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Headphones Vendors Sound Sharp Style Notes

8/06/2001 02:00:00 AM Eastern

New features — such as upgraded listening clarity — are driving the headphones category, while, at the same time, fashion elements — such as style and color — continue to make inroads into consumer buying decisions.

Technological advancements, such as noise cancellation, remain at the forefront in determining headphones purchasing decisions, but shape and shade also have taken on significant roles in helping consumers determine which products move out the door.

"We are seeing that headphones style or cosmetics is becoming a major factor in how today's consumers buy," said Marko Wityk, national marketing manager at Panasonic. "Headphones are now being worn as a fashion accessory, as well as a way to listen to your favorite tunes."

Panasonic headphones enjoying growth due to trends in fashion include the RP-HS79, which lets consumers interchange colors among silver, red and blue. "This allows users to match their headphones to their eyes, outfit or mood," Wityk said. Suggested retail is $24.95.

The Secaucus, N.J.-based company also has introduced another trendy headphone, the RP-HS9, an ultra-thin product that comes in four colors and offers a low-profile clip-on style for comfortable and secure fit on the ear. Suggested retail is $12.95.

Audio enhancements, such as noise-canceling technology, which have been introduced into Panasonic's home [theater] and portable headphones, are said to be ideal for travelers who listen to music on a plane, train or bus.

Noisy plane engines and the cries of a baby, among others, are eliminated with Panasonic's two noise-canceling models, the RP-HC100, which retails for a suggested $79.99, and the RP-HC70, an open-air style that has a suggested $49.99 retail. Noise-canceling technology reduces ambient noise, primarily at low frequencies (over 10dB is reduced at 300Hz).

Convenience is also playing a larger part in the headphones purchasing equation, said Wityk. "Whether it's folding or a carrying case, consumers want a convenient product to use and store when not in use."

Panasonic's new clip-on RP-HS100 is outfitted with a retractable cord, which makes it easier to store in a tangle-free operation. Suggested retail is $29.99. The same retractable cord is included in the RP-HT600 home theater model, for neat and easy storage in the living room. Suggested retail is $49.95.

"Fashion consciousness is the current trend in headphones, as well as in consumer electronics accessories," said Jeanine Mulcahy, market manager for general audio accessories at Park Ridge, N.J.-based Sony Electronics.

"Consumers want stylized products that look as good as they sound," she said, emphasizing that Sony has led the way with its StreetStyle line.

"Music is such a personal identifier, and with features like behind-the-neck design and interchangeable color clips, consumers can truly express themselves through their CE audio products," continued Mulcahy.

The best example of Sony's newest fashion statement is its spiral-designed StreetStyle MDR-G73LP. The behind-the-neck model features a thin, flexible headband that molds to the curves around the back of the neck and fits comfortably over the ears.

Lighter than traditional headphones, according to Sony, StreetStyle includes 30mm drivers and a neodymium magnet to deliver maximum sound quality with clear treble, powerful bass, low distortion and dynamic range. "For many people, headphones are not only about listening to great sounding music, but also about making a bold fashion statement at the same time," Mulcahy said.

Available in metallic blue, StreetStyle also features a coiled neckband for easy storage in pockets or handbags. Headphones include a 4.9-foot cord in the same metallic blue color. Suggested retail is $40, and the product was available in July.

"Customers today are performance-focused, style-oriented and value-conscious," said Paul Marshall, VP of sales and marketing at EarHugger. "They are less concerned about brand name than they are about these elements. They want something colorful and unique, and they want it at a great price."

EarHugger's newest headphones offer attention-grabbing features, such as the product itself serving as the winder case, or changing the color of the ear frames. The company said these features are not gimmicky, but truly increase the functionality of the product.

One example is EarHugger's new YoYos headphones, said to be both fun and functional. Each offers a 30mm speaker held comfortably in place on an individual ear by a flexible plastic frame. No unsightly and annoying headband is needed, said EarHugger.

Speakers on the YoYos click together to form a winder case for ease of cord storage. When the speakers are clicked together and the cord is wrapped, the product looks just like a YoYo. The company — which calls YoYos high-energy, high-performance, high-fidelity product — offers the headphones in six new translucent colors. Suggested retail is $14.99 and availability is immediate.

