Pro audio can be a very nostalgic industry. Many pros obsess over legendary pieces of gear, dozens of plug-ins emulate the abilities and eccentricities of analog equipment from yesteryear, and if you put a few recording veterans in a room, it won’t be long before you hear about the good old days. But nostalgia, fun though it may be, is ultimately about loss. Austrian Audio, then, arguably began by taking a stand against nostalgia. CEO Martin Seidl saw something he felt passionate about, recognized it was about to slip away, and saved it from becoming another wistfully recalled part of pro audio’s past.
AKG, founded in Vienna, Austria, back in 1947, built a legendary reputation over the years for its studio microphones and headphones, and its prominence only increased when the company was purchased by Harman International in 1994. In 2016, Harman underwent a global reorganization of its brands that ultimately moved AKG’s headquarters to California. While the brand is still a key part of Harman, the employees who lived and worked in Vienna are not.
“I was living in the UK, where I held the position of vice president, global sales and market development for AKG, when I learned about the upcoming closure of AKG’s headquarters in Vienna,” said Seidl. “As all the employees were let go. I was able to raise funds to keep that team together and founded Austrian Audio.”
The result is an audio startup that has decades of experience creating products. Austrian Audio is a largely R&D-driven company. Out of 43 employees, 21 are engineers, with 18 of them working purely in R&D. The remaining three engineers work in measurement, developing the company’s own sophisticated test, measurement and calibration equipment. Elsewhere, there are departments for supply chain and purchasing, in- and outbound logistics, finance and controlling, program and project management, and product management. Two people work in sales, with one out of the UK, and four in marketing and artist relations. A total of five people work in operations and in-house production, but Austrian Audio also partners with companies in Vienna for some external assembly work. Similarly, some service and support is handled externally.
“We chose an extremely flat hierarchy, with no bottleneck management structure, but [instead] an agile, project-oriented setup,” said Seidl. “Anyone in the company has the same right to speak up and express joy, stress, concerns or ideas.” Recognizing that the employees sometimes felt hindered when they were part of a large multinational conglomerate, reuniting under a new banner gives all involved a clean slate to work with, whether trying new technical approaches or having more control over their company’s destiny.
“Over the last three years as Austrian Audio, the team’s creativity, inspiration and self-driven responsibility have blossomed—meaning everything each employee is doing is meaningful, important and part of the success story of the company,” he says. “This passionate will to succeed creates teamwork and even friendship. Not everything is great, being a small company: financing is challenging, there aren’t dedicated departments for everything, and yet all operational tasks need to be handled, so we must wear many hats.”
Being a smaller company has its advantages—Austrian Audio can be more reactive and nimble when it comes to changes in the marketplace—but Seidl readily acknowledges that competition in the marketplace is fierce, requiring the company to play to its strengths at all times.
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“Changes in the market such as new technologies becoming available or affordable … requires us to stay on the cutting edge,” he said. “The challenge is that your competitors are doing the same thing, and it’s hard for smaller companies to keep up, so we focus on the user experience. Ideas to improve it can come up suddenly or develop over time. I don’t believe that you always need to invent new technologies to make better products. Sometimes you do, sometimes you know what’s needed but struggle to get there, and sometimes just a few simple things need to be brought together to create a better user experience.”
Sometimes that means the company draws on the in-house experience and knowledge that led to so many respected microphones, but just as often it means reinventing the same concepts and ideas behind those legacy products by seeing them through a modern-day eye. “We want to break down some walls between generations by adding new technologies to traditional products,” said Seidl, citing the company’s OC818 Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone as an example. “Let’s not diminish new digital developments as toys. I guess there’s something in it for both generations.”
Austrian Audio’s biggest markets are the German-speaking countries of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, as well as the United Kingdom, China and the United States. “Not all regions are developed for all product categories in the same way,” Seidl shared. “Headphones made in Austria are a big thing in Asia, while the UK and U.S. are more into our high-end studio microphones. Our focus moving forward is on the studio and live microphone markets, and to bring more high-end headphones to the market, providing great usability and feature sets for professional users.”
Of course, for all companies in pro audio, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended even the most careful plans, but Seidl aims to take it in stride. “Talking about the ebb and flow of the economy is a bit tricky in the current situation,” he said. “Six months after shipping your first products definitely is the worst time for the economy to come to a complete stall, as we are experiencing right now, but there is always something that can be done. As our products target various users, we are flexible enough to rearrange priorities to a certain extent. We will prioritize and reallocate resources to finish projects that we deem will be less affected by threats that appear in the market, or support trends that may arise. Again, this is a benefit of being relatively small and agile.”
While the pandemic has the entire world anxiously looking forward to brighter days ahead, Austrian Audio has been striving to create a better future for its employees since day one. “To start a company like ours in a crowded field of competition is not an easy decision, but when an extremely capable team like ours suddenly became available, I had to act,” said Seidl. “My thanks go out to all of them. Their trust and faith is what will make this company a success.”
Austrian Audio • https://austrian.audio
This story was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Pro Sound News as “View from the Top: Martin Seidl, Austrian Audio.” View from the Top is a monthly column in which audio industry leaders are invited to share stories about company challenges and successes.