Interview: Grain Audio's Mitch Wenger Talks Building a Brand, Importance of Design, and Catering to Music Lovers

Interview: Grain Audio's Mitch Wenger Talks Building a Brand, Importance of Design, and Catering to Music LoversGrain Audio Packable Wireless System, $249

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. 

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