evident at JH Audio, When chatting to Andy Regan, President, I got a great sense of unity about his ethos, his team’s ethos, and the fact that everyone seems to look out for everyone else. I ask Harvey how important that is, and how far it bleeds into the rest of his team.
“Oh, it starts at the top and rolls down,” he confirms. “We are a true rock and roll company; we hire top engineers when they want to come off the road. We just hired a girl in Nashville, Charity; she went through Full Sail, and is an honorary audio girl, but she has taken over the Nashville operation. So we try to team up with well respected people in the touring industry with anything that has to do with artist relations. We run this ship like a rock show: think The Rolling Stones 1975, something like that, black and white, grainy... A little bit ‘not quite right’, but really good..! [laughs]
“It’s kind of crazy, as my biggest insecurity when I first started was that I didn’t know if I was an in-ear guy at all, so I thought I would tell everybody I was, anyway! There was a lot riding on it. In a nutshell, there were a couple of
companies out there, and there was a big hole in the market for quality. Their earphones did a good job, but both had flaws, whether it was headroom, frequency response, or a mix of both.”
Harvey remembers putting Alex Van Halen on in-ears, and how he hated them; it was his first tour with Van Halen, and Alex said to Harvey, “go find us something better.”
“I said nothing better exists, so he said to me, ‘well maybe you should make it?’ I still wanted to mix the gig, so it was a huge learning curve in real-time, as we started with single armature ear pieces in the beginning. He would sweat them out, and I would be up there [on stage] giving him a new set of ears during the show, while he’s swatting at me with a drumstick,” Harvey laughs. “I finally figured out what to do with the filter placement, found the correct set of low drivers and high drivers, and I basically hot rodded hearing aid technology and started doing multi drivers. As soon as I did the first UE5 - the dual driver - Alex was happy. That was when we took the trajectory. I thought I could make a company out of this, so we were riding on a long overnighter in the back of the tour bus, and Rob Kern, Alex’s drum tech, said, ‘they’re ears, so it should be Ultimate Ears.’ I thought it was a horrible name, but by the end of the journey, that was going to be the name of the company, and it kind of went from there!”
Harvey then built six sets of ears for Van Halen’s opening act, Skid Row, and they became his first paying client.
“I walked into the production office, the tour manager handed me $3,000 in cash, and the lightbulb went on; but it was a rocky road from there,” he recalls. “It was a crazy ride with UE, which ended tragically, but I am happy it ended that way, as now I own 100% of myself, and I am in a much better position. We rebuilt it, and we rebuilt it better... and I owe a lot to Van Halen!”
Another admirable thing about JH Audio is the company’s decision to keep the high-end manufacturing completely in the USA.
“The business model is changing a little bit with high resolution players going into phones, but we are still making our flagship line here. I’ve been doing design work and licensing the patents and the brand, and letting [partner brand] Astell&Kern manufacture the product, so they can get the cost down, but we are integral in making sure it comes out right audio wise, and look wise,” Harvey reveals. “It’s a co-brand for universals: Astell&Kern (owned by South Korean consumer electronics brand, iriver), and JH Audio. They are launching the XB10 (a high quality Bluetooth device), so I designed a product that has killer audio right at the $500 price point to suit that; they’ll be builtin South Korea.”
Staying with smartphones, I ask Harvey what his take is on the omission of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7?
“Well, here’s the deal; as far as an engineer or an audiophile, I would rather have a guitar and mic plugged into a cable, because when you turn it into wireless, it sounds different. So personally, for pure audio, I would always prefer my stuff plugged into a cable. But, that being said, the technology is ramping up so quickly, the cellular pipeline is getting large enough to be able to stream high resolution, so you have these companies like Tidal who will probably start streaming at 96kHz, and you have cellphones like this LG B10 that I have, which has a high end audio file deck in it.
“I see the convergence of high resolution players in cellphones and wireless, so we’re lucky we’re teamed up with Astell&Kern, as they have already got this XB10 wireless unit which actually streams 96kHz; it’s the first time Bluetooth has done that, so being a partner with them has given us a lot of opportunity to move into the wireless world at the same time that Apple is losing the jack. So I understand, and the functionality of the new iPhone with the wireless is amazing.
“In five years, it’s probably all going to be wireless, but wireless is just now at a point where when technology changes, you have to roll with it. Our business is a bit like software in that we are the delivery system, so as long as the source is good, our earphones are going to be good. So basically, we just keep making the best delivery system, and whatever you put on the front side is all source related. The better the source, the better the sound.”
This year, JH Audio will shift around 25,000 units, which Harvey expects to double in 2017.
“Next year should be a very good year, but the growth gets scary sometimes,” Harvey admits, with a smile. “We were 2,500 sq. ft and now we’re 8,000 sq. ft, so we had to get everybody into a better environment. This place was ABC Fine Wine & Spirits’ distribution house, so it kind of fits right into our wheelhouse – a liquor distribution centre! [smiles]”
And all of this, kind of on a whim, right?
“Well, put it this way, if you’d have told me that this was going to happen in 1995, I would have asked you what kind of drugs you were on! I thought I was going to die an old salty audio engineer, because you don’t retire out of rock and roll, you die out of it.”
Harvey is addictive to talk to, and these growth stats leave me wondering whether the current JH Audio HQ is going to be able to cut it, size-wise, in say, two years time. Is it?
“I’m really not sure; it depends how things go,” Harvey reflects. “I think there’s going to be some changes in the industry, which will be all about controlling the products, so I see a big shift in not the earphone technology, but how we process the earphones in the next three to five years. I just want to stay ahead of the curve.”
And what would need to happen to make wireless a realistic option direct to the headphone? That’s a pretty big question, I’m guessing...