This is a journey into sound
Paul Whiting was responsible for setting up Sennheiser UK 25 years ago. He’s now president of strategic collaborations for the premium German headphones brand. Sean Hannam asked him about the changes he has seen in the audio market and where he sees it heading in 2016 and beyond
Q: You set up Sennheiser UK as a wholly-owned subsidiary back in October 1990. You were managing director of the business. What can you remember about that time?
Paul Whiting: It was a forced change. Hayden Labs [our distributor] became Denon UK, so there was a possible conflict of interest. Sennheiser decided to set up its own subsidiary, rather than go through a distribution network. That was a big decision, as it was only the second Sennheiser subsidiary – the first was Sennheiser France.
We started with three people. It was a difficult time. At the end of 1990, we were finding buildings and fulfilling emergency orders, but we got everything in place and 1991 was our first full year of trading. Setting budgets was difficult. We had ambitions and goals that were generated from market research, but fulfilling them was a challenge because the recession was biting.
The first couple of years were difficult, but then it was continual, substantial year-on-year growth for both our consumer and our professional business.
The demand for audio products has grown year on year and we’ve never looked back. We’ve seen our brand awareness increase dramatically.
When we first launched, hi-fi independents were very strong – we were pretty much going through those retailers. A lot of them are still around – some have disappeared and some have consolidated. We were also dealing with the likes of John Lewis and Dixons. It was a good mixture.
Q: What’s your take on the current UK electrical retailing market?
PW: I think the independent market is strong, but there are less of those types of dealers and more of the ‘independent multiples’. People are looking for retailers who have expertise and can give advice. We work with retailers to try and protect them, so they can keep customers. There’s a very strong place for the independent retailer today – they’re doing well, alongside the big retailers. There’s space for both of them and for the internet as well.
Q: Sennheiser UK recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the past 25 years?
PW: The consolidation of companies and organisations, because of changes in the marketplace, like the internet.
The internet is the biggest challenge for everyone. Retailers have had to learn how to deal with the internet. I think a lot of people still like to feel and touch [products]. You have to bring them into an environment where they can do that, but also where they can buy something that’s competitive. They can always find it cheaper, but people are starting to realise the benefit of service. Certain retailers have set up models where you can do all that – even buy products in-store in an internet environment. The whole market is still learning how they cope with the internet versus bricks-and-mortar and how the two live together.
Q: What trends are you seeing in headphones at the moment? Has the bubble burst for fashion headphones?
PW: Sennheiser is not in the fashion market. Based on our heritage, we’re a company that looks for quality. There’s a definitely a change in people’s listening – they are realising that there is high-res audio out there. We’ve seen a massive increase in the availability of high-res audio to download and high-res players. That’s generated new listeners who are looking for quality products – that’s where Sennheiser fits in.
It’s early days for high-res, but more companies are coming into the market and people are realising the benefits. I can see it growing.
Q: What will be the big trends in headphones and audio for 2016?
PW: There will be a continuation of people listening to quality music on the move, but more towards wireless technology – not just Bluetooth, but also wi-fi. There are lots of different technologies, but wireless is definitely the direction. We did some work with Westfield [shopping centre] recently and a lot of people were asking for wireless products – around 50 per cent of enquiries.
People will start to look for more high-quality wireless as part of what’s going on around the connected home. There will be developments in immersive audio, which is something Sennheiser is looking at. There’s a lot of interest in getting sound around you in a 3D effect. Gaming is part of that and then we start moving into augmented reality.
Q: You are now president of strategic collaborations? What does your latest role involve?
PW: I’ve put together a team to focus on partnerships, music and corporate-related collaborations and artist relations with our live sound side of the business. It was something I wanted to do. On one side, we work with artists like Adele and Ed Sheeran, and on the other we’re developing partnerships with Westfield. They’re the extremes of what we do.
Q: What is in the future for Sennheiser?
PW: It’s important for any company to stick with its core business – we are an audio company. We’re focusing very heavily on a premium approach to the market.
Q: You’ve been with Sennheiser for over 40 years. What’s kept you there for so long?
PW: I’m a big fan of music and entertainment and I’m passionate about audio. That’s been my drive during the 40 years I’ve been in the industry. Why did I stay working for one company? If you work for the best, you stay with the best.