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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COMMENTS
anthony.aaron47's picture

As a refugee from high-end audio (my former spouse got custody of our system), I'd like to offer a counterpoint to what is offered here.

A competing audio site recently (October 24, 2013) reviewed a pair of Omega Super 3T Single-Driver monitors and a Dared 2A3C integrated amplifier.

Based on that review, and some phone conversations with the owner of Omega Speakers and the US Importer for Dared, I purchased a pair of Omega Super 3S speakers (the flagship of the Omega Super 3 series) and the Dared 2A3C SET integrated amplifier, plus Kimber Kable 4PR 8' cables. Total cost, less than $2k.

Thie sound of this system is magical -- even without being fully broken in yet -- and it just keeps getting better as the listening hours pass. The sublime sound of each component is dependent -- and revealing of -- the other. Neither operates in a vacuum. The speakers offer a wide and layered sound stage, fine detail when it's in the recording, and depth down to 38 Hz. The amplifier is dead silent -- and at 8 wpc is well able to push the sound out to these magnificent 4.5" full-range drivers.

This is a sublime system -- and, even though I've had a system that I considered excellent at 7 or 8 times the price -- I'll take this one any day.

bwright's picture

I have to comment on your review of the KEF LS50, as I have listened to these speakers at length.  

The bass is incredible for an enclosure of this size.  It is smooth and expansive.  The midrange is gorgeous and clear, and the air and space that this speaker lends to all recordings is superb.  In those areas, it far surpassed the other models I recently auditioned in the $5000 range.

But given the reviews, it was the aluminum tweeters that left me scratching my head.  On certain tracks, the treble was sharply etched, and had the same harsh and 'ringing' character that 90% of the metal tweeters I have heard typically exhibit.  

On occasion, you will find metal tweeters executed beautifully - Vivid loudspeakers are a notable example.  But in my experience, they are the exception to the rule.

I realize human hearing can be subjective.  Maybe it's just me.  Or it was the recordings or components used.  But that wasn't the case with other models I listened to, and with the exact same amplification and source.

In the areas mentioned, this speaker was truly incredible, and a remarkable achievement.  If your system is a bit more forgiving than most, then you'll love them. 

JohnJ's picture

I just want to give John Atkinson thumbs up for giving "awards"/saluting year awards to the two low budget speakers KEF LS50 and Pioneer SP-BS22-LR :  Great !!

I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurements: For instance that Benchmark Media and Bryston make excellent measuring gear for a low/sensible amount of money while in contrast DartZeel and Edge are bad value for money.

 

John Atkinson's picture

JohnJ wrote:
I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurement...

Thanks very much. This aspect of the magazine is very much a labor of love on my part.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

 

bwright's picture

I'll now humbly revise my comments above.  I returned to the dealer who had originally arranged my auditions with the LS50.  They mentioned that I had been one of the first to listen to this particular set of speakers.  Since that point, they had been auditioned numerous times, and could now be considered fully broken in.  

I figured it was worth investigating, and set up the speakers with the same CD, source, cables and amplification.  Indeed, the hardness in the treble noted previously had completely disappeared.

This taught me an important lesson, and made me wonder how many other components I had written off in a similar way.  But one thing I did realize - the Stereophile award was spot on, and the LS50 is an incredible value.  The presence and warmth they add to vocals is stunning.  And if your desktop is big enough, these could be the ultimate computer audio speakers.

derekseto's picture

Hi, I have an 18 year old Denon UDRA-90 component system and the speaker surrounds are badly damaged. I'm looking for replacement speakers with a limited budget. I was considering the KEF Q100s until I saw your review of the Pioneer B22. While I do prefer the looks of the KEFs, the price of the BS22 is too attractive to ignore. The Denon's amp says its 8 ohm while the Pioneers speakers are 6 ohm. Would they work together? Would you recommend the Q100s or the B22s? Thanks for any opinion.

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