Tell Me About the Future of Headphones
A Puzzling Question for RMAF 2012
You know what I love about riding a motorcycle? Helmet time! Today I spent hour after blissful hour listening to my tunes, and meditating on a question:
What does the future hold for headphones?
Jude has asked me to participate on a discussion panel this Sunday at RMAF on the "Future of Headphones," and knowing this ride was upcoming, I figured I'd save the question until I could use it to burn the brain cells and warm the inside of my helmet on this often very chilly 700 mile ride from Bozeman to Denver.
One thought I kept coming back to was that guessing the future is a crap-shoot, and really good thoughts are few and far between. The best way to get a bunch of good ideas is to ask a lot of people who are familiar with headphones. Well...that's you! I figured InnerFidelity readers are an ideal resource for well founded thoughts on the subject. After all, you're remarkably familiar with headphones; you've almost certainly developed some ideas about what you'd like to see in the world of headphones; and last, but definitely not least, you've got a passion for the category.
So, I'll throw out some of my thoughts to get us started, but I'd love for you to weigh in on the subject in the comments below. I think it would be great fun to bring my laptop to the panel and contribute some of your comments to the dialog. Then we can all cross our fingers that some manufacturers show up at the panel discussion and walk away with a broadened perspective on what might be accomplished in the future.
Here are some of my musings:
- I've been working on a review of the Parrot Zik noise canceling Bluetooth headphones. These have a stunning array of features like a touch sensitive panel on the outside of the earpiece that you can swipe with your finger to raise and lower volume, and advance the track forward and back. It also has a very cool companion app that allows you to turn the noise canceling on and off, virtualize speakers in an artificial room and adjust the speaker placement and room size, and adjust a graphic equalizer. It's got an internal DSP to accomplish these tasks, and the headphones can get firmware updates through the app. It's pretty evident to me that the Parrot Zik delivers a remarkably unique user and listening experience, and though they've come to market first with something this technologically complex, they'll no doubt be followed by other similar smart-headphones...because they're very, very cool. What kinds of bells and whistles do you think may show up on future headphones?
- And then, going in the completely opposite direction, I've noticed significantly more interest recently on the forums for "classic" headphones that are still in production. New models from manufacturers have been appearing at a blistering rate, but the sound quality of these cans is a pretty hit-and-miss affair--more miss than hit, frankly. It seems to me that many enthusiasts who have been repeatedly disappointed with new offerings are returning to some of the older models with a new appreciation of their sonic value. I'm not talking about out-of-print cans like the Sony R10, AKG K1000s, or the Sennheiser Orpheus--not that these aren't great headphones. I'm talking about headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600, Beyerdynamic DT250-250, Etymotic ER4P, and even something like the Klipsch Image X10. AKG has re-dressed its K701 numerous times--I know there's a collective groan amongst Headfiles at these moves, but it seems to me that many models remain competitive given the many lackluster product introductions of late. Will we see manufacturers actively promoting a handful of "classic" cans in their product lineups in the future?
- Headphone are for audio reproduction. That fact will never go away. But with the rise of Dr. Dre's Beats, and the plethora of celebrity endorsed products that followed, the market narrative has been distracted from the real purpose of headphones, focusing instead on bling and zazz. I just can't believe that model is sustainable. Let's look at the shoe market: while there's certainly celebrity endorsed and fashion shoes, the meat of the bell curve of shoe purchases is fundamentally utilitarian. Sure we like our shoes to look good, but function, comfort, and build quality are valued much more strongly in purchasing decisions than they are with headphones. I think the average consumer has a much better grip on the value proposition of shoes than they do of headphones. It seems inevitable that as more people gain experience with headphones, finding them as necessary as shoes in the 21st mobile connected lifestyle, the more they will develop a richer and more balanced set of values around them. I think the days of rapper cans dominating the market are numbered. Consumers will eventually learn that headphones are a tool, and not a toy, in their daily lives. Do you think the pendulum will swing back towards the basic function of headphones as a competent audio reproduction device?
Well, that's it for me, I must be off, 377 miles to RMAF and I want to get there in time to take a few pictures of set-up day. Three days and counting until Sunday when I sit on the panel and discuss this subject. I'd love to be armed with your futuristic headphone thoughts, so please brainstorm in the comments below.