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EXCLUSIVE: Life after AKG: Austrian Audio founders on launching a brand new company

Back in September, it was announced that Harman Professional Solutions was to cut a staggering 650 jobs across its brand portfolio in a bid to ‘consolidate’ its workforce. Unsurprisingly, the company offered little in the way of explanation as to when staff would be laid off, who would be affected and, perhaps most importantly, why it was taking such extreme measures in its ‘consolidation’ bid.

Harman did, however, state that it would embark on an aggressive hiring policy that would see its net staff loss end up closer to 300 than the 650. It also promised that no brands will be cut from its portfolio – a statement that has now been questioned in light of the recently confirmed closure of microphone and headphones brand AKG’s Vienna HQ. And while the situation regarding its future continues to be the subject of much scrutiny – Harman has yet to respond to PSNEurope requests for comment – a group of former employees have wasted little time in starting up their own mics and headphones brand in the form of Austrian Audio. Here, we hear from CEO Martin Seidl, senior acoustics R&D Bernhard Pinter and head of product management Phillip Schuster to get the indisde track on their new venture…

Tell us about the birth of Austrian Audio?

Martin Seidl – CEO: Austrian Audio is a new audio company dealing with research and development of acoustic products, mainly microphones and headphones, but also highly sophisticated measurement systems and ODM developments. Austrian Audio was formed from a group of people that are passionate about audio and acoustics. We’re all professionals that have spent a major part of our lives within the audio industry, both on the professional and the lifestyle side of the business. What ties us together is the vision to improve the performance of products by listening to people who actually use them and paying attention to the details. Within the team we can look back at more than 300 years of combined audio development experience. The team – currently 22 people – almost completely consists of former employees of AKG Acoustics, who’s Vienna headquarters closed its doors June 30 2017.

Bernhard Pinter – Senior Acoustics R&D: I’ll add that this is simply a great opportunity to form a new company with a well-working and motivated team in the heart of the music city of Vienna.

Philipp Schuster – Product Management: Austrian Audio is the embodiment of the expertise and dedication for music, sound and audio technology that was and is always around in the Austrian area. There is a reason that Vienna and Salzburg are foundational pillars in classical and modern music. Graz has a great tradition in audio engineering and many of our engineers come from their technical university. Austria is not only (in) the heart of Europe and has been a cultural crossroad for thousands of years, it also combines tradition and technology with a love for music. Can you think of a better place for an audio company?

When did discussions among you start about forming your own company?

MS: When you are a creative person and working in the audio industry for many years, every now and then the idea of forming something on your own arises. Something that comprises all the good things you have experienced and learned, and that leaves out all of the things you believe to have been less useful to your customer base. We have known each other for quite some years and rather theoretical talks were on & off over the last three years, I guess.

The kick-off date to actually start running around, talking to people across Europe, getting input from potential partners, customers and investors really was the day when it was publicly announced that the AKG headquarters in Vienna will be closing its doors. That was in September 2016.

PS: Retrospectively, I think that I can reveal that there was more than one initiative to form a spin off with people of the AKG-Vienna team. The closure of the Viennese headquarters made the decision easier, if not compulsory. It all started on day one after the announcement that Harman would close the Vienna HQ. I myself was also approached by some direct competitors to go to work for them, but I feel a strong bond with our engineering team and the way in which we work together. This also prompted why we had to move quickly. We didn’t want to see talent siphoned off.

We had great times being part of a large corporation for many years. But as such huge operations have to do, management often has to set priorities towards the “big chunk” business. Thus, focus on the rather niche pro microphone and headphone business had been lost.

“Leave it, love it or change it” is to me now more than a wise phrase. I feel blessed to be part of a team that is committed to “love” and “change”, even if we had to “leave” the hard way.

Why did you decide to launch the company?

