Headphone News: February 11, 2013

Monster Launders Panties
In a marvelously juicy bit of reportage, Sam Biddle's Gizmodo piece "Beat By Dre: The Exclusive Inside Story of How Monster Lost the World" brings to light the whole story (or at least as much of it as we're likely to hear) of how the most important thing to happen to headphones in the last 20 years was actually a disaster for Monster...and a coup for Dre.

Rather like the stunning shock of a bloody freeway accident amidst the orderly movement of traffic, readers will find that what we thought was the orderly building of an empire was in truth Kevin Lee naively handing over the keys of Dad's kingdom into the cut-throat claws of Dre, Iovine, and Interscope Records, leaving Noel holding a monstrous bag of nothing at the end.

Apart from the juxtaposition of lurid pleasure and taste of a little puke in my mouth, my read of the article leaves me wondering two things:

1) Who exactly was leaking all this information to Biddle? And why? It seems to me this is a revelation too large not to have been part of a strategic move toward some end. Or was it possibly a gasping clutch at straws as Monster suffers the loss of a piece of the huge Beats market share?

2) It leaves tantalizingly unaddressed the reasons for Kevin Lee's exodus from Monster to found SOL Republic, a lower price fashion headphone brand.

The comments after the article are also enlightening. The overwhelming response seems to be, "Ha ha Monster, karma is a bitch."

Which leads us nicely to our next three stories...

Swizz Beatz Drops Big Bux to Own a Piece of the Monster
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Okay, I know I'm no longer a passenger on the Hip Train so I've never even heard of this guy, but from Monster's press release and numerous news stories (Billboard, Forbes) rapper/DJ/producer/entrepreneur Swizz Beatz has just bought himself a piece of Monster and a seat on their board of directors. No details on how much cash was exchanged in the transaction, but this is no doubt Noel Lee's attempt to recapture the magic that was Dre and Beats. Presumably Beatz headphones with a 'z' are in our future.

With Beats holding a 64% share of premium headphones, one wonders if anyone, even Noel Lee and Monster, has the remotest chance of making a substantial dent in Dre's domination. Somehow, I don't think that's the way it's going to work. My guess is that many parties in the market will eat away at the Beats empire, and in, say, 10 years, we'll see 5-10 serious players vying for the fashion/celebrity premium headphone market. Sadly, headphones like that will still probably own the lions share of sales, but hopefully sound quality will rise in the face of a stiffer competitive environment.

We'll see, but Monster and Beatz will likely be making moves soon. Keep your eye out.

Beats Sues Yamaha
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Beats Studio model headphone on the left, Yamaha's Pro 500 on the right.

I guess I see the need for intelectual property rights protection, but these days it just seems out of hand. From Apple suing Samsung, to Monster suing a miniature golf course, it all just seems so unseemly to me. Yuck.

Last week, Beats brought a suit in California federal court against Yamaha Electronics for trade dress infringement, patent infringement, and unfair competition. As reported at Law360.com (this is a pay for content site, and you'll need to sign up for a free sample subscription to see the whole article), "Beats Electronics seeks judgment that Yamaha infringed Beats Electronics' patents and trade dress and an order permanently enjoining Yamaha from further acts of infringement and awarding damages for all gains derived from the infringement, along with reasonable attorneys' fees." You can read the full court filing docket number 8:13-cv-00209 here.

After assembling the image above from pictures of both products, I've got to say that Beats may have a point. The headband mechanism looks virtually identical, as does the overall shape. There is quite a bit of difference in that the outside of the earpiece is visible through a hole in the Beats, while the Yamaha product has the earpiece completely within the the outer shape of the headphone arm.

Despite the resemblance, my care-factor remains at about zero. Why aren't they spending time and money on making their next generation product? Being creative and doing new things is the best defense against copy-cats.

Dolby Wins Battle in Long Running Logo War with Monster
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In a tangled tussle of suits and counter-suits overflowing with legalese so as to be virtually impenetrable to mere mortals, Law360 reports that Dolby lawers have managed to convince a federal judge to throw key Monster claims out of the ongoing trademark dispute.

