Fender cashes in its cool with consumer in-ear monitor headphones

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Virtual reality — from the living room to the classroom

After 70 years of rocking musicians with its guitars and amps, Fender today released its first general consumer product: a range of headphones that double as in-ear monitors for performers.

They sound vibrant and clear, even at loud volumes, and run from $99 for the DXA1 to $499 for the audiophile-worthy FXA7. Instead of just being earbuds, the hand-assembled housings fill up the concha of your ears to block external noise and fit the powerful balanced armature and dynamic drivers the different models use.

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They’re designed to handle the beatings doled out by working musicians who want to use them as replacements to traditional amplified stage monitors — speakers that let performers hear themselves and their bandmates.

The non-slip thermo plastic elastomer bud tips and over-ear hooks keep them in place, and it has detachable cables that can be replaced if necessary. The sound they produce is balanced, not overly bass-heavy, so musicians and fans get an authentic impression of the music.

The opportunity here is for Fender to trade on the hip image of its iconic instruments and amplifiers to widen its market with products that are useful to and affordable for music listeners, not just creators. Fender VP Jim Ninesling explains the shift, saying that now “We are a lifestyle brand…cool enough that people who don’t play an instrument to want to buy a t-shirt with our name on it.”

Ninesling tells me that with smartphones boosting mobile music consumption, the headphone market has exploded to an $8 billion a year business. This is the path to Fender becoming a much bigger company.

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The audio expertise that made Fender a legend in instruments shines through in the headphones. They make it feel like the singer is in your head. There’s remarkable distinction amongst the different sounds. You can actually hear the imperfections in studio recordings. The words that kept coming to mind were “crisp like iceberg lettuce.”

The Fenders were designed to fit 90 percent of people’s ear shapes. Still, a $200 pair of other in-ear monitors plus a $200 etymotic fitting, where they take a custom mold of your ears, might give musicians better isolation from crowd noise. That’s according to my buddy Johnny Hwin of 20 million-stream indie band Cathedrals. He tried the Fender FXA6s, and enjoyed the sound balance but stressed the importance of a perfect fit.

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Brian Heater, TechCrunch’s new hardware editor, gave the high-end Fender FXA6s a spin, and said “They sound really good. They’re accurate to the source material and the levels are clear and even. One of the best set of in-ear headphones I’ve tested in a while. They’re also comfortable and stay in the ear. Custom headphones would fit better, of course, but Fender’s done a good job for a one-size-fits-all pair.”

[Update July 21: After a few months of using them, I found the Fender headphones a bit problematic. The design with the wrap-around-the-ear wire hooks was cumbersome to put on. These wire hooks also act like grappling hooks, making them easily get stuck on stuff in you bag. The elastomer tips pick up dirt easily, and the headphones don’t keep out sound like plane noises very well. In the end, they don’t quite work well as consumer headphones at this price point.]

Now the question will be whether Fender can transfer its trust to a new product line, and convince the average consumer that these headphones aren’t just for pros.