InnerFidelity Ranks Headphone Manufacturers Page 2

Big Enough to Matter...Maybe
The following companies are fairly large firms selling to the consuming public, but don't have nearly the power to influence that market the above powerhouse companies do. Their task will largely be to find a strong brand identity attractive to particular market segments and establish beachheads to hold and grow incrementally.

In alphabetical order:

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_AKG AKG
AKG's historic position in audiophile and audio-pro markets will continue...but they're going to have to get off their butt and start developing some better offerings. I found their recent flagship K812 ($1499) offering sonically abysmal, and the annual rehashing of the decent but aging K7XX family is getting tiresome for the intended audience.

Like JBL, I think AKG has fairly strong brand recognition and is a worthy property, but has been underperforming for too long. If this brand is to remains strong, it's going to need some significant attention. The shuttering of the Vienna production plant and the recent Samsung purchase of Harman Intl. are good starting points for a revitalization of the brand. I have hopes, but I think it's going to take a while before AKG becomes relevant...much less influential.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_AudioTechnica Audio Technica
Audio Technica might be worthy of a spot in the powerhouse section of this survey having a dizzying array of headphone offerings. Unfortunately, to my ears, they always seem to come in as an "also ran" position relative to companies like Sennheiser, Shure, AKG, and Beyerdynamic. I've found their noise canceling headphones generally poor compared to those of Bose and Sennheiser. AT's high-end products always seem a bit bright to me, and frankly I'm getting a bit tired of their "3D Wing Support" headband system that has never delivered a truly comfortable and secure fit on my head.

None the less, Audio Technica has a number of very strong headphone offerings including the SonicPro ATH-IM02 ($299) IEM reviewed recently by ljokerl, the incisive ATH-MSR7 ($249) full-sized sealed headphone, and, of course, the justifiably famous ATH-M50x ($189)—and absolutely terrific sounding headphone and my "go to" recommendation for people looking for their first serious headphone.

I think Audio Technica is in a good position to move forward, but probably has some work to do ridding itself of legacy and underperforming product in order to get lean and mean in market segments where the brand is already doing well but could do better—pro-audio, upscale consumers, DJs, and social media content producers.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Beyerdynamic Beyerdynamic
Much like Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic has a wide array of headphone offerings and falls just short of being a powerhouse as they too seem to have a hard time nailing sound quality on a consistant basis, and don't appear to be leading or influencing headphone trends.

Beyerdynamic, it seems to me, does a slightly better job than AT of breaking into the top slots of price/performance for a given headphone type, but they remain, like most headphone companies, erratic. I felt the flagship T1 ($1199) was fairly harsh sounding, as were many of the Tesla driver full-sized headphones. On the other hand, the smaller on-ear Tesla models like the DT1350 and T 51 p ($289) sound really good and are well built.

Beyerdynamic does low-cost headphones quite well, which gives them an opportunity in the youth market. I think they could improve on the styling, but the sound quality of the DTX 350 m ($59) and DT 235 ($69) is quite good at the price.

The headphone market is going to be demanding much more of makers in terms of styling, comfort, and build quality. Like AT, I think Beyerdynamic needs to get lean and mean in targeted market areas like pro-audio, upscale consumers, and audiophiles, and then nail the sound quality issue. Those groups know the Beyerdynamic name and will appreciate and buy on sound quality.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Creative Creative
On the one hand, Creative's only real claim to fame as a headphone maker is that they were smart enough to jump on Foster's OEM design when Denon dumped the AH-D1001 and revived it as the Creative Aurvana Live! (now $49!). They were smart a second time when after introducing the significantly worse sounding replacement Aurvana Live!2, they decided not to discontinue the original version. Generally speaking the rest of their headphones are meh.

On the other hand, Chan Ming Tat, Research Director of Creative's subsidiary E-Mu Systems, has been fiddling around with wooden cups for the Creative Aurvana Live! now dubbed the E-mu Walnut ($149). It sounds quite good. He's also revived the Denon AH-DX000 line with the E-Mu Teak (~$700), also available in Mahogany, Rosewood, and Ebony.

