Jonathan Easton speaks to Edwin Weteling, vice president of sales for North and South Europe at Sennheiser, about the company’s history, its legacy of innovation and its vision for the future of sound
How has 2017 been for Sennheiser so far?
We have had a challenging year in a challenging business environment. Sennheiser is split into three business divisions. We have the pro side of the business, we have the consumer side and the telecoms side, or as we call it the ‘enterprise solutions’.
The latter in particular is in serious growth. It’s the area that has shown the strongest growth for the company which makes sense if you link it to the change of people moving from communications into soft home division, so that has become a vital part of communication these days. We benefit from that growth and we have a proper portfolio to serve that market effectively.
On the pro side of the business there’s just been IBC tradeshow in Amsterdam, where we presented audio solutions for all levels of media production, including mobile journalism. In our experience, the media base has significantly broadened, and various forms of streaming services as well as YouTube are now on equal footing with conventional television. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to serve all platforms with the best possible solutions and to support innovative formats with equally creative products.
On the retail side we’re in a challenging business environment. The market is rapidly developing towards wireless, and we are trying to catch up with that trend. That’s not always easy because we have a broad portfolio of products, and changing the whole portfolio from wired products to wireless products takes time because we want to do it at the right quality level. That’s what’s important for Sennheiser products. Having a mission statement in mind of being at the forefront of audio innovation means that we’re really looking at what the market will bring us in the coming years when you look at connected home and also the audiophile side of the business people expect more and better sound quality so that’s what we’re aiming for.
What is Sennheiser doing in the gaming space?
Gaming is, as you know, a very big industry. It’s bigger than the movie industry! We moved into gaming over the last year, so it’s actually quite a new range for us to focus on.
If you look at the product development we’re talking to people who are part of gaming communities and we are participating in some of the big gaming events. As we don’t have such a history in gaming and it’s such a new segment we’re learning on a day-to-day basis. And it has to do with not only the audio experience, it has a lot to do with the wearing comfort, because these guys spend days (and nights) sitting behind their PC or console.
When it comes to audio quality in gaming headsets, Sennheiser product portfolio really stands out amongst competitor brands. It delivers an ultra immersive experience thanks to Sennheiser high-end acoustic technology and incredible 7.1 Dolby Surround Sound, which lets gamers advance to the next level in gaming realism. We all know that when you’re playing you want to know where your teammates are in the world. You want to know if they’re in front of you or behind you or if there’s someone above or below you.
Sennheiser is a brand that has products ranging from the cheaper side of things to the very top of the high-end. How do you effectively market to all of these groups of consumers and professionals?
We’ve made deliberate choices not to sell £5 in-ear headphones, because that’s not the place where we want to be. We’re a premium brand that wants to have a premium brand experience. This is what we offer with a range starting at around £30, going all the way up to £44,000. That’s the HE 1 which is really the flagship model and it is for that reason why the industry calls them the best headphones there are.
Covering that whole range is, to a certain extent, a challenge. If you look at how our trade partners are structured they have their own segmentation. So we do business with the likes of Dixons, John Lewis, HMV and more traditional retailers who are also online and they cover a range of products from entry level all the way to the top.
We also have specialists that are a part of our exclusive Club Orpheus network in the UK. There are 32 high end dealers that Sennheiser is working with currently. They aren’t so much interest in selling headphones for £30 or £50, they go from £300 upwards because they are the specialists that provide the audio experience when people come to their showroom and spend hours and hours listening to different high-end setups.
The third aspect is the online Channel. There’s no need to ignore Amazon, so we partnered up with them to ensure that people can go online and get the right shopping experience for our brand then it’s up to the consumer in the end if they want the product.
You earlier mentioned your business in wireless headphones. How big a part of the business is that and how big do you think that will become?
When we talk about these things we look at the Gfk data. What Gfk, our trade partners and consumers tell us is that at the moment around 40 per cent of the market is interested in wireless products. We have the expectation that in 2018 this will flip to the other side and that 60 per cent of units on the market will be sold in wireless headphones.
So we are following that trend, and we will have to admit that we are not leading that right now. We stick to audio quality and that means that we take time to develop the right products, to have the right technologies available, to give the consumers the same experience that they have with the wired product. So it is extremely important and it is our sole focus on the moment to focus on a wireless product range.
