Kevin Lee – known throughout the stomping grounds of sound as “The Little Monster” - was kind enough to dish on the latest, and possibly greatest, headphones line to hit The ‘Loop over the past few years.
Sol Republic is dedicated to “enhancing people’s lives through better-sounding headphones.” Founded by consumer electronics veterans Lee, Scott Hix and Seth Combs – each of whom share a vision of ridding the world of hollow-sounding headphones and to make great sound attainable for everyone – Sol Republic as a whole is comprised of music fanatics who develop products from the ground up to make headphones that look, sound and feel unlike anything else in the market… and for a whole lot less of your hard-earned bucks.
But it’s not just a headphones company; Sol Republic celebrates the people who make music, love music and are devoted to music, further committed to creating a community where all dreamers are welcome to put a voice to their ideas, share their sound, and be heard.
Enough of that Public Relations-speak. Read on to see what the man himself has to say about the latest revolution in music technology:
Kevin, thanks for hanging with us today – how did you get your start in the field of electronics?
Well, that was easy – I became my fathers son. I grew up in the family business; I was a little kid in the factory [before] doing engineering, sales, training, and marketing, so I was just born into this industry. My father, Noel “The Head Monster” Lee, was an audiophile and a broke musician who always wanted to improve his stereo. He couldn’t afford better speakers so he decided to make better speaker cables to see if it made a difference. They did, and hence Monster Cable was born.
What kind of music did he play?
He was in a Chinese pop band – all Chinese people singing American pop songs. He knew he didn’t want to be stuck setting up his own gear so he trained me as a drummer – I played in all the bands my dad played in. I was also his roadie, so I guess I started working for him even before he started Monster [laughs].
Did you and your father have an immediate interest in headphones?
We have always had an immediate interest and passion for sound and we are die hard audiophiles. We love music… Personally, I’m a big hip hop and dance/electronic kind of guy [but] we listened to all different genres of music from rock, jazz, classical, to vocals.
We have always pursued better sound purely for the sake of pursuing better sound, and the reason why we got into headphones is when stereo speakers went away because of iPods and digital music. It was a sad thing for us personally, it was a sad thing for the industry, and it was a sad thing, we thought, for the consumers. However, the consumers really didn’t know what they were missing – especially kids these days. They never knew what what good sound actually sounded like because they didn’t grow up on stereos. In fact, their parents got rid of stereos and started buying [sound docks] when their kids started buying iPods. This started maybe about eight years ago, when we started developing headphone technologies that would reproduce the full sound of stereo speakers.
What inspired you to start your own brand after working closely with Beats by Dre over the past few years?
The same reason why my father and I got into the business to begin with – our passion around music and trying to give better sound to everybody. And that does mean everybody because everybody listens to music. Not just people who are drawn to the hip hop aesthetic, not just people who can afford $300 headphones, but people who have different levels of affordability, people who listen to different genres of music, people that appeal to a different brand aesthetic. As soon as we had launched Beats, that’s actually when I started thinking about Sol Republic. I thought, “what about everybody else? What about people who can maybe only afford $100 or so for headphones? What about people who want that design or aesthetic that is not so much in your face? What about people who want to sort of insert their own individual style there?”
Tell us a little about the team working behind you.
What I did was, I really took a lot of the core team that helped launch Beats and we kind of created the company from scratch. Seth Combs, who did a lot of our digital social marketing and Scott Hix, who did our experiential trade shows and events, some of our product people, and the first thing we did was not develop products or name the company or do a business plan – Jeff and I went to the beach, we actually grabbed our iPods, put on our favorite playlists and got on Google docs and so we could work on the same document without talking to each other and wrote down a brand philosophy. We wrote down our thoughts – we asked, “why do we care so much about sound?” We care about music and the power of music and how it can move you and inspire you in so many positive ways. So we wrote down that brand philosophy and then we said, “let’s now name the company.” We kept on talking about how, for us, music is “the soundtrack for our lives” and everything that we do. You know, I’m the kind of guy that a lot of people hate when I’m on the plane and the stewardess says “please turn off all your electronics.” I’m the guy that puts on my earbuds and puts my hoodie over my head and starts playing my favorite songs because I love looking out the window while the planes landing. It powers me for my day, for my life, whatever I’m going to do when I land, and that to me is my soundtrack of life. So we named the company exactly after that concept – it’s called Sol Republic, that’s an acronym for “Soundtrack of Life.”
