Headphones in the Spotlight

May 21 2015, 16:00
According to all major market research firms, worldwide shipments of headphones keep on growing year after year and are already one of the top consumer electronics categories. As recently revealed in a recent Consumer Electronics Association market study, the top 10 most-commonly owned consumer electronics (CE) products dramatically shifted in 2015. Smartphones are now owned in 72% of US households – an 8% point jump in the last year – trailing only televisions, which are owned in almost every home in the country (97%), and DVD/Blu-ray players (78%). Laptop ownership experienced the second largest gain in household penetration; reaching two-thirds of households (67%) and headphones also saw a large gain in ownership (59%, up five percentage points), moving up one spot to seventh on the list of most-owned CE devices.
Smartphone ownership and the increasing adoption of portable/personal devices such as tablets and laptops help explain why headphones are such a strong product category and will continue to be in the next five years. In fact, according to Futuresource Consulting, the majority of headphones sold are in-ear models (60%), while wireless headphones (including sports headphones) are the fastest growing category. In-ear models are even conquering the high-end segment.
It’s estimated the Global AV Headphones market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.43% over the period 2013-2018. Technology innovations such as noise canceling technologies, partnerships with smartphone manufacturers, and increased offerings in the high-end segment (for audio enthusiasts) and wireless, will continue to foster growth: 12% in shipment revenue over the period 2014-2019, according to TechNavio.
Following the market trends, in all the recent shows we were able to attend, the number of new headphone models was impressive. Designed and manufactured by new and established manufacturers, we have seen headphones leveraging all sorts of technologies and driver topologies and even experimenting in almost forgotten areas, like magnetic (ribbon) planar and electrostatic, allowing more choice for even the most demanding consumers. It seems like the whole market is reviewing headphone’s history in the continuous search for differentiation in the market.
audioXpress has been featuring an article series on headphone engineering written by Mike Klasco and Steve Tatarunis, which documents that evolution. Also, Voice Coil June 2015 features a Spotlight article about “Trends and Innovations in Headphones” by Mike Klasco, as well as a directory of Earphones and Headphones original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and original design manufacturers (ODM).
The problem is, with all the excitement, it seems that many companies are not actually doing proper marketing research. Both in mass-market oriented designs and those models targeting high-end users the market is also being flooded with “me too” products. We don’t believe it will be possible to keep feeding the market with products that offer little more than a fashion statement or a celebrity name, and not necessarily all users want to commute wearing a pair of electrostatics connected to ultra high-end preamps and DACs.
As Mike Klasco has pointed out in the Headsets article series, headphone designers need to consider weight, comfort, and choice of materials, in tune with their own transducer design choices. Mike advises, “if your headphone design weighs more than 300 grams, you will have trouble. Comfort should not be slighted as a key element of long-term satisfaction.” He also recommends manufacturers should increasingly look to adopt innovative materials in their designs (e.g., new acoustically damped alloys or advanced composites), which might hold the key to the next big hit with consumers.
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