The Future of Headphones — Get Ready For the Stupid Feature Wars!
Headphones have nowhere to go but down.
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
Short of a total overhaul of the way wireless audio transmission works, there’s not much more to do as far as improving the core “make audio go into your ears” concept.
So it’s time for headphone companies to load up on superfluous features.
Once you’ve perfected the part where you deliver nicely-rendered audio to the user’s ears, what can you do?
You can improve comfort. You can improve audio transmission quality. You can improve the speed and detail of the drivers.
Bose, Beyerdynamic, and Sony all knock it out of the park on comfort.
We have lossless formats like FLAC and DSD, and Bluetooth with AptX/LDAC comes pretty darn close to preserving all that data in the wireless space.
Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser make some of the fastest dynamic drivers on the market, and electrostatic and planar magnetic drivers have hit new heights of speedy, detailed audio reproduction.
Bose gave us active noise-cancelling on a scale never before seen. Some still say it’s unmatched.
For a while now, the big *NEW* push in headphones has been more expensive models. Fostex puts a new type of wood on the TH-series every few months, and everyone runs to buy it. Sennheiser puts out a new version of the HD800 or the Oprheus. HiFiMan puts out expensive models that still break in five minutes.
New “Kilobuck” headphones launch every quarter, competing for an increasingly tiny market that can actually afford them and is on a nightmare endgame quest for the best possible sound.
Outside that weird market segment, today it’s also all about shoving wireless into things. Bose shoved wireless into the QC35. And maybe they ruined sound in the process? Sony shoved wireless into the XB950, then refreshed it this year. Apple shoved better wireless tech into the Beats lineup. Etc.
I don’t know where this all goes. I’m not an expert. But it’s troubling. Now, we’ve got absurdly feature-packed headphones like the MDR-1000X. It has noise-cancelling. It has a full suite of bluetooth codecs. It has all these modes that let you listen to stuff going on outside your headphones.
Remember how headphones are supposed to put sound into your ears? The Sony’s do a lot of stuff that isn’t that. I quite liked them. But most of those features aren’t really necessary.
There’s a reason that some headphones stand the test of time and sell for several decades: the core underlying concepts haven’t changed.
I don’t think piling on extra features is going to get new consumers excited about headphones. It just makes guys like me who salivate over this stuff run out to the store. I don’t think taking away the headphone jack actually does anything truly valuable for the industry, other than force the shoving of wireless chips into everything. Wireless is convenient at times, of course, but it also means dealing with battery life/charging, signal interference, and codecs that can add unwanted artifacts to your music.
The headphone tech curve isn’t the same as other mainstrea devices like phones, computers, or game consoles. The big generational leaps often don’t provide any meaningful performance improvements over gear that launched in the 80’s.
I don’t really know what the answer to this “problem” is, and I wonder if this same fear is what’s driving the push for all these extra “Features” and questionable new standards like hi-res audio.
At some point, basic qualities like design, comfort, and pristine audio reproduction are going to have to rise back to the forefront. Otherwise we’re all going to be buried in pretty colored plastic and bluetooth chips that have a slightly longer range, and forget that all we wanted to do was listen to some good music.