Tyll Talks About the Future of Headphones

Oh boy, what fun! Jana Dagdagan, Stereophile's Editorial Coordinator, has been visiting me here in my home in Montana for a few days to produce a series of videos. You can expect quite few more over the next few weeks as she edits them. Today, I'm going to talk about my vision of the future of headphones.

You may have noticed I don't normally reply to many comments made here on InnerFidelity. I do that because I think I've pretty much had my say in the article, and feel that readers should be able to make their contributions, whatever they may be, without interference from me. Makes it less noisy, I reckon, and I have to say, I think reader comments here are extremely interesting and well considered. Thank you for making InnerFidelity richer for your efforts. I do always read them.

But this video was shot in one take, and in reviewing it I realize there's plenty of holes that could use filling. So in this case I will be happily willing to answer questions to clarify my rambling. Feel free to question and opine in the comments below, and I will respond. It's a really interesting subject to me, and I'd like to make sure readers have clarity on the subject, and I'm personally interested in your thoughts on the future and how they might differ or extend mine.


View on YouTube here.

Bansaku's picture

What you said near the end of the video, about headphones being linear paired with a matching amp and DSP processor, well it seems Paul Barton and PSB (/NAD) are doing something very similar with their new M4U 8. Exciting times!!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The thing I forgot to mention in the video is systems like this will allow engineers to deliver the very subtle cues needed for virtualization. Current headphones have too much disturbance in the 1kHz to 5-8Khz region for the cues to be heard. Paul Barton is most certainly one who may be able to turn the trick.
detlev24's picture

We already find the excellent RME ADI-2 Pro with its powerful DSP + crossfeed, which gets firmware updates incl. new features (+ bug fixes) on a regular basis! Exciting times.

Designing headphones with linear frequency response is perhaps as demanding as trying to nail a certain [Harman] target response curve. Having linear drivers in anechoic conditions might not be a big problem; but as soon as the housing + earpads get involved, things become quite tricky. Furthermore, linearity might never be achieved by measurements at an artificial eardrum-position [individual anatomy differs too much to find an accurate model that suits all listeners] and thus, different measurement techniques might need to be standardized.

detlev24's picture

In the end, an amplifier should just be an amplifier and not have any impact, e.g., on frequency response. Customizations thereof should only apply through the DSP domain [+ correction of impulse response, if needed]. As long as an amplifier satisfies certain headphones with their required power, any device with linear frequency response, low distortion and low noise should suite at any time! No need for special pairings; unless personal preference for 'euphonic' distortion of tube amplifiers is considered.

The disadvantage of "linear headphones" would be the permanent need of DSP. Instead, any headphone that achieves a certain target frequency response by design would be equally enjoyable on different systems [which, by a standard, measure linearly on their electronic signal path - at least between 20 Hz and 20 kHz].

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It's all tricky as hell, that's for sure.

Here's a link to an article I wrote about Gunther Thiele's paper from the AES Headphone Technology Conference in Denmark I went to last year where he talks about this type of DSP system. I found it a really enlightening paper.

Don't know if he's actually right, but he knows some stuff.

veggieboy2001's picture

Yup the future is right here (which makes it the present, though...nevermind that.)I'm sure much of what Tyll was speaking of, he's seen prototypes for, but didn't mention by name. What I found fascinating is that not only can phones translate text, if you pair them with compatible earphones (in particular Google Pixel buds)they can translate the spoken word.

Exciting times indeed!


Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thanks for posting the link!

I was unaware, folks don't tell me too much.

I am the press after all.

zobel's picture

What is the audience you serve Tyll? Music lovers mostly, I would say. It is interesting the many new applications being developed for cans, and how these breakthroughs might influence not only music reproduction, but music as well.

Composers of electronic music actually produce for headphones, and realize the music on them, using the headphones as the target performance experience, that has at the core of the compositions, the unique spatial and dynamic effects best heard over them. Many of these mixes are like stereo on steroids, and I find myself enjoying this new art form a whole lot. I appreciate 'high fidelity'in capturing acoustic sound in space in an attempt to replicate the reality of live instruments and voices. That is probably the ultimate goal in music reproduction, but it gets more interesting when having that, as well as the music realized for headphones, taking us into new soundscapes previously unheard.

I really like this. The media (cans) is the message, and integral to the art, in purposefully designed compositions for headphones. Exciting..creative...headphones moving the art of music in new directions! Got Pandora? Create a station such as Deepernet Radio...put on your favorite cans and see what I mean...(you probably already have).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
"What is the audience you serve Tyll?"

Great question...difficult to answer. I write with an enthusiasts voice, but I hope the consuming public stumbles upon my reviews and gain enough trust and knowledge to be more discriminating in their choices. That's why I review things like the Plantronics and Jabra. Sorry you guys have to live through that, but everybody deserves great audio reproduction. Mainly I strive to serve the art of music.

"Composers of electronic music actually produce for headphones, and realize the music on them..."

