Thanks very much to Kishore and Bharat Patel for taking the time to go to the Audeze factory and interviewing Sankar, as well as the great photos. — Amos
Hi folks. It’s good to be back. Being an avid Headfi-er, we sometimes get inundated by the constant introduction of new gear, with our bank accounts being the first in a long line of casualties. Each headphone purchase allows us to experience our favorite artist in an entirely new way, with skipped songs suddenly becoming new favorites.
However, there is a company which seduced many of us with an engaging planar sound and an immaculate build. Enter Audeze. Throughout the years Audeze has helped shape the development of planar magnetic technologies with their LCD line of products. Not too long ago, Audeze introduced an entirely new category of product of ultra portable planars.
Audeze’s iSine product line alongside the LCDi4 stunned the market with incredible planar sound delivered in a pocketable form factor. It’s a rare event when a new category of product emerges, and even rarer when a company pulls it off the first try. Now Audeze is doing it again with the Mobius. A 3D audio, head tracking, planar magnetic gaming headset that has implications far beyond the gaming sphere.
The Mobius is one of the most interesting products I’ve seen this year. My father tried it at CanJam SoCal 2018, with the demo session leaving him with more questions than answers. I’ve had a few father-son whiskey sessions where we discussed the technologies behind this headphone, and how it can influence the future of audio.
I am overwhelmed at the positive feedback of the SoCal CanJam 2018 write-up, so my father and I decided to follow up with an interview with the CEO of one of the most innovative audio technology companies in the world, Audeze. We would like to thank Sankar Thiagasamudram for being gracious enough to grant us an interview. A special shoutout to mtmercer for contributing to the questions!
Before our interview, Sankar offered to take us on a tour of the Audeze factory, and show us how the products we enjoy get manufactured. Of course we accepted! Of the many things we saw (some can’t be discussed), we are able to share with you a peek into manufacture stages of iSine, LCDi4, and LCD4z.
Walking through the entrance of the factory floor, I felt like a kid in a candy shop, with rows of assembled LCD4z’s, LCD2’s and LCDX’s mounted on a rack ready for packaging. One day, they will be mine! It was a marvelous sight, however when Sankar beckoned us to move on, I quickly made haste to the laboratory.
Entering the lab, one comes to appreciate that Audeze isn’t a headphone company, but an audio technology company. The laboratory is a smaller room, packed with machines, test equipment, stacks of diaphragm material, and a multitude of other components.
Sankar asked one of the lab workers to show us a sheet of a rejected nano grade Uniforce diaphragm. This LCD4 membrane appears as a sheet of aluminum foil with a faint tracing pattern imparted on its surface. When the lab worker peeled away the layer and gave me a section, the foil revealed itself to be an impossibly thin slice of vacuum deposited film.
As Sankar let a piece of the film fall to the ground, the film very slowly buffeted downward as it collided with the air particles slowing its descent. This makes sense, as the Nano Scale Diaphragm is lighted than the air it displaces. Upon handling the film, it seemed to dance around, refusing to free it self from the surface of my skin. This film is a key technology behind the LCD4/LCDi4 headphone, and even with Audeze’s ultra precise manufacturing processes, some rejects do occur.
Sankar tells us:
“Each product that leaves the factory is a reflection of the company, and the customer needs to get the absolute best we can deliver. If that means disposing a high grade film with even a slight imperfection, so be it.”
Exiting the lab, Sankar showed us to an assembly line where the iSine and LCDi4s are assembled. Seeing how much care and attention these headphones are given throughout the assembly reaffirms Audeze’s hallmark of quality. The LCDi4s have their own dedicated assembly process, as they posses the technological underpinnings of the flagship LCD4 headphone.
Moving along the assembly stations, we pass by a LCD4z station, where a worker is performing soldering work. Even though I was up close taking pictures, the worker was completely unfazed, as if transfixed by his work. The folks working here are dedicated, that much was clear.
We stop by a station where a worker was installing magnets on Fluxor stator frames. Sankar explains behind any planar magnetic headphone, there needs to be powerful magnet technology. Supporting Audeze headphones, there are three distinct technologies that separate it from competitors, this includes Fluxor Magnetic technology, Uniforce Diaphragm and the Fazor array.
With the start of the EL8, Audeze introduced the world to Fluxor Magnetic technology, which boasts nearly double the magnetic flux density of the highest grade neodymium magnetic circuits available. Sankar remarks
“There are many innovations we use, one such is that we use several magnetic strips that are designed so that they have dissimilar polarities on one side and on the other similar polarities, consequently it increases the magnetic flux density on the dissimilar poles near to double where it is needed, this gives a clear crisp definition to the sound.
