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On Headphones and Hi-Fi:'s Response

Monday, January 13th, 2014

by Arly Borges, Warren Chi, Scot Hull, Michael Mercer & Kevin Venable

Editor's Note: A couple of weeks ago, our very own Scot Hull posted some musings over at Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile about the state of the Hi-Fi industry - and how high-end headphones should not been seen as the savior of hi-fi. Rather, he theorized that headphonedom could pose a challenge to hi-fi as an alternate form of audiophilia, with both hi-fi and headphonedom existing in their own spheres.

To balance out Scot's point, our friend John Grandberg (a well-respected and long-time member) offered a counter-point where he notes that headphones aren't necessarily a world apart, and can certainly serve as gateway drug into traditional audiophila. That set the stage for to return the serve. And we were all set to respond, with our own myriad of thoughts on the subject, until all hell broke loose.

Within minutes of its posting, that article precipitated a shit storm of controversy. Various thoughts were exchanged in volley after volley of additional counterpoints, site comments and facebook postings.

Chris Sommovigo of The High Fidelity Report asserted that hi-fi, as we have known it, is dying - and that headphones now dominate the enjoyment of music amongst the masses. The notion that hi-fi is even remotely diminishing was then rejected outright by Anthony Kershaw of Audiophilia. Jeff Dorgay of Tone Audio then weighed in with thoughts on the futility of speculation... at which point John Darko of Digital Audio Review recalled doomsayers of days past having been rather sensationalist in their views.

Now that the initial furor has died down, and everyone has had a chance to let loose at CES, we thought this would be a good time to respond with our thoughts on the subject. As one might imagine our thoughts run the gamut because is a chorus of voices and viewpoints. But one common thread runs through it all: we believe that headphone listening will continue to grow and become the predominant form of musical enjoyment in the future. Whether that comes at the expense - or assistance - of hi-fi is for each one of use to decide for ourselves.

We begin with a point of clarification from Scot Hull.

Scot Hull

Headphones and the Revival of High-End Audio (Part 33 and 1/3)

2013 was a zoo, a blur, a crazy whirlwind that saw me jetting all over the country. It was, in short, a total hoot. But in all that traveling, talking, and listening, a couple of things really stood out. One? How many folks are still making awesome audio gear. There are a lot of them. Putting their time, money, energy and life into creating some of the most incredible products I've ever seen or heard. That anyone has seen or heard! If I didn't know "better", I could swear that we're living in something of a renaissance for audio's high-end. Two, that headphone audio is hot. I mean, everyone is talking about it. Hi-fi manufacturers from many different echelons are seeing the money being raked in by Beats and saying aloud to anyone who'll listen that this is the Promised Land. If you build it, they said, they will come. Headphone audio is ready and ripe for the plucking -- "all we need to do is ... [insert Evil Plan here]."

And then there was that re-post on Stereophile, "How to Revive High-End Audio". In that context, all of these comments about headphones become more than a little disconcerting.

The problem isn't that they're wrong about headphones and how hot that industry vertical is. It's that they're completely missing the point.

Headphones, and their popularity, isn't something that ... translates. Not into hi-fi. Not really. Not directly. And not cleanly. Unfortunately.

Sure, there are folks that will move from headphone to a hi-fi system. Just like there are folks that will move from hipster to hi-fi-ster. And from fine watches to fine audio. And from [insert random background] to hi-fi. Hi-fi is sourced from a lot of streams. And will be.

Where things get a bit hinky? Headphone users -- specifically those into Beats and the "headphone as an accessory" aren't into music that really translates. Not to hi-fi. Seriously, rap on YG loudspeakers? I'm just not feeling it. For them -- and there are a lot of them -- hi-fi will never be anything other than a weird little curiosity that misses their point, which is all about their music on their terms. And then there are "those kids" that do nothing but multi-task, and as we know (or should by now), no one can multi-task worth a damn. This group (and it's a big group) may someday graduate into another class of person that may one day get into hi-fi, but that path is unlikely to be soon. Or direct. To put it mildly.

