InnerFidelity 2019 Year in Review: Change is Scary

The title is the chummy way of putting it, let’s be honest, change, like the horror movie monster you never see completely on-screen, is more than scary, it’s downright eerie. And much like that monster, change is slower and more perceptible in moments of hindsight than foresight.

InnerFidelity has seen a lot of change this year, and I’ll be honest – the team at IF and I are still finding our footing and navigating it in many ways. But before we get elbow-deep into the metaphorical muckbang, I’d just like to say thank you. Seriously, a huge thank you to you, who reads all the stuff we write. We aren’t perfect, and I know we don’t always get it right, but countless hours of homework, listening, sometimes difficult restrictions and tons of editing, deleting and rewriting, shooting, photo-editing, formatting, specs-page reading and other work goes into the content we post here. And we’re always trying to be better, because without you the reader, we do not exist.

On to the real meat of things though – 2019. It’s impossible to look at this year without recognizing that it represents the end of a decade that has seen the meteoric rise of personal audio and headphones, and much like the decade it concludes, 2019 in my opinion both wrapped up a lot threads and looks forward to things to come.

In 2010 there were far fewer options for flagship, high-end headphones over $1,000 USD, a category now thriving with product releases, many of which have made huge strides in sound quality. Mr. Speakers, ZMF, Focal, Meze and Audeze have all put out tremendous headphones at the high-end, but more than that, they and others have shown a real dedication to improving and refining these flagship headphones. Really honing in on their desired sound target. 2019 was also a year in which I believe sonic diversity has come to the forefront again. Enthusiasts and manufacturers alike expressed to me that they’re worrying less about measurements and more about what they simply enjoy listening to. It’s a sign of a maturing industry in my mind, as a lot of enthusiasts are no longer swapping gear every month, but really tweaking and dialling in their systems to their liking. Even in 2018 measurements and constant streams of new product releases were more likely to be the main topic of discussion, so this shift, especially at shows, is something I’m guessing we’ll see more of moving into the 2020’s.

Helping this shift is the increasing attention from manufacturers towards lower price points. While some exceptional flagship headphones came out in 2017 and 2018, the theme of 2019 seems to have been the beginnings of a trickle-down. We’ve seen products like the Aeon 2, LCD-1, Rai Solo, Elegia and others begin to migrate flagship technology and sound quality to lower price points, and in some cases, the value proposition of the lower-priced offerings is so good it makes the flagships a harder sell.

In 2018, when friends of mine would approach me for advice on buying headphones under $500 it was difficult to recommend anything much newer than an HD500 or 600 series headphone, and as we enter 2020, there are at least half a dozen really solid picks I would have no qualms sharing with folks who ask. My hope as we move into the 2020’s is not only that this trend will continue, but that we will be spoiled for choice.

Another interesting trend has been DSP, in various surround/spatialization formats and frequency response correction. While correcting frequency response with EQ will always be contentious with the purist crowd, an increasing number of mainstream and attainably-priced headphones are incorporating it simply as a part of the tuning and design of the headphone. Audeze with the Mobius, in-ear series, and Reveal software has been one audiophile company pushing hard on this front, and I think the results speak for themselves. I’m guessing 2019 will be remembered as a year where a lot of ideas were thrown into the arena and some very cool ideas were first market-tested in actual products.

Ancillary to this is a new emphasis on gaming and pro audio. Gaming has always been a cousin to audiophilia, for obvious reasons, but now several audiophile companies have begun directly addressing the functional needs of gamers in products that attempt to bring audiophile sound quality to that market. I think one of the biggest factors here is that new VR and Dolby Atmos for headphones technology does not require specialized hardware to be compatible with two-channel headphone setups. One could easily enjoy top-notch, surround-esque headphone audio with pretty much any audiophile setup. I think this will be an interesting space to watch, though it remains to be seen how many gamers will make the plunge, as there hasn’t really been a high-end interface or gaming headphone market before.

The professional market is a bit easier to predict, and there’s always been some overlap between audiophiles and at least mastering engineers, though it seems many DJs, Producers and even some mix engineers are starting to take notice of the trend towards better headphones, head amps and especially DACs. Converters are relatively well-understood by professionals, whereas they represent a relatively new concept in the consumer audiophile realm, and there is a plethora of extremely high value-to-performance ratio DACs available from electronics companies that are primarily or partially headphone-oriented. If there’s one thing the headphone community knows well, it’s digital.

Every time I speak with my peers in the professional realm, they increasingly display a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of the headphone market, and not just in terms of converters. I happen to know some very high-level mastering and mix engineers doing a high percentage of their work on headphones, and one or two who even use headphones exclusively. It remains to be seen if this will translate to mixes or masters that work better on headphones or not, my gut feeling is probably not, but it’s kind of a cool thing to know you’re listening on the same headphones a song was mastered on. What I think is really neat about this crossover is the huge market of potential headphone enthusiasts the prosumer market represents. Young producers, musicians, media creators, video editors and aspiring engineers all need good headphones, and as I mentioned briefly in my Summer NAMM experience, they’re willing to spend a little bit for good sound. This is where the attention to lower price points by audiophile companies who pay attention to high-quality sound becomes a big factor... I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think 2019 has opened some doors and lit some fires which may just open up the audiophile realm to a whole new kind of listener in the coming decade. But I’m getting ahead of myself, it is still 2019 for a few more days.

For me, InnerFidelity in 2019 has been a kind of research phase; observing, documenting and trying to get a handle on these trends and directions. Moving forward into 2020 I look forward to sharing some conclusions, some ideas and also getting a closer look at the people involved in all of this. It’s been a fantastic year, and while change is scary, perhaps it’s more fair to think of the theme of 2019 as instigation and suggestion – companies and enthusiasts trying new things, failing sometimes, but also opening a lot of doors we’re just starting to peek inside. I for one am terribly excited by the possibilities.

In conclusion, I look forward to hearing more from all of you – I really do read the comments and stay up to date on the forums, in an effort to keep up with as much new and information, products, science and companies. If there’s nothing else that you get from this piece, please at least know that I am listening to you guys and trying to find gear and content that you request and will benefit from. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, InnerFidelity is nothing without it’s readership, and I remain grateful for this wonderful community, and all of you out there who continue to read and support us and help us improve. Wishing you all a wonderful New Year and holiday season.

Jazz Casual's picture

but the absence of headphone measurements accompanying the reviews is missed.

Simply Nobody's picture

May be Grover could review the Dolby Atmos for 'surround sound music', on the headphones? ...... This is a new area of development ....... Happy holidays and happy new year :-) .........

Martin.'s picture

Thanks for the appreciation. Thank you for not giving up on this, either. You and Rafe have had an impossible act to follow. Really nice to have your honesty on finding your footing and that you are keeping up with your readers.

I loved the article Rafe wrote about his daughter and Thanksgiving. As I commented there, it was an article in contrast with what I've generally found around the audio world; as such, it's probably going to stick with me for some time.

I agree change is scary, but I'd argue feeling you've lost your place in a community is even worse. Thank you for including us and not forgetting we are here.

zobel's picture

Much great music to you all! I wish IF would make a resolution for 2020, one that would serve its readers immensely, include measurements with your reviews, please.