CES 2017: That's a Wrap!

Word on the street—the high-end audio street—is that CES was a bust. The Venetian had 40 less high-end audio exhibitors than last year...and last year was a clear disappointment from the year before. It's pretty clear to me the high-end will be moving out of CES and throwing itself ever more into the Munich High-End show—now widely considered the most important high-end show in the world—and regional shows like RMAF, AXPONA, T.H.E. Show Anaheim, and the like. My guess is that includes editorial teams as well. Here's a couple quotes:

With fewer high-end audio exhibitors and sparse traffic in the Venetian at the weekend, the 2017 CES was a shadow of what it used to be. John Atkinson

Unless CES rethinks how it presents us, I'm thinking Rocky Mountain (for US show-goers) now provides a better place for everyone and seems a better fit to represent both ends of our obsession. Can we leave Vegas behind? I wouldn't miss it. Jon Iverson

The reduction in high-end participation and the dispersion of the exhibits has been ongoing. The Hi-Rez group has moved to the LVCC, separating it from its natural associates, and non-audio rooms have been inserted among the high-end rooms at the Venetian. Soon, it will look like Alice's Cheshire Cat: only a smile in the darkness.Kal Rubinson

So yeah, CES is dead to the high-end.

Unfortunately (because I'd rather not go to Vegas every year), CES is not dead to the world of headphones. Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Audio-Technica, Sony, Audeze, HiFiMAN, and many others had a large presence at the show. Unlike traditional high-end firms, the serious headphone players exhibit in the Las Vegas Convention Center South and Central Halls. This place is just as bustling as ever. And the fact that headphones as a category can fair well in this hot-bed of high-rent CES floor space is evidence that headphones are alive and well at CES.

I will be returning again next year...ugh.

The good news is I expect to see a lot of very cool stuff. That'll be fun. I saw cool stuff this year too, but it felt as if there was a lull going on in the world of headphones.

For starters, the whole rabid mania that was celebrity headphone brands thinking they were going to take down Dr. Dre is over. Sure some of these companies remain, but for the most part they're just trying to maintain and grow from whatever size they find themselves. The rabid mania is gone.

What's left is mostly viable companies trying to compete on styling, comfort, build quality, and sound quality—probably in that order, but in roughly equal measure. They've made it through the Dre craze, now they're tightening up their product lines and business model to be competitive. As a consequence, most new product this year seemed to be about refreshing and/or extending existant successful product lines. (And probably discontinuing clunkers...but they don't talk about that at CSE.)

Falling right in line with that, but worthy of separate note because it was everywhere, is that a lot of introductions were Bluetooth wireless versions of existing models, many with active noise canceling added.

I think it's really good they are making these moves, and I look forward to auditioning the headphones as I've also sensed that sound quality is continuing to improve generally, but in the end it makes for a bit of a boring show.

On the other hand, I found myself intrigued and tantalized by the virtual audio experiences I had. Personal smartphone videos will be cooler and more fun to experience with the upcoming Sennheiser AMBEO Smart Surround binaural mic/earphone. My VR experience with the Audeze iSine VR was a total trip! And the Dirac VR and OSSIC both exceeded my expectations of what can be done today. VR on headphones is here to stay...and it will be growing like rabbits. 3D audio will be the mania next year.

Which begs the question, dear InnerFidelity reader, do you care about VR on headphones? InnerFidelity was born out of a headphone hobby enthusiastically focussed on sound quality for two-channel audio. Should InnerFidelity be covering headphones for 3D audio reproduction?

Let me go a step further: Bose recently introduced a product called the Hearphone. It's an "assisted listening" device that has smart noise canceling to suppress background noise and amplify the sound of nearby voices—it allows you to listen to dinner conversation at a noisy restaurant more easily. but they can also be used to listen to music with noise canceling on an airplane. Should I review them?

Ten years ago, when there was a mic/remote on the cable, it was called a headset. Now, when it's ubiquitous, we no longer make the distinction. In 3-5 years every $300-$500 headphone out there will be wireless; digital; noise canceling; listening assist; 3D rendering; and will monitor your pulse, perspiration, and position. Should InnerFidelity review them?

