InnerFidelity Ranks Headphone Manufacturers

Surfing through my headphone news feed the other day I stumbled across an article on Picky Ear titled, "Best Headphone Brands: What We Can Learn from 310,067 Headphone Reviews." After reading through their conclusions I learned that aggregating thousands of reviews, no doubt largely populated by folks who really don't know what they're talking about, generally nets you a fairly random result. Maybe I shouldn't pick on Picky Ear; I've seen lots of these lists and have a hard time taking any of them seriously. Here's some examples:

There are lots more, but you get the idea. Interestingly, and not surprisingly upon reflection, to my eyes the best list came from a website named Ranker in an article titled, "The Best Headphones Brands," that just lets people vote up or down various brands.

I s'pose I shouldn't whine when I can sit here and make my own list. I'm not going to rank them in some artificial order, all these companies make both good and bad headphones—though the proportions certainly differ. I'm going to group them in a few categories and make comments, the overall grading is from a sound quality perspective—not taking the functionality of exercise headphones of the brands into consideration, for example. It's not all-inclusive; if you don't see a name it's probably because I see the company as not particularly important, interesting, or of noteworthy fail. Alright, here's my stab at it.

The Powerhouses
These are the Big Boys. Companies with significant current market share and well positioned to move forward into the coming age of smart headphones. Their competitive actions will frame progress in the world of consumer headphones and will influence others in determining the future of headphones.

In rough order of importance, mainly on their potential ability to champion good sound quality:

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_BeatsApple Apple/Beats
Beats is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room with an over 50% market share in premium (over $100 retail) headphones. Now, under Apple ownership, they are poised to lead the charge in smart headphone technology. You can expect them to produce the first viable mixed-reality products maybe 2-3 years from now.

As a result of their previous association with Monster, many will tell you Beats headphones are junk. They were...at the time. But significant efforts beefing up their engineering team over the past 4 years has produced a current product line that is much better than their earlier efforts. Current products are very well built, but like most headphone companies, sound quality can be hit and miss.

Apple-centric consumers may be well served by the new Solo3 Wireless with it's amazing Bluetooth range, 40 hour battery life, easy Bluetooth switching between Apple devices, and slightly warm but pleasant sound quality. On the other hand, I found the Beats Studio2 Wireless rather mediocre.

Beat/Apple is in a position to drive sound quality forward, and as the new mixed reality technologies will require excellent acoustic performance in the headphone I can easily see them driving headphone sound quality in a positive direction.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Sennheiser Sennheiser
In my view, Sennheiser is the world's best headphone maker. Sure, they can screw it up from time to time—the HD 700 was a screeching banshee, and their "Bionetic" offerings many years ago were an awful follow up to gains made with the HD 560 at the time. But they also make an astonishing array of headphones with solid performance, and have an extraordinary ability to cover and move forward their lines of headphones in virtually every category. Their wireless "RS" series (found here) of TV headphones are excellent top-to-bottom; the HD 202 ($35) is an excellent entry level sealed headphone; the HD 800 S has long been considered one of the finest headphones in the world (though a bit thin sounding); and, of course, the HD 600 and HD 650 remain a favorite headphone among enthusiasts for their unmatched price/performance ratio.

If there is any company that will make significant forward progress to both the features and functions of smart headphones without loosing track of the need for solid sound quality performance, it's Sennheiser.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Bose Bose
Bose is a bit of a one-trick pony in my mind. I've tried their passive headphones and never found them worthy of note. But their noise canceling headphones are second to none. Time after time, their Quiet Comfort line-up continues to deliver state-of-the-art noise canceling and best-in-class sound quality. My recent review of the Quiet Comfort 35 reinforced that opinion.

