It's a jungle out there. Who will survive?

Evidently I've been wrangled into hosting the headphone panel discussion at THE Show Newport May 31-June 2. (SoCal readers might like to attend this show as they've really tried to put a special emphasis on headphone listening and will have a dedicated headphone area.) So, I've been thinking about how to create a topic for discussion that might be worth while. I've come up with "Headphones: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Where are we, and where are we going?"

It seems to me we are the verge of big things happening in the world of headphones. One might say big things have already been happening what with the double digit growth in the market over the last five years and new players appearing at breakneck speed, but I think that's just the first salvo. With Beats tenaciously holding on to 2/3rds of the over $100 headphone market, I can only believe we'll be seeing many of these recent entries bowing back out as they are unable to capture enough of the 1/3rd market share remaining to make the effort worth while. (Phonak has recently pulled the Audeo brand, for example.)

So, a lot of pieces have been placed on the board, and I'm curious what readers think will happen over the next 5 years or so. Here's a poll with a number of possible futures, no doubt it's incomplete. Please vote for what you think is the closest option, but feel free to let your thoughts run wild in the comments area.

The Pessimist: Beats share may slowly dwindle, but it's place will be taken by more of the same with little regard for sound quality.

The Optimist: The public will slowly become aware of the value of good sound quality, and old guard makers like Sennheiser, AKG, Sony, etc, will gradually regain market share.

The Realist: Nothing particularly dramatic will happen, but the headphone market will become more sophisticated and complex over time, and all significant public interests will be served.

The Futurist: Products like the Google Glass and Oculus Rift will move attention away from audio only headphones significantly.

The Technologist: New types of headphone drivers, and the companies that develop them, will come along and take market share from legacy companies unable to change rapidly enough to remain competitive.

It's a jungle out there. Who will survive?
14% (236 votes)
19% (312 votes)
46% (758 votes)
6% (93 votes)
16% (265 votes)
Total votes: 1664

dom's picture

Given the Oculus has no inbuilt audio wouldn't that be a boost for headphones? Combining a good pair of phones with the oculus head tracking could be pretty awesome.

xnor's picture

Today's hyper-compressed music sounds really bad with accurate headphones. High detail resolution or boosted treble makes the artefacts unbearable. This eliminates the majority of what readers here might consider hi-fi headphones.

This plus the "design" plus the marketing (nearly everybody knows Dr. Dre) is why the average Joe buys Beats. Let alone that the average Joe probably thinks that audiophiles are whackos and doesn't even know that something like headphone amps exist.

The optimist stance seems unrealistic, but we might see an increase in Sennheiser, AKG ... market shares if they can pull off something like Beats. This could also lead to overall higher sound quality, but not directly because the "public will slowly become aware of the value of good sound quality".

I'm still advocating for (ideally EBU R128 based) ReplayGain enabled by default in all devices/players that play music. That way the compressed stuff gets really punished in terms of volume. Then even the average Joe would notice that all that is left is a wimpy, squished and distorted mess. This would lead to better productions. Better productions means hi-fi headphones cause big(ger) improvements ... and so the circle is complete.

Impulse's picture

I voted Realist but I don't see Beats sustaining their massive market share in the long term... Take Apple's case, they surged ahead due to marketing but they've lost significant market share (in phones) even though they're still putting out a very well engineered product (their politics aside), which Beats isn't doing.

Apple had one big competitor going head on against them tho. OTOH the iPod's remained dominant because the market kinda stagnated, but smartphones surging also had a hand in that so... Point is, I don't think marketing alone keeps Beats afloat, even if headphones remain a fashion accessory for the masses (at some point fashion takes a right when Beats takes a left).

Seth195208's picture that it always goes out of style. 

It's just a matter of time before they get "Beat".

I do believe though, that there is a percentage of the population that will always care about good sound. Almost seems like a recessive human trait.. Always just enough to sustain the industry, but never much more than that.

Jazz Casual's picture

Grado will survive. Look at Joe, he's well over a hundred years old now and still adding magic goop for a measurable 400 per cent improvement in detail retrieval - God bless him.

omahapianist's picture

If there is a company that won't ever bow to style and convenience, it's Grado. They won't ever have to worry about paying outrageous amounts of money to celebrities just to use their name. They've even resisted building their products to mimic today's bling-infested offerings. They've stuck to a format that works and have produced among the best headphones you can buy for the money, period. God Bless Grado indeed!

jGray91's picture
DS-21's picture

or sound quality. smiley

Sorry, but I've yet to hear a Grado product that didn't sound like a bad aftermarket car stereo ca. 1986.

archagon's picture

My predictions:

Trendy/celebrity headphones will continue to have a huge grip on the $100+ headphone market. Some will sound good (Skullcandy), some won't (Beats). Aesthetics and fashion will become a lot more important. Audiophile-grade headphones will continue to be made, but perhaps with a much-needed facelift. (See: Sennheiser Momentums, Sony MDR-1Rs.) Bluetooth will improve and become more widespread. The most popular headphones will be aimed at mobile users and have low impedance, relatively compact size, and built-in remotes.

miceblue's picture

I admit, I'm an optimist by-nature, so that might be a bias toward the optimist option. XD

I think regular consumers will be introduced to audio through "common-name" brands and eventually head towards "big-name" brands like AKG, Sennheiser, etc. I myself started with V-MODA's Vibe earphones, then switched to Sennheiser, then to Skullcandy, then to Shure, then to V-MODA again, and finally to AKG. Upon initial research into hi-fi audio gear, Sennheiser and Shure came up quite often. After hearing the AKG K 701 in-person, I really wanted to go for AKG's headphones and I am quite satisfied with the K 701's currently.

I actually tried the MDR-1R today at a local Sony Store. In short, I was really disappointed with them. I get the feeling that the $300 headphone market is getting saturated with a bunch of Schiit headphones to be quite frank and regular consumers will readily reach for these headphones first before Optimist headphones (realist).

HiFiMAN and Audeze are making a huge impact in the audiophile community though with their planar magnetic headphones (technologist), but I don't see them making much progress in the "real-world" with regular consumers.

AncientWisdom's picture

I voted Realist but I do not feel that represents 100% what I think will happen, it was just the closest out of the given options :-)

I think that:

  • Number of players is going to start decreasing, maybe even dramatically
  • Traditional brands such as Sennheiser, AKG, Sony will continue to be successful in their markets and maybe even gain market share as some people make the transformation from main-stream head-fi to informed head-fi
  • Beats cannot possibly keep holding that market share, too many things setting them back
  • Someone might rise up to the occasion with a product that is somehow right and succeed again in a similar way to beats (could be beats themselves with a new product)
  • The rise of mobile devices and mobile computing in specific will continue and therefore will propel mobile audio further (so portable and IEMs is where I expect big changes)

As a side note I want to add that it is very obvious to me that when all is said and done, Beats have actually done allot of good for the headphone industry by making this segment huge, connecting it to a wide variety of people that had no interest in it before, and introduced the importance of style to the equation.... <ducks>

daadaa's picture

this is one of the more pointless and banal articles on inner fidelty

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I'm sincerely curious what readers might say to such a question. The comments above are interesting, it would be hard to get them in another venue. Nothing wrong with a little light dialog.

John Grandberg's picture

Tyll is known for measuring things. Must it always be headphones? Or can he, from time to time, measure public opinion? 

xnor's picture

Bu.. bu.. but opinions are subjective!! laugh

Think's picture

but will we like the end result? 

Let's take Sony for example. They've always put out headphones tuned to make Average Joe music sound excellent to Average Joe's ears. While definitely ranked higher than Beats (and actually very fun to listen to every once in a while), the audiophile community doesn't praise Sony's best bets at dethroning Beats. The future of Sony's non-professional headphones lies closer to the X10 than the R10. 

Sony definitely has a much larger concern for sound quality than Beats, and a much superior engineering force to make great sounding headphones, but if they manage to surpass Beats, it will be with a headphone tuned for the Average Joe listening to Average Joe music from an Average Joe source. 

Jim Tavegia's picture

I don't see anything changing the "style over substance" position the Beats hold.  I would think they would be better off with 2 pair of Sony 7506's for the same money as a pair of beats, but the Sony's just look like serious headphones, not a fashion statement. 

All I hear from the kids at school is how great the bass is. I guess more is better.  

ultrabike's picture


Pipe dream:

A practical (SWaP), fashionable (celebrity endorsed if that's what it takes), reliable (no drop outs), and good sounding (great acoustics) wireless headphone( s ) might fit in today's all-in-one cellphone generation.

Integrate a decent DAC/Amp to these wireless phones... and/or allow 3rd party DAC/Amp integration. DSP-pimp the phones... Maybe couple them nicely with those TV 3D glasses.

Realistic/Pesimistic deal:

I see Beat's Solo's on the streets, and on the shelfs. That's $200 of good looking manure. On the other corner we have the not-so-good-looking KSC-75, which sounds & measures decent, is light/practical, and currently on sale at Amazon for $14.70... Yes, the KSC-75 is no HD-600 or Stax, but its $14.70 of sound decency not being displayed on street nutty heads!

Fashion changes quickly. I think Beats will be replaced by something else... Hopefully that something will at least sound BETTER than decent, and will motivate stores to carry it for a juicy profit margin.

