CES 2018: That's a Wrap

It was great to see no vestige remaining at CES of the celebrity headphone era. It was reassuring to see headphone makers selling product based on performance...or at least claims of performance. Marketing folks will be marketing folks. One might be tempted to think the world of headphones is going to return to normal...if there was such a thing. Unfortunately, I think this year's CES was just a little calm before the storm.

The cable is being cut.

Twenty years ago I had high hopes of people discovering great sound with headphones. All we needed were good cans, small headphone amplifiers, and time for the word to get out. To some extent, that's happened. The headphone hobby is strong and continues to grow. Manufacturers have begun populating the $500-$1000 price range with some solid offerings. I think the specialty headphone market is quite healthy, thank you very much. But that's not what CES is about. CES is about the big, bad, consumer market juggernaut and, at the moment, the consumer headphone market is all about cutting the cable...for a start.

I've got nothing against wireless headphones—I use my Bose QC 35 and Beats Solo 3 Wireless quite often for Netflix and Youtubes. Why not, they're decent sounding and get the job done. But am I enthusiastically awaiting time with them? Do they send chills up my spine? Will headphone hobbyists be wowed by the sound of the current crop of wireless cans? No, no, and nope. And neither will the consumer be wowed by great sound...but they'll be listening wirelessly, by golly!

Worse, wirelessness is a pretty bland commodity. Marketers will need ways to differentiate their product, and you can bet your sweet bippy they're not going to be touting sound quality in any substantive way. Sure they'll mention it, but it will be wrapped in buzzwords like "low latency," "higher than CD resolution," and "download our app to EQ your headphones." What they won't tell you is that the latest whiz-bang Bluetooth CODEC is only compatible with a handful of flagship Android phones and not with your iPhone...or only with your iPhone and nothing else. With all the scrambling to create flashy feature sets I don't see manufacturers strongly focusing on sound quality for the next few years.

Case in point: Bowers&Wilkins P7 Wireless sounds terrific, but it's not noise canceling and there's no flashy feature set. Enter the B&W PX, their latest and greatest wireless noise canceler with a killer chip set and a list of features as long as your arm. The only problem: In both noise canceling modes and with noise canceling off it sounded terribly colored and in differing ways. In the rush for bells and whistles they seem to have lost track of what counts.

If it can happen to a sound-savvy company like B&W, it's going to be happening all over the place. Heck, my survey of Sennheiser wireless noise cancelers was remarkably disappointing. Just so I don't come off as completely doom-and-gloom, I do have high hopes for the new NAD and PSB wireless noise cancelers. I reckon Paul Barton has a good shot at letting his ears do some work. But the fact remains, headphones are making a hard turn into new technology territory, and sound quality will remain the wall flower its always been.

You may be surprised I'm griping about the beginning times of smart headphones—a subject I've written a lot about and have high hopes for amazing sound quality in the end. Well, I continue to think that advanced DSP and psychoacoustics will deliver the goods...eventually. But for the next few years I'm afraid we're going to be inundated with flashy features and haughty claims of remarkable superiority while meaningful strides towards better sound quality sit idle.

Maybe this is my subconscious struggling to come up with a good reason to skip CES next year. (I could do without being sick every January.) Maybe I should go to the Fujiya-Avic Festival in Japan and a couple more CanJams. As I said, I do think the enthusiast headphone market is as alive and well as it's ever been. It's just a little sad to think that even though consumers have decided to trade the celebrity headphones they wore around their neck for a pair of whiz-bang wireless headphones they'll actually listen to, they're not getting any closer to eargasmic sound quality.

Such is life.

Geoffrey's picture

"have high hopes for the new NAD and PSB wireless noise cancelers. I reckon Paul Barton has a good shot at letting his ears do some work"

Me too. Remember late last year one of Barton's new noise cancelers appeared briefly on market and then abruptly disappeared. I live with so much noise in my work and apartment environments that I am usually wearing my Bose QC25's throughout the year 7 to 7. I sure could use a much better noise canceler on the music end. Those expensive Quincy Jones cancelers Tyll reviewed sounded interesting to me, but Lord are they bulky and gaudy, and with my small head they'd never fit me right. My Hugo 2 remains sealed in its box awaiting the day I can connect it to a headphone that does an really good job at blocking outside noise while not negatively effecting the sound quality, or at least as little as possible.

deckeda's picture

Bluetooth, any known version, any codec, cannot pass a lossless 16/44.1 file. FLAC and ALAC would allow it to almost happen. Almost. And uncompressed WAV or AIFF requires 2-3 times the bandwidth BT offers. Just for 16/44.1

So all the rest, any flavor of aptX, nor Sony’s codec ... cannot be as good as, let alone “better” than “CD resolution.”

