National Association of Music Merchants – NAMM 2020

I attended the National Association of Music Merchants show for a few days this year, mostly just to see friends and browse for keyboards, but there were some interesting headphone-related developments on the main convention floor hall which did not go unnoticed.

Primary amongst them was the fact that high-quality headphones have really hit pro audio in a meaningful way.

Stations for trying gear, especially expensive mastering-quality equalizers, compressors and other processors seems to now be accompanied by either a pair of Focal Stellias or Audeze LCD-X or XC headphones. Neither provides an exceptional degree of isolation, but they’re a much improved listening experience over the MDR7506, AKG204 or HD600’s that once graced pro audio show floors, at least where isolation and a modicum of quality are concerned.

Interestingly enough, representatives form Chord, Audeze and several other hi-fi manufacturers were there showing headphone amps and DACs paired with pro-audio gear. I happen to know a number of well-regarded mastering engineers who now work extensively on headphones, and the Audeze LCD-X is one that has made a huge splash in the market. It’s got a phenomenal tuning and great dynamics for pro-audio use, and their less expensive headphones like the LCD-1 and LCD-2 Classics were popular demo choices at RME, SPL and other booths where high-quality headphone outputs were available.

Add in companies like Manley Labs who are now producing a headphone amp, and pro-audio has definitely taken notice of headphones. A couple of my mastering friends love headphones because they give them back their mobility, allowing them to work without being shackled to their speaker systems, but just as many are checking masters on headphones simply to accommodate that perspective. Why? Because it’s so common amongst listeners nowadays.

From an audiophile perspective the pro space and products marketed towards it have only one real requirement; they must sound good. It’s an industry where measurements don’t really matter if the sound doesn’t ultimately deliver, because the customers are artists, most of whom could care less about measurements. Not to discard their importance, but rather to emphasize that many mastering engineers and top mix engineers have good enough ears to tell them whether a piece of gear does what they need it to. I’ve found so far that many headphones and amps that are well-tuned for mixing and mastering work carry over very well to the audiophile realm.

The LCD-1 is one such example, another is the SPL Phonitor series, which excels as an amp for home listening and in the studio. I’ll be watching this space carefully, and currently have a Manley Labs Absolute headamp in for review which is providing another interesting perspective of pro audio takes on audiophile gear; tweakability. I think pro audio consumers taking an interest in headphones can only lead to good things, and the levels of sound quality the pro users have relatively quickly honed-in on in their headphone setups is impressive.

While absolute tonal or textural detail may not be as good as the best audiophile systems, the neutrality and transparency is just as impressive, if not often better. The audiophile adventure with headphones has stabilized, but in the pro-audio market, headphones are just beginning their ascendancy as an important tool, and I look forward to seeing what kind of growth and new products will result from that.

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