Though Bose has the lion's share of the traveler's headphone market, pressure is mounting. While the recently released Sennheiser PXC 550 couldn't quite keep up with the noise canceling and sonic performance of the Quiet Comfort 35, the slick and fully fleshed out feature set delivered a terrific user experience and left me feeling the QC35 was a headphone of a bygone era. I think Bose may have a hard time keeping up with the on-coming tsunami of technical hurdles smart headphones will demand.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Sony Sony
Somewhere along the line as consumers switched from Walkmans to iPods and smartphones, and from living room stereos to Bluetooth and streaming speakers, Sony seemed to have lost its footing as a powerhouse of consumer audio electronics. Where at one time it produced the ubiquitous MDR-V6 and crazy good—and expensive—R10, it then languished with rehashes of old cans and a line of silly "Extra Bass" headphones. Can they regain their footing and march forward with strength?

Recent releases like the MDR-1A ($299), h.ear on ($199), and MDR-1000X ($349)—which I've heard only briefly but thought sounded quite good—show a renewed and well focussed effort to woo upscale consumers. And the MDR-Z1R Headphones ($2299); NW-WM1Z Premium Walkman ($3199); and TA-ZH1ES DAC/Amp ($2199) indicate Sony is on the march to attract headphone enthusiasts with good sound quality.

More telling, to me, is Naotaka Tsunoda's, Sony's chief headphone R&D director, regular appearances at high-end audio and headphone trade shows. His enthusiasm, is infectious and sincere. It warms my heart to know he's at the helm of Sony's headphone efforts. (See videos here and here.)

Moreover, Sony is one of the few companies with the resources needed to compete in the upcoming battle for smart headphone market share. Their progress in the past couple of years is clear to me, Sony's intent to regain their market credibility is gaining traction, only time will tell if they can ride the big wave upcoming, but I'd say they're well positioned and intended. We'll see.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Skullcandy Skullcandy
Okay, Skullcandy isn't attractive to enthusiasts, but they sure as hell do a good job getting the attention of 15-25 year olds. And while their headphones seem rather more like toys than tools to us, it's my impression they do a pretty damned good job of delivering toys that sound much better than rival makers.

Over the last five years Skullcandy has struggled to find their groove. In 2011 they made a move toward upscale headphones with their Mix Master ($299), which I found to be quite good sounding. But early production runs had problems with cracking headbands, which seemed to take the blush of that rose. On the other hand, the Aviators ($149) release at about the same time were a hit. I loved them. Skullcandy made the decision to abandon the mid-price categories and focus solely on low-cost cans for the kids. They subsequently produced the Grind ($59), which I reviewed very positively, and the Crusher ($99), which is a weird dynamic headphone with a built-in sub-woofer-like "Sensation 55" tactile driver that's surprisingly effective.

Bottom line: I don't think Skullcandy is going to be a powerhouse maker for the broad consuming public, but I would say they are very well positioned to hold and grow their market share among youngsters, and generally do a good job of honoring the art of music with decent sound quality in that category.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Shure Shure
Shure is a pro-audio company, and they know it. Ten years ago they were quite active courting headphone enthusiasts as an expansion market, but in conversation with company engineers I became aware of their growing disenchantment with the precocious "hype train", "flavor of the month" mind-set on headphone forums. Internally, they returned to their roots and now focus almost exclusively on the pro-audio market. The good news is that good headphones for pros are also very often good headphones for enthusiasts, and their headphone products remain relevant to enthusiast listeners.

My personal favorites of the Shure line-up are the SE-535 ($449) in-ear that possesses a really sweet sound that's easy on the ears, and the SRH1540 ($499) that has an emphasized bass and treble that makes for terrific low-volume-level listening.

Like Skullcandy, I don't see Shure as being a powerhouse among consumers at large, but I do think they'll remain a strong force and influential in the pro-audio world, and should have the resources to keep up with the changing nature of headphones in that market.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_Philips Philips
Philips is a huge, multi-national company, but the division that produced headphones and home audio gear under the Philips and Philips Fidelio brand was sold off to Gibson Innovations a couple of years ago. It's still a pretty big outfit that also includes Onkyo, GoGear, and Trainer, and bigger still under the Gibson Brands umbrella, which includes Stanton, KRK, Cerwin Vega, Neat, Cakewalk, and, of course Gibson Guitar, but they are no longer attached to the behemoth that is Koninklijke Philips N.V..

