During CES Unveiled last month, I came across a company that was touting a product so unique and so expensively priced that I found myself both overwhelmed, and in complete awe. That’s a similar reaction to what I noticed from other people who walked over to the Debussy booth throughout the night. The French startup was showcasing three newly launched headphones at the tradeshow, which ranged in price from $590 all the way up to nearly $5,000.
Founder and CEO Arnaud Perret, who was on hand at CES, described the headphones as “smart listening objects” that provide a Hi-Fi listening experience that also happens to be fully autonomous and intelligent. The headphones, for example, don’t need to be tethered to a smartphone in any capacity in order to stream music from the listeners favorite services—like Spotify or Pandora. Everything—from music to apps—will be integrated into the headphones, which have a touch interface on the outside of the ear cups.
Perret explained that the headphones will be able to connect to the internet via WiFi integration as well as 4G integration. I asked on site and in follow up emails if that meant the headphones would require a data plan in order to access telecom networks, but that information wasn’t readily available. Perret and company spokespeople both said they’re still “fine tuning exactly how we want to connect the headsets to the internet.”
Either way, the headsets will use the internet connection to provide additional advanced features like a live listening mode through, for example, Facebook Live; voice control and smart home integration; and the ability to capture, record, mix, and share 3D audio (which was described as a binaural audio experience—similar to what we heard from Hooke Audio at CES).
The value with these headphones, beyond the gold plated accents and other luxurious materials on the highest-end model, comes from the IRIS “Stellar Smart Sound System” as Debussy describes it. The internet connectivity is a part of that system. But these headphones go beyond smart connectivity options and truly become a platform of their own. Each headphone comes with a Multicore ARM Cortex-A7 processor, 32 gigs of storage, their own software interface, and plenty of high-end audio components that—believe it or not—help to justify the price tag.
From an audio perspective, Debussy engineers integrated “very high-end components” including DACs, amplifier circuitry, chips, and drivers, from “the best manufacturers” and to ensure “top notch performance and the purest sound quality.” A quick sampling at a tradeshow can’t really do these justice, but from what I could hear, they were an audiophile-grade headphone. Beyond that, Debussy applied their “Accurate Neutral Sound Technology” to the headphones, which they said is a software that enhances the performance of the headphones up to “an extreme neutral level.” And since each headphone is essentially connected to the source, they’ve limited/optimized the signal path to a bare minimum, meaning the music is delivered to the user at the “best possible quality.”
The perplexing thing about these headphones—and what I’m having a tough time with in particular, from a CE retail perspective—is trying to figure out who exactly Perret is trying to target. Who exactly is their customer? The easy answer is the “audiophile,” but I’m not sure they’ll be able to convince true audiophiles to buy into a product that has the touch interface on the side of the headphone. It’s something that, frankly, might seem a little gimmicky to them. So, maybe it’s the younger audiophile? But I’m fairly confident that the budget of a millennial in this space won’t be able to allow them to buy into this product.
So what does that leave? Honestly, I’m not really sure, and that seems to be the biggest hurdle Debussy faces. Even their lowest-priced model is over $500, which means they need to have an absolutely perfect pitch in order to get consumers to adopt their entry-level product. Whatever path they ultimately head down, it’ll be an interesting one to follow. Debussy’s headphones will all become available for preorder starting March 2018. They have expected ship dates in early 2019.