Before anyone could access all the world’s recorded music from a smartphone, listening to music was a much more social activity than it is today. Inspired by silent discos and raves, in which a group of people wear wireless headphones all synced to a single transmitter, Richie Zeng and Nelson Zhang have set out to combine social music listening with a high-quality headphone experience.
Name-brand headphones have become as much a fashion statement as they are a way to consume audio. And as Apple gets ready to buy the Beats by Dre brand for US$3.2 billion, the duo spotted a potentially lucrative opportunity to revive social music listening.
Enter Wearhaus, Zeng and Zhang’s Berkeley-based startup that’s currently crowdfunding their first pair of cutting-edge headphones. Dubbed “Arc”, the headphones can sync up with other nearby Arc users’ headphones to play the same music in real time, without lag or loss of quality. The headphones sync up to each other and a smartphone app using Bluetooth.
The Arc app works independently of the music source, so users can still listen via their preferred music app – iTunes, Spotify, etc. They can even discretely play video games and watch movies together. When the headphones ship sometime in December, the app will be available for Android and iOS, but browser, desktop, and other platform clients will also be made available.
Arc owners can use the app to search for nearby users who have the sharing function enabled, see what they’re listening to, and click on their username to tune in. The main broadcaster can control playback using a touch panel on the side of the headphones.
The color of Arc’s neon glow can also be changed with the touch of a button. Zhang says the headphones play for 16 hours of continuous listening time over Bluetooth. With all the sharing and lighting features on, the battery life is 10 hours. They come with a built-in microphone and a 3.5mm jack for wired listening.
At US$200 per pair ($150 for early birds), the Arcs are definitely aimed at higher-end users. “We think the group of early adopters will include friends, students, families, and companies that want to foster a shared sense of culture,” Zhang explains.
Crowdfunding in stereo
Zhang dropped out of University of Berkeley in California to accept a Thiel fellowship where he was tasked with building a 3D printer for building electronics at home. Zhang grew up in Shanghai, and wants to make Wearhaus a household name in China as well as the West.
He and Zeng joined the Highway1 incubator program in California to start the project. The program is funded by PCH International, a company that has worked with Beats by Dre in the past.
They began raising funds on their website using Crowdtilt in mid-April and have already raised two-thirds of their US$75,000 goal. Had everything gone to plan, Wearhaus would have started a second crowdfunding campaign on China’s Demohour this week.
“We originally planned to just have one campaign up on our site, but got many requests from people in China who’d seen our campaign, but preferred to use more mainstream (in China) payment methods such as Alipay, as well as to have a Chinese translation,” Zhang says. “The main difference between the two is that Crowdtilt functions mainly as an ordering and payments backend, which required us to implement all of the front-end design. Demohour is closer in functionality to Kickstarter or Indiegogo.”
But Zhang ran into complications right before the project was supposed to go live.
“Since they [Demohour] are much more accustomed to ‘order now’-type projects where the product is almost or already rolling off the production line, and can ship within a month, they’re not comfortable with an actual crowdfunding campaign at this point. As a result, we’ve decided to postpone the Demohour campaign until much later on, likely in August, when we’re closer to production,” Zhang explains. “Seems like it’s the reality of adapting a crowdfunding model to China, where consumers put much more weight on getting a product in hand ASAP.” He notes this isn’t part of Demohour’s official policy, but it’s a model that works well in China.
As a result, Zhang won’t know how much money Wearhaus can raise until much later in the manufacturing process, but the company can get more exposure in the long run.
Zhang visits China every few weeks to work with Wearhaus’ manufacturer in Shenzhen. He says his team has finished prototyping the Arc headphones and have begun pre-production at the factory.
Just push play
As a standalone product, Wearhaus’ headphones suffer from a paradox – it’s aimed at a niche demographic, but it requires consumers to adopt it en masse to really take advantage of its capabilities. Zhang says the company is already considering use cases outside of social music listening; some companies have approached Wearhaus about educational applications. It could be great for scenarios where small groups of people want to listen to something without disturbing those around them, such as kids watching cartoons in the back of a minivan. Wearhaus could also white label its Bluetooth technology and license it to other headphone manufacturers.