It's a tough question. I think it boils down to: 1) Is there an enthusiast/hobbyist following? and 2) Does sound quality matter to them? I think in many cases the answer to both will be yes. Sure, there's a whole gaming headphone category that InnerFidelity doesn't cover, but I'll counter that a lot of future music and movie content will be created for VR rendering. I must admit to being somewhat perplexed at how to draw this line, but I also have to admit I'm fascinated by the possibilities. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

'Til then, thanks for reading along this year, hope you enjoyed the ride!

Dreyka's picture

I think all headphone innovations should be covered whether they appeal to audiophiles or general consumers. Even if it's just a post every 6-12 months it can bring awareness to the change that is happening. At some point the audiophile world is going to overlap with the consumer market as shown by headphones like the AKG N90Q.

I don't even see the point of just covering 2 channel (meant for loudspeakers) audio. It's a stagnated world that only sees minor improvements and will never offer anything otherwise without DSP.

DSP is required for high fidelity on headphones whether that is basic equalization to your unique HRTF or fully-fledged binaural synthesis for out of head localization. Headphones offer a different experience to loudspeakers but it is still spatial distortion of a signal meant intended for a good loudspeaker setup. No headphone will be neutral out of the box due to unique differences in our head/ear geometry.

So yes cover 3D audio because it's an area of innovation that can radically change headphone listening. This can be either getting as close as possible to a loudspeaker setup or creating convincing synthesized audio of virtual environments. You can create the most convincing 3D visuals in VR but if sounds fake then it will feel fake. Getting Presence in VR requires convincingly real audio.

I just don't see how you can ignore it when major players like Dirac and Sennheiser are in on it. It's like ignoring the rise of bluetooth headphones.

castleofargh's picture

I have zero interest in VR googles, to me it's like 3D stuff at a movie theater, you get out with all the symptoms of the flue. it's impressive but not what I would call enjoyable in the long run. the audio side of things is just following that trend(because I've never seen the audio industry doing anything on its own, many are still not really ready for internet to this day). so not too sure if it will become the standard way to listen to music, even less so if the googles never make it big.
also do we really want the lead singer to go monkeying around in 3D just because we can? let's not forget the earth is flat (I couldn't resist).

now I'm thrilled that people are working on all this because ultimately the only way to get a really good result is to make use of personal HRTF, so I pray holy Stevie Wonder that more and more brands will start working on it to find a way to measure more and more variables from individuals, rapidly, everywhere, cheap. ideally a visual scanner so that we don't need an acoustically isolated room.
that I expect to change the headphone experience for good. at least for all the unlucky bastards like myself who aren't the perfect average ize and shape, and have an absolutely rubbish experience with standard effects for panning, surround, crossfeed or anything meant to turn headphones into better than speakers(that they technically can be) instead of a tool for defective stereo we've had to call hifi for all those years and pretend that 24bit makes a night and day difference, but having the singer inside my skull allegedly isn't noticeable or problematic.

whatever loss we'll get from digital manipulation(not much if we don't ask for zero delay) will vastly be masked by the benefits of moving on from headstage to soundstage. and then we'll be able to go back to fapping about the sound like the artist intended in something 5 times the resolution of DXD if we so please.

so yeah I'm all for that 3D crap ^_^.

tony's picture

You're the only one covering stuff with Marketplace Relevance.

JA should send that wonderful new Video Girl & Mr.Iverson to assist you.

Your stuff is happ'n stuff, the Excitement side of Audio, You're the leading Journalist for 21st Century gear!

Of course Mr.JA & Staff know this but need to admit it. This CES should make it obvious. Jana's video of Old Walruses ( like me ) paints a rather clear picture. That young musical lad ( they brought ) was the only young face in any Snap!

Book your rooms at the Tuscany ( just around the corner ) for an easy, relaxed stay, enjoy their wonderful Pool & Hot Tub. From there you can walk behind the Strip.

The Brick & Morter Dealer Network is mostly gone, CES Audio is for Dealers only.

The Internet has conquered.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Can you do TEAM?

thekorsen's picture

...I think it really is in the best interest of this blog to cover emerging technologies like VR related products, but perhaps not the lowest common denominator "gamer" ones which feed on the hype to deliver garbage. I think this largely because spacial audio is quickly becoming a emerging field as commercially viable VR draws near and public awareness of it grows exponentially.

