The makers of high-end headphones have a lot to thank Dr Dre for.
Dr Dre, real name Andre Young, with his partner, the head of the hip-hop music label Interscope Records Jimmy Iovine, created the Beats brand of bass heavy headphones and made them implausibly cool, but he also brought in a new price point for headphones.
In the UAE last year there were approximately 740,000 pairs of headphones sold with a US$300-plus price tag and that number is expected to increase 50 to 60 per cent in 2015, according to Sony.
The top four headphone companies, by sales, in the UAE are Beats, Bose, Sennheiser and Sony. In the United States, Beats claims about 57 per cent of the market for headphones above $100 although most of its sales are for over-the-ear phones, which retail for between $200 and $400, according to market research company NPD Group.
The fact that Dr Dre, the godfather of hip-hop, one of the founders of the hip-hop group NWA and the producer of Eminem and Snoop Dogg, literally, has his name all over them – Beats by Dre – raised the brand’s street cred to unlikely proportions.
To many younger people, Bose, which was by far the world leader in high-end head phones before 2008, was something your dad bought. Most younger people made do with the in-ear buds that came with their phone or iPod. Beats realised there was a huge gap in the market and sold its cheapest headphones at $100 and above. Beats is not so much a specialist listening device as it is a street-smart fashion accessory that also plays music – you do not even need to be playing music as you can wear them in a club and not look out of place.
Beats are recognisable as the brightly coloured, oversized headphones that, it seems, most sports people and a host of hip-hop artists are photographed with. There are very few nailed-on products such as Beats that state to others that you know what to listen to, who to listen to and how to listen to it.
The huge worldwide hit for Meghan Treanor starts:
Because you know,
I’m all about that bass
‘Bout that bass, no treble
I’m all about that bass
‘Bout that bass, no treble
Since 2008 she has been pretty much correct, although she was referring to something other than the boosted bass output that is a Beats trademark – perfect for listening to hip-hop. Dr Dre wanted people to hear the music he was making the way he heard it in the studio and created the headgear to mimic it.
The Beats experience changed the landscape so much that it prompted another company used to changing games, Apple, to make it its biggest acquisition ever in a reported $3.2 billion takeover last year.
The plans Apple has for the brand are still not known but it also acquired Beats Music, a music streaming service, in the deal and the industry waits with bated breath to see what Apple does with it.
Back at the battleground for "premium" headphones, Sony, the company that arguably began the modern-day headphone business with its Walkman back in 1979, has decided that high-resolution audio is the new technology that will get it back in the game. Sony in the Middle East is targeting the No 2 spot in the hit parade with its new hi-res, custom-made headphones teamed with Sony Music's catalogue of hi-res audio files.
Hi-res music refers to a digital file that contains all the bits that are lost during the compression process that makes a file small enough for your phone or MP3 player to handle. Compression sacrifices quality and detail for the sake of convenience and smaller file sizes. This might be fine when you are out running with your iPod or smartphone but serious music fans always want better. Some audiophiles have accused Beats of producing a “muddy” bass sound.
But, just like if you watch a Blu-ray movie on your phone, you do not get the premium experience unless you are using premium equipment that can handle and enhance all the data available.
This is where Sony sees the chance to claw back some much needed credibility with music lovers by launching a fleet of high-end headphones, music players and smartphones with hi-res enabled kit on board. Because the tracks are hi-res they take up more memory space, take longer to download and are marginally more expensive, a track is $1.60 versus $0.99 on iTunes, but the improved music quality is guaranteed.
“Beats are about bass, but Sony is about the whole experience,” says Elin Wong, the product manager at the audio division for Sony Electronics Asia Pacific.
“If you listen to the hi-res files on hi-res machinery then the experience is unlike any other, apart from live.
“It is an audio experience unlike many others especially with Sony Music converting its library and the [US rock band] Foo Fighters being brand ambassadors for the hi-res Sony experience.”
The sparkling Sony store that opened in The Dubai Mall in February suggests it is now a premium seller with the top-end firmly in its sights.
While Sony looks to steal a march on Beats with its hi-res audio, Sennheiser, the number three brand in the UAE with about 8 per cent of the market and headphones that cost up to Dh5,200, experienced a 40 per cent growth in sales here last year and expects to see that again in 2015. Sennheiser does not have the distractions that Sony has – all it does is audio – and it believes hi-res audio will become industry standard.
“We believe that the quality of audio is all,” says Paul Whiting, the president of global sales for Sennheiser Electronic.
“We have been a lifestyle brand, we aren’t known for a fashion element, but fashion has become more important to us as we saw what Beats did.
“However, now we are seeing a swing back to in-ear headphones and a slowing of the Beats trajectory,” he says.
“Wireless is now becoming the divider so one has to stay with the changing technology. The UAE market is becoming increasingly important to us. We are opening a shop-in-a-shop in Jumbo Electronics [in Dubai, rather than a stand-alone outlet], not because of the size of the [city], it’s smaller than London, but because of the visibility of Dubai.
“The amount of people that see the town and the products available means we have to be here.”
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