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February 6, 2017

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The sound of music for discerning listeners

A technology website editor who goes by the initials TP said he was over the moon when he heard a vintage Louis Armstrong jazz album using Sennheiser HE1 headphones, which are considered among the best in the world for craftsmanship and sound quality.

“They brought a dream-like element to the music,” he said in a Peninsula Hotel studio on the Bund where the HE1 headphones are available for demonstration.

TP is such a sound enthusiast that he spent more than US$10,000 alone on audio equipment at home and for his Buick. He couldn’t afford to buy HE1 headphones, which cost about 500,000 yuan (US$72,463) and remain beyond the means of most music lovers.

In the demonstration studio room, the German headphones do entice Chinese buyers with more ample means, including Wang Sicong, a social network celebrity and son of property billionaire Wang Jianlin.

HE1’s entry into the Chinese market is a bet that domestic consumers will be willing to spend more in pursuit of “perfect sound.” The headphones and other super-quality fidelity equipment are aimed at people who want to go beyond pirated MP3 music and free low-end headphones offered by smartphone makers.

Sennheiser isn’t the only foreign company pursing those consumers. Bose, Audio-Technica, Infinity and others are also targeting the premium end of the Chinese audio market. They are part of a technology vanguard that is changing the way music lovers can appreciate sound.

The Sennheiser HE1 headphones feature a unique amplifier concept that the company says “transforms music from a listening experience into a piece of living art.” Its customers in China include serious audiophiles and business professionals, said Pierre Eloy, managing director of Sennheiser China.

TP calls himself a “reasonable audiophile.” He spent about 40,000 yuan on a home audio system with components by Bose and other brands, and then splashed out 35,000 yuan for an in-car audio system with noise-reduction technology. He said he is still prepared to upgrade his devices as long as he can afford to.

Meanwhile, Japan-based Audio-Technica Corp recently released a new generation of ATH stereo turntables that support wireless connection, including Bluetooth. Users can set up the turntable in one room and listen to it in another without having to run a bunch of cables.

Bose’s Soundbar 300 speakers feature Bluetooth and smart sound-environment adaption technologies. Infinity, a sub-brand of Harman, is penetrating the Chinese market with fashionable and affordable new devices.

The new products include multi-functional home theater centers that integrate high-quality sound with fashionable designs.

Smartphone vendor Coolpad has launched a “game-changing” model using AKG headphones — another Harman sub-brand — to improve digital entertainment, from high-quality music to e-sports.

“Chinese consumers deserve better smartphone headphones,” said Liu Jiangfeng, Coolpad’s chief executive.

After Apple removed traditional headphone jacks, audio device vendors began introducing flagship headphones with wireless connection, pushing the whole industry forward in a smarter and more easily connective way. They are replacing cables, which were once considered necessary for high-quality sound.

The Chinese headphone market is expected to be valued at more than 20 billion yuan in 2016. Growth forecasts are based on higher penetration of wireless devices, the popularity of the latest iPhone and the development of Bluetooth technologies, analysts said.

The new iPhone released in September removed the headphone jack, requiring audio to be delivered via Apple’s proprietary lightning connector or by wireless. It was a dramatic shift from the past in terms of consumer habits.

Bose has already unveiled its first wireless noise-reduction product, the QC35, this year. It features “near field communications” and Bluetooth.

As for TP, well, he said he still prefers cable-connected headphones like HE1 for listening to music at home. He lets his ears be the judge.

“Bluetooth sounds nice,” he said, “but it’s still not quite like classic products.”


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