Lost in the hype is that you’d need the same codec (if using a lossy file) all the way from file to player to receiver for it to play unfettered. So, an iPhone playing an AAC file to a BT receiver that handles AAC.

aptX’s problem is that there’s no such thing as an aptX file ... MP3s and AACs suffer a double lossy step (compared to the original lossless version) unless the files on the phone are lossless to begin with.

That aptX or AAC Bluetooth sounds as good as it does is a testament to how terrible the default SBC is.

Somebody could probably design a proprietary wireless system for point-to-point hifi. Tick-tock.

thehun's picture

BT 5.0 is more than enough to handle 16/44.1 without compression however none of the codecs currently adopted to BT offer completely lossless compression so there it goes.

deckeda's picture

Which part was nonsense? The part you didn't understand, or the part you agreed with but misrepresented?

It's weird to assert that the reason BT isn't lossless is due to missing codecs, without first acknowledging why they are missing.

Raise your hand if you know of the first BT implementation willing to turn a ~ 30ft transmission range into a ~ 3ft transmission range, for the sake of sound quality, and I'll show you some wired headphones.

So yeah, let's instead talk about theoretical and burst speeds, none of which are even set aside in the AD2P protocol.

thehun's picture

download the specs of BT 5.0 it might elevate your poor knowledge on the subject.

deckeda's picture

Thanks for the invitation for me to do your homework and publish it.

768 kbps is the maximum available bandwidth provided by A2DP. Some lossless 16/44.1 files, compressed as FLAC or ALAC for example, can sail under that limitation. Many cannot.

The version of Bluetooth is irrelevant, so long as A2DP within it, stipulates the audio limitation.

BT could have enough bandwidth to carry 4K UHD video for all I care, but it would never pass more than 768 kbps for audio, unless you'd like to reinvent BT in order to win an Internet argument.

Again, beware the theoreticals, friend.

zobel's picture

We appreciate that you take it upon yourself to make that annual trip to Nevada, but for your audience, the fruits of your findings there are of little value. For us, it is always about sound first, so your intention to go to more enthusiasts gatherings is well met.

Music is the reason for the hobby. It is the heart, art, and soul behind our passion to hear recordings that sound like the music we love. If wireless ever catches up with wired sound, we will all know about it.

Where is the real practical progress in headphones intended for music reproduction? I think you are right when you point to sub $1,000.00 HP with real improved fidelity, such as those AEON Flow closed, by Mr. Speakers, as a prime example.

There is also room for better cans built for portable use, with wires as at least an option, that are highly sensitive, and efficient. I see better closed cans cropping up all the time.

Oh, yes Tyll, you might as well stay here in Montana, and be sick at home like the rest of us.

amartignano's picture

The positive thing of the today headphones market is that low cost wired headphones probably never sounded so good...

Geoffrey's picture

In my above comments referred to "Quincy Jones" headphones. I meant the AKG N90Q reviewed by Tyll. Any good recommendations for excellent noise isolating (reducing the noise coming in) headphones? Need such an interim headphone that will scale with Hugo 2 while waiting to audition the Sennheiser HD820.

Lars68's picture

Hi Tyll, I have been following this site with great interest for a couple of years, but this is my first time commenting. Your article above made me think about the choices audio producers of popular music today have to make, and I'd like to put forth a question to you and the rest of the knowledgeable community here.

I write and record my own simple songs, just voice, an acoustic guitars, and the occasional addition of some rythm instruments. I do this with the most basic equipment possible, just a mic and an iPad. As for sound quality, the results are way better than I ever expected when starting out a few years back (the merits of the music itself, I'm however not so sure of...)

Being a fan of headphones, I soon realized that equalizing and mixing my simple tracks become a never ending compromise. If I make the music sound great on my HD800s, it sounds like poo on my Grados. If I go for the best sound through my floor speakers, it sounds horrible in the car etc, etc. Deciding on the mix becomes a frustrating compromise.

All of this made me think of how the best audio producers in the world, with access to money-is-no object kind of studios and equipment are faced with the same kind of compromises. They have to decide what kind of sound producing units their work should be optimized for. Music being a massive commercial industry, wouldn't it be reasonable to think that the latest album by Taylor Swift (just to pick an artist whose music is heard by millions...) was produced to sound its best on the kind of inferior headphones and equipment Tyll now says dominate at CES? If so, would it not also be true that the same Taylor Swift album would sound even greater on my HD800s, had the world at large had better headphoes?