Here's the interesting bit. None of this is speculative and none of it takes a crystal ball. Nostradamus is not required -- and no clairvoyants were harmed in the cataloging of these things. Hell, this isn't even an analysis -- it's just a series of observations.

Here's where the speculation comes in.

Check out the Indiegogo campaign by LH Labs around their nifty little "desktop awesomifier". $1M+ in pledges later, it's fairly clear -- even to Nostradamus -- that hi-fi brands have something to offer the headphone audio market. No, Beats isn't shaking in their ... headphones ... but the point is made. Hi-Fi brands can make money -- by moving outside of their traditional hi-fi market space. There is room "over there". JPS Labs, with the introduction of their acclaimed Abyss headphones, knows this. The speculative part -- other folks are watching and taking notes. Let's just say that the smart money says that there are others making similar plans.

My essay over on Part-Time Audiophile assumes a lot of this and I generally wave my hands at these "details". Here's the point, though, for those that didn't read more than the headline -- hi-fi isn't going anywhere and rumors of it's demise are, at best, greatly exaggerated. But headphone audio? Well, that has already. The question for hi-fi is -- is this a wagon they can hook their cart to? And if they do, are they building their own industry -- hi-fi -- or are they expanding another -- headphone audio?

My suspicion is that it's the latter. But then, that's not really a guess either. Of course, I'm not a journalist nor do I play one on TV, so I may not be the one to call out the fact that headphone audio as a path to "save" hi-fi (as described in some detail at several audio shows this past year) is, ah, flawed, but oh well. I mean, hi-fi doesn't need to be "saved" -- and in exactly the same way that vacuum tubes, vinyl and the CD don't need to be "saved" either.

What hi-fi needs is to grow. As the Stereophile piece lays out, it needs to expand. To reach new blood. To become more mainstream. To be relevant. They have a lot of ideas on how to do this, but I seriously question any path that says that to grow it, what they need is to invest everywhere but at home.

•   •   •

Kevin Venable

High-end headphones, like those championed at, are the new darling childs of the hi-fi, of that there is no doubt. As of late, even speaker manufacturers from Bowers & Wilkins to PSB to Martin Logan to KEF and now NAD have been jumping onto the bandwagon. Some of the aforementioned companies did an excellent job. Others, not so much. However the point is clear: adapt or die. Think that's somewhat of an overreaching statement? Then consider that Beats brings in over $500 million - annually - making and selling some of the worst head speakers known to mankind. What are your annual sales like?

If you spend anytime on you will realize that a large group of Head-Fiers either have or have had high-end speaker set-ups, or would love to own one in the future. Some, like myself, still have a nice set of speakers or two and the amps to drive them currently in storage awaiting a time when life allows us the chance to set them up again. Sources run the gamut from ipods to high-end multi format players, to DACs and turntables at Head-Fi. Cabling, component isolation and audio racks all have their place as well. One of the most desirable headphone amps is actually a low wattage integrated amp from a respected hi-fi manufacturer. So what is being destroyed by the proliferation of headphones? Nothing really. My reasoning for that statement is that headphones aren't destroying speaker sales, what speakers require to sound their best is destroying speaker sales, space.

Home ownership is at an all time low, more and more people are living in apartments or renting homes with barely enough space for themselves and their families. Who has the space to dedicate to speakers, preferably in a dedicated room with room treatments? Only the very well off. The space dedicated to entertainment is shrinking - a flat panel TV and a soundbar is typically it. That only projects a foot into the room, which doesn't matter anyway because that is all the real estate that can be given up in many cases. In a small living space, when you are rubbing elbows with cohabitants at all times, giving people a sense of their own space and not disturbing others, while still going on with what you want to do (listening to what you want), is a tricky proposition.

