It takes a lot to stand out from the crowd in the world of headphones. With seemingly every new company claiming to offer a design dripping in innovation, a superstar DJ offering a co-sign and a sound quality so crisp you could hear God himself singing in the shower, it’s hard to pick out the ones who have the products to back up what their marketing team claims.
Glasgow’s own RHA is one of those companies who doesn’t need that pomp and circumstance, they let the product speak for themselves.
Yes, their products are innovative, but they don’t use this as a crutch to sell their latest buds. They innovate to progress the industry. Their eye (and ear) for development has seen them create a series of firsts in the audio industry and left a number of the “big boys” trailing in their wake. Their ethos is simple: produce true-to-life sound reproduction and lasting quality. This is by no means a maverick approach, but finding a company that matches their own promises is becoming increasingly rare. Like their products, the company lacks distortion. Their website is an audiophile’s dream, inviting visitors to discover the technology inside every product. Whilst offering this sort of in-depth insight is innovation in itself, here at tmrw we like to delve deeper into our subjects. That’s why I sat down with Kyle Hutchison, their brilliant Head of Product, to talk design, music and staying original in a market that is growing evermore saturated.
The quest to find a calling can often be one mired with false turns and red herrings. From the age of four to six I endeavoured to become a bin man. Unfortunately for miniature me, this never came to fruition as the call of marketing and journalism took over. Kyle found his passion early on and with the help of his parents he quickly fell down the rabbit hole; ‘I was always a designer. When I was a kid I had plans for anything and everything. Cars, houses, a seatbelt for my baby sister. When I was 10 years old my dad gave me CAD software as a Christmas present. I spent hours and hours designing everything from speakers to spaceships.’ With a lust for learning more, he took his desire for design to school and further education. Although it has numerous positives, the structure of education can often constrict creativity, pushing the student into avenues they have little interest in going down or confining them to a certain way of thinking. Like many creatives, Kyle looks back at this time with mixed views: ‘I was good at tech studies at school. I still go climbing with my old teacher. I was alright at art, although I didn’t appreciate the more flamboyant side of it. Too immature, I guess. I suppose I was a challenging student, I rebelled against my teachers and lecturers. When I studied product design, it was still a relatively new area of study. I didn’t always agree with the notion that good product design means creating something totally new. I always thought good product design could just as easily be taking something that already exists and making it better. That was a point of contention, particularly at university’.
It’s understandable why a person like Kyle would clash with this idea that good equals new, as he and his dad had been adapting existing designs for years. It was this that fuelled his early interests in audio engineering; ‘My dad was an audio enthusiast and an engineer, so we used to build speakers together. We would go to car boot sales, buy old speakers and rip them apart in the garage. Then we would rebuild them, swapping drivers to old cabinets or adding acoustic foam to manipulate the sound. We wanted to make them better and that’s why I wanted to get into audio. It’s a mindset I still hold today.’
From an early age, the world of audio had been opened up for Kyle. Knowing the inner workings of a speaker could make you choose your next playlist carefully, as an awareness of acoustics takes over. As Kyle admitted that music and audio have always been a massive part of his life, I was keen to discover what he listened to. His first answer was the one we would probably all give when faced with this question; ‘I like all music’. This generic answer only lasted a moment, as Kyle went further into his tastes, ‘Well, except pop music. I suppose that’s a lot of what’s out there. I always like to have something on in the background, so if it’s Taylor Swift, then I guess that’s fine. If I actually want to listen to something, then it might be Nils Lofgren, Radiohead, The XX, Bedrich Smetana, GoGo Penguin, Elder or The Smashing Pumpkins. If I’m just listening for fun then I’ll likely be enjoying the screeching guitars of Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin or Thin Lizzy. I’m also going through a bluegrass phase lately. Is that really uncool?’.
