Dr. Dre has had his share of hits. But when the star, Eminem producer and hip-hop icon appeared at the plate at Fenway Park last year to promote his new Beats By Dre headphones, fans were understandably confused. What was he doing at a baseball game – not the first sport you'd associate with rap music – and in a Boston Red Sox jersey, no less, plugging a special edition of his headphones with the Red Sox logo attached?
The good doctor was on to something. Two years before, he launched the slickly designed brand in immediately recognizable black, white and red, which happen to be the Red Sox's team colours. Today, annual sales are reportedly approaching $500-million (U.S.) and musicians from Justin Bieber to the estate of the late Bob Marley have scrambled to launch their own headphone lines, along with non-music celebs such as LeBron James. What Dre discovered early now seems obvious: For a lot of consumers, headphones are no longer just about sound.
Not everyone thinks that's a good thing, of course. In 2007, an article in Rolling Stone written by former Billboard editor Robert Levine proclaimed "The Death of High Fidelity." Because many listeners were consuming music on iPods and computers, he wrote, the relatively low audio quality of most MP3s seemed to be a non-issue to all but a few industry pros and audiophile nerds.
Which, you'd think, would doom fancy headphones to sit in garages next to dusty 8-tracks. But market research firm NPD Group says otherwise: U.S. headphone sales in 2010 were up 17 per cent over the previous year.
Did the public suddenly develop more sensitive ears? Possibly, and the iTunes Store's decision in 2009 to upgrade its standard of audio quality may have helped. Francis Delage, co-owner and manager of Canada's Moog Audio, says it makes sense for people who live with their headphones on to invest in a decent pair.
"You see the amount of people on the street or on the streetcar using headphones constantly," Delage says. "If you're going to spend two, three hours a day with something in your ears, you want good quality."
The more likely factor, however, is that capitalism abhors a vacuum. With smartphones in every pocket and handbag, consumers locked into multi-year phone contracts are looking to personalize rather than upgrade their gadgets, and they appear to have found an ideal vehicle for it in pricey headphones as fashion accessories.
"That's pretty new," Delage says, "for us, especially." Though Moog largely caters to musicians and DJs, Delage has observed an increase in customers coming into the Toronto location who are as concerned about the look of their headphones as they are about their sound.
He points to the Urbanears line, which comes in 12 different colours and which "changes every season. Headphones used to be black, maybe silver," Delage says. "Now, even professional manufacturers like Pioneer who make DJ headphones make them in white, black, red, gold …"
Though the past decade has seen youth brands such as Skullcandy winning over teens with brightly hued splatter-paint designs, and audio stalwarts like Bose pushing the mainstream price envelope with noise-cancelling headphones for business travellers, Beats By Dre were the first to turn headphones into a status object for style-savvy grownups.
Some listeners, however, complain that their striking design can't disguise their poor sound. One audiophile told The New York Times that Beats headphones were "absolutely, astoundingly bad," and critics allege that the amped-up low-end frequencies are overwhelming, colouring the rest of the sound field. Others argue that audio is like wine tasting: Experts often have different criteria than the average consumer.
And if Beats are pricey – the popular Beats Studio by Dre model sells for about $350, the same price as Bose's much-better-reviewed QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling units – many listeners are willing to pay a premium for that little "B" next to their ear canal.