InnerFidelity's 2015 Year in Review

I'm off to the Consumer Electronics Show next week, which will mark the official beginning of the New Year for headphones and other audio gadgetry. It'll be fun to see what's new then, but now seems like a good time to take a deep breath, put on my 30,000 foot goggles, and have a look back at 2015 to gain a bit of perspective on where we're at, and where we might be going.

You'll have to excuse me for repeating myself in these first few paragraphs; I've written some of this before, but I've got to take a running start to put things into context. I promise new thoughts once I get rolling.

The Past
151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_AppleiPodAdHeadphones have been around for ages, but it's almost as if they didn't exist in the popular consciousness until the iPod. Prior to that headphones were just an accessory that came along with your Walkman, or something you wore in the studio while you sung into the mic. But in 2000 the Apple iPod "White Wires" advertisement campaign began, and for the first time, the popular culture embraced the idea that headphones existed and they were cool. They weren't, however, buying them in big numbers yet; just taking notice.

I was in the business of selling headphones on-line back then; we sure as heck didn't see a huge increase in sales. At the time, the Sennheiser HD 600 sold at $349, and was considered a high-end headphone. Consumers? I'm pretty sure most of them never even thought of upgrading their little white wired Apple earbuds. If they did, a $69 pair of Grado SR60s would be about as far as they would go.

151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_MonsterBeatsThen in 2008 Monster and Dr Dre produced their first Studio headphones. And somehow, as if by magic, the consuming public decided that the proper price for a headphone to replace their Apple earbuds went from $69 to $300 dollars. Okay, I'm in denial, it wasn't magic. The consuming public—or a very large part of it (kids with money)—were irrationally swayed by seeing their favorite professional athletes and music icons wearing Beats...around their necks, usually.

Almost immediately the headphone market began to grow, and premium headphone market (those costing over $100 at retail) blossomed annually at over double digit rates. Consumers were willing to pay good money for headphones, but their immature value system around headphones kept them away from the truly higher quality cans as they were swayed momentarily by the glamor of celebrity endorsement. 50 Cent and Ludacris started their own headphone brands; Koss tapped Tony Bennet; and AKG sprung for Quincy Jones. Sennheiser resisted personal endorsements, but still ended up sharing a locker with Adidas. $300 Beats selling hand over fist is stinky bait, and lots of companies were quick to respond in kind. By 2011 there had been time for a full product development cycle and the activity of beating Beats at there own game was in full swing...soon to fail miserably.

Back when I wrote my "Celebrity Headphone Deathmatch" I did a little survey and found that about half of all pictures of celebrity brand headphones were being worn around the neck. Something is very obviously wrong with that picture. Headphones are about listening to music or talking on the phone; neck bling is something completely different. And while urban kids with more money than sense might be the spark that lights, the fire itself has to do with music and real product qualities like fidelity, comfort, application suitability, and broadly acceptable styling. The Beats "craze" was just a one-time deal that broke headphone buying into the popular consciousness...but it's not something that can, or should, be replicated. Beats were cool, but, almost by definition, everything can't be cool. Something had to give.

151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_FannyWang

Heard from Fanny Wang lately?

And so, those that came to the party to capitalize on a the perceived celebrity and glamor frenzy created by Beats quickly began to fall by the wayside. Fanny Wang, a company that once irked Monster enough to draw a law suite (not hard, really), is now defunct. As is sister firm California Headphone Company—whose Silverado and Lorado headphones were actually better than average in their categories. (Tim Hickman, who ran both firms, appears to be doing better with his new venture Gumdrop, which makes phone and tablet cases.) Ultimate Ears continues to do well in the IEM market, but their initial foray into full size headphones has been axed. A sad story as I found their UE6000 and UE9000 quite good. Phonak—a Swiss headquartered European hearing aid giant—entered the US market with good intentions and some very fine IEMs, only to find the space impenetrable to an unknown name regardless of product quality. Check out the Soul and SMS home page now and their's barely a whiff of rappers Ludacris and 50 Cent respectively who started the brand to compete with Dre. Soul tried to branch out with a new type of headphones that allowed you to share music and talk to another wearer like a walkie-talkie, but the Kickstarter campaign failed to draw enough interest to move forward.

What the heck is really going on here? The answer, I think, is that we're just now emerging from the a spectacular but irrational birth of the headphone as a popular product. Apple and Beats triggered triggered it, the smartphone made it virtually mandatory.

I believe it's only just now that consumer's purchasing power and choices are being felt, and manufacturers are finally getting the idea that headphones are actually legitimately practical devices that should be designed and sold on the basis of real performance in various use paradigms. In other words, we need headphones, they're an important tool, don't offer me neck bling. And the manufacturers are getting it. It seems to me that this coming year consumers will want a more legitimately useful array of choices, and the winning manufacturers will be the ones that figure out how to offer that up.

