Headphone News: January 28, 2013

Dre still tops the headphone charts.
NPD reports on headphones here and here have spurred news outlets to report on the wildly growing segment, and the news is both good and bad. The good news is that the U.S. sales of headphones that cost $100 or more increase by a whopping 73% year-over-year in 2012. In fact, 43% of all headphone purchases is in this category, and those buying them have an average of 2.3 over-$100 cans at home. So yeah, headphones are well established in the popular consciousness now.

The bad news? Beats continues to radically dominate the premium headphone market with a 64% share! Two of every three headphones sold over $100 has the big red "b" on it. Un-friggen-believable! If it was done on the back of an honest focus on good sound, I wouldn't mind a bit...but it's not. I thought the Beats CEO Luke Woods quote from this Times article telling:

But the company's greatest innovation may have been its success at making headphones as much fashion accessories as they are listening devices. "If you're wearing a pair of Beats, it says, 'Music's really important in my life,' says Wood. "I've seen people wearing them at parties with hundreds of people, and they've got their Beats around their neck. It's no different than somebody wearing a Run DMC T-shirt and Adidas shoes, or the guy who always wears a Metallica T-shirt."

So do the math: Beats pulls in more than $200 million dollars and considers it "no different than someone wearing a Run DMC t-shirt." I'm sorry, but I feel headphones should first and foremost do honor to the art of music and faithfully reproduce what the artist and engineers wanted you to hear. Two hundred million bucks is plenty squeeze out a real acoustics development effort and to truly deliver on a brand promise of better sound.

"People aren't hearing all the music." Ha! Indeed.

Sony builds its first portable headphone amp.

21 years ago as HeadRoom's founder, I built the first commercially available portable headphone amplifier. At the time, my justification was that Sony would never put really good headphone amplifiers in their portable audio products because 95% of people really wouldn't care.

Sony recently announced its first portable headphone amplifier product, the PHA-1. With the exception of a rather high output impedance, Sony seems to have thought this product out very well, and have included iDevice digital compatibility, gain switch, up to 24/96 USB digital bit-rates, and a very nice strap system for attaching your portable player.

What makes this product introduction newsworthy to me though is I see it as a tacit admission that portable players from major makers will never have really good headphone amplifiers in them. And that means that aftermarket portable headphone amplifiers will always have a role to play in high-performance personal audio systems.

All we need now is universal USB digital audio hosting capability from smartphones---which seems to be coming along nicely---and we'll be off to the races. Seems to me this move by Sony will encourage the process.

New CEO for HeadRoom

Yes, another one. Ivy Burford has recently been replace by Jamey Warren as HeadRoom's new CEO. Ivy was a very good choice for CEO after Travis Waller left. Ivy knows HeadRoom and its business very well. She's whip crackin' smart, has very good people skills, and never shied away from a tough job. But she also knew she was missing one very important ingredient for being a HeadRoom CEO: She's not an audio geek, and she knew it would be a fatal mistake for HeadRoom's leader to lack that characteristic. She decided it was in HeadRoom's best interest to find a CEO with that characteristic.

I don't know the ins-and-outs of how the choice was made, but I can tell you that it makes perfect sense to me to see Jamey tapped for the position. Jamey had spent years at HeadRoom in both sales and product development areas, but he's also an audio geek and music lover to the core. I think he's got a great shot at doing some interesting things for HeadRoom.

I have no more official ties to HeadRoom other than measuring headphones for them, but I do get over there once or twice a month and maintain a friendly relationship with the folks. So, I've got a peripheral understanding of some of the challenges facing the company, and some idea of the directions they're thinking about exploring. My take? First, boy am I glad I don't have to climb entrepreneurial mountains anymore! And second, boy that's a good group of folks and I miss working with them sometimes. I think they've got interesting times ahead, and the beginnings of a solid vision for HeadRoom.

No sour grapes from me, I love my job at InnerFidelity, and I think HeadRoom is in good hands. The future will be challenging and difficult for both of us...same as it ever was.

