You don’t get a second chance at 75-year anniversaries, and Sennheiser had prepared for a very big year indeed in 2020. A slew of limited-edition, classic product releases were planned, sales promotions were in place and NAMM 2020 provided the backdrop for the launch of a global, yearlong celebration of sound and music and employees and artists and festivals and family and all the good things that Dr. Fritz Sennheiser made possible when he began tinkering inside a small farmhouse outside of Hannover, Germany, in 1945.
“My grandfather started just a couple of weeks after the Second World War, in the rubble of Germany,” says Daniel Sennheiser, today co-CEO of the family business along with his brother, Dr. Andreas Sennheiser. “It was not because he said, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur’; he just had to feed his wife and his child. As a scientist, he had nothing else to do but to create a company.”
From Dr. Frtiz, to Dr. Jorg, his son, who took the company into new markets and made it truly global in the 1980s and ‘90s, on through Daniel and Dr. Andreas, Sennheiser remains family owned and operated.
Mix had a chance to sit down with Daniel Sennheiser last year, pre-pandemic, to get a taste of what was being planned for 2020. While things didn’t turn out as expected, the core values and spirit of a family owned company, spanning three generations, remain the same.
I understand you joined the company in 2008, then became co-CEO in 2013. Was that always the plan?
I was actually trained as a designer initially, to study classical product design. And then I worked in advertising. I worked for a large American advertising network agency and for a company, Procter & Gamble. I actually refused for a long time to get involved with [Sennheiser] because I wanted my own career. My brother Andreas is the engineer, and it was always assumed he would join the company and then lead it. I wanted to be independent. With age, I realized suddenly that this is actually possible. This is a fascinating industry. And having a family owned company like that is a real legacy. It is a real jewel. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege. So Andreas and myself got together and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”
You could have this same conversation with him, and it would be a different perspective, same goal. We know that being co-CEOs is not normal, but we realized we needed to have the same arguments together and come to common conclusions. There is no segregation of duties.
What are some of your first memories of the company, of being a Sennheiser?
One is the smell of metal. where you go to the factory and we have all these metal churning machines, lathes and things. So this is really very specific. And I still have that today when I go into the factory. And the other one was in primary school, first class, when everybody had to tell what their father does. So I ask my father, “What do you do?” And I remember I was really disappointed because he said, “ I talk to people, I sign papers, I go to work.’ [Laughs]
That about sums it up. Let’s go back before you were born. What is your perspective on the legacy of the company and what it means.
The first products were actually measuring equipment, specifically to measure landlines, because in postwar Germany, the building of infrastructure you needed that. And they did a couple of amplifiers for cinema and things like that. And then Siemens came to us with a microphone. Their factory was actually bombed out. So they came to my grandfather and said, “Hey, can you copy this?” And he looked at it and said, “Yeah, we can copy it, but we can improve it.” And the very honest person that he was, he called the first product the DM2 and there’s never been a DM 1 as a tribute to the fact that it was a copy.
We were an OEM manufacturer in the beginning. The company was called Lab W before eventually having the family name. And it was a big risk at the time because we were manufacturing for Siemens, for Telefunken, and for other companies in OEM production. And it suddenly came out and my grandfather said we could do this under our own name, basically going against all of our customers. It was a big step. And a good decision in hindsight.
At that time, on the research side, it was radio waves, acoustic waves or any light waves. It was all the same. With his background, he very quickly took radio waves and started thinking that Sennheiser could create wireless microphones because wires were a hassle. The idea to make this wireless system came very early, back in 1957, together with German broadcaster NDR. It became the first wireless microphone in the world.
If you look back, Sennheiser has always been involved heavily in research, in science, to create much more intense music performances, because we believe that intense music performances create more intense emotions. So that really is the thread that we still offer today.
Other moments that are big on the timeline?
The other big milestones was in 1968, the invention of the open air headphones [the HD 414], which for the first time allowed people to really listen to music over headphones. The concept existed, but not as a hi-fi reality. So he created the whole headphone consumer headphone market as we know it today.
The interesting thing is my grandfather, being the engineer that he was, he thought this was a great product and he asked the sales organization—a representative at the time because we had no sales organization—“How much of this can you sell?” And they came up with 500 pieces per year. He didn’t believe that. He knew they were great. He knew people would respond emotionally to the music. So he produced 5,000, and they sold out in three months.
And then came the 441, a classic, then wireless systems, and now VR?
I think the change between immersive audio and any existing surround format is that it goes from channel-based to object-based. And that’s a paradigm shift, which I think takes some time for the industry to understand because you’re not mixing channels. You have an object and the object in space, and the behavior of the space. We had already started researching this in the ‘70s with the dummy head and HRTF models from the time. We’ve been in that field for so many years and we’re still trying to understand it.
Rumor has it that you have a research team in San Francisco.
We’ve had a research center in San Francisco for 15 years. We also have a research center in Zurich and at headquarters. This is what my brother and I brought when we came in. We looked at about 35 different research projects, and they were all different aspects of HRTF, or how sound works in an environment, or hearing and perception, So we created one big program and we called it AMBEO. Mono to stereo was one big step. Stereo to AMBEO is the next big step. One big vision, to create an audio system that is tailored to how our brain perceives audio.