I have had the honour of interviewing Vlad Grodzinskiy, Klipsch’s Senior Manager of Product Development – Headphones. Vlad was in town yesterday for the Klipsch Heritage HP-3 Headphones launch in Singapore, after a gruelling 30-hr flight from Indiana, USA. Vlad almost didn’t make it due to the wildfires of San Francisco causing him to miss his connecting flight. We were glad that he finally made it in the end.
[BY] Hi Vlad, first and foremost, welcome to Singapore. How do you like our island state?
[VG] The little red dot is a fascinating melting pot of different cultures and people. If the place is anything like Singapore Airlines, I think I’m going to love it. I was immediately enamored by the greenery once I landed. The entire area has such a beautiful ensemble of trees, flowers, and a very unique tropical vibe. After that, it was definitely the architecture that caught my eye. Singapore has so many buildings that come with their own story.
[BY] Last year Klipsch celebrated its 70th Anniversary, moving forward what is Klipsch’s ambitions and vision for the personal audio space?
[VG] Vinny and I have discussed this at length recently. Things are changing rapidly. Did you know that the top 40 headphones on Amazon in US don’t feature Beats or Bose? We’re talking about a place where in the US people use more often than Google when looking for a product. We’re not a disposable brand or a disposable product, and by launching Heritage Headphones we are proving a little piece of our soul to the world.
[BY] Looking at Klipsch’s headphones offerings, it is interesting to note that the first In-Ear, the S4 was launched in November 2007, a good 88 years after your founder Paul W. Klipsch (PWK) modified a pair of headphones for stereo reproduction in his first audio experimentation in 1919. We then have the first On-ear, the Image ONE in 2010 and now the Heritage HP-3 in 2017. When did Klipsch first embark on its lines of headphones? Can either of you share insights about the capabilities that Klipsch built in this space?
[VG] Klipsch started the headphone division to diversify, and what we found is that the same formula we used when making speakers is what made us great in the headphone category. Research and vision, followed immediately by blood, sweat and tears, that’s how any great product is made. Starting with the S4 and it’s patented oval eartips and iPhone mic, we knew we had something. Then on to one of the first stereo Bluetooth headphones, and now with a triple-vented, open-back headphone finally worthy of the Heritage name. Each brought something to the table that is uniquely us. Followed of course by our founder’s principles in wide dynamic range, low distortion, high efficiency, flat frequency response, and controlled directivity.
About the Heritage HP-3
[BY] We were honoured to have the replica of the Heritage Headphones tour Singapore in 2015, coincidentally the Heritage HP-3 is said to be a project that is two year in development, meaning to say it begun in 2015. Can you provide us some insights into this development journey, the key design philosophy, and challenges?
[VG] Having been an audiophile for a while, I had three fundamental issues with what was available on the market at the time. First, the acoustic signature of a pair of great speakers in a room and the best pair of headphones where growing further and further apart, not closer together, the community had turned ANTI-BASS after Beats hit the scene. I could ramble on about this for hours, but I promise you that a good pair of speakers will make every type of music sound the way it’s supposed to. Headphones must do the same, otherwise, they simply do a disservice to the musicians that poured their livelihood into their work. Secondly, everything in the market was waging war with customers. What I mean by that is I always felt audiophiles were part of a members-only club. Headphones I bought in the price range always came with extra long cords, never did they include a 3.5mm jack to plug into my phone as well as my ¼” stereo, and some of them even ship in boxes similar to what one would ship artillery munitions in. How do I, as someone that can accurately label my addiction to music certifiable, get granted access to a product that has everything I need to get started? Third, the build quality of $1,000 headphones was arguably worse than a pair costing half as much. I just spent more than $1,000 dollars and all I had to show for it was a plastic headphone with a long cable that when I plugged into my computer wouldn’t get loud enough to hear or became fatiguing after an hour. We as a community of developers have a duty and responsibility to do better.
[BY] What is the customer profile which the team targeting when creating the Heritage HP-3?
[VG] Two customers. The first, your traditional high-end headphone guy. This person owns 4-5 headphones above $1,000, multiple amplifiers, and really knows what he’s talking about. This guy, he smells through the bullshit, he can tell if it sounds good or bad for the money. I needed this guy’s approval; even customer two seeks it. The second, this is the customer that doesn’t get thought about – the luxury goods customer. He owns a few great pairs of dress shoes, he really cares about the details, the design, the beauty of a product. Think anyone buying a luxury car. This guy is well researched, deeply passionate about the things he owns, and believes that everything you need has to be bought once and be the best decision available. He’s a music lover at heart, he cares about audiophile recommendations but sees this product as less for the numbers and more for the overall love we put into it. A pair of headphones to him is a tool, a vice, a medicine for his urge to not only hear but truly listen to great music.
[BY] The drivers are said to be engineered to produce sound in a manner aligned more to its Heritage line of speakers than the average pair of headphones. Can you define what this “Heritage sound” is?
[VG] Let’s make it simple – it’s the sound that makes you tap your feet. Klipsch Heritage speakers are about the live music experience. Paul W. Klipsch always recommended a healthy dose of going out and seeing real music. The feeling you get there, that’s what PWK was always after. Every Klipsch Heritage product is an homage to the men and women behind the instruments.
[BY] The Heritage HP-3 features a 52mm KG-520 biodynamic driver housed in a back-vented design where the diaphragms are made from inorganic fiber and a substance called bio-cellulose, which is actually the by-product of a specific type of bacteria. Can you provide more insights behind the decision to go 52mm and the unique combination of inorganic fiber and bio-cellulose? What exactly is inorganic fiber?
