Music Tech

Can Celebrity Products Like Beats, Pono, Motörheadphönes Popularize High-End Digital Audio?

MotorheadphonesBy Eliot Van Buskirk of

For years, pointy-headed freaks with golden ears have told everyone within earshot that MP3s, CDs, and just about every other popular format sounds like garbage. Instead, they say, we should all buy expensive headphones or speakers (which are the biggest factor in sound quality), and then seek out the hardest-to-use, best-sounding audio format we can find for a particular piece of music, be that SuperAudio CD, DVD Audio, any of several lossless formats, or even that rarest bird of all, the better-than-CD quality digital file.

Nobody heeds their pointy-headed advice, which is why A) most of us listen on poor-sounding headphones and speakers B) so much music sounds so dynamically compressed, and C) some producers are actually mixing their music to sound good on a little cellphone speaker.

However, maybe celebrities can change our minds about sound quality. Here’s how some of them are trying.

1. Beats by Dre, MOG


Say what you will about their bass-heaviness and their price, but Beats by Dre made it as cool to wear good-sounding headphones as the white headphone cord in Apple’s iconic advertisements. Beats is everywhere, and its headphones are big business — so much that it was able to buy MOG, a music services that prides itself on streaming everything at 320 Kbps, which is the highest bit rate of compressed audio.

Just when it seemed like nobody cared about sound quality anymore, Beats By Dre stunned the world by selling above-$100 headphones to seemingly half the music fans on the New York subway system, and people all over the world for that matter. After HTC bought 51 percent Beats last year, Dre earned a cool $100 million in pre-tax earnings, making him Forbes’ “cash king” of hip hop. Beats acquired MOG in part because it just had too much money not to, and in part, we think, to build out a music-service-t0-headphones music ecosystem with an emphasis on sound quality.

Who said great sound is just for vinyl dorks? Beats by Dre, whose motto is “leading the revolt against inferior sound,” begs to differ.

2. Neil Young and Pono


We’ve been all over Neil Young’s 21st Digital Pono initiative, with no fewer than nine articles on the topic, even though it hasn’t come out yet. We know it’s a hardware player, a high-resolution audio format (probably 24-bit, 192 kHz), most likely with some sort of Pono music store or other distribution mechanism, and that the team behind it is approaching clubs in the hope that they’ll use it to upgrade their sound systems.

At the core of Pono is Neil Young’s feeling that the kids of today — originally, one young woman that Neil saw walking down the street — are suffering due to listening to compressed music coming through shoddy headphones. Nevermind the music itself, although doubtless Neil has opinions about that too; the music ecosystem is under-delivering that music, in terms of sound quality, and Young wants Pono to fix that.

3. Motörheadphönes… Yes, They Really Are Called That


Following Dr. Dre’s lead, none other than Motörhead plans to show off its own headphones, the aptly-titled Motörheadphönes, at CES this week — “from the loudest band in the world to your ears.” Made by the Swedish manufacturer Krusell, Motörheadphönes (and earphönes) look quite durable indeed. But their main selling point is sound quality. Designed to be “for rockers by rockers,” Motörhead’s Krusell headphones could do for rock what Beats purports to do for hip-hop and electronic music.

4. MP4SLS’s Orastream: CSN, Creedence, Jackson Browne, etc.


It only makes sense to send high-resolution (i.e. better-than-CD-quality sound) to devices that can handle it, which today’s tablets, smartphones, and most computers cannot. However, it is possible to adapt the bit rate of digital audio to extract every iota of audio quality out of an internet connection and whatever hardware is attached to it, which is the strategy employed by the Singapore-based Orastream.

So far, the company says, Crosby Stills and Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jackson Browne have committed to releasing music apps that run on the platform (CSN’s is already out), which could surely benefit from some big name endorsements. It’s also working on a white-label music service, so we might see Orastream surface in a subscription format at some point, too.

It’s a Trend

By the official rules of journalism, celebrity-backed sound quality is now a trend. Technically, you only need three examples to call something a trend.

So, will celebrities convince people that it’s worth jumping through extra hoops and maybe even spending more money in return for high-end sound quality, where the pointy-headed, golden-eared audiophiles have failed? If Justin Bieber ordered his “beliebers” to buy nice headphones, top-notch speakers, and high-resolution downloads in the name of his music, would it change the world?

We can always hope.

If it works, and we all start buying hardware that puts an emphasis on sound quality, perhaps that will convince more people that music itself is worth paying for too.


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