Categorizing Headphones on InnerFidelity

After determining the JBL Everest Elite 700 was good enough to poke it's way onto the Wall of Fame, I came to realize I wasn't certain where to put it. Should it be on the Wireless page? Or should it be on the Noise Canceling page? Or both?

You may not have noticed, but recently I've changed the names of numerous headphone categories here on InnerFidelity. Full-Size became Over-Ear; Earpad became On-Ear; etc. What has happened is that terminology for headphones has evolved and become standardized, mostly by the democratic process of "most searched for terms", and I had to change to the current norms for better search results.

Well, I have a similar problem with the Wall of Fame Wireless and Noise Canceling sections: many headphones are now both. And what about when surround and VR headphones come along? And smart noise cancelers that can augment certain outside sounds? I'm wondering if I need to think about re-categorizing the Wall of Fame and headphone review categories.

It's a tricky question; we can't even really know how future headphones might become categorized. I go through a lot of pros and cons in my head. The most persistant, however, is, "Keep it Simple Stupid!"

Anyway, I'm thinking about it at the moment and would love to hear your comments. How would you organize headphones into about 8-10 categories?

COMMENTS
Koloth's picture

Perhaps the best way actually wouldnt be to create a fixed system of categories with headphones only allowed to fit in one category at once.
How about you build just a big table (invisible to the end user perhaps, but as the logical structure) into which you enter all the fame-worthy headphones. You also add markers for circumaural/supraaural/interaural; wired/wireless; open/closed; ANC/-ANC; etc. In the future you could expand these markers to include whatever technological development gains traction.

Then you allow the visitors to the site to chose the 'Wall of fame' they're interested in, as they do now, from a drop-down menu consisting of some of these markers: Full Size/On Ear/In Ear/ANC/Wireless/whatever. The website then automatically populates the chosen list with the entries corresponding to that marker from the table and orders them according to price.

This way you can truly let the visitors and market trends build the lists and you dont have to worry about arbitrary categorizations ('Does headphone X belong into the circumaural category or into the ANC category?').

I have no idea how complicated it would be to design something like that on the web, but it would be very easy to do in excel, so I'm confident one could get it done :)

To reiterate, I believe the major advantages of this proposal to be the following: First, it allows visitors to look at lists of precisely what they're interested in (Perhaps someone wants ANC but is open to all physical form factors. Click on ANC and see all the headphones with ANC that Tyll deemed worthy of fame, irrespective of form factor). Secondly, it is flexible and infinitely expandable to respond to future developments. Perhaps in eight months the headphone industry changes in such a way that the new feature X suddenly becomes highly sought after. Just go into your table, add a column for X/-X, tell the website to hook into that information, and tada, we have Tyll's WOF for X-headphones.

Koloth's picture

Just to add: You could of course still restrict yourself to only allow a certain number of headphones with a certain marker or combination of markers on the fame-table. So all those fun 'does the new kid on the block dethrone one of the three wireless circumaural headphones currently in the list?'-questions could still be had.

jhwalker's picture

No need for 1:1 correlation - headphones can have more than 1 attribute. Tags populate the appropriate page based on selections from the users.

Nathan_h's picture

Yep, since there is so much overlap and there are various features that users care about, a matrix makes a lot of sense:

Me, I want a bluetooth IEM.
You, you want an over the ear passive wired.
Somebody else wants wireless on ear with noise cancelling.

This would make ranking easier, too.

This headphone gets a 10/10 for noise cancelling but only a 5/10 for bass response.
This other headphone gets a 0 for noise cancelling (doesn't have it) but rates highly in other areas.

I, as a user, can sort by the features that I value most.

Journeyman's picture

That's a hard question with no simple answer.
All in all just put it where you think it truly shines, its your wall after all.
I'm curious about one thing, Tyll you never actually reviewed Headsets around here but now you are going to review VR headphones? I'm sure most VR headphones will have a mic thus making them headsets. :-D
Maybe finally you will review headsets for the gamers out there.

tony's picture

Can you put them in each Category they excel in? Place them in order of their relative performance.

When Chrysler introduced the Mini-Van ( 1984, I think ) it performed quite well against a wide range of product offerings. Traditional Sedan buyers loved the darn thing ( me included ), it even worked well as a Truck. Seems this JBL is kinda like the Mini-Van.