For back story: Travis Waller's thread thanking me; HeadRoom's blog post introducing Ivy as CEO; Jamey's post on the HeadRoom blog announcing him as CEO; and a nice bit of insight into Jamey with his Reddit "Ask Me Anything" thread, and CEO announcement thread at Head-Fi.

Numark Redphone ($69.95)

I wish I had more experience knowing what DJs really want. It does seem to me that DJ headphones often don't adress their needs particularly well. Numark appears to be shaking things up a bit with an unusual approach with their new Redphone...or so I thought. Evidently DJs have been making "lollipop headphones" for quite a while now. Here's a thread on how to make one, and here's someone that custom makes them. At any rate, you can find more about the Numark Redphone here.

Hit by Train Wearing Headphones

I'm going to do this feature regularly, because it happens WAY TOO OFTEN! Please be careful wearing headphones while out and about, it's very easy to get inattentional blindness and do something dangerous unintentionally.

In the last couple of weeks, incidents of people hit by a train wearing headphones were reported in Albuquerque, Montreal, Florida, and Mississippi. Please listen safely!

Jamey Warren's picture

Thanks for spreading the word Tyll. We all miss working with you but it seems that you're happy and doing what you love to do. It's always great to see you so please stop by anytime, even if you don't have a good reason. I hope to have a beer or glass of whiskey with you soon.

Seth195208's picture


If  Sony says the amp supports headphone impedances from 8 ohms and up, doesn't that mean it has a very low output impedance? I imagine that they must be catering to their lowest impedance earphones, the 8 ohm XBA 4.

Reticuli's picture

It would need a near-zero ohm output impedance to cater to an 8 ohm headphone.  So you're making the assumption they actually know what they're doing and care about deep bass and smoother, more consistent highs.  Still, I don't see a specific indication of what the inherent output impedance is on the amp section.  In that spec sheet & press release I only see mentions of the output impedance when output wattage is mentioned, which is necessary to state together.


Tyll, where'd you find the jack's inherent output impedance spec, as opposed to output in watts at a given impedance load?

Limp's picture

I'm also a bit puzzled by this. They say it is compatible with 8Ω IEMs, but nowhere I can see do they state the actual output impedance.
I am liable to follow Tyll's assertion for two reasons: One, they measure maximum power output at 10% THD, which is rather misleading. Two, every portable Sony device I've had personal experience with have an output impedance of ~16Ω, including the PCM-D50 an several modern Walkmen.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Great piece, Tyll. I'll look forward to more of these. Thanks!

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Jamey:   congrats on the new gig...best of luck to you.   I poked around on your site and do like the layout.   For me,  a relatively recent convert to "obssessed with headphones",  the most important factor is arming the consumer with the best choices, and best sounding cans that fit their budget.  Thats why Tyll and crew really nail it on this site...they cover a wide spectrum and focus on the sound.    My last 5 pairs of headphones were purchased as a result of that kind of honest, fact-based, sound-based reporting.

Tyll:   Awesome report!  keep em coming!     I find the whole Beats discussion pretty tricky...i agree with everything you said 110%...however im torn as i do think that regardless of the fact Beats are insanely overpriced for what you get (they are) and that their sound quality could/should be several degrees higher (it should),  that they are helping the industry overall...i think...by raising awareness of higher quality headphones...and, potentially,  pushing other manufactuers to make more models and focus more on better quality sound at "affordable" prices.   Ive even flip flopped on the idea of headphones as a fashon statement...while i could care less (benefits of age i suppose),  i think its great that they are a fashion statement if it brings more folks to discover music and good sound.  Also..my guess is that a high (VERY high) percentage of Beats purchasers are not really all that into sound quality yet...its not necessarily their fault...its just that, again,  i think there are benefits of age when it comes to appreciating sound quality.    Im not really trying to cut Beats any slack as i LOATHE them (have tried a few of their headphones...nothing like having a non-replacable cord fail in 2 months and find that the company refuses to warranty or even consider repairing) but i am hopeful that the industry overall and, moreso,  the fans of great sounding headphones overall will benefit.   

