CES 2013: That's a Wrap!

Overall I'd say the headphone offerings were a bit on the weak side this year. Not that there weren't some good cans to be heard, it's just that it didn't seem like there was quite so much excitement about new headphones as last year. It's just a feeling, but I'm beginning to think the reality of the marketplace is beginning to hit some of these new entrants in the field. Two years ago it felt like there was no end in sight to increasing headphone sales, and everybody was itching to jump on the band wagon. Fast forward to this year, and I think many makers are disappointed they haven't made more of a dent in Beats 70% share in the over $100 headphone market. I don't know how it's all going to shake out, I certainly don't see Beats going away any time soon, but I'll bet you four years from now we'll see quite a few people dropped out of the headphone business, and back focussing on building speakers...like they should be.

Things I Missed
After spending Tuesday and Wednesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center I had to turn my focus to the Venetian and T.H.E. Show exhibits. Unfortunately, at Friday morning's breakfast I heard the DTS Headphone X demonstration at the Convention Center was a big hit. I'm really skeptical about these sorts of things, but the word I heard was so good that I think I'm gonna have to do some looking into this.

I didn't miss the Tylt booth, but I didn't have the presence of mind to figure out it would have been cool to show off their Energi Backpack with on of my reports. So here's a link for those of you looking for a way to tote your devices and have them charge while underway.

Things I Wish I Had Missed
The friggen break dancers at the Monster booth. Ergh! Look, all I want to do is go to a booth and get information on your latest products. I DO NOT want to have to fight my way through 300 people taking pictures of your stinking break dancers with music blaring at 100dBspl. Are you trying to sell stuff, or just make a spectacle of yourself? Oh wait, Monster...nevermind.

A Weird Observation
First, on average, I thought the headphones at the show sounded generally better than the average sound quality I've experienced previously. Skullcandy and Zounds have hired acoustics engineers in the past two years, the folks at Logic3 did quite a bit of acoustics homework on their Ferrari cans, I can only assume this trend is larger than my random observation and people are finally getting the idea that headphones are primarily audio reproduction devices and should be designed for the job.

I also noted upon visiting numerous OEM makers (typically the Chinese factories that make headphones for most of the new and smaller headphone brands) that their headphones were somewhat better sounding than the overall average. I didn't do any reports on their booths because most of them want to be known only to their customers and don't allow pictures of their booth or products. But I can tell you that the headphones in their booths were quite good.

Now if you think about those two paragraphs above for a minute, the conclusion you come to is that the OEM makers know how to make good sounding headphones, but when the name brands come in to get a headphone made, they end up screwing up the sound quality the OEM is capable of delivering. That thought kind of bummed me out.

CES Results
I visited a lot more headphone makers than I had time to report on, but I did take the time to get good contacts and begin the review sample request process. With any luck, headphones from Martin-Logan, NuForce, Sony, Harman/Kardon, Pro-Ject, Zounds, and others will be into the lab for measurement and evaluation soon. Amps from CEntrance, Musical Surroundings, and Woo Audio are also likely to make an appearance.

Okay, thanks for coming along for the ride. I hope you enjoyed the show. And I'll get back to measuring and writing about some headphones now. Woooot!

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Thanks bunches Tyll for the great reports from CES.   There's a fair amount of us techno toy enthusiasts who look very much forward each year to reading about the new gear comming out of CES.  Previously my main sources of intel were sites like Gizmodo or Engaget.  However,  discovering Innerfidelity this last year,  your site was the one i checked daily for anything out of CES as headphones are what i crave these days.   I loved seeing the reports and hearing about familiar names and new ones for cans.     Those Aedels looked pretty impressive...i headed over to their site to check out the specs (and..who are we kidding..also consider a very expensive impulse buy) and was suprirsed to find they were all sold out across the boards...tis good to see folks who appreciate sound and build quality are starting out strong. 

I eagerly await more awesome reviews from you sir.  Keep up the good work.  In the mean time,  to tide me over,  i did some shopping on the Wall o Fame and just ordered some Vmoda M-80s for work.   I swear your wall of fame is a dangerous place...sooooo many good choices!

Peace .n. "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams"
                                                                                                       - willy wonka



Three Toes of Fury's picture

......that you are, personally,  quoted on the Vmoda M80's packaging!?!!!

I just got my pair this morning...and...out of the box they freaking rock.   Really just the best on-ear-closed ive heard.   They look great.  They feel solid.  and most of all the sound is wonderful.   Anyhoo i was checking out the packaging on on the back is a quote from you including the byline:  "-InnerFidelity, Tyll".     Very cool dude!

Peace n Tunes


(PS:  while i dont particularly care for the fashon side of headphones,  i couldnt help it,  and just ordered a pair of custom '3 Toes of Fury' shields for the new cans...wooot!)

thecanman's picture

Have you heard it? Speaking as an owner (no, not on their payroll), it might change your opinion about virtual surround in headphones. It certainly changed mine.

ultrabike's picture



Like Tyll, I wasn't that impressed with SRS or Dolby Headphone. But I think those synthesize multichannel out of 2 channels which might have its limitations. Going multichannel to 2 channel using headphones (like the Realiser does) might bring an improvement. But I would have to hear it for myself.