Personal thoughts on bluegrass aside, it’s interesting to hear someone split their taste in music into different categories. It is perhaps understandable when audio becomes such a major part of your life you may have to differentiate to find something to relax and turn off a mind that must be forever working. With such a varied taste in music, it made me wonder if this ever comes into Kyle’s mind when he’s designing and if this ever affects his process. His answer provided a real snapshot into his creative outlook: ‘I like to really dig down into who would actually listen to these headphones. Full disclosure, I make a person (or two) up in my head. I give them a name, a job, likes and dislikes. I imagine their music taste, maybe other brands that they like, and I – sort of – consider their opinion when looking at the headphone throughout the development process’.
Creating an imaginary customer or two shows the amount of thought Kyle puts into design and the genuine desire to make sure a person’s specific musical tastes are accounted for, a point that is echoed throughout Kyle’s team of designers. ‘Every person in my team is a huge music fan. We have music on in the office, and everyone has several sets of headphones on their desk. We listen to a lot of music when we are developing the sound to make sure it’s right. Our headphones have to be versatile and able to make different genres sound great. We definitely have an RHA “sound” which is present in all of our headphones. However, each one has a slightly different sound “signature” and its own personality within that family.’
Never one to do something into the ground, the RHA team is always working on a different idea or focus to provide the best product. The headphone that Kyle was most excited about during our chat was RHA’s latest work, the TrueConnect. Although we’d talked about music before, these headphones were developed to take on a new challenge – phone calls. ‘We knew we could make music sound great, but the call quality on true wireless headphones is usually terrible.
That feature was the inspiration behind the design. I wanted to be able to use the TrueConnect on a business trip or on the side of a mountain and take a call without worrying. That’s what inspired that particular design. At the end of the day we are the first customers to use these headphones, so we let our own personalities shape them to some extent’. Although in this case there was a focus on the feature side of the product, Kyle was keen to stress the importance of the aesthetics: ‘How the headphones look is just as important as the spec. Yes, you want the best performance possible, but you also have to wear them in public. There are some really awful-looking true wireless headphones out there. That said, I think features should always inform your initial design. There’s less compromise that way. Either way, it’s a fine line.
You always run the risk of designing a beautiful, shitty headphone or an amazing, ugly headphone. Finding the balance between form, fit and features is key to good headphone design. Although designers can be individual in their outlook, incorporating their own personal flair into each project, it’s working as a team that creates good headphone design according to Kyle: ‘I think the visual style of RHA headphones comes from the way that our design and engineering teams work together. Lots of companies have design teams who work in silos coming up with fantastical designs. The compromises start as soon as they pass them over to an engineering team who say “How the hell are we going to make this?” The end result is usually something far from the designer’s original interpretation. We have a mixed team of designers and engineers who work very closely together. There’s no one person sitting up until the wee hours sketching headphones. It’s a collaborative process. We each have our areas of responsibility, but we work through our process together as an informed team’.
Having a skilled team around him and an in-depth knowledge of the audio industry that he’s built on since his school days, Kyle has seen many companies come and go. To get a true understanding of his thoughts about the audio industry, it’s important to address the negative aspects of operating in such a saturated market. I asked what annoyed him and he was more than happy to reel off a list: ‘Features for the sake of features. False innovation. Our headphones are sold in a very competitive market. You can infer value by citing a long list of features. Anyone can slap “active noise cancellation” on the box, and even squeeze it into a product.
We could do it tomorrow, but in most cases it’s crap. We don’t want to do that. We always aim for the best, we wouldn’t promote a feature or product we’re not proud of. Some of the marketing stuff annoys me too. Companies using celebrities to endorse bad headphones. We’ve never had a big machine behind us with endless cash to get us in the room with the big boys.’ His last comment could be attributed as an excuse, but it’s not when you remember that RHA made their way into the room by breaking down the door with their performance of their products. RHA headphones sit alongside the likes of Beats, Bose and B&O in stores and they’ve got there through hard work and a desire to innovate properly. Like their hometown of Glasgow, RHA has an exciting new identity that flows in tandem with an oldschool outlook. Rather ironically, there’s a lot of distortion surrounding the world of audio engineering, but Kyle and his team let their products do the talking and at the moment everything’s coming in crystal clear.
This article was originally written for our Volume #27. Photography by Rory Barnes.
Words by Daniel Eggleston