Another, is that because we use extremely thin film, the best in the industry, and we do everything in house. We have the ability to vary the trace width of the film to match the flux density as it varies along the length of the magnetics, this enables for the flux to be constant throughout the film so the music is reproduced as it was meant to be.”
Sankar points out the LCD 4 Fluxor Magnetic array has a magnetic induction of 1.5 Tesla, and sets the record for the most powerful magnetic circuit created, especially for a production headphone.
After our factory tour, we went to Sankar’s office and began the interview.
Bharat: Why name Audeze?
Sankar: This was because of 2001 Space Odyssey (gesticulates to a movie poster), we needed to register company name before CanJam. The poster was on my wall, and we thought it was a cool name. We were playing with different variations of ‘Odyssey’, and the one we use today (Audeze) was the only web domain that was available. Our logo is derived from MC Escher drawings. MC Escher drew inspiration from Roger Penrose, and the famous Penrose triangle. If you look at our newest product, the Mobius, it was named after its mathematical counterpart. The Mobius strip shows how the inside becomes the outside. With Mobius we thought the name would be apt since our aim is to take the audio from inside your head to outside.
Bharat: What motivated you in starting the company?
Sankar: It started with us (Alex Rosson and Sankar) meeting Pete Uka, who was making thin films for the aerospace industry. We were trying to see if we could use it in consumer products. At that time, we met one of our other co-founder Dragoslav Colich who was working on planar speakers. We starting making headphones initially to see if there was a market for it, and that’s how we started with the LCD2. Slowly, we went full time from 2013 onwards. Between 2008-2012, some people were full time but most of us were doing it as part time or hobby.
Bharat: What are some of the pitfalls you found in headphone market? We have big companies such as Sennheiser, Sony, and Audeze is far smaller in comparison. What can people who want to start in this industry learn from going through this learning process?
Sankar: One of the advantages we have is our size. We can make transitions very quickly, and make products that are way ahead of the market like the Mobius (gestures to a blue Mobius on the table). The whole development timeline for Mobius was around 12-13 months, we started working on Mobius only in June 2017. The advantage we have, is speed and execution of projects, however a possible the disadvantage we have is becoming more mainstream. For instance, the minimum order quantities for parts are quite large, and this can make operations and inventory bit difficult. For example, if we look at the chipsets used in the Cipher cable we offer for the iSine series and LCDi headphones, the minimum order quantity is 15k units. For Audeze, we don’t sell 15k units immediately (yet), currently it takes us 6-8 months to achieve it. The inventory adds up, and we run into trouble to catch up with the inventory in our warehouses. Second thing, is being a small company the chipset companies wants sell hundreds of thousands of chipsets and aren’t interested in collaborating with a small company to make small modifications and small quantities.
Bharat: Is this why go with crowd funding? Seldom you see an established company go for crowd funding.
Sankar: The reason behind crowdfunding was since this our first gaming headphone, we needed to increase our presence. We’ve never been in the gaming market before. The Mobius is very different headphone from other gaming headphones in the world. We wanted to create buzz outside of the traditional audiophile community, and if we could gain momentum during manufacturing, that would be of great benefit. The second reason was we didn’t realize when making the Mobius how much time the certification would take. The Bluetooth certification was exhaustive, we had to do a full stack certification since we were first ones to do LDAC (other than Sony) on a headphone.
So it was going to take 3-4 months, but we’ve already developed the headphone at that point. Crowd funding would be a quick way of gaining momentum for the product so we don’t have to set the product aside and do nothing with it during that dormant 3-4 month certification period. Also, Kickstarter attracts a variety of demographics when compared to the traditional customers you find on the Head-Fi forums and such.
Bharat: Speaking of Head-Fi, can one use Mobius as a serious hifi headphone?
Sankar: Of course! The Mobius is one of the most versatile headphones in the world. It is also one of the best headphones for professional use due to its 8 channel DAC and amplifier. And when you plug it into a computer, it appears as a 8 channel sound card. And when you use Protools or Logic, it appears as a multichannel sound device. In Protools you can drag up to 7.1 channel tracks into the program and mix and edit it natively. Audeze has also developed an application that allows you to adjust the simulated room size and such. In addition, because the Mobius has head tracking, we can take that information back to the host computer to mix sound for VR purposes when other companies support this. Mobius is more than a gaming headphone. People are using it in different ways. We have some movie houses even using it to test and QC 5.1 mixes. One of the things that a movie composer is using Mobius for is to show the producers their mixes, so they don’t have to visit the dub stage all the time. Mobius was used by the composer for the a popular blockbuster movie.