Philips and Philips Fidelio branded headphones from Gibson Innovations remain a strong offering. I particularly liked the Philips Fidelio X2 which, though slightly grainy, has a well balanced sound and solid build quality, and ljokerl gave high marks to the low-cost Philips TX1 ($29) and TX2 ($39). The question in my head is whether or not they will find a relevant path forward to the consumer market, or get mired finding an identity among musicians due to their corporate focus.

None the less, I find them a competent headphone maker—they acquired the entire audio design team from Philips Innovations Research Labs—and expect them to continue to be a quality headphone maker.

161130_Blog_RankingHeadphoneMakers_Logo_JBL JBL
So, this is the one where headphone enthusiasts will cringe. JBL, historically, has produced a pretty poor line-up of low-cost headphones. I'd characterize them as ignorable. But lots of changes are afoot in parent company Harman International. Three things are worthy of note: First is an announcement from September of this year of the closure of AKG's Vienna manufacturing facility. The article states that while the AKG brand will remain, Harman International will be, "relocating the remaining development and service sectors and the production of audio systems for cars as well as high-quality headphones and microphones abroad." (Quote is Google translated.)

Second, Harman has been working very hard at it's central research facility to understand and improve headphone performance under the guidance of Sean Olive. It seems to me that the headphone market remains very strong and ever growing, and Harman International will feel this market profitable enough to remain engaged. Olive's research seems very likely to show up in various ways under the AKG, Harman/Kardon, and JBL branded headphone line-ups. I suspect we'll see all three brand's headphone product line-up benefitting.

Lastly, Harman International has just been purchased by consumer electronics giant Samsung for a cool $8B dollars...cash! In a Nov 14th, 2016, press release, Harman explains Samsungs primary interest is in Harman's Connected Car business, but there's no doubt synergy between the two firms will find focus in their personal audio interests. The press release states:

HARMAN’s leading brands and cutting-edge audio systems include JBL®, Harman Kardon®, Mark Levinson®, AKG®, Lexicon®, Infinity®, and Revel®. The company also licenses Bowers & Wilkins® and Bang & Olufsen® brands for automotive. All of these brands will greatly enhance the competitiveness of Samsung’s mobile, display, virtual reality and wearable products to deliver a fully differentiated audio and visual experience for customers.

It seems to me the natural brand differentiation will find AKG producing headphones for audiophiles and audio pros—where AKG already has a strong history. The Harman/Kardon brand will likely continue to focus on up-scale consumer headphones. But my guess is that we'll see the most significant headphone development show up in the JBL brand, which has the strongest recognition of the three among the consuming public.

Bottom line: While I don't think the current JBL offering is all that strong, it has been changing rapidly, and we're likely in for much more of that. I think JBL is worth keeping a close eye/ear on.

Flip the page for more!

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tony's picture

Well, Samsung is now a "major" in Consumer Audio. Korea is on one "hell-of-a-roll", their Cars are crushing their segments.

Who'd ever think that Samsung would become the Parent to Levinson stuff?

Tony in Michigan

PashedMotatoes's picture

I'm not optimistic about the takeover. I've long been a fan of Harman Kardon, but I have had my worst experience of any brand with Samsung, so many times and in so many markets. Their phones are overpriced and under-built, their fridges are lucky to last a year without compressor failure, their TVs are overrated, and their washers explode (seriously!). On the topic of Hyundai/Kia, I know personally of two people who bought Kia Optimas because they "look cool" only to have their engines seize before 60,000 miles. That's rather significant. And if there is one thing I know about Hyundai and Kia, it is that they WILL weasel their way out of their warranty obligations. Plus, while the engine was in good shape, the Kia my sister had years ago was falling apart in every other way at 40,000 miles. Not a quality vehicle.
So far by my count, the major South Korean brands haven't yet delivered. I hope to heck Samsung doesn't ruin Harman/Kardon & AKG, but I won't hold my breath.