[VG] Since Klipsch hasn’t been in the business of designing and developing headphone drivers from scratch, we knew we needed a little help. We made a lot of phone calls, spoke with dozens of the best suppliers of headphone drivers, and finally landed on one that everyone agreed was a tier above the rest, Foster Electric in Japan. Before we came to any conclusions, Andrew, lead headphone acoustical engineer and I flew to Japan to see how these drivers were made. After meeting with the head chef (so to speak) that has been doing this for over 50 years, we knew we were onto something. The first thing that makes this driver unique is actually that it’s so much like a loudspeaker driver. Instead of using a single PET material for the diaphragm, the biodynamic driver uses a separate surround and a diaphragm, just like a speaker. This helps in a few ways – the first of which being no changes in frequency response with different amplitude. It sounds the same at any volume. The next, high and low frequency extension. Since the surround is pliable and the diaphragm is light and stiff, we get incredible low frequency extension and similarly great high frequency extension with no driver tilt or distortion. The reason the material for the diaphragm is bio-cellulose is that the individual strands of this bacterial mixture are approximately 1/5000th of the thickness of a human hair. This means the material is very rigid while retaining the lightness a good diaphragm needs to perform well.
[BY] The three solid-wood finishes – walnut, ebony, and oak, are they aesthetics or real solid materials which play a part in how the Heritage HP-3 sound?
[VG] In the engineering world, if I can’t measure it I can’t tell you that it’s different. What I can promise is that the different versions measure identically to each other in frequency response and distortion. Yet when we took these headphones and wore them side by side we each had a favorite. Wood density does have an impact on sound, and to definitively say that each wood doesn’t bring with it its own characteristics would be simply false.
[BY] With your competitors pricing their TOTL headphones at the price benchmark of USD 4,000. Is there a reason why the Heritage HP-3 is priced at USD 1,199?
[VG] This has been a contested topic for some time now. Even as early as last week I had a number of amplifier manufacturers telling me that $1,200 is not enough to warrant attention in the category of audiophile headphones. The “new hot price” is apparently $2,500. We don’t believe in pricing products to rip off customers. We have a standard model, we take what the product cost, we add profit to pay the people who work on it, and we sell it to customers for the lowest price we possibly can. Now, if we can build an HP-3 for $1,199, can you imagine what we can do with $4,000?
[BY] Would you be able to provide some insights to the Heritage HP-3 development team? The type of talents who have in the team that made the Heritage HP-3 a reality today…
[VG] This always surprises people, at Klipsch there’s three of us. Andrew Doerr, one of the most brilliant acoustical minds I have ever met, Tony Martin, our designer, and me, pulling the strings, defining what the product is, carefully paying attention to every part, every detail, every imperfection. Recently we’ve acquired some great people that have each put their contribution towards the product, but the bulk of the work has been done by the three of us. I will also mention that there’s a similar team based in Japan, almost a mirror image of the three of us that worked hand in hand with us along the way. Undeservedly, they hardly get attention and praise for this product, the silent operators behind the curtain. We spent lots of time together both in Indianapolis and Tokyo, and we have learned a lot from each other along the way. They helped tackle the difficult issues of mechanical design, replicability of our golden standard, and the overall look and feel. I think where we ended up crosses cultural boundaries and tastes, both in sound and the acoustic experience of the product.
[BY] The Heritage HP-3 is an interesting number, whatever happened to HP-1 and HP-2?
[VG] Who said we were done? The HP-3 is the start of forging a new path for the category. Klipsch needed a statement. One that says “we’re here, and we’re here to stay”. From here out, it’ll be up to the customers to really determine whether Klipsch needs to make an HP-4 or an HP-2 next.
The Other Question
[BY] Being in the audio business, you guys must have access to some amazing recordings. Would you be able to share some of your favourite test tracks?
[VG] I’d like to point out a very specific difference between music I love listening to and the music I use to get the job done. It is very important that whichever song, or cut from a song you use to audition is something you have heard thousands of times and have permanently engrained in your mind. At first, the one-minute cuts I have been using for many years are what I use to make an initial read on whether the speaker or headphone sounds “right”—lets call this a taste test. After that, I pick out the things that the speaker does well select music that compliments it. It’s like pairing wine with dinner. The better the pairing the better your experience. As our distributors know, I create a special music pairing with every product we launch. In the time I’ve been at Klipsch I always enjoy introducing our dealers and distributors to something new, so I almost never re-use the same track between different products.
That being said, here are a number of artists, albums, and musicians that have struck me over the years and simply put out songs that you can’t pause.
Ahmad Jamaal – Saturday Morning; One (Ahad) – an instrumental that seems to have everything, but really forms its own narrative with the percussion and piano segment in the very first minute of the track followed by a great percussion solo with punch, impact, and emotion.
Miles Davis – King of Blue; a full album of solid gold. Not necessarily the cleanest recording but one that tends to inspire.
Grant Green – Green Street; No. 1 Green Street (2002 Digital Remaster) – Grant Green is one of the unsung heroes of jazz guitar. The improvised nature of this song and the airy drum kit keeping pace in your right ear made me fall in love with jazz guitar.
Ray Charles – The Great Ray Charles; simply Ray’s best album. There’s no vocals to take away from the melodic piano and rhythmic instrumentals that not only capture the mood of the album but also the era this music was made.
Eric Clapton and B.B. King – Riding With The King; Three O’Clock Blues – finally a track with vocals. I absolutely fell in love with this recording the moment I saw the album cover. It reminded me of a guy and his best man cruising the town after a long night at the jazz club. The way Clapton and King’s instruments have a conversation with each other during the track just makes you want to be their best friend.
[BY] Thank you, Vlad, for sharing and providing us insights on multiple fronts, we look forward to seeing you again on Sunday at “Klipsch Heritage HP-3 with Vlad Grodzinskiy” co-hosted by Head-Fi.club and E1 Personal Audio Singapore.