CES 2012 Best in Show: Philips Lifestyle Products

I'm always surprised how companies can be so hit and miss when it comes to sound quality. Even the best makers rarely hit it two out of three times. So, it was with growing disbelief and giddy pleasure that I slowly made my way through more than a dozen new full-size headphones from Philips, almost all of which sounded spectacular for the price. (They also introduced maybe 2 dozen in-ear models, which I didn't audition.)

The price of headphones these days has gotten way out of hand in my opinion. Most makers are bellying up to the bar with skus at $149, $199, and $299 price points. Good grief, these are just headphones: a couple of drivers; some wire; and a plastic housing. Sure the engineering to do it right is expensive, but c'mon, there's got to be a way to make great $69 - $99 cans. At the moment, however, makers are ignoring the $99 price point ... because they can. Dr. Dre and Ludacris have established a new norm in the mind(lessness) of the pop-consciousness, and there's zero downward pressure on the price of headphones.

I think Philips may start to change all that.

At every turn as I circled the Philips booth, I'd first be surprised at how good the headphones sounded, and then I'd look down at the price and be surprised again. Everything was about 2/3 the price I expected to see. Most of the lines start at around $50 and top out at $150, even their flagship Fidelio L1, which sounded very good on quick listen, is only $299. I think other makers are going to have to do some rethinking on price, because given the sound quality, great styling, and low prices of the cans I heard at their display, Philips is going to kick butt.

The headphone that excited me most was the Downtown in the Citiscape collection at $99.99. This is an absolutely fabulous sounding headphone, but more importantly, I think it's a perfect lady's headphone. Ladies get ignored in the headphone business ... and for good reason. My YouTube channel is 94% male, and female headphone enthusiasts are exceedingly rare in my experience. Audio is historically a very male market. But women like music just as much as men, don't they? Could this disparity be in part because audio products are designed by men, for men? Nowadays women are carrying smartphones and playing music nearly as much as men, I would think. Looking at the Citiscape Downtown I've got to believe the ladies will be flocking to this great looking, great sounding, and sanely priced headphone in droves.

Also in the Philips display was a small dark alcove for demonstrating the new Fidelio line of ... of ... I don't know what to call them exactly. I think we're on the verge of a huge change in the way we think about our audio reproduction systems. In a 21st century home, your music is on a server somewhere, you walk around with an iPad in your hand controlling what you hear, and various speaker systems are conveniently placed in the rooms of your home. There's simply no reason you shouldn't be able to listen at your computer, then walk into your kitchen with the same music playing on a counter-top speaker while you make a sandwich, and then walk out on the veranda to eat it still seamlessly enjoying your tunes. In the 21st century home, there is no need for a "stereo system," per se, as long as these various speakers are of high-enough quality.

The Fidelio gear was driven by a programmed demo, so I wasn't able to test the line with my own tracks, but what I did hear was very impressive. With about six iOS AirPlay enabled products ranging in price from $199 to $799, the well-to-do music lover will be able to sprinkle these devices throughout the home, moving them as needed, to create a seamless whole-home listening experience. I thought they were very cool, and I'd love to do an InnerFidelity review of this very contemporary line-up.

Jude Mansilla from Head-Fi happened into the booth while I was there. After we had both spent a bit of time listening we got together for a little chat. It was two kids in a candy store, I tell ya.

The effervescent Jennifer Lalli showed me around the Philips headphone displays, followed by Bob McElraevy describing the Fidelio gear.

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jherbert's picture

Just bought a L1 and am pretty amazed how good they sound. Beat my beloved SRH-840 by a wide marging with better imaging an more resolution without being harsh. Also like them much more than the Sony Z1000 due to their wider soundstage plus better details. They also are much more comfortable than my DT-1350. Wonder how they will measure.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Me too!

Just finished measuring the Citiscape Downtown. Looks pretty good.

Mike Olsen from HeadRoom was by the other day, and I gave him a listen to the Downtown. He plugged 'em into his iPhone and played a track. He looked quizzical. He punched up another track. He nods his head at me like it seems good. He punches up another track, and again, and ends up sampling about 8 tracks. Then he takes them off and says to me, "Damn, these are good. How much?"