The gist here is I have no idea what Creative might do, but they obviously have an interest in a wide variety of personal audio products and they just might get a hair up their ass about headphones. They've got marketing skills, a good name, significant resources, and a headphone champion in their midst. They just might do something interesting.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Denon Denon
Denon seriously missed the boat when they abandon their older designs for inferior new ones. I doubt their interests really lie in personal audio and the direction it's going. It's going to be a whole 'nother world and I don't think they have a leg to stand on to launch themselves meaningfully forward into it.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Fostex Fostex
Fostex has made recent moves to the world of enthusiast headphones with their TH900Mk2 ($1499) and TH610 ($599) both of which I found to have inferior sound at their price points. This puzzles me as both these cans are variants of parent company Foster's OEM model 443742, from which the better sounding E-Mu Teak and Massdrop Fostex TH-X00 also derive. I know Fostex can make better sounding headphone, I just don't know why don't.

One can't mention Fostex without giving a nod to the planar magnetic RP line-up. Intended for pro- and semi-pro audio applications these low-cost headphones sound good at the price and are built like a tank. DIY headphone enthusiasts have modified the T50RP ($129) ad nauseam but are continually rewarded with surprisingly good sound.

I don't see Fostex becoming a relevant agent for change in the headphone world, but I do believe they're perfectly capable of making quality high-end and pro-audio headphones. They're just going to have to develop the will to really do it...or not.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Koss Koss
Koss is one of my favorite headphone companies...for sentimental reasons. On hot summer nights as a Junior in high school I'd have to pause Pink Floyd every half hour to wipe the sweat of my ears and the sticky plastic liquid-filled ear pads of my Koss Pro-4AA. For decades Koss made most of the headphones in Radio Shack. In 1984 John Koss revolutionized portable audio with the Porta-Pro ($49)—a headphone that over thirty years later remains a go-to recommendation from knowledgable enthusiasts as a low-cost headphone.

Koss isn't a one-trick pony, they have a number of worthy headphones: The ESP-950 ($999) has long been respected as a solid entry-level electrostatic; the KSC35 (44.99) clip-on sounds and works great for action sports under a beanie or helmet; and the more recently introduced SP330 ($129) is a bit pricy, but really good sounding mobile headphone.

Unfortunately, Koss' brand suffers from being old school and boring, and they had some recent financial setbacks under sad circumstances. Koss is perfectly capable of building solid price/performance headphones, especially in low-cost segments. Their problem now is how to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps with current product lines, and remake their brand and product image in the face of the current rapidly improving and ever more stylish headphone market. That's going to be a tough nut to crack...but my heart wants to see them do it.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Monster Monster
I see Moster as a fashion brand in the worst sense of the word. With very rare exception, every headphone I've head from them sucks. The product styling is brashly boastful bling. I'd wish they would go away, but that end of the Bell curve has to be held up so it might as well be someone who does it so exceedingly well.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_SOL SOL
Started by Kevin Lee, son of Noel Lee, founder of Monster Cable, I feel SOL Republic Headphones does a better job of producing a more stylish and quality product. Unfortunately to date I've not heard anything but mediocre sound quality.

I consider SOL something like a fashion brand and they may develop a niche following, but I doubt they'll move forward with credibility in the broader consumer market unless they up the anti with better sound quality.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Ultrasone Ultrasone
Ultrasone has been around quite a while and has made inroads to the pro-audio and enthusiast market. Product build quality is good, but I find the companies theories about how to present sound to the ear with their S-Logic technology flawed. A series of fairly large holes are in the baffle plate that allow a significant amount of the acoustic energy from the rear of the driver to come into the ear chamber. The intent here is to create a sound wave that more closely approximates the approaching planar wave-front of sound from a speaker. Unfortunately, I find the resulting signal quite ragged in general with Ultrasone cans and harsh to the ears. While presenting the ear with an angled planar wavefront as done by planar magnetic, electrostatic, and angled dynamic cans like the HD 800 S might indeed be a good idea, the S-Logic implementation does seem flawed to me.

For the most part, I do not recommend any Ultrasone headphones.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_VModa V-Moda
This is fashion headphones done right! While I find their tuning to be a bit far from neutral for me, I also think many bassheads will quite enjoy the sound. Build quality and styling—if you like V-Moda's particularly strong and distinctive design—are best-in-class.

The Crossfade M-100 ($310) is and extraordinarily well built headphones and colapses down to an astonishingly small size when stored in its very cool hard-side, clam-shell case. And the V-Moda XS ($212) on-ear adds what I would consider very near neutral sound to the outstanding styling and build quality found in all V-Moda product.

I think V-Moda's commitment to the highest standards of styling and build quality coupled with a solid understanding of sonic tunings for their particular customer's taste (roughly, music made by DJs) will cause them to be very influential among fashion headphone brands.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tony's picture

Well, Samsung is now a "major" in Consumer Audio. Korea is on one "hell-of-a-roll", their Cars are crushing their segments.

