TechTalk: What's In Your Ears?

Dec 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Kevin Becka


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In my October column (“The Score: Consumers 10, Pros 0”), I talked about how manufacturers like Apple were reaching for the golden “consumer” ring and we, the pros, were being left out in the cold. However, this is not the case in all sectors of our business. Consumer trends and pop culture are driving sales in pro audio. For instance, in the past few years, there’s been a heightened awareness and buzz around portable listening platforms, including earbuds and headphones.

The fire started at the consumer level in 2008 with the release of Monster’s Beats by Dre headphones, and at AES 2009 the Monster Turbine Pro Gold and Copper earbuds (reviewed in Mix, August 2011). The company wants to offer a peak listening experience, and the consumer and pros “get it.” I talked with Monster CEO Noel Lee, who said, “We created an opening that everyone is jumping through. Through our ‘Sound Really Matters’ and ‘Because the Music Matters’ campaigns, we promoted to the consumer that you were really not hearing music as the artist intended you to hear it. What we brought to the masses through Beats was sound quality that they have never experienced before.” What Monster also brought was a new level of price point that consumers embraced.

Audio-Technica marketing director Gary Boss: “We have to tip our hat in thanks to them because they’ve opened the door and broken that price ceiling that consumers are going to pay for headphones,” he says regarding lifestyle headphone manufacturers. “What we’re finding now with our [ATH] M50s [$199], which sound downright amazing, is that avid music listeners are picking up these studio reference headphones. It’s almost a status thing, like you’re ‘in the know’ because you have these professional headphones.”

Shure released the SRH940 ($375) professional reference headphones this year, as well as the SRH550 ($125) DJ headphones. “There are two primary market bases for the headphones that we make,” says Shure product manager Michael Johns. “There’s the pro audio market and then there’s the general consumers, personal listener and the like. There were changes in both of those markets that precipitated the growth in headphones and earphones. In the pro category…there is much more portable, home-based studio recording being done based on the power of software and laptops. Naturally, portable listening devices that work with portable workstations are going to be required and needed. With consumers, the biggest trend in personal listening is mobile devices like the iPod and iPhone.”

Where do we as working audio pros stand in all this? We are riding the waves of change in our business—a headphone buy is no longer just about cans for the studio. It’s about working efficiently and making decisions in unfriendly listening environments that will become part of the production. And where my October column pointed out that some manufacturers are running from the pro sector, headphone manufacturers are embracing it—because consumers think that professional (and expensive) is cool.

Cases in point: Monster released Beats Pro ($449.95) this year without the noise-canceling feature of the debut model that first captured the consumer’s attention, and next month at CES, the company will unveil the Beats mixr headphones developed with two-time Grammy Award–winning producer and DJ David Guetta. Audio-Technica and Shure both released affordable, high-quality headphones that cater to the needs of audio production professionals and consumers alike. So where we stand is right at the top, and right next to the consumer. Matt Engstrom, Shure’s category director, monitoring products, nails it when he talks about the company’s SRH940s: “For folks who want to have their studio in a laptop on a bus or on a plane or a train, you don’t have to give up a nice accurate sound and you can take that mix elsewhere and it will translate.” You’ve got to love that.

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