News Column

Bye-bye Ear Buds? Headphone Shifting Toward Bigger Models

Dec. 9, 2012

Sam McDonald, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

headphones, ear phones, music

Dec. 09--Buds versus cans.

You could describe an intensifying battle in the world of popular audio with that simple phrase. The clash is heating up fast.

Ear buds, the miniature headphones that are commonly used with portable music players and mobile phones, have ruled the marketplace for years. Recently, though, they've been losing ground to old-school, full-size headphones -- sometimes called "cans" -- that promise to offer better sound or a more private listening experience.

Young consumers are leading the way, experts say.

"I believe the kids want better sound," said D.J. Taylor, whose Newport News company SoundApproach.com sells audio equipment locally and worldwide. "The younger people have gotten somewhat tired of the crappy sound you get from ear buds," he said. "Young people, particularly gamers, are among the biggest drivers of our headphone sales."

Taylor said that five years ago, consumers were buying ear buds almost exclusively. Over the past 18 months, though, sales of ear buds have dipped from 90 percent of all his headphone sales to around 58 percent. Over the same period, his sales full-size headphones have grown by 20 percent.

"Every year, it's advancing," Taylor said, who sees the pendulum swing back toward high fidelity as profoundly encouraging. "Our market has come back. All of that has contributed to the headphone tsunami the industry is experiencing right now. Almost every manufacturer wants to get into headphones now."

He estimates that there are about 600 companies marketing as many as 30,000 models of headphones world wide today.

Industry watchers identify the 2008 debut of Beats by Dr. Dre as a game changer. That line of high-end, smartly designed headphones was developed and introduced by the hip-hop producer known for his work with N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg.

The headphones, currently priced at $200 to $300, caught fire as a status symbol and the brand went on to capture as much as 50 percent of the high-end headphone market. The company's success propelled Dr. Dre to the top of the Forbes magazine 2012 list of hip-hop's biggest earners.

The story of Beats also encouraged other music stars to try to get in on the headphone action. Rival rappers Ludacris and 50 Cent both have their own competing lines. The family of late reggae king Bob Marley has introduced a line called Marley that features headphones with a red, green and gold head band and eco-friendly packaging.

Taylor believes Beats' popularity is more about style than substance and says that his company sells models that might lack the same design pizazz, but ultimately out-perform the popular line -- often for less money.

Other experts say the success of Beats is related to shifts in the way Americans consume music.

"The biggest change in headphone market is that they've become fashion accessories as much as sound product," said Jim Willcox, senior electronics editor for Consumer Reports.

That's as much about portability as it is about celebrity star power, he suggests.

Twenty years ago, consumers bought headphones and listened at home. With more people listening through mobile devices, portability and style have become the more important factors.

"It's no longer someone sitting at home wearing really big headphones listening to Pink Floyd," Willcox said. "People want headphones that they can take along with them, but that also do the music justice."

He's not quick to dismiss the quality found in celebrity-endorsed models.

Some are very good, he said. Others didn't perform well in Consumer Reports' rigorous testing.

"I wish there was a neat answer," Willcox said. "There's no guarantee that the price you pay or the endorsement is going to bring you a better quality headphone ... People are going to have to do a little bit of research."

Jorge Cervera is vice president of the Montana-based HeadRoom, which claims to be the largest headphone-dedicated retailer in the world. He said that technological advances have led to a golden age in high-quality portable audio.

"In the past four or five years, headphones have undergone a total revolution," Cervera said, whose company sells 30 different brands and racks up $5 million in sales annually. "Manufacturers have really gotten on board with how to make a portable headphone. There are a couple of dozen that are stellar in terms of bang for the buck and great sound quality."

Audio quality that would have cost you as much as $400 a decade or so ago is now available for as little as $100, he said. What's more, quality has improved dramatically on the lower end of the price range, too.

"The buy-in for a decent pair of headphones is $30 or $40 now," said Willcox. "People who are using the ear buds that came with their portable device can dramatically increase their listening experience for not much money."

Here are tips offered by experts on how to choose the right pair of headphones for you or someone on your holiday shopping list.

Choose your style. And we don't mean only color and design. On-ear models rest on the outside of the ear, but don't surround it with a cup. These can offer good fidelity and comfort, but don't necessarily contain the sound. If using the headphones in public, isolating the sound might be important. Over-the-ear models typically do a better job at isolation. Also, consider portability. Some models fold up so they can be easily stored in a purse or backpack.

Try them on, try them out. There's no substitute for a test drive. "Two things you have to pay the most attention to are sound quality and the fit," Willcox of Consumer Reports said. "Comfort is part of fit, but also headphones that don't fit you well aren't going to sound as good. Buyers have to make sure they fit and are securely positioned to give you the best sound."

Beware of sensitivity. It's becoming less common, but some high-end headphones are not made for use with portable devices such as iPods and mobile phones. "Make sure that they're sensitive enough that you're getting adequate volume," Willcox advised.

Sound is subjective. Some models are build with certain musical tastes in mind. For example, Willcox said that some SMS Audio 50 Cent models emphasized bass. "We found them really too bass heavy," he said. "But for some people who listen to bass-heavy music, they may like those more than we did. Some headphones just sound bad, others are tailored to certain frequencies in the music. Who you are as a listener matters."

Be careful where you buy. Purchasing online means you won't have a chance to try out the headphones before you hand over your money. It's best to buy from a retailer -- online or bricks and mortar -- that has a friendly exchange policy.

Recommended models

Models recommended through Consumer Reports testing:

Grado SR80i. Priced around $100, on-ear style. "They're not going to win any style awards. They look like something you would have bought 20 years ago," Willcox said. "But I don't know if you can buy a better headphone for that amount of money."

Audio-Technica ATH-WS70. Priced around $130, over-the-ear style.

Bose AE-2 and AE-2i. Priced around $150 and $180, respectively. Both over-the-ear style. The AE-2i includes controls for operating an iPhone.

Models recommended by D.J. Taylor of SoundApproach.com:

Grado SR80i. Priced around $100, on-ear style.

Beyerdynamic DXT 710. Priced around $69, on-ear style.

Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro. Priced around $200, over-the-ear style.

Model recommended by Jorge Cervera, vice president of HeadRoom Inc., http://www.headphone.com:

Shure SRH440. Priced around $99, over-the-ear style. "A ridiculously great-sounding headphone for under $100," Cervera said. "It has a folding feature, which makes it fairly handy for traveling ... It can do some pretty good isolation. It's also well padded."

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