Folks like "do-everything" kinds of stuff.

I just had a re-introduction to Linn HiFi, their little music systems do everything i.e. from turntables to streaming, I'm saying every possible way to play home music, phew. LINN even support everything they ever made and every thing they ever made is upgradable. I've never encountered any company like this one. I sold scads of their LP12 Record Players in the 1980s. Almost makes me want to buy a new Record Player. I even made Linn T-Shirts for a long while ( for eBay sales - $20 ).

I'd recommend the JBLs be placed in every WOF slot they belong in, people will appreciate it's competency and your alertness.

By the way, European Home Audio has been offered with DSP capability for the last few years. Customer reviews are positive. Here I was chuckling over B&O's entering this technology field. I guess DSP is the "real-thing".

Tony in Michigan

Rookie's picture

Whenever biologists find a new animal or other organism that is slightly different from any current known ones, they debate whether it should be categorised under an existing species or create new one. I think as long as your purpose is not for researching or providing very professional information to the public, simple is better. As long as they share important features and functions, they should be under the same category.

ktmracer's picture

3 categories
1. Over-ears
2. IEMs
3. Crap (alternates include: lo-fi, cans with compromises, Headphones for the musically impaired)

Until a decent Bluetooth headphone (an oxymoron with current Bluetooth standards) or a decent NC headphone (theoretically possible, but not yet accomplished) comes along, there are only two headphone categories that are realistically worthy of the hi-if title. Yes, there are good on-ears, but rarely is the best headphone made by a manufacturer on-ear. You'll always be compromising.

donunus's picture

Put it in all categories if it is up to snuff against the recommended cans in each of those categories.

Johan B's picture

Wireless headphones should compete with wired headphones when it comes to sound quality. If you want make things better you benchmark with the best. Active noise control headphones should compete with closed headphones.

Hands's picture

Sort by color and/or smell.

Impulse's picture

I think keeping the traditional categories around makes more sense than ever these days, the distinction between open/closed is very easily lost on the average buyer, as well as the difference between on/over ear (even if many closed cans' pads sit in the middle for some size ears).

I do think at some point it might make sense to lump wireless with NC... Although maybe not quite yet? There's quite a few more decent wireless cans without NC than with, but I guess you could just make allowances for that thru the price brackets of a single category.

It's the only one that really makes any sense to lose IMO... Easiest way to make the call would probably be to see what would drop off the WoF if you combined and condensed them right now. If you think it's still a good representation of buying choices $100 thru $1,000 then go for it IMO.

Doug_Dame's picture

Wireless and noise-cancelling are additional attributes that may or may not be true for full-size open headphones, or full-size close, or IEMs, etc. And for some people, their need may dictate that they are only looking for headphones that have that characteristic.

For example, the last time I bought new headphones, I needed closed cans, so that I could listen without bothering my wife. Having a list of just those types was very helpful.

Being able to just look a list of appropriate headphones is most convenient to someone who is looking for top candidates for a future purchase. OTOH, if they're just browsing everything for general interest or because they love Tyll's writing, then the order doesn't matter.

At the present time, the list of WoF quality noise-cancelling or wireless 'phones is short, so additional lists for those categories would be redundant, but not long.

zobel's picture

Color and/or smell are good sub-categories, but buoyancy is important too. Will it float? Flame retardancy... also a no-brainer. Are they biodegradable? What is their half-life? Are they recyclable? repairable? upgradeable? ..................................seriously now, the existing seven categories, as they are now in the wall of fame, should be reduced to six, with wireless / active a subcategory of each of the six, not as it's own category.

The new categories, each with it's active sub-category:

1) Over Ear Open ......1a) wireless and/or other active electronics
2) Over Ear Sealed ....2a) wireless and/or other active electronics
3) On Ear Open ........3a) wireless and/or other active electronics
4) On Ear Sealed ......4a) wireless and/or other active electronics
5) Earphones ..........5a) wireless and/or other active electronics
6) Isolating...........6a) wireless and/or other active electronics

The (a) stands for active electronics of any sort.

Simple isn't it?

