One of the most dispiriting events in an audio reviewer’s life is when a reader sharply disagrees. It’s one thing if the reviewer praises, say, the AKG Q701s and the reader says, “Those headphones sound too bright to me.” Fair enough -- and useful feedback. But when a reader describes a product that the reviewer raved about as “awful,” or says that “it sucks,” that’s different. That’s a criticism not only of the product, but of the reviewer’s competence and judgment.
In-wall and in-ceiling speakers get no respect. In fact, they barely even get any attention. I rarely think about them, but last week I was twice reminded what an important part of the audio industry these speakers represent. My first reminder came when I made my arrangements to attend the CEDIA Expo in Dallas in September, which I’II be covering for SoundStage! Global. CEDIA focuses on custom-installed media systems, of which in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are often an important part. My second came when I was asked to run measurements on and give a listen to a prototype pair of in-ceiling speakers.
Recently, while working on an article that sought to pick the best of a bunch of wireless speakers, I was struck by a question put to one of the article’s writers by a manufacturer’s PR rep: “Why wasn’t our speaker chosen?”
I’ve recently witnessed a lot of handwringing about Apple’s purported plan to eliminate the 3.5mm analog headphone output jack on its smartphones and tablets. Recently, I asked an Apple employee about it. “There have been a lot of rumors to that effect, from some very reliable sources,” he said, a big smirk on his face. What hasn’t been discussed much, though, is the possibility that Android devices might also soon eliminate the 3.5mm jack -- and how that might affect the sound quality of portable audio devices.
For years, I’ve labored under a skewed perception of the headphone listening experience, thanks to two unique experiences, one of which took place two decades ago. But two experiences in the last couple of weeks have completely changed my beliefs.
I buy a lot of the audio gear I buy because I think I should. After all, it’s part of my gig to know what’s going on in audio. Recently, one of those products I bought because I thought I should completely changed my ideas about the future of audio, and in just the first few days I owned it.
A recent article on TechCrunch about layoffs at Sonos caught the audio industry by surprise. Whenever it wants an example of “how to do it right,” much of the industry looks to Sonos. In just a little over a decade, Sonos has gone from a few guys in an office in Santa Barbara to a company with $1 billion in annual sales. Not only has Sonos kept up with the latest trends in music consumption, in some cases it has led them. So the news that the company is undergoing a major shift in direction shook up high-end audio manufacturers who would give their last EL34 for even a small fraction of Sonos’s success.
Apparently, Sonos isn’t shrinking, it’s adjusting. Two trends are pushing the company in new directions.
I spend a lot of time on Amazon.com, partly because it’s a great place to research the consumer-electronics market, and partly because it’s often the most convenient and affordable way to find and buy things. I also read the Customer Reviews posted on Amazon, because they’re sometimes the only source of information about a product other than the manufacturer’s website. But three recent events left me doubting the reliability of these reviews -- and wanting to do a little checking for myself.
Reading over the six headphone-related blogs I filed for SoundStage! Global from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, I realized that this CES marked something of a watershed for the headphone market. Although I considered headphones at every price as I wandered the show, I found the most action and excitement in higher-end models designed primarily with sound quality in mind. That’s a big change of pace -- at the previous ten CESes I’d attended, the focus had been on mass-market headphones. But in January 2016, even the only new celebrity headphones I saw -- the Onkyo Ed-Ph0n3s, endorsed by Iron Maiden -- were meticulously engineered and tuned for high performance.
I’ve been noticing that the proliferation online of information about headphones has inspired some enthusiasts to judge headphones by their frequency-response measurements alone. One anonymous commenter went so far as to proclaim that the HiFiMan HE400S headphones -- a model praised by many reviewers as the best you can buy for $300 -- are “terrible.” His or her evidence? That someone on an enthusiast forum had measured the HE400S and the measurements didn’t look good, even though the highly experienced headphone expert Tyll Hertsens had published measurements on the website Inner|Fidelity that conflicted with the ones from the forum.