You'll have to read the Law360 article---a law degree will help---to get the full story, but a good look at the image above will give you an idea of how silly these things can get. I'm sorry, if it were me I just wouldn't be spending money to fund this lawyer bitch-slap contest.

Ick. I feel the need for a shower now. Let's move on to happier news.

Onkyo Enters the Headphone Game
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I missed their premier at CES, but was aware that Onkyo was showing its first entries into the headphone market. The ES-FC300 ($149) is an on-ear headphones with a largely aluminum construction and flat tangle free cable that will be available in black, violet, and white. The ES-HF300 ($179) is the same headphone with a 6N copper cable ostensibly to improve the sound. Currently the cans don't have cable remotes, but they are connectorized and removable, and I would expect a smartphone compatible cable sometime in future. Product pages are up here, but product is not expected to be available for another month.

Also soon to appear and likewise in aluminum dress are two in-ear models, the IE-FC300 ($99) and IE-HF300 ($129). Like their bigger brothers in the line, the HF model uses a 6N copper cable, and the FC models will be available with color option. They should follow shortly after the on-ear models are available.

Meridian Launches Explorer Portable USB DAC
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Hot on the heals of AudioQuest's recent Dragonfly USB DAC introduction, Meridian has just entered the portable USB DAC/headphone amp fray with it's Explorer ($299). All the buzzwords seem nicely in place for this little DAC from one of the giants of the high-end audio world.

  • 24bit/192kHz native conversion capability
  • Separate low-jitter crystal oscillators for 44k1 and 48k based sample rates
  • Asynchronous data transfer
  • 6 layer PCB
  • USB2 mini B socket - Plug and Play with MAC (Windows driver available)
  • Direct-coupled outputs
  • Variable line out - Full Analogue Volume Control for headphones or powered loudspeakers
  • Headphone amp
  • Fixed line out - 3.5mm connects directly to audio system
  • Optical digital output - full resolution for receivers or DACS (up to 96kHz)
  • Elegant metal case - durable and increases audio performance
  • Lights to indicate incoming sample rate

Yessireebob, I've already begun the process to get one of these into an InnerFidelity writers hands. Meridian is a company that seems to know how to do things really, really well. I'm smiling. TTVJ has them in stock, get 'em while they're hot!

Cool Video from 1964 Ears on How Custom In-Ear Monitors are Made

Steve Guttenberg alerted me to this video saying it was not only very informative, but very nicely produced. Heck yeah! It is indeed. I've seen this process at a number of manufacturers facilities, but I've never seen a video that explains it so well. Thanks for the inside look! You can visit their website here.

Impulse's picture

Patent wars like those are obnoxious to no end and are often resolved to the detriment of the consumer, but they still provide an interesting read into the inner workings of the industry. Personally I think it speaks volumes about the companies at the center of it all in the two markets I tend to read most about these days (mobile devices and headphones, Apple and Monster/Beats).

The Meridian portable DAC looks super interesting and it seems to improve upon the Dragonfly in a few key ways, looking forward to a review.

MGGWhite's picture


Dear Tyll,

It is strickling how Yamaha developed a great headphone, the Pro 500 and unfortunately thought that it was a good idea to design it like the beats.

If you have the chance to listen to the pro500 (I highly recommend you to do so, you will be surprised) the Yamaha is indeed an audiphile headphone, with extreme clarity, great musicality, good punch in the bass but very well controlled, and very good mids and highs. It is indeed a fantastic sounding headphone that is miles beyond the beats in SQ, and yet they made them look similar. How unfortunate!

Two different headphones, one excellent and the other below average, that look similar!

Will be good to hear your oppinion about the Yamaha Pros!

Keep the good work.

ultrabike's picture

"I guess I see the need for intelectual property rights protection, but these days it just seems out of hand."

"... naively handing over the keys of Dad's kingdom into the cut-throat claws of ..."

Unfortunately, it seems it's not all R&D costs there. Crazy marketing seems to be another one (celebrity endorsement, and such.) Manufacturing blues yet another one. Poor planning... frown

Onkyo's market entry is exciting news though smiley