The products that seek to push boundaries of tech+sound and aren't tied to a focus group alone are the ones that will be making a real impact in the coming years in this field. There is so much potential and the tech is ripe for innovation; each new commercial implementation of HRTF based spacial reproduction in a headphone system seems to make a new clear benchmark for what can be done while the path beyond it still remains clear.

Thus, the first company to nail implementation/sound (front localization, realistic space, accurate changes in depth of sound, ect.), ease-of-use and price in one product will likely have a home run on their hands. Then, once we have that "90%" perfect product for spacial audio as the commercial standard, the game may change into copying that one product with slight improvements/changes.

Boom, were back to what we see now in the "analog" headphone market; where the ability to comprehensively reproduce audio is taken for granted and the subtle(occasionally not-so-subtle) differences in reproduction are the meat and potatoes of what different companies sell for different amounts.

Of course, this is just my view as a starry eyed undergrad in engineering. Regardless, VR and spacial audio is still something worth consideration while it is currently relevant.

halcyon's picture

Tyll, thanks for covering CES and thank you for doing that for us, so we didn't have to endure Las Vegas and the crowds :-D

We all know 3D positional audio is going to be important, even if VR doesn't catch on for a few more years (innovations are always oversold initially, this is the 3rd "coming" of VR in my lifetime).

Yet, good stereo headphones (esp. mobile, esp. wireless and with DSP and new interfaces) will grow in importance as well. Even laggards like Apple have finally understood this.

I'm not one for DSP/3D trickery that myself, as I found most of the overprocessed sound overhyped (even with best of the dual-cpu, 50W desktop room correctors and devices that one could never fit into a mobile, not to mention a cheap ass €5 Aple passive 5V dongle with 1/10000 of the processing power). Rather have analog artifacts than tons of phase-erroneous non-linear-phase filter artifacts. YMMV.

As for big players, I disagree with "As a millennial...". Dirac is a small company, not even a mid-size player by any stretch. Even Sennheiser, which is a behemoth compared to Dirac, is small compared to giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, nVidia and AMD and Facebook - all of whom want to dominate consumer VR and even key parts of 3D positional audio.

Dirac? Once they actually find, patent and ship something, they will be bought by one of the giants.

That's how the game goes and as a millennial you will learn it one day, when you are a couple of decades older and wiser. Money, marketing and access rules in this game, not "first to the market innovation".

I hope Tyll will continue do whatever he enjoys the best and keeps his high quality output at current level by enjoying what he does. Be that pure stereo channel or dsp-trickery or 3d positional audio or whatnot.

InnerFidelity is not a public service, as as I've understood it, but a labour of love and enjoyment.

Here's hoping it keeps that way!

Thanks, Tyll!

jim in cheyenne's picture

I personally have no interest in VR or (from this source) headphones used as hearing aids. While I wouldn't object if you covered it, the problem is that time spent there is time not spent covering headphones for music listening. the measurements and listening tests you make on 'regular' headphones is great. I want you to continue with that good work and not too many distractions.

Bobs Your Uncle's picture

TLDR: It's not so much a "Do you want fries with that?" kind of question as it is a "With what melange of spices would you prefer your frites be seasoned?" kind of question.

IMO providing coverage of nascent differentiated audio formats is, to some extent, going to become practically unavoidable. Consider: The industry stalwarts that you've been covering for years wrt 2 channel audio are now (or soon will be) pursuing these formats and experiences. If nothing else, coverage of their efforts into branching audio disciplines should provide a reasonably natural entree to the topics of VR, 3D, Listening Assist, etc.

Similarly, from a broader market perspective, I suspect that consumer expectations will develop to favor those products that are capable of offering a quality "converged" audio experience capability.

It may well continue to make sense for diehard audio enthusiasts in the home to maintain a selection of different headphones, with each offering distinct strengths in a particular audio format; much like it is today across varied musical genres.

Emphasis continues to build, however, wrt to a strong focus on mobility. Audiophiles of any stripe will not be immune to the undeniable benefit of toting but a single set of headphones at any given time, and I expect we'll see demand build around products that prove themselves to be good "all-rounders"; again, just like today.

