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Reinventing Earbuds Using the Beats Model

Roam’s Ropes earbudsMore than eight years ago, Steven Lamar began pursuing an idea to sell really expensive headphones to the masses by combining sophisticated audio engineering, sleek industrial design, and the power of celebrity. The project was a huge success: The premium headphone industry was worth over $1 billion last year, and people these days don’t think twice about paying dearly for Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s iconic headphones.

Now Lamar, who was on the sidelines by the time Beats became a household name, is hoping that he can convince people to spend $300 on earbuds, too. He has started a new company called Roam. Its new earbuds, called Ropes, can be pre-ordered today on its website.

Most earbuds are made to be rolled up and put away when the music stops. Ropes are designed to hang around someone’s neck all day. The device is a long loop of wire with cotton padding, the two earbuds suspended from short metal bars. At the bottom is a small aluminum box that can be plugged into both a music source and another set of headphones, serving as a splitter. Ropes can also connect to a phone via Bluetooth.

The philosophy is pretty much the same as the one behind Beats: Get people to pay more for audio equipment because they’ll look cool if they do. Lamar hired Frog Design to get him there, and the firm came up with earbuds that are about as striking as earbuds get. On the other hand, they’re a fancy version of the things that come free with your iPhone. “I do think we’re affecting a behavioral change here, in getting people to wear their earphones all the time,” says Lamar. “That’s going to take some time.”

Lamar says Ropes’s appeal isn’t solely aesthetic. The box that connects to the phone provides power, amplification, digital processing, and equalization. An accompanying mobile app allows listeners to adjust the sound dynamic to taste or to set different sound profiles for different types of music. “I don’t want to hear the music the way Jimmy and Dre tune those headphones,” says Lamar, taking a swipe at Beats’s notorious love affair with bass.

Lamar’s relationship to Beats is fraught. He says he approached Jimmy Iovine with the idea of celebrity-backed headphones in 2006, and signed on design firm Pentagram to help him do so. Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Monster ended up proceeding without him, and various parties involved in the company have ended up in court trying to divide the credit (and royalties from headphone sales) in a way that everyone can agree upon. The legal controversy remains unresolved.

Brustein is a writer for in New York.

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