It's just two years since SOL Republic first appeared, but now its headphones are spreading fast. CNET Australia speaks to co-founder Seth Combs about his lofty ambitions to change the world one listener at a time.
"The iPod changed everything," said Seth Combs, co-founder of the fast-rising headphone brand, SOL Republic. It's kind of obvious, so I'm wondering if where he's heading isn't that same old, same old. But quickly Combs is racing through his thoughts on everything that the iPod did to music, from heavy compression to those ubiquitous white earbuds. He's clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what people have been doing with their music. He talks of the audiophile love of flat response and how costly that can be. And then all of a sudden Combs gets philosophical.
"When we founded this company, one of the first things we said before we had a name, before we had a headphone, we went out and wrote a philosophy. A statement of what we believe in. And it starts, 'We are music lovers committed to changing the world one listener at a time'. And we believe it!"
"For us, at the end of the day, we're music fans. We believe when music sounds better, it feels better. There are only two universal languages in the world — mathematics and music. So if we can get headphones everywhere, we can change the world one listener at a time. Mission accomplished."
That's some weighty goal for a headphone manufacturer. But lofty ideals are often the mark of youth, those with a spring in their step and a freshness for what can be achieved in a short period of time. SOL Republic (the "SOL" stands for "Soundtrack Of your Life") is only two years old but has already extended its reach to 15 countries. They've been on Australian shelves for a little more than one year.
"I was having coffee on Sunday morning and saw two guys in half an hour rocking Sol Republics," said Combs. "It just blows me away."
"Bad sound is objective, good sound is subjective," said Combs, getting right to the point now. "It becomes about how do we create a good-sounding headphone and make it accessible to the masses. Can we bring great sound to the masses?"
This seems to cut directly to that high-philosophy SOL Republic mission. Subjectively good sound, objectively good price, available widely.
For the original SOL Republic Trax headphone, the company decided the headphones should cost less than your smartphone. So the launch price in the USA was US$99. While he's happy to talk about "good bass, good mids, nice highs", Combs isn't interested in selling these headphones according to a spec sheet.
"That's not what dictates good sound. I've had 9mm-driver in-ear headphones that sound much better than 13mm-driver headphones," said Combs. "Most people just don't care about that."
So what made SOL Republic think they could make a dent in an industry crowded with many dozens of brands and big names and an awful lot of competition to contend with?
"You look at headphones roughly around this price range and a lot of them are all OEMs," said Combs. "Open a magazine and put your logo on it. We wanted to design something from scratch."
SOL Republic thought about a few extra features and offers that would set it apart. Earbuds also come with free ear tips for life. If you lose your ear tips, they'll send you new ones for free — no matter where you live.
"Stuff like that is part of the overall experience," Combs explained.
Other features SOL Republic has managed to add to this lower-end price range include in-line remote on reasonably priced earbuds, plus the unique near-indestructible headphone bands to withstand being slung around in people's bags and the ability to mix and match headbands easily to mix up your fashion thinking without buying new headphones.
"One of the number one return complaints for headphones is breakage. So we just decided we had to solve that," said Combs. After hitting on the interchangeable band idea, they saw the fashion potential too. "You look out there now and we see that everyone is wearing a T-shirt and jeans. So what are your accessories now? It's your shoes, it's watch, it's your hat and it's your headphone. That all plays into it now."
"Black is always the number one seller. Black is like a safety choice when you're spending a lot of money. You know you're never going to get tired of black," Combs said. "But all these other colours are sellers in one way or another. These other colours would have sold more at the time if they'd have been cheaper or more affordable in that way. For us, it was about doing colours at a fraction of the cost. So now it's AU$39.95 to change your colours. That's a game changer."
"The cables come off too. The cables are AU$24.95," said Combs. "In the stores in the US, we're seeing almost 30 per cent of the people are buying headbands or new cables. Because you can go, OK, US$100 for that, and then I can mix and match to get a lot of different looks."
Now, SOL Republic is aiming beyond headphones, introducing the Deck by SOL Republic x Motorola Bluetooth speaker. Again, the aim is to find features that make it stand out from others.
"Most speakers are single facing. That doesn't make it social," said Combs. "So we built this to make the audio experience 360 degrees. This has the bass you need. It's got an outdoor mode so it drops the bass when you're outdoors to make the highs and mids louder. Those little things to make it better."
What else could be next for SOL Republic? More wireless.
"The future of headphones really is breaking away from the cable. Wireless is the big push for the next 12 to 18 months, and we'll see a major transition there," said Combs. "We just think those are the things that matter to people. Bluetooth and wireless is getting to that point now where you can't tell the difference whether it's plugged in or wireless."