CES 2014 Wrap: The End of One Story and the Beginning of Another

Turtle Beach shows us how big headphones are these days.

The modern-day headphone market was conceived with the iPod "White Wires" advertising campaign, and was born with the Beats Studio. It was a very large and vigorous baby, but like begets like and it's a monstrous baby indeed. I think it's difficult to usefully understand the headphone market given this malformation. I'd like us to think about an analogous market: shoes.

Headphones are sort of like shoes: everybody needs them and probably more than one pair for various sorts of activities. It's important that they're stylish and comfortable, but they also have a utility to serve. Let's not take the analogy too far, it does break down in some ways, but it's a good enough analogy to serve the purpose so bear with me.

Right now the headphone market is way out of balance. Beats own more than half the premium ($100+) market. It's as if half the population that bought shoes costing over $20 is walking around in Air Jordans. It's plain stupid. Why is it like this?


Shoes have been around a long time, and most folk "get" them. They know how to figure out if they need a pair of sneakers or a pair of work boots. But I think the general population has yet to "get" what headphones are all about or how to buy them. They just buy the only brand they know...and Beats continues to goose-step along in their march as world headphone dominators. How are we going to fix this?

Well, first you have to have power. I've got a bit; the hobby as a whole has more; but the public's wallet has the most. Unfortunately they've not got the intelligence to use it. Maybe the people best positioned to effect change are the large headphone manufacturers. I talked with Stephanie Reichert, Vice President of Strategic Marketing for Sennheiser; Sam Paschel, Chief Commercial Officer for Skullcandy; and Bas Heijens, Senior Manager, Consumer Marketing Headphones of Philips (technically now WOOX), and posed this question:

"How is the headphone market going to rid itself of Beats dominance and gain a sense of balance? And what is your company doing to effect that change?"

Stephanie Reichert felt the market was already changing...and rapidly. The force at play, she felt, was that everybody was becoming a content provider (Facebook, Tweets, Forum activity) and awareness will develop for the need of various tools. She also felt consumers today are much wiser than they are usually given credit for. Consumers have very highly tuned bullshit detectors, and they will be able to see through the marketing fog and tell the difference between quality and crap. (Um...my words, obviously, but that was the gist of her position.) The rapid rise of GoPro cameras points to this, I reckon. Headphones will rank highly among the tools needed, she felt, and Sennheiser's job was to already be there with attractive offerings as this realization dawned on consumers. Sennheiser self-identifies as an engineering company and it seems to me they see their way forward by engineering the very best products they can, believing the market will recognize good product when they see it.

Sam Paschel from Skullcandy came at it from a completely different angle. He asserted people have three different types of motivation when purchasing: rational, emotional, and cultural. When I mentioned Sennheisers engineering approach and my belief that sound quality is the most important characteristic of headphones, he sympathized with the idea that the rational approach seemed...well, very rational, but it's simply not what motivates people to buy in this day and age. At least not the people he's interested in. Skullcandy's approach is 180 degree out from Sennheiser's. Skullcandy could care less about the entire market; they care about coastal 21 year olds who like skateboards, skis, and contemporary music. Sam told me they're so focussed on this demographic they even have an idealized male and female target customer each complete with clothes and a name. They focus hard on being emotionally attractive to this group and are actively involved in becoming part of their culture by sponsoring action sports athletes and events. They strive to beat Beats at their own game with emotional appeal and cultural participation. Sam sees Beats as wanting to look like they care, not actually making these close connections. Additionally he believe Beats may be their own worst enemy: common is the enemy of cool. As soon as your uncle is wearing Beats around his neck, it's just not cool anymore. He expects Beats to soon fall...the problem is Beats is so big, and the idea of headphones being cool is so tied to them, that if they fail they may take the market with them. In other words: If Beats aren't cool anymore, people might just go all the way to headphones aren't cool anymore. Hm...maybe so for the urban youth market, but I think music will never loose it's appeal and headphones are very good for that.