I tend to think we'll see more object oriented media production, and then the reproduction system will decode it for the specific transducer used. Dolby Atmos for example. Headphones, two channel, and surround will all try to reproduce the desired effect. I tend to think the big 11.2 surround systems will be the more visceral experience, but headphones will win the day with their much lower cost and portability.

"Create a station such as Deepernet Radio...put on your favorite cans and see what I mean...(you probably already have)."

I haven't, but I will. Thanks for the tip!

richardh's picture

There is also the issue of electronics companies pushing wireless technology. As I understand it wireless headphones degrade the sound quality and high res wireless is currently not possible (or uncommon?). Furthermore, Apple and now Google make phones without headphone jacks. Sure, you can use an adaptor, however the intent is clear, for most consumers the wired headphone will be obsolete in future. I find this somewhat problematic, as current bluetooth models will also be obsolete if high res streaming becomes common but the existing bluetooth hardware cannot be updated. I predict that many perfectly good headphones will be rendered useless in this scenario (unless a wire is used). I have just bought a set of Oppo PM3 headphones. One could argue that whilst they fulfil the brief of sounding good and being comfortable, they are already outdated.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
"There is also the issue of electronics companies pushing wireless technology."

Yeah, this is a bit of a hump to overcome. But we'll get there pretty quickly. aptX HD Audio is out now. I reckon it's still the headphones themselves that are the limiting fidelity factor.

The PM3 may be outdated, but it's a very good sounding headphone. Enjoy!

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I held off for a long long time on these. Finally took the plunge. I think they are fabulous for those requiring a closed but great sounding headphone. I drive them off of some of Schiits lower end amps and am 110% pleased with the sound and quality. There is a reason that while most headphones are divisive and polarizing between fans and detractors, the PM3 is typically universally considered a great headphone.

Pokemonn's picture

It's really educational for young children who will create future headphones. Tyll, thank you.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You're welcome.
geniekid's picture

Really enjoyed listening to your thoughts on the state of headphones.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Loving the idea of a video series..thanks jana n tyll.

The mini history of headphones was very appreciated! Its crazy to think how much this technology and hobby has evolved.

Here's some of my thoughts on the future:

Consumer Market (ie: not high end audiophile):

Biggest investment, growth, evolution: Wireless earbuds. No question that apples decision to remove the headphone jack plays into this along with its wireless buds offering, but moreso the wireless buds are an evolution of bluetooth use for headphones. Ive been dabbling alot with this technology and there are some really cool factors involved..also some limitations and issues. The Kanoa debacle sheds light on the challenges of producing a high end product in this category. One of the biggest hurdles will be sound quality...the consumer vector does not pay as much attention to the overall sound profile of its products and therefore will settle a bit more than the audiophile community. Still..expect to see alot more "completely wireless" buds in the next few years.

Shift in market: This is completely just me guessing, but i think there's going to be an overall drop off in over ear and on ear headphones for the mass consumers. Beats came in and established the market. Others like sony, skullcandy, jbl, sol republic, etc, came in and grabbed what they could. But i think the market has peaked. We are seeing new headphones by these mfct's but its harder for them to grab new people. Other than those wanting the newest version of beats when they drop, i think that market is plateau for a while.

Audiophile Market:

It seems the market has alot of high end offerings and alot of lowish end offerings. Middle ground is starting to get tapped but i'd wager we'll see more of the following: $500-$1000...planar...closed. There's a few solid players in this area but it seems like a good move for manufacturers to try and drive some of the lower end audiophiles up the ladder. And, as always, we fans will be hoping for some giant killers within!

Keep up the great reporting Tyll and Jana

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

Three Toes of Fury

zobel's picture

..for getting Tyll on record. Good job. Great idea.

tony's picture

Right here on your sidebar for advertisers is an advert for Sennheiser HD 4 which looks like an HD 600 but it's a wireless device for iPhones. Hmm

I hope for your review on these things.

This is:
a nice start of a "Jana" Tyll Series that just might educate the Audio enthusiasts about "Things to come in the 21st Century".

a needed balance to Stereophile's regular emphasis of 1960s vinyl technologies.

Tyll should be a Print contributing Editor.

Innerfidelty is like StarTrek to Analog Planet's old-school.

Tony in Michigan

tony's picture

I just saw the Tyll HD 4 review,

It's on the Wall of Fame!


Tony in Michigan

Akmax57's picture

I'd like to see a DAC built into the headphone. The Sines have that clever DAC in the cable so it would be nice to see more of that, or maybe built into the headphone itself. think that would up the game for portable listening.

I think for portable systems, better sounding smartphones might be a wave of the future also. I'm getting a LG V30 this week, that has the ESS DAC, and supports MQA. Hoping it is as good as it sounds on paper.

EdAInWestOC's picture

The history of headphones left out the first serious headphones. Years before headphones were a serious going concern there were Stax. Stax has been around creating quality personal listening systems for many years.

My Stax Lambda Pros, which I still love and the driver requires service, is still a very well respected earspeaker (in Stax speak). Those were given to me as a Christmas present in 1990. Years before the current headphone craze.


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