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


Reticuli's picture

A year and a half ago I wanted to do a marketing research project for one of my MBA classes on headphones but it was considered too small and obscure a market, both from a research data standpoint that we had access to through Oxygen but also from an interest standpoint. I did eventually convince them to let me do it on athletic shoes, only to push the project (on my own selfish volition) into the area of minimalist shoes and VFFs. Now CES has more new headphones than any other category and minimalist shoes have taken over (well, almost on the latter). I am awesome. I know.

Another little area: Any idea how expensive the club standard of DJing equipment is now? It will run you about 5-7 grand starting just for the source front-end. We're not even talking about the booth monitors. No longer can you spend $1500 or less and be prepared for the booth. It's a rich kids' game, care of free gear from Pioneer to top DJs and clubs. Joy. Sure, Beats are expensive, but they aren't fully 5X pricier than similar competition… well, maybe the Pros, but those are aluminum. And it's not like there aren't gig-preventing alternatives. Their noise canceling does work and has certain intended, designed-in uses that many people are not aware.

Monster & Beats helped make big headphones (as opposed to the white cables) both hip and common place, and those of us with REAL quality ones even cooler... or so I like to think. I don't entirely understand the allure of the Beats branding. I guess it's geared to a laymen segment of non-intelligentsia who are both casual about selection (blasé even) and like to throw money around without stressing too much about it. I think we called that satisficing versus maximizing… and bling. While there are exceptions with certain musicians and engineers, we don't expect most rappers and music producers to geek-out about gear -- in or out of the studio. I even recall Butch Vig saying he tries not to overdo the technical gear aspect at the expensive of music and process.

On the subject of portable players, I wonder how much the new Sony amp/dac has to do with the EU's freaky big brother restrictions on consumer electronics.  I know they regulate all sorts of stuff in a way that make California look like the wild west or China.  First, they went after the ingredients in make-up and baby food, and we did nothing.  Then they went after our external power supplies on pro electronics, and we did nothing.  Then they went after our portable media players' maximum headphone output.  But seriously, they totally have restrictions on how much electrical output one of these players or phones can have, as if all headphones are created equal.  I know this has been a longterm issue, but in Europe it's much worse.

Seth195208's picture

The op amp used by the Sony is the reason behind the high output impedance assumption. 

mikeaj's picture

LME49860 output impedance is very low (for typical usage, gains), and as far as I can tell with a quick search, it's not even used for the output, so its output impedance is irrelevant anyway.  It's not a high-current part, so you probably wouldn't use it to drive headphones.

Seems like Sony is using the TI TPA6120 for the output.  That's the (pretty much) repurposed and rebadged DSL line driver used for the headphone output in the FiiO E9, Asus Xonar Essence ST / STX, and many others.  For stability when driving reactive loads, they recommend using it with a 10 ohms resistor (which is not the only possible solution), so you see these designs using TPA6120 generally following that and having slightly more than 10 ohms output impedance.

I see a figure of 10.22 ohms quoted somewhere for the PHA-1.  That's fine for most headphones and IEMs, but probably not some of Sony's own like the XBA-4 and so on.  I don't think I've seen an impedance graph for the XBA line though.  The high-end MDR-EX600 / EX1000 and many others should be okay though.  Hopefully none of this info is way off target, considering I just spent a few minutes poking around.

mikeaj's picture

For $100+ headphones (MSRP? or street? probably MSRP) or for any type of goods really, 64% is a pretty staggering market share.  And consider all of the players in the market; it's not an area where there are only two or three companies battling it out.

Now I wonder how much of the remaining 36% is Bose, and what percent of those users are best served by having a Bose set with active noise canceling.  angry

markus's picture

Thanks for measuring the Sennheiser Ovation II, Tyll! Where did you get it from?