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Headphone Fashion Guide: Does Style Trump Sound Quality?

by January 29, 2016

Portable personal stereo sound has been around since Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979. But few considered the Walkman a fashion statement during its heyday in the early 80s. Then, everything changed with the introduction of the iPod in October 2001, and with Steve Jobs’ immortal marketing pitch:

1000 songs… in your pocket.

With those words, Apple pulled the MP3 player from uber-geek exclusivity to the mainstream. Back in 2001, the term MP3 was considered steep tech-talk to the average person. But by breaking an MP3 player down to its essential value for the consumer, Jobs launched more than tech device – he launched a new style. You could be excused for not knowing the MP3 player already had a running start before the iPod, with products like the Eiger Labs MPMan F10, Rio PMP300 and my personal favorite, the Nomad Jukebox by Creative Labs. But it was only with the release of the iPod, and the music miracle-device’s glossy white earbuds, that it became the mobile music fashion statement.

Today, headphone fashion is infinitely more complex. Frank Zappa once said: “No change in music style will survive unless it is accompanied by a change in clothing style.” His words couldn’t have been more prophetic when applied to wearable technology.

When I was a kid, I assumed the first cyborgs would be like the Six Million Dollar Man. Like Steve Austin, they would be concerned with important matters of state and saving the world. Today we’re getting closer to a cybernetic future, but with stylish wearable tech that adorns our wrist and clips onto our clothes. The most conspicuous of these items is worn like a halo over our heads but with built-in ear covers that can effortlessly connect us to our phones. And being that they’re so conspicuous, it’s only natural that headphones would become an important fashion accessory. They’re the ubiquitous street wear that makes as strong a statement about who you are as the music you’re playing through them.

21st Century Fashion Statement

For many, DJs are modern day rock stars. Clad in over-ear headphones, they’re not just a style icon, they’re also ambassadors of an ultra-modern, tech-friendly culture. It’s no wonder, then, that so many manufacturers have rushed to produce headphones that mimic DJ-ready gear. No other player in the headphone fashion game embodies the DJ style like Beats by Dre (these days he’s dropped the Doctor). With piles of celebrity endorsements, “premium” priced versions, and a pair clamped around the neck of every sweaty UFC champion immediately after a fight, Beats embodies marketing on steroids.DJ

But conspicuous over-exposure has earned the company more than its share of detractors, and they’re often looked at as the ultimate in style-over-substance. When Apple bought Beats for $3-billion in 2014, one of their objectives was to get a head start in streaming music by morphing the company’s online music service into what is now Apple Music.  But in buying Beats, and their line of headphones, Apple also reinforced their commitment to dealing in the overpriced, offering consumers a negative dollar-to-performance ratio.

There’s nothing I can say about Beats here that hasn’t been eloquently expressed by Marques Brownlee in this video. Here Brownlee outlines the constraints of runaway marketing budgets.

But we’re Audioholics! We have one simple demand from our audiogear — sound quality. We don’t care about marketing, and we naturally frown on the notion of fashion in headphones… or do we? Believing yourself to be the antithesis of fashionable is in itself making a fashion statement. My traditional favorite headphone happens to be by Grado. I love Grado’s sound that tonally fits the kind of rock-centric music I enjoy. But did I really choose them through skeptical cost / benefit analysis and audio auditioning? Only partly!

Grado is also a company that has a persona among my peers in hi-fi and headphone audio. In Grado there’s a compelling story of an American made headphone built in a tiny, family-owned factory in Brooklyn NY. And there’s also a retro-geek look of their headphone design. They’re decidedly anti-stylish, which is what Grado fans will tell you is a big part of their charm. So there you have it.  Even a seasoned headphone hi-fi fan like myself is willing to admit that much of what I like about my favorite headphones has overtones of the superficial.

The Fashion Headphone

When it comes to the haute couture of cans, Beats are about as sophisticated as an aggressive drunk with his fly open. But there are successful headphone brands that manage to find the sweet spot where geek-chic meets award-winning sound, and they’re garnering rave reviews among headphone fans. V-MODA is one of these brands. They were started by Chicagoan Val Kolton with a mission to combine style, form-factor and great sound. Its success didn’t happen overnight, but today the company’s Crossfade M-100 is widely regarded as a top competitor in its price category. The headphone has received a stellar review right here on Audioholics. Even the company’s latest model, the Zn ear-buds sport a stylish metallic if subdued look, subdued because, well… they’re ear-buds and you can hardly see them. The company managed to build a sound signature into Zn that’s very similar to the full-sized headphones that made them famous.

