Audio technology newcomer Master & Dynamic takes straightforward products that many of us use every day -- headphones -- and gives them the thoughtful treatment they deserve without trying to reinvent them altogether. Extreme attention to detail, a beautiful e-commerce platform, and, of course, high-quality sound elevate Master & Dynamic's headphones above the fray in an extremely crowded category.
Design & Construction
From the moment you open the Master & Dynamic packaging, it's obvious these headphones are different from most of the trendy models out there. Striving to fill "a whitespace in the market" dominated by "plastic, colored units" (he could have added, "made by brands that begin with the letter 'B'") founder and CEO Jonathan Levine chose metal and leather construction. These are serious pieces of equipment and both the over-ear MH40 ($399) and on-ear MH30 ($349) have pleasant, if substantial, heft to them. This is nice for home and desktop use, but makes them difficult to travel with. The slide-out packaging includes dense, custom-cut foam interiors and all the peripherals (cords, plugs, etc.) come nicely contained in a little leather box.
Across the range, the aesthetic is an almost steampunk mix of metal and leather. They're a little "Wild Wild West" (Will Smith edition) without looking like they came straight out of Thomas Edison lab. Designers clearly thought through everything from the memory foam-and-lambskin ear pads to the braided cloth cords. The detachable cords (two different lengths are included in each box) can plug into either earpiece, meaning that you'll never get tangled up in front of your keyboard, and a handy mute button on the right ear cup lets you kill the tunes quickly if a coworker needs to chat.
The build quality carries through from the on- and over-ear models to the ME01 and ME03 in-ear headphones ($149), though the latter are all metal and silicone, carrying their own finishes. Regardless of which of the four headphones you're wearing, "when you play with them, you'll notice they're very tactile," remarked Levine. "That was very important to me. We love that sense of discovery."
The Master & Dynamic headphones are beautiful objects and you'll want to show them off. For this, there is the weighted steel stand ($59) that lets you keep them as a permanent fixture on your workspace. No more chucking the cans in a drawer when you're done listening. "I developed the stand to help our retailers merchandise the product," said Levine. "And ironically it has become huge for us, converting at 60-70% for online sales."
While nice as a desktop sculpture, ultimately these headphones have to perform. So how do they do?
When asked to describe Master & Dynamic's signature sound, "a rich, warm soundscape that isn't genre specific," was Levine's reply. For both the MH30 and the MH40, this was certainly the case. Music had an open, airy quality to it -- reminiscent of a live concert hall performance. Across a variety of genres from classical to hip-hop to indie-rock the highs were clean and light while the lows were tight and punchy. Separation was outstanding and even listening to compressed and streamed audio files, the headphones still showed a lot of clarity.
The memory foam and lambskin ear pads are very comfortable and do a nice job isolating sound -- while the MH40s might look open-backed, they are insulated on both sides and the mesh is just for decoration. Colleagues asked about noise leakage said they couldn't hear anything, even when I had the volume relatively high. The noise isolation might be a little too good though, depending on your workplace. On multiple occasions, I found myself turning around to notice someone trying to get my attention and I couldn't hear a thing. This is perfect for curling up in a lounge chair with the latest episode of Radiolab, but it can be a real problem if your boss wants to talk.
The two in-ear models are sonically and technologically identical, differentiated only by aesthetics. Both perform admirably for in-ear headphones, but they lack the same open feel that you get with the other two models. This is to be expected – an 8mm driver is never going to perform like a 45mm driver – but the overall profile did seem to be a bit more bass-heavy. Most importantly though, these in-ears are not plagued by the common levels imbalance that results in eardrum-piercing highs and unintelligible mids when wearing them in noisy environments like city streets or the Subway. Commuters rejoice.
Strategy & The Future
Master & Dynamic officially launched on May 6th in New York City, though the news was somewhat overshadowed by another big move in the headphone industry -- Apple's purchase of Beats Audio for $3 billion, which occurred the very same week. This initial launch saw the headphones available exclusively through a small network of boutiques catering to audiophiles and the fashion-focused, with a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform unveiled just last week.
Already, Master & Dynamic reports having sold hundreds of pairs and has increasing production to meet projected Q4 demand. There are already plans for wireless Bluetooth headphones and speakers to be added to the base collection in 2015, and Levine has no plans to stop growth any time soon. Now's the time to get a pair if you are into the cool-guy cachet you'll get by standing out from the red-plastic mob.