But that is exactly what headphones afford people, and that is why they are doing so well. They are not so much selling sound quality as they are selling freedom. Freedom to listen to what you want at the volume you want at anytime in any place. In apartments or condos, in houses with significant others, children, or parents, how much time can you actually spend listening to speakers? A few hours a week? If that is the reality, in an economy of limited disposable spending resources, spending hard earned cash on headphones makes infinitely more sense. Plus they go with you! To the office, on your commute, attached to the smartphone that everyone has already! A pair of headphones is a sound investment for the music lover of today and that is why they outsell every every other audio component combined.

As a high end audio manufacture what do you do? Join the party I guess. Or innovate. Look at the reality of people who love music, and actually want it to sound good, which is everyone who listens to music whether they know it yet or not. Look at the reality of life in today's fast paced, over priced, over stressed world and come up with a way for people to glean some enjoyment from the music they love.

•   •   •

Warren Chi

And love music we do. Of that there is no doubt. We love it so much that we can hardly bear to be without it... which is fine because we never have to go without it.

To expand on Kevin's point above, personal and portable fidelity liberates us. As children of the Eighties and Nineties, we grew up with Walkmans, Discmans and Minidisc players as constant companions. These days, all of those have been supplanted by smartphones and DAPs (Digital Audio Players), but the end result is the same. We don't go to our music, our music comes with us.

My listening "room" is wherever I happen to be: at work, at home, walking the dog, shopping for groceries, in line at the post office, spending time at a cafe, those long flights criss-crossing the country for audio shows, etc. And yes, that includes the quality time I spend on the throne. The music, my music, is rendered in splendid detail anywhere (and everywhere) I go on this planet.

I am always in my sweet spot.

But it's not the same you say? We could never get the same experience that you get from speaker set-ups you say? Well, duh. But that doesn't mean we are cut from the same cloth as mainstream consumers with iPods, Earpods and Beats. We are personal and portable fidelity enthusiasts, and our community is a world apart from that ignorant demographic. You see, we actually care about fidelity and sound quality, albeit in our own way.

For us, manufacturers like Astell & Kern, CEntrance, Audeze, Sennheiser, Ultimate Ears and JH Audio - not to mention a multitude of others - work hard to supply our demands. They have been innovating, and continue to innovate, for our sake - resulting in headphone and earphone based solutions that need to be heard to be believed. And they're only getting started.

At this very moment, as I scribe these musings on a tablet, I am God-knows how far away from a decent hi-fi system. And yet, I'm listening to high-res music via 24-bit/96 kHz files and even DSD. The music is being sourced from my Astell & Kern AK120, piped through discrete DACs for each channel, processed through a DSP (not just a rudimentary parametric EQ), and amplified cleanly. From there, the signal is sent - via audiophile-grade cabling from WyWires - into a pair of planar magnetic transducers less than an inch away from my ears via Audeze's groundbreaking LCD-XC. No one is complaining about the noise, and I don't have to hear anything that others are saying or doing as they go about their own lives. And I can repeat this sublime experience ad infinitim - anywhere, anytime.

If you think I'm suffering, and lamenting the lack of a room, you would be in error. Just about the only thing "missing" from my setup is a complicated assortment of room treatments and tweaks. They're simply unnecessary. My ear canals are neither big enough for, nor in need of, treatment. And if you think I'm going to wear shoulder-mounted Harmonizers, you are out of your mind (no offense Holger, I love your stuff). And you know what? I'll be honest, I'm not exactly losing sleep over any of that.

Is this to say that I don't prize a good in-room setup? Not at all. In fact, I think that's exactly where I'll eventually settle. It's a fact of life that I will age, that I will slow down - and one day I won't be nearly as mobile as I am now. When that day comes, I'll be looking to set up a dream room of my own. And on that day, don't be surprised if I look to many of the same companies and manufacturers that I'm familiar with now.

Should a traditional hi-fi company want to be included within that group, it can start reaching out to me and my ilk, with products we can put to good use, right now. But that's just not happening nearly as much as it should be. Maybe this is because - as Chris Sommovigo pointed out to me the other day - "that the desktop itself is a viable and respected Hi-Fi environment blows the minds of audio traditionalists..."