We headphone enthusiasts want to believe headphones are about listening to music, but we're only half right. In this age, even for audio enthusiasts, headphones are just as much an aural display and voice input device for your smartphone. Headphones are now an integral part of the user interface for your ever-present smartphone, and will only get more so over time.

The Present Market
Here in the U.S. we've got a situation where market inertia has some big winners that are not necessarily worthy of their market share. But things are looking up, the market frenzy to satisfy the urban hip-hop youth's need for headphones that match their sneakers is over, and we're in a bit more rational market now. I should mention at this point that the data in the following paragraphs was accumulated from numerous secondary sources...which were in conflict sometimes. I've done my best to average it all out to come up with ballpark numbers to give us an idea of where we're at. Actual primary source reports from the market research organizations are extremely expensive (often $1000-$3000) so it's mostly the big corporate entities that can afford the really good data.

According to the NPD Group (a large U.S. market research organization), Beats owns the lion's share of the U.S. premium headphone market (>$100 retail) with something like 61% followed by Bose at abut 20%. Though I couldn't find separated numbers, Beats and Bose together own about 44% of the total U.S. market. The five top makers of all headphones in the U.S. in order of size are: Beats; Bose; Sony; Skullcandy; and LG. Top five makers of premium headphones (over $100) are: Beats; Bose; Jaybird; Sennheiser; and Sony.

151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_ShopHeadphonesAfter reading a bunch of research, I'll dramatically oversimplify the reasoning behind the rankings for you. Here's a summary of the U.S. market through fake consumer comments.

  • Beats are cool...heck, I can't even think of the name of any other headphone maker.
  • Except Bose, that is. I know them because I'm a grown-up and I've been on an airplane. Obviously, I need Bose noise canceling headphones.
  • Oh, I did see some Sony headphones at Target. I know that name, I'd trust them with $69.
  • I saw Skullcandy at the skate shop and indy record store. Beats are tired, man...I want the stuff that's actually cool.
  • My health-life is important so I do my research. The interweb told me Jaybirds were best for working out.
  • Um...the guy at the Verizon store told me the LG headset was best.
  • I actually know something about headphones, so I bought some HD 600s. I tell all my friends to check out Sennheiser's stuff.

World-wide, the picture is somewhat different. In this summary of headphone manufacturing in China (which is where almost all of them are manufactured), Beats remains the top player, but Bose drops far down the list allowing folks like Sennheiser, Sony, and AKG into the world-wide mix. Plantronics, in second place, is a big surprise until you realize that telephone headsets are included in the numbers, and Plantronics is incredibly well entrenched in that market. Here's the chart from that study, and a second chart showing the most important OEM makers (the ones who make most of the headphones for the CE brands).

151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_ChinaData

Graph copyright Research In China. All figures in U.S.$ millions.

The study abstract is only three pages long and well worth the read, but I laughed out loud reading this section, which echoes and confirms my first few paragraphs so well:

As mobile phone has become the center of the young people's life, they are willing to spend USD 300 to buy premium earphones, which have expanded from small niche market of music lovers to mass market of the youth, attracting many brands into the market.

The emergence of Beats radically changed earphone industry. Since the establishment in 2008, Beats defeated all established earphone companies in less than 10 years to put itself on the throne globally. The success of Beats depends not on acoustic fidelity or high price/performance ratio, but exaggerated bass, overwhelming ads and fancy appearance. This stimulated many companies without acoustic background to swarm into the field.

The earphones are manufactured in the form of OEM, and 95% of production is concentrated in mainland China, where a large number of earphone OEMs are located. The gross margin of earphone industry is extremely high, above 50% for branded earphone companies, and no less than 10% for manufacturers. Despite a high gross margin, the marketing expenditure of branded earphone companies is very large, as well as channel cost, resulting in a very low operating profit, which makes brand vendors focus on the market and contract the production to earphone manufacturers.

Other random facts unearthed in my searching:

  • Headphones are the 6th largest consumer electronics (CE) category, behind: Smartphones ($51B); Tablets ($25B); TVs ($18B); Laptops, Notebooks, Netbooks ($18B); Automotive ($14B, includes factory installed electronics).
  • Total world headphone sales volume: 9.8B. Total U.S. sales volume: 2.9B. Total U.S. premium headphone sales: ~$1.4B.
  • World headphone growth rate: 10% by unit volume; 16% by dollar value at retail.
  • Headphone categories with high growth rate in 2015: Bluetooth = 63% in unit sales; headphones with a microphone (both wired and wireless) = 54% in unit sales. Smartphone use is clearly the driving force behind this very rapid growth.
  • Fitness headphones are expected to grow at 7%, on-ear/over-ear headphones at 9%, and overall global market value at about 3%. Biometric sensing headphones for fitness may be the next big growth category for headphones.
  • In-ear headphones make up 61% of all headphone unit sales world-wide; 21% for wireless cans; 36% for headphones with a microphone; Apple Earpods make up 5% of all headphones sold; 4% of headphone units sold are fitness headphones; Beats make up about 23% of global headphone revenue.