At IFA we launched wireless in-ear models which we have two variations of. One is the necklace which a range that is particularly popular in the APEC region and we’re seeing now that people are accepting that wearing style and are starting to buy into it. The second style is what we call the semi-wireless. That’s earbuds that are still connected from left to right with a cable, but there’s no cable to the source.
The last part is true wireless, which works with a master-slave communication so one ear is the master function that sends the source to the other ear. That, combined with battery life, are the two biggest challenges in true wireless, and that’s why Sennheiser hasn’t come up with true wireless products yet. We’ll only bring a product to the market that has solid audio quality, expected from Sennheiser. I’m not saying that our competitors are not perfect, maybe they take different risks or do different analysis on that situation because some of them have launched. True wireless products in the meantime, we think, are not ready.
Are you going to come back to it in the coming years?
We are looking into it right now. We were looking into it 10 years ago, and we had the MXW1 which were the first true wireless headphones on the market. The product was launched and it was brought to market, but we were struggling with battery life (I think at that time battery life was maximum two hours) and this master-slave communication is an extremely tricky thing. Our R&D teams are looking into it, it just takes a while before we find the perfect solution that meets the Sennheiser brand quality.
Talk to us about the Momentum product range.
The first Momentum product was launched four years ago. Over the past years, the range has expanded with the on-ear, in-ear and wireless models. The Momentum range is basically a winning combination of uncompromised performance, pure minimalistic style and luxurious high-quality materials, such as genuine leather and Alcantara. The wireless version of Momentum headphones features hybrid active NoiseGard which attenuates ambient noise, while the high definition aptX codec carves out every aural nuance in finest detail. Furthermore, the built-in VoiceMax microphone enables you to conduct crystal clear conversations.
We are very proud of the success of our Momentum range and will be sure to add to it in 2018 and even beyond that.
Were you expecting Momentum to be as big a success as it has been?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been with the company for eight and a half years and this was definitely, when we launched four years ago, the biggest launch event we had. We had high expectations from the beginning. We had high marketing support to bring the product to market and we had, from day one, great support from the dealers because this was launched at a moment when the market had turned to ‘colourful’ products.
Some of the brands were very successful in introducing these colourful models, but we didn’t just add colour. We added colour combined with the whole lifestyle experience. It’s the use of material, the images that we use, it’s the complete experience of Momentum that offers a lifestyle. You can see it in people wearing it when you’re on a train or on a plane. People wearing Momentum are in a certain lifestyle in a certain environment.
What can we expect from Sennheiser going forward?
The beginning of 2018 is going to be really exciting as we bring out a new product: the Ambeo Smart Headset.
Early last year, we announced a strategic focus on 3D immersive audio, a groundbreaking technology that promises the ultimate in audio capture and reproduction. Since then, all Sennheiser 3D immersive audio products and activities have borne the Ambeo trademark. Basically what it does is create an immersive sound experience. It creates a total sound experience. The best way to describe it is if you listen to a concert or watch a video from a concert, with Ambeo 3D audio technology you have the feeling that you are in the crowd experiencing the complete concert as if you’re there.
The first product for the consumer market is going to be the Ambeo Smart Headset. There was already a sneak preview of it at CES 2017, and after CES 2018 it will be available in the market. We’re in the middle of a process of informing our customers about it. The priority is about showing that it has two functions.
First of all it’s a pair of in-ears with a lightning connector. At this moment it is an Apple version only, and most likely in the future we will have an Android version as well. The earbuds have the expected functions, such as noise cancellation. But the trick with the Ambeo Smart Headset is that it’s intuitive, compact, and mobile 3D sound recording headset. Its earpieces are fitted with omnidirectional microphones that capture the sounds in the environment just like human ears would. This makes it an ideal tool for vloggers and content creators that are looking to create videos with stunning 3D sound on their mobile device.
It’s not only producing hardware, it’s going to be a digital, industry-wide trend with software development as we ask how we can tap into the connected home, how we can work together with Google and Amazon systems and be a part of that complete digital environment.
We are constantly looking at ways of expanding the limits of what’s possible through our products. The future of audio – this is our mission, and this is what drives us to develop and deliver innovative audio solutions. Watch out for our exciting new developments in 2018, we have some exciting announcements up our sleeve!