Also new for 2001 from Lindon, Utah-based EarHugger is EarHugger-brand headphones that allows users to change the color of the frames on a whim. Said by the company to be the only headphones that can do this, these products allow users to match headphone color to their current mood, style or outfit. Suggested retail is $14.99, and headphones will be available Sept. 1.

Retail unit sales of headphones are enjoying a 20 percent increase over year-to-date last year for the entire category, said Greg Lebron, product manager at Gemini Industries.

Part of this increase can be seen in the growth of certain styles of headphones, said Lebron, namely back band/behind-the-head types and ear hook buds that fit the "on the go" or "active lifestyle" demographic.

These have seen "tremendous growth," Lebron said, with back band/behind-the-head style headphones up 40 percent in unit sales and ear hook style ear buds up 50 percent, both compared with year-to-date last year.

Capitalizing on industry trends for back band and ear hook style products, Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini is adding many items to its lineup of Philips-brand headphones. These include the HS460 clip-on style earphones at a suggested $24.99 and HS380/381 super lightweight back band style headphones at a suggested $12.99. The new models will be available in October, with a full headphones product launch scheduled for January 2002.

"Gemini's success with the Philips-branded products can be attributed to the depth and quality of our product line, which offers a headphone for virtually all demographic users," said Lebron, who noted a 500 percent increase in Gemini's headphones unit sales from 1999 to 2000.

The headphones business "is extremely strong in all categories," said Gordon Tetreault, national sales and marketing manager for the Fair Lawn, N.J.-based Maxell Corporation of America accessories division. "Consumers are looking for new styles that offer high-quality sound, trendy style, value and comfort to replace the basic headphones that come with the various hardware products they buy.

"Neckband and ear clip styles are particularly popular with young people, probably because they offer more secure wearability for active lifestyles," Tetreault said.

"The digital revolution is also driving replacement headphones sales, as consumers look to trade up to higher- quality models for their new MP3 and mini-DVD players," Tetreault continued. "Just as a home stereo system is only as good as the speakers you buy, consumers now recognize they can't get the full range of sound quality portable digital products offer without high-quality headphones."

Tetreault said the popularity of portable digital products — namely the use of mini-DVD players on long trips, where users want both the highest quality sound and the highest degree of comfort — is even driving sales of full-size headphones.

One example of this is Maxell's HP2000, at a suggested $19.99 retail, that offers 50mm drivers and boasts a frequency response of 3Hz to 28kHz. The HP2000 features an expanding headband that automatically conforms to any head size and a new velour-style ear cushion for fatigue-free listening.

"The growing popularity of home theater technologies, such as Dolby 5.1, DVD and THX, also is driving demand for studio-quality headphones that offer the added comfort of our HP2000," said Tetreault.

An additional lift for the headphones business, said Tetreault, is that consumers are responding to packaging that features the product prominently, one that gives users a visual presentation of the product and lists the main features and benefits, he said.

Relying on the pull of its GE-brand, Jasco Products is introducing three headphones that generally emphasize comfort, compatibility and measured fit.

"We are well positioned to offer very profitable opportunities on a branded [headphones] product line because GE-brand headphones stand against any other brand on the market today," said Kent Shiplet, executive VP of marketing and sales.

The Oklahoma City-based Jasco's ErgoSport, HP93860, is the latest in comfortable design. It places the headphones' band behind the neck, not over the head, said the company. The convenient and streamline design allows the unit to be lightweight for active users. Each comes with a single-side cord, with gold-plated 3.5mm plug for a suggested $9.99 retail.

Jasco's Lite Line offers a self-adjusting headband for comfort and a perfect fit. These are comfortable for use with any portable CD and MD player, with ear pieces that fold for flat storage in a workout bag, briefcase or purse. These have a single-sided cord and a suggested $11.99 retail.

The company's Sportbud Earphones, HP93834, replace a headband with ear pieces that hold the ear bud in place while the user exercises or jogs. The Sportbud includes a plastic frame that fits around the ear and it offers a 3.5-foot cord. Suggested retail is $6.99.

Koss, which two years ago introduced its Plug Stereophone, in a move to offer consumers high-quality sound at an affordable price, is currently re-introducing the product, but at a reduced price. "We're proud to announce, at the height of its popularity, an improved Plug at a lower price that's sure to set the industry on its ear," said Michael J. Koss, president/CEO of Koss Stereophones.

The Plug stereo ear bud features what the Milwaukee-based Koss calls a unique tubular design that directs the sound into the ear canal for deep bass performance and a full frequency response.

