InnerFidelity Ranks Headphone Manufacturers Page 2
The following companies are fairly large firms selling to the consuming public, but don't have nearly the power to influence that market the above powerhouse companies do. Their task will largely be to find a strong brand identity attractive to particular market segments and establish beachheads to hold and grow incrementally.
In alphabetical order:
AKG's historic position in audiophile and audio-pro markets will continue...but they're going to have to get off their butt and start developing some better offerings. I found their recent flagship K812 ($1499) offering sonically abysmal, and the annual rehashing of the decent but aging K7XX family is getting tiresome for the intended audience.
Like JBL, I think AKG has fairly strong brand recognition and is a worthy property, but has been underperforming for too long. If this brand is to remains strong, it's going to need some significant attention. The shuttering of the Vienna production plant and the recent Samsung purchase of Harman Intl. are good starting points for a revitalization of the brand. I have hopes, but I think it's going to take a while before AKG becomes relevant...much less influential.
Audio Technica might be worthy of a spot in the powerhouse section of this survey having a dizzying array of headphone offerings. Unfortunately, to my ears, they always seem to come in as an "also ran" position relative to companies like Sennheiser, Shure, AKG, and Beyerdynamic. I've found their noise canceling headphones generally poor compared to those of Bose and Sennheiser. AT's high-end products always seem a bit bright to me, and frankly I'm getting a bit tired of their "3D Wing Support" headband system that has never delivered a truly comfortable and secure fit on my head.
None the less, Audio Technica has a number of very strong headphone offerings including the SonicPro ATH-IM02 ($299) IEM reviewed recently by ljokerl, the incisive ATH-MSR7 ($249) full-sized sealed headphone, and, of course, the justifiably famous ATH-M50x ($189)and absolutely terrific sounding headphone and my "go to" recommendation for people looking for their first serious headphone.
I think Audio Technica is in a good position to move forward, but probably has some work to do ridding itself of legacy and underperforming product in order to get lean and mean in market segments where the brand is already doing well but could do betterpro-audio, upscale consumers, DJs, and social media content producers.
Much like Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic has a wide array of headphone offerings and falls just short of being a powerhouse as they too seem to have a hard time nailing sound quality on a consistant basis, and don't appear to be leading or influencing headphone trends.
Beyerdynamic, it seems to me, does a slightly better job than AT of breaking into the top slots of price/performance for a given headphone type, but they remain, like most headphone companies, erratic. I felt the flagship T1 ($1199) was fairly harsh sounding, as were many of the Tesla driver full-sized headphones. On the other hand, the smaller on-ear Tesla models like the DT1350 and T 51 p ($289) sound really good and are well built.
Beyerdynamic does low-cost headphones quite well, which gives them an opportunity in the youth market. I think they could improve on the styling, but the sound quality of the DTX 350 m ($59) and DT 235 ($69) is quite good at the price.
The headphone market is going to be demanding much more of makers in terms of styling, comfort, and build quality. Like AT, I think Beyerdynamic needs to get lean and mean in targeted market areas like pro-audio, upscale consumers, and audiophiles, and then nail the sound quality issue. Those groups know the Beyerdynamic name and will appreciate and buy on sound quality.
On the one hand, Creative's only real claim to fame as a headphone maker is that they were smart enough to jump on Foster's OEM design when Denon dumped the AH-D1001 and revived it as the Creative Aurvana Live! (now $49!). They were smart a second time when after introducing the significantly worse sounding replacement Aurvana Live!2, they decided not to discontinue the original version. Generally speaking the rest of their headphones are meh.
On the other hand, Chan Ming Tat, Research Director of Creative's subsidiary E-Mu Systems, has been fiddling around with wooden cups for the Creative Aurvana Live! now dubbed the E-mu Walnut ($149). It sounds quite good. He's also revived the Denon AH-DX000 line with the E-Mu Teak (~$700), also available in Mahogany, Rosewood, and Ebony.
The gist here is I have no idea what Creative might do, but they obviously have an interest in a wide variety of personal audio products and they just might get a hair up their ass about headphones. They've got marketing skills, a good name, significant resources, and a headphone champion in their midst. They just might do something interesting.
Denon seriously missed the boat when they abandon their older designs for inferior new ones. I doubt their interests really lie in personal audio and the direction it's going. It's going to be a whole 'nother world and I don't think they have a leg to stand on to launch themselves meaningfully forward into it.