I recently bought a pair of Koss Porta Pros and was blown away by the quality. To me a much, much better sound (and one available 30 years ago) than anything coming out of the average Apple earpods or your average bluetooth headphones. So now to my question, how do you think the spectrum between the few enthusiasts with great headphones, and the average Spotify consumers with their cheap wireless headphones will affect the choices of the audio producers. Also, will it affect the design choices of the top of the line headphones too, because they will have to be optimized to sound good with music produced for inferior gear?


deckeda's picture

Within a given subset of choices, it usually makes sense to produce best sound for the best playback gear. You should be able to safely downgrade from there, without it all falling apart. This is how songs were professionally recorded yet mastered for A.M. radio once upon a time. Or "Mastered for iTunes" today. It's that final subtle tweak at the end, not a wholesale reengineering effort targeting only one possible outcome.

Engineers working with gear they trust in a studio begets consistency. It may not produce the best possible outcome, but that's usually not the point for mainstream content. You want the average to be high, so that when someone uses better gear at home, the sound improves. And when someone with even better gear at home plays music produced to an even higher quality, such as released by an audiophile label, they get that, too.

What happens in between is you have trusted/somewhat standard gear known to "be good," so that when you tweak to make music sound good on it, that's a functional workaround that will translate to that "higher average" down the road.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Some random thoughts:

* In the headphone world, there really isnt an endgame, is there? Hypothetically if someone created and gave you the definitive absolute undeniably perfect headphone, how long do you think it would be before you were back on this site looking at reviews in the hopes of finding the next best thing? Days? Weeks? Soon. Part of the enjoyment of this hobby is the ever changing and ever growing landscape of options to check out, debate, and purchase. Its also absolutely the thrill of the hunt. The wireless market growth continues this scenario and actually grows its options.

* Willingness to shed brand bias. Experience with the quality of a brand is an important and vital factor in our approach, however it can be a double edged sword. This is especially true for the bigger commercial brands and offerings. Lets use a commonly available big brand for a hypothetical example..Sony. Lets say you've tried a bunch of their gear years ago and found it all to be "ok". Since then you havent paid alot of attention because it'll all be likely "ok". This bias does a disservice to the possibility that, going forward, they may release realllly good sounding wireless headphones. The point is that we need to be open to unexpected surprises now and again. The Koss porta-pro mentioned in this comment thread and known to many of us is the perfect example of why its important to stay open to the possibility of pleasant surprises within the industry. The reason its important as its the bigger known brands that will likely have the most options early on in the emerging technology areas.

* Slight evolution of requirements. For me, above all, the most important attribute of ANY headphone is Sound Quality Cost Value. When buying gear on a budget..any budget other than "cost is no object"...one wants to get the best value they can for their money spent. In headphones, for me, its sound. I want the best sounding pair I can get for the money spent. That will not change regardless of technology. However..the shift to wireless WILL bring with it a handful of new requirements that are important. Factors such as: 1) Can the headphones be run wired as well? And if so, do they require power? 2) Power: recharge vs battery? (pros/cons for both) 3) wireless range? 4) ease of pairing? 5) charge time and method?

*Early Adoption & New technology challenges: This is a bit niche but its still in the forefront of my noggin. There's alot of new players trying to snag this emerging market. Specifically totally wireless buds. On the one hand..GREAT..more competition could result in lower prices or differentiation by improved requirements. On the other hand..we'll get technical products with little to no quality data over time on. This can lead to out of box failures...early life failures..etc. The Kanoa debacle is one of the best worst-case examples of the challenges of this new tech. Caveat Emptor!

* Its a big enough sandbox...plenty of room for all. The shift to wireless is inevitable. That being said, in 2017 we saw a LOT of new offerings, across price ranges, from the high-quality audio manufacturers that we dig. It may taper some but i think we'll have alot of great options, and growing options, in the wired market for some time to come. And should that new-product well ever run dry? We'll have too: 1) enjoy the great gear we have (gasp).. one of the great things (and unique things) about wired headphone tech is that with proper care and use, it lasts a loooooooooooong time. 2) look around at the offerings that are still avail...there's alot.

Ok..thats enough of a brain dump for now. Tyll: thanks for the continued updates, reviews, and information.

Peace .n. Living in (Wireless) Stereo


drm870's picture

It looks like some dealers are getting the PSB M4U 8 in stock; the NAD Viso HP 70 doesn't seem to be in anywhere yet. In any case, I was waiting for your review because your preferences seem to align with mine, and I want to see which one ends up being the better value. (Assuming they sound anything like their predecessors, one of them will be my next headphone purchase.)

thehun's picture

You sound worse than last year [or was it 2 years ago?] when you got drugged. Lots of hate for BT from the HP community and even more confusion surrounding the tech around it that normally spawn from ignorance and bias.
I always thought that you were an open minded enthusiast that welcome new tech and embrace a "constant motion" of trends. I still do, maybe like others said this isn't much of a show for HP or audio enthusiasts in general. Looking forward another year reading your reviews, hanging there.....;)

CAS-Colorado Springs's picture

How could that occur????