For more information on headphone market data, check out the following articles:
Headphones market to exceed $8 billion in 2013.
Headphones Market Booming, Volume and Value On The Up
Premium US Headphone Market Surpasses $1 Billion in 2013
Beats Still Tops In Headphones
Summer's End No Match for Stereo Headphone Sales
These Are The 5 Newest Headphones To Take On Beats & Bose New Tech to Drive CE Industry Growth in 2015
Global and China Earphone Industry Report, 2013-2014
Futuresource Predicts Bluetooth Headphones to be One of the Top Selling CE Gifts this Christmas
Leading Headphones Brands 'Rock It Up' as Market Celebrates Growth
Why Fancy Headphones Got So Incredibly Popular

The Near Future in Consumer Headphones
I think the interesting thing to observe in this broader market look, is that the various power brands, for the most part, have focused on particular user applications and new technologies to entrenched themselves as power players in that segment in order to grow market share and protect that share from the all-powerful Beats/Apple machine. Let's have a look at some of them; where they're making their money now; and what they might do in the future.

Beats - My headphone engineer contacts told me that starting about three years ago Beats headphone engineers started showing up in fairly large numbers at technical conferences. This last year, we saw a (nearly) complete refresh of the entire Beats line of headphones. In my opinion, these new cans are significantly better in build quality, and somewhat better in sound quality. All that was in the works before the Apple purchase. At this point, I would characterize Beats as a solid manufacturer of quality headphones.

I tend to think we'll see some evolutionary introductions over the next year or two, mostly refreshing things and positioning themselves anew within the Apple organization. For example, we might see headphones using the Lightning cable rather than a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. (Rumors abound that Apple will be discontinuing the use of a 3.5mm jack in their iPhone 7.) We may also see Beats manufacture a line of headphones under the Apple brand—having both an Apple and Beats headphone brand would allow them to address young and older market demographics separately.

But I think the big change at Beats/Apple is going on in secret right now. I'd bet a six-pack of very good beer that in two or three years we're going to start seeing Beats headphones with dramatic biometric and virtual reality features. Beats will begin the "smart headphone" revolution backed by the computing, programming, and interoperability expertise available at Apple. Yes, I think Beats is going to change everything again...but it'll be a lot more rational this time.

Bose - Bose may be the only headphone maker currently selling product fundamentally on the basis of audio performance. While the actual fidelity of their headphones is just okay, the noise canceling performance is second to none. Bose really does have the best noise canceling headphone for airplane travel, and when the broad consumer wants a noise canceling headphone they know where to go. I don't see Bose changing much in this winning formula, though they may be thinking real hard about what to do if the 3.5mm jack goes away on the iPhone.

Sony - Boy, I'd hate to be Sony right now. They continue to have a solid market share mostly due, I suspect, to a well entrenched distribution machine, product at all price points, and aging but very real name recognition—but they sure don't feel "cool" to me. While other headphone makers are finding niches to dominate and occupy, Sony has to maintain its broad market stance resting on yesteryear's CE dominance.

151230_Blog_2015YearInReview_SonyHearI expect we'll see Sony hanging on to their position in low-cost products with styling changes to fit the current pop-culture memes and compete on cost utilizing the broad back of their huge manufacturing capabilities. The recently released H.Ear headphones (pictured at right) seems pretty cool. Their recent push (along with a number of other large CE audio manufacturers) to make High-Resolution Audio is promising for us audiophiles; whether that really pans out broadly with consumers will be a whole 'nother story.

Skullcandy - Skullcandy has done a great job on focussing on a few very specific youth niches—action sports, music, and gaming...also called by them the "constantly connected coastal influencers". Their products are low cost with quite good quality and performance at their price-points.

I reckon we'll continue to see low cost products from Skullcandy, and it would seem a good move to me for them to grab onto the growing wireless and sports headphone trends of today. The thing that would make me most confident in their long term health would be a continuing and strengthening focus on grass root, troops-on-the-ground support for music and action sports a la Red Bull. Beats may say they're in touch with their urban youth roots, but I don't see the rubber hit the road with them. Skullcandy, at least in the past, has actively sponsored various events and personalities in these targeted markets. I think that's a good formula.

Unfortunately, some of the Skullcandy's market share numbers have been slipping in the last few years. Investors have taken a bit of a beating since the IPO in 2011 and they're stock price is currently near their all time low at $4.82—a long, long way from their IPO price of $20/share. I'd hate to be the guy trying to convince shareholders to finance expensive grass-roots marketing campaigns, but that's what I think they'll need to stave off competition in their highly coveted "youth with money" demographic. Good think they can stick to the coasts as they attempt to party with the influencers.

