A longtime audio-industry friend of mine, whose job straddles the consumer and pro audio realms, called me up a couple of days ago to thank me for my review of the HiFiMan HE400se open-back headphones. After seeing the review on Facebook, he bought a set out of sheer curiosity—they’re only $149 USD—and he actually considered my rave review something of an understatement. “I have headphones that are close to $2000 that don’t sound anywhere near as good as these,” he raved.
The recent closing of New York City’s Lyric HiFi—for decades, one of the most esteemed high-end audio dealerships in the US—portends a dicey future for the high-end audio industry. This doesn’t surprise me, because high-end audio has changed radically in the last 30 years. As I see it, the industry, while certainly capable of producing exciting products that deliver real improvements people would be happy to pay for, focuses too much of its resources on creating products that chase fads instead of pursuing innovation. I think high-end audio writers (and podcasters and YouTube influencers) are mostly to blame.
Watching a segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight made me think a little deeper about the products I review. As Oliver reported, half of all plastics ever produced were made since 2005, and fewer than 9% are ever recycled. As I walked around my house later, perusing the piles of headphones, speakers, soundbars, and other tech doodads either coming in for review or waiting to be packed up and shipped back, I realized that most of the products I review—and the thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of them bought by consumers—will end up in a landfill in ten years.
There’s much to love about YouTube (Rick Beato, Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing “I Say a Little Prayer”), but it’s coming at a price: the dumbing down of the audio industry. I got some inkling of this future in 1990, the first year of my audio career, when an acquaintance asked me, “How are those Bose speakers? I heard them on a TV commercial, and they sounded pretty good.” He was in the oil biz, not the audio biz, so I didn’t blame him for failing to grasp that he was hearing not a Bose system, but recorded music played through his TV speakers. Yet thanks to the Internet’s negligible barriers to entry, people who claim to be audio experts are now making the same mistake he did.
Every time I talk with my friend John Kellogg, I learn something new. John’s the vice president of Advanced Strategic Solutions for Xperi, parent company of DTS. That basically means he’s a liaison between Xperi and the music and movie production communities, a position he previously held for Dolby. John spends a lot of time in recording studios, and has a very good one of his own, too, so he’s always up on the latest trends in pro audio. Thus, when he recently told me, “Oh, the loudness war’s over; it’s all LUFS now,” I had yet another of the “Wait . . . what?” moments common to our conversations.
You can say one thing for sure about 2020: there was probably never another year in which headphones were more important—whether they were being used for monitoring Zoom meetings, letting the kids watch their online classes without driving you crazy, or blocking out the noise when the lessons were done and the kids were driving you crazy. Just as important was our headphones’ ability to bring us music and movies that soothed our souls while not distracting other members of the household.