Few names are as synonymous with audio quality than Sennheiser electronics. The company is the world leader in microphones, headphones and wireless audio technology.
Founded by Fritz Sennheiser in 1945 in the Wedemark region, near Hanover, the company is now in its third generation of family leadership. Sennheiser brothers Daniel and Andreas, the founder’s grandsons, took charge of the company in 2013.
Daniel, 43, studied product design in Switzerland and California. He worked for communications agencies like Pixelpark and Ogilvy, as well as for chemicals giant Proctor and Gamble. He entered the family business in 2008.
“The goosebumps that you get in the concert hall, we want to deliver that at home, in the living room, or in headphones.”
His brother Andreas, 41, also studied in Zürich, majoring in electrical engineering and completing a doctorate in logistics. Before joining Sennheiser in 2010 he worked at the tool manufacturer Hilti.
The brothers are creative thinkers who attract other creative people. They are both also multi-instrumental musicians.
“Many of our employees were professional musicians, or wanted to be rock stars,” say the Sennheiser brothers.
They say that even though the human ear has a limited range, it is still worth pursuing perfect sound. They believe that how much sound people can differentiate over the band of audible frequencies is often underestimated.
“But these frequencies can trigger strong emotions,” says Andreas Sennheiser. “Our HE1 headphones have brought many artists to tears, because they help them discover a completely new dimension.”
With a price tag of €55,000 ($62,000), they have a reputation as the best headphones in the world. A limited production run of just 6,000 units, all handmade, came out of the Sennheiser factory at Wedemark. Production is limited to just 200 units per year, and they are all sold on pre-order.
English singer and songwriter Adele is a devotee of the company, specifying Sennheiser technology when she goes on tour.
“As musicians become more experienced, at a certain age they switch to Sennheiser,” says Andreas Sennheiser. “Adele wanted our wireless microphones for her tour. She’s come to the realization that she just sounds better with our gear.”
Brother Daniel chimes in to praise the company’s D9000 remote microphone system, which was developed to transmit sound as uncompressed data. For that reason, he says, “all facets of the voice are transmitted, and that is actually audible to the human ear. Everything sounds transparent, natural and very present.”
Adele isn’t the only star who relies exclusively on Sennheiser. Madonna, Rihanna and Beyoncé are among a host of musicians who swear by the brand.
The company has also provided the audio setup for major sporting events, including the Rio Olympics and the UEFA European Cup soccer tournament in France. They were there for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa too.
“The vuvuzelas which the fans brought to the games in the 2010 World cup were really a challenge for our microphones,” says Daniel. “But we learn something from every large event that we do.”
“Our aim is to be leaders in innovation,” says Andreas. “If the customer still doesn’t know what he wants tomorrow, then we want to surprise him. Seventy years ago, our grandfather Fritz built up the company with a spirit of research. We all have that researcher’s gene in our bones.”
The company aims to attract creative employees.
“Our employees should investigate beyond what exists,” he says. “At the same time, we have the freedom to simply look at what works. Out of that arises a creativity that is contagious. Our people should not just execute projects. They should have fun and leave tracks in virgin snow!”
In that spirit, Sennheiser opened their new Innovation Campus last year.
The campus contains multifunctional project teams, bringing together programmers, technicians, marketers, and product managers.
“There we orient ourselves a bit more towards a Design-Thinking approach,” says Daniel. “We notice that this approach leads to quite different results,” he says.
Right now, say the brothers, “3D Sound” is the way of the future.
“The goosebumps that you get in the concert hall, we want to deliver that at home, in the living room, or in headphones,” say Daniel. “With 3D audio the listener can enter into virtual worlds – so far we have good visual systems for that, but still no audio to match.”
The brothers are currently in discussions with German entrepreneur Roland Mack, who owns the roller-coaster theme park “Europapark” at Rust near the French border in southwestern Germany. On some of his rides, guests wear virtual reality goggles, but Sennheiser wants to add headphones, to give an extra dimension to the experience.
They’re also working with the action camera maker GoPro to improve the sound recording capabilities of the cameras, “thus improving the emotional experience,” says Andreas.
“We have contact with almost all the big names in virtual reality,” he says, “from Facebook to the VR-glasses company Oculus.”
Sennheiser had a record annual turnover in 2015, and the brothers say the company has grown on every front, aided by the favorable exchange rate.
“The exchange rate has boosted sales by 7.5 percent to €682 million,” says Daniel, referring to 2015 figures, “but since we are hedged, it brings little earnings. We had a profit of €30 million euros, we are satisfied with that.”
But profits shrank last year from €34.7 million, or $39 million, in 2014. Although half of the company’s 2,700 employees work in Germany, 85 percent of the company’s turnover is in other countries.
Daniel explains that in 2015 they completely restructured the company, dissolving the regional structure so as to be more flexible and faster in the future. He says such sweeping changes have a cost.
Andreas says the company is also adjusting to a changing market.
“The importance of a cool look is something we still have to learn,” he says. “Ten years ago the typical Sennheiser headphones customer was in his early 40s, greying, and an audio-lover. Today we have a design bureau in Zürich which is developing different styles, but you know, headphones don’t just have to look good – they have to sound good.”
Katrin Terpitz covers companies and markets at Handelsblatt, focusing on Germany’s Mittelstand and family-owned businesses. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org