Sennheiser - If I were the world's most competent headphone maker—and it's my opinion Sennheiser is—the state of the headphone world with a hip-hop artist owning more than half the premium market and the second largest portion going to a one-trick pony making noise-cancelers, would make me a bit nuts. After observing Sennheiser's latest ad campaigns, I think that may indeed be the situation. Do you remember the Urbanite campaign videos?

Click here if you can't see the video.

Or the recent weird on-line interactive "game" building a giant megalith on the way to introducing the new and unaffordable $55,000 Orpheus? The video will give you a little taste of people dropping rocks for three months to complete the "game".

Sennheiser Reshaping Excellence from Sehsucht on Vimeo.

I have no idea whether or not these campaigns worked for Sennheiser, but they struck me as downright weird. On the other hand, when fidelity isn't the thing that sells the headphones, you've got to do something to get attention. Any press is good press, so they say.

Actually, I'll happily give Sennheiser a pass on their weird marketing and advertising. They've also been astonishingly busy working through a refresh and reposition of all their product lines. In the last four years they've produced the Momentum and Urbanite lines that address young professionals and urban youth respectively. They've refreshed or significantly updated their lines of fitness, broadcast, gaming, DJ, and wireless headphone lines. Heck, even us audiophiles will shortly be seeing the recently re-engineered HD 800S. All of these moves apear to be solid improvements; I have no idea what they should do next. From what I can tell they've been busy as hell and have covered a lot of ground. Making the top-5 list of premium headphone manufacturers here in the U.S. is a damned fine accomplishment. I think they've work really hard to get/keep their position in the market.

AKG, Philips, Beyer, Audio Technica - Good freeking luck! These companies are positioned as competitors with Sony and Sennheiser who try to fill a broad swath of headphone types. But I don't think they're keeping up with the folks who are slaying it in the various niches (Bose, Plantronics, Skullcandy, Jaybird). They're going to have to work really smart and really hard to retain their respective market shares. If I were them I think I'd try to lower prices on current product and spend my time developing the next smart headphone for smartphones and/or exercise. The revolution is not over in the world of headphones. You can either act like a revolutionary, or be added to the pile of dead.

The Headphone Enthusiast Segment
By now you may be asking yourself, "What the heck does all this have to do with high-fidelity headphones?" Answer: Not a damned thing. The sad truth is that we're pretty far away from the point where the vast consuming public has any idea what really good audio sounds like, much less a time when they'll demand it. But were are a legitimate niche of noticeable size, and will likely draw some modest amount of attention from some of the bigger makers. One article I read had this quote:

Although Arnold said he expects the growth rate to slow for headphones this year, "new segments like headphones with biometric sensors embedded into ear cups, and even high-resolution-audio-capable headphones, could gain some traction in the market and maintain the growth rate in 2015."

I expect we'll continue to see a mix of small specialty and big name brands with entries at all price points in the enthusiast market. I see the enthusiast headphone segment as somewhat confused at the moment. Below $200, the category of good sounding headphones is populated mostly by product from major makers that just randomly happen to sound good. Basically, there's just no telling where the next killer $89 headphone will come from. $200-$400 is a really sweet spot for headphone makers, with plenty of margin to make something cool and still make a buck. I suspect most of the really good sounding headphones in this category will be split between the majors and other audio companies of considerable size—companies like NAD, Focal, V-Moda, and even Koss come to mind. Over $1000 we'll continue to see flagship offerings from the major makers competing head-to-head with small to very small companies that specialize in high-fidelity headphones. Think Audeze, HiFiMAN, Mr. Speakers, Stax, Enigmacoustics, etc.

Maybe the biggest mystery in high-end headphones to me is the essentially non-existant $600-$900 headphone category. Practically speaking, how expensive is it to manufacture a high-end headphone? The only thing that keeps me from thinking $1500 headphone pricing is ridiculous is the fact that we're so early in the development of this market segment that small volumes, high hobbyist excitement, and relatively high initial R&D costs are keeping the prices way up. It's also my opinion that headphones in this category still have a way to go before they really start sounding good. Speakers had a sound quality revolution in the 1980's; I think headphones are on the verge of a similar dramatic change in sound quality. Once that gets sorted out, I believe competition is going to drive the price of most audiophile headphones below $1000. Right now there's a big second-hand market for $100+ headphones. Something like a re-tuned AudioQuest NightHawk at $600 might really shake things up.

2015 Companies of Interest
Massdrop - Boy, oh boy, has Massdrop focussed on headphones this year. It seems like once a month some classic headphone product or other has been re-imagined by Massdrop, and every time I hear about the resulting headphone it's mostly applause. They've simply done a superb job of whispering into manufacturer's ears. I imagine it goes something like this:

Hi! I'm from Massdrop and wanted to talk to you about your venerable ABC123 headphone. As you well know, it's got a solid reputation, but what you might not be fully aware of is that it's got a few small flaws that keep it from an enthusiast classic. If you would just change a couple of thing, we'd be willing to place a very large order. What do you think?