Fostex has made recent moves to the world of enthusiast headphones with their TH900Mk2 ($1499) and TH610 ($599) both of which I found to have inferior sound at their price points. This puzzles me as both these cans are variants of parent company Foster's OEM model 443742, from which the better sounding E-Mu Teak and Massdrop Fostex TH-X00 also derive. I know Fostex can make better sounding headphone, I just don't know why don't.
One can't mention Fostex without giving a nod to the planar magnetic RP line-up. Intended for pro- and semi-pro audio applications these low-cost headphones sound good at the price and are built like a tank. DIY headphone enthusiasts have modified the T50RP ($129) ad nauseam but are continually rewarded with surprisingly good sound.
I don't see Fostex becoming a relevant agent for change in the headphone world, but I do believe they're perfectly capable of making quality high-end and pro-audio headphones. They're just going to have to develop the will to really do it...or not.
Koss is one of my favorite headphone companies...for sentimental reasons. On hot summer nights as a Junior in high school I'd have to pause Pink Floyd every half hour to wipe the sweat of my ears and the sticky plastic liquid-filled ear pads of my Koss Pro-4AA. For decades Koss made most of the headphones in Radio Shack. In 1984 John Koss revolutionized portable audio with the Porta-Pro ($49)a headphone that over thirty years later remains a go-to recommendation from knowledgable enthusiasts as a low-cost headphone.
Koss isn't a one-trick pony, they have a number of worthy headphones: The ESP-950 ($999) has long been respected as a solid entry-level electrostatic; the KSC35 (44.99) clip-on sounds and works great for action sports under a beanie or helmet; and the more recently introduced SP330 ($129) is a bit pricy, but really good sounding mobile headphone.
Unfortunately, Koss' brand suffers from being old school and boring, and they had some recent financial setbacks under sad circumstances. Koss is perfectly capable of building solid price/performance headphones, especially in low-cost segments. Their problem now is how to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with current product lines, and remake their brand and product image in the face of the current rapidly improving and ever more stylish headphone market. That's going to be a tough nut to crack...but my heart wants to see them do it.
I see Moster as a fashion brand in the worst sense of the word. With very rare exception, every headphone I've head from them sucks. The product styling is brashly boastful bling. I'd wish they would go away, but that end of the Bell curve has to be held up so it might as well be someone who does it so exceedingly well.
Started by Kevin Lee, son of Noel Lee, founder of Monster Cable, I feel SOL Republic Headphones does a better job of producing a more stylish and quality product. Unfortunately to date I've not heard anything but mediocre sound quality.
I consider SOL something like a fashion brand and they may develop a niche following, but I doubt they'll move forward with credibility in the broader consumer market unless they up the anti with better sound quality.
Ultrasone has been around quite a while and has made inroads to the pro-audio and enthusiast market. Product build quality is good, but I find the companies theories about how to present sound to the ear with their S-Logic technology flawed. A series of fairly large holes are in the baffle plate that allow a significant amount of the acoustic energy from the rear of the driver to come into the ear chamber. The intent here is to create a sound wave that more closely approximates the approaching planar wave-front of sound from a speaker. Unfortunately, I find the resulting signal quite ragged in general with Ultrasone cans and harsh to the ears. While presenting the ear with an angled planar wavefront as done by planar magnetic, electrostatic, and angled dynamic cans like the HD 800 S might indeed be a good idea, the S-Logic implementation does seem flawed to me.
For the most part, I do not recommend any Ultrasone headphones.
This is fashion headphones done right! While I find their tuning to be a bit far from neutral for me, I also think many bassheads will quite enjoy the sound. Build quality and stylingif you like V-Moda's particularly strong and distinctive designare best-in-class.
The Crossfade M-100 ($310) is and extraordinarily well built headphones and colapses down to an astonishingly small size when stored in its very cool hard-side, clam-shell case. And the V-Moda XS ($212) on-ear adds what I would consider very near neutral sound to the outstanding styling and build quality found in all V-Moda product.
I think V-Moda's commitment to the highest standards of styling and build quality coupled with a solid understanding of sonic tunings for their particular customer's taste (roughly, music made by DJs) will cause them to be very influential among fashion headphone brands.