Exclusive: Mysphere headphones, Vienna, Austria
World’s first interview with the headphone legends who brought us the AKG K1000 and now bring us Mysphere
Imagine the following – the year was 1989. I was off to college; vinyl was well on its way to being superseded by the Compact Disc; VHS became Super-VHS; high-end metal cassette tape formulations where all the rage and the internet merely existed as rudimentary electronic mail for a few thousand people at best. Meanwhile, Beats, the iPhone or Apple Music didn’t even exist in lab form; the high-end headphone market was barely touched upon and yet that same year Austria’s venerable AKG – Akustische und Kino Geräte – introduced the world’s first ear loudspeaker, the K1000. Led by Heinz Renner and Helmut Ryback, this “headphone” proved rather revolutionary in just about every way imaginable. At the time of the K1000s launch, there simply was nothing to compare it to and thusly, in many ways, a legitimate legend was born.
Flash forward to 2017 and the power of the internet, now ubiquitous and abundant in the free world, lead to my discovery of an unassuming, nearly invisible new company “Mysphere”. Twitter was the culprit, a short and sweet re-tweet by a hifi-magazine alerting me to yet another new headphone company. Just what the world needs apparently. Unlike in 1989, 2017 offers so many headphone companies that your head would likely spin, you know, time travel and all. Personal HiFi has become an entirely new industry attracting wares from literally all walks of life and origin. What struck me with Mysphere was at that time the rather unassuming website, merely indicating a radical looking headphone in form of a CAD drawing made in my home country of Austria, Vienna to be precise. My ears perking up, my sticky fingers immediately sorted through Duckduckgo’s search results yielding little if any intrigue. Vastly more was revealed through an email exchange with Heinz Renner, whom I pinged in my native German, nay, Viennese tongue. Turns out that Heinz had partnered up with his former AKG collaborator, Helmut Ryback, to form Mysphere with the intent of yet again revolutionizing the headphone space – now far more mature since the days of the K1000 – and thusly soon launching their first such product, the Mysphere 3.1.
As luck would have it, a planned family trip back to the old Vaterland over Thanksgiving break at the end of November produced the opportunity to meet up with Heinz and Helmut at Mysphere’s Vienna offices. Having had the chance to – albeit briefly – hear the 3.1s at last year’s Denver based Rocky Mountain Audiofest, I eagerly anticipated another, more private and conclusive, listening session. Featuring a striking design that in some ways echoes the K1000, Mysphere’s 3.1 are far superior and much more advanced than their elder siblings. First, advances in manufacturing, development and computer aided design work has allowed for designs and tolerances simply not possible in the late 1980s; second, the market for such high-end headphones is vastly greater today, compared to when AKG’s K1000 first saw daylight.
Listening to Woo Audio’s WA33 fully balanced preamp and headphone amplifier, I thoroughly enjoyed a solid forty-five or so minutes of uninterrupted listening with Mysphere’s 3.1 and 3.2 headphones, the difference being a high vs. low impedance model. Striking too, is the shear quality of these final, late production prototypes I was given to audition. From the solid, all metal and aluminum CNC construction, to the shear touchy’n’feel quality of the resistive spring operated earphone hinges, these headphones are vastly superior to K1000 and even at the price point of around $3k US, I have no hesitation of calling them almost bargain priced. I, for one, am not aware of any other headphones at any price point that come close to the quality of Mysphere’s first product. Sonically, my initial and obviously positive impressions at Rocky Mountain only seemed further validated during this extended audition. Fast, dynamic, open and producing a distinct out of your head sound experience, Mysphere’s 3.1 will undoubtedly find many customers seeking the ultimate in quality and sound – of that I have no doubt.
Given my visit to Mysphere’s offices, I figured I would give Heinz and Helmut the opportunity to answer some of my questions directly – thusly, Viennese coffee in toe, off I went with my questions, answers to which are transcribed here in a world’s first interview:
1. Since the launch of K1000, the high-end headphone market has grown by vast numbers and offers – what made you decide to launch Mysphere?
Heinz: Our company is not new. LB-Systems [ed. Mysphere’s parent company] was founded almost 40 years ago and the business segment of LB-acoustics almost 20 years ago. The basic idea to launch a new high-end headphone company was born from numerous customer requests asking for a successor to the famous AKG K1000. Following a detailed evaluation of possible business- and technical successes, we decided to go for a new business segment to produce and market headphones within the LB-acoustics group.
Helmut: One other and obvious motivation was our common (Heinz and me) history at AKG and the reason that after the discontinuation of the K 1000 there was no longer a high-end headphone available “made in Vienna”. I think Austria and especially Vienna has a great history and legacy concerning all things music, therefore we think it’s necessary to continue this tradition. [ed. Completely agree, it was one of the main reasons for me contacting Heinz in first place…]
2. What do you see as the next major development stages for headphones?
Heinz: we do not believe in big development steps for acoustic devices. It’s not about revolutions, rather the continued advancement and evolution of existing technologies.