Philips kind of splits the difference between the Sennheiser and Skullcandy: They need to appeal to a broad swath of consumers, but they know they have to be emotionally and culturally attractive to the various demographic groups on a case-by-case basis. Bas Heijens points to a number of Philips sub-brands in their headphone offerings: The Fidelio line for the older and more monied generation; the CitiScape line for urban hipsters; the ActionFit line for health enthusiasts; and the Philips O'Neill line for skateboarders and snowboarders. But Philips also has a strong engineering culture, so along with their efforts to culturally and emotionally appeal they also develop and design headphones with technical performance in mind.

Though I think all three companies have done a very good job effecting their respective branding and product development strategies, I don't think they're going to be the thing the breaks the Beats strangle hold and creates a properly balanced market—Beats is too powerful and we need a powerful adversary to knock them down to size. The only party with that kind of power is the consumers themselves. When I said about consumers earlier in this article that "they've not got the intelligence to use" their power, I don't mean they're not smart enough, I mean they haven't got enough information to choose wisely. They've not got the depth of experience with headphones that they have, for example, with shoes. They know what shoes are, they have experience with them, and they buy a variety of them to fill various personal needs and desires. And as a result the shoe market is nicely balanced with a variety of offerings and one company doesn't own the lion's share. (Sure Nike has some 40% of the athletic shoe market, but athletic shoes only make up 30% of the entire market giving Nike maybe 13% of the entire shoe market. Beats owns something like 27% of the entire headphone market, and around 60% of the over-$100 market—the fastest growing market segment.)

My belief is the thing needed to bring the headphone market into balance is a better informed consumer. One that has a bit of experience with headphones and the opportunity to compare them in the flesh before buying. You know, like they get in a shoe store. The retail shoe industry in the US is $20 billion; the headphone market is $2B. There are over 29,000 brick and mortar shoe stores in the US where consumers get to try and compare before deciding what shoes to buy. If headphones are like shoes at all, and the headphone market is 1/10th the size of the shoe market, there should be something like 3,000 headphone stores give or take.

Care to guess how many dedicated headphone stores there are in the U.S.?

Ten? Five? That's probably generous. Here's the thing, a headphone only store just opened on Main St. here in Bozeman (pop. 30,000). It's way to early to tell how well it will work, but it does seem to be working. After my next headphone review, I'll tell you all about it. The customer reactions to the store are priceless.

Why am I talking about all this?
Just before CES this Part-Time Audiophile article appeared featuring Scot Hull's musings on why headphones weren't going to save the high-end and John Grandberg's counter-point response. That article was followed by a firestorm of responses from a variety of publications including this Audio360 piece with commentary from writers there. It's my feeling the perspective and ideas presented in the articles were somewhat distorted by having to originate in the current malformed market. I feel that if we explore what a healthy headphone market might look like, and think about steps might be taken to achieve that health, we will then address the issues in those articles with a richer perspective and may come to different conclusions. You can expect two or three articles in the coming month or two expressing my thoughts on the future of the headphone market and how it may effect change in High-End Audio.

Okay! That's it! Thanks for coming along to CES with me...now it's back to headphone reviews. Focal Spirit Classic and Professional next!

thelostMIDrange's picture

the Middle is being squeezed out of existence. The separation of those who have and have not is wider than ever. those who have not are either living in a micro apartment, with their folks, or with one or more other humans in close proximity. No one shares the same taste in music and no one wants to hear anyone else's stereo. Period. This is why hifi stereos are dying and why it's catering to the ultra geek who has a dedicated space for it or the bottom feeder who doesn't, with little in between. headfi is actiually involved in the exact same 'development'. it should be happy it's pulled the wool over the average listener's ears this long and if you educate them too much, they may hear this fact. Beats are a well designed, simple looking headphone that give bass heads their fix. And most people are bass heads these days just by simple cultural indoctrination. It's simple to see why they are popular. The truth is not a pleasant thing to admit - until the ruling elite discontinue setting the rules to favor those who already have, nothing will change in any sector.




Remior's picture

The easier the better... thats the better way to solve.


I would like to see the face of all that happy owners of expensive beats testing a Koss KSC75... 

I think that people who really care about music and quality knows how to find their way, and for sure they don't buy so many beats for sure, and don't recomend it too. 


