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Technically speaking: meet the audio designers making visual impact in 2018

‘Garden of Russolo’, by Yuri Suzuki.

As portable speakers get smaller, headphones get beefier and radios get artificially intelligent, the burdens upon audio designers are becoming increasingly complex. They must balance visual aesthetic, connectivity and sound quality in ever more intricate ways.

Its a delicate balancing act that designers have dedicated their workshops, exhibitions, and careers to. Last year, Design Museum Holon turned up the volume on the evolution of sound and visual design since the 1960s in a blockbuster showcase. Inspired by this, we asked a handful of the world’s leading sound-magicians for their take on the competing priorities in audio technology, and how they apply this to their products.

Paul DePasquale​, Tivoli Audio

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Paul DePasquale – vice president of Tivoli Audio’s design department – puts any changes in contemporary speaker design down to our shifting listening habits. ‘We’ve altered the way we consume audio,’ he explains. ‘There has been a sharp rise in streaming services and the appealing “convenience verses quality model”.’ This about-turn propelled DePasquale to update a classic design to fit contemporary, interconnected listening needs, while appealing to a timeless visual sensibility.

The revamped Model One Digital, Tivoli’s throwback DAB radio, sports a retro casing and has a comfortably familiar aesthetic. Inside, we find all the contemporary mod-cons (WiFi, Bluetooth, integrated Spotify), while matching wireless ‘Art’ speakers offer additional audio heft, for those with distant neighbours.

Topically, Tivoli Audio’s mantra reads, ‘Classic design, quality sound’, and DePasquale takes a measured approach to the ‘acoustics before aesthetics’ argument. ‘Design should never be a casualty in the pursuit of high quality audio,’ he explains. ‘Initially, design often takes precedence over sound. Yet once we start working on a product, it’s inevitable that certain design particulars are altered to address any sound issues that may arise.’

For DePasquale, the new Model One offers the best of both worlds, attracting both ‘audiophiles’ and ‘design enthusiasts’. ‘Both groups will always exist,’ he says. ‘Luckily for them the quality of audio is getting better in smaller form factors.’

Jakob Kristoffersen​, Beoplay and B&O

If it’s smaller-form factors you're after, the P2 is a pocket-sized powerhouse. The little brother of tech titan B&O, Beoplay knows its millennial marketplace inside out. As design and concept manager Jakob Kristoffersen puts it, ‘our products appeal to people who are characterised by a youthful and energetic approach to life’.

It’s an audience that isn’t quick to compromise, and Kristoffersen rebuffs the idea that a speaker’s shelf-appeal must concede to its audio quality. ‘We design with authentic materials and best-in-category sound. There is no prioritisation – both sound and design must deliver in unity.’

Innovatively, the P2 has absolutely button-free, and is controlled remotely by an app. To change, skip or pause a track, simply give the hand-held speaker a shake. On first impression this might seem a little gimmicky – just another digital language to learn, struggle with and swiftly forget – but the unique control design is surprisingly intuitive. It allows the largest possible surface area to be covered by the high quality pearl blasted anodised aluminium speaker-grill, and durable polymer underbelly – something which aids both ‘sound quality and aesthetic feel’, Kristoffersen adds.

Frederik Jorgensen​, AIAIAI

The same goes for co-founder of AIAIAI, Frederik Jorgensen, who’​s vision has ‘always been to focus equally as much on design and audio quality.’​ It​​’​s part of his Scandinavian heritage, he explains, ‘where design is about solving key issues and features in both an aesthetic and easily readable way.’​

With the TMA-2 Modular Headphone System, AIAIAI attempts to put ‘us back in the driving seat, when it comes to both sound and vision’​, says Jorgensen. With more than 1000 possible detachable configurations, (including wireless headbands, earpads, wires and cushions), the modularity of the TMA-2 system means you can create your own personalised AIAIAI product that fits your specific (and changing) needs. By going modular, and keeping all adaptations in the same matte black form factor, the visual remains consistent, even when our ears are craving something new.

