I recently interviewed Jonathan Levine, the founder and CEO of the New York-based premium audio brand Master & Dynamic, about his company and their products. We’ve become big fans of the brand since their 2014 launch, and it was winderful to have a moment to talk to Jonathan about the company.
Gear Diary: Some of our readers may see prices of $300 and up for a pair of on-ear or over-ear headphones as a bit intimidating. What would you say to encourage those who are on the fence to go ahead and invest in a premium pair of headphones?
Jonathan Levine: I’ll never forget this; I met with someone at the 2015 CES, and they asked the question, “do you think that you are building headphones of such quality and durability that it might impact your sales?” I had never thought about it like that — we just build great quality headphones. I’m not trying to create a headphone ecosystem where they need to be replaced in a year or two. In a world where so many products need to be replaced because their tech is outdated every six months, nothing pleases me more than making headphones that last and last, that are durable — the worst case being that their materials might develop a patina. There are a lot of choices below our price point, but I think people will be pleased with the quality and longevity of our products.
Gear Diary: Master & Dynamic is known for their “focus on great design, luxury materials, amazing craftsmanship, and uncompromising performance, comfort, and sound.” I appreciate that you all use leather on your earcups versus faux leather and its variants, but what made you go with leather over a different material such as suede. Was it a touch thing? Or was it something else?
Jonathan: Leather was always the “go-to” for me — I never thought of using pleather or anything else. We use lambskin because it is durable and great for acoustics. With that said, we do offer some headphones with Alcantara, a vegan cloth that feels almost like suede; it feels fantastic, and it’s on both the ear cups and the headbands of those headphones. Right now it is only offered on the MH30 and MH40, but we will be launching it on the MW50 and MW60 headphones as well.
Gear Diary: Do you have any plans for incorporating an app or any functionality with third parties such as Alexa, Spotify, and other popular media apps?
Jonathan: The short answer is no. I think we are really more focused on the hardware and the technology in the hardware. I think that there was a time when companies thought they had to have their own apps, perhaps for vanity, who knows, but I look at my own life — I have three dozen apps on my phone, but I might actually only use two or three. We just try to simplify things and let people use what they want.
Gear Diary: The fact that the MW60 headphones are wireless is awesome. But for users who enjoy being plugged into their devices or who want to continue using their headphones after the battery dies (but they don’t have 3.5mm jacks), are there plans to add cables for Lightning or USB-C for an additional fee?
Jonathan: That answer is yes — whether it be for our corded headphones or wireless headphones, we will offer those. In certain cases, we will sell them as add-on accessories (for people who have already purchased headphones), but going forward we will probably just include them as part of the overall retail experience. We want people to be able to buy our headphones and use them right out of the box, with no upsell on accessories.
Gear Diary: What are the sound performance differences between the MH40 headphones versus the MW60 headphones? Are you making any sacrifices by buying a wireless pair of headphones?
Jonathan: You’re not giving up a thing, whether you go wired or wireless. What we are most proud of with the MW60, well, to back up for a moment, there was a debate in the audio world — whether you could get the same sound from analog versus wireless. If I were to summarize the majority of all of our products’ reviews, we have cracked the code of being able to create the same sound whether you are using wired or wireless headphones. And of course, on all of our wireless headphones, you can pass through with a wire if you ever want to compare or get the full analog experience.
Gear Diary: Miguel Cotto (the boxer) heavily endorses your brand and their headphones. Are there other athletes and celebrities that you work closely with to push the brand?
Jonathan: We don’t really speak about the celebrities who use our brand very much; we treat it privately, and they respect us for it. We let the brand speak for itself. Our brand has grown organically — not because we pay celebrities to use our headphones or because we want them to promote the brand — we just love that they become fans of the brand on their own.
[editor’s note – that was an incredibly refreshing answer — I am used to companies paying celebrities to promote their brand — to the point that you don’t know if the star even likes the brand or if they are just collecting a paycheck, so kudos to Master & Dynamic.]
Gear Diary: We’ve noticed that Master & Dynamic is for sale on Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP site; in fact, you’re the only premium brand they sell; can you tell us how that came about?
Jonathan: One of two ways. We have a great sales team with a background in fashion and luxury. The other possibility is that a guy in the music industry became a fan of the brand and suggested that GOOP should carry our products. Either way, it’s great.
Gear Diary: How would you describe the tuning of your headphones or the audience for whom you are tuning your headphones? And are all headphones in your line tuned the same, with a common goal in mind?
Jonathan: Yes, they all are tuned the same. That doesn’t mean we always use the same drivers; we use the best we can. For instance, our MW50s use a beryllium coated driver which is different than the MW60s. We are trying to achieve a sound that is genre neutral; our headphones should always simply sound amazing. In other words, we are in the music reproduction business, not the music production business. Some companies will tune for more bass or highs; we are trying to make the music sound as close as it can to what the artist intended.
Gear Diary: According to a report published on Apple Insider, 50% of all headphones sold in 2016 were wireless. How does this impact or shape the direction you take and the resources you allow for wired versus wireless?
Jonathan: Clearly, even before Apple removed the headphone jack, we had already launched our first wireless headphone, and we had more on the horizon. The market is moving toward wireless, and we are very well positioned toward that end. I have to admit, though, that I will miss the headphone jack because when you use one, everything is very tactile; when using wireless, I miss grabbing a woven cable and touching the metal end to plug into my device. While there will still be a market for wired products, the wave of the future is wireless. I credit Apple, though; they are leaders, and they pushed the market to adapt. I’m happy that we are well positioned to do so.
Gear Diary: According to that same report, pre-AirPods four companies (Beats, Bose, Jaybird, and Plantronics) held about 50% of the entire in-ear headphone market. Post-AirPods, Apple (between their Beats and AirPods) took over 40% of the market themselves — even with limited AirPod availability. How do you differentiate yourself and compete in such a tough environment?
Jonathan: Our plan is to enter the wireless in-ear market in 2017 with a few products introduced throughout the year. The way I see it, we don’t have to be first in a product line or model. We don’t design our products based on what our competition is doing, or when they do it; we like to be different and be the best in class. When we launch wireless in-ear headphones, the same consumer that is attracted to Master & Dynamic will be interested in them. The price we set will also attract a whole new set of customers who might not be ready to invest in over-ear headphones.
Gear Diary: What is your favorite pair of headphones in your lineup, and why?
Jonathan: Oh no, that’s like picking your favorite child! One of the things I’m very proud of, though — let’s take our headphones, the MH40, MH30, MW50, and MW60. If you were to line them up from end to end, you would see a recognizable Master & Dynamic material DNA throughout the lineup, but no two products look alike. Unlike some companies that might take a pair of their headphones and change little features to create the next model, ours are engineered from the ground up for that particular model each time we create a new style.
But since you are making me choose: I travel with the MH40s (over ear) all the time; I am still truly amazed by their comfort and how well they perform on long trips. It’s nice not to have to recharge them. Having said that, typically most men seem to prefer over-ear, so every time I see men out and about — wearing the MW50 (on-ear) headphones, I am impressed by how good they look — on both men and women.
Gear Diary: I have to ask … If you didn’t make headphones, what brand or particular pair would you prefer to use?
Jonathan: No one’s ever asked me that question! The reality is that I didn’t really use headphones before I started making them. I have a great collection of vintage headphones, though — so the answer would probably be the Pioneer SE-L40 headphones.
We appreciate Jonathon Levine taking the time to tell us more about Master & Dynamic — beyond what we could read on their About page. You can check out all of the great Master & Dynamic headphones on their site.