A story of Sennheiser

Sennheiser’s po­si­tion to­day as renowned head­phone-meis­ters grew from ex­per­tise in mi­cro­phones and a few other in­ter­est­ing side­lines...

Sound + Image - - Sennheiser -

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.

Sennheiser rises

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.

Fam­ily firm

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.

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