Who'd ever think that Samsung would become the Parent to Levinson stuff?

Tony in Michigan

PashedMotatoes's picture

I'm not optimistic about the takeover. I've long been a fan of Harman Kardon, but I have had my worst experience of any brand with Samsung, so many times and in so many markets. Their phones are overpriced and under-built, their fridges are lucky to last a year without compressor failure, their TVs are overrated, and their washers explode (seriously!). On the topic of Hyundai/Kia, I know personally of two people who bought Kia Optimas because they "look cool" only to have their engines seize before 60,000 miles. That's rather significant. And if there is one thing I know about Hyundai and Kia, it is that they WILL weasel their way out of their warranty obligations. Plus, while the engine was in good shape, the Kia my sister had years ago was falling apart in every other way at 40,000 miles. Not a quality vehicle.
So far by my count, the major South Korean brands haven't yet delivered. I hope to heck Samsung doesn't ruin Harman/Kardon & AKG, but I won't hold my breath.

PashedMotatoes's picture

I'm not optimistic about the takeover. I've long been a fan of Harman Kardon, but I have had my worst experience of any brand with Samsung, so many times and in so many markets. Their phones are overpriced and under-built, their fridges are lucky to last a year without compressor failure, their TVs are overrated, and their washers explode (seriously!). On the topic of Hyundai/Kia, I know personally of two people who bought Kia Optimas because they "look cool" only to have their engines seize before 60,000 miles. That's rather significant. And if there is one thing I know about Hyundai and Kia, it is that they WILL weasel their way out of their warranty obligations. Plus, while the engine was in good shape, the Kia my sister had years ago was falling apart in every other way at 40,000 miles. Not a quality vehicle.
So far by my count, LG is the only major South Korean brand to deliver on promises. I hope to heck Samsung doesn't ruin Harman/Kardon & AKG, but I won't hold my breath.

veggieboy2001's picture

I was curious why you hadn't mentioned Beyerdynamic's refreshed/upgraded line when referencing them...unimpressed or irrelevant? It's kinda sad that a lot of the big (or bigger) guys might just fade away...or get eaten by other companies.

I know there are a plethora of Fostex modders out there, but I've always been attracted to this company. I was always hesitant to pull the trigger, partially because of the Fostex driver, but now that they started using their own drivers, my interest has been piqued even more. I remember you were interested by their latest offerings at RAMF (I know, show conditions and all that) so I hope you get a chance to have a longer listen.

I find a lot of hope in the "little guys" out there making headphones. There are so many it'd be hard to hit on them, but given your positive review (and WOF placement) I was surprised Meze wasn't mentioned... I guess both of these companies are just a blip on the headphone radar, but I feel they're important in their own way.

Thanks as always for your musings!

Journeyman's picture

I agree with your opinion in most cases, including the one on Grado! Anyway they also have their on way of doing business and I truly respect that.
Grado these days is more of a statement brand but if it pays the bills I'm happy for them.

Journeyman's picture

"...They also have their own way...

NotoriousEGB's picture

I'm curious if Bowers & Wilkins new P9 will give them a boost in the rankings, and would LOVE to read innerfidelity's review on it.

Jazz Casual's picture

This is such a guy thing.

--------------'s picture

Your Oppo PM-3 review includes a measurement data sheet titled 'Oppo PM3 Sample B'. It's missing from the page with all headphone measurements, which only contains 'Oppo PM3' and 'Oppo PM3 Sample C'. Could you please add it?

marcovibes's picture

I don't know why you skipped BeyerDynamics and listed Beats as the leading companies. Later I realized that you have listed these brands based on the market share. Due to the good design and looks Beats obviously has the best market share.

Wasn't surprised Bose included in the list. Their QuietComfort headphones are the major selling points for them.

According to me the best brands here are Beyers, Sennheiser, JVC, and perhaps Sony.

Good list, BTW. Appreciate the time you took researching about these.

https://www.soundmaximum.com/best-bass-headphones/

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Thanks Tyll for yet another great write up. I really appreciate the time and effort you spent to create this. Its a great read and really helps breakdown the major players as well as a sampling of their offerings.

