A story of Sennheiser
Sennheiser’s position today as renowned headphone-meisters grew from expertise in microphones and a few other interesting sidelines...
In these histories we have seen several hi-fi companies starting their own record labels, partly to better understand the recording processes in order to deliver better hi-fi reproduction. Sennheiser is a company that grew from the start in the opposite direction — making its mark first in microphones and recording systems before using that expertise to deliver decades of the class-leading headphones for which hi-fi fans best know the brand. While this history will focus on the hi-fi side, we should not forget the range of fields into which Sennheiser today has grown — high-end microphones and headsets for the music, entertainment and broadcasting industries, but also specialised gear for call centres, museums and conference audio, also making hearing aids and specialist audiology lines, and not forgetting the company’s subsidiary Neumann, also a world leader in studio microphones.
Sennheiser’s founder, Fritz Sennheiser, had initially considered landscape gardening as a career but, given Germany’s economy in the 1930s, he switched his ambitions to electrical engineering, studying wave theory, electroacoustics and encoded language transmission — subjects of increasing importance as the German war effort grew. Post-war he chose to stay in Germany and use his own capital to start a radio mechanics workshop and research lab with seven employees — he called it Laboratorium Wennebostel, or ‘Labor W’ for short. Initial equipment for the company was severely limited to the little left intact by the Allied occupying forces, not to mention their rules criminalising radio frequency research. So the team travelled to find tools and materials to purchase with barter as well as cash — Fritz Sennheiser once received a lathe in exchange for “half a pig”. Such entrepreneurialism paid off, with Labor W securing a deal with Siemens to supply voltmeters and then a microphone for radio stations, rebuilding the ‘DM 1’ microphone from an existing model, then designing their own improved mike, the DM 2, and in 1950 the DM 3, a cunningly slim “invisible microphone” which didn’t block an audience’s view of live performers as had previous models.
The innovation continued with the MD 4 noise-cancelling microphone in 1951, the rugged MD 21 reporter’s microphone in 1954, and the MD 93 in 1956 with a reversible microphone/speaker ideal for the likes of dictating machines, already a sideline for the company, along with telephone receivers and hearing aids, thanks to the company’s coin-sized miniature microphones. With radio research resumed, Labor W delivered the Mikroport wireless transmission system in 1958, its small microphone and pocket transmitter revolutionising movement for hosts on TV. And things went stereo in 1959 with the MDS 1 stereo microphone. In this boom time for electronics, Labor W grew rapidly, though Fritz Sennheiser initially tried to limit the company size, worried it was becoming overwhelmed by his own success; he would expand only using available cash-flow, to protect the company from the influence of outside investors. Yet with sales continuing to rocket, his limits of 100 then 300 employees were exceeded; by 1960 the company had 695 employees and Labor W was a major supplier to German companies, used by brand names such as Telefunken and Grundig. Realising the value of being a brand rather than merely supplying others, Fritz chose his own name as the company’s new shopfront, and in 1958 Labor W was officially renamed Sennheiser Electronic.
Establishing a network of dealers, and with an eye to export, Sennheiser’s brand-name business took off during the 1960s, driven by two bestsellers, the versatile MD 421 dynamic studio microphone, and a range of usefully-directional Sennheiser condenser ‘gun’ microphones, which became popular for sound capture in TV and film studios — they were responsible for Sennheiser’s adoption in Hollywood, further driving international acceptance. (Years later in 1987, Prof. Dr. Sennheiser would collect a technical Academy Award for the MKH 816 shotgun mike.) It also released another first in the ‘Babysitter’ baby monitor, in 1962.
These ideas were generated by the research department already central to the company’s development, where Fritz Sennheiser would encourage the ‘freedom to play’.
“Business isn’t only about selling products, it’s about selling ideas,” he said in 1995. “You cannot be an innovator in product design and development if your engineers are not allowed to tinker around and come up with new ideas.”
With home high fidelity now in its golden era, Sennheiser released the ‘Philharmonic’ in 1965 as the first high-fidelity system with active speakers, a mixer and, yes, a remote control. It was expensive, and not a huge success, but the next consumer innovation proved a winner, when in 1967 it patented a design for the first open dynamic stereo headphone — an idea discovered by just the kind of “freedom to play” encouraged at Sennheiser, when an engineer noticed that a closed headphone sounded better with the ends removed. This was a clear break from existing capsule designs, and the HD 414 was released the following year, Sennheiser’s first headphone. It was unsure of the market — perhaps remembering the Philharmonic — and some felt that the initial production of 5000 headsets was over-optimistic. But the HD 414 went on to sell more than 10 million units, the best-selling headphone ever, and remains instantly recognisable even now, half a century on. Rather than being left with unsold stock, the company was in full production for many years to meet demand.
On a sound business footing now, but facing competition from rising Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers with lower costs, Sennheiser spent the 1970s consolidating its lines and developing its networks all over the world. In 1973 it became a limited partnership (with Fritz’s son Jörg, already an acoustic engineer with the company), and in 1977 Fritz Sennheiser used a suitcase of cash to buy the buildings of a nearby bankrupt company which he transformed into a new production subsidiary. Five years later he handed the company reins fully to Jörg Sennheiser, who as CEO launched a development plan differentiating consumer and professional divisions.
Fritz Sennheiser, 1935, as he transformed from landscape gardener to electrical engineer.
All our own work – the Labor W logo adorns the pedestal of the DM 2 mike.
1968: the HD 414 was Sennheiser’s highly successful first open dynamic headphone design.