High-end headphones are HRA’s gateway drug
In many ways there’s been a lost generation for indulgent audio. The world of discrete sound systems and hi-fi, so beloved by a generation who started with a turntable and ploughed eagerly into a world of beautifully crafted electronics, gave way to the convenience of the Walkman, audio tapes, CD and subsequently the steady march to digital.
But, as with all of these things, the big wheel has kept on turning – and the humble headphones are shaping this latest twist. A love for music is a constant, but with the digital generation’s newfound respect for live music, the tolerance for crap audio has begun to abate.
Those white original Apple headphones, the marketing darling and the inadvertent front man for tinny digitally muddy music, have become passe and traditional audio brands like Bowers and Wilkins, Sennheiser, et al are now a common sight on the commuter trains, as people begin to seek out more than MP3.
Beats – with the heavy-hitting name of Dr Dre – became fashionable and brought the idea forward that it was worth paying to upgrade from the basic headphones that came in the box.
Apple upped the quality of its headphones, eventually snapping up Beats, Tidal started the move towards higher quality ‘high-def’ streamed audio and expensive headphones were cool again.
The Headroom show in London’s legendary Metropolis Studios has been set up to showcase the headphones that people aspire to own – from the reasonably priced right up to the truly ludicrous. Nobody would accuse it of being mainstream just yet, but the demographic is clearly younger.
And the stars of the show, the headphones themselves, are dramatically better than those you are likely to have tried. The difference between the bundled set you get with your phone to a £200 pair of Sennheisers is the equivalent of drinking fine restaurant wine after sipping from a plastic tub of homebrew.
The difference between a £3,500 pair of handcrafted headphones (I tried a pair of Audeze LCD 4s) and those Sennheisers is significantly less marked, but even for someone who cannot claim a pair of golden ears, or even pewter for that matter, it is honestly perceptible.
That said – the original Sennheiser Orpheus headphones on show were both more expensive than a very decent sport car and almost certainly well beyond my normal human brain’s ability to discern the quality differential. That doesn’t make them any less droolworthy, especially if you’re a movie star or a Premier League footballer.
The new audiophile
Interestingly though, these burgeoning old giants of the audio world are seeing the shift to quality impact on their entire industry.
Audiophiles of all ages are now considering the next chunk of kit to make their audio better – from digital audio converters (DACs) that do a fine job of taking digital music and improving the quality right the way through to the still-controversial high end cables that profess to improve things hugely if you’re prepared to fork out a large sum.
It feels almost inevitable then that this generation, with a love for high-end headphones, will become customers for the next wave of hi-fi. They have a Tidal subscription, a pair of high-end cans and suddenly they aren’t so convinced by their bluetooth speaker at home.
They look at portable DACs and wonder if they really should be getting more out of their expensive headphones.
And they’re suddenly thinking about amps, turntables, speaker – quite possibly from the same manufacturer as their amazing headphones – and suddenly, you’d speculate, they are IN.
Down the rabbit hole
Phil Wannell is a high-end personal audio consultant organises the Headroom Show, and he has first-hand experience of this phenomenon.
“I had a customer come in and say ‘my mum gave me money for Christmas so I went out and bought a pair of Sennheiser Momentums and now I want to come in and upgrade my source because my iPod’s not good enough’,” says Wannell.
“It goes on from there. I did say are you sure you want to do this – be careful!”
Wannell feels that this new wave of high-end audio in headphones can be traced to the lost generation.
“My father had a hi-fi system and I aspired to it, but this generation haven’t had fathers with hi-fi so their integration is the mp3 player,” he explains. “And the natural evolution of that is to get better headphones and then better sources.”
I put it to him that those people may well be buying high-end amps that their kids will aspire to when they have more money. “Exactly!”
“And in 40 years’ time we’ll be right back to the place where the industry is at its peak again,” chips in Dan George – a former editor of Hi-Fi Choice and now running an eponymous PR Agency which represents several of these proud audio brands.
The UK consumer is very much in the vanguard of this headphone revolution in Europe, but it’s not leading the global charge for portable brilliance, even though so many of its brands are universally famous.
“We’re tiny compared to Asia and the Far East where portable quality is massive, but the UK is unique Europe very quickly arriving to the high-end.”
One of the new wave of devices that are catching attention both in Asia and the Far East is Chord’s Mojo – a portable DAC that has quickly won plaudits for its ability to take digital sources for music and make them sound great, not least because of custom chip design by its lead engineer.
“The Hugo was the Mojo’s predecessor and it was designed for Asia,” says George. “The whole project was caused by demand from the Far East.”
There are drawbacks, of course, high-end not only carries a heavy price, but it’s heavy to carry as well.
Those Audeze headphones look and sound beautiful, but they are heavy – as is the Mojo, principally because of the battery needed to provide the power.
That doesn’t detract from the build-quality, and the sensation that these devices are crafted for excellence, and it is that exact desire for excellence that will spark an interest in this thin edge of the audio wedge for a whole new generation.
And with a bit of luck, these brands which have negotiated their way through the difficult times, will find that heritage and engineering is what bring backs the boom times.