Regarding the hifi application you can switch off all processing and use it as a hifi wireless headphone. Also, we are the first company outside of Sony to implement LDAC with 32 bit 96kHz quality over a wireless connection, so users have this option as well.
Bharat: I’m glad you mentioned the 3D effects of Mobius, as this is an interesting field. At CanJam SoCal I had the opportunity to experience Smyth Research’s Realizer A16 and their approach to DSP. Have you had a chance to listen to the A16, and in a few years, will you be able to implement a similar technology in future revisions of Mobius?
Sankar: We greatly respect Smyth Research and the A16 product, in fact we have one here, I can show you later. We tried to convince them to use the LCDs for their demos in the past, but it did not go forward. Anyway, we think of the 3D audio in two aspects. When we look at the consumer gaming industry, the Mobius needs to have zero setup.
Bharat: Are you referring to Plug and Play?
Sankar: Yes. For example, if we developed an app to help setup and adjust the sound preferences for Mobius, only 1 in 10 people would install and use the app as intended. Everything has to simply work from the moment you take the headphones out of the box. The market is very different for Smyth. You may have noticed the A16 demo required quite a bit of calibration, and it was a complex setup. This area of 3D audio is very fascinating, and there are exciting developments in this area. We see how Smyth Research has affected the 3D audio market with other companies such as JVC that are trying something similar to the A16 Realizer.
I think we’ll see very different methods trying to achieve what Smyth has accomplished, with varying degrees of success. One of the things we we can do is disable the head tracking in the Mobius headphone, but instead send the head tracking data to the plug ins in Pro Tools and use more complicated models to execute 3D audio. So, some processing is in the headphone (the Mobius 3D audio technology is based on Waves NX), and for a consumer level product that is what you want. But in a more demanding environment for instance, if you want to professionally mix in a studio, you will need more fidelity and accuracy. The good thing with Mobius is we’ve allowed for expandability, we can scale up the Mobius by sending the information back to the software and allowing your computer to do the heavy lifting.
The head tracking function in the Mobius is fixed, you can adjust a few things of course, but for instance we don’t measure the listeners ears and account for that in the Mobius, this would be impractical. However we could theoretically do this in a plug in in the future. We see the Mobius headphone as the beginning of a new innovative platform with different variations of Mobius in future. We will have newer technologies as we further iterate the product. For example the mobile mode does automatic centering.
Bharat: What is the significance of automatic centering?
Sankar: So let’s look at Smyth since we’ve been talking about this. The A16 product is great, but what if you want to go on a train or a plane where your positioning changes but your perceived body movement stays the same? How would centering still work? Building off of the Waves NX technology, we have addressed this problem with the Mobius. The Mobius can differentiate the movement of your head to macro movements. This means the headphones centers on the fly without the user realizing. So I see what Smyth is doing and what we are doing as two very different markets with two very different approaches.
Bharat: There are different technologies for recording and listening to different sounds in a 3D space. What aspects do value in 3D sound when using a Mobius?
Sankar: Our goal is to create an ‘outside the head’ feeling to emulate a natural environment. First you want a headphone that is EQ’d very flat so any DSP used has a neutral foundation to work with. We want to make sure the non-linearities in the frequency response are taken care of, this is similar to what the Reveal plug in does. It doesn’t add anything or color the sound, all it does right now is provide an ideal frequency response. We want to establish a very linear headphone without coloration.
The second thing we do with the Mobius is employ the use of a head related transfer function (HRTF). This HRTF is designed for a particular head, there are multiple way to implement a HRTF into a system. The simplest way is to implement it the way we’ve done in the Mobius. This involves measuring the head circumference, approximating it and inputting it in the function. The WAVES NX Model is the one we use for the Mobius in conjunction with the measurements of the head and adjust it as necessary.
A second approach that some companies, such as THX, are pursuing models that rely on a picture of the users ear, which is then uploaded in the cloud. It creates a HRTF model based on a machine learning algorithm and compares it to other HRTF’s then finalizes the HRTF and gives it to you. The third way to do it use two microphones when sitting in a contained environment, similar to what Smyth Research did with the A16 Realizer demo at CanJam. The closer you get to the true HRTF, it will sound better and more realistic. But there is some research that shows people don’t like to listen to their own HRTF, I think this was in an AES paper Jude Mansilla showed me.
However, another aspect others may overlook is the ‘room sound’, or the room impulse response. A jazz band playing in a stadium environment will sound quite different compared to a cozy jazz cafe. Now, you can measure room impulse response in multiple ways, there is software that can perform room emulation of hundreds of locations. In the Mobius we use a simple room with a first order reflections calculator which is done in the Mobius hardware in real time. Smyth probably does this as well with their bigger DSP.