Jonathan Levine​, Master & Dynamic x Leica

A collaboration between lens master Leica and sound specialist Master & Dynamic illustrates how design-minded and audiophile brands can partner to make one, harmonious product. Leica stamped its iconic ‘red dot’ on M&D’s signature 0.95 collection, comprising an earphone and a headphone stand. Along with the black-and-red colour scheme, the headphones feature ridges on the ear cups, intended to echo signature furrows found on Leica’s lenses – while offering enhanced grip and comfort (if the lambskin leather earpads weren’t enough).

Despite being known for its pioneering sound quality, founder and CEO of Master & Dynamic Jonathan Levine’s team comprises ‘visually driven’ experts. ‘All of our products are not only engineered to meet an exacting sonic criteria befitting of high-end audio,’ he says, ‘but we have a visual aesthetic that is classic and distinctive.’

For this collaboration, Levine borrowed Leica’s reductive approach to design. ‘Our products are meant to withstand the test of time, much like Leica cameras,’ Levine offers. ‘With this collaboration we believe we’ve created a series of timeless sound tools to enhance the Leica lifestyle.’ A match made in heaven.

Nendo

High-quality speaker design doesn't have to be high-tech. So says design titan Nendo through its new Bunaco speaker, developed to make effective use of the abundance of beech trees that grow in Aomori prefecture in Japan. By rolling thin and narrow strips of beech wood to create coil-based shapes, a paper-like, easily mouldable material can be made. Usually used for objects that need to be both delicate and water-resistant, like bowls or vases, Nendo has applied the same technique to its wireless speaker. As a result of the shape of the internal cavity, the sound absorbing qualities of the beech wood, it has been proven to produce a uniquely clear and soft tone – as well as possessing an unparalleled visual fragility. 

The Bunaco has an omni-directional speaker with a vertically standing diaphragm, aiming to maximise the acoustic quality and the sound’s spatial distribution. To accentuate the beauty of Bunaco’s woodwork, the speaker is supported with a transparent acrylic cylinder. The clear base makes it possible to see the unfinished edge that is left curling from the bottom, enabling users to intuitively understand the speaker’s structure as well as the craftsmanship invested in its production.

Alan Gornall​, Podspeakers

With a tag line like ‘Shaping sound’, Podspeakers bases its design ethos on the interaction between audio and visual design. ‘The curved shape for which Podspeakers is known is both a visual and an audio asset,’ explains the brand’s Alan Gornall of these bubble-shaped ’90s throwback speakers.

When they were first introduced in 1992, Podspeakers presented ‘a new way of listening’, says Gornall. They helped you ‘hear with your eyes as well as your ears’. Now, the cult classic has been re-released and re-configured to cope with the modern listener’s demands.

Visually, not much has changed. ‘Why fix what's not broken?’ says Gornall. But, as is becoming a necessity, this year Podspeakers’ innards have been tweaked, pulled and updated, with luxury materials and up-to-date connected technologies, like bluetooth and wireless connectivity.

‘Furniture Music’​, by Yuri Suzuki

Colour Chaser, by Yuri Suzuki, 2017

Product designer and sound artist Yuri Suzuki is looking at audio-visual design with a refreshingly abstract perspective. The solo exhibition ‘Furniture Music’ at Kingston University in partnership with the Design Museum, questions what sound means in the contemporary design landscape. The Royal College of Art grad, who has worked with both Ron Arad and YAMAHA, is particularly interested in background noise caused unintentionally by designed objects, and how this cacophony effects the human psyche.

‘When you do your laundry, why must you listen to a dreadful pounding noise that may distract you from your tasks or simply take you away from the present?’ Suzuki asks. ‘Could a washing machine make a beautiful ambient sound instead? Our lives may be made easier with technology taking care of most of our chores, but perhaps, with a little imagination, we could redefine how sound impacts on our mental wellbeing’.

Instead of shoving on some noise-cancelling headphones, Suzuki tunes into the music of everyday life through a series of modified home appliances, which include a singing washing machine (2018), developed in conversation with composer Matthew Herbert, and a musical kettle (2017).

‘Furniture Music’ runs from 21 February – 21 April 2018 at Kingston University​, London

0.95 collection, by Master and Dynamic with Leica

TMA-2 Modular Headphone System, by AIAIAI

P2, by Beoplay

Model One Digital, by Tivoli Audio

Bunaco, by Nendo

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