PashedMotatoes's picture

I'm not optimistic about the takeover. I've long been a fan of Harman Kardon, but I have had my worst experience of any brand with Samsung, so many times and in so many markets. Their phones are overpriced and under-built, their fridges are lucky to last a year without compressor failure, their TVs are overrated, and their washers explode (seriously!). On the topic of Hyundai/Kia, I know personally of two people who bought Kia Optimas because they "look cool" only to have their engines seize before 60,000 miles. That's rather significant. And if there is one thing I know about Hyundai and Kia, it is that they WILL weasel their way out of their warranty obligations. Plus, while the engine was in good shape, the Kia my sister had years ago was falling apart in every other way at 40,000 miles. Not a quality vehicle.
So far by my count, LG is the only major South Korean brand to deliver on promises. I hope to heck Samsung doesn't ruin Harman/Kardon & AKG, but I won't hold my breath.

veggieboy2001's picture

I was curious why you hadn't mentioned Beyerdynamic's refreshed/upgraded line when referencing them...unimpressed or irrelevant? It's kinda sad that a lot of the big (or bigger) guys might just fade away...or get eaten by other companies.

I know there are a plethora of Fostex modders out there, but I've always been attracted to this company. I was always hesitant to pull the trigger, partially because of the Fostex driver, but now that they started using their own drivers, my interest has been piqued even more. I remember you were interested by their latest offerings at RAMF (I know, show conditions and all that) so I hope you get a chance to have a longer listen.

I find a lot of hope in the "little guys" out there making headphones. There are so many it'd be hard to hit on them, but given your positive review (and WOF placement) I was surprised Meze wasn't mentioned... I guess both of these companies are just a blip on the headphone radar, but I feel they're important in their own way.

Thanks as always for your musings!

Journeyman's picture

I agree with your opinion in most cases, including the one on Grado! Anyway they also have their on way of doing business and I truly respect that.
Grado these days is more of a statement brand but if it pays the bills I'm happy for them.

Journeyman's picture

"...They also have their own way...

NotoriousEGB's picture

I'm curious if Bowers & Wilkins new P9 will give them a boost in the rankings, and would LOVE to read innerfidelity's review on it.

Jazz Casual's picture

This is such a guy thing.

--------------'s picture

Your Oppo PM-3 review includes a measurement data sheet titled 'Oppo PM3 Sample B'. It's missing from the page with all headphone measurements, which only contains 'Oppo PM3' and 'Oppo PM3 Sample C'. Could you please add it?

marcovibes's picture

I don't know why you skipped BeyerDynamics and listed Beats as the leading companies. Later I realized that you have listed these brands based on the market share. Due to the good design and looks Beats obviously has the best market share.

Wasn't surprised Bose included in the list. Their QuietComfort headphones are the major selling points for them.

According to me the best brands here are Beyers, Sennheiser, JVC, and perhaps Sony.

Good list, BTW. Appreciate the time you took researching about these.

https://www.soundmaximum.com/best-bass-headphones/

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Thanks Tyll for yet another great write up. I really appreciate the time and effort you spent to create this. Its a great read and really helps breakdown the major players as well as a sampling of their offerings.

Keep up the great work dude!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

funambulistic's picture

I would not consider their first foray into the headphone world a "disaster" as I love my Spirit One, though I agree with the ear cups being too small. I have moved on since then (my Philips X1 [I think I got a good one because the changing out the cord, aside from a silver plated one from a fellow HeadFi-er had the only noticeable change in a slightly brighter sound signature] and my AKG-XX from Massdrop). I would love to hear their newer offerings, but I am a mere mortal, with two hungry (yet adorable) mouths to feed. BTW, I listen to my V Moda M100s at work and they rock - when I can get them out of my wife's hands...

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You'd have to read the link on the Spirit One, they had some early manufacturing problems that yielded defective diaphragms. They were exceeding forthcoming and did a great job ensuring customer received quality product in the end. Other than that initial "disaster" they are fairly good headphones.
funambulistic's picture

... and concur with your assessments. I must have hit it lucky (along with my X1s) as I did not have any of the problems mentioned. Indeed, after reading the article, I vehemently tried to tried to find any of the failings mentioned, but could not. Color me happy and disaster-less!

