownership, they are poised to lead the charge in smart headphone technology. You can expect them to produce the first viable mixed-reality products maybe 2-3 years from now.
As a result of their previous association with Monster, many will tell you Beats headphones are junk. They were...at the time. But significant efforts beefing up their engineering team over the past 4 years has produced a current product line that is much better than their earlier efforts. Current products are very well built, but like most headphone companies, sound quality can be hit and miss.
Apple-centric consumers may be well served by the new Solo3 Wireless with it's amazing Bluetooth range, 40 hour battery life, easy Bluetooth switching between Apple devices, and slightly warm but pleasant sound quality. On the other hand, I found the Beats Studio2 Wireless rather mediocre.
Beat/Apple is in a position to drive sound quality forward, and as the new mixed reality technologies will require excellent acoustic performance in the headphone I can easily see them driving headphone sound quality in a positive direction.
In my view, Sennheiser is the world's best headphone maker. Sure, they can screw it up from time to timethe HD 700 was a screeching banshee, and their "Bionetic" offerings many years ago were an awful follow up to gains made with the HD 560 at the time. But they also make an astonishing array of headphones with solid performance, and have an extraordinary ability to cover and move forward their lines of headphones in virtually every category. Their wireless "RS" series (found here) of TV headphones are excellent top-to-bottom; the HD 202 ($35) is an excellent entry level sealed headphone; the HD 800 S has long been considered one of the finest headphones in the world (though a bit thin sounding); and, of course, the HD 600 and HD 650 remain a favorite headphone among enthusiasts for their unmatched price/performance ratio.
If there is any company that will make significant forward progress to both the features and functions of smart headphones without loosing track of the need for solid sound quality performance, it's Sennheiser.
Bose is a bit of a one-trick pony in my mind. I've tried their passive headphones and never found them worthy of note. But their noise canceling headphones are second to none. Time after time, their Quiet Comfort line-up continues to deliver state-of-the-art noise canceling and best-in-class sound quality. My recent review of the Quiet Comfort 35 reinforced that opinion.
Though Bose has the lion's share of the traveler's headphone market, pressure is mounting. While the recently released Sennheiser PXC 550 couldn't quite keep up with the noise canceling and sonic performance of the Quiet Comfort 35, the slick and fully fleshed out feature set delivered a terrific user experience and left me feeling the QC35 was a headphone of a bygone era. I think Bose may have a hard time keeping up with the on-coming tsunami of technical hurdles smart headphones will demand.
Somewhere along the line as consumers switched from Walkmans to iPods and smartphones, and from living room stereos to Bluetooth and streaming speakers, Sony seemed to have lost its footing as a powerhouse of consumer audio electronics. Where at one time it produced the ubiquitous MDR-V6 and crazy goodand expensiveR10, it then languished with rehashes of old cans and a line of silly "Extra Bass" headphones. Can they regain their footing and march forward with strength?
Recent releases like the MDR-1A ($299), h.ear on ($199), and MDR-1000X ($349)which I've heard only briefly but thought sounded quite goodshow a renewed and well focussed effort to woo upscale consumers. And the MDR-Z1R Headphones ($2299); NW-WM1Z Premium Walkman ($3199); and TA-ZH1ES DAC/Amp ($2199) indicate Sony is on the march to attract headphone enthusiasts with good sound quality.
More telling, to me, is Naotaka Tsunoda's, Sony's chief headphone R&D director, regular appearances at high-end audio and headphone trade shows. His enthusiasm, is infectious and sincere. It warms my heart to know he's at the helm of Sony's headphone efforts. (See videos here and here.)
Moreover, Sony is one of the few companies with the resources needed to compete in the upcoming battle for smart headphone market share. Their progress in the past couple of years is clear to me, Sony's intent to regain their market credibility is gaining traction, only time will tell if they can ride the big wave upcoming, but I'd say they're well positioned and intended. We'll see.
Okay, Skullcandy isn't attractive to enthusiasts, but they sure as hell do a good job getting the attention of 15-25 year olds. And while their headphones seem rather more like toys than tools to us, it's my impression they do a pretty damned good job of delivering toys that sound much better than rival makers.
Over the last five years Skullcandy has struggled to find their groove. In 2011 they made a move toward upscale headphones with their Mix Master ($299), which I found to be quite good sounding. But early production runs had problems with cracking headbands, which seemed to take the blush of that rose. On the other hand, the Aviators ($149) release at about the same time were a hit. I loved them. Skullcandy made the decision to abandon the mid-price categories and focus solely on low-cost cans for the kids. They subsequently produced the Grind ($59), which I reviewed very positively, and the Crusher ($99), which is a weird dynamic headphone with a built-in sub-woofer-like "Sensation 55" tactile driver that's surprisingly effective.
