V-Moda CEO Val Kolton On Pursuit For Best Looking & Sounding Headphones [Interview]
The headphone market is a fickle place. It seems as though every single day a new company is popping up on the back of some endorser such as a rapper or celebrity DJ, espousing its sleek repurposed design at a eye-watering price without paying too much attention to how the product sounds. There are plenty of incredible sounding studio quality headphones that look like they belong in the studio and have a tough time attracting customers that want to have something fashionable to wear on the street. There are few companies that find a way to bridge these two worlds and V-Moda, led by its founder, Val Kolton, is one of them.
In the vision of its gregarious and outspoken leader Val Kolton, V-Moda (moda being the Italian word for fashion), built a product that looks and sounds great. At the high-end of the headphone market (these are not your cheap crusty sounding plastic earbuds), they will run you $200 to $300 for a pair, but if you value style and sound, consider the investment. The company wavered on wireless for a few years with technology not able to deliver on the right listening experience, but they just did roll out a new Wireless Crossfade, which will help push them into the future with the rumors running rampant of iPhone's ditching audiojacks and consumers looking to ditch wires.
We had the chance to chat with CEO Val Kolton from his new adopted home in Milan, Italy, the design headquarters for V-Moda about trying to navigate those turbulent waters, how long it takes to build products from start to finish, how he got started and much more. The future looks bright for V-Moda with some new products outside of their traditional headphone brand coming in 2017 that may surprise users. Read on for the interview, especially those who entered the record store day contest.
MT: What was the inspiration for starting V-Moda and did you ever think it wasn't going to work out?
Val: When I first started V-Moda I didn't know what I was going to do. When I started I was in Ibiza and had this epiphany that I wanted to start a music culture brand centered around dance music because I saw that dance music was going to become the framework of all modern music, become mainstream and that's exactly what's happened today. Electronic music is the backbone of so much hip-hop and crossover songs nowadays. Starting from pop songs and EDM and house, underground house music and techno and trance has grown to be commercial in Ibiza and festivals around the world.
So when I started V-Moda I actually wanted to create a music brand that revolved around the framework of electronic music. So for over a year when I was developing the brand I definitely had a lot of moments when I thought, "this isn't going to work". I went to Rodeo Drive, and after I started to DJ myself I really wondered what this brand is about? What are we going to make? I originally thought we were going to make clothing. But on Rodeo I saw a girl get out of a Rolls Royce wearing a feather hat and dressed in the craziest clothes yet she was wearing white iPhone headphone made of plastic. And I realized that's what's been missing. Headphones should be the symbol of music fashion and technology, and of V-Moda. So many brands like Polo revolve around sportsmanship, so I thought headphones could be the symbol of V-Moda and of music fashion and technology. From that day on I thought, "this is definitely going to work", and I haven't looked back since then.
MT: What attracted you to Italy?
Val: I've always been interested in design and fashion and it's one of the reasons we moved to Milan. Milan and the Lombardi area are where so many of the landmark brands are built. I live in what's called the quadrilateral de la moda, which is the "quad of fashion". Moda literally means fashion in Italian so I live in the quad of fashion which is where Armani, Versace, Prada, Roberto Kavali were built. The owners still live on these four streets with their offices and their flagship stores.
We're right across the street from D&G headquarters. It's interesting that all those brands are all based on four streets of a small city. Then you have the other motorsport and furniture brands such as high performance cars Ferrari, Ducati and Lamborghini and then you have the incredible furniture designs of the future. So when I moved to that part of Italy I thought there's got to be something in the water that makes everyone high end designers. I found out soon that it wasn't the water but the wine. It's very inspirational -- you get everything from the old. Our office has a 500-year old Fresco and our office is the same and yet we're living in the future of fashion, motorsports, and furniture.
MT: How long does it take to build from start to finish one of your headphones?