Well now, that's just a damn shame - because I believe that those of us who pursue fidelity through headphones and IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) have much to offer in the way of being a future customer base for Hi-Fi manufacturers. We don't need to be convinced that better sound is better. We just need the right products (ie. those suitable for our needs) to be available for purchase.

So, speaking to Hi-Fi manufacturers everywhere, personal and portable fidelity products could easily constitute an entirely new revenue channel for you - one that helps replenish your R&D coffers so that you can continue to do great things, wherever it is you do great things.

But more importantly, you would be contributing to a long-tail strategy for future customer acquisition. You see, I believe that we can help traditional Hi-Fi reach out to the masses again. The dragon we're chasing is a half-breed that is born of portable convenience and high-fidelity. In other words, our very existence forms a bridge between mass consumerism and audiophilia.

And here it comes, here is where I disagree with my fellow teammate Scot Hull. I believe that personal/portable fidelity enthusiasts like myself can - and do - bring in new blood to Hi-Fi. It can - and does - happen.

In my world, a world exemplified by the community at, we lead mainstream consumers to greener pastures. We've seen - firsthand - how many have had enough with mediocre gear from big box stores. Time and time again, we greet new members that have spent their money on Beats and such, and are tired of waiting for the "studio" sound they were promised.

Don't believe me? Take a look at how busy our Introductions, Help and Recommendations forum is. There are so many new members coming into Head-Fi - desperately seeking something more, something better - that we experienced members have a difficult time responding to all of their help requests. But we do try, and we are generally successful in our efforts.

And therein lies the new blood you've been looking for. There's no need for you to scratch your collective heads, wondering where new customers are. They are here, with us. Simply speaking, we perform the vertical integration that you cannot. Once we do, all that is required from you is the basic task of performing a lateral conversion. Yet again, the easiest way to do that is through us. Reach out to us. Create products for us to use, to fall in love with, to recommend to others. You won't even need to resort to heavy marketing, as you could easily leverage the branding you already possess. We'll perform the brand translation for you.

If you think that I'm just speculating here, and doubt that any of this is possible in the real world, you should know that - at this very moment in fact - I am messaging with a friend of mine from Head-Fi. She began with iPods and Apple buds like many of us. From there, she entered the world of Head-Fi-dom and progressed rapidly through our segment of the hobby. Today, she is one of the most experienced and respected among us. What is her latest fancy? A DaVinci DAC and some hideously expensive line arrays. That's right, Hi-Fi. And I know for a fact that she is not alone in having taken that journey. By the way, just in case you haven't been keeping track of the pronouns, my friend is a woman. Got many of those in traditional Hi-Fi have you?

Scot, for the record, I could totally picture underground Trip-Hop coming out of a pair of Zu Audio Soul Superflys. And that would be just the beginning. As you well know, there is no known cure for the audio bug.

For those of you in the old guard already headed our way, I applaud you and welcome you. Companies like Bowers & Wilkins, Martin Logan, Meridian, Cardas, KEF, NAD, McIntosh, and several others are leading the way in that regard. In fact, the recent announcement of a new McIntosh headphone amplifier and upcoming McIntosh headphones is incredibly telling. Even Bang & Olufsen is getting in on some of this action. But for the bulk of traditional Hi-Fi to not address our needs is, in my estimation, an unnecessary mistake reflecting both apathy and obstinance. That's fine. I mean, it's perplexing, but it's fine. It's a free country, and the Darwin Awards could always do with more nominees.

To those Hi-Fi companies that have not taken the plunge into our world, I would simply say this: I, along with millions of others, live life in 24/7 mode. A breathtaking in-room set-up just can't keep up with us, not at this point in our lives. However, high-end headphones, earphones and portable electronics can. Because of that, we're not exactly dying for in-room components and systems right now. But if you combine these insights with your own foresight, you'd see that showing us some love now could pay off big in the future, and we welcome you into our world readily.

We extend this invitation to you openly and freely. Please RSVP soon.