So far I’ve discussed three aspects we look at regarding 3D sound, however there is a fourth aspect as well. The fourth one is head tracking. If you do all these things, for example, our brain uses intra aural time difference, intra level differences and head shadow to figure out the direction of where the sound is coming. But how do you reconcile this with cone of confusion? If I placed you without any visual cues in an anechoic chamber, and put sound in front, it would be a challenge to determine if the sound was coming from the front or back due to the loss of room reflections.
Head movement is how brain differentiates front and back noise.
This also applies to visuals, if a visual appears at the front, your brain will automatically think sound is coming from there. Therefore visuals and head tracking information used in conjunction is useful. When we put head tracking on the Mobius using the Waves NX algorithm, the micro movements the head produces contribute to the 3D experience. The brain is used to these micro movements, and while we may perceive our head is still, the tracking software actually visualizes the constant movements our head makes and our software constantly adjusts for it allowing for a convincing auditory experience. The micro movements actually contribute to front and back imaging very well, and that is one of the many reasons why we put all these advanced features into the Mobius.
Bharat: Can you describe the advanced features the Mobius has?
Sankar: In terms of complexity, it packs a lot of technology you wouldn’t find on either a hifi product or a gaming product. Mobius has several inputs including USB C, analogue and Bbluetooth, and you can use this in any scenario. We actually convert the analog input (if this is used) back into digital and every input signal goes through the DSP layer. The DSP itself utilizes a Waves NX algorithm, after this it goes to the EQ layer, then the signal travels to the DAC/amplifier which finally goes to the planar magnetic driver. The gyroscopes and accelerometer feed the head tracking information to the DSP, and if you look at the architecture, it’s similar to a PC as we have an internal processor that is constantly running in the background to output the best sound possible. We have software, firmware and desktop applications on the PC/Mac communicating with Mobius, this the most advanced headphone we’ve ever made. We are also proud of the LDAC feature (courtesy of Microchip) which gives the listener excellent quality over a wireless signal. Keep in mind, we can apply our DSP for both head tracking and room emulation on top of LDAC. And if you don’t use LDAC, no worries, you can use the analogue input and not lose any DSP functions.
When we started to test the Mobius with some gamers, they said ‘I use the headphone over USB, but I would like to use Discord to chat with my friends over Bluetooth’. At the time this wasn’t available in the prototype Mobius, but from a technical standpoint the Mobius did support simultaneous input. So we thought ‘Why don’t we mix the two sources?’. So one of the features in the Mobius is if you are on USB C game audio, you can still be on discord chatting with your friends over Bluetooth. The end result is that the people chatting with you won’t hear any game audio.
Bharat: Have you approached companies such as Microsoft and bundle Mobius as part of the console?
Sankar: Well, if you look at the market for gaming, is nearly split evenly between console and PC. Since Mobius is our first headphone, we decided lets make it for PC gaming first as a viability test, but Mobius does work for PS4. In fact I can show you our PS4 testing station near the office entrance, it’s quite popular with our staff.
The larger challenge for consoles, is their security restrictions and licensing requirements. It makes more sense for us to take one step at a time, and go with the PC gaming market first. We will be extremely happy with getting Mobius out of the door and into customers hands. The thing is, we are a small company, and the team that worked on this is small compared to the technology and work that we put into it.
Bharat: Have you thought about sponsoring any gaming tournaments to increase brand recognition across a more general audience?
Sankar: Unfourtuanly, sponsoring gaming tournaments is prohibitively expensive for us. The traditional way we generate advertising is word of mouth. We let our products do the marketing for us, as we create some of the most innovative headphones in the world, such as the LCDi4 and iSine product line. For instance, when Apple announced they were dropping the headphone jack, Forbes published an article about our Cipher cable product, and we were suddenly in the spotlight. We had no idea Apple had any intention of dropping the headphone jack when we developed and launched Cipher, and this ‘perfect timing’ with the iPhone 7 launch caused a huge spike in traffic and sales on our website.As you know, Apple sold our Lighting cable headphones such as the EL8 Titanium and iSine 10 headphones and our customers love these products.
So no, we will not be a headline sponsor for large gaming events, it’s better to let Mobius do the advertising for us. Also the gaming advertising market in general is extremely competitive, the amount of money needed to make a push in that area would not result in a great enough return for us.
Bharat: If I’m not mistaken, all of your headphones are planar magnetic. Do you see yourself moving to electrostatic or will you stick with planar technology?
