Workers and Peasants HiFi, Ltd.

Sennheiser, the brand that’s long been synonymous with headphones in my mind, currently shows well over 120 models in its catalog. (And that’s not including the hearing-assist or office-products lines.) Sony, Panasonic, Philips, JVC, and Audio Technica each have a dozen to 2 dozen, or more. Grado, AKG, Beyer-Dynamic, and Shure are just 4 more headphone stalwarts with several-to-many models. And Audeze, Oppo, and Ultrasone are just three of the newer names that have found success in the high-end headphone market, while B&W, NAD, PSB, and JBL are but four of the numerous long-famous loudspeaker houses that have also entered the fray. And note that I haven’t so much as mentioned Beats, or Bose, nor the dozens and dozens of other labels flogging ‘phones today. And this is just a brief survey of the higher-end, wired-headphone world, without even considering the in-ear, “sports,” “gaming,” or wireless-Bluetooth options; in total, there are thousands and thousands of different headphones; 45,000-plus, according to Amazon, though this surely includes plenty of duplicates.

Who the hell is buying all these headphones?

I enjoy headphone listening as much as the next guy, but I don’t overlook its limitations. The vast majority of music recordings, at least the natural-acoustic ones that form the larger part of any serious-fidelity library, lose nearly all of their believability when reproduced via “cans,” whether on-ear, over-ear, in-ear, or fully circumaural. Because personal listening does violence to the stereo deception that fools us into hearing a cohesive soundstage arrayed across the front hemisphere of our virtual concert space.

I get that the mass of consumers don’t care. I also concede that in the interest of pure survival many an audio company has been forced, willy-nilly, to try for a slice of the headphones pie, however, small. But 45,000 headphones? Even if the true number is a mere 25,000, this is far too much differentiation for the rational mind to encompass. Energies and resources that could be directed to developing better, cheaper headphones are being diverted to mere competitive brawling.

Darwin, as he pointed out 150 years ago, would tell us that this is nature’s intent: the fittest will survive, and be the stronger for it. On the other hand, as Marx and Engels so helpfully elucidated at around the same time, this sort of thing is the downside of market capitalism. So in a perfect universe—one in which I serve as President-for-all-Eternity—all these many headphone-makers and wannabes would be consolidated into a single entity: Peoples Headphones, United. All of the resources currently poured by hundreds of cat-fighting commercial companies into market-opportunity-identification, celebrity-endorsements, and marketing, marketing, marketing—plus, of course, the odd dollars spent on R&D—would re-purposed to developing six or eight models of each headphone variety, creating a grand total of perhaps fifty—hell, call it a hundred—choices. The most expensive of these might cost $250, but probably less, and would be equal or perhaps even superior to anything you can buy currently up to $1,000. There would be something truly excellent for every taste, style, and fiscal capability. Sadly, of course, this would leave thousands of product and marketing managers, advertising executives, salespeople and, yes, a certain number of engineers—not to mention a few dozen rappers—without vocations or endorsement deals.

But there are plenty of rice paddies. Right, Bernie? Bernie?? Bernie, are you listening to me? Take off the damned headphones and pay attention!

utopianemo's picture

......Because it worked so well for the Soviet Union, right?