Kevin Lee knows a thing or two about headphones. Together with his dad Noel, the inventor and owner of cable giant Monster, he designed and developed the very first pair of Beats headphones.
And he knows a thing or two about bass. As a kid on the road with his rock ‘n roll dad, he slept in a bass drum.
Now he has his own headphone company, Sol Republic, and just wound up his first trip to Australia promoting his new Shadow line of Bluetooth headsets.
In four years, Sol’s added 100 employees and $US56 million ($A73M) to its sheet across three rounds of funding by distinguishing itself from Beats with an aim of releasing high quality equipment at low prices.
At first glance, it looks like you don’t get much for $199 from Sol’s latest, tiny offering. But that’s part of the genius of Shadow, and the challenge facing anyone trying to impress the ever-growing crowd of audiophiles looking for the perfect sound.
Lee spoke to us about many things, including his relationship with his father, who is now his competition in a way, and the deal that saw him miss out on being part of Apple’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Beats. He also offered some advice on what you need to think about when you’re ready to hand over a couple of hundred bucks for a set of headphones.
He said the hardest part of selling high quality audio gear is convincing people it’s worth shelling out for.
“The problem is it’s hard to get everybody to care about sound,” Lee says. “Not everybody buys a better set of headphones. Four out of five people don’t buy a good-sounding pair of headphones.”
Here’s what to keep in mind:
The key, Lee says, is whether you’re into technically perfect sound or “great sound”.
“Here’s the thing – it’s part technology, and it’s part, I guess, art,” Lee says. “Sound is very subjective and it’s not that it was impossible to make a good-sounding headphone a long time ago… people had the ability. (They could be) designed by engineers and engineers want headphones to be accurate, they want (the sound) to be flat.
“But flat, accurate sounding headphones are very uninteresting.”
The key to great sound, Lee says, is bass.
“Music is a very powerful thing. Music is emotion – if it sounds better, it feels better,” he says. “And that feeling of music doesn’t come from a flat signal; it actually comes from bass, having powerful, emotional bass depth.”
“Getting to make that possible in a small, in-ear driver was very difficult for us. Getting it to do that on wireless, in a very small electronic, was also very difficult.”
What to look for: Turn up the bass, but here, reviews are your friend – the bass you get from a new, or in-store set, might not even be close to the experience after the headphones have been worn in properly.
You might be blown away by the sound from the $300 headphones you try for a minute in the store, but if 20 minutes after putting them on at home, they’re driving the arm-ends of your glasses into your skull, you’ve done your cash.
Lee says Sol drew on military and NASA research that showed even the smallest amount of weight on your neck all day can cause a surprising amount of discomfort at the end of it.
“If you’re going to wear a wireless set of headphones, you should be able to wear it all day,” Lee says. “You’d be surprised how sensitive your neck is to even the slightest bit of weight.”
If it’s sitting on your neck all day, would you prefer a soft plastic? Do the earbuds fall out when you jump up and down?
What to look for: Try to wear a test set for at least long enough to pick up the start of possible irritations.
So, do you go for Bluetooth or wired?
Sol makes several models of wired, on-ear headphones, but Lees adamant that audiophiles a fretting needlessly about perceived loss of quality through a Bluetooth signal.
“Here’s the thing,” Lee says. “I think (wireless) has not only caught up, but I think it’s surpassed wired.
“If you move from wired to wireless, technically, you always should lose something – a wired connection should always be better. But the problem is, there’s a lot of wired headphones that, because of the wire, weren’t designed to or won’t introduce the sound good.
“What’s exciting right now is the technology around wireless has now been accessible so that it’s possible now to make a great-sounding pair of wireless headphones if you know what you’re doing.”
What to look for: Bring a high quality cable. And if you prefer freedom, don’t overlook the new wireless sets.
If you do opt for wireless, you need a good battery
That sounds obvious, but there’s no point going wireless if you have to manage when and for how long you can actually use them.
“You put on your headphones when you leave the house, just like you put on your shoes, and you don’t take it off until you get home,” Lee says.
At least an eight-hour battery “is essential”.
What to look for: All makers want to claim “all day” battery life, and some are talking up to 14 hours recently. Lee says Shadow will give you eight hours and there’s a few reviews that back that up. Do your research before you head out, or buy – user reviews will tell you what you need to know.
Do you need a good set or a great set?
If you want a great set, audiophiles will look for headphones which utilise the Bluetooth codec “aptX”, as it supports wireless transmission of uncompressed audio. (Music stored on CDs and the vast majority of streaming music is compressed to make it more manageable. Uncompressed audio files can be 10 times larger and aim to capture the sound as it was laid down in the studio.)
But aptX “is a niche technology,” Lee says. “You gotta have the right player there as well.”
“The trick is, here’s the thing – it’s easy to make a headphone sound good with quality-of-recording sounding audio files, but if you’re an audiophile, you’ve probably experienced a really high quality audio system with a good quality of recording. Then you put a regular everyday song on it at or a compressed song and it will make your stereo sound really bad.
“In fact, you might even notice that it sounded worse on your high end stereo than if you listened to it through a normal pair of speakers. That’s because a high-end audio system is so revealing. So it’s actually very difficult to make music sound good on a headphone or a speaker with compressed audio.
“We spent a great amount of our artistic weight figuring out our sound strategy in order to compensate for that as well as make a good quality recording sound great.”
What to look for: If you’re downloading compressed audio files, a good set is good enough. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll want a great set and you’ll pay top dollar for both your headphones and player.