Earlier this spring, Business Insider said what we were all thinking: Michael Kors isn’t cool anymore. Morgan Stanley removed the sportswear brand from its atsst Ideas list, shares dropped 37 percent, inventory was up another 65 (meaning product wasn’t being sold), and thanks to the introduction of diffusion lines and lower price points, its accessibility went through the roof. In short, it had saturated the mainstream and lost out on its aspirational value. Depending on how you look at it, the same can be said about a certain Dr. and his headphones company.
No, Beats by Dre isn’t hurting; parent company Beats Electronics was acquired by Apple in an astounding $3 billion deal last May, after all. But its ubiquity—who do you know that doesn’t or hasn’t owned a Beats headphones product?—doesn’t make it the most-coveted name in high-end headphones. Especially for the creative set.
Master & Dynamic headphones.
That’s where Master & Dynamic comes in. Founded by serial entrepreneur Jonathan Levine and his business partner Vicki Gross, the company has one objective in mind: to build sound tools for creative minds. With premium leather, stainless steel elements, lambskin ear pads, and a price point starting at $349, Master & Dynamic headphones are beautiful. And that’s all just superficial—it doesn’t begin to describe the superior sound quality. The Telegraph, Forbes, Bloomberg, and Wired all agree.
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With a seamless blend of luxury and quality sound, it reaches the consumer who’s outgrown Beats culture but wants something that’s as timely as it is timeless. No wonder Gross says the brand is “the only tech product” in many of the stores that carry it. That’s because Master & Dynamic products don’t sacrifice style for sound. Just check the company Instagram feed — perfectly crafted images that you wish you’d taken your self. Or scan the company blog: a space that celebrates all creativity, even that beyond the world of music and sound. But more on that in part two.
We visited Master & Dynamic’s NYC headquarters to talk with Levine and Gross about designing for the creative class, collaborating with private work collective Neuehouse on the M&D Boom Mic, and the void their company fills in the headphones industry.
Angel: I heard you all just remodeled the recording studio. It looks great.
Jonathan: People come in and they see that, [and say,] “Of course, you’re in the headphone business. You have to have a studio like that.” Actually, before I even got into this business, I always had a recording studio in my office so my older son could come in, and hang out, and do his stuff. We sort of backed into it.
A: So that’s always been a part of your business model?
J: Not the sound studio, no. Just the creativity, I guess. I’m blessed with two creative kids—I think I got some of their creativity, not the other way around.
A: So what exactly makes you different from other headphone companies?
J: We’re a very product-driven company. That alone sort of differentiates us from a lot of the companies today, because a lot of the companies have become marketing-driven companies. You look at a Beats… they did a masterful job of marketing their product. And we have great respect for them because if it wasn’t for Beats, we wouldn’t be in this business. They created the category, and we are doing something very different.
We expect to be here 40, 50 years from now, building this brand, and building a great product.
We did this project in a vacuum. We didn’t have any focus groups. The only “focus groups” we had were the early people on the team: my son, Vicki, a few creatives. When I say we developed this product in a vacuum, we didn’t say, “Well, we think there’s an opportunity for this type of headphone or this type of headphone.” We just designed stuff that we loved. And as we designed it, we became more in love with it, and the people around us—whether it be people my age in their early 50s, women, friends of Vicki’s, my kids—everybody could see themselves wearing these products. That became very exciting to us. But then, you launch and you pray that the customers and the world is going to like this product. And, for whatever it’s worth, we’ve hit a nerve among a great swath of the consumer base of people who love design, materials, craftsmanship, and we really nail it on the sound profile as well.
I think when they saw the materials and the design, they thought, “They can’t really sound great.” But, if you look at the reviews, the reviews are stellar.
We just were fanatical about the materials we wanted to use and the design and the sound profile. We consider ourselves sort of the new generation of some of these very vaunted brands that we respect: Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, who’ve been around for 40, 50, 60 years. We expect to be here 40, 50 years from now, building this brand, and building a great product.
A: Do you think your success is linked to sort of catering to the creative class?
Vicki: I think it’s the product, first. But there’s a natural fit with the creative class. People who like good design, craftsmanship, are interested in this product. I think that link is natural and it’ll always be there.
J: Brands go through their evolution. And I think there was room for something new in this category, but it had to be very new. It couldn’t be plastic, and shiny, and bright, and colorful. People were searching for that new luxury experience. An alternative to [other headphone companies] and we seem to hit that void.
