Last week, iLounge published the inaugural edition of iDesign, a new series of articles designed to spotlight impressive industrial designs in the iPod and iPhone world. Our first iDesign focused on the Vibe family of earphones from V-Moda, a Los Angeles-based company that has focused on making fashionable audio accessories. Response to the Vibe edition of iDesign has been overwhelmingly positive, and as promised, we contacted the company after publication for an interview to illuminate more of the design process. V-Moda’s CEO Val Kolton enthusiastically agreed, and the interview was conducted this week.
What follows is a series of 10 questions and answers with Mr. Kolton, who worked on the design of the Vibe family along with a team of other V-Moda staffers: Joseph Bucknall, a co-designer and lead color designer; Mike Martin, the Vibe Duo microphone’s co-designer; Aaron Fournier, responsible for acoustics and engineering; Matt Altschul, an engineer and project manager; Ann Lewis, a project manager, and a number of others who helped to craft the Vibes and guarantee quality during the manufacturing process. We hope that you enjoy this revealing look inside the creation of a novel and popular new product.
(1) Tell us the behind the scenes story of the original Vibe.
Val Kolton, V-Moda: V-Moda is a music lifestyle brand. “Moda” means fashion in Italian, and our brand’s focus is on making products that have sight, sound, and touch: progressive industrial design, the latest music and sound technology, and innovative use of materials.
The Vibe concept was actually developed before our other two headphones, as my original goal was to only release higher-end and very progressively designed gear. I noticed that almost all the competitors looked like hearing aids or medical, lab rat-dissecting equipment, and I wanted our product to look like jewelry or “hearwear” as we started calling it.
V-Moda’s designers sweated the details, sifting through numerous possible cable materials as shown in these prototypes
Vibe went through many “skins” before the design became final. We were one of the first to use an all-metal design, and honestly my goal from day one was to create a product with no plastic. We finally accomplished that with Vibe Duo Nero, the first headphone in which the external parts are entirely aluminum, fabric, and gold plating from the housing to the plug.
On sound, it took quite some time to tune our dynamic drivers to create the detail and 3-D soundstage we wanted, yet achieve what we feel is a perfect balance with the bass levels that our rock/DJ culture brand is going to be known for.
(2) Why did you pick the first slate of colors you released with Vibe?
VK: The first two colors were almost basic, our interpretations of black (Gunmetal Black) and white (chrome and shiny black). Essentially we learned that even though colors look cool, people love the basics, so we gave the people what they wanted, and then I made colors I wanted.
The original Gunmetal Black and Flashblack Chrome Vibes
Gunmetal Black was Porsche 911-inspired, and the greenish/olive tint paid homage to Porsche’s tint. Flashblack Chrome was the first product we developed to appeal to chrome car and motorcycle lovers, as I love both and I wanted to do something the sport bike, sports cars, and Harley guys would appreciate.
La Mocha, shown, was originally touted as a possible complement to Microsoft’s ill-fated brown Zune
The combination of brown leather and gold is huge in the fashion world; I had to make a product, La Mocha, to match the trend. “LA” actually stands for “Los Angeles,” and the red accent represented V-Moda’s red logo color. Red Roxx, the next color, was made to launch on Valentine’s Day, and to match Apple’s Product Red Nano when it first launched. It is my personal favorite to this day.
(3) Wasn’t at least one color of Vibe developed specifically for international sale?
VK: La Mocha was a limited production run Vibe, and first available only in Japan. We have also developed colors that are initially only available at Apple, and now have a color just for V-Moda.com, which is a Gunmetal Rouge Vibe Duo.
The new Gunmetal Rouge Vibe Duo, shown at front, joins the black Nero and Chrome versions previously released
(4) What sorts of subtle differences did you build into the various original Vibe versions? Why?
VK: Our three goals besides design are to always make sure that our current shipping products pass these tests: 1) the majority of customers should enjoy the product’s sound, which includes a unique “V-Moda” sound signature, 2) the fit should be comfortable, stable and secure, and 3) the possibility of damaging the product during use should be minimized.
