In a world of "high-end" audio products, it's hard to shout the loudest these days. While many think of Beats headphones as nothing more than plastic marketing turned up to 11, they clearly got something right, or else they wouldn't be part of Apple's entertainment offerings. Beats arguably created a taste for well-crafted headphones and audio hardware that says something about the person wearing them. For New York's Master & Dynamic, that means making headphones and earphones that are timeless, sound great and built to last. We've reviewed flagship products from Master & Dynamic like the wireless MW60 and classic MH40 headphones, and I was lucky enough to catch up with the company's CEO Jonathan Levine to chat all things brand, sound and just what it means to make headphones designed to last.
Based out of New York, Master & Dynamic is a relative newcomer to the high-end audio game, but their first product, the MH40 proved the firm had what it took to make good-sounding gear above anything. Interested in the firm's "origin story" I asked Jonathan for the "short form" on the brand and was interested to hear Jonathan admit that he didn't have a "music background". Instead, he describes himself as a "serial consumer products entrepreneur" and goes on to tell me that his attention was drawn to the headphone market as a result of his sons. Of his eldest son, Levine says that he "started DJing at 13, teaching how to DJ at 15 and started producing music when he was 16" and after studying what he was doing, noting the products that he started using, then stopped using realizing that there was an "opportunity in the marketplace that wasn't being met". This is a similar story to how a lot of brands started out, but Levine surprises me with his honesty and tells me that he started Master & Dynamic "with blinders on and decided to make a product that I wanted to use and the people around me would want to use" with no market research.
Levine is happy to report that in a short space of time, Master & Dynamic has launched "in-ears, on-ears, over-ears, our new wireless product and we've got a great road map ahead for 2016 and 2017". Keen to tell me that he founded the company the same year Apple bought Beats, Levine is understandably proud of what Master & Dynamic has achieved, and is "excited" for the next couple of years ahead.
The overall goal for Master & Dynamic, as explained to be by Levine is to produce something with one foot in the fashion world and another in the audio world, to not only produce headphones that look good, but that also sound good. More refreshingly though, Levine wanted to make products that were built to last, which led me to more of my questions.
"Built to Last"
The MW60, pictured above, is the latest flagship product from Master & Dynamic and like all of their other products they are designed and marketed to "last decades". This is partly where the high price tag of these devices come in, the MH40 is designed and built using some pretty expensive materials and processes, and should parts of the headphone deteriorate they can be replaced. The ear pads are held on with magnets and can be replaced, and in the case of the MH40, a repair is easily done once sent back to Master & Dynamic. I've had a pair for the best part of a year now, and use them regularly, with no marks and little signs of wear.
This got me wondering just how sound a business plan this was, and I put it to Jonathan that if a person were to buy a pair of MH40s and a pair of ME05s for instance, this person might not need to buy anything from the company for the next few years at least, considering how hard-wearing they are. Levine tells me that he was perhaps "so focused in creating something durable and timeless" and that the two go "hand in hand" to worry about whether or not the business could be scaled. Clearly, the New York firm is doing well, and Levine confesses that he's not worried about not having customers to sell to. He tells me that "the market is big enough, on a global basis" and that "all three of our headphones [the MH30, the MH40 and MW60] have the same Master & Dynamic DNA, similar materials and similar audio quality" that just as people have "several pairs of sunglasses" they'll want to explore the product line and come back for more.
Whether or not this will work for them long-term is unclear, but they've been expanding in subtle ways. Since the MH40, the ME05 and MW60 have arrived, but the original over-ear flagship is now available in a number of different colorways, and Jonathan hopes this will encourage people to keep buying from Master & Dynamic over time. Brand loyalty is certainly something Master & Dynamic seem to going after here, and while their products are expensive, they seem to have high value along with their steep price tags.
The MH40 and MW60 can look as good as they want, but if they don't sound very good, then what's the point? When I first came across Master & Dynamic I was intrigued by their promise of a "warm, rich and detailed" sound signature. When reviewing the MH40s, I agreed with that claim, and the same goes for the MW60s, their fully-wireless brothers we recently reviewed. With lots of bass in the low-end, resonant highs and a smooth mid-range the whole Master & Dynamic line has a warm tone to them that works well with modern music, but doesn't try to make any genre of music something it isn't. There's a little colaration in the overall presentation, but the overall delivery is left alone.
In the case of the MW60, I was super-impressed with their Bluetooth range. I could wear these on my head and listen to music from my phone anywhere in my house, which is no mean feat given the size of the old bird. When I asked Levine just how they achieved the excellent range on the MW60, I was informed that the company's Chief Product Officer is the wizard behind much of the magic. Drew Briggs spent years at Bose, becoming a Senior Mechanical Engineer in the R&D Innovations part of Bose, and now works for Master & Dynamic making sure the end product is as good as it can be. The range of the MW60s is so good because they used elements of the headphone's design to help. The huge aluminum ring around the left ear cup doubles as a massive antenna for the whole setup, which is a nice example of form also being functional.
I wanted to get to know a little about Jonathan's taste in music, after all someone that runs a headphone brand had better have a decent taste in music. I asked Jonathan to name three of his favorite albums, and instead of a 100% straight answer I was told how big a role music can play in someone's life and I was told a nice story about music that many of use younger listeners simply cannot relate to: "I remember going into a John Varvatos store in New York and seeing an Elton John, Yellow Brick Road album – on vinyl – and I remember as a teenager knowing every lyric to every song in that album." Levine goes on to name some other influences such as Bruce Springsteen, Philip Glass, Van Morrison and others.
Master & Dynamic themselves run an in-residency program each month, featuring a new artist every month, with remixes put together in their own little studio in New York. While these artists aren't perhaps the biggest names out there, they have their own unique qualities to offer, and it seems Master & Dynamic is keen to help people discover something new every once in a while. The firm run their own Soundcloud account with music for people to listen to, found here.
It was nice to hear some more about the brand behind these admittedly very costly headphones. Not only is it nice to find out that Levine isn't building a brand based on some previous experience in the audio business, this can lead to an inflated ego and reluctance to listen to advice, but it's nice to find out the company has at least some form of a soul. For a company selling headphones that retail for upwards of $400, and in-ear headphones around $200, Master & Dynamic has a refreshing laid-back vibe to them, and it's clear they're looking to bridge the gap between fashionable and functional, and while it might be a little materialistic to take pride in a pair of headphones, Master & Dynamic is one company that certainly hopes you will.