That was actually my next question… I assumed that it didn’t mean “shit outta luck.”
[laughs] No, you know what? A lot of people have said “we don’t like the name,” but we said we don’t care because it stands for exactly what we mean.
As far as collaborations go, can we expect any celebrity- or brand-themed products?
Yes and no. The “no” part is because Sol Republic is less about artist-branded headphones. My belief is that there’re only so many marquee artists like a Dr. Dre, and [Beats by Dre] was very authentic. Dre really cared about sound, and we know that there are a lot of people also trying to do the artist headphones, and “buy this headphone because it’s my headphone.” At Sol Republic, we care less about that and more about the power of music. So yes, we are working with musicians, celebrities and athletes to talk about the music in their lives and the importance of sound in their music. They’re doing it not because it’s a deal, they’re doing it because they care about that vision and our mission statement. Not that we wouldn’t do an artist-based headphone, it just isn’t the focus of the company.
What we are doing though is collaborating with with a lot of great brands that have a specific brand aesthetic. Most of them are fashion or apparel brands that we haven’t made any announcements about yet, but we will over the coming months and hopefully with [Karmaloop] we’ll offer it to your customers there, but it really would be just to fulfill our vision. And part of our vision is not just about sound, but [with] headphones being the most visible electronic device that all of us have in our life – even more visible than our smartphones and iPods – all of us really do want to express individualization in our style and [Karmaloop] customers know that better than anybody else on the planet. If you look at the product, we design it from the ground up to be a canvas for that expression through design and stylization. We did that two ways; one is this is the world’s first interchangeable headphone so the speakers come off the headphone – which we call the soundtrack – and also disconnects from the cable so you can invest your money in the sound level you want. We have regular sound and HD sound, and you can buy multiple, different colored headbands and cables so you can flip out and change the style of the headphone based on what you’re wearing. I love it because that’s not something that you would normally think you could do with a headphone but once you do it, it’s pretty fun. It’s like getting dressed up in any [clothing] style you might wear. The other part is really is using that canvas to do custom colors and patterns and design graphics, and the artists that we’re working with love that.
There are some big names in the industry co-signing Sol Republic already – what does it take to be an what you call a “SOLdier?”
It takes the same enthusiasm for music and sound that everybody in the company has, and we thought as we launched [Sol Republic], not only do a lot of consumers love the headphones and love the sound but they’re really connected with us emotionally to who we are as a culture and a company. They want to share this same enthusiasm to spread that word about the importance of music and sound and for those that do, we are making them Sol Republic “SOLdiers of Sound.” It’s an exclusive club. You have to apply, you have to write in your own words why you care about music and what you think about sound and there’s a review process – not just automatic entries – and it’s been amazing to read what some people will say about music in their lives and to see all of the stories that relate. It makes us a better company and it makes us enjoy more of what we do, so that’s how we’re starting off our “SOLdiers of Sound.”
The headphones market is flooded with mainstays like Sony, Sennheiser and Bose – not to mention upstart celebrity lines by 50 Cent, Ludacris, Jay-Z, and of course, Dre – what will set Sol Republic apart from the rest of the pack?
I don’t have too much to comment on the competition. I do know there are a lot of people in the business, and I know that amongst them, I think there are a lot of good people in the business that can make good products. The more people who are spreading the word about the importance of music, sound and headphones, it’s a great thing. I think what is different about us, is that we are just being true to us. We’re just worried about us and we know who we are, we know why we exist. We have a tremendous amount of passion for what we do. One of the things I said to Seth, as Seth is the first person who I went to when I said I wanted to start this company, is that we have the opportunity to create not just a company, but to create a culture from scratch with all terrific people. I don’t mean just good performers – I mean, these are good people that have values and integrity. They are good human beings who are passionate about the same things that we are. We’ll scale the company and build the culture and the brand from there. When all is said and done, five, ten, fifteen years from now, we’ll look back and we can talk about different successes in products, channels or marketing but I think the culture that we built together is what we’ll be most proud of.
What features on the Sol Republic line are you particularly excited about?
