Q&A with JLab Audio CEO Win Cramer
Since we first reported on truly wireless earbuds a little over a year ago, we’ve seen countless brands launch a product into this space. What’s better, we’ve even had the opportunity to get our hands on a few different models and test them out for full product reviews.
Much like the headphone market in general, truly-wireless earbuds have been launched in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and with all kinds of different features and functionality. Some are just straight listening devices, while others are so smart they helped coin a new phrase for ear-based computers: hearables.
The one name that probably comes to mind in this space is Apple with their misshapen but well-performing AirPods. Rightfully, as the top-selling brand in the category, they should be top-of-mind. But not to be forgotten is JLab Audio, a company whose Epic Air truly-wireless earbuds are the second-best selling behind Apple. The brand itself, according to NOD Group, is one of the fastest growing major headphone brands in the U.S.
Given the excitement around the space—and the fact that we’re currently testing out their Epic Air earbuds—we wanted to take the opportunity to sit down with JLab to talk about this unique market, where they see themselves fitting into it, and where it’s ultimately going. JLab CEO Win Cramer was kind enough to spare a few moments out of his busy schedule to chat with Dealerscope. Here’s out conversation.
Dealerscope: So, what's new with JLab? What have you guys been up to?
Cramer: There's lots new. It's been a huge year for us in terms of growing our distribution partnerships in the U.S., increasing our technology count, for lack of a better term, and really making that transition from wired to wireless that all important price bands—you know, the $25 up to $150—and really ensuring that the quality behind all those price bands is on point. We've had a super busy year adjusting to this transition but luckily for us we stayed out ahead of it, which has made all the difference in the world.
I know you are making the move into Europe—we saw you guys at IFA. What was it like for you to be in Berlin, and what does that show do for you guys, and what were you showing off there?
Yes we were showing off our Epic Executive Bluetooth earbud, which is an active noise canceling plus Bluetooth piece we've launched in the market at $100, which is really unheard of if you look at active noise canceling plus Bluetooth in the in-ear space, so we were excited to launch that there. Being in Berlin was awesome. It was my first time there, seeing how the brands that we compete with on a day to day basis really change their strategy in the global market was was awesome to see, and learning how to fine tune our pitch and really adjust what we've done well here in the U.S. to account for cultural differences overseas was really cool to see and we've learned a lot. Excited about doing it again next year and really bringing the JLab brand outside of the U.S. borders and