And, man, it seems like they really do their homework because they do seem to produce markedly improved models over the stock product. I think these guys have a winning formula. My personal problem is that because of its fundamentally one-time nature, it's very hard to review production product before they've become unavailable. I've got to work on that; Massdrop deserves more attention from me.

Schiit - This is specialty headphone audio done right. If you haven't had the chance to read Jason Stoddard's thread, "Schiit Happened: The Story of the World's Most Improbable Start-Up" please avail yourself. Even if you end up buying gear from other makers, you'll still find yourself a fan.

Make no mistake though, the gear is very good. Maybe the best part about Schiit gear is that it's pricing is astonishingly fair. I'm pretty sure a lot of folks see the brand as not quite competitive with the most expensive headphone hardware simply based on the overall lower price...and maybe the tongue in cheek name. Don't be fooled, this is good Schiit. For example, I had the pleasure of using the Yggdrasil DAC ($2299) during the Big Sound 2015 event, and it quite happily kept up with the much more expensive Antelope DAC.

Changstar morphs to SuperBestAudioFriends.org - Not sure this really belongs in the category of "Companies of Interest", but I'm going to run with it.

Changstar.org was a headphone forum site that may be best described as a pirate mutiny spin-off site from Head-Fi.org. I had mixed feelings about Changstar. It started because open criticism of products is sometimes moderated/censored at Head-Fi in order to keep the tone friendly on the site. Unfortunately, that can sometimes lead to the banning of people with strongly held beliefs—beliefs that, in my opinion, are often correct, but go against grain of enthusiasts happily drooling over the current flavor of the month product. Sure, some of these folks are just contrarian assholes, but many I would number among the best minds in the hobby. The problem with really smart people is they're almost always disruptive to the norm, and that doesn't go over very well at Head-Fi.

Changstar was started as a place of exile for these displaced headphone enthusiasts, but it did tend to be a bit rough due to the personalities involved and it's willingly adopted brand as a pirate site. Many feathers were rankled. Earlier this year, Changstar leaders came to the conclusion that the pirate brand was just too disruptive to ongoing personal interaction, and decided to abandon ship in favor of a new and friendlier vibe—SuperBestAudioFriends.org was born.

I was a regular visitor to Changstar as I felt a lot of the headphone DIY and measurement activity there was terrific, and I felt the switch was a huge risk to take. No, I didn't particularly enjoy the pirate vibe, but I did very much value the information there and felt it could survive the edginess of the site. Switching completely over to a new site was way beyond what I felt might be necessary, and, frankly, when the new name was announced I thought it was far too long and literal.

Well, it's a testament to the intensity and right-minded focus of these avid headphone enthusiasts: The Changstar population moved en-mass to the SBAF site and not only continued on with the very cool DIY and measurement activities but actually improved on the organization of the data and dialog that appeared there. The information in the threads is a dense or denser than ever, signal to noise is terrific, and the tone is markedly more friendly. I get the sense that most people there perceive the hobby as more collective collaboration than personal activity. Lots of folks pitching in to help each other improve the listening experience for all. I'm both amazed and pleased with the changes. Huge thanks to the SBAF members for the courage to be the change you want to see in the hobby.

InnerFidelity Products of 2015
If you want InnerFidelity's comprehensive list of great gear please go to the "Wall of Fame." Here I'll mention the products that have made the transition from professional interest and respect, to regular personal use. That doesn't actually happen very often.

Sennheiser Momentum Wireless - Though it's a bit peaky and in-your-face sounding, I found myself regularly using the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless ($499) for iPad movie watching and smartphone headset use. Comfort is simply sublime; the noise canceling is not quite as good as Bose but it's close. Battery life is excellent and controls are easy to use. Man, it's going to take one hell of a good wireless headphone to get these of my head as daily drivers.

Amazon Echo - So long kitchen clock radio...hello Alexa*, my new personal assistant. The Amazon Echo ($179, Amazon Prime is highly recommended for full experience) is a voice activated personal assistant that can do things like: maintain shopping and to do lists; set alarms and timers; give weather and commute traffic information; play current news briefing; play music from Amazon Prime; and much, much more. I bought one on a personal recommendation from a friend...I couldn't be happier.

*Alexa is the Echo's wake word (Alexa, what will the weather be today?) and ends up becoming the anthropomorphized name of the device in your home.

MQA, Tidal, and Roon - MQA is a brilliant new streaming audio format invented by the folks at Meridian that allows bit-perfect, non-lossy high-resolution (greater than 16/44.1) digital audio to be streamed over the internet at much lower bitrates. Tidal (previously known in Europe as WiMP) is the first 16/44.1, full CD resolution streaming music service. And Roon is a music collection management computer program brought to you by the developers of Meridian's very cool Sooloos music server software. This last year has seen all three of these products come into view. I've been playing with Tidal and Roon for quite some time now and dig them both. This coming year will see all three of these products working together. I find myself drooling for the opportunity to have all three functioning at the same time to deliver my music listening experience. Audiophiles of the future won't have the huge physical libraries had by audiophiles of the past, and they won't be missing a thing.