Good products at good price with good music (maybe the change may start in there...) and all people will be able to see the light at the end of tunnel... of love...


Thanks for your reviews Tyll, you are making the first shoot... to the light.

drm870's picture

Hmm...I actually can see my own portable audio journey kind of confirming some of your suspicions.

I have always been (and still am) a far bigger videophile than audiophile. As my IRL friends can verify, if somebody's stereo or home theater system is crappy or tuned oddly, I can usually tell, but it isn't night and day like if their HD video components are connected wrong. That said, I started out looking for earphones (which I prefer to headphones) that could reproduce that deep theater rumble when watching movies on my laptop. While I cared about bass quality more than some -- I always craved impact, rumble, and texture, rather than mere bloated boom -- I still desired gobs of it. Eventually, I ended up with the Velodyne vPulse, my dream earphone. Or so I thought...

I never had really looked into high end headphones or earphones due to price, but around a year ago I ran into this article on the Mad Dogs on CNET. Maybe it was the odd but strangly comfortable look the headphones had, or the fact that the drivers were planar magnetic (I'm a sucker for obscure technologies). I sucked it up and ordered a pair. 

Even though the bass wasn't as enhanced as I liked, I was kind of shocked by the (relatively) revealing nature of the Mad Dogs. This, plus a chance encounter with the HifiMan RE-400 IEMs, ultimately started the chain reaction of discovery that led me to change my sound-signature priorities.

Nowadays, I prefer what some would call a "warm & smooth" sound signature. I still like enhanced bass, and have accepted that this fact will probably never change, but am far from a basshead in terms of desired quanitity anymore. I also have grown to appreciate smooth, non-peaky treble as well.

Why am I mapping out all this personal history? Because I suspect that, based on the original preferences that I came from, my journey wouldn't be too different from that of the average consumer. And yes, it took many earphone and headphone listens before I was able to figure out my personal sound preference. The problem, then -- as you acknowledged -- is that most people aren't willing to buy tons of headphones to try with the possibility that they won't like them.

In any case, I've gotten to the point that most IEMs I'd buy aren't available in brick and mortar stores near here (although the decent albeit v-shaped Philips SHE3590 are available at my local CVS :P ).

I've got a few more thoughts on your ideas, but I think that for now I'll simply let my story stand as one of those "If I can do it, anyone can"-esque examples. :)

Bill B's picture

Better sound quality is critical to us, but I think that won't change the game by itself because people are satisfied/used to what they have now.  So, a killer "feature" is needed to leapfrog over the popularity of Beats, and going wireless is the way.  Get rid of that wire tangling in your pockets or clothes, etc - will be popular with men and women, young and old.

But - uh oh - now Beats is leading the way with wireless headphones.  Damn.  Sennheiser, etc, get moving!!

Jazz Casual's picture

Nearly everybody needs shoes and barely anybody needs headphones - relatively speaking. The headphone market is what it is and its success or demise will be determined by marketing and the whims of consumers. A relatively small but staunch group of "headphiles" will continue to wring their hands about the quality of headphones and ponder what the future holds, and that is as it should be.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

"Nearly everybody needs shoes and barely anybody needs headphones - relatively speaking. "

Walk around your local high school and see how many kids have headphones in their ears staring at their smartphone. Having a pair of headphones is as common as having a cellphone, pretty much. It's become a necessity of modern life. 

I'm more worried about the larger market than the high-end headphone market. It'll be fine.

Jazz Casual's picture

That's very much a first world view Tyll. There are parts of the world where clean water, food and clothing are a necessity and headphones are not. I understand where you're coming from but likening footwear, which is a necessity for most of us to headphones which is not for the many people who live in abject poverty, is a poor analogy in my opinion. Headphones are still a lifestyle choice that have become a pseudo-necessity for those (not all) who can afford them. Cellphones are a modern convenience and serve a practical purpose. They have become indispensable for many of us (not all), but earpods/earphones are accessories. You can own a cellphone and have no "need" to use an earphone with it. So they are not a necessity in that sense either. And why worry about a market that you have no control over? Your audience is here and it's relatively small but engaged. Meanwhile, the masses are rockin' their earpods and Beats, and it makes them happy.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I guess one just puts their LazyBoy right in the middle.  