Hifihedgehog's picture

I voted for the technologist's guess since I believe that some new breakthrough will steal the show and put the balance back to normal. However, a thought came to my mind about what would happen if Beats Audio decided to buy up audiophile companies right and left with their great treasure of wealth at their disposal. They could start out with the smaller folks, like Audio Technica and Koss, and gradually work themselves up to companies like Beyerdynamic and AKG near the end of their ascent. In no time, we could have a full-scale battle of the titans on our hands of who would monopolize the market, the good ol' ship Sennheiser in corner A and the young buckin' bronco Beats Audio in corner B, along with all the intellectual properties and technologies they amassed and added to their arsenal. Let's remember that this sort of thing has happened before in other niches and is a very remote possibility here, too, even though we would not want this to happen because you can be sure Beats Audio would remove and realign product lines to meet their new golden standard of fashion first, function second and absolutely destroy the market in the process. Just some food for thought and perhaps an audiophile's nightmare...

Willakan's picture

I reckon you can generalise the expensive-headphone-using population into about four groups:

1) The "Dre Told Me To Buy This" group: "They look cool and they have more bass than my iBuds."

2) The "Open to SQ Concerns" group: "Hey, perhaps I should opt for these celebrity headphones over these ones...might sound better."

3) The "Softcore Audiophile" group: "I'll do my research, spend my budget and be happy with the results."

4) The "Hardcore Audiophile" group: "Did you hear the new UberMegaDAC 9000 has better treble clarity than the WonderDAC Xtreme Edition? And for only $500 more!"

Each group has the potential to feed members into the one after, and so on. The main effect of the influx from the "masses" into headphonedom is that the "masses" associate audiophilia with that funny article they read about $10,000 cables, or with silly old people listening to boring music they spent far too much money on. That's not exactly putting it politely, but that's the impression a lot of people seem  to have.

The negative results of such a mindset are somewhat obvious, but the lack of trust in those investing large amounts of money in audio can, should and will be eroded - what stays is the newcomers' essential skepticism. Such individuals will be very concerned that their money is going on decent sound, and if some audiophile sacred cows have to get sacrificed to get there...they're not really going to care.

My prediction is that we're going to see manufacturers move towards implementing elements of DSP into their products. We can argue all day that the differences between two ostensibly identical-sounding signal paths that generally only manifest under pretty uncontrolled conditions are real/bollocks, but when you can take a cheaper driver and apply some DSP for sound that punches far above its weight, people are going to sit up and take notice, even amongst the more diehard audiophiles. And when it sounds this damn good, nobody is going to listen to the guy at the back rambling about opamps in the signal path. 

The belief systems that underpin audio or whatever else you can think of tends to work in cycles of skepticism and...erm..."open-mindedness". We're currently at the peak of the latter, as individuals respected in the audio community start to ernestly ascribe different sound signatures to two identical files played back under identical conditions. And people are starting to call "Bullsh**!". 

The moment manufacturers start sacrificing adherence to the arbritrary mythology of SQ ("FEEDBACK IS EVIL OMG ect...") for genuine improvements that anyone can hear, I reckon we're going to start seeing some big changes.


lafaard's picture

I feel that the beats audio wave of headphones has forced a trend of 300$ headphones that promise a lot and deliver so little. Every manufacturer does it: monster, sennheiser, sony, philips, bose, ultrasone... I tried the sennheiser momentum and the focal spirit one. I have to say that they sound really good...but do not justify their high price tag! Furthermore, I am tired and frustrated of these tech/audio blogs (I am not pointing fingers here) that exclusively review expensive headphones (100$+) influencing consumers (a.k.a. average joe) to buy expensive headphones. It also seems that manufacturers are increasing their prices to make the public believe that their headphones are any good. I am pointing my finger at the new Marley brand which appeared out of thin air.

On a positive note, thes 300$ headphones set the bar high for confort and design. Which also suggests that the average joe values confort and style more highly than the typical audiophile. 

I am very content with my 30$ incipio f38 (a.k.a. fischer audio fa-004, maxell retro dj, brainwavz HM3) which I modded with blu-tak for dampening. It proves that you don't have to spend an arm for decent sound quality. I am also looking at the superlux lineup :)

This is my non-audiophile, non consumer perspective :p

Torpedo's picture

IMHO there're two different markets, the mass one, to which things like Beats become the icon, and the minority. The mass market will always be lead by companies knowing how to please the majority attending fashion principles more than sound quality ones. For this market DrDre, Monster, etc will always be the leader, and it's possible mass interest on headphones will vanish.

