My Headphones, My Self
Two years later, Mr. Kolton’s parents gave him money to produce candy-colored $99 earbuds. At the time, Apple was scheduled to release the first iPhone, with a recessed headphone jack that was incompatible with most headphones on the market.
Mr. Kolton got the bright idea of manufacturing his line to Apple’s market-busting specifications. He flew to Cupertino, Calif., and made the pitch. He figured he would be one of many entrepreneurs with Apple in mind, but that was not the case.
The market got more crowded after Beats by Dr. Dre, founded by Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, and the music producer and executive Jimmy Iovine, introduced its first $300 headphones in 2008.
“Before Beats, $300 for a headphone was considered an outrageous amount of money to spend,” said Jamey Warren, the chief executive of Headphone.com. “You could buy a Sennheiser HD 600 over-the-ear headphone for $300. It was considered the world’s best, and it was a stretch for most folks except audiophiles.”
Increased demand isn’t the only thing fueling the boom. Crowdfunding sites have given potential entrepreneurs new routes to capital, while manufacturing costs have fallen. The 2014 sale of Beats to Apple, for $3 billion, also ushered in a new wave of headphone hopefuls.
Steve Guttenberg, a contributing editor to the digital products review site CNET and a high-fidelity expert, explained how the business has changed.
“Thirty years ago, when someone said, ‘I want to make a headphone,’ he would probably try to make it here in the United States, or he might design it and then get on a plane and say to the people who make headphones in China: ‘Here’s the design. Can you execute it?’” he said. “Now, we’ve eliminated the first two steps. The requirement, quote unquote, is that the person who’s running the show knows what it should sound like and look like and feel like and is able to say, ‘Keep showing me your samples until I find it.’”
By the time Jonathan Levine, 54, a former investment banker at Lehman Brothers, started the headphones company Master & Dynamic in 2014, it was clear that design and marketing were key.
Mr. Levine settled on the brand name Master & Dynamic because it sounded similar to established audio brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Astell & Kern, and Bowers & Wilkins. “‘Levine’ didn’t exactly scream luxury,” he said.
To get out the message for his 1950s-inspired, produced-in-China headphones, with its cognac-colored headband, he hired Carolina Clouet, a Balenciaga-clad former consultant for Barneys and Neiman Marcus, as his director of sales.
In October 2014, Bergdorf Goodman, Opening Ceremony and Colette received the first shipments of Mr. Levine’s pièce de résistance, the $399 MH40. In December of that year, Mr. Levine’s team sent them as freebies to Art Basel Miami Beach attendees at the Edition hotel and the Standard Miami.
After David Beckham began wearing them around Los Angeles, GQ proclaimed them “The Most Stylish Headphones Money Can Buy.” By the end of 2015, Master & Dynamic’s staff increased to 36 employees, from eight, who now work in a loftlike space in the garment district, where the walls are adorned with artwork by Christian Marclay and Terry Winters. There is even a Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass, who, Mr. Levine was pleased to say, wears Master & Dynamics.
While many celebrities serve as brand endorsers, unwitting or not, others are trying to become the brand. This year, Will.i.am, a longtime minority partner in Beats, started Buttons, a $200 set of wireless, in-ear headphones shaped like small saucers and sold through Apple. The fashion stalwart André Leon Talley is the creative director, styling the ads and the boxes, which star Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner.
“Nobody has made a fashion headphone that’s in-ear,” Will.i.am said by phone while on a break from taping the British edition of “The Voice.” “They’re all big headphones that sit over your head. The reason we went with earbuds is because we were designing it to be like jewelry.”
The countless options can be paralyzing to customers. The writer and radio host Kurt Andersen said he had trouble picking the right headphones as he perused CNET’s exhaustive review section recently.
“I like that the over-the-ears are not as dorky as they once were,” he said. “The ones from Beats seem fine. But then do I look like someone trying to be young, with groovy, hip-hop headphones?”
A challenge for the industry is getting women interested in its high-end gear. Amy Uaarmorn, a 31-year-old staff member at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, received a free pair of Master & Dynamic MH40s last year. Yet she said she seldom wears them and cannot imagine spending any more than $50 or $100 on headphones.
Never mind that Ms. Uaarmorn’s former boyfriend, Brannan Mason, 24, happens to be the co-owner of Noble Audio, a three-year-old Santa Barbara company that has received glowing notices for its in-ear earphones with prices that begin at $300 and go to $2,700.
Some of the ultraexpensive headphones are made to fit your ear exactly. To get a pair, you see an audiologist, who takes impressions of yours ears using a Play-Doh-like substance and ships them off to a manufacturer like Noble Audio.
This variety, known as CIEMs (short for custom in-ear monitors), started with touring musicians, who use them to block ambient noise and monitor their own sound.
Julie Glick, an audiologist who has a practice on Park Avenue, operates almost like a pharmaceutical rep for Noble Audio and other brands that specialize in custom, in-ear headphones. Matt Stone, a creator of “South Park,” and Daniel Villano, a colorist at Frédéric Fekkai, are among her clients who pop in to test demo units. When a sale is made, she earns a commission.
The trend really took off when JH Audio, a big player in this area, began posting photos of its famous customers and their CIEMs on Facebook and Instagram.
Here is Lady Gaga at the 2016 Grammy Awards, in a pair adorned in rhinestones. There are Bruno Mars’s JHs with customized gold face plates.
But even as the boom shows no sign of abating, there are those who, like Ms. Uaarmorn, have no interest in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a perfect listening experience.
Julie Klausner is also sticking to the basics.
“Apple earbuds,” she said. “I don’t really need anything else.”
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