How independent audio companies lure in customers to battle against Apple, Amazon and other tech giants

Key Points
  • Legacy brands and newcomers in the audio world are pushing boundaries to get you to ditch audio products pushed by big brands like Apple, Amazon and Google.
  • Some of the new technologies available include 3-D audio and custom "earprints."

Whether its an established brand or a start-up, independent makers of headphones and speakers have a big challenge pushing their products in a crowded marketplace.

Major tech companies like Apple and Amazon can manufacture and sell audio products cheap, because they are such a small fraction of their overall product revenues. For instance, Amazon made its Echo Dot available for $34.99 on its annual Prime Day this month. Separately, Apple’s EarPods are free with an iPhone; the next pair costs only around $30.

The product landscape — and the dominance of the bigger brands — means that independent audio product makers have their work cut out for them in trying to generate sales and forge loyalty with consumers. Recently, CNBC spoke with a few of these smaller brands, to get an idea of how they persuade buyers to ditch audio products made by big technology competitors.

Music listening is like taking a fingerprint

H3 Headphones

This start-up brand is focused on creating a bespoke listening experience. Even's H3 Wireless headphones are equipped with "EarPrint" software, which is tailored to the listener's hearing pattern. Customers take a hearing test that maps out their personal hearing pattern.

“Every traditional headphone you have ever tried has the assumption that you and I have perfect hearing,” said Even CEO Danny Aronson. Even consulted audiologists and sound designers to develop the EarPrint technology, which automatically adjusts the sound based on where the listener is, whether in a quiet room or a subway.

"It’s the next step in the evolution of audio,” Aronson said.

For now, the headphones are available only online, and at Even's pop-up store in Manhattan running through Tuesday. However, Aronson said the company is looking into partnering with retailers by the end of the year. ”We are very mass market in our outlook,” he said.

The H3 headphones are available for $149.

Making music 3-dimensional

Ambeo Smart Headset 

Despite being a heavyweight in the audio world, Sennheiser is still an independent, private company. The German brand has been making audio equipment since 1945, and has products that range from earbuds that cost under $15 to professional-grade headsets that cost over $2,000.

For the next generation of its premium mass market headphones, Sennheiser is focusing on bringing the 3-D experience to audio.

"The essential benefit of 3-D audio is to immerse the listeners," said COO Pete Ogley, who is responsible for Sennheiser's Consumer Division.

Their Ambeo Smart Headset not only features this technology, but can record sound with the same audio quality. Ogley said 3-D audio is something that could play a big role in the industry, given the rise of other kinds of technology that could make it an in-demand feature. "In the field of augmented and virtual reality, 3-D sound is even fundamental to the holistic experience," he said.

The Ambeo Smart Headset is available for $299.95.

'Sweat-proof' with soul, and cheap to boot

Epic Air wireless earbuds

JLab made its name in the industry as a budget-friendly brand. Its cheapest pair of earbuds cost only $8, and its range of products have mass market appeal with distribution in megachains like Walmart and Target. On its premium end, though, JLab is incorporating the kind of technology it believes will be increasingly in demand.

“When you walk around today, the world is Bluetooth,” said CEO Win Cramer.

JLab's Epic Air wireless earbuds come with a charging case and are meant to be worn during exercise. They are water-resistant enough to be "sweatproof," and still come in $10 under Apple's Air Pods.

Even with their budget-friendly prices, it can be difficult to compete with giants like Apple. “Audio is really tertiary for those guys,” Cramer said. “We put a lot of soul into what we do, because we have to.”

JLab's Epic Air earbuds are available for $149.

It's high fidelity ... and it's smart

Como Audio

For start-up Como Audio, it's all about high fidelity.

Founder and CEO Tom DeVesto, who has been in the audio business for several decades, said the company is committed to making speakers for music lovers. Como's Speakeasy model, due to be released in November, has features that tech-savvy music lovers have come to expect: It is wireless and equipped with Google Assistant. The difference between Como's product and a typical smart speaker? "Mine's going sound better," DeVesto said.

High-fidelity sound, though, comes at a cost. The Speakeasy is expected to start at $349, while a Google Home and Amazon Echo will run you $129 and $99.99, respectively. DeVesto knows that his audience is niche, and has priced his products accordingly. “There was never a hope of gaining a major part of the market share," he said.

Still, there's enough of a sound-obsessed market to boost Como's Kickstarter campaigns, which are fairly unique to the audio market. The company raised nearly $500,000 between 2016 and 2017. The online campaign had an additional benefit, DeVesto said, in that it created an instant social community around the products.

A preview of the Speakeasy can be seen at Como Audio's website.

Sound you can feel

Crusher Wireless Headphone

Skullcandy is one of the most successful independent headphone makers in the game and can be found everywhere from Best Buy to Verizon. With their trademark colors, patterns and skull logo, Skullcandy headphones have a completely different look than the industry standards.

The brand also focuses on the physical sensation of sound, and its Crusher Wireless Headphone features "haptic bass" that's basically sound you can feel.

Being independent has allowed the company to really distinguish its own brand from the more "clinical" Big Tech companies, according to Skullcandy CMO Jessica Klodnicki. “We’ve got this huge following of youthful consumers who love the brand," she said.

However, even a "challenger brand" is not immune to industry trends. Skullcandy declined to confirm whether a product featuring artificial intelligence was in the works, but Klodnicki did say that "it’s something we’re taking into consideration in headphones."

The Crusher Wireless Headphone is available for $149.99.