While others spend their year end reminiscing about what happened in 2019, I prefer to look at the road ahead and prepare for what is to come. Having said that, I have no crystal ball, and some or all of my predictions may be way off.
2019 saw a lot of new flagship and sub-flagship models in the $1K and up range. I see 2020 being the year of the $500 DAP. I expect an N3ii from Cayin that will be as vast a revision as the N6ii was at its price point. Shanling having recently refreshed their mid-point with the M2X I think introduces a new high-end product somewhere in the $800 range, their product line is one of the few that has been refreshed at the low end fairly recently. Fiio recently spun off Jade Audio and I expect 2020 to be the year that split becomes more clear with products from the M7 down becoming Jade branded and Fiio becoming the marquise brand, focusing on the M15 and moving more into direct competition with Cayin, I-Basso, and A&K. A&K has also been busy, but is due for a refresh on the low end as the last product truly designed for that was the Jr. Here the picture is a bit more clouded as it remains possible that A&K will drop all pretense of building a budget product and exit the low end market entirely. Sony has recently released the A100 series which fills a gap in their line, so here again, the picture is a bit less clear as there are no major gaps in their line, and most have had a recent refresh. Dethonray burst on the scene in 2019 with the prelude and is said to be in process of developing the big brother to it, with it being in the early stages, it is hard to predict whether the DTR2 (for lack of a better name) will arrive in 2020 or will be pushed back into 2021. Hidizs has always focused on this end of the market and recently released the AP80 pro. My hope is for an AP200 Pro with streaming support from them sometime in 2020. Xduoo is kind of in the same position as Hidizs with a portfolio centered on the low end market but starting to lag behind in features compared to the leaders in the class. I’d expect a refresh of their product line and the first Xduoo Android powered dap to be released during their 2020 campaign.
Full Sized headphones:
2019 was the year of the Planar in a lot of respects with several new outfits releasing products in this class and many of the established players releasing updated more efficient versions. I think we can expect to see that trend continue in 2020 with more new models from both new players and from the existing ones. Another big trend in 2019 was the addition of wireless to existing products. We saw Hifiman, Sennheiser, Beyer, Audio Technica, and several others all release updated versions of wired products with wireless support. I think 2020 sees a change to that trend with a focus on designing a headphone to be wireless from the ground up rather than adding Bluetooth to an existing product. I say this because I think 2019 proved that adapting an existing product to wireless is harder than expected and in most cases didn’t yield positive results as rarely was the wireless version the equal of the original. My completely unfounded prediction for 2020 is this is the year that Hifiman introduces a closed-back model, and the year that AKG returns to the high-end market. I have no supporting evidence, its just a gut feeling on both counts.
2019 was split in this class, with the first half the year being dominated by hybrids and the 2nd half by single dynamic drivers. Unfortunately it was also a prime year for brand dilution as many companies released multiple new models in quick succession. I expect the rotisserie will continue and even a few that stepped back in 2019 (KZ) will re-enter the flavor of the month club with a steady stream of new releases. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the budget makers have no interest in tweaking an existing product to release a version2 of it and would rather release another new model in direct competition with their existing product line. This business model makes sense IF, the goal is to produce a single batch product, sell it out, and move on to the next and it seems to be exactly what is happening. If an initial batch sells quickly, a 2nd batch of the same is made, if not, move on to something else. Expect more of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach from the budget in-ear market. This will mean a few really good models, and a lot of average ones for 2020. The budget makers to watch in 2020 are likely to be BQEYZ and IKKO as both have been slower and more deliberate and are showing improvement with each new release. If they continue on that path, 2020 should be a good year for them.
TWS became a thing in 2019 and with the arrival of improved codecs and improved implementations, we saw the first wireless products that could stay on the field with their wired counterparts in the sound quality game. (I’m not suggesting they are equal, but at least they are much closer than they were the year before). Here I think 2020 continues the trend of converting existing models to wireless models with a focus on battery life and connectivity. Don’t expect an end to the codec war – if anything it will get worse as each vendor jockey’s for dominance and tweaks their offerings. 2020 might be the year the gym in-ear comes to adulthood, but the crystal ball won’t show me who to expect to produce it. Several players are close, so any could take that next step and produce a market dominating model. If I had to guess, I’ll go with Jaybird as several of their recent models have been good so its a matter of time until they hit the bullseye.
2019 was the year of the Bluetooth dac/amp and the dongle DAC/amp. Everyone wanted a product to pair with a smartphone to take advantage of those listeners that didn’t carry a DAP. I think the picture will become clearer in 2020 as several of the less than successful competitors fall away, and the ones that are left in the market continue to refine their products. A lot of hype seems to center around the successor to the Es100 (either by Radsone or its competitor) and that market segment has certainly been flooded in recent months. I’ve tested a few good ones and a lot of pedestrian models. I don’t expect to see this coalesce to a single model as the phones these devices are designed to pair with have so many different codecs in use that no single device is ever likely to be the best at handling all of them. Look for a best for Apple, best for Samsung, best for LG, kind of situation here as new products come out.