Beats by Dr Dre president on origins, bass and music piracy

CNET UK chats to Luke Wood, president of divisive headphone brand Beats by Dr Dre.

Luke Westaway Senior editor
Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.
Luke Westaway
8 min read

In a few short years, Beats by Dr Dre has become perhaps the most recognisable audio brand on the planet, muscling out long-time heavyweights like Sennheiser, Sony or Bose with apparent ease, and rapidly garnering a level of fame and popularity that rival tech companies can only dream of.

So when I get a sit-down chat with Beats president Luke Wood, who's sipping tea and oven-cooking a pizza in his Berlin hotel room, my first question is, "How the hell did you pull that off?"

"It was really a response to two issues and opportunities," Luke tells me, with the first being the music biz's piracy woes. "We saw a business that went from a $30bn plus business to a $15bn plus business in six years. That's an unbelievable slide."

"Dre said, 'I've had an idea for a company for two years.'"

For Luke -- a former record executive -- and production stars Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre, it seems that Beats was an opportunity to invest in something other than the ailing music trade. As I start making some tea of my own, Luke says the three asked themselves, "Since the buying of music is voluntary now, what are we really good at?"

Iovine thought of headphones, an idea that he took to Dre. "Dre said, 'I've had an idea for a company for two years. Beats, let's call it Beats'."

The move makes sense. After all, there's currently no way to pirate headphones.

"The second issue was the complete degradation of the sound ecosystem," Luke says, as I accidentally splash tea into the saucer while trying to remove the teabag. "That is a combination of, starting with piracy, 128kbps files with unbelievably dirty metadata, on terabyte drives that people were grabbing from university when they left."

Playback devices were another problem. "Primarily looking at laptops, laptops were never meant to play music back, especially in the mid-90s when they became heavily commodified and prices started coming down on laptops and notebook computers. They were made for Word, Excel, then browsing the Internet, they weren't meant to be sound playback devices."

Naff earbuds bundled with iPods and feature phones were yet another -- as Luke diplomatically phrases it -- 'issue and opportunity'. "They were put in with the iPod really just for immediate gratification, so you could see how it worked."

The result? "Between the files, playback instrument and headphones, you lost a whole generation that never learned about audio," Luke says. "We were still in the studio making records that were only sounding better because of digital technology, suddenly we were using 96KHz, you know, 24 bits, these really rich -- we were capturing the bottom end the way we never really could because of digital sampling... but the user wasn't hearing any of what we were hearing."

Despite the enormous marketing push and associated glitz, Luke insists that Beats wasn't dreamed up as a corporate ploy to pry people away from their money. "We didn't have a think-tank to think, 'Where can we make a lot of money?' -- it was like, wow we gotta fix sound," he says.

Ex-Apple designer

Despite omnipresent advertising and the faces of music superstars like Lady Gaga, David Guetta and Justin Bieber, Beats is actually a rather small operation. Luke tells me the company employs 130 people, up from 20 last year.

Recognisable design is a big part of the Beats brand -- Olympic sponsor Panasonic must have been fuming when athletes turned up to the games sporting the bulbous red headphones, after Beats reportedly shipped batches of its products to hotels where Olympians were staying. I wanted to know who's responsible for that already-iconic look of the headphones, and the red lowercase 'b'. Luke tells me it's down to ex-Apple designer Robert Brunner.

"He has a company called ammunition. He's an incredible partner of the company and a great asset, and he controls all of our design vocabulary."

Jimmy Iovine, who Luke says along with Dre had a lot of input on the design of the first Beats headphone, used his music biz contacts to get star-studded feedback on the early design.

"He has so many incredible resources and relationships, he showed it to everybody who walked in the room." The Beats Studio was the first product to eventually hit the shelves, having gone through over 200 prototypes.

The studio environment and the music trade becomes more and more of a theme as I chat to the Beats boss, and in my mission to figure out how Beats has dominated the headphone scene so quickly, it occurs to me that its origins in the record business, and the connections that brings, might be the secret sauce. After all, Sennheiser, Panasonic et al probably don't get to run their newest products by Gwen Stefani before putting them on sale.

"I don't know anyone in consumer electronics," Luke tells me. "I know everyone in the music business."

In defence of bass

Beats is perhaps second only to Apple in the way it divides tech fans, with many audiophile types decrying the ostentatious headphones as a crass fashion statement with sub-par sound quality. Those strong feelings are something I've seen flare up in our comments section (Luke tells me he does read them, and that they do in fact drive him crazy), so I offered him the chance to respond to that criticism.

