Sennheiser CEO on fashion 'phones and battling Beats

How do you build headphones in a post-Beats world? That's the question we put to company CEO Daniel Sennheiser in this interview.

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
4 min read

Last year I had the chance to interview Luke Wood, the boss of Beats headphones, about the bass-heavy company's meteoric rise to prominence -- a fashion-focused bombardment that left traditional audio companies struggling to keep pace. This year, at the IFA trade show in Berlin, Daniel Sennheiser of German firm Sennheiser is having his say.

Sennheiser is one of the many manufacturers caught off guard by the popularity of Beats' celebrity-endorsed fashion 'phones. I wanted to know how the company was coping with the competition, and the challenges of selling headphones in a post-Beats world.

'Beats has taken away a sizeable chunk'

My first question for the CEO of the family-owned-and-run business, is whether Dr Dre and his celebrity cohorts have stolen sales from Sennheiser.

"Yeah, we have seen in certain markets that Beats has taken away a sizeable chunk," Sennheiser admits, going on to describe that the particular market affected is the "premium fashion-driven headphones. And they've done that very successfully."

Beats' great coup was in spotting that for many shoppers, it was crucial for headphones to look stylish -- after all, this is a gadget you have to wear on your head in public -- why shouldn't it look good? Despite the missed opportunity, Sennheiser appears philosophical toward his brash new rival.

"It keeps us on our toes. As the market leader we are, sometimes we become complacent."

'As with any fashion trend, it's temporary'

The company is at IFA to promote its Momentum headphones, which are, we noted in our review, the first in the range to ditch Sennheiser's functional black and silver style in favour of a more eye-catching retro design.

That new burst of style appears to be a concession to what Beats has achieved over the last few years, as, when I ask Sennheiser what his company has learned from the success of its bombastic rival, he offers, "It's not enough to just have quality, you have to talk about it."

"It's not enough to just have great sound. You also need style," Sennheiser says the German company learned.

The company really nailed it with the Momentum, which earned itself a whopping four and a half stars in our review, as well as our coveted Editors' Choice award.

It's a great piece of tech that also looks lovely, but the lesson took the company a while to learn -- the market for brightly coloured, fashionable headphones exploded in 2008 when Beats debuted its first Studio on-ear set, and only now may be starting to wane.

"It used to be growing the fastest. Since last October we see that part declining again, which the rest of the market is not," the audio boss expounds." As with any fashion trend, it's temporary.

"It'll never go away," Sennheiser adds, "but the newness of that trend is rubbing off a bit." Having had the dubious honour of hearing plenty of on-the-ropes executives straining to talk up a struggling tech company, I can say that's not the impression this particular CEO gives. The company may have missed a trick when it comes to fashion headphones, but the boss appears relaxed, untroubled, and says the company is more invested in the long game.

"We might not have the crazy growth rates that others have, but we have very steady growth. Even in a bad year we still grow, and that's really what we're after.

"We're in this business for the next 50 years at least," Sennheiser says. "That's our plan, so we're really thinking long-term." The company, he assures me, is in "comfortable" financial health, doesn't take bank loans or deal with external investors, and has enjoyed healthy profits for the last few years.

Android audio

There's one more thing I wanted to ask Sennheiser about -- headphones for Android fans. While the company has long been making products in tandem with Apple, and building special cable remotes that let iPhone owners answer calls and control audio playback, these remotes are often incompatible with Android smart phones, or produce erratic results.

"With Apple there's one implementation of the software," Sennheiser says, "whereas with Android there's so many different implementations."

It's the same story we've heard from firms like Sky or the BBC, which cite Android fragmentation -- the vast array of screen sizes and hardware employed in Android kit -- as reasons why updates or new gadgets come later, or don't work as well. "Even without one manufacturer," Sennheiser says, "there are different control stacks."

Android fans may be happy to know that an Android-specific version of the Momentum is in the works that will include a special cable that's compatible with Google's robot-powered operating system.

What do you think of Sennheiser's products, and what do you think of Beats? Did the company slip up in letting Beats become such a serious challenger? Do you look for style or audio quality in the headphones you buy? Let me know your thoughts on all things audio in the comments, or on our Facebook wall.