By compressing the slow memory ear cushions and inserting them into a user's ear, the cushions form a customized fit that provides isolation from ambient sound, while retaining the bass frequencies. Extra ear cushions allow for easy replacement, Koss said.

The Plug, which now is being featured in an array of metallic colors, has a new suggested retail of $14.99, compared with the original suggested retail of $19.99.

"The accessories business is one of the few remaining [consumer electronics] product segments that has remained profitable for retailers that have recognized profit potential," said Richard Goldberg, VP of sales at Coby Electronics, Maspeth, N.Y., which claims to manufacture more than 5 million headphones each year.

Goldberg expects headphones unit sales for both Coby and the industry to continue to grow annually, right along with the growth of portable and home audio products, since the average number of replacement sales is five headphones for every portable audio product sold.

"I also believe that the quality of speaker elements will continue to improve to equal the sound performance of a rapidly changing and constantly improving audio technology, without sufficient increase in cost," Goldberg said.

"Additional headphone designs will continue to be introduced for added convenience — for example, full headphones with ear clips and no headband; fold-ups; and multipurpose headphones, like our CVM807, which can be plugged into a CD players and a cellular telephone at the same time," Goldberg said.

Among new headphones designs from Coby is the CV250, a design created to fulfill the needs of two different customers. The product can be worn as a standard-type headphone, or the ear cups can be rotated for wearing behind the head. This creates a neck band headphone, with soft runner ear clips holding it in place. With sound reproduction produced by 30mm neodymium drivers, suggested retail is $19.95.

The Coby CV670 is a full-size professional open-air stereo headphone that offers high sound quality produced by its 40mm neodymium drivers as well as unusual comfort during long hours of wear, said Coby. Suggested retail is $39.99.

"For retailers looking for a 'hot' category to kick-start their businesses, headphones fill the bill in an overall market that is flat as it comes out of a recession," said Stuart Perriam, senior product manager at Jensen headphones.

"Market surveys indicate headphones to be a growth area of consumer spending, a trend that Jensen has recognized, invested in and, according to the response from our retailers, is now benefiting from," Perriam said. "With consumer electronics offering a wider choice of hardware, delivering music across more and more formats, headphone sales will continue to grow, both in the upgrade and replacement markets," he said.

To this end, Lake Mary, Fla.-based Jensen, a Recoton company, is launching three new headphones SKUs — the JM 11, JM 14 and JM 19.

The JM 11 is a behind-the-neck headphone with a digital quality neodymium drive system and single-entry cord. It has an oversized, 30mm element for enhanced sound quality, gold-plated plug and .25-inch stereo adapter. Suggested retail for this entry-level price point for behind-the-neck designs is $9.99.

Jensen's JM 14 is a bandless headphone, a brand new style, with over-the-ear design. This affords the user the full sound of lightweight open backs, but with the same portability and mobility of buds.

Designed for the active wearer, the JM 14 wraps around the ears for a secure fit that stays put during activities. Ear pieces also remain in place while the wearer exercises or moves about.

Features include a tangle-free cord with inline volume control; spring-loaded, flexible ear piece; ultra comfortable ear pad; digital quality neodymium drive system; oversized 30mm element for enhanced sound quality; and gold-plated plug. Suggested retail is $14.99.

The JM 19 behind-the-neck headphones/ear bud combo pack is a suggested promotional item, a 2-in-1 package designed for street use and active pursuits where comfort and style are as important as quality and performance.

Ear buds feature over-the-ear non-slip design, ultra comfortable and flexible ear piece, tuned bass port for enhanced bass and gold-plated plug. Suggested retail is $19.99.

With a boost from these three new products, Jensen "headphones sales are set to double this year, due to a dramatic increase in demand," Perriam said. "This makes Jensen the fastest growing brand in the industry, outperforming all of its nearest rivals."

The newest consumer headphones from Stow, Ohio-based Audio-Technica — iCool Model ATC-H5 — offers users a contemporary look and features, including a folding design for compact portability and the original color "Bondi Blue."

These stereo headphones, with cushioned ear pads and adjustable headband to provide long-lasting comfort, are said to feature excellent sound quality for use with computers, portable audio, video games and home stereo. At a suggested $49.95 retail, Audio-Technica's iCool comes with a 5-foot cable and 3.5mm stereo mini-plug.

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