Cami's picture

Hi Tyll,

With all due respect, Tyll, your shoe/headphone analogy and its inherent predicament ("everybody needs them and probably more than one pair for various sorts of activities."), is surreal at best, and nothing but a grotesque symptom of our greed-ridden consumer society.

I don't know how far reaching your general knowledge is - outside the minuscule sphere of the consumer products that you know so much about -, but only 25% of the world population lives in what we call consumer-based economy. The rest of the world live in what's called subsistence economy. That means that most of the "everybody" you speak of, living on this planet, don't have shoes, probably have no plans to get them - they'd rather eat first -, let alone the interest to read about the latest electronics featured at CES and the injustice Sennheiser or Phillips faces, wtih Beats owning the headphone market.

Most of the people on the planet don't have access to internet, let alone a computer. They will never hear you, and If you had the chance to speak to them, and even with the convinced, vehement and self-righteous tone of this your latest anti-Dr.Beats rant, they would have no understanding whatsoever of what it is you are complaining about, and probably just think that you're a crazy dude who's having a bad day. They would probably put a tool in your hand and tell you to get back to work, or try to knock some sense of ugency in to you, because you still have to do what's necessary to eat something later, and hopefully before you fall asleep.

As noble as it seems to be worried and vehement about the inferior sound quality experienced by your fellow human beings on the planet, and them being tricked into buying crap like Beats, - or because they just don't know better ("Unfortunately they've not got the intelligence to use it") -, and about restoring some shoe-balance to the headphone market by trying to make the money go the way of its true and deserving heroes, like Sennheiser and Phillips, you would sound ridiculous and surreal to the large majority of the world. Ultimately, you're just another cog wanting to move counter-clockwise, but within the same system.

The chinese lady of the picture has no idea about Sennheisers or Phillips, Beats or Scullcandys, and she most certainly has no idea about Air-Jordans or who the hell this Jordan dude or basketball is. She also most probably couldn't care less. She's got more REAL priorities and necessities than the latest gear at CES or sportheroes that are worshipped because they can jump higher and earn millions. When it comes to entertainment, she'll probably ask someone to sing her a song, which will always sound better than any hifi reproduction of it.

If you motivate me to rant back at you, it's because it appears disgustingly disrespectful and insulting to this old lady, and many millions of other much poorer old ladies, women, men and children, that have to scrap up something out of nothing to eat everyday, while you and many of us go about wanting to give more money to Sennheiser, Audeze and Stax, and somehow feel like we're making a difference, important and noble enough to be published and shared. Reality itself, the way things actually are in our world, puts the apparent noble spirit of your rant in an extremely real and sobering perspective:
1) the great majority of the world doesn't give a sh++ about what you're saying they just don't know WTF you're talking about and don't come even close to grasping what it is you mean, and 2), the large majority of the "lucky" ones that live in our consumer-based economy - and that could have a reason to care - are happy with the Beats they can get their hands on, because spending more than $250 on a pair of headphones is ridiculous even for them. But mainly, because the evermore grotesque economic inequality they are subjected to, they have begun to realize that the consumer-based economy is just a ficticious BS world, in which few get rich and wealthy by standing on others shoulders, and by creating false necessities and products with programmed obsolescence that just contaminate the environment and make more people miserable elsewhere.

I have a DIY O2 and a pair of used Q701s I bought on e-bay, that's my rig right now, the one I consider "reasonably" priced for performance, and the one that makes me happy everytime I can enjoy it. I don't care for overpriced headphones that would have my family eating worse or less a month or two - just to keep markets and economies (and egos) rolling and growing -, and I have friends that come home to sit down and play music for hours in better quality than any hifi rig can try to fool you with. I got tired of all the unconscious frivolities and disconsideration towards our loved ones and our environment, tired of this BS "high-fidelity" crap; I sold my gear and moved on. This is my last post in ANY "hifi" forum.



maelob's picture

wow Cami, I guess I understand your noble perspective. You are making me feel like a spoiled privileged consumerist capitalist. Damm and I just ordered a 1K pair of speakers and i drive an Audi. I understand the world is not fair, it is kind of hard to change society. You bring a good philosophical point thats probably beyond this blog. Should I give up all my hobbies and help the have nots? Dont have a good answer for that. Still your "affordable" 701s could feed a family. So we are all part of this. How to fix it. Well in my case I voted Democrat and donate money to Green Peace. just my two cents. 

