Headphone Neutrality, At What Cost To This Hobby?

Headphone Neutrality, At What Cost To This Hobby?

As the AXPONA audio convention and the 40th Anniversary of the Walkman approach, I’ve been taking a moment to ponder on the last year or two of headphonedom.

We’ve come a long way, honestly, I would even say we’ve had a bit of a shake-up in the industry in a sense. Whatever you think of Shaun Olive’s ‘Harman-Curve’ target curve, extensive community-driven measurements and the transformation of many modders into designers, these are actually pretty radical changes.

The average headphone enthusiast is probably much better technically informed than their two-channel counterpart, if only because our online interactions have been saturated with these topics for some time now. So, I’d like to step back and take a look at where we’re at, and reflect.

I’ve noticed at industry shows that a lot of community members have finally given up the goal of owning every new major flagship that comes out. I was talking with some of the folks at Schiit Audio at RMAF last year and one of them made a comment to the effect of ‘how many 28 year olds can afford to keep buying and selling $2,000 USD headphones every three months?’ Now, whatever you may think of that statement, there is some validity to it, and I saw that reflected in my interactions with a lot of enthusiasts this year.

At the inaugural ZMFestivus meet hosted this year in Chicago by Zach and Bevyn of ZMF, I had a chat with some friends who expressed that they were happy with their home rigs and simply weren’t interested in the newer flagship headphones coming out. What was even more of a revelation was these same folks were even ignoring the sub $1,000 USD headphones, tossing their mobile rigs in favor of Bluetooth headphones. ‘Yeah, I guess they’re cool, but honestly I listen on the go so much more, even around the house I tend to use either my speaker system or an Audeze Mobius in Bluetooth mode.’

That dialogue, and many others I’ve had like it do not surprise me, and I’ll admit to being in that camp as well – my Mobius gets more head time than any of my other cans, if only because it’s so damn convenient and I travel a lot. It’s got an incredible feature set, but more importantly, a livable sound – it’s the first sub-$500 USD headphone I’ve been able to listen to long-term without being bugged by any major flaws, not the least because of the defeatable custom tunings. Now, that’s not to say that all headphones should aspire to be the Mobius, it’s certainly not the most resolving headphone in my collection, nor does it have the best imaging or comfort, and I admit to being at times frustrated by various usability-related quirks compared to other high-end Bluetooth headphones. But at its core, it bring us a known quantity – a sound signature, and design that carries some of that flagship neutrality down to a more commonly attainable price point. I don’ think I can overstate just how much of a revelation this is, especially with the Oppo PM-3 going out of production.

In the context of new multi-thousand dollar flagship headphones I find myself increasingly understanding the folks who shrug and say ‘that’s cool, let’s see how it sounds first.’ I think outside of the natural progression of a hobby exiting in its infancy, this is the sign of a community looking for the next substantial thing. It’s not so much that the new flagships we’re seeing aren’t exciting – it’s that now we have some baseline expectation of good sound, everyone seems to be wondering what the next step is. Audeze and Waves, along with Redscape Audio, and a host of other folks seem to think headtracking or some level of crossfeed is the answer. Others, like Sennheiser and other big companies seem to think the Ambisonics, VR, ASMR and binaural-content market is the way of the future. There are even some more exotic solutions, such as mechanical crossfeed headphones, or the new Mysphere headphones.

To me though, the most exciting thing about the Mobius is that it offers me the benefits of a modern, mass-market headphone in a package that has a relatively well-behaved frequency response. Easy connectivity, Bluetooth, all the latest headtracking goodies are great, but at the end of the day I know I can toss these headphones in my backpack and put a certain amount of trust in the sonic information I’m being fed.

On the one hand, this brings me incredible joy, and on the other it makes me wonder: What possibilities might we have going forward? VR or ambisonic audio/video experiences for the most part use the same old bog-standard hardware we’ve known for years. The headphone. But not even the most megalomaniacal audiophile would ever risk their Focal Utopias or Ether 2s on a VR experience, where flying controllers, crashing into walls and other physical hazards abound… not to mention the lack of amplification options on something like an Oculus Rift.

The important thing to me, here, is that regardless of whether VR and ambisonics are truly ready for prime-time, these formats or whatever their successors will be, will still rely on the basic idea of a headphone.

While nobody has been able to effectively spatialize a headphone to sound like a speaker yet, speakers likewise cannot match the immersion and intimacy factor of headphones. We can simulate someone whispering into your ears from behind on headphones in a way speakers just can’t quite match. So the headphone is here to stay, and perhaps even in a relatively unchanged form – certainly what we’re seeing with the aforementioned entertainment technologies is that all sound processing is done by the software, or DSP units. Even the mighty Smyth realizer uses a DSP box to accomplish its goals.

So we’re left with the fact that we still need headphones – and we need them to be good. I won’t mince words, last month I checked out a few of the most cutting edge VR experiences available in LA and Hollywood, and the audio quality was frankly atrocious. I think the best one I went to can be described as mediocre. The headsets were uniformly cheap, unbranded generic on-ears I would expect to see offered as zoo-tour headsets twenty years ago. Something as ancient as a Sennheiser HD540 would be a revelation.

In the aftermath of the great Price Controversy of 2017/18, I believe it’s worth wondering when or even if we’ll see the benefits of those flagships trickling down to less expensive headphones. I’m often a bit stumped when friends of mine interested in getting into the hobby ask me for sub-$300 options. What would you recommend to them? My list of recommendations includes a lot of things that are getting pretty long in the tooth, which while not inherently bad, often comes with a lot of qualifiers: ‘this one clamps pretty hard, that one is sort of bright, this one only works with tube amps, etc.’

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