"First and foremost, music's subjective," Luke says. "What's a hit to you is garbage to somebody else."

He continues, "If you look at the tradition of audiophiles, it comes from capturing a live performance. 'How do I transmit that performance to my ears with as little change as humanly possible?'

"We just look at it differently, we think it's okay to have a point of view," Luke intones, as I nervously eye my messy cup of tea, hoping he hasn't noticed and wondering if I could take a sip without the cup dripping all over his hotel table. "People think we have bass-heavy headphones -- our headphones reproduce a lot of bass, I don't consider them bass-heavy, I certainly don't consider them hip-hop. I mostly listen to rock music.

"The truth is that there's a tremendous amount of melodic information in the bottom end, that did not used to exist before digital recording. And it really changed with samples and digital recording."

Getting excited now, Luke continues, "The sub-harmonics that are part of making a song exciting, between 40 and 80Hz, you need to reproduce those! It takes a lot of effort to reproduce those. I'm someone who's much more excited about a remix and a mash-up -- someone else may not like it, but I'm cool, we have a point of view."

The difference, it would seem, lies in trying to reproduce what's created in the studio, rather than the audiophile perfection of a live performance. "It's very different to that pure audiophile concept, they're slightly dislocated. They're actually not far off, because we're trying to recreate what we hear in the studio, but what you hear in the studio is unbelievably processed and changed."

Beats has grown rapidly, now making not just headphones, but audio docks, and has snuck inside HP laptops and HTC smart phones. Love 'em or hate 'em, those were some savvy decisions on behalf of Beats management, so I ask what the company has its eye on next.

"I think wireless is going to continue to be unbelievably important," Luke muses as I realise I could lean all the way over to my cup of tea, thereby only dripping tea onto the already-soiled saucer. "I think distributed network audio in the home, beyond iOS but also with the Android ecosystem and then Windows 8. I think there's still way too much friction in the experience around home theatre, around getting your content from your smart phone to your home system, so I think there's a lot of opportunity there."

"You can never fight piracy hand to hand"

It's not often I get to talk to someone who's had a career within -- and really still relies on -- the recording industry at such a high level, so I take the opportunity to go back to the subject of piracy. With movie and music studios taking a heavy-handed approach that's seen The Pirate Bay blocked by UK Internet providers, what does Luke, an ex-record exec and A&R man have to say on the subject? As you'd expect, he has some strong feelings.

"I think people are overly focused on a perception of greed and inequality from the content companies," Luke says. "Where I live, coming from the artist community I watch in real time the artists and producers, and how their livelihood is dramatically affected every day by this. People should... they can't forget that. I think that's been completely lost in the messaging."

Luke continues, "It's been very easy to project the issue as excessive extravagant media content company, record company, versus the consumer who's freeing content.

"What they're forgetting," the Beats boss says, "is there's an artist in the middle there for who this is their livelihood, and if they knew artists the way I know artists they'd realise those artists are not getting paid.

"More importantly, they don't take the same risks they could take, because they don't have the same economic freedom, they have to make very calculated decisions and think of everything in terms of business as opposed to thinking well, 'I can just be an artist, and what happens happens,' and so I think that's affecting the music."

So much for problems, how about some solutions? I ask Luke what's the right way to battle digital thievery. With little hesitation the answer comes back, "I think flat-fee subscriptions are the way to solve it. I think we just need to educate people, I think you need great flat-fee subscription services."

I ask if he means things like Spotify. "Spotify is an example," he replies, "but I think we have to push to the next level, and focus as much on the actual utility of supplying the world's library, but add onto it a layer of discovery and help people discover and program.

"When I would go to the UK," Luke recalls, "I would listen to Steve Lamacq, and before that it was John Peel, and I would learn about records every time I listened to those shows. That was because they would program for me."

The Beats chief doesn't think piracy will ever go away, but says, "I think it will significantly subside if you give people a better product, as an option."

I mention ISP blocks. "You can never fight piracy hand-to-hand," Luke tells me. "It's not the nature of the web. The web is water rolling down a hill."

Luke goes to the oven to retrieve his pizza, and I realise we're at the end of the interview.

Now it's time for you to have your say. What do you think about Beats headphones? Are you a proud owner, or is there another brand you prefer? If you count yourself as an audiophile, what do you think of Luke Wood's defence of the Beats sound, and what do you think about his views on piracy? Tell me in the comments below, or on our Facebook wall.