Sure, we had headphones when I was a kid. They were speakers with puffy foam to fit around your ears and a plastic piece to secure them on your head. They were nothing special. They sounded fine. They kind of made your ears sweaty. Others could hear a bit of what you heard and you could hear what was going on outside the headphones. Otherwise, they didn’t matter much in the scheme of things. Whatever.
Then in the last year or so, everything changed. Total headphone mania broke out. The new models have phenomenal sound, far better than you can get in a physical space. They manage to block all outside noise and block the sound from getting out too. Crucially, they became status symbols. There was Bose, a company that somehow manages to keep reinventing its products and defying every expectation that it is old hat. Then Beats came along and made the craving for perfect headphone sound enter the mainstream.
Every shape and size became available. New companies flew into the market. The price ranges became ever more varied, with makers such as Beats able to sell their wares for $250 and up. Bose is asking $350 for its top of the line. Other companies compete with each other in the $200 price range, variously struggling to charge the highest price and yet undercutting each other for market share. A new language emerged: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. You have to choose.
My local Best Buy has about 20 feet of shelf space devoted to them. Some of the brands I saw are listed on Amazon’s dedicated Headphone Store: AKG Acoustics, Arctic Sound, Audio-Technica, Beats, Beyerdynamic, Bose, Coby, Creative Labs, Denon, Global Marketing, Harman Kardon, Hearing Components, H2O Audio, Jlab Audio, JVC, Klipsch, Koss, Logitech, Maxell, Monster, Panasonic, Phiaton, Philips, Plantronics, Retail Solutions, Sennheiser, Skullcandy, SMS Audio, Sony, SOUL by Ludacris, Sound Around, S2e, Ultrasone, V-Moda, Yurbuds, and more.
They all sound great to me, and I would be hard pressed to discern the difference between them apart from their color and shape. And by the way, they all look spectacular, very much unlike the headphones I had when I was a kid.
A few observations about the market that bear repeating:
- This whole craze illustrates the unpredictability of the market. If someone had told me ten years ago that an explosive industry would emerge in which companies will sell headphones to average kids for hundreds of dollars, I would have said: no way. But there it is. And the phenom has all the elements of market success: substance, style, and intense competition rooted in emulation and the drive to develop and improve.
- No one planned this large outcome in any of its particulars; it emerged from the actions of entrepreneurs, producers, sellers, and buyers, and it involves the division of labor working all over the globe.
- The producers are profiting, surely, but how? Through service to the common person and the common person is the one who determines such success and failure.
If we could bring the dynamism, economies, element of surprise, and relentless creativity and innovation to other sectors of life that are dominated by state imposition, we would see the emergence of new types of social service that we can’t today even imagine.
In other words, the right way to fix health care, education, transportation, and justice is right before our eyes, or, rather, right in the sound we hear in our ears. For sectors dominated by the state, the music has stopped. For those that are not controlled by the state, it has just begun.