Mr. Speakers Ether - It's not so much that I use it every day, but rather that I simply can't think about the >$1000 headphone category without thinking about Mr. Speakers Ether ($1499). It may not be the top performer in terms of technicalities or listening pleasure in the category, but in my opinion it may be the best balanced offering—delivering very good sound, comfort, styling, and build quality while also coming in at a price that doesn't feel like it's cutting flesh to the bone. But that's not the thing that has me fascinated with the product.

For me, the special thing about the Ether is that it's purely the result of one man's passionate enthusiasm for headphones. Dan Clark founded Mr. Speakers as the organically logical next step in his hobby of modifying Fostex T50RP headphones. And for years now, it's just been one organic enthusiastic step after another, until, with the Ether, he has fully evolved his activity into professionally manufacturing a headphone from scratch, start to finish, including the manufacture of his own diaphragm and driver. To take that journey from hobbyist with a soldering iron and a tube of glue, to a professional manufacturer with a product solidly competitive at the highest levels is...well...it's inspiring. It may take millions of dollars and a room full of engineers and MBAs to run one of the big companies I talked about at the top of this page, but it only takes one enthusiast, with lots of passion and willingness to work on it for a few years, to make a world-class headphone that competes with the big boys.

The Ether gives me hope for a very interesting future lead both by big engineering teams and individuals with a passion for music.

2016? Bring it on!

COMMENTS
Stereolab42's picture

I took a quick look at the SBAF forum. Found a thread with about 100 messages of hate for the (superb) ETHER/ETHER-C, and decided those people were hopeless. But I do agree more negativity would benefit Head-Fi at times.

Aelms's picture

Hi,

Just to make sure I'm not missing something, can you link me to that thread? I recall quite a few SBAF complimenting the open Ether.

TMRaven's picture

SBAF doesn't think there's anything wrong with Ether, it's Ether C that's questioned.

rhfactor30's picture

SBAF thinks. SBAF doesn't think.

Quote:

I'm through doctor
We don't need your kind
The other ones
Ugly ones
Stupid boys
Wrong ones

I'm all alone, so are we all
We're all clones
All are one and one are all
All are one and one are all

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/alicecooper/cloneswereall.html

Currawong's picture

One thing though:

"... open criticism of people is sometimes moderated/censored at Head-Fi in order to keep the tone friendly on the site. "

FTFY.

Being disruptive doesn't mean one has to be rude. In fact, no matter how clever an idea or argument, presented rudely suggests that the idea can't stand on its own.

Stereolab42: Over a year ago we renamed most, if not all the active "appreciation" threads to "impression" threads for the very reason you state. Indeed only positive discussion of products doesn't benefit anyone. :)

I might have written more on all this, but I think the focus should be on the great summary of the manufacturing industry Tyll has gone to the trouble to research and write up.

Dreyka's picture

It was great seeing your review of a sponsors product on the front page of Head-Fi. Nothing speaks more about how seriously Head-Fi takes the conflicts of interest when the co-administrator has their glowing review of the Chord Mojo on the front page of Head-Fi.

https://archive.is/DcPKV

If I was to give out a "Product of the Year" award to anything in 2015, It'd be the Chord Mojo.

So ethical.

jcheadphone's picture

Tyll I know you like the Sennheiser Momentum wireless but have you ever tried this product.? http://www.worthyaudio.com/voxoa/btunes. I purchased one to use with my Oppo PM-3s to wirelessly listen to my Apple TV late night and it works great and sounds good with the my PM-3s turning them into wireless headphones. Anyways keep up the great work at innerfidelity.

barun432's picture

An in depth case study in the world of headphones today and for the foreseeable future. It was a pleasure reading.

Hope you write something with regard to DAPs, as I feel that a lot of audiophiles have taken misguided steps towards companies with established brand names possessing excellent marketing skills, who have the ability to manufacture polished looking players with mundane interfaces, technology advancement not even close to the mobile phones available today, and deliver SQ not even close to the premium price it commands.

There is a great future for portable music playing devices, as the digital era has just begun.

BTW, when is the 3rd part of the DAP OFF article coming?

Jazz Casual's picture

I'm hoping to see reviews and measurements for the Pioneer SE-Master 1 and HD800S soonish.

Lawk's picture

I would assume that Apple/Beats might bring a luxury build headphone on the market, something like a B&O H6 / B&W P7 / M&D MH40 / Sennheiser Momentum 2 ... Real leather, little to no plastic. Seems like a logical step to target an adult audience that will drop 399 on them.