Keep up the great work dude!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

funambulistic's picture

I would not consider their first foray into the headphone world a "disaster" as I love my Spirit One, though I agree with the ear cups being too small. I have moved on since then (my Philips X1 [I think I got a good one because the changing out the cord, aside from a silver plated one from a fellow HeadFi-er had the only noticeable change in a slightly brighter sound signature] and my AKG-XX from Massdrop). I would love to hear their newer offerings, but I am a mere mortal, with two hungry (yet adorable) mouths to feed. BTW, I listen to my V Moda M100s at work and they rock - when I can get them out of my wife's hands...

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You'd have to read the link on the Spirit One, they had some early manufacturing problems that yielded defective diaphragms. They were exceeding forthcoming and did a great job ensuring customer received quality product in the end. Other than that initial "disaster" they are fairly good headphones.
funambulistic's picture

... and concur with your assessments. I must have hit it lucky (along with my X1s) as I did not have any of the problems mentioned. Indeed, after reading the article, I vehemently tried to tried to find any of the failings mentioned, but could not. Color me happy and disaster-less!

As an aside, I just reread (and re-watched) your review on the Parrot Zik (original version) and am tempted to buy as one site is offering them for $79.99. Oh, maybe not - I hear my wallet wailing in dispair...

Dreyka's picture

So Apple owns Beats and Samsung owns Harman. That says a lot about the future of headphones and their relationship to smartphones.

In the open headphone world it is very dead. Sure there are more expensive flagships coming out but they aren't getting cheaper either. The HD600 sits far too comfortably at it's price point and I would have hoped than in 20 years something would come along to best it at a lower price. The issue is frequency response but an open headphone with better subbass extension and a similar frequency response would change everything. The HE-400S is kind of this but requires Focus Pads for better subbass extension and that is still only to 50Hz.

The consumer market is focused on branding rather than sound quality but I hope to see DSP corrected USB headphones from Samsung/Apple start running a bulldozer through it at a variety of price points.

The CIEM market is a dysfunctional joke due to a lack of measurements.

The IEM market is obsessed with multi-driver designs for marketing while frequency response is a peaky mess. The designs are completely screwed with excessive bass boosts starting at 500Hz and higher. Nobody other Etymotic and Aurisonics is interested in doing deep insertion, high noise isolation designs and nobody is doing it at the high end either.

Impulse's picture

Stick with your HD6xx & ER4xx until someone really cracks that mobile/DSP nut? :P

I do agree given the resources Apple and Samsung/Harman will bring to bear, we'll likely see more innovation in the closed/mobile space. Senn's probably really glad that's the case too...

The open/enthusiast market will probably tolerate flagships priced sky high and more segmentation for the time being, the closed/mobile space is gonna get increasingly cutthroat...

And thatC's before you even start talking about the move to wireless and/or competition over digital out options (Type C vs Lighting).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Where's that damned "like" button when you need one?
Impulse's picture

I own like 2-3 cans/brands from each section of the list, kinda amusing. Some smaller players could use a shootout, someone like MEE or Meze might've started from the bottom up but they're probably about as relevant or successful as some of the newer niche brands that started at the high end (or some of the older smaller players like Loss for that matter).

Ulrich's picture

Tyll, why are you ignoring the AKG N90, a milestone in headphone technology? I offers features no competitor can match, including precise frequency response calibration and out-of-head localization. Highly acclaimed in Europe (EISA award, "world's best headphone" according to AudioVideoFoto Bild)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Just haven't heard it yet.
Willymanwilly's picture

This is no critique on the N90, I've auditioned it briefly and came away impressed, but I wouldn't put any value on EISA awards.

Those awards are the result of months of extensive wining and dining of a bunch of ego boosted "journalists".

roscoeiii's picture

Surprised there was no mention of Shure's KSE1500, their electrostatic IEM. Years of research and resources went into that one. Yes, it is very expensive and requires a specialized amp. But wow does it advance the state of the art for in-ear headphones.

HalC-76's picture

Nicely done, Tyll - even-handed perspective of relative influence on current consumer purchasing patterns that recognizes the impact of both brand marketing effectiveness and the state of product/business lifecycles for each of the listed companies.

The ability of marketers to convince us there is something we need that is better than what we have will drive sales, whether the motivation is to belong to the biggest group of buyers, participate in a specific company/product ecosystem or to acquire some esoteric characteristic of a product that is important to an individual. Regardless of how objective performance of a product may be, the consumer definition of "good quality" is a subjective variable that cannot be reduced to a single value or market driver, giving marketers the opportunity to differentiate products in discreet market segments.

