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Canned goods: How the Beats revolution is changing pro headphones

The way we make and consume music has significantly changed over the last decade, but there's never been a better time to be in the headphone business

If you attended this year’s Pro Sound Awards, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is PSNEurope’s chance to poke fun at the marketing phenomenon that is Beats by Dre. It’s not. The distinct-looking (and sounding) headphones have been making headline news recently as American football players choose to stay loyal to the brand, even though Bose is “the official sound of the NFL”: their sponsorship deals are worth far more than the fines they must pay.
The company’s success with consumers has also had a profound impact on the professional headphone market – and most would agree it’s been a positive one.

Going back a few years, it was the rise of mobile technology, beginning with the iPod, which created a space that allowed Beats by Dre to thrive. The explosion of portable devices has also changed not only how most music is consumed, but also how it’s being created. For some, this shift in the consumer world is having an impact on their pro products.

Case in point: AKG’s K812 headphones, with an impedance of only 36 ohms “which is unusual for the high-end segment, but this makes the headphone also suitable for portable devices,” says Philipp Schuster, product manager for headphones (pictured, below right, donning the K812s). “It’s not intended for portable devices but you can use it. We found out from feedback from engineers and musicians that many people nowadays start drafting their concepts of songs on their iPad. They have something like the Ableton Live app, where they can take quick notes about song ideas, if they do this they need headphones and they can use these.”

This is not to say that the influence of the consumer market has fundamentally changed professional headphone technology in anyway. Every brand that participated in this feature unanimously upheld transparent, high-quality sound as being of primary importance when it came to the design of their product. If anything, sound quality is more important than ever:

“One thing that seems to have changed is that young producers have grown up with high quality headphones,” says Tom Harrold, EMEA marketing manager at Audio-Technica. The company launched a refined version of its M-Series range in Frankfurt earlier this year, with improved earpads and detachable cables… but there has been no change to its classic sound. “They’re used to excellent audio quality in general, and expect that when they’re tracking, mixing or DJing – so there’s no room for poor-performing headphones in today’s market.”

Where the goal posts have really moved is how much companies can now charge for said sonic quality. “Fashion” headphones can cost upwards of €200. That’s more than the beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro is currently retailing for online, and those headphones are well known to be used at the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge amongst other professional applications. For that, the pro industry owes a lot to the consumer world, says Thomas Walsh, business development manager at Polar Audio (distributors for beyerdynamic):

“As much as people might want to dismiss it, Beats has done everyone a favour in regards to price point. It just makes one slightly jealous of the numbers they sold in their heydaym you know? [Laughs]”

Simon Beesley, product manager at Sennheiser UK, agrees: “I think some of these consumer headphones are unbelievably expensive when you consider what people are willing to pay for them. Then you look at the equivalent ‘pro’ headphone: OK, it may not be as fashionable, but from a sound quality point of view it’s as good if not better, and it’s a lower price. That’s the price of fashion.”

Luckily, kids grow up. Like many in the pro market, Walsh is confident that “when they’re a little bit older, they’re going to be looking for a more grown-up style headphone.”

What continues to be important is educating the next generation of audio professionals about what good audio actually sounds like.

“We do trade shows and we’ll have students who are maybe on an audio course come and they plug in their phone or whatever and listen to our headphones in the pro range, and it’s almost an enlightening experience for them,” says Beesley. “They say, ‘Wow, that sounds so different!’ and we have to explain to them that that’s exactly what it should sound like.”

Leaving the ripple effect of consumers behind, if there has been a change in the professional headphone market, it is just how much engineers are relying on them to do their work. As Peter James, managing director for Shure explains: “Now that people are listening to music far more on headphones, there are a number of producers and mixers who are considering the way music is consumed during production. It doesn’t affect all genres, but a lot of music is consumed in that style.

“That’s a great opportunity for us: the more people who think using headphones is a great way to master can only want to improve their sound over time and come back to the pro brands.”

But for some music makers, it’s a worrying trend. Award-winning DJ and turntablist Killer Tom (aka Tom Clugston, pictured above right) notes that “people are now mixing down music and asking ‘does it sound good on your Mac speakers?’ People will EQ bass lines to have more high-end. Bass lines that are going up beyond middle C, which is clearly not bass.”

Flare Audio’s founder Davies Roberts agrees: “Studio engineers have been compressing and adjusting their mix to suit substandard sound systems, and so I think the bigger challenge is to stop the use of substandard sound systems, and get rid of distortion.”

This has been Roberts’ aim ever since founding Flare Audio. When the company first began developing loudspeakers, Roberts says he realised distortion didn’t just affect loudspeakers, it affects every speaker, right down to the ones in our mobile phones. His claim is that the company’s patented Space and Vortex technologies eliminate that distortion, and that “once we developed the pro product range, work started on taking the technology down into small devices, and the obvious one was to do next was headphones,” he says. Flare Audio’s Reference R1 headphones were launched at this year’s PLASA Show.

In addition to taking his company in a business direction new to the headphone industry, Roberts is also ready to challenge sound professionals’ sonic preferences. “What I’ve noticed is that sound is only personal when it comes to distortion,” he says. “If you play something that’s completely undistorted, generally, everybody likes it. I think if you study sound as your job, you can get into a bit of a blinkered focus on what you think you want.”

Changing anyone’s idea of what they want to hear is an ongoing challenge for every pro-audio headphone manufacturer: it is a difficult task to pry an engineer away from the consistency and reliability of a product they know well. But there is uniform optimism that as headphones continue to dominate people’s listening experience – professionals and consumers alike – sound quality will win out over, say, the colour purple.

“Underneath it all we can understand good stuff,” says Peter James (pictured above right). “We do recognise distorted sound, and we can generally accept when something is better and will always want that.”