Interview

The audiophile

Four Danes have created award-winning upmarket headphones. One of them describes the challenges of fusing design and audio engineering.

Technologist: How did you get into the headphone business?

Frederik Jørgensen: Two of the four original partners, myself included, were running a creative and cultural hub for artists and designers in Copenhagen, with a nightclub on the rooftop. Unfortunately, that building was turned into apartments. Then two friends came along and said we should make headphones. We had a big network of musicians and designers, we were young, and we just said: “Let’s do it!”

T. What’s with the name AIAIAI?

F. J. There’s no good explanation. When we founded the company, we were looking for names and we just liked the sound. There was maybe a slight reference to all the Apple stuff at the time: i, i, i.

T. How did the headphone market evolve?

F. J. It was completely different from what it is today. Most people didn’t really care about headphones back in 2007. There were a few audiophiles, but it wasn’t really a lifestyle thing. We felt that headphones could be a way of expressing your individual style. We focused a lot on Apple having these core design values in the product, because that wasn’t being done very much for headphones. We started off with low-end, $100 in-ear headphones, which were 90% about design. Now, though, most of our products are professional, targeted at DJs.

Beats [the audio products company set up by musician Dr Dre] did us all a big favour by opening up the market. All of a sudden, everyone was willing to spend hundreds of dollars on headphones. But it got crowded very quickly. Brands interested in lifestyle launched headphones, and new brands came in because they wanted a piece of it. We’re a small company, so it’s been hard for us to compete. We see a bigger opportunity now in the more specialized market, people who make music.

T. What technical expertise did you have when you started?

F. J. Absolutely none, we were totally naïve. But we were open to working with a lot of people. We knew musical artists who helped us with the sound, and Denmark has strong expertise in audio engineering.

We collaborated with Aalborg University, which has a major focus on audio engineering. They’ve built drivers [headphone speakers] for us that we can then mass-produce in China. We’ve also done lots of testing with Brüel & Kjær, a leading audio technology company based in Denmark.

T. How can you compete with giants like Beats or Sennheiser?

F. J. A lot of it is subjective since we don’t have any groundbreaking speaker technology. The innovative part is taking a holistic view of the product, fitting the sound to the artists’ needs. It’s very much a craft, with a lot of back
and forth involving all the different partners – artists, engineers, designers and manufacturers.

T. What’s the Danish touch in your company?

F. J. We believe in functional design, which is the ethos of the classical designers and architects in Denmark. In general, Denmark isn’t the best environment for innovation. We don’t have an angel investor community like other countries, and there are not a lot of initiatives from government to support start-ups – although that is changing.

T. You’ve won a lot of awards for your headphones, including the Danish Design Award. which one means the most to you?

F. J. What made us most proud was to be part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s design exhibition in 2011 [curated by iconic designer Dieter Rams]. To be alongside the iPod made us really proud.

T. Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

F. J. Do it! There are a lot of people who end up not doing it because there are always a million reasons not to. You need to make sure what you do is perfect – especially with technology, it’s got to be spot on. That has become more important than ever with the growth of social media. If you do something wrong, the whole world knows about it. But if you have a good product, that information spreads just as easily.

Frederik Jørgensen (co-founder of AIAIAI)