One of the first changes that happened after the first few were made was that the driver was slightly tweaked so that it had slightly more bass emphasis. Many recent rock songs were being recorded “hot” with lots of treble and layers, such as Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Also, many novices can’t get in-canal ear tips to fit their ears properly, and therefore don’t hear enough bass, and we wanted to keep up with the current shipping iPods’ stock EQ settings when we match the sound curve with current music genres and tracks. The hard-core audiophiles loved the original detail a little bit more, but our overall reviews skyrocketed and even the audiophiles enjoyed the “fun” and 3-D sound signature we have built. I describe this signature as “organic” or natural with some emphasis on bass that makes music sound live. In the latest batch of Vibe and Vibe Duos with the new iPhone compatible plugs, we have ever so slightly increased the treble back up due to the iPhone and current batch of Apple products’ sound levels with the EQ set to off, which fluctuates slightly over time.
Red Roxx recently saw its color strengthened just a little, a change barely visible in the newer version shown at bottom
Our ear tips were changed at the beginning to be ever so slightly thicker, which actually made them more comfortable to users, and which you noted in your review also increased bass response; this actually raised customer reviews quite a bit. Our plug has been changed slightly to also fit the iPhone, be easier to unplug, and minimize damage with added strain relief. We noticed people like to wrap their headphones around the iPod, which obviously creates a lot of pressure on both the plug of the headphones and the actual female jack inside the iPod. Users, don’t do this if it’s a habit!
The leather pouch changed from gold to black, due to consumer requests. I still love the gold, but over time I also have preferred the new black as the fashionable colors change every season! Just like fashion, our brand goal is to continuously change colors and themes, to be current and ahead of modern trends.
(5) You recently released an additional Vibe color, Midnight Blue. How did you pick it, and why didn’t you try to match a current Apple color this time?
V-Moda’s CEO wasn’t a fan of bright blue; consumer requests and tinkering led to the darker Midnight Blue
VK: Midnight Blue was developed due to consumer demand for a blue Vibe, from your feedback when I showed a prototype, forums, internally, and from our website contact form. We actually didn’t try to exactly match a current Apple product, as you mentioned. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of blue anymore—I prefer Olive Green and Red—but I discovered it was the hues that I wasn’t a fan of, not the color. When I darkened it much more, blue again won me over.
At least two green prototypes of Vibe exist, each a different tint, with different cords and accent colors
We figured most people would use it with any color iPod. especially black or grey, and the hue is in the same family as the iPod, so it can create a perfect color accessory on its own, or it can complement Apple’s blue. As our products are sold separately from players, this color, La Mocha, and Gunmetal Rouge were developed entirely to look cool by themselves, complement many player colors, and most importantly the fashion sense of the wearer. Interestingly, the players are also usually in pockets or cases, and the only thing showing is the cable and headphones. So we think it’s cool to make a statement with your headphones!
One of the green prototypes nearly matches the first green iPod shuffle, but can V-Moda’s color picks stand on their own?
Interestingly, it does take us quite a long time—from 1-6 months—and attention to every detail to make one color perfectly, all the way from the metal to the cables.
(6) Tell us about the development of the two versions of Vibe Duo.
VK: The first version of Vibe Duo did not have a button, as it was originally made to be used with all cell phones—we are developing adapters now for Duo—and we wanted the mic to be almost invisible in the cable. Since all manufacturers have different “wiring” standards for the button, this means that it wont work in most phones and actually creates odd noises, so people think the product is defective. This is why nearly all “universal” headsets do not have a button—even many “made for the iPhone.”
The right-hand prototype of Vibe Duo in Chrome showed V-Moda’s original microphone; the final version expanded to include a control button
However, after we released Vibe Duo, Apple let us know that it had implemented playback/answer functions in the stock model microphone, and we released the iPhone/Blackberry Curve compatible button model soon after. Consumers were very happy about this. The microphone also has undergone exhaustive road testing to make sure it works well in ambient sound environments, such as driving cars —even my convertible—while using an iPhone.
(7) Over the course of Vibe and Vibe Duo’s lives, you’ve tried all sorts of different cords. What motivated you to go with everything from clear plastic to rubber and fabric versions, given that there can be performance differences in cables with those materials?
VK: Most things in life have tradeoffs… and we have done exhaustive research on cables, since they make up the longest part of a headphone. Cables should be special so that people prefer them over Bluetooth; they wont have to charge, and they get higher-quality stereo sound.
The things we look for in cables are whether they perform well for jogging when they’re length and weight optimized, minimize tangles, minimize “microphonics,” look cool, feel cool, and are resistant to damage. Our clear plastic with metal braid cables, found in Red Roxx, Flashblack Chrome, and Chrome, have the least tangle properties, and are some of the most intriguing looking cables we make as they reflect light in unique ways.
