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."
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