Bottom line: I don't think Skullcandy is going to be a powerhouse maker for the broad consuming public, but I would say they are very well positioned to hold and grow their market share among youngsters, and generally do a good job of honoring the art of music with decent sound quality in that category.
Shure is a pro-audio company, and they know it. Ten years ago they were quite active courting headphone enthusiasts as an expansion market, but in conversation with company engineers I became aware of their growing disenchantment with the precocious "hype train", "flavor of the month" mind-set on headphone forums. Internally, they returned to their roots and now focus almost exclusively on the pro-audio market. The good news is that good headphones for pros are also very often good headphones for enthusiasts, and their headphone products remain relevant to enthusiast listeners.
My personal favorites of the Shure line-up are the SE-535 ($449) in-ear that possesses a really sweet sound that's easy on the ears, and the SRH1540 ($499) that has an emphasized bass and treble that makes for terrific low-volume-level listening.
Like Skullcandy, I don't see Shure as being a powerhouse among consumers at large, but I do think they'll remain a strong force and influential in the pro-audio world, and should have the resources to keep up with the changing nature of headphones in that market.
Philips is a huge, multi-national company, but the division that produced headphones and home audio gear under the Philips and Philips Fidelio brand was sold off to Gibson Innovations a couple of years ago. It's still a pretty big outfit that also includes Onkyo, GoGear, and Trainer, and bigger still under the Gibson Brands umbrella, which includes Stanton, KRK, Cerwin Vega, Neat, Cakewalk, and, of course Gibson Guitar, but they are no longer attached to the behemoth that is Koninklijke Philips N.V..
Philips and Philips Fidelio branded headphones from Gibson Innovations remain a strong offering. I particularly liked the Philips Fidelio X2 which, though slightly grainy, has a well balanced sound and solid build quality, and ljokerl gave high marks to the low-cost Philips TX1 ($29) and TX2 ($39). The question in my head is whether or not they will find a relevant path forward to the consumer market, or get mired finding an identity among musicians due to their corporate focus.
None the less, I find them a competent headphone makerthey acquired the entire audio design team from Philips Innovations Research Labsand expect them to continue to be a quality headphone maker.
So, this is the one where headphone enthusiasts will cringe. JBL, historically, has produced a pretty poor line-up of low-cost headphones. I'd characterize them as ignorable. But lots of changes are afoot in parent company Harman International. Three things are worthy of note: First is an announcement from September of this year of the closure of AKG's Vienna manufacturing facility. The article states that while the AKG brand will remain, Harman International will be, "relocating the remaining development and service sectors and the production of audio systems for cars as well as high-quality headphones and microphones abroad." (Quote is Google translated.)
Second, Harman has been working very hard at it's central research facility to understand and improve headphone performance under the guidance of Sean Olive. It seems to me that the headphone market remains very strong and ever growing, and Harman International will feel this market profitable enough to remain engaged. Olive's research seems very likely to show up in various ways under the AKG, Harman/Kardon, and JBL branded headphone line-ups. I suspect we'll see all three brand's headphone product line-up benefitting.
Lastly, Harman International has just been purchased by consumer electronics giant Samsung for a cool $8B dollars...cash! In a Nov 14th, 2016, press release, Harman explains Samsungs primary interest is in Harman's Connected Car business, but there's no doubt synergy between the two firms will find focus in their personal audio interests. The press release states:
HARMAN’s leading brands and cutting-edge audio systems include JBL®, Harman Kardon®, Mark Levinson®, AKG®, Lexicon®, Infinity®, and Revel®. The company also licenses Bowers & Wilkins® and Bang & Olufsen® brands for automotive. All of these brands will greatly enhance the competitiveness of Samsung’s mobile, display, virtual reality and wearable products to deliver a fully differentiated audio and visual experience for customers.
It seems to me the natural brand differentiation will find AKG producing headphones for audiophiles and audio proswhere AKG already has a strong history. The Harman/Kardon brand will likely continue to focus on up-scale consumer headphones. But my guess is that we'll see the most significant headphone development show up in the JBL brand, which has the strongest recognition of the three among the consuming public.
Bottom line: While I don't think the current JBL offering is all that strong, it has been changing rapidly, and we're likely in for much more of that. I think JBL is worth keeping a close eye/ear on.
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