One twist in market influence to understand is the "ecosystem" of inter-dependent products built by some companies that locks in consumers. Marketers will describe this as brand loyalty, but often it is purchasing convenience and sometimes technical advantages built into a combination of products not available when a consumer mixes brands to acquire certain "quality" values. This "lock-in" indicates there may be other product characteristics than headphone "quality" that are more important to the purchase decision or that the "quality" value of the ecosystem may be inherited by the accessory product, regardless of its actual objective characteristics. This situation disrupts the notion that a purchase decision can be isolated to a characteristic solely of a specific product. Therefore the market share of that product has to be evaluated in the context of the ecosystem and not just the product category.

More important is the inevitable lifecycle of technologies, products based on these technologies and the companies that bring these products to market. The emergence, growth and decline of products and businesses is normal. We may want to hold on to products that have served well in the past, but business is driven by new revenue. Legacy products saturate the market of available buyers, so different concepts are needed to motivate a new round of purchases in this market. Therefore, old products and typically the companies that brought them to market recede in relevance, move on to other product ares, are satisfied with the market share they achieve or even die. Ultimately, consumers can only purchase the products that are available and have to make a choice of "best fit" to their desires at the time of purchase. Occasionally, the market may appear to swing back to legacy preferences to generate more sales, but even this is a cycle of change that will eventually decline to be replaced by another market trend. These lifecycles are increasingly shorter and frequently overlap as business are able to micro-segment markets and market differentiation more productively than in the past to generate incremental revenue.

As I indicated in a previous post, emerging companies are more interesting to watch in order to identify new features that may influence future buying trends. Large scale companies, like Apple and Samsung will either purchase an emerging company to add products without organic internal development or purchase legacy brands to enhance market penetration of existing technologies. As Tyll mentioned, Apple has applied its product management skills to improving the Beats products and leveraged its marketing to achieve market share. Apple may yet apply other of its existing technologies, such as signal processing, or acquire it - time will tell. Likewise, how Samsung leverages the brands acquired in the HK acquisition to promote products in the market will play out over time. Without competition, neither of these companies will make changes in products, market shares will stabilize and overall sales of a product will decline to the level sustained by new consumers entering the market.

This is a dispassionate, business reality - neither good or bad - that cannot be reduced to a single, universal market influencer. The "dip-stick" check on current market positioning provided by Tyll is interesting regardless of our individual emotional reactions and personal purchasing choices. For marketers, it is good data that shows where volume or niche opportunities may lie for future business initiatives. Regardless of the current positioning described today by Tyll, it will be different when he undertakes updated positioning overviews in subsequent years.

In my own personal journey with music reproduction, I have not observed sufficient changes in headphones over recent years to motivate me to replace the ones I use regularly. I avoid "lock-in" to ecosystems as much as possible and read InnerFidelity regularly to track emerging trends. I appreciate the insights shared by Tyll and others on this site.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Great comments and feedback...very well thought out look at market n drivers.

Shardnax's picture

You got the prices backwards on the L500 and L700.

Hex11's picture

I don't get the praise for Sony. Their DAPs are underengineered and overpriced, their portable headphone lineup is decent, but not outstanding. Their TOTL Z1 is a heavy disappointment. I think they're relying way too much on their name only.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Possibly...but I think they've come a long way from their offerings of 5 years ago. The fact that they're trying as hard as they are is telling. I think they're on the road to being competitive and producing some category leading product. However, I'll agree they aren't quite there yet.

I'll add I don't think anyone is there yet.

brause's picture

The market with the most ears is surely the Chinese one. Have you ever tried the fabulous Rock Zircon or Einsear T2 or DZAT DF-10 headphones that retail at $10-20 USD? I am struggling with justifying the price of my Sennheiser Momentum in-ear and Bowers $ Wilkins C5 Series 2. Worst of all, I enjoy these Chinese earphones more than my Western ones. For details, see audiobudget.com

KG_Jag's picture

Tyll--I don't always agree with your opinions and my ears generally prefer a brighter headphone than do yours. Yet I appreciate your candid, straight forward and (mostly) unvarnished views--all backed by specifics--presented in this piece

monetschemist's picture

Tyll, you wrote:

"After reading through their conclusions I learned that aggregating thousands of reviews, no doubt largely populated by folks who really don't know what they're talking about, generally nets you a fairly random result.

This is kind of off-topic but I really really like this comment. It made me think that either:

- big companies spending zillions on AI to analyze consumer preferences are going to get the same kind of random results, or

- these random results constitute a kind of new reality just because a lot of big companies take them seriously.

Either one is a pretty upsetting conclusion.

But anyway, thanks for the comment and all the other good stuff you do!

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