MS: Out of pure passion towards the products, the industry and from my 200% belief in this team. It would have been a huge loss to the audio industry should we have seen all of these experts in microphone and headphone R&D spreading out to different directions and industries. It is worth mentioning that Austria is a small country with very little opportunity to remain in the audio industry. In fact, AKG was the only sizable company operating in professional audio and had managed to gather worldwide reputation for its products. If we hadn’t reacted quickly, much of the talent would have disappeared into other industries and the vast experience would have been lost from the Pro Audio industry.

BP: As Martin said, the obvious final trigger was when Harman Professional decided to close AKG’s traditional home in Vienna. The decision was clear to not let all of this potential leak away and out of the country. The audio industry is relatively small and we wanted to keep this team together. It would have been a loss to the industry to see such a great amount of talented folk leave the industry in search of a job.

Also, we would be freed up to innovate. Often, in well-established and large companies, it is difficult to innovate and develop truly new products for a niche market group like Professional Audio. It can also be the case that existing product lines can languish as they don’t receive the needed updates that are required.

Who is in the team?

MS: The backbone of the team consists of extremely creative engineers in the fields of acoustics, audio-electronics, mechanical design, software development and measurement systems. Apart from the world class R&D team, we have significant industry experience in sales, marketing, product management, program and project management on board. Of course, we also have the necessary people to look after our finances, HR and general admin.

PS: We have all the people onboard who developed the latest award winning AKG Professional products. Do I need to say more?! Well, maybe one last thing: Martin Seidl our CEO is probably the most passionate musician/seller/business director you can think of. Music is floating though his veins and that spirit is contagious within the entire team!

BP: Yes, it is chiefly the top engineers and managers that know each other from their time at AKG. All of them love to make cool and innovative audio products due to their passion for audio and technical problem-solving. This is a rare and shrinking group and is the ideal combination to have when designing forward-thinking products.

If you examine the top AKG products of the past few decades, many of the masterminds behind those products are now in our team.

What will be the company’s focus in the market?

MS: Austrian Audio will focus upon developing our own signature sound that will aid in making our products unique. We aren’t out to copy our past. We’re taking everything that we’ve learned and forging a new path and sound. We will also focus on being close to our customers. Having an open ear and open doors to our followers and users and to create products that are very intuitive to use yet offer unique features. We have a lot of specialized experience in the team ranging from acoustic and mechanical headphone design, to Active Noise Canceling, to high-end recording microphone design and on to superior instrumental microphones.

BP: Our primary passion is Pro Audio gear. We then take everything that we know from the demanding professional industry and put it into lifestyle headphones, microphones and other transducers as well. We also understand the man-machine interface very well and have the top mechanical engineers onboard. So, there will be products that solve some unique problems in that area with the focus being on headphones and microphones. Generally, we want to make good tools for professional recording engineers and musicians so that their working lives are easier. It’s all about giving them a chance to make great sounding music without worrying about the tools on hand.

PS: I’d like to add that we’ll use our expertise for B2B business as well as for our own products. We’re very excited about both as there are some avenues that we can explore that were off-limits in the past. From my background in the automotive department, I can say that working directly with a customer can push you to your limits, although it’s an excellent way to expand your abilities. There are so many valid ideas to explore and to try to bring into reality. Naturally, our fan base (yes, that exists in Pro Audio) is primarily waiting for our 1st Austrian Audio microphones and headphones.

What is your response to Harman’s ‘workforce consolidation’ strategy? 

MS: There are always many ways to look at strategies: centralising and consolidating global skills vs being smaller and closer to the place of action and with the customers. I am sure their strategies are well aligned with what the new structure under Samsung requires in order to be successful. I have great respect for the team there and my best wishes for a prosperous future go out to the many friends I made during 16 years with Harman.

BP: I think the main focus of Harman’s/Samung’s strategy is the automotive and connected service business. They are really good in that and we wish our former colleagues all the best.

What will you be able to offer the market?

