In nearly every niche online community, there are two kinds of people: those who like the porn related to their obscure interests, and those who don’t.
With headphones enthusiasts, particularly those who enjoy high-performance, Chinese-made, or “chi-fi,” in-ear monitors (IEMs), the war is less carnal, since the languid anime girls that decorate the box art are presented more as muses than obvious sexual fodder. But, still, it carries on.
Though IEM girls aren’t usually explicit, they are sexualized, or at least, romanticized, by the people that buy them. Headphone fans will occasionally refer to these cartoon girls—who are, typically, original art made exclusively for a particular IEM, not existing anime franchise characters modified for marketing—as “mascots.” But, more frequently, they talk about them in terms of “waifu,” the manga-devotee shorthand for “attractive, vaguely Asian woman.”
What, apparently, makes IEM girls “waifu” material is the fact that they look like children. They’re frequently willowy, with ethereal babyfaces or actual billowing schoolgirl uniforms, like in the case of Moondrop’s $360 Blessing 2 Dusk, a collaboration with popular headphones reviewer Crinacle. Sometimes they decorate only the IEM box, like the snowy-haired girl gazing from Tanchjim’s $40 OLA, and sometimes they seem intended to personify a product’s soul, like Moondrop’s infamous Instagram post of a girl with torn stockings covered in…um, yogurt?
“Poured yogurt on the headphone,” says a translation of the now-deleted post, implying that the deeply blushing girl is actually a Moondrop headphone, one that is covered in yogurt.
Do they want people to fuck the headphones? The fans I talked to don’t seem to think it’s that deep.
Don’t overthink the anime girls
“I didn’t know [anime girls on IEM box art] was a ‘trend’ until I’d heard of [the company] Moondrop and how people in the West thought it was unusual,” headphones fan M tells me over Reddit chat. “I live in Asia, so anime artworks aren’t really that rare or unusual. I think it gives the products and brands a sense of personality.”
Or, if not a personality, then at least a bit of mild, memorable sex appeal you wouldn’t normally associate with tech, like how a beer buzz helps get you excited for sitting on your couch and eating Bugles.
“[IEM anime girls help] attract more consumers,” Jeremiah, another headphone admirer on Reddit, says. And “sometimes, it makes the IEM more recognizable. Like, if you see a ponytail girl with glasses, you instantly know this is the Blessing 2 Dusk.”
But even those who appreciate the IEM girls have their limits. “As someone who likes to watch anime, I do enjoy the trend if the box art is done tastefully,” u/nopunterino tells me. “But sometimes I think manufacturers can go too far.”
“I might [not even be able to order an] IEM I’m interested in in fear of my roommate or my relative opening my box and seeing a bunny girl in a not very appropriate position,” Jeremiah says.
Both referenced SeeAudio’s collaboration with audiophile reviewer Z Reviews, the $100 Rinko—which has two girls wearing bunny ears on the box, their mouths hanging open as they squish remarkably spherical breasts together in a hug—as an example of a brand taking their anime girls “too far.”
“And we can never forget the Moondrop ‘yogurt’ incident,” u/nopunterino says.
Most people I talked to were blasé about IEM girls (and they are indeed IEM girls—Chinese-made over-the-ear headphones are mass-appeal items, not nerd bait like IEMs, and their design is overwhelmingly clinical). But it’s clear that some audiophiles have a bigger allegiance to them than they’d like to admit, and they’re especially willing to defend companies that take it “too far.”
I need to analyze the anime girls
Perusing the several impassioned “why is this happening?” threads on r/headphones for a few minutes will lead you to evidence. Those confused by all the breasts and childlike mouths seem afraid their opinion is unpopular before even voicing it, wondering as gingerly as a deer ducks a hunter, “At the risk of being burned at the stake—what’s with the ‘waifu’ girls on so many products?” or, more recently and to the point, “What’s the deal with IEMs and anime girls?”
“Why? Where did this start?” u/brubby3179, who began the latter thread, pleaded with users. “I’ve never seen that with over ears.”
“I’m newer to the hi-fi headphones scene so I only started noticing it in early 2021 when I started watching reviews of headphones on YouTube,” u/brubby3179 tells me, around two weeks after his thread inspired nearly 200 comments of bickering—so much discord, that r/headphones moderators locked the comments. “Some interesting comments in that thread, and even more interesting is how vehemently some of those guys defend the box waifus.”
Aside from some vague theories about the crossovers between headphones enthusiasts, anime fans, and tech workers with cash to burn, no one could provide a concrete answer to “why” IEM anime girls were ubiquitous. Moondrop, the company most frequently cited as popularizing them, did not respond in time for publication, either.
But, despite being fuzzy on the “why,” defenders are certain that they’d like to keep the girls around.
“Looks like harmless fun to me,” one user said. “It doesn’t make me want the product, but it’s not intended to appeal to me. It seems odd to be asking about it.” Hm. IEM Tony Soprano doesn’t want people asking questions. Suspicious.
“Why the hate !!!?? Lemme have my waifu. I need the yogurt waifu!” another user wrote repeatedly, more frenzied each time. “I need yogurt waifu moondrop? Please make it happen I will buy 10 pieces. Lol.”
Lol. Personally, I like some IEM girls, including Moondrop’s box art for the $20 Chu, a stoic figure with ashen bangs and eyes clear like freshwater. These less lewd drawings feel like patron saints or zodiac signs for techies, providing a strangely mystical way to imagine your headphones. Personifying them gives them a heart, and, I think, that might encourage preservation and care, things that are nice for the environment, your wallet, and your satisfaction.
Even so, I wish beautiful IEM art wasn’t limited to girls, or more “waifus” to be literally objectified and thrown away. Though many fans suggest “Asian culture” makes their waifu different from down-home misogyny, sexual IEM art is much like the racy souvenirs you find rusting in gas stations across the U.S.
Like breast-shaped salt shakers or keychains from Florida, many of which feminist artist Portia Munson documents in her silently damning drawings, IEM girls encourage men to think about women as pocket-sized ornaments, just something to keep around the house.
“These objects initially seem like a humorous and slightly shocking anomaly, showing the commodification of women’s bodies in tchotchkes,” says Munson’s website, “but, accumulated together, the sheer amount speaks to deeper issues surrounding society’s view of women as accessories.”
I’d like to see IEM girls valued more clearly for what advocates say they are, their collectibility and artistry, by being a part of a more dynamic box art practice that expands to include anime men, or landscapes, or fantasy creatures, or literally anything else. I’m getting bored of feeling like women are being used to sell tech, but aren’t welcome to it.