AGB's picture

As we gorge ourselves in the high life in America, much of the world is deprived of Abyss headphones at $5500. It is social injustice! A public hanging for those who can afford over $100 headsets is in order. The proletariat won't stand for this outrage. Che, where are you when we need you to execute the well-heeled and take their homes? Run those Ferraris off the road, burn the Mercedeses with their occupants and replace those Harleys with Honda scooters with a single seat to be shared by the whole family! They didn't make Casio watches so that others can wear Pateks! This world is unfair, inequality is running rampant! Imagine, some of us are using headphone amps costing $199 that come wrapped in bubble packs at a time when Malaysian workers who lost their jobs at Apple would produce just as good products for $197 wrapped in plain plastic bags.

The principle feature of American liberalism is sanctimoniousness. By loudly denouncing all bad things - war and hunger and date rape - liberals testify to their own terrific goodness. More importantly, they promote themselves to membership in a self-selecting elite of those who care deeply about such things... It's a kind of natural aristocracy, and the wonderful thing about this aristocracy is that you don't have to be brave, smart, strong or even lucky to join it, you just have to be liberal.

At the core of liberalism is the spoiled child - miserable, as all spoiled children are, unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, despotic and useless. Liberalism is a philosophy of sniveling brats.

-- PJ O'Rourke, 1991 from Parliament of Whores


Liberals: Just add water and put for 5 minutes into the liberal echo chamber, then sprinkle with some self-rigtheousness and enjoy Oscar winning original comedy. Box office success is not guaranteed. May result in drug addiction, uncontrollable anger toward fellow Americans, incoherent spontaneous rambling, and repeated promises to move to Canada.


Democrats are sexy. I mean, who ever heard of a nice piece of elephant?


Liberals are against nuclear weapons, but can you suggest a soy-bassed susbstitute that can obliterate cities?

Liberals are always inflaming the culture wars, but they forget who has all the guns.

Liberals are always whining for tolerance, but when I punch them for that, they get moody,


You should know: All people are born alike except Republicans and Democrats.

Getting serious about it CAMI, and this is hardly the forum to address political grievances, THE REASON your thinking doesn't work in the real world is because thousands, millions of good wishes and billions of dollars won't make a drop of difference, and that can be explained in this video about immigration that addresses your  concerns for the very same obvious reasons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t976q6CeN8Q

Bronxboy58's picture

The affinity for Beats headphones arises from the desire to mimic the athletes and stars who wear them.  This is why Nike has been so successful with their shoes - the desire to be like Mike or other celebrity endorsers.  The purchase of a pair of Beats headphones is less about the sound and more about status.

i believe the path taken by Skullcandy best approximates what is necessary to win market share- reach out to specific interests.  Opening a flurry of dedicated headphone stores is not going to lessen Beats stranglehold on the market.

thelostMIDrange's picture

perhaps it's that 'escape through sound' that's needed to keep hifi'ers at peace and why they need those supra real extraordinary qualities in their sound to achieve eargasms. It ain't about fidelity people. Please. A basic honest sound would only remind them where they were and how much injustice and sorrow there is.

Hifi'ers will always be a thin slice of a pie that no type of hifi propaganda campaign will increase. You are either born with an interest in sound or you could care less. And that careless percentage are the sheep ripe for shearing that establishment low ethic HIFI is coming out of the woodwork to 'serve'. It is this distasteful aspect that is driving me out of the hobby in any case. There's little joy in buying a toy that was designed by a mind that thinks in price points.

Lorfa's picture

Razer Tiamat gaming headphones. 