"Ninty nine bucks."

"Damn." he says shaking his head.

jude's picture

It was great seeing you at Philips, Tyll. That was fun (and *very* surprising) in there!

I agree with you about the Philips CitiScape Downtown--I didn't hear *every* headphone at CES, but, of the very many I did hear, the Downtown was an easy choice for best value.

And the Fidelio L1 is also an outstanding value, in terms of sound, and in terms of build, even at $300. It represents a good Philips flagship, and I can't wait to see what else comes from them in the future.

In over ten years at Head-Fi, we've had virtually no dialogue about Philips headphones, and I think that's going to change very quickly.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I know, It's weird. Given I had a couple of bad experiences and the lack of chatter, I just assumed the worst.

The great thing about headphones is that theoretically it's the least expensive way to deliver great fidelity. But I rarely see really good sounding inexpensive headphones. Looks to me like Philips engineers and designers had their head in the game when they created this line-up. You're absolutely right, this is gonna be a wake-up call for a lot of people. I think they nailed it.

dalethorn's picture

I bought a Philips O'Neill Stretch at the Apple store last year for $120 USD, and while not a great headphone, it wasn't horrible. Then I see the Stretch models (sans iPod controls) selling commonly on Amazon in the $40 to $50 dollar range. Ignoring the sound, the physical quality was impressive and if you don't need the iPod controls, $50 or less is a bargain I thought. And mine came with a wonderful fabric detachable cable, much like the Vmoda M80.

I haven't tried hard to pry an L1 loose from anyone - I just do Google searches for them for availability now and then - nothing available yet for purchase that I can find.

pbjames's picture

Wow, very interesting that they dove gung-ho into the headphone market in a whole new way. I wish I had heard/seen these headphones to know exactly what you guys are on about. It sure is amazing how the price/performance ratio of headphones continues to change...for the better!

nick n's picture

That's far more stuff there than I figured they would have. Somebody's on the ball at that company. Those Soundspheres: who needs to listen to them when you can just look at them like a piece of fine sculpture, functional sculpture.
Those prices reflect pairs or individual units? Can't wait to see what you think of the desktop versions when you get a trial.
The trend towards higher pricing in headphones is getting a bit extreme. As was mentioned earlier this may be something to bring that back to sane levels assuming folks can bypass any pre-existing "brandism".
Certainly the company itself is large enough to be able to provide such offerings together with quality that exceeds their reasonable price range.I mean they have to be up there with Sony infrastructure-wise if not bigger
(? )
Look at the build on those L1's for example that puts most others to shame and they still managed to keep it around $300 for the FLAGSHIP which does sound like it's living up to the hype so far as reviews trickle in.

Thanks for such a decent overview at their booth. At first honestly I was really shocked to see the minor comment about what you thought was the standout @ CES with such a vast amount of stuff you checked out, then coming here I was unprepared to see this!

Hope they start steamrolling market prices down, or at least take away enough business for other companies to smarten up a bit. The competition should be good for the consumer, hopefully

Jlle's picture

The standard stretch is not even showing it's real potential. Because there is now demping inside, the mids can sound a little hollow. There 4 screws the get inside. Placing the tinniest amount of Twaron Angelhair inside makes a big difference. Mids now sound more clear and music seems to come from a black background.

The trick with Angelhair is to use to little for your feeling and really pluk it so it becomes like a yellow mist.

I could sent some Angelhair to try out inside a closed headphone. Very curiuos how it measures.

RPGWiZaRD's picture

Yea I also think Philips will make a bigger name in the headphone market with the introduction of this new lineup. Superb sound & extremely good design at a very affordable price. There's already a very interesting review of the L1 on head-fi and it's overhelmingly positive. I also think street prices will even be somewhat lower, it was seen for 200 EUR in europe shortly, so I expect the cheap places will sell these for around 200 EUR in europe and $250 in US which is probably starting to question the pricing of other headphone manufacturers greatly.

BTW, how do the Cityscape Downtown compare soundwise with L1? You seem to be extremely pleased with the sound of Downtown so.