PS: The best service and products that no one else makes. We will bring unique and original products to the market along with the bread and butter staples that will ensure our longevity and satisfy what that fan base needs. There is no other start up with the same amount of expertise as can be found in Austrian Audio. Under our name, you will mainly find microphones and headphones, but we’ll develop other audio solutions for B2B customers as well.

MS: Definitely high quality products that are created, designed and made with passion and with a focus on the details. We want to be among the first brands in consideration when our customers need new tools and we will be very open and accessible to them. Wherever possible and feasible we will create and release aspects of what we do as Open Source. Basically, we desire to work with our customers and give back to the pro audio community. That’s our goal.

BP: And you will know that there is Austrian Audio inside.

Will AKG as a brand still exist in the Austrian market?

BP: I think AKG as a brand will always exist in the market because their products are long- lasting and we put so many of them out there. You can’t kick industry icons like the K240 or the C414 out of the market and out of people’s minds. AKG’s team was awarded the technical Grammy in 2010 for those products; they are classics.

MS: I am sure it will. AKG would have celebrated its 70th anniversary in Vienna this year. Unfortunately, this is now not to be. However, it remains a well-known and widely accepted brand that created some all-time classic products. Despite these products having been globalized and out-sourced in production, I am sure some of these all-time classics will remain for the foreseeable future.

PS: The brand name will remain. I’ve already seen that Samsung is using it to promote their products.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for Austrian Audio? 

MS: We are a relatively small company with a disproportionately large amount of experience and we are fast moving within a very flat hierarchy. I believe our opportunity lies in the high-quality niche market and the strong partnerships that we already have established.

BP: With a motivated, re-energised, innovative and hard-working team; we can make good products in a reasonable amount of time and with the highest in quality. We know our customers will love our products in the way we do. Additionally, we will try to produce our products on our own manufacturing lines. It is easier to control the quality and we are faster to react to our customers’ needs. We want to be certain that our customers will know what they get and that there will be a consistently good product.

And the biggest challenges?

BP: The team has many great ideas for products. The challenge is to focus on a select few so that we can deliver them with high quality with a team of our size. I’m confident that we have made the correct decisions as to where to start though. Next is to be recognised on the mass market because there are a lot of small audio companies out there. But as mentioned earlier – with Austrian Audio products you will know what you get, who invented it and that each headphone and microphone was built with craftsmanship and passion.

PS: Yes, one of our greatest advantages is also one of our challenges: We are small and have just gotten started in June. We can’t do all of the projects at the same time. The market is also big and crowded. We can’t release our 1st product this Xmas season – so please: If you read this and plan to buy a pro mic – save your money for a bit longer!

MS: One of the challenges will be to successfully bridge the gap from today until the day we bring the first products to market. We will have to take care to take our fan base as they move forward on this journey with us. We will have to keep in open communication as to where we stand, never lose focus and also stick to a non-compromising quality standard. If that takes a bit more time or greater financial investment, then so be it. And then, of course, there is the challenge of communicating this to a wider customer base and bringing more people into our journey ahead.

Will you be looking to team up with other teams from Harman offices that are closing?

 BP: One never knows. Many of our former Harman colleagues are good friends and top engineers. They have the same audio passion that we do. We would love to work with people who have this passion when the project warrants it. The door is open and we are already working with some other respected audio companies by making our design services available to them.

MS: We will be looking to cooperate and team up with anybody that is inspiring and inspired. There is a lot of change happening in pro audio right now and new seeds can grow well from old soil.

PS: I think the current set up suits our needs very well. We might team up with other spin- offs in the future, but we’re concentrating our own projects for the moment.

Is there anything you would like to add about Austrian Audio?

MS: Only that I am proud of where we stand right now and how fast we have made it to this point. I am proud of the team and can only ask for your patience and support over the next months. You’d be surprised about the number of viable ideas that are around within the team. The team and I are looking forward to sharing them with you over the coming years.

PS: Yes, definitely! Please keep Austrian Audio on your radar if you’re shopping for pro gear in the near future. We have high plans and we’re set up well to deliver!