They have 10 drivers in them for "true" surround sound. This could not be more of a gimmick, but I am curious as to what effect this has on the soundstage, and if the signature is a mess.


maelob's picture

Agree with your comments about the need for headphone stores. It is kind of sad that there are no places to try different brands of headphones. Some brick mortar shops may carry a few brands but in my opinon not enough. Even at Best Buy with their crappy selection of headphones, are a challenge since most of the time their demo headphones set ups are horrible because connections are bad or headphones are broken. It is funny the best headphone store Ive been in the US was inside an airport. The guy at the store told me I could try whatever they had in stock with my own source. wow I almost fainted, because they carried really good brands. AKG, shure, psb, sennheiser,etc. I wish we had more stores like that. I think some people are failing to capitalize on this gap. I recently read a blog article about this headphone store in Japan wow talking about heaven. They had every possible brand imaginable new and used and you could try whatever you want. Wow. Also heard about headphones store in Philippines and Singapore. It is about time some entrepreneurs capitalize on this. In the meantime I will keeping reading your reviews and just plain trial and error. LOL By the way I just bought the MAD DOGs and they sound really good. keep the good work 

Jim Tavegia's picture

I am about a conservative as they come, but even I know that the crime of our generation is the greed that permeates our societies and that with all of our resources we should not have one hungry or shoeless person on our planet.  

I say that but when either elected governments or dictators only worry about "what's in it for me", we are where we are today...countries spending more on bombs than feeding and caring for their citizens. The effort to create health-care for all has turned out to be the biggest joke of any presidency. 

Once the system is in place we have millions who choose handouts over opportunity every time and pandering legislators doing what it takes to  win re-election. $300 headphones and $250 Kicks, many worry more about that and having the lastest cell phone or tablet then worry about graduating from high school with a real-diploma rather than a certificate of attendance. Only in America. 

We have lost sight of what is really important...now it is style over substance. I don't fault manufacturers as they only make what the public wants. 

thelostMIDrange's picture

but greed and lack of ethic has to figure into the equation.

What's really goin on though is 'the movie-theatre-ization' of sound. Some in the newest generations seem to want their sound and headphones to sound like they're in a movie theatre listening to an overly dramatic soundtrack with its over realistic booming bass and ultra wicked dynamics. And some of the people dialing in the headphones are similarly aligned either because they have the same interest or they just want to serve that demographic and profit off it. Fine, but call a spade a spade and do not mix that in with anything resembling hifi or even midfi. A more appropriate term for it would be something like Ultra-Lofi. Beats would fit in this category. A downtown movie theatre in this case.

I suggest that if any headphone wants to call itself hifi or as something having fidelity, it should be final tested and approved by musicians. People who are intimitely familiar with how real open air instruments sound.  If such folk were directly involved in tuning and approving hifi products I'll bet they'd end up looking better on graphs and measurements.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Thanks, as always,  for all the great postings from CES and this really insightful article. I love the question posed, and answers received, from the 3 different companies.

My take is this:  Beats arent the enemy...actually they are to be thanked.   For right-or-wrong,  they have almost single handedly pushed the headphone industry into the forefront.    In a time where video stores (RIP Blockbuster) and CD stores and book stores are fading into electronic existence,  headphones and headphone sales are increasing....just walk into a local Best Buy and see how prominently the isles of headphones are being displayed.   Beats was the catalyst.    My compliments for them end there.   They may have created the market but they equally fail it when it comes to (in my opinion) two key factors:   sound quality and value-for-money.      Thats where the competition comes in.     Buuuut the challenge is that the consumers...the target consumers....dont necessarily care about these two factors.    I think skullcandy's reply to your question best captured that.    

In the end i think this growing market will result in alot more options.   And, within those options,  we fans of wonderful sound will be rewarded with new and improved cans once and a while.   Thats why this site is so helpful:  weeding out the "meh" and reviewing the "wow".    