I'm definitively looking forward to hearing more about DTS Headphone X... Heard it would only work with DTS-HD, would love to see it working with plain DTS and for Dolby to pull something similar as well.

Shike's picture

Dolby headphone can work well for fixed position 5.1 ime - it emulates speakers for however many channels it receives (up to 7.1 depending on the algorithm).  It also depends on a generic HRTF and DF equalized headphones (or close).  DH also has varying algorithms with some really bad ones (.dll method used with PowerDVD) and some good ones (SU-DH1, Xonar).


It really depends on how close your HRTF and headphones are to their algorithm.  A couple friends and I are actually very close to it, and are pretty impressed considering.  Others that don't have an average HRTF will definitely feel it's wonky or odd sounding.

ultrabike's picture

Thanks! What headphones that you guys used worked best and which ones worse?

Shike's picture

The K601 and AD700 worked best for me.  The K601 sounded like it was imitating a well matched seemless set of speakers so that nothing felt over-prominent yet nothing stood out on its own.  The AD700 had a pin-point image in comparison (you could point behind you to where you think speakers were, worked very well for video games).  I prefer the pin-point ability in comparison, but some friend preferred the seemless image.  It definitely felt like a preference of how 5.1 itself should sound more than a knock against either can.  One person felt both sounded slightly vague to him, he will be mentioned later.

DH2 was a bit much for the K601 losing the tight imaging without gaining a real advantage.  In comparison, DH2 allowed the AD700 to widen and open up more than normal allowing the easy pin-polinting.

It seemed odd the AD700 worked based on its FR, so dispersion characterstics (the angled drivers) may have helped the balance work.  Many agreed the AD700 in DH2 was THE setup for competitive FPS gaming where you need a fixed pinpoint image at all times (a good amount of us were former CAL-I and saw the benefit for gaming immediately).

A pair of Sennheiser HD428 and HD555 did alright, though was neither seemless nor pinpoint for me and most of the others - closer to a pair of Mirage bookshelves in 5.1 for example.  I did have one friend (from before) that felt the HD555 and HD428 were actually better than the K601/AD700 for surround saying he felt it was more balanced in presentation for him though.

He couldn't find a real preference between DH1 or 2, they both had their advantages depending on what the persons taste was according to him.  It seems in DH1 he got the seemless and in DH2 it was closer to pin-point.  In some ways he was lucky getting both flavors out of a single can, but then he wasn't the average of the group.

Grado SR-60 and SR-80: Both had well defined images closer to AD700 in DH2 setting, but came off overly reflective to some (myself included).  With DH1 it sounded a bit too vague.  Didn't seem like a good fit for anyone honestly unless you like a live listening room for movies.  For someone that has used such a room for a long time though, this may be a decent transition or acceptable if they already have it on hand.

Absolute failure:

Pioneer Monitor 10 and some other vintage Pioneer/Koss/Sony cans we had on hand (clearly FF or raw FR tuned).  They simply were designed for a different FR entirely and sounded flat out terrible and wrong with Dolby Headphone.  Back channels sounding like they were coming from front/center, collapsed soundstage, just really wonky.  No one found these to resemble surround in the least.

Also in-ears were bad, this seems obvious but pointing it out anyway.  They clearly are not a factor in the algorithms at all.  There was basically no image even crushing l/r channels.


Others I tried on my own:

Stax SR-202: given my impression of the headphone the results didn't surprise.  It sounded like my K601 with a little less bass, imaging/location was pretty much the same.


The test rig was:

Xonar with DDL/Pioneer Elite DVD player/Xbox 360 > SU-DH1 > X-Head and Gilmore Lite. with frineds.  WIth the Stax later I used a Adcom integrated and a T-Amp as amps with a Stax pro bias supply (both provided plenty of power without offering any distinction).


The "bugs":

The SU-DH1 was very noisy driving headphones on its own, lowering its volume and using it in-front of the actual amp eliminated the noise though.  It was also the JPN version from Victor, and as such used a walwart (US JCV version only uses batteries -_- ).  The reason the SU-DH1 was important is it also offers full DTS decoding capability - other stand-alone solutions usually don't.


The takeaway:

If you're really interested in it, find a proper hardware solution or if PC only the proper Xonar card, get a bunch of headphones to demo, and try.  That's the only "sure" way to know if you can get it to work for you or not.  I imagine some will never have it work the way they want unfortunately, and it happens as it's a one-size fit all solution.  I have the same issue finding XXL hats, but I digress :p

ultrabike's picture
Tyll Hertsens's picture

While I haven't heard the personalized version, I did do the generic demo and was quite impressed.  I usually mention the Smyth as one of the very few virtualizers that DO work when I mention synthesized spacial audio on headphones. In fact, I mention it in this CES report.

thecanman's picture

Tyll, I'd strongly suggest hearing the personalized version. Personalization is really the whole point, because everyone's ear shape, head shape, etc., are different. The improvement over the generic demo is almost impossible to overstate.