Koloth's picture

Except that Over-ear, On-ear and isolating might all have serious overlap. And 'Isolating' isnt a good term at all, unless you want to group in passive noise isolation with active noise cancelling, thus forcing Tyll to group sealed headphones according to their noise atrdnuation properties.
And what good is the "active electronics of any kind" subcategory supposed to do? So ANC, Bluetooth, integrated DAC, hands-free microphone, in-line-remote, on-capsule touch controls, DSP, biosensors, surround simulation and whatever the market brings us next somehow should be lumped into one? Because... whoever is looking for one of these would obviously be interested in a list of all the others as well...?

Not so simple now, is it, bigshot?

zobel's picture

I think isolating is entirely what noise reduction is about, period.
Passive vs active there is not really a factor. Isolation is the whole ballgame there.
There is a need to separate passive phones vs active phones, but ultimately, sound quality, comfort and build quality are the only real parameters in cans. We here at IF are about music reproduction, nothing more, nothing less. Microphones and other tangents are not of consequence. For a pair of phones to reach the wall of fame, they must perform at the top of their category in the reproduction of music. Their category, as Tyll has always placed them is sufficient for all intents and purposes when considering the goal of music reproduction, and the basic types of phones in existence.
From a consumer's point of view, knowing how headphones sound passively, without extra electronics, is primary in determining their overall quality in reproducing the recordings available to us. DSP, EQing, Surround effects etc., are secondary, and are frosting that can help or hinder the primary function of a pair of drivers you wear. Therefore, cans with any active electronics built in are a sub-category of what is basic and most important in headphone design, and so far have not advanced the state of the art, in most cases, over passive design in any of the existing categories in the only factors that are of importance to IF readers....fidelity to the original signal being the ultimate goal.
There would only be a small handful of additions to the wall of fame in the existing categories by including active phones. Yeah, it is that simple.

Koloth's picture

I have to disagree with you on some of the things you say. You make two principal mistakes in your assessment:

1.) You look at the past and current state of the headphone market and judge the adequacy of the current categories by the fit they provide to that market. Nobody argues that. Yes, the categories, "Tyll has always placed them [in]", have suited us well so far. What Tyll is doing though is looking ahead, and the future does look a lot more confusing. Stating that certain active electronics "so far have not advanced the state of the art, in most cases" is irrelevant, as we are planning for a future in which they seem to play an ever more important role.

2.) You assume that active components are just additions to a base quality of music production, that one can care about or ignore, when making purchasing decisions. That is untrue. Manufacturers are at this very moment building Lightning-only headphones, that will work off their internal dac and amplifier only and might only cooperate with Apple devices. Another example: Aiming at "knowing how headphones sound passively, without extra electronics" makes no sense when looking at something like an AKG N90Q with an internal dac and dsp equalizing the headphones for the specific geometry of the user's ears. This stuff wont be wished out of existence and we cant put it into some appendix, instead these headphones should compete with more traditional offerings head-to-head: Which headphone does when all is said and done actually sound more enjoyable?
While visitors to this website and the contributors to it are certainly interested in sound quality above all, there are no strict limitations on the kind of source materials. There is no need to exclude people looking for the best possible sound quality for movies or concerts, who might therefore be very interested indeed in virtual surround sound simulations or the like. There is more to the hifi-world - and even to the cool little corner of headphone-hifi we inhabit - than simply 44khz stereo music.

What I believe us to be in agreement on is that Innerfidelity should always be a resource judging sound quality primarily. I am utterly uninterested in how good an included microphone is or how well the bluetooth sharing of music to a second headphone works (that stuff JBL is building). But we have to admit, that many people do in fact care about the quality of Noise Cancelling or the stability of the wireless connection. Tyll will have to find a balance here - and in the end he will quite naturally focus on what he finds interesting. What I do believe however is that the ranking on the WOF should principally be determined by sound quality. To put some arbitrary numbers on it, I believe sound quality should be 80% of what gets a headphone on the WOF, with ergonomics, build quality, price, electronic features etc combined constituting the other 20%. I trust Tyll to continue making sensible choices here.

brause's picture

I see another issue: some of the wall of fame headphones don't exist anymore. For example, the Sennheiser HD 239. In the case of the Xiaomi Piston, revolutionary as a budget earphone at the time, it has not only been superseded by at least three generations, the whole genre of cheap Chinese in-ears has exploded (Zircon, DZAT, KZ...). And with every other headphone, you would have to consequently review the follow-up model.

In summary, it is a tough to impossible job to keep your wall of fame up to date, and it may appear cherry picked, since many of the competitors are not reviewed/listed.

Good luck!