There are decisions to be made on how the transition is addressed; there's a lot to learn about the nuances of these divergent formats; there definitely will come a point when you'll need to make that first in-depth post really focusing on a divergent format. But if it's approached as a natural progression (kind of like moving from your first motorcycle up to the touring class cruiser that you're putting on the pavement these days), my guess is that the proper flow will reveal itself.

You've got a tremendous depth of knowledge on 2 channel audio; you have terrific industry relationships (read: resources) with many of the players who will be focused on developing kit for these use-cases; you have unparalleled chops in both the analysis of product and the journalizing of that process. And you have an excellent set of well trained discriminating ears, in both objective and subjective realms.

Again: It's not so much a "Do you want fries with that?" kind of question as it is a "How would you like your spuds to be spiced?" kind of question.

johnjen's picture

To be able to learn about these upcoming capabilities is intriguing to me.
And I'm probably not going to buy one of these systems, perhaps ever, because hi-end head phones are reaching degrees of sonic and acoustical realness such that it captures my full attention.

But I figure if it grabs your attention it would grab mine and I figure others as well, at least enough to want to learn more.

Mostly because if there is niftyness embedded within these new fangled gee-gaws it would be good to learn about them and watch as they mature…


Bobs Your Uncle's picture

In my comment immediately above, I don't mean to suggest or imply that adopting a new focus on these divergent formats will be easy, or some Sunday walk in the park. There will be a LOT of time and effort that will go into tackling new stuff like this.

Unless you've mastered control over the manipulation of space-time, something will have to give. That "something" inevitably is a reduced focus on 2 channel audio, and a consequent reduction of output pertaining to 2 channel. Physics is Physics; ask any pilot.

The best you can do is to scout for a nice clear, hopefully harvested, un-tilled bean field and plan your approach. Because there will be trade-offs (which I presume everyone involved is savvy enough to understand).

luvmusik's picture

In audio music reproduction sound quality is foremost important over all else. Any development that progresses to reach a higher quality of music reproduction true to the original recording is welcomed and fair game for the industry to explore.

Sonics exploring other aspects are enjoyable and can enhance the experience only if the music sound quality does not suffer at all. The very extensive list of these enhancement-type developments goes back many decades in loudspeakers, amplifiers, preamps, outboard devices & pro-studio gear.

Now the time has come for headphones to enter into thia arena even though we have had some glorious past products such as Stax ED-1 Monitor & Signature and then some other much lesser devices, those often written off wrongly as novel, even simply such as decades-old hybrid-driver headphones, now back in vogue currently with new technology.

Creative thinking in science & engineering leads to more interest in the hobby, and more researchers willing to develop, which drives a good competition. The best of the lot results in progression of the art.

Any achievement is fair game to consider, but of utmost importance in these new future explorations is to retain & progress the purest music reproduction most true to the recording without compromise, while allowing enhancement to further our aural experience.

Journeyman's picture

but I think the site should actually review that hardware.
With luck it brings new blood to the community.

speedwheels's picture

It is rather surprising that it has taken so long but active and wireless headphones are the future for mainstream consumers. While there will always be an audiophile and purist market for traditional passive headphones, the potential of active headphones is undeniable. The ability to tailor the amplification and dsp to the driver and earcup can give us a very desirable frequency response. Add TruNote calibration and you really can see how far this can go. I do think manufacturers need to be pairing high-end drivers with good implementations of AptX and amplification. Imagine the beyerdynamic Tesla drivers with matched amplification and dsp. Could be an outrageous combination. The Sony MDR1 active and wireless headphones are getting there. So much potential...

Vincent Kars's picture

As wireless is most of the time Bluetooth, it might be interesting to cover Bluetooth headphones featuring aptX HD.
It is lossless 24 bit / 48 kHz over Bluetooth.
Not the first lossless codec (KLEER comes to my mind) but one that might get some traction like its lossy brother aptX

stalepie's picture

I think wireless, noise canceling, etc., will always cost more. If the best headphones are $4,000 even without these features, it will take a lot to bring that down to the sub $500 market.