Val: The longest it's taken is almost twelve years now, which is our flagship headphone that isn't out yet and it's called "revolver". It's pretty much my dream headphone that should be in the Yufuzzi museum in Florence, but it's been in development for many years. But the average for over ear and in ear headphones is about three years, anywhere from 18-36 months. Unlike building a cell phone or anything with just electronics in it, where you pick a screen and components and you make a circuit board, headphones have human ergonomic considerations that make us have to redo them several times. The ergonomics of your head and your ears is a very big part of the sound. Durability is crucial, as headphones are right up there with luggage as being the most broken products on the planet if they're not built properly.
MT: Why has the revolver taken so long?
Val: Well we wanted to make it the epitome of the highest end headphone. We started off using three different drivers in each ear but found out that these crossovers don't work in headphones. So we changed the driver technology three times in it, almost four. The materials - it weighed too much so we had to change it to some exotic materials that weren't plastic. Our mantra is "ABCP", anything but circles and plastic. We've had some real hit successes with the M100. I was showing one of my DJ friends, Sander Kleinenberg, the Revolver and he said "Yeah that's amazing but why don't you just perfect the crossfade LP2 because it's almost there as being the perfect headphone. It's almost perfect but if you tweak a few things it will be the perfect headphone and you don't have to build Revolver."
He's the one that almost made me make the Crossfade M100 and it's been the product we've sold tons of. We won 19 editors' choice awards, won DJ magazine best headphone, voted by DJ magazine readers two years in a row as the best DJ headphone. It became the most popular headphone of all time on the forums by audiophiles. So I really have to thank him [Sander] for making me prioritize that project over Revolver.
So now 40% of the world's top 100 DJ's use V Moda, and it's been a long road. The younger kids, many of them, like the Martin Garrix's or The Chainsmokers or any of the new bloods, they're really fast to change. They often start with V Moda so they don't even have to switch. Then the older guys, the Pete Tong's, Paul Oakenfold, the legends of the industry or the hardcore techno guys like Claude VonStroke, they've been resistant. But after they see their peers wear them, they signed on.
We developed a cable for them because those guys like to use an old school cable that's coiled. I tried to tell them that's not the way cables should be, they should just be straight and longer, but they like the coil. So after I made the cord we got another five or six of the top DJ's. So I listened to them, and I'm a DJ myself and I'm friends with most of them so I know their needs because I'm one of their peers and they respect me from a music and technology level.
MT: How have you guys been able to navigate the headphone market now that everyone seems to have one?
Val: Three points to that. Everyone, even dead celebrities like Bob Marley have headphones, so a few years ago it was becoming a circus in the headphone industry. I didn't even go to C.E.S. for a few years because of it -- I just stayed in Italy working on quality. We want to focus on making our products the highest quality, and really working with our consumers which are the hardcore audiophiles, gamers, techies, DJs, musicians - professionals. We were focused on "endorse yourself" so in 2010 we introduced laser engraving to our headphones so you can engrave your own logo.
So in the Facebook generation people want to be their own celebrity, and we allow them to do that. We're the first company to introduce 3d printed headphones. Laser engraving is cool, but the 3d printing makes it look like a class ring or a piece of jewelry. We go all the way from fiber and steel and brass to gold and platinum. The sky is the limit on personalization. It's one of the most popular PC gamer and DJ headphones so we focused on those groups. Most other companies have died off by now or gone bankrupt in the last few months but we've been able to grow every year by focusing on quality.
We have a really exciting future. We've partnered with a company that we'll be announcing in a few months, so we're still focusing on the musician and professional but also being multi dimensional and focusing on consumer needs, and they want the wireless headphones. So we'll continue to work on products for the musician, for the growing musician or someone who's just a beginner. That's where we really think V-Moda has its fortune. With the techies and with up and coming musicians.
MT: What do you think is the biggest misconception about V-Moda?
Val: Years ago it was that we were style over quality, but now it's not. It took along time as a young company to build that reputation of quality. But we're the #1 ranked brand on Amazon now by customer reviews with over 100,000 reviews. Most of our products have between a 4.6-4.8 rating which is incredible. So the misconception definitely isn't quality anymore. One misconception is that we are just a headphone company. But we've built amplifiers and a variety of products over the years. That's one misconception, and we will get into developing more products in the future besides headphones - electronics that are high-end that are not headphones. So that may surprise people in the coming years.