Stereophile's Products of 2013 Accessory of the Year

Accessory of the Year

Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones ($199.99; reviewed by Sam Tellig & Stephen Mejias, December 2012, February & March 2013, Vol.35 No.12 & Vol.36 Nos.2 & 3 Review)

Thanks in large part to the success of the Beats by Dr. Dre brand—which, last I checked, owned a shocking 64% of the $100-and-up headphone market—headphones have become as much fashion as audio accessory, with a mainstream popularity that's impossible to deny. In January 2012, the retail-analysis firm NPD Group reported that premium headphones, which they defined as those priced above $100, accounted for more than $340 million in sales through November 2011—43% of all headphone revenue.

Why is this significant to high-end audio? As I discuss in this issue's "The Entry Level," average consumers are displaying an encouraging willingness to spend significant amounts of money on sound quality—or, at the very least, on the idea of sound quality.

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Yet there are other factors involved in these purchasing decisions. NPD Group reports that, while 85% of those surveyed selected "sound quality" as their primary motivator, this number has actually decreased by 7% in the last year—"likely a result of the influx of younger consumers who value factors such as design and brand just as much as audio fidelity." Convenience features—in-line microphone controls, in-line playback controls, noise-cancellation circuitry—are increasingly popular among these young consumers. Before we criticize, we should consider that, for many, mobile devices have become an indispensable part of daily life. Today's headphones must complement, rather than restrict, those devices.

Sam Tellig isn't the only one who realizes that sound isn't everything (see this issue's "Sam's Space"). According to NPD Group's Ben Arnold, "One third of premium headphone buyers are under the age of 25 and many of these consumers view headphones as equal parts listening device and fashion accessory."

Celebrity endorsements also seem to help. Ask Dr. Dre. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, those promoting new headphones included: rappers 50 Cent and LL Cool J; Lemmy from Motorhead; reality-TV star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi; free-agent quarterback Tim Tebow; the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt; and Bob Marley's son Mo. (Somebody should get on the phone with Henry Rollins.) It seems silly, until you consider the exploding sales. This June, the NPD Group reported a 25% year-over-year increase in sales of premium headphones through the first quarter of 2013, accounting for 95% of the revenue growth for the total headphone market.

It should come as no surprise, then, that forward-thinking audio companies are stepping out of their comfort zones, taking note of market trends, and using their engineering expertise to essentially build better Beats. Cardas, Focal, KEF, and PSB are just a few of the traditional hi-fi makers who've turned to the headphone world to reach new customers. Perhaps none has been more successful than Bowers & Wilkins. The company's sleek, elegant P3 on-ear headphone is the perfect combination of style, convenience, and quality. Available in black, white, blue, or red, the P3 is designed specifically for portable use: It folds up neatly to fit inside a hard, sturdy clamshell case, and its iPod-compatible, tangle-free cord has built-in mike and volume controls. And Sam and I agreed that, with a sound that was warm, detailed, and friendly, the P3 was as easy to listen to as it was convenient to use. We weren't the only ones who thought so. The P3 ran away with our award, scoring first-place votes from five of our writers.

On the train to work this morning, I spotted a young woman wearing P3s—in a red finish that perfectly matched her heels and purse. I complimented her on her fine taste in audio equipment.

Runners-up: (in alphabetical order)

AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect ($29/1m; reviewed by Stephen Mejias, July, August, & October 2013, Vol.36 Nos.7, 8, 10 Review)
Ayre L-5xe AC line conditioner ($1500; reviewed by John Marks, October 2013, Vol.36 No.10 Review)
BSG qøl Signal Completion Stage signal processor ($3995; reviewed by John Atkinson, February 2013, Vol.36 No.2 Review)
MSR Acoustics Dimension4 SpringTrap bass absorber ($909 each; reviewed by Kalman Rubinson, November 2012, Vol.35 No.11 Review)
Shunyata Research SR-Z1 AC wall outlet ($95; reviewed by John Marks, October 2013, Vol.36 No.10 Review)

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