While researching an article on the best audio equipment of 2013, I was once again struck by the influence of fashion on headphone manufacturers. I wondered how we evolved from the Walkman era of the 70's to the new millenium where not only do we seek the best sound and the greatest comfort, but we aim to impress with how our headphones look. I reached out to Val Kolton, CEO of V-MODA, who's Crossfade M-100's have drawnravereviews for their incredible sound and look. To my delight, I found Val well versed on the evolution of headphones and their impact on fashion. What follows is his description of how we got to where we are now. No longer weighted done by tinny-sounding, ugly earpieces, but rather looking great while comfortably listening to headphones that perfectly emulate the live sound of music.
FASHION HEADPHONE FABRICATION
the history of the fashion headphone
by Val Kolton, CEO/Founder of V-MODA
Fashion and design have always been interwoven in the playing of both live and recorded music. All the way from the prehistoric age of drumsticks to today's fashion headphone. However, the audio fidelity, style and craftsmanship have wavered through the ages primarily due to technology, recordings, materials, convenience and location of playback. The level of both fashion and fidelity associated in music over time has wavered much like a stock chart or a sound wave. In fact, the deepest recession we recently experienced during the MP3-Napster and cheap plastic earbud era was a low in history, what I have coined the "great compression". Nearly 10 years ago I created a brand founded on this phenomenon, V-MODA. "Moda" literally translates to vogue or style in Italian and the logo symbolizes the original high, loss and gain of sound and style throughout history.
V-MODA was founded in 2004 and was the first company to launch a line of "fashion headphones" in over 11 colors in 2006, most of which matched the colors of the insanely popular iPod Nano. The first model was named "Remix M-Class" and was made of metal. The name symbolized the fact that that we were first "remixing the headphone and fashion industry".
One of the first major customers was the Apple Store, and we launched a new model together named "Vibe" that even closer matched the iPod and their Product Red editions and looked like no other in-ear headphone before it.
The V-MODA products, Vibe design and sales volume at the Apple Store instantly garnered the attention of competitors and spawned an array of fashion headphones both high and low. Skullcandy visited my booth at a fashion show in Vegas and I got a call from my factory saying that they wanted to make the same model that was patented by V-MODA. The buyer at the Apple Store would later help start the Klipsch headphones. Kevin Lee from Beats called me when I was at a pool party and thanked me for the inspiration. The very next week, I changed our brand colors from the black and red that was nearly identical to Beats and switched it to white and rouge to stay different. Nearly all my employees left and attempted to start headphone brands.
Brands began to sell plastic colored headphones at price points as low as $9-20 advertising them as "high definition". Yet at this price point they must be built for around a $1 and packaged in China. In my experience in the labs, a headphone for $0.40 makes it impossible to have consistent quality control in the drivers that result in wild sound variances from unit to unit. Sound variances that are so extreme, they can cause permanent hearing loss virtually in a heartbeat if played too loudly. Hearing loss is increasing significantly due to these cheap headphones and is poised to become one of the biggest epidemics of the future.
For the consumers that chose higher-end brands, for the first time in history people could express themselves with high fashion headphones coupled with high-fidelity sound.
While many other companies launched colored and fashion on and over-ear headphones before the Beats, most were priced low and marketed to kids and teens. Beats by Dre was the first to popularize the $300 "headphone as fashion" craze in late 2008 due to the celebrity endorser strategy.
By utilizing product placement and putting the headphones not only around the heads, but necks of celebrities - they were able to take the over-ear headphone market to unprecedented levels.
Dozens of brands emerged overnight copying their designs or emulating their celebrity strategy, even utilizing dead celebrities. Often, these companies were making cheap products developed in 3-6 month time frames just to capitalize on the craze.
Instead of celebrity, other mature and classier brands such as Bose, Sennheiser, Sony and V-MODA have raised the level of quality, materials, fashion and high-fidelity of over-ear headphones. Jude from Head-Fi, the world's largest headphone site put it, "V-MODA is leading the charge to prove that substance and style are not mutually exclusive in the world of headphones."
It took V-MODA over 5 years to launch our first over-ear headphone in 2010, Crossfade, which was spawned by our first headphone design from 2004 that is to this day not on the market. The delays were caused by the fact that I wanted to build a product that was nearly indestructible by passing military-level testing and could crossover from the street to the stage. It had to be made primarily of metal yet be lightweight. Three years later, it is now the top rated headphone of all time with over 1000 reviews and is becoming the headphone of choice for many of the world's top DJs and in-the know consumers alike.
Today, headphones are now sold at fashion boutiques worldwide, yet many are plastic fugazi or "fools gold" of sound. However, I can rest at night knowing that fashion and headphones are finally forever interwoven, and that fashionistas and audiophiles will always seek quality and a freedom of choice.