Another Bob's picture

I have no interest in gaming, but the audio technology being pushed (primarily) by the 3D/VR applications does have interesting potential for music as well. Even if it evolves into something separate from a more "pure" high fidelity presentation, there will likely be times when that experience is preferable. One question is how does one test such gear? As the signal becomes dependent upon the listener's HRTF, how do we know whether what works for the reviewer will work as well for a given consumer?

bogdanb's picture

if it's portable and plays music YES. (but only if it is any good for music)
once in a while a wonderfully exceptional 3d thing could work, even if it is a mediocre music player, maybe it is an exceptional home theatre on your years, but even so it should play well music.

peterinvan@yahoo.com's picture

One benefit of offering high quality VR video/audio is that more people may be motivated to actually spend time in dedicated listening sessions (rather than listening to music as a background to other activities.

My experience is that only a tiny percentage of music listeners make time to sit through an album. We audiophiles spend on equipment to produce the perfect soundstage and instrument seperation. VR promises to improve the illusion multi-fold.

tony's picture

I tend to agree with Mr.Peterinvan, VR could be a stunning experience ( without the use of happy-pills or smoke like we did back in those heady days when a nice one-ounce bag cost $20 ).

Will VR need a $100,000 Boulder Mono Amp set-up?, I hope not but will probably be some Class D amps running on Li rechargeables.

Geez, I just got my third Issue of Stereophile's Print Mag. I had no idea it'd be dominated by Astronomically Priced gear or that Vinyl guys like Michael Fremer would have such dominance. A pity. An $8,000 Phono Cartridge gets Front Cover, the wonderful Schiit stuff gets p.115 ( way back near the last page 138 ). Stereophile has it reversed, the Schiits should've been the Front Cover, they're selling very well and have a growing ( and delighted ) ownership base. Who the hell is running this outfit?, please pop that tired bubble.

Tony in Michigan

OldRoadToad's picture

If CES is dead to the High End it is due to the High End being more of a rear end toward normal folk.

The outrageous attitude (or perhaps, "altitude" of the subjectivist fed High End is responsible for what is happening to them. Headphone related businesses, take note. If you price your self out of the realm of the hobbyist/enthusiast and into the obsessive-compulsive/devotee set, the market for your wares will likely decrease.

This is a pleasurable hobby for most of us, not an OCD fixation. Given the amount of nerds (and I am a nerd, albeit an Alpha Nerd) I have seen at the few soirees I have attended I think it safe to state that I would cater more to the music/equipment oriented "Schittites™" than to the "it is all about the equipment and music is secondary" group of bitter manlets that so permeates the so-called High End.



PDC3's picture

Sony had its dongles, Apple has its Walled Garden, so I predict the future of DSP in headphones will attempt to be proprietary systems. That means we enthusiast consumers will need objective assessment more than ever, because now it is not just a choice of one headphone but of an entire supporting system that likely affects our phone and TV choices as well. (What if Netflix were only on iOS and HBO were only on Android and each required a different HP system to listen?)

Seems to me Apple is prepared to leave optical digital output in the same junk heap ( no longer on Apple TV) as the HP jack. I suspect HDMI micro and "nano" for smart devices are on the way and may share output with digital data akin to USB-c. Headphone enthusiasts will need help navigating all this regardless of whether our content is 2 channel or multi channel.

Please be there with your "objectivity first" approach because it has meant a lot to us.

bogdanb's picture

Tyll, man, I need a set of headphones. 99 Classics don't really cut it for me visually. I'll go have a listen though. But would you start coming up with reviews?!
I might be an "a ss", but really I want some reviews. specifically around 300 euro :P
otherwise I might get a new pair of HP50's, althoughI had a horrible experience with their build quality.
L-R cable broke twice.
yours' truly now drunk

P.S. I really like your reviews, I took some poetic freedom writing the stuff above, but basically that covers what I am really after an 300, max 350 euros great headphone for phone and computer.
Cheers, and thank you!

bogdanb's picture

Tyll, man, I need a set of headphones. 99 Classics don't really cut it for me visually. I'll go have a listen though. But would you start coming up with reviews?!
I might be an "a ss", but really I want some reviews. specifically around 300 euro :P
otherwise I might get a new pair of HP50's, althoughI had a horrible experience with their build quality.
L-R cable broke twice.
yours' truly now drunk

P.S. I really like your reviews, I took some poetic freedom writing the stuff above, but basically that covers what I am really after an 300, max 350 euros great headphone for phone and computer.
Cheers, and thank you!