•   •   •

Arly Borges

High end head/earphones are my muse as well as my escape. For me, I became a part of this hobby for the music and only for the music. When a piece of gear, no matter what price tier it may be, hits that special sweet spot I completely lose track of what's going on around me and let the music take me where it wants. That's what's so special about headphones, it's a far more personal experience between the listener and the music.

I remember the first time I invested in what I thought, for me, was a pricey amount for a pair of headphones, the lowly Grado SR60i. I remember arriving home, unboxing them and thinking I was stupid for blowing a hundred bones Canadian on a headphone that looked cheap and ugly. I plugged them into my CD player, threw in my favorite live CD, Iron Maiden: Rockin In Rio, and proceeded to have my ass kicked all over the room. Grado, for those who may not know, is infamous for being mid centric and are widely loved by many for being great sounding rocker cans.

For the first time ever it felt like I was actually there. I felt like I was on that stage in Rio while Adrian Smith, Janick Gers and Dave Murray strummed their guitars under my nose, while Nicko McBrain hammered on his drums on my forehead, whilst Steve Harris strummed his guitar 2 feet in front of my eyes. End result, I was out of my chair slam dancing on my bed like some neurotic 15 year old kid without a single care in the world.

That's called connection, and when a headphone is engineered right that connection with the music is almost magical. For me, that's what the hobby should be about. Add the fact that now I can experience this almost spiritual like connection anywhere I choose and it becomes a no brainer as to why mobile hi-fi audio is expanding beyond its niche borders.

•   •   •

Michael Mercer

I've been working in the Hi-Fi and music industries for over twenty years now. That's crazy when I think about it, and the fact that I'm only thirty-nine years old! I worked my ass off to earn my spot as a writer/reviewer, and loved every minute of it.

Having come up under Harry Pearson at The Absolute Sound was an incredible and once-in a lifetime experience. It was also a trial-by-fire, so don't think I got a free-ride. But it wasn't until HiFi+ (back when it was just a London publication) gave me a shot at my own music column (the birth of Sonic Satori) that Harry allowed me to contribute to TAS - where he generously worked with me on my writing style. And that was a big deal for me.

You see, I always wanted to write about music, ever since I was a kid in elementary school. I was in fifth grade when my step brother took me to see Rush during their Power Windows tour! And it was nothing short of a religious experience - one that I wanted to evangelize about - because that's what you do when something reshapes your soul. I knew that I wanted to be involved with writing about music, or sound, or anything having to do with either, and preferably both!

So why tell you all of this? It was a long way of saying that it's the music I'm always after. If I learned anything from Harry - it's that the gear is merely the vehicle. Sure, I love new kit like any audio buff. But honestly, if a component brings me closer to the music, I could give a shit if it's duct-taped together and ugly as sin. Well, I'd rather it not be - but if such a sonic beast could teleport me away from the rat race and help me lose myself in the music for a few fleeting moments - then I'm all in regardless!

Starting in this wacky industry as a teenager in the mid-nineties, I always felt like the young guy in the room, or, when it came to audio shows and events, the youngest guy in most of the rooms! That was the status quo around 2009, when I joined the community for the first time. I had grown tired, weary, and a little wary of the sameness that plagued high-end. Now, I've met some terrific people in the high end, and many of them remain some of my most cherished friends to this day, but I could never shake that seeming air of elitism and separatism that always nagged at me in that community. I was always surprised at the rampant politicking, the continual in-fighting at certain publications, and the outward bar brawls between publications and manufacturers! I thought to myself: Don't these people realize we're a niche within a niche, and that we could all benefit by supporting each other? After all, while the industry is small, there's still room for many voices and approaches to high fidelity.

Before long, I tired of hearing the same complaints, not to mention the same music at demos! Sadly, that still hasn't changed! Be warned: bring a Patricia Barber record into my house and you might get the boot. Now, I'm not stupid, I realize she and Diana Krall are talented artists - but hearing their music time and time again at Hi-fi shows destroyed my ability to listen to anything they've done! And if I hear Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Tin Pan Alley" (another killer tune that Hi-Fi stole from my heart) in another demo, I'm gonna scream obscenities until people realize they've had their music in repeat for twenty years! Sorry for the rants along the way, but frankly, the industry needed that wake-up call.