We hope that smaller and more comfortable, less heavy, products will be possible in the high-end segment, also with lower power consumption. Finally, we believe that battery technology will continue to drive an element of innovation in this space.
3. Today, many in the industry view the personal headphone space as a stepping stone to an actual HiFi system – what do you guys think?
Heinz: sorry, but we don’t really have an opinion about this today, though one thing is very clear for us as technicians: a technology for great headphone drivers can be used for other applications as well in the acoustic environment.
Helmut: Anyway LB-acoustics will concentrate on our main strengths in the future; this basically means that we have no intention of expanding our product range to other products beyond headphones.
4. Developing headphones from zero to hero requires formidable resources – I find that particularly that part of the story sadly never reaches the customer or the high-end audio press. Could you elaborate on this for us?
Heinz: This statement is indeed very true! Most people completely underestimate the effort needed to develop a new product and brand! Without sharing specific numbers, it’s definitely at a minimum a full-time job around the clock for several years for many people. It really is so much more than a regular full-time, effort and the enthusiasm and energy required is most certainly beyond a day’s work. It’s definitely several orders of magnitude more extreme – I mean for people who have already (a combined) centuries worth of experience in designing headphones.
5. Since the days of K1000, the personal electronics and headphone market place has grown tremendously – today, everyone has an iPhone or other smartphone and many who own a pair of Beats headphones consider even those at $200 to $300 as “expensive”. How do you then sell someone a pair of headphones costing ten times that?
Heinz: we strongly believe that many customers who use affordable headphones today learn to enjoy the advantages of more expensive headphones. I do not believe that headphones will ever compete with discrete two channel loudspeakers, but we do believe that a certain segment of customers can learn to enjoy music at even higher fidelity and someday, when they are ready, will eventually go down the upgrade path.
Helmut: Mysphere realizes an acoustic quality which is not easy to achieve. As usual – when you go to extremes it requires a much higher effort than just to be “good enough”. With Mysphere, our goal from the very beginning was to go to extremes. For us, this means not only acoustic quality, but also a mechanical quality and a very high wearing standard.
6. How did you decide to launch Mysphere?
Heinz: as I tried to explain earlier, the market asked us to develop something new based on the newest and latest technologies and of course based on our know how. Actually, this request came from US – California – customers first. We thus got interested in this project and realized at first very tiny prototypes just so we can prove our technical calculations and proof of concept. These prototypes sounded quite good actually and further demonstrated that the basic design ideas were correct; the natural conclusion was that we then started to build out a detailed plan for our business and venture.
Helmut: of course, let’s not forget that you need a lot of personal commitment to realize such a project within a reasonable time table and with a finite capacity in money and man power.
7. Your favorite music?
Heinz: every person enjoys a different kind of music. Without saying too much, we all like a kind of real Jazz, [Helmut: classical music and] live recorded music and of course very good records. Ultimately, we believe that Mysphere allows you to hear the inherent quality of great recordings in a way that combines the highest quality of playback with the most in wearing comfort.
8. What’s special about Mysphere?
Heinz: first, it’s the most open headphone on the market. There is almost no acoustic cavity inside. This has the effect that the real moving mass is very small and in fact much smaller than other concepts, thus demonstrating an extremely fast impulse response. All other design details of this headphone are a result of this overall objective [of very little mass]. Also, there are no additional resonances caused by housings and other parts which must otherwise be damped. We just avoid this issue completely! Our targets for build material quality are also extraordinary high as well. All parts are made in batches using only the finest, high –end manufacturing technologies available only in Europe.
9. What’s so special about headphones that their market has grown so exponentially?
Heinz: many consumers like a kind of intimacy. I think that in many cases headphones are used in addition to loudspeakers so naturally there’s this progression built in. It’s also important to know that most of the growth rate in the headphone market is coming from closed headphone types. Mysphere 3.1 does not touch that market segment at all. Obviously, sharing sound and listening experiences is still a large option used, but today it seems that intimacy and a personal experience matter greatly as well.
10. What’s in your suitcase for that special island trip?
Heinz: ??? No idea!???
Helmut: of course Mysphere and a lot of good music 😊.
Apparently 2017 ended with a bang for Mysphere. Rumor has it that their order books are full and the company is off to a great start. Considering that most of those in the market for high-end headphones haven’t yet heard Mysphere 3.1/.2, their presumptive success is nothing to sneeze at. Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: K1000, the old king is dead, long live the new king, Myspehre 3.1.