From the consumer's point of view, it may seem like there are more audio companies than ever before. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, really. The market for premium sound has grown over the past few years. According to some reports, the market for high-end headphones, lead by the Beats by Dre brand, increased 73% in 2012. But if you get the feeling everything is starting to look the same, you're not alone.
Mitch Wenger feels the same way. A former employee of Altec Lansing, Wegner believes, like you, that the audio market is indeed crowded, mostly with cookie-cutter products made by companies looking to cash in on the latest craze. To combat that, he and his team—engineer David Burke, designer Chris Weir, Kevin Schmudde, and Eric Wenger—decided to create an audio company where design and sound are put at the forefront. The company is called Grain Audio. Like other audio companies, Grain Audio will offer portable speakers that work with your smartphones, in-ear headphones, and over-ear headphones. But unlike other companies, everything is engineered and designed in-house with real walnut wood. This includes the dope Passive Bookshelf Speaker that's been featured in some of the country's best music halls.
In order to get its products to you, Mitch and his team took to Kickstarter to raise funds to produce their wares. As they wait to hit their goal, Complex Tech sat down with Mitch to talk about how the brand came to be, why it's different that all the other brands that populate Best Buy, and the difference between an audiophile and a music lover.
Complex: Let's start with the idea behind the brand.
Mitch: From a philosophy standpoint, it's understanding the need for good sound combined with the need for really good design. I think there are a lot of situations where those two stand in isolation. [Speakers] sound really good and they look really bad. Or they look really good and they sound really bad. What we've come to understand is that it needs to be both. And that it needs to be done in the right way. We're developing an acoustic product first; an audio product first. But at the same time, the need for a higher level of design is paramount throughout. And I think what we want to do is present an alternative to some of the stuff that's out there. And i think that starts with the sound, right? It's having a natural sound. I think one of the things that we have really taken a stand on and have a lot of pride in is that we're reproducing the music the way the artist intended for it to be heard. That's one of the biggest things about us that's different from a lot of the players out there.
How? A lot of brands claim to deliver sound the way it's supposed to be heard.
There's no unnatural bass boost, we're not doing anything at the mid-level to enhance it. Our sound curve is flat. And our reason for that is: The artist took a lot of time to record their music and did a lot of engineering to have it sound a certain way. We want the people to hear it the way the artist wanted it to be heard. Not the way that we wanted you to hear it. And i think that's a real fundamental difference between us and what's out there. I also think the use of natural materials, both for its aesthetic quality and its acoustic properties, really is a key differentiator. And even taking a step back from that, what we found was that there aren't a ton of speaker brands out there that speak authentically to a music fan. We started this not because we like consumer electronics. We started this because we love music. And what I found—as well as Dave, Kevin, and Chris—was that there wasn't a brand out there that people can relate to on an authentic level as a music fan.
That's the genesis of Grain Audio. It's by music fans for music fans. I think that's really important. With Kickstarter, it's been interesting. One guy emailed us and said "What's your unique selling proposition? Because I think having an alarm clock and a speakerphone and whatever other gizmo you can stick on these speakers is brilliant." We said, OK, that's your opinion, we think that just makes it a gadget, that doesn't make it a speaker. The point of it is to listen to music, right? So having that as a baseline as everything that we do gives us a secure footing. We've had a lot of conversations where we say, "Oh, do we try a speakerphone?" And it's like, "It's not a speakerphone, it's a speaker." And so as we move forward, we'll always keep that as a mantra: These are tools for listening to music. Simple.
We found that there aren't a ton of speaker brands out there that speak authentically to a music fan. We started this not because we like consumer electronics. We started this because we love music.
The idea of moving away from the all-in-one gadget is interesting. It seems people want a gadget that can do everything for them.
I think what you do there is you end up dumbing the thing down, right? I mean, it's not a Swiss Army Knife, it's a speaker.
Right. There are going to be come concessions somewhere.
What we found is: If you want to put an alarm clock in your speaker, there's a cost that's associated with putting that alarm clock in there, right? And when you put that cost in, to your point, something else has to come out. And usually what comes out is something that's going to affect the acoustic properties of the speaker. So what we've done is put all the money there. All the alarm clock money has gone into using technology that you're not going to find in anything else in our class. The Waves Max Audio technology: guys use that in soundboards at studios. So we're using the same technology that's being used to create the music to replay the music. I think there's synergy there. But that comes at a cost, and to us it was much more important to invest there than to make a Swiss Army Knife.
When the idea for the company first grew legs, what was the first product you decided to make?