Sankar: Well, we are an audio technology company. Right now we think planar is the best way we can showcase our technological contributions, but we are not limited to one particular technology. We have many different things in R&D and active exploration is important so we can bring the best solutions to the market.
Bharat: In the process of making and tuning the headphones such as the tonality and frequency response, how are these decisions made? Is it done by a committee, or a single person?
Sankar: We have a CTO that is the primarily responsible for the final tuning for the headphones. The same team has been around for awhile so everyone is intimately familiar with the inherent expectations. Our tuning is based on the Audeze house curve. In the early days of Audeze, we put a lot of R&D into speakers and we want our headphones to sound as natural as possible. We created our own reference recordings so we know details such as how the recording sounds to our ears, how the source was placed in relation to the microphone, how the source sounds on the original speakers, how the room affected reverberation etc. Our goal is to replicate that sound perfectly in our headphones.
For example, our headphones have excellent imaging, and we pay close attention to details such as what angle the persons instrument was to the microphone and the distance of the instrument from the microphone. We want to achieve the most accurate imaging possible, and this is only possible with our intimate familiarity with our in house reference recordings.
Bharat: I noticed you have some VR products such as the iSine VR. Do you see that line expanding, where do you see this going?
Sankar: The Mobius is actually a growth of this, the Mobius is an excellent VR creation tool due to its ability to implement 3D soundstage through software. I think whether its use in VR, AR or games, it’ll have a big impact in the future. Our goal was to see how could we get in this area in time, and could we bring to market a solution that addresses unmet needs. From a consumer VR perspective we don’t really have a play at this point. We made an iSine VR headphone for Oculus and Vive but it’s not a market we are going after. What’s interesting is the majority of VR headsets are not really good, and we wanted to show people VR doesn’t automatically doom a user to sub par audio. There are high quality VR headsets coming on the market now, but the VR market is in its early stages and its growth depends on quality VR content being created. As it stands, the Mobius is the best VR content creator headphone in the world, and the most versatile headphone period.
Bharat: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Sankar: Well, 5 years is too long of a timeline for me to think about. Perhaps three years?
Actually speaking of timeline, I have an interesting story regarding one of our headphones, the EL8 and EL8 Titanium. We worked with the BMW Design Works, they are north of LA. In fact, they developed the i3, i8 and other electric cars and they’re local. So we worked with them on the design of some of our headphones. I asked the head of design, Neil, how do you design something for the future? Designing cars for the future is a difficult task, especially as you are working with designs that may be implemented 8-10 years from now. What he told me has stuck with me and I take this into consideration whenever we develop a headphone. He said “Ten years from now, if I want to drive a car, what are the key essentials I need? Then I work backwards. If I want to achieve this in ten years, what do I need to achieve in five years from now, three years from now?”. And this is the design process from BMW Design Works.
So we tried to do something similar at Audeze, I mean we can’t do exactly what they do, we don’t have the same resources as BMW Design Works. If you look at Mobius, our intention is very clear, we think 3D audio will be an important part of the audio market five years from now especially with many games supporting it. And gaming has become mainstream, it’s now embedded in our culture and entertainment. Immersive entertainment is making making an appearance in film, games, and music such as soundtracks. So in five years, if we want really immersive sounding headphones, what can we achieve two years from now, three years from now, so we work backwards. Mobius represents what we can achieve today and goes toward our goal of creating really immersive products.
Bharat: Do you see any left field innovative company completely changing the headphone market?
Sankar: It could. For instance tomorrow, someone could come up with a way to make graphene more efficiently. But if you look at it, most of the headphone companies that hang their hat on audio quality, have been around for quite a long time. For instance, Shure will soon be 100 years old. Same with Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser.
The headphone industry is a mature field, and we have seen planars are making a comeback due to innovations in the planar space. However we have to live with the limitations of physics, you need to move air, and there may be new ways of doing it with new materials.
For Audeze, we were able to make a breakthrough in materials science and make a nano meter film, which contributes to LCD4’s remarkable sound. Our company has a history of taking risks and building things no one else has ever built, just look at the in ear planar headphone LCDi4. We will continue to innovate our way through this industry, regardless of how big the competition is. We need to take risks to be successful, this is the American way.
Bharat: What are your favorite Audeze headphones?
Sankar: Out latest headphone is the one I always carry, you should buy two Mobius headphones, haha! But seriously, I listen to Mobius constantly, and I love its customizable DSP, even our flagship LCD4 doesn’t have this option.
Bharat: Wow, this has been an incredible interview, thank you so much for your time.Sankar: No problem, it was fun.