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


lafaard's picture

I am outraged by all these "serious" tech websites like Cnet, Laptopmag etc...because they only review headphones above 150$ with very rare exceptions like the noontec zorro. Now imagine your typical consumer who wants to make an informed purchase. That consumer will typically go online and browse a tech website. That consumer will only see reviews for expensive headsets, and will probably (very likely) buy an expensive headset. This is brainwashing the public into thinking: "If it is not expensive, it is garbage". It wasn't like this before the Beats headphones craze. Everybody was jamming to some tunes on their white earbuds. Nobody cared about sound quality (or rather a marketing scheme to charge big bucks for slightly above average audio). Seriously, why can't any website review the JVC S400 and S500, JVC FX40, JVC HARX700, Superlux HD 681 EVO, Koss KSC75!? These headphones have been around for years and offer the best value under 50$ (and give those ridiculously expensive headphones a run for their money). 


The Federalist's picture

I agree with the posters above to an extent... Fretting over Beats unbalanced market shair of the headphone industry as though it is somehow an issue of ethics or morality may be taking things a bit too seriously in regard to this one specific issue.... This is ultimately just a hobby born out of gadget consumerism.... These are just toys for adults after all... not something to which we attach meaning in life.

That said I get the angst... Tyll, especially as devoted to the hobby as you have been... If anyone does have a good reason to attach a certain level of meaning or thier own identity to headphones, it would be Mr. Hertsens. And though I get that these are just toys that adult men like to play with... As a spoiled, red blooded, capitalist swine American consumer... it drives me crazy everytime I go into Best Buy and hear that they have EQ'd Sennheiser, Audio Technica, Shure and Koss headphones at the audition racks down to treble heavy, thin sounding tin cans.

That is what America's "capitalist" culture is controlled by....  Best Buy sells what they want you to buy.... So does Nordstroms's, Macy's, REI, Home Depot, & Sears.

Using the shoe analogy.... You can spend $300 on a pair of crappy bonded leather shoes made in a sweatshop in China... with total cost of manufacturing around $25 bucks. In a couple years the shoes will be worthless, worn out and falling apart.... but you'll gladly go back to Nordstrom's and buy the same pair of John Varvatos or Cole Haan shoes because they have "quality" brand recongnition.... even though the product you are getting are essentially just a mite few steps above garbage.

A smart consumer could, for $300, have had hand made benchcrafted shoes made by trained cobblers in England with calfskin leathers. Shops like Loake, Cheney and Grenson have been making handcrafted shoes for 250 years.... and if taken care of those shoes could last you the next 20 years or your dying day. 

But that is a dangerous proposition for the American corporation.... Product obsolescence keeps spend happy Americans coming back to market with our cash in hand begging the power brokers to rob us blind. Sell me something that cost you $25.00 to make for $250.00 please, please, I'll even give a certain portion of my self identity to your brand....

America's fast food culture goes far deeper than just our french fries. We are "Ford"
men or "Chevy" men. We wear t-shirts with billboards slapped across them. We identify our lifestyle with a certain short list of brands that we gravitate towards.

Corporations/ Madison Ave./ the media complex.... They are the ones driving this. So the game is rigged, and it sucks. But Beats didn't create the game they are just playing along. In all honesty Phillips Fidelio, Audeze, Hifiman, Skull Candy, V-Moda, and all the other companies that have saturated the market might not even exist if not for Beats. You could argue that a Headphone centric website like Inner Fidelity wasn't viable before Beats.

So you have to acknowledge the good they've done along with the bad. But like I said, I get where you are coming from Tyll. It does suck. 

lafaard's picture

So it seems popular to criticize beats amongst "audiophiles". It is the representation of a greedy brand that sells average gear for big money. I get that. But then you probably wear 300$ V-Moda/Sennheiser/Bose/Philips/B&W/B&O/Sony headphones on your head. I guess it is OK to blow your money on these brands and become associated with them. They are known for their sound quality.

timmyw's picture

My brain can't seem to let this go. Sorry for the late join in this conversation. I have been thinking about it a lot. For one I don't understand why there has to be Headphone only stores. I mean we're all crazy headphone fanatics or the idea wouldn't even come up. 

To me that would be like having a store that specialised in door handles and not other hardware adjuncts. Or a spare parts store that stocked only left hand doors for cars. I dunno I guess I am still in the "Audio as a whole" frame of mind. 

