Andrew Jackson (contributor)

Celebrity endorsed headphones have become the number one player in this booming market, leading to a wealth of brands providing audio products as celebrity vehicles with little focus on audio quality. Some manufacturers, however, believe that this oversupply is starting to lead to a swing in consumer trends: one away from style and back towards a desire for function over form.

According to GfK Australia Retail Tracking, sales of headphones and mobile stereo headsets (excluding the grocery, fashion, convenience stores and direct channels), experienced double-digit growth in 2012, and have increased by a further 5 per cent in 2013.

Helped by an increased demand for over-ear headphones, sales value has increased by 12 per cent.

Owing in particular to the rise of smartphones, the purchase of headphones is at an all-time high. The digitisation of music has rendered large audio libraries exceptionally portable, and with music playback being one of the main features of the smartphone, consumers have shown a desire for products that let them listen to music on-the-go.

What was not expected, however, was the type of headphone that would come to dominate. The pitch that sold headphones was traditionally based on audio quality and the sound fidelity.

This changed when MP3 became the standard consumer audio format. CD music quality is typically 5-to-6 times that of a mid-range 256 kbit per second digital file. As such, unless someone was listening to a CD or owned a high-end music file, a high quality pair of headphones no longer mattered as the user was already listening to a sub-par recording.

As a response to this, the market has moved towards ‘fashion headsets’: headphones made in stylish designs, produced or endorsed by celebrities and marketed in a way reminiscent of Air Jordan sneakers in the late 1980s.

This boom, complemented by the continued adoption of portable devices with audio and video functionality, has seen stores become saturated with branded sets by everyone from music personalities such as Dr Dre and Justin Bieber, to those with no musical affiliation at all (such as second string NFL Quarterback Tim Tebow and Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore.)

This swing from a focus on sound quality to an obsession with style has had a noticeable impact on more traditional and quality-centric brands.

Sennheiser Australia MD Bjørn Rennemo Henrikson recently said, “The market has turned and our competition has shown that headphones in any colour sells.

“The number one and overall criteria for Sennheiser is audio…but today the consumers say they don’t care, because [they] have been listening to MP3s at 128kb compression for years and years and that is apparently good enough.”

“We’ve had the brand and the quality out there, but all of a sudden the consumer stood up and said: ‘We know you do fantastic sounding products, but I’ll tell you what — that red colour — I want that!’.”

With the uptake of fashion-conscious headphones at an unprecedented high, breaking into the market on the platform of providing high-level audio quality would appear to be a bad business move.

However, some manufacturers believe that it is time for brands to begin highlighting audio quality once more. Seth Combs, co-founder and CMO of online headphone manufacturer Sol Republic, believes that consumer desire is swinging back towards a focus on substance as a rebellion against expensive but sub-par equipment.

Sol Republic founder Seth Combs.
Sol Republic founder Seth Combs.

Sol Republic was founded in 2011 by Combs, with Scott Hix and Kevin Lee, with a focus on filling the void between manufacturers dedicated to high sound quality and those who relied on star power alone. Though setting out to manufacture products that output high quality audio, Combs also believes that consumer desire for style will not diminish, a prediction that is the cornerstone of the Sol Republic brand.

Sol Republic allows a high level of customisability, with the customer being able to mix and match different colours and styles of headbands and cords.

This combination of style and quality is proving successful: Sol Republic has grown from a team of three to a multi-million dollar business in just two years. The company has received praise from both the style conscious and audiophiles alike: the first group showing endearment for the style and customisability of the brand, while Rolling Stone praised its audio quality and low price point— entry level is just on $100.

Combs said the consumer desire for quality over style will trigger more technological innovation in the personal audio market. Following the trend of portable devices being designed to unobtrusively integrate themselves into the way we live, Sol Republic has spent time researching and developing innovations in both wireless streaming and control.

Its wireless over-ear headphones, Tracks Air, has a range of more than 45 metres and can interface with and seamlessly receive audio from several sources (including taking and receiving calls), while the Deck portable speakers allow up to five separate sources to take control of the system using their new ‘Heist’ mode.