Wow, that’s a good question… nobody has asked me that question and I’ve probably got couple of answers. Number one is our in-ear [headphones]. As much as people use ear buds with their iPod, especially the ones that come with the iPod, the number one thing I think people don’t like about it but always learn to live with it is the fact that when you take out your ear buds you always have to spend 30 seconds to an hour untangling them. A few years ago we solved that problem. In fact, 10 years ago my dad and I sort of had a contest to figure out how to make ear buds tangle-free. We tried everything – different jacket materials, cloth. We said, “ok, we can’t make the ear buds tangle-free, so let’s just try a nice cape to kind of do that.” My dad’s an engineer – I’m not – but I eat a lot of food and I love pasta, so finally I realized my fettuccine is always a little less tangled than my spaghetti… so what if I made the cable flat, would that work? We had engineers try it and lo and behold it worked. So, our [in-ear] headphones feature our now patented tangle-free cables.
Another thing, the over-ears models, our Tracks HD… I could talk all day about the interchangeability and the fashion but at the end of the day, it comes back to how much I love music and sound. My goal in our Tracks headphone is that all music is not the same. It’s not recorded the same, it’s not engineered the same, and between our compressed download files they all don’t sound the same. It’s a little easier to get a headphone to sound good with a good recording, but it is almost impossible to get it to sound good with a bad recording.
That’s gospel. I listen to a lot of early punk and hardcore music and artists like the Misfits, Bad Brains, the Cramps, all those bootleg compilations, and now matter how great they sound to me in the first place, the recordings are notoriously shitty by today’s standards.
Right. I wanted a headphone to sound good no matter how bad the recording is. So if you listen to our Sol Republic Tracks headphones, I tuned it so that [music] will always sound powerful, it will always have good, strong bass no matter how loud you turn it up, and the mids and highs will never pierce your ears. That really makes every recording sound good, and I’m super proud of that. That was the goal that I set out with and I didn’t even know if it was possible. I can’t say the same thing about every headphone on the market now so I’m very proud and I believe that we’re the only ones to have achieved that.
Talk about the “one size fits all” feature with the Tracks – was sizing headphones a personal problem, or have you neen hearing from customers about that for years now?
I have some very important people in my life – my family. Smart people sometimes have larger heads because their brain is so big and my father is one of them. He’s a genius, but his heads a little bit on the larger side so most headphones actually don’t fit his head. So the first thing he said when I handed him our prototype was “will it fit my head?” I said that I think so, they did fit, and he was just ecstatic.
On the other hand, my kids love listening to music as well and most headphones don’t fit little kids. That’s why we make headphones [accessible] for little kids. One of our goals was to be like Disneyland – no matter how small or big you are, everyone gets to go on the ride and that’s what I wanted with our headphones. No matter how small or big your head is, our headphones will fit by design and have the longest range of adjustability.
The adjustability and where each headphone can slide super high or entirely off the band has to be a huge perk for DJs as well.
Yeah, some DJs are taking one speaker off there or moving it all the way up so it goes above the ear versus behind the ear. Some people are even taking the speakers off to share a song real quick – that’s kind of fun. I think the design has really worked out well. We’re a company whose passion is on development so we’re already starting to work on what’s next, but we’re very proud of what we’ve done so far.
Keeping a steady balance between aesthetics, functionality and overall sound has to be super important.
It is incredibly important because people care about the way they look, and like I said before, the headphone is a visible thing and you’re putting it next to the thing you care about the most, which is your face. Ironically, when you’re using headphones, most headphones don’t look good on people’s heads. Whether it’s on-ear, over-ear or in-ear, most headphones look good on the shelf when you buy them but don’t when you’re wearing them – we definitely wanted to make sure our headphones look great when you wear them. Part of it is modesty and design. This isn’t a loud headphone, this isn’t a walk down the street, “look at me I’m wearin’ this bad ass headphone” type model. It’s something that looks natural and organic to someone’s existing fashion aesthetic. There are all sorts of crazy looking in-ears but when you go and stick them in your ears they look bad. If you get a chance to look at our Amps, we have a very subtle, modest design on the outside but it’s also an angled fit. Now that serves two purposes; they fit better in your ears so they are comfortable and because of that they sound better, and also the headphone doesn’t fall out. When you actually put them up against your ears, the headphones line up flat so they look fantastic.
Are there any plans yet to branch out beyond headphones?
We haven’t announced any plans beyond headphones, but because our passion is certainly around music, our future will take us far beyond [headphones] and we definitely mean that.
What does the near-future hold for Sol Republic?
Get back to me in a couple of months [laughs].