But V-MODA has managed to avoid the style-over-substance moniker of Beats. There’s clearly more to V-MODA’s M-100 than exotic metal ear cup covers, as the company has become the darling of headphone review media and earned top customer-reviewed headphone on Amazon.com. While V-MODA seems to have hit the nail on the head, there are also many more brands that seem to put more of a premium on subtle and simple minimalism in appearance, with decidedly less focus on the construction of their electronics hardware.

Urbanista sounds like a clothing store at a suburban mall next to the espresso shop. But it’s actually a headphone brand that specializes in ear-buds worn exclusively by really, really, impossibly beautiful people that do yoga and travel to Ibiza. Its ear-buds look great, but to a seasoned headphone-Audioholic like me, the company’s website reads less like a hi-fi audio company and more like a recruitment video for a yuppy-lifestyle cult. It's safe to say we're probably not the demographic Urbanista is after.

"Custom engineering and tuning mean that you can finally hear your music as your favorite artists intended."

Another example is The House of Marley a fashion headphone for the socially conscious. The company is named after Bob Marley, the artist who left us when he was far too young. The company feature a range of stylish headphones and accessories with a fashion-sense aimed squarely at the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Marketing material on the House of Marley website gives a slight nod to its acoustic technology, promising that:

"Custom engineering and tuning mean that you can finally hear your music as your favorite artists intended." House of Marley

With no word on how the designers achieve this goal one can assume the real tuning going on at the House of Marley isn’t in the audio-labs, it’s in the marketing department's creative copy-writing. Product names like Liberate and Rebel make me want to put on a Che t-shirt and smoke pot. Strategically placed parts on various Marley products are made from wood, giving them a distinctive, organic look and feel. House of Marley promises all the wood used in their construction is Forest Stewardship Council certified, and they also boast other Earth-friendly parts.

Does it matter how they sound? Probably not. These are the headphones for the Whole Foods crowd, willing to spend extra for marginally more nutrition.

Crowdsourcing the Future of Headphones

Crowdsourcing could grow to be one of the most powerful influences in consumer electronics, as well as a constant source of comedy. One of my favorite places to get a laugh and waste time online is a Reddit called Shitty Kickstarters. Noted art director Paul Rand once said: “Simplicity is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.” Many bad crowdsourced technology projects are the result of expectations gone awry. But crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indegogo have the potential to bring innovative products to market from a variety of perspectives… like fashion and headphones.

Echolocation was a fashion headphone from the mind of the company’s lead designer and founder, Nicholas Oxley. Designed to be a lifestyle brand that takes advantage of the emerging fusion of design, tech and fashion, Echolocation’s headphones weren’t focused specifically on audiophile sound quality. Instead, they were focused on the simplicity of modest expectations… and succeeded. Echolocation

I imagine Nicolas following in the footsteps of Val Kolton in the early days of V-MODA. His idea was to create a customizable, stylish and great-sounding headphone aimed at the mainstream consumer. The result was an attractive retro-futuristic-style on-ear headphone that looks like something a switchboard operator from Fallout 4 might wear. The Echolocation headphone features an array of switchable earcup pads in a rainbow of colors to fit your mood and your day’s ensemble – which you know you’ve always wanted to do.

Another stylish earphone that boldly tries to solve an everyday problem is Phazon.

Phazon are a stylistically tech-edgy, wireless ear-bud guaranteed not to fall out of your ears during vigorous workouts. Sure, you can solve the problem with memory foam tips on just about any ear-bud, but of course then you risk total acoustic isolation – not a safe bet if you’re out for a jog in the streets. And they wouldn’t give you the style these earphones deliver.

Does Fashion Trump Sound Quality?

Now, you may detect a hint of sarcasm in my assessment of some fashion headphones. I’ll be honest, I’m an audio-first kind of person, but I’m also humble enough to admit that that’s just my personal style. It’s an arrangement I made with myself long ago, but it doesn’t mean I’m bereft of fashion consciousness. For instance… I wouldn’t be caught dead on the streets with a pair of Beats on my head. That’s not because I think they’re crap. The consumer electronics reviewer in me knows that they’re probably decent headphones. But they probably cost way more than the audio-quality is worth. After all, they have to pay for all that marketing somehow and that’s not something I want to support.

But on the other hand, I respect that Beats has carved a niche for itself as the must-have brand, even if it’s just for high-school kids. For us adults, we just happen to have a different gravitational pull, drawing us toward another set of values in our choices of design.

With that in mind, you could say that when it comes to our choices in headphones, clothing or anything else – whether we make our choice based on style or substance, marketing or R&D, it all boils down to just one thing: Fashion.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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