I think one of the things we've been able to do that a lot of the big consumer electronics companies haven't been able to do is focus on consumer trends. We've had an idea for a product when we realized certain physical forms of music are making a comeback. We had this idea for a product that we're still engineering, so we can't talk a ton about it, but we had an idea that these analog, physical manifestations of music are making a comeback but digital is not going anywhere, so how do we combine the best of both worlds? And then from there, we decided: let's do everything with wood.
After that, the first product that came was the packable wireless system. That was the first piece that got designed. We understand that that's a crowded marketplace. There is a lot of people going into that marketplace, and there are a lot of really good people, and there's a lot of good product. But I think we offer something unique. I think it's interesting with all the conversations we've had, it's been like, "Oh, you and everyone else." I think once people have seen it and interacted with it and listened to it and touched it, you realize it is a unique offering in a crowded space.
And then you moved onto headphones?
Yes. From there we started developing the headphones. Then as we were developing those we had some good friends in some some good theaters, particularly around the northeast, and we were going to put some the Packable Wireless System in them. The Capitol Theater was opening in Portchester, NY and we had an opportunity, so we decided to build some bookshelf speakers. And when we started building them and designing them we were like, Wow, we've got another really cool product on our hands that I think would be really great to bring to the marketplace as well. And what was cool was that that did really come from a one-off project that went from the Capitol Theater and is now in Terminal 5 here in New York, the Music Hall of Williamsburg, The Sinclair in Boston, and in Union Transfer in Philly. What's cool about that from our perspective is that we're getting musicians to listen to our speakers. And there's no pressure, we're not asking them to do anything with them. For us to get some independent third-party validation from people who are actually making the music completes the circle.
A lot of the most successful brands have an interesting back story. But you telling me that you had products in all these music halls... it seems like a great back story: Before we reached consumers were already in places where professional musicians were.
And who better to get feedback from? We're getting calls being like, "Bob Dylan listened to your speakers and he liked them." There's something cool about that, right? I think that we've always said we're guys in black t-shirts not white lab coats because it's more about the understanding and the passion and the feeling you get when you're listening to music and the feeling of being at a show. We're not just making up a story. We live that story. To your point, to put it in the places we've spent tons and tons of time having musicians listen to it and validate it before it goes out to consumers and really hits the marketplace. We love it. It's a labor of love for us. Is it difficult to drive to Boston for the weekend to install a pair of speakers in an afternoon and come back? It is. But it's totally worth it because we enjoy doing it.
When I worked at Altec, they had this boombox. It sounded great. Dave did all the engineering for it. We had it in our living room and my wife hadn't said anything to me about it. My last day at Altec, I show up at home and she was like, "Great, get it out of the living room." Because it wasn't that blend of design. What we're doing is furniture-quality level stuff that you'll display proudly in your home. You'll want people to see it. You want to be able to talk about it. If you come into my house you'll see music posters. It's obvious that my wife and I listen to music a ton. Now to have something that we can proudly display in the house from a design perspective that also sounds amazing is a win/win.
"We've always said we're guys in black t-shirts not white lab coats because it's more about the understanding and the passion and the feeling you get when you're listening to music and the feeling of being at a show."
A lot of companies come out and they only have headphones and small speakers. Are the bookshelf speakers your ace in the hole?
I think it's the difference between being a lifestyle company and an audio company. The truth is there's a lot of brands that go over to China, go to a manufacturer, look at a catalog, and say, "Give me that one and slap my logo on it." That's why you see tons and tons of new lifestyle companies coming out with new headphones, earbuds, small portable speakers. But that's not what we're doing. We've designed everything from the ground up. So, yeah, the bookshelf speakers are a reflection of that because we've got real audio engineers who are working on our stuff. We've got really good industrial design guys who are working on our stuff. So, yeah, I think it does set us apart. We're a real audio company that has a real lifestyle element because of our passion for music. The bookshelf speakers are a manifestation of that.
Can you talk about the headphones you guys have?
Around the in-ears, one of the biggest differences is the natural wood casings. It's all FSE certified walnut. It's done with a hand oil finish. And what we found is, we're working with a partner who develops thousand-dollar microphones and we intentionally choose that partner because of their high quality standards. If they can make thousand-dollar microphones they can make $99 headphones. To do that in a way that's different and use natural materials, for us, is a real differentiator in the marketplace. There are tons and tons of ear buds in the market place. There are even a lot that are made of wood, but i don't think there are a lot that are built to the quality standards that we have and that we design to.
It's the same for the over-ear headphones. We had conversations with a lot of people who were like, "Why don't you make the ear cups out of plastic and put a wood coating around it." And it's like, "Well, because that's not a wooden earphone." Then it's just a plastic ear phone with a wood coating.