MayaTlab's picture

I was able to try the Fidelio L1 recently in a Parisian shop called "Colette". Although I don't have the same experience as others and the conditions weren't favourable to assess these headphones, I quite agree that they seemed very, very nice - at least they made a rather strong impression. Although they were just inches away from Dr. Dre headphones when I picked them from the rack, it may have falsed my judgement to have those tacky headphones in sight.

shamu144's picture

What a great news for this hobby.

I think there is much more for Philips in this new product campaign than headphones. Think for a moment the impact on younger generations that such a line up of popular product could have. Philips found a way to refresh their brand image and identified the headphone market as most appropriate.

Can't wait to hear those L1. Setting new standards.

RPGWiZaRD's picture

BTW is it just me that finds Jennifer, the Philips representative highly attractive. xD She looked very trendy with those first headphones she put on. :P Perfect choice from Philips side there too haha.

ChickenKatsuBoi's picture

Hey when is the "made for android" earphones coming out? also i think u added the company info incorrectly.
i though it was philips not phillips.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thnx! Fixt.
rhalf's picture

You know, the pricing is different around the world. For philips it turned out that some of their headphones were pretty affordable in Poland. SHP5401 still has big following around here. It's one of the most common headphones on the street and also one of the best sounding, definitelly not worse then, say Denon D1001. HP1000, although unpopular, were a good competition for HD595. SHL 9500 used to cost 10-30 dollars, but their resolution was competing with eighty-dollar ones back when the market was easier. They were a silent porta pro killer.
And yeah, Jennifer is my favourite CES representative too.

tds101's picture

Is there anywhere to buy the L1? I searched online and came up empty,..any assistance would be appreciated!!! Thanks in advance,...

PS: Any news on getting the Philips CitiScape Downtown as well?

Gelocks's picture

Hey Tyll.

Did you get to try the Uptown model?
I guess those will be done to compete with the Skull Aviators, The House of Marley Exodus, etc. But is their sound good? Or are the Downtowns the one to own?


Tyll Hertsens's picture
I thought the Uptown was good, but the Downtown better. Just a quick listen though, we'll have to see how things pan out over time I guess.
jeckyll's picture

Looking forward to trying some of those out, need to find out who carries Philips in Vancouver, BC.

BTW Tyll, you still need to correct the URL. :)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I thought I pushed the buttons!? FXT!! ... I think.
Wmcmanus's picture

Tyll, if you liked the uptown and the downtown was even better, I can't wait to hear your opinion about the Holiday Inn!

Bet seriously, great news about all of the new Phillips products. This is just the kind of boost the headphone hobby has needed for a good long while. I hope Phillips does extremely well with their "extremely well priced" strategy! I suspect that if they do, there will be a bit of a shakeup going on over the next couple of years.

I'm going to pick up a pair of L1 on the strength of your recommendation.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
... because I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

I've gotten my evaluation headphones in, and measurements will show up in Wednesday's Monthly Update.

I am happy to report right now though, that I think these are lovely, comfortable, well-behaved headphones in every possible way. Slightly warm tilted --- enough to make things a little fun --- but nicely articulate without harshness.

I think they're a great all-arounder.

Bob's picture

Hey Tyll - It's great to see you sharing your wisdom and expertise. I bought my first headphone amp,the headroom supreme, from you in 1993 while living in Puerto Rico. I still have it! You also recommended the Etymotic 4ERs which I still have as well. I look forward to reading your impressions and expert analysis. Thanks for turning me on to hifi headphone listening.

alvin's picture

Hey Tyll, have you tried the older Philips SHL5500? It has almost the same sound signature as the Philips Downtown cans. And, the build quality is absolutely amazing. The price? $29-36. I hope you can evaluate them up :)

cudakite's picture

Mr Tyll,

How would you say the citiscape Downtowns compare with the ATH-M50s sound wise?

losshack's picture

HI Tyll,

Great youtube clip! I've been hearing great things about the Fidelio L1. Have you had a chance to compare them to the Klipsch M40 at all? I'm looking to buy my first serious headphone set and I really like what I hear about the Fidelio. Any feedback would be great! Los