I genuinely believe after thinking about this for a long time that a lot of people have been decieved by marketing. Especially where Beats are concerned. They aren't products designed to repoduce music the best they can. They are products designed to look and feel a certain way. And sound a certain way.

I made a point on Head fi in some conversation recently that Beats were called that because really, that's all you can hear with them. And I guess they make it sound as if you're in a nightclub somewhere with that vague thumping floating around. It's a dance oriented sound.

Perhaps the sound of Beats really does matter. Maybe we got it wrong and they are perfect for young people. 

Personally I don't believe they will go out of fashion. And if they start to the boffins in the research department will come up with a new look that will sell like hot cakes. Mmmm hot cakes.

The whole idea that people buy headphones because they are cool disturbs me greatly. I don't get it. Surely you buy them for an intimate musical experience? Surely you would buy the ones that sounded the best to you for the money you have?

Well, no. People don't. Especially young people. They buy them because of the way they look, feel and the experience you get opening them. Like a special gift. They actually just don't care how they sound opposed to how they look. 

The shoe analogy that Tyll came up with wasn't a direct comparison of like vs. like it was a euphamism to describe just how much these headphones are selling. It was designed to show you how crazy well these things sell. It wasn't meant to be a statement of essential headphones in modern society and how much we all need these things. At least it didn't feel that way reading the article.

The truth is consumers do NOT have highly tuned bullshit detectors. They buy bullshit every day. Hell we all buy shit we don't need every.. single.. day. We do so a lot of the time because of the crazy amount of advertising and propaganda and marketing being forced down our throats, whether we want it or not.

That stuff stays in our heads. It's there forever. Admit it or not you are directly and indirectly influenced in your purchasing patterns by marketing every single time you buy something. That is the beauty of Beats. They targeted the perfect demographic for the product they chose. These things weren't meant to sound good they were meant to sell millions of units and make people a lot of money with clever tactics.

Tyll's right. The only way to truly beat that kind of system is with education. The problem is they already are educated. Educated in Beats. The more these things sell the more other people will want them and the more they will sell. They'll be around for a loooooooooooong time, so get used to them.

Jazz Casual's picture

I have no problem with beats headphones or the beats marketing phenomenon. I think it's highly unlikely that I would buy a pair for myself, but I'm not going to look down my nose at someone who does - especially if they derive enjoyment from ownership. 

jeckyll's picture

.... I don't remember where I read it, but I believe a lot of the renewed interested in headphones has been driven by the introduction of beats. 


As such, having a strong leader in the industry, even one with a sup-par product, can be a real boost as it drives up demand for the category over all.  I wonder how many beats customers eventually try some other headphones, end up on a headphone site like head-fi or innerfidelity?  If so, it's good for all of us as the overall market growth help competitors to beats.


Think of beats as a gateway drug to the headphone world ;)


iMatt's picture


My name is Matt. I've worked in retail for (4) years and currently in Geek Squad as a consultation agent (advising repairs and techonology needs). If there's one thing I'd like to chime in about this, people will buy what makes them happy. In the eyes of the consumer, they either know what they want or they're predispositioned towards one item or another. Beats have a lot of great things going for them if you take sound out of the equation. Price points for each tier, great aesthetics, color options, and others recognize them immediately. Beats will be bought like people order scotch without knowing the brand. They know what it is, but not the traits of it. 

Beats may not be great sounding, but is that a bad thing? I love audio with everything that's in me....but how I love audio is not how everyone loves audio. Someone with Beats can love audio just as much as myself. Someone who likes cars doesn't need to drive a Lancer EVO. 

I've seen kids come in with their parents to buy Beats and you know what, they're excited. Their eyes light up and smile when they put them on, they feel cool and like what they hear. It's the same look we get when we throw on our beyerdynamics off a schiit rigg with some 24-bit lossless files. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. The joy of audio. 

I wish the audio community would move past this Beats subject. Who Cares? We have guys making Mad-dogs, LCD3's, and liquid gold amps. We have our own market and so does everyone else. It's AWESOME. 

Tyll, I love your articles and all you do for the community. Outside of the jokes, Let's just move past Beats altogether and accept the modern music community for what it is.