OTOH the sensible market, will focus on what really matters, which is sound quality and other considerations like price-quality. This market won't grow, as music lovers aren't augmenting.

lafaard's picture

I have to say that the beats/monster headphones are very appealing to "novice" headphone users. They share a lot of similarities in terms of sound signature with most cheap headphones sold at the store: boomy bass, sparkly treble, warm sounding and narrow soundstage. So naturally, the beats/monster headphones sound better to some people than a higher end "balanced" headphone, because it's closer to what they are used to hearing (I hope it makes sense). 

Audiophiles have different criteria for choosing headphones. 

So sound quality is seen differently by distinct types of users. 

By the way, I feel that audiophiles represent minor group in the headphone market. Most people don't really know anything or care about sound quality anyway. So naturally a more consumer oriented brand like Monster or Skullcandy would dominate over a "geeky" audiophile brand that sells expensive headphones that require amplification. 

arnaud's picture

As a true geek / engineer, I felt more compelled by the technologist view but I share the same opinion as torpedo: there is not one market and never will be. Mainstream is growing, specialized market also, but I don't see one influencing the other much.

The high end / audiophile market will keep growing at the pace of technology (and marketing) improvements, but it will remain very niche market, imo that is ...


paul's picture

Over the last 75 years, the music industry has made better recordings part of their equation. There may be some arguement, but the record industry has gone from mono to stereo to digital all with an eye towards better sound.

Currently, mp3's are at the top of the music selling heap. I can see the music industry trying to "repackage" mp3 recordings into a better sounding lossless format. This would foster the sale of better headphones.

I don't know, but how do the Beats Headphones sound playing an mp3 rip coming straight out of an ipod?

ultrabike's picture

"There may be some arguement, but the record industry has gone from mono to stereo to digital all with an eye towards better sound."

I sort of agree with that, but excesive dynamic range compression in recent offereings has been troubling.

"I don't know, but how do the Beats Headphones sound playing an mp3 rip coming straight out of an ipod?"

IMHO, horrible... Try the combo at your local Apple store (specifically the Solo and the Solo HD.)

wink's picture

I am a realist with a dash of romantic.


The realist says that the only way to get 90% of the population to appreciate real sound reproduction is to give them a cyborg transplant.

The romantic side says that education of the masses will prevail and all will be sweetness and hi-fi sounds pervading the electronic media.

The realist points out that education in the past has only ever produced millions of educated fools.

The romantic side waves the objection aside and heartily indulges in his euphoric headspace filled with mellifluous sonic wonderment.

There we have it, folks:-

People are different, and you can't make a high fidelity enthusiast out of a bass buffoon.

If you cant' beat them, please don't join them......

ma4chaut's picture

I voted Pessimist, but what do I know?? I own an Ergo AMT.

navalverde's picture

Its hard to wholeheartedly choose the pessimistic, realistic, or optimistic view because I think elements of all three will come bear.  On one hand I am astonished by the growth in this industry and the amount of affordable dacs/cans/amps available from boutique companies like Emotiva, Schiit, & HRT etc.  I am also impressed by the amount of reviews I see from younger people who have taken the time to educate themselves through head-fi & websites like this.  But at the same time it feels like the beats audio juggernaut is an unstoppable colossus.  Beats doesn't even need the Dr. Dre endorsement anymore, because every single celebrity/athlete is endorsing them by wearing the damn things around their neck in public (I like to count how many pairs I can see on NFL team buses during football broadcasts.)  The one important debt I think that audiophile companies owe to beats is that they somehow managed to convince the masses that spending 300 dollars on a pair of headphones (even if they suck) can be a worthwhile investment.  I think this could have strong implications for the market in the future depending on how things develop.

On the technologist/futurist end of the spectrum I can't really see the landscape changing to drastically.  Hear we are after all these years after technologies have come and gone and at the end of the day we still listen to stereo music.  I have to say I do agree with some of Willakan's  sentiments.  Why is it that the best media player on the market (the ipod classic) has so many shortcomings?  The damn thing doesn't have an adjustable equalizer, you can't change the battery, and you can't use a digital output in any kind of convienient fashion.  Why isnt there a portable media player that has a conventional spdif/toslink/usb digital output?  Why is Apple trying to push their stupid sony betamax lossless digital format?  Why isn't there any development in interesting dsp for playback? There are so many robust and interesting VST/RTAS plugins available for modern DAWS.  On top of that the variety of available software for pc playback is absolute crap.  I had Jriver media center destroy all the id-3 tags in my library, which is a shame because it sounds pretty damn good.  Oh well I always have my vinyl to fall back on, computers can't fuck that up.

p.s. To those wanting to ditch the "silly old people listening to boring music they spent far too much money on" stereotype STOP DEMOING YOUR GEAR WITH DIANA KRALL & NORAH JONES ALBUMS.