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James “Jimmy” Iovine, cofounder and CEO, Beats Electronics &
Robert Brunner, Beats designer, founder, and partner of Ammunition

Dynamic Duos: Jimmy Iovine And Robert Brunner On Beats And Listening

A sound lesson from the team that exploded the ear bud, reinventing the look-and-listen of headphones.

James “Jimmy” Iovine, cofounder and CEO, Beats Electronics
Robert Brunner, Beats designer, founder, and partner of Ammunition

Music producer, entrepreneur, former American Idol mentor, and Beats Electronics CEO Iovine founded the Santa Monica-based audio company with Dr. Dre in 2006. Their mission was to “introduce premium audio to a generation that had never experienced the emotion of music as intended by the artists because of substandard ear buds and PCs.” As Iovine has said, "It was frustrating that young people, through no fault of their own, were listening to terrible $2 ear buds. You can’t get good sound out of those. We lost a whole generation to bad audio."

To design the equipment and packaging for their high-performance, high-end headphones, the founders sought direction from Brunner. He’s the superstar designer who brought the world the Kindle and, when he led the industrial design department at Apple (where he wooed a guy named Ive to join), the original PowerBook. He’s generally known as a wizard at creating the kind of signature products that help to define a company.

"Great design is more than an object: It is an idea. An idea that permeates everything," he wrote in Fast Company. "Think iPod or Harley. These are ideas that coalesce into objects and connect deep into people’s souls. This is where great stuff is born."

IT’S ALL ABOUT LISTENING

Iovine and Brunner knew that to capture the attention of a generation that’s committed to music--but not really hearing it--they had to really overturn the current product model. Essentially, they had to invent the anti-ear bud.

“I couldn’t make a headphone look like a piece of medical equipment or a toy, as most headphones do,” Iovine has said. The Beats Studio line of headphones debuted in 2008 and swiftly became an iconic brand--Brunner’s design savvy boosted by high-profile celebrity endorsements the likes of Dre’s artist friends and Lady Gaga.

The company says that last year it owned 51% of the estimated $1 billion premium headphone market and is on course for $1.4 billion in revenue this year. Iovine has continually credited Brunner’s hand in this: “He showed us how to turn our ideas and emotions into a real thing,” the CEO has said. “His design has been instrumental to the success of Beats.”

Brunner has said that he was compelled by Dr. Dre’s frustration that music artists had years to perfect might be ruined on first listen by inferior sound equipment. Beats was a new idea in audio that “was not born of planning, research, pondering, or academic thinking,” Brunner wrote in Fast Company, adding that he, Iovine, and Dr. Dre said to one another: “‘Wouldn't it be cool if we could marry great audio and great design?’ We went out, found a partner in Monster Cable, and did it.”

THE SOUL PURPOSE

With equal attention to physical design details as to sound quality, Brunner created a streamlined architecture for the headphones, with a flexible headband that folds neatly into a cool case, and slick packaging. “Along the way, we were cognoscente of all the strategic implications,” Iovine has recalled, “but we knew that in the end, it was about an emotional idea that needed to see the light of day.”

He continues to realize these ideas for the company, which recently released a next-generation version of its Studio headphones. “The thing I love about being involved in high technology is the way it keeps evolving and working deeper into our lives,” Brunner has said. “And at its best, it’s magic.” The new headphones feature a redesigned headband, better noise canceling, and a 20-hour rechargeable battery. Beats has tapped Eminem to star in a TV campaign wearing them while performing “Berzerk,” the first single from his eighth studio album, due out in November.

And Iovine is currently developing a Spotify-style music subscription service with the working title Project Daisy that will roll out as soon as later this year. It’s all toward connecting the audio-quality lost generation with the music they love. “Seeing young people caring about sound again and realizing that it's not cool to not have good sound, that means a lot,” Iovine has said. ”That's how I grew up--it wasn't cool to not have a good system.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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1 Comments

  • ToddHuge

    It was the Beats Studio headphones, not ear buds, that became iconic. These are not great headphones, acoustically speaking. They also carry a high potential for hearing loss because they are unbalanced. Check out Ultimate Ears if you really want great portable audio. It's what the real pros use.