Obviously, I don’t want to talk too much about my competitors, but I bring it up in that when I see somebody on the street wearing my product, I gently sort of accost them. And I’ve had four sightings so far. And, I talk to them—I don’t tell them who I am initially—but they are all people in creative fields.
It was very fulfilling to see that the people we were sort of thinking about were actually buying the product… We sort of go from people like [established designers], who are definitely in a creative field, and go to the new people coming out of the creative field. So we seem to have really hit a nice swath.
V: We’re also the only tech product in a lot of our stores. Which is interesting. The first tech product [Ralph Lauren is] even launching with is ours.
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A: Just looking at them, they give me more of an accessory feel. Even if you’re not listening to them at the moment, they’ll still complement the rest of your look. Very GQ.
V: Ours are much more like a pair of shoes, or a belt. A pocketbook. Something you can wear with everything that you have. We designed them on purpose, that way.
J: It’s a male-dominated category in general, but we actually have a nice selection of women. A growing part of our business is women. When you talk to the men… everybody who likes our headphones seems to love watches, cameras, and cars. Not that it’s all a macho thing, but we just had a write-up, our second write, in The Financial Times’ How to Spend It… When Vicki and I started this business, one of the things on our wish list, our bucket list, was “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our headphones in that magazine?” And we’ve been in there twice in six months. And the fellow who writes the article, I met with him, and he loves cameras, and he loves technology, and he loves craftsmanship, and he loves watches.
V: It’s a tech column in a luxury magazine.
A: What about the people who work for you? Are they into the same things?
J: These are the people who search around for the great coffees. I’m just talking about my office: we have clothing boxes coming in here all the time from people like Mr. Porter. It’s a very interesting culture.
A: Speaking of company culture, there’s the open floor plan. It gives that communal feel.
J: When you talk about the creative class or the creative community, you look at our office… It seems like every office I go into, when I go into an office that has cubicles and offices, it seems very old-fashioned. There aren’t that many around today. This is how people live and work today. Everybody—a lot of this is driven by real estate prices, quite frankly—corporations are making their offices smaller, but they’re making it open.
People want their own space. So, every desk you see… everybody’s trying to create their own space. Part of that is our headphones. We’ve created that stand that has become very popular. People love the fact that they can take off these great headphones, put them on their stand when they leave the office… it’s become a nice part of their curated community.
A: Now, how did the Neuehouse collaboration come about?
V: We had a similar design aesthetic.
J: I knew nothing about them, but I liked the name. There’s sort of a German design philosophy that flows through some of this office. If you go to Neuehouse on 25th Street, it’s fairly nondescript. You don’t know what you’re walking into from the outside. But the minute I walked in, I felt very at home. You walk around in our office, or my apartment, you’d see that I like that sort of industrial, chic vibe. So when I saw that—Vicki was there—we just felt we were at home.
After meeting with the principals, Joshua Abram and Alan Murray, they are very design-driven as well. It was designed by David Rockwell, so, they wanted a particular experience for their members. So the headphones just matched organically. The stand was a perfect fit. We were talking, we gave them samples to play with, and they realized that there was a bigger need in a place like that, where people are having conversations throughout the day and it gets crowded, to have a higher-level communications experience.
I wanted to do it because I wanted to please Neuehouse and I thought it was a great idea. I never expected it to be the level of commercial success it is now. It’s a big product for us and we have big plans for more microphones in the future.
People sort of meet us, they embrace us. I think people want it to succeed. And I think there’s a New York-centric vibe that goes with it. I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it. But, everybody who we meet—there’s a new opportunity that’s created.
V: That makes us different from other headphone companies: New York. That’s one of the things.
J: I think there’s something—an energy—that I feel that people are excited that we’re doing this here in New York. It’s amazing. When people come through our office— we’ve had DJs come through, people of all levels, who we embrace, and they see that we have a recording studio, they’re like, “Oh my god,” because recording studios are hard to come by. And they’re expensive. So we open up to anybody, free of charge. We’re trying to promote that creativity. We’re a very sort of open, collaborative business.
Come back next week for part two of this series, where we talk the Master & Dynamic blog, the brand’s work with Harlem Village Academies, and how young entrepreneurs can make it in a competitive climate.