For years, I’ve labored under a skewed perception of the headphone listening experience, thanks to two unique experiences, one of which took place two decades ago. But two experiences in the last couple of weeks have completely changed my beliefs.
I buy a lot of the audio gear I buy because I think I should. After all, it’s part of my gig to know what’s going on in audio. Recently, one of those products I bought because I thought I should completely changed my ideas about the future of audio, and in just the first few days I owned it.
A recent article on TechCrunch about layoffs at Sonos caught the audio industry by surprise. Whenever it wants an example of “how to do it right,” much of the industry looks to Sonos. In just a little over a decade, Sonos has gone from a few guys in an office in Santa Barbara to a company with $1 billion in annual sales. Not only has Sonos kept up with the latest trends in music consumption, in some cases it has led them. So the news that the company is undergoing a major shift in direction shook up high-end audio manufacturers who would give their last EL34 for even a small fraction of Sonos’s success.
Apparently, Sonos isn’t shrinking, it’s adjusting. Two trends are pushing the company in new directions.
I spend a lot of time on Amazon.com, partly because it’s a great place to research the consumer-electronics market, and partly because it’s often the most convenient and affordable way to find and buy things. I also read the Customer Reviews posted on Amazon, because they’re sometimes the only source of information about a product other than the manufacturer’s website. But three recent events left me doubting the reliability of these reviews -- and wanting to do a little checking for myself.
Reading over the six headphone-related blogs I filed for SoundStage! Global from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, I realized that this CES marked something of a watershed for the headphone market. Although I considered headphones at every price as I wandered the show, I found the most action and excitement in higher-end models designed primarily with sound quality in mind. That’s a big change of pace -- at the previous ten CESes I’d attended, the focus had been on mass-market headphones. But in January 2016, even the only new celebrity headphones I saw -- the Onkyo Ed-Ph0n3s, endorsed by Iron Maiden -- were meticulously engineered and tuned for high performance.
I’ve been noticing that the proliferation online of information about headphones has inspired some enthusiasts to judge headphones by their frequency-response measurements alone. One anonymous commenter went so far as to proclaim that the HiFiMan HE400S headphones -- a model praised by many reviewers as the best you can buy for $300 -- are “terrible.” His or her evidence? That someone on an enthusiast forum had measured the HE400S and the measurements didn’t look good, even though the highly experienced headphone expert Tyll Hertsens had published measurements on the website Inner|Fidelity that conflicted with the ones from the forum.
Over the last couple of years, the Consumer Technology Association (until recently called the Consumer Electronics Association) and the major record labels have been . . . I don’t want to say pushing high-resolution audio (HRA), but at least making some effort to promote it. However, a couple of events that took place over the last two weeks have me wondering if this technology really has enough merit to succeed on a large scale.
I often hear audiophiles dissing noise-canceling headphones. This leads me to wonder how often they fly, because conventional over- and on-ear headphones really don’t work well on airplanes. Except perhaps on the very quietest new airliners, the droning, low-frequency noise of jet engines tends to drown out the midrange and treble of conventional over- or on-ear headphones, forcing you to crank the volume to ear-straining levels. Headphones equipped with active noise canceling can reduce this ambient low-frequency noise by 10-40dB, making it easier to hear your music and movies and, in my experience, reducing the fatigue of airline travel.
My recent review of the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, and a survey of open-back headphones priced below $500 got me thinking again about breaking in headphones and speakers. AudioQuest says the NightHawks require 150 hours of break-in. That’s not an uncommon assertion: HiFiMan, too, recommends 150 hours of break-in for its headphones. The idea that headphones and speakers require break-in is generally accepted among audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts. The practice may seem harmless, but I think it might influence buying decisions in unsuspected ways.
On a recent, 40-day road trip, I learned a lot about audio. Although my trip had audio-related elements -- meeting with reviewers, engineers, and enthusiasts in six US states and British Columbia, and attending a weeklong summer jazz camp -- the biggest revelations about audio came from six weeks of doing almost all of my listening through a car stereo system, to recordings sourced from my Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone, a few CDs, and whatever I could tune in on AM or FM.
My big revelation? That the audio industry is wasting a lot of time on things that don’t matter much, and overlooking a huge opportunity.