Were they saying that for financial reasons?
It was financial and it was also an unfamiliarity with working with the materials. A lot of these companies were like—big, big headphone manufacturers that build really well-known brands—"just put wood around it so you can control it." And we were like, no we have standards and we're going to keep those standards. I think where we distinguish ourselves is with the natural sound and the design factor. There's not a lot out there that look like what we've got.
The price for your products isn't extremely high. You talk about making products for people who have a love of music. There are brands who claim to the do the same, but they're just more expensive. If you really want high end sound you'd have to pay a lot.
There's two things there. One is the notion of an audiophile vs a music lover. I'll give you an example. When I went to CES, I went into a lot of the suites there that were the audiophile suites, the ones with the $10,000 bookshelf speakers, the $3,000 headphones, and the feeling I got was that they don't love music, they love sound. It's not easy to make a distinction between the two, but you know, it was more for the sound reproduction than what they were listening to. I think for us, it's more about the music and delivering an audiophile quality sound for people who love music, while being approachable. Some of those products are just unapproachable at their price points. I'd be hard pressed to buy a pair $1,300 pair of headphones on my own. If I had all the money in the world, would I? I probably still wouldn't. Because I think what we're able to deliver is the same level of quality at a price that's affordable. What's more important to us is building that community of people who love what we're doing not making the sale. Because the $1,300 headphones don't cost that much more to make than what we're selling. It's marketing and it's positioning.
Once the Kickstarter is funded, how do you guys plan on breaking into the market and getting shelf space next to other companies in places like the Apple Store and Best Buy?
We have a bit of a different strategy. With some of the big box retailers, it's really hard to do well there and it's really easy to go broke there. We want to grow intentionally. We have a really good team that's helping us build out a sales and rep network nationwide. We're starting small. I'd rather be in the store that's a bit more of a tastemaker down on the Lower East Side. I'd rather be at an ALIFE than a Best Buy. I'm not saying that we won't migrate over time, but we want to be in places where music is at the forefront. Best Buy is a consumer electronics store, that's it. That's what they are and that's fine, but for us, getting our products in the hands of the right kinds of people and people who we think will be interested in growing with us and be brand advocates is the way we want to start.
So there's two things there: There's the design side of the world and on the other, there's the music side of the world. We're building it out with both. And another thing that we want to build out is our direct to consumer channel, our e-commerce channel. I think that we'll be able to provide more support, more customer service, than any store would be able to do and since we'll have price parity across everywhere, that gives people the opportunity to buy directly from us and get that level of support and care. We care about everyone who's buying our products, but if you're buying it directly from us, you have that channel.
For us, it's more about the music and delivering an audiophile quality sound for people who love music, while being approachable.
Do you have any plans for partnerships with artists? A lot of brands team up with an artist and have them help design a product. But it seems like you guys are very hands on with your design.
We've talked about doing things. We don't want to sponsor anything. We don't want to pay somebody to be like, "I like Grain Audio." 'Cause then it's like, so what? They don't really like it. But for us, doing an honest collaboration makes sense. We've talked about doing things with different bands regionally. The wood on the speakers is interchangeable. We're using walnut right now, but we can conceivably use other things. So, let's say, we're doing something with an artist in Atlanta. What we would do with them potentially is find someone in the Atlanta area who's doing something interesting with reclaimed wood. Do a limited run of the speakers with the reclaimed wood from Atlanta, and have that artist work with Dave to tune the speakers if they have a new album coming out. So it's a real kind of collaboration where everyone is putting in an effort and everyone is invested in it. I think doing those in a limited edition run is something we're really interested in. Then of course it will have to stay limited edition. That's one of the things we've told ourselves: If we make 200 of them and 200 of them sell out in 10 minutes that doesn't mean make another 200. Because that's what's going to have value. There's a level of honesty there, too. You can't say something's limited edition and make 500,000 of them.
Is there an environmental slant to you guys using wood?
Yeah, there is. All the wood we use is FSE certified which means its all been sustainably harvested, and that's important to us. We didn't start with wood for environmental purposes. We started with design and acoustic purposes, but we're being as environmentally responsible as we can with the wood that we're using. And that carries over with everything we do. All the cardboard is a certain percentage post-consumer recycled material. The plastic in the box is all recyclable. On top of that, a percentage of the proceeds, and we're still trying to figure out what that percentage is because we want it to be big enough to make an impact, is going to go back to music related charities. Whether that is the VH1 Save the Music Foundation or something like that where they're trying to maintain music programs in schools that's being taken away. That's important to us. Or if there are children who are autistic who learn better through music. It's like, what can we do to give back to the community through the channels that we love and maintain good karma.