As an aside, I just reread (and re-watched) your review on the Parrot Zik (original version) and am tempted to buy as one site is offering them for $79.99. Oh, maybe not - I hear my wallet wailing in dispair...

Dreyka's picture

So Apple owns Beats and Samsung owns Harman. That says a lot about the future of headphones and their relationship to smartphones.

In the open headphone world it is very dead. Sure there are more expensive flagships coming out but they aren't getting cheaper either. The HD600 sits far too comfortably at it's price point and I would have hoped than in 20 years something would come along to best it at a lower price. The issue is frequency response but an open headphone with better subbass extension and a similar frequency response would change everything. The HE-400S is kind of this but requires Focus Pads for better subbass extension and that is still only to 50Hz.

The consumer market is focused on branding rather than sound quality but I hope to see DSP corrected USB headphones from Samsung/Apple start running a bulldozer through it at a variety of price points.

The CIEM market is a dysfunctional joke due to a lack of measurements.

The IEM market is obsessed with multi-driver designs for marketing while frequency response is a peaky mess. The designs are completely screwed with excessive bass boosts starting at 500Hz and higher. Nobody other Etymotic and Aurisonics is interested in doing deep insertion, high noise isolation designs and nobody is doing it at the high end either.

Impulse's picture

Stick with your HD6xx & ER4xx until someone really cracks that mobile/DSP nut? :P

I do agree given the resources Apple and Samsung/Harman will bring to bear, we'll likely see more innovation in the closed/mobile space. Senn's probably really glad that's the case too...

The open/enthusiast market will probably tolerate flagships priced sky high and more segmentation for the time being, the closed/mobile space is gonna get increasingly cutthroat...

And thatC's before you even start talking about the move to wireless and/or competition over digital out options (Type C vs Lighting).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Where's that damned "like" button when you need one?
Impulse's picture

I own like 2-3 cans/brands from each section of the list, kinda amusing. Some smaller players could use a shootout, someone like MEE or Meze might've started from the bottom up but they're probably about as relevant or successful as some of the newer niche brands that started at the high end (or some of the older smaller players like Loss for that matter).

Ulrich's picture

Tyll, why are you ignoring the AKG N90, a milestone in headphone technology? I offers features no competitor can match, including precise frequency response calibration and out-of-head localization. Highly acclaimed in Europe (EISA award, "world's best headphone" according to AudioVideoFoto Bild)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Just haven't heard it yet.
Willymanwilly's picture

This is no critique on the N90, I've auditioned it briefly and came away impressed, but I wouldn't put any value on EISA awards.

Those awards are the result of months of extensive wining and dining of a bunch of ego boosted "journalists".

roscoeiii's picture

Surprised there was no mention of Shure's KSE1500, their electrostatic IEM. Years of research and resources went into that one. Yes, it is very expensive and requires a specialized amp. But wow does it advance the state of the art for in-ear headphones.

HalC-76's picture

Nicely done, Tyll - even-handed perspective of relative influence on current consumer purchasing patterns that recognizes the impact of both brand marketing effectiveness and the state of product/business lifecycles for each of the listed companies.

The ability of marketers to convince us there is something we need that is better than what we have will drive sales, whether the motivation is to belong to the biggest group of buyers, participate in a specific company/product ecosystem or to acquire some esoteric characteristic of a product that is important to an individual. Regardless of how objective performance of a product may be, the consumer definition of "good quality" is a subjective variable that cannot be reduced to a single value or market driver, giving marketers the opportunity to differentiate products in discreet market segments.

One twist in market influence to understand is the "ecosystem" of inter-dependent products built by some companies that locks in consumers. Marketers will describe this as brand loyalty, but often it is purchasing convenience and sometimes technical advantages built into a combination of products not available when a consumer mixes brands to acquire certain "quality" values. This "lock-in" indicates there may be other product characteristics than headphone "quality" that are more important to the purchase decision or that the "quality" value of the ecosystem may be inherited by the accessory product, regardless of its actual objective characteristics. This situation disrupts the notion that a purchase decision can be isolated to a characteristic solely of a specific product. Therefore the market share of that product has to be evaluated in the context of the ecosystem and not just the product category.