So I started writing a few Jerry Maguire-style essays aimed at the things I took issue with in the high-end: the boring music, the same old crowds, the bubble world that refuses to find a way back to consumer culture, the same old formulas that appeal to the already converted, forgetting that the converted have already been converted, not doing anything to bring in new blood, etc! Most of these essays were part of my What is the Future of the High End series for Positive Feedback. I've also written other Shout-at-the-Devil-style pieces in places like The Daily Swarm and The High Fidelity Report. Sure, I used some crazy headlines for effect - like Dear Audiophile Industry, Please Advertise in Playboy - knowing full well that was outrageous. But it didn't seem as outrageous as doing the same things over and over and expecting new results. Does that formula bring anything to mind? Well I'd had it. So I tried to do something, anything, to help usher some new blood into the high end hobby.

Now, when I reflect on many of those essays, I realize I was coming from a selfish place, Shit, I wanted to have a community to work with as I got older, and I didn't see many other young faces around me after all that time! So admittedly, I may have gone a little nutty for effect at times, but my honest intent was merely to bring attention to this hobby I hold so dear.

Enter the Head-Fi community - which truly is a community in every sense of the word. It's survives - and thrives - through the participation of both members and manufacturers! The members (users/customers) are unpaid, and are continually enthusiastic when sharing their findings. When a new headphone hits the Head-Fi ether, and breaks down sonic barriers - whether through material science or pure dedication to the very best design techniques - the community responds like drooling dogs.

Thankfully they're far more articulate. But all kidding aside, the Head-Fi community made the high-fidelity journey fun again! And I haven't stopped grooving since. Today, I get more satisfaction listening to my Audeze planar magnetic headphones and E.A.R. HP4 tube headphone amplifier (there's a familiar high-end brand for you - courtesy of Mr. Tim DeParavicini) than I do listening to my large two-channel in-room system! Now, don't get me wrong: I love my two-channel reference system! But in order to achieve the same realistic dB levels, the all-encompassing sound-staging, and the downright soulful yet holographic imaging of my top reference headphone rigs, I'd have to spend at least fifty to a hundred grand to match the audible experience I get lost in while basking in the sounds of my favorite cans! It's a brave new world, and the undeniable fact is that far more music devotees experience their music through headphones today than any other delivery mechanism.

Like my friend and editor at Part-Time Audiophile Scot Hull says, there's no way every Head-Fier is gonna metamorphosize into an audiophile in the traditional sense. However, higher performance personal audio does something for people en mass at a rate we've never seen before: expose them to greater fidelity. Forget how they're listening, and just focus on the fact that they are listening! Now, don't you think the high-end audio industry has, at the very least, a better chance of gaining those attentive listeners as future clients - as opposed to the walking dead out there satisfied with their stock earbuds and $9.00 Skullcandy IEMs they just purchased at Ross?

The users over at Head-Fi love music, and they truly love great sound, and I honestly have more fun reading their reviews than many of the pros out there! It's all about connecting with each other by sharing our experiences and collective passions. In this new connected economy, those interactions are golden. They lead to industry-wide growth and innovation. What could be wrong with that? That's rhetorical of course, there is nothing wrong with that.

The hard truth is: Head-Fiers don't need to become in-room audiophiles to help the audiophile industry; and die-hard audiophiles don't need to sell their loudspeakers and buy a set of cans either! As long as both market segments stay strong, I wholeheartedly believe they benefit from each other as each market grows. After all, isn't that what we're all about? Spreading the high fidelity gospel? Well, whether that message is decoded via a set of headphones or loudspeakers it's still reaching the user on a personal level. I for one can't wait to see what happens in both segments over the next few years.

As far as I see it - there's no reason to stick to one thing. Why not broaden your audible horizons? I'm psyched I made the jump into personal audio! I've never had so much fun listening to music. That's the end-game for me. Hopefully people will keep their minds open and do a little exploring. Come on in! The water's hot!

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