Detroit's Shinola Makes Bid for Crowded High-End Headphones Market

Courtesy of Shinola
Canfield Over-Ear Headphones

The market is getting more crowded now with news that Apple is also hopping in.

With Apple reportedly developing a new line of Apple-branded over-the-ear headphones that could compete with its own Beats By Dre line, the high-end headphone market is suddenly getting even more crowded.

Though it seems like a left-field bid, Shinola CEO Tom Lewand doesn’t think it’s odd at all that his Detroit-based company -- known for making bespoke watches, bicycles, handbags and jewelry -- has branched out into designer audio over the past two years.

“For us, it’s an authentic commitment to being in the multi-billion dollar audio space and it’s not a one-off,” says Lewand, of the company’s recent bid to take on such headphone giants as Apple’s Beats with its $195 Canfield in-ear monitors and sleek $450 over-ear headphones. “We invested heavily in the design and development and we think we’re doing it in a way that’s consistent with our other categories. It starts with quality and craftsmanship like we did with the watches and leather goods and does it in a way that we hope establishes some credibility in the space."

Lewand saw an opening in the mid-to-high-end headphone niche, which is part of a headphone and earphone market that Stratistics MRC reported in 2017 could grow from a $9.6 billion to $13.82 billion global business by 2023. FutureSource Consulting’s Zlata Jelisejeva tells Billboard that in 2017, the premium headphones market ($200 and up) was projected to grow 15 percent in units (to 14 million) and 17 percent in revenues to $3.5 billion, with North American and Western Europe driving the market demand.

The Shinola boss says he's focused on getting the products right, and then pushing toward future expansion into other lines that could include wireless offerings and an “enhancement” of their current bookshelf speaker line; he declined to share the company's sales targets for the headphones.

Shinola's jump to audio began in late 2016 with the Runwell Turntable, made in conjunction with respected turntable manufacturer VPI and under the guiding ears of Alex Rosson. The former CEO of pioneering headphone manufacturer Audeze came on board at Shinola for a two year-stint, to help fine-tune the products and give the Motor City company the same credible, marketable aesthetic that has made its other goods favorites in what Lewand calls the “approachable luxury” category.

While Lewand declined to disclose how much money Shinola poured into R&D on the headphone line, he says the company made the “necessary” capital investment to give the products a warmth and richness of sound, which he says will surprise seasoned audiophiles. “I’m not a technical guy, but what we tell our customers is that when you put on a pair of Shinola headphones and listen to a song you’ve heard hundreds of times, you will hear things you’ve never heard before,” he says of the range -- which was personally tuned by Rosson’s “golden ear."

Teaming with Audeze co-founder Rosson and Portland’s respected Campfire Audio (for the in-ear models) was one way to bake authenticity into the products, which have so far met with mixed to good reviews for their audio quality from some consumer reviewers, while earning the expected plaudits for their sleek, sturdy design. 

“They are beautiful,” says Stereophile Senior Contributing Editor Michael Fremer, who has spent a lot of time testing out the company’s turntables and said of Shinola's headphones: "the sound-producing element appears high in quality," even as he felt the bass/mid-bass heavy tonal balance obscured the detail at times.

“They clearly spent a lot on building, designing, advertising and promoting [their audio products]… and if you go into a hi-fi showroom now, you will find a room where there are just headphones and all these young people in their teens and 20s are way into it. When they hear good sound, the first thing they realize is that they’ve been bullshitted by Apple and all these companies saying MP3 sound is fine, and you can’t hear the difference. This is growth market right now and I imagine Shinola is figuring they’ve got the brand and the clientele, and those people will be interested in Shinola’s take on headphones whether they sound good or not.”

As for the high price point, Lewand says it’s consistent with Shinola’s other product categories, with the promise of polished steel and real leather accents that present a stark contrast with the plastic and vinyl materials often found in comparable products.

In addition to the potential competition that could come from Apple's headphones -- which could launch by year's end -- the crowded headphone market includes such prominent players as Sony, Skullcandy, Bose and Sennheiser, with Apple and Beats currently making up a 27 percent share of the total market, according to NPD Group.

And, there's yet another new entry into the field from Melbourne, Australia-based Nura that uses an innovative touch that could join Shinola in disrupting the field. Nura launched the $399 Nuraphone in October as a "smart," self-learning headphone that promises to automatically measure your hearing and use the information it collects to "sonically mold the sound of the headphones to perfectly match your hearing, and bring your music back into sharp focus." The Nuraphone recently won the 2018 CES "Best of Innovation Award."