More important is the inevitable lifecycle of technologies, products based on these technologies and the companies that bring these products to market. The emergence, growth and decline of products and businesses is normal. We may want to hold on to products that have served well in the past, but business is driven by new revenue. Legacy products saturate the market of available buyers, so different concepts are needed to motivate a new round of purchases in this market. Therefore, old products and typically the companies that brought them to market recede in relevance, move on to other product ares, are satisfied with the market share they achieve or even die. Ultimately, consumers can only purchase the products that are available and have to make a choice of "best fit" to their desires at the time of purchase. Occasionally, the market may appear to swing back to legacy preferences to generate more sales, but even this is a cycle of change that will eventually decline to be replaced by another market trend. These lifecycles are increasingly shorter and frequently overlap as business are able to micro-segment markets and market differentiation more productively than in the past to generate incremental revenue.

As I indicated in a previous post, emerging companies are more interesting to watch in order to identify new features that may influence future buying trends. Large scale companies, like Apple and Samsung will either purchase an emerging company to add products without organic internal development or purchase legacy brands to enhance market penetration of existing technologies. As Tyll mentioned, Apple has applied its product management skills to improving the Beats products and leveraged its marketing to achieve market share. Apple may yet apply other of its existing technologies, such as signal processing, or acquire it - time will tell. Likewise, how Samsung leverages the brands acquired in the HK acquisition to promote products in the market will play out over time. Without competition, neither of these companies will make changes in products, market shares will stabilize and overall sales of a product will decline to the level sustained by new consumers entering the market.

This is a dispassionate, business reality - neither good or bad - that cannot be reduced to a single, universal market influencer. The "dip-stick" check on current market positioning provided by Tyll is interesting regardless of our individual emotional reactions and personal purchasing choices. For marketers, it is good data that shows where volume or niche opportunities may lie for future business initiatives. Regardless of the current positioning described today by Tyll, it will be different when he undertakes updated positioning overviews in subsequent years.

In my own personal journey with music reproduction, I have not observed sufficient changes in headphones over recent years to motivate me to replace the ones I use regularly. I avoid "lock-in" to ecosystems as much as possible and read InnerFidelity regularly to track emerging trends. I appreciate the insights shared by Tyll and others on this site.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Great comments and feedback...very well thought out look at market n drivers.

Shardnax's picture

You got the prices backwards on the L500 and L700.

Hex11's picture

I don't get the praise for Sony. Their DAPs are underengineered and overpriced, their portable headphone lineup is decent, but not outstanding. Their TOTL Z1 is a heavy disappointment. I think they're relying way too much on their name only.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Possibly...but I think they've come a long way from their offerings of 5 years ago. The fact that they're trying as hard as they are is telling. I think they're on the road to being competitive and producing some category leading product. However, I'll agree they aren't quite there yet.

I'll add I don't think anyone is there yet.

brause's picture

The market with the most ears is surely the Chinese one. Have you ever tried the fabulous Rock Zircon or Einsear T2 or DZAT DF-10 headphones that retail at $10-20 USD? I am struggling with justifying the price of my Sennheiser Momentum in-ear and Bowers $ Wilkins C5 Series 2. Worst of all, I enjoy these Chinese earphones more than my Western ones. For details, see audiobudget.com

KG_Jag's picture

Tyll--I don't always agree with your opinions and my ears generally prefer a brighter headphone than do yours. Yet I appreciate your candid, straight forward and (mostly) unvarnished views--all backed by specifics--presented in this piece

monetschemist's picture

Tyll, you wrote:

"After reading through their conclusions I learned that aggregating thousands of reviews, no doubt largely populated by folks who really don't know what they're talking about, generally nets you a fairly random result.

This is kind of off-topic but I really really like this comment. It made me think that either:

- big companies spending zillions on AI to analyze consumer preferences are going to get the same kind of random results, or

- these random results constitute a kind of new reality just because a lot of big companies take them seriously.

Either one is a pretty upsetting conclusion.

But anyway, thanks for the comment and all the other good stuff you do!

Pages

X