I think there is room for improvement in noise cancelling + bluetooth headphones, enjoying the plantronics backbeat pro vs the Bose soundlink around ear wireless but still not as good as a wired headphone. Sennheiser has their Momentum wireless offering with better build, and I think M&D also has a new headphone with wireless, B&O also now has 2 of them. But there is something odd with all of them that I cant put my fingers on, they don't sound artificial to me like some of them did several years ago, but still not quite there yet.

Not too sure about all the Virtual imaging stuff, DTSX and so on, I think headphones should be allowed to be headphones and speakers allowed to be speakers, while I think it is very nice to have a musical headphone with a warmish lush tonality, there should still be that bright can stickig around that delivers some resolution and detail you don't get on speakers.

a U shaped headphone is sort of the best of both worlds for me.

Anyway I think it is also important to consider that Headphone makers want to make a living and profit, so there will always be a marketing effort within the product design that will not be in some of the purists interest (at least if it is a a consumer or consumer enthusiast product) If it is a PRO product then it's a different story.

So my point is a a captivating colored response which angers audiophiles will still be a hit seller in 2016 IMO :P

It might very well be that say an OPPO PM3 is the more satisfying listen in the long run, but if you are just a consumer with just slightly above average interest in audio I think many would choose a beats over the pm3 when A/B'ing for... at the most 5 minutes.

Philips/Fidelio are really good at this in the showroom, durable design, engaging sound, problem being only that for some they will always be that toaster/dishwasher/vacuumclener brand.

No idea where this of a smart headphone is going, don't care for virtual reality, the google glass thing etc... I can see where it something really useful for the blind but otherwise people don't always want a big can on their head with a load of electronics, best evidence is the backwards trend to cheap bundled ear buds and in ears. (at least in my country) Personally I see much less Beats and Over ears than from 2012-2014, but my observation is obviously not representative for the world or even locally for that matter, just the impression I get.

maelob's picture

Tyll I know you have talked a lot about the Harman Flat freq curves, but for good or bad I think Beats literaly changed the way consumer mass appreciate music these days mostly for pop music. Its all about the Bass Bass and more Bass. And I think even traditional audiophile headphones companies started to morph the sound of their products based on people preferences. And to be honest there is something about elevated bass that if done properly is really fun. I myself have become a "closet" bass head LOL. As an example when i was looking at portable headphones I ended up buying the Vmodas Wireless over the PM-3s and Momentums - I totally know that they are not accurate but boy that bass is fun LOL

Marcello's picture

Excellent assessment of the headphone market. I am also puzzled about the "essentially non-existant $600-$900 headphone category". I think this is the category where most of the high end headphones should realistically be placed, but I can think of only very few at that price point (T1v2 and the Audioquest come to mind). I hope this will change in the future.

Lawk's picture

DT 1770 sort of.

nhcguy's picture

Would be interested in getting your review of the new BoomStick:

http://www.boomcloud360.com/

Thanks,

punit's picture

I used to visit SBAF regularly for info , never posted though. I have stopped visiting that site as I saw a few instances of rudeness from the mods / regulars which put me off. There is no excuse for rudeness.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Yo Tyll,

Thank you for yet another great year of postings, reviews, musings, and wall-o-faming! You and the folks behind innerfidelity continue to provide a wonderful point of contact for audio knowledge transfer.

Highlights of this year for me were: 1) your technical articles focusing in on driver styles and the technology behind them as well as information on graphs and measurements. keep up the Online Headphone College courses!. 2) show reports and updates on upcoming new toys. 3) Big Sound 2015!! While many of us may be years away from possessing such high end gear, its a hoot to read about you and your rag-tag-band of visitors kicking the tires on the cream o the crop amps and cans. 4) site expansion to start doing more with products like amps and blutooth speakers. 5) Headphone Reviews!!!!

Keep up the great work sir. Its much appreciated and always enjoyed.

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF.

PS: regarding the article above, i was glad to see your shout out to Schiit. Ive become a HUGE fan of Schiit over the last year. Their gear continually impresses me and Jason's outstanding updates (virtual book chapters on HeadFi) are always informative and enjoyable.

rhfactor30's picture

I agree with you punit. When I asked about purrin's measurement setup, he replied

Quote:

"Drop by EF. Have the guys vet you (we need to make sure you are not emotionally retarded). Sign an NDA. Swear a pirate oath of secrecy."

http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/now-pirates-headphonedom-argh#KGBYB...

On SBAF when someone was talking about the voicing of the HD800 purrin responded

Quote:

"Diffuse Field, Loudness Diffused Field, Loudness Diffused Saints, Latter Day Saints, Mormons, Sean Olive, Sean Bean, Game of Thrones, Welti, Welt from Spitwad, Golden Shower Target, etc.

And therefore the moral of the story: Target curves are a game of dicksmanship.*

*Over reliance on scientific models, AES papers, German overthinking and over-complexity (think Tiger I tank in WW2, Porsche with electronic touch button parking brake, or VW emissions tricks). PhDs, G.R.A.S., etc. when they could have just gotten Bob Katz or Hands to tune it for them. I'd take the Hands-Wunder Curve target over any of those academically or scientifically arrived curves.

Don't you guys get it? All these scientists and academics making and relying on these targets are morons who don't listen to music and most certainly don't have trained ears.

LOL, he's probably making it up or synthesized this tale from second or third-hand information he's gotten from Head-Fi.

More seriously, references and citations to Beyer's and Sennheiser's processes would be appreciated. Might be an interesting read how Beyer fucked up most of their headphones and Sennheiser fucked up the HD800, and HD700 even more."

http://superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/diffuse-field-equaliz...

When commented there on how they bash so many other people and purrin responded

Quote:

"Elitist. Yup
Arrogant. Yup.
Do we think we know better? Of course! If we didn't, why would we bother?

I'll even dare to say that the members here on average have IQs about 20-30 points higher than HF members.

One of the reasons I started this site is because I have little tolerance for people who are stupid. I may as well be honest about it. I have a hard time dealing with stupid people. I do not wish to talk to them and I do not wish for them to talk to me.

So what's your point again?

Yes. Just as useless... until you read down and see that we got so sick of the useless discussion that we decided to arrange loaner unit where it will be shared and measured. Or maybe you missed the part where we will willing to go out on a limb to help a member (who was obsessed with the MicroOTL) expand his horizons beyond the MicroOTL. Yep. Useless. Go fuck yourself. You have no fucking idea how much effort, time, and money people have put into this forum, trying to share knowledge with each other.

No, you don't get it. Your shit and HF's shit smells worse than ours. I want that to be perfectly clear. If I felt that HF's shit was less smelly, I'd be over on HF instead, or I'd let you run this forum."

http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/do-you-still-visi...

I registered a profile on ChangStar but I won't be doing that on SBAF. If that's their leader I won't be following.

JE's picture

I also agree with the above - dont be fooled by the so-called change of mood. The pathetic elitism and pseudopiracy vibe of Changstar is still too present over there to actually take the forum seriously.

rhythm is life's picture

...is a new name, but unfortunately some of the old pirates remain the same. It's not quite as rude as Changstar though. Mainly because anaxilus is gone. purrin has always been rude though. The rest of the crew tends to be a lot nicer.

stalepie's picture

I was jealous that their best earphones are mainly sold in non-U.S. countries. Ones like EX-650 and the nice-looking XBA-300. I don't understand why they wouldn't want to sell those through their U.S. site -- well, they closed off the store there and now their only "where to buy" option for the new h.ear-on phones is Best Buy (not even Amazon).

I guess the XBA-H1/2/3 line sold pretty badly since they didn't even bother with the A1/2/3 here. The MDR-7550 only has a few reviews at B&H.com (compared to hundreds for their full size monitors).

Lunatique's picture

One area I'd like to see Tyll spend more time investigating or reviewing in the future, is products that really help make headphone listening much more enjoyable by improving the sound. For example, Sonarworks with their headphone measurement/correction product, ToneBoosters Isone for realistic HRTF that makes headphones sound like speakers, and other related products.

talonxander123's picture

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Bob Katz's picture

I'm interested in hearing economic-based contenders to "the best headphone there is". The best at the price... I'll bet a lot of people want to know what the best buy in headphones in any price range turns out to be. .

In my upcoming review of midpriced cans I did find one that has to be highly under-rated if it's being ignored by the public: The $399 Oppo PM-3. Is it because it's priced too cheap for the serious high end audiophiles, but too expensive for the bargain hunters? That would be a sad day because I found (no surprise) in my review the Oppo to have the best price/performance ratio on earth.

So if "absolute best for the buck" is the criterion, I nominate the Oppo in that midpriced range. So I'd like to see a shootout in the critical market segments: The next jump probably is around $1000. So let's see what reviewer's picks are for the "best at $400", "best at $1000" (is that the Enigma at $1200?), "best at $1500" (is this a real market segment?) and "best at 1800-2000" headphones and see how those compare.

Tyll I would like you to send me the Enigma for a second opinion over here in an environment I trust. I can shoot out the "best at $400", "best at $1200" and "best at $1800" and it could be a very enlightening comparison. To see what all the fuss is about and just how much additional sound quality you get with these giant jumps in price.

ScaryFatKidGT's picture

Skull candy has been out long before beats, if they made stuff more like the Aviators/Mix master mikes? they would be going somewhere, everything else they make is plastic junk.

Sony is.... well sony... their XBA IEM's are nice, but their other offerings look cheap, they are trying to hit every market segment and they change their product line up every 6 months, UE did a way better job with the UE6000's and such, sony should have bought the rites to though from them, they were the quality and style sony has been trying to achieve, minus their audiophile cans which are nice.

Beats are really weird, they even had me lusting after the pro's back in the day till I found out it was all a sham and got into real headphones.

SENNHEISER HD800'S FOR EVERYONE!

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