However, in the interest of “feeling cool,” the rubber and fabric cables offer a much more tactile touch. The silk/rubber cable feels silky and/or smooth, and is very durable to “audiophiles” who are sensitive to having thick cables. Our fabric cables took a while to develop as too many of our competitors’ versions frayed or have too much microphonics. As we improved these areas for over a year, we felt that nothing beats the tactile touch, or just plain cool factor of having an all-metal, all-fabric headphone, although they do have more microphonics, so we include a clip to minimize that and have put dampeners in the ends of the buds. They really are all unique and have their own benefits, just like every person!
(8) Have you learned any lessons from the original Vibe and Vibe Duo production runs that have helped to improve later runs?
VK: One of the key differentiators at V-Moda is that we have at least one full-time V-Moda employee on the production lines at all times; one of our quality control engineers actually was a lab technician and editor for Consumer Reports, in addition to several audio speaker companies. Since we advertise and discuss our sound quality, this allows us to have a consistent sound curve “mask” that makes each one’s sound difference indistinguishable to the human ear, as you have noted that less expensive headphones sound very inconsistent since they have little quality control and no strict mask dB controls.
The metal shell of a Vibe: three separate pieces of metal, not including the driver, grille, or cabling
These speakers are very tiny, and unlike a big speaker, any micro variance in the thickness of padding, or one tiny extra drop of glue or size of a part can change the sound dramatically. In some pilot production runs, we were recycling about 50% of our products on the assembly line until they passed our four sound test stations. Now we only recycle a small percentage and have had a huge progress in our “yield,” similar to the semiconductor industry. We feel some competitors wouldn’t have recycled a single unit. My motto is that “I personally won’t sell a product I wouldn’t use myself.”
(9) What would you say to users who have expressed concerns about the build or sound quality of the Vibes?
VK: The hardest part about headphones is that they are small microelectronics that are put in a physically different enivornment then a home speaker. Would you throw your high-end home speaker in your gym or book bag with weight on them, sit on them, or sweat on them? That’s what happens to headphones, and we build and test them in every way possible to anticipate and prevent damage. However, even in the event of a problem, we have the best service in the industry and will replace the unit promptly. Customer satisfaction is our top priority for the long term of our brand! We even have found people on forums who said they had a problem, and contacted them to assist! Recently several people have ran Vibes through washing machines and haven’t had a problem, and I personally have snagged many Vibes in elliptical machines, but haven’t had a problem thus far, knock on wood.
A prototype version of Chrome, shown on the right, used a thicker, more silver cable than the final version
Sound is very subjective, but as we have mentioned our overall reviews are overwhelmingly positive and that’s the best we can do is to please the majority! And as an extreme audiophile, techie, and musician myself, I always make a product that I would use myself and I use that as my litmus test.
I have many of our competitors’ products, and in development I wanted to make a product I’d choose over any of them even if they all were available for my use. It is true that our products have extra bass, but we try to balance this as best as we can with detail and clarity, and the player’s sound signature when coupled with popular music. And when we release our music mixes, they will be fully optimized to take full advantage of the iPod/iPhone and Vibes’ sound signatures. Content sound signature, playback device sound signature, and headphones sound signature create the full loop of a musical experience. Again my goals are majority positive feedback, and to match common music and devices.
(10) What’s next from V-Moda’s designers?
VK: Our 2008 line up includes a full music-inspired fashion line, DJ music mixes and compilations, in addition to unique professional equipment that will create a full musical experience and style.
Found amidst V-Moda’s prototypes: a sample of a certain popular color; is the company ready to think pink?
Expect new designs, new colors, new materials, professional products, and of course an extreme focus on both design and sound. And a whole lot of music-inspired fashion products with a focus on DJ, house, and rock culture. We now have new design and engineering studios in both Hollywood and Milan, Italy.
And our other focus is on music content itself, as my girlfriend (DJ Loli), myself, and other DJs and rockers are working hard on releasing mixes of electro house and indie rock music that represents Los Angeles and the evolving DJ and rock music scene around the world with Ibiza, Latin, and European influences.
iLounge: Thank you for your time.
VK: Thanks for such a great publication. Like V-Moda, iLounge’s attention to detail, unparalleled content, packaged with innovative design is also what sets your site apart! The whole V-Moda team is extremely appreciative of the new iDesign section, and its ability to discuss products that have an attention to design and detail. We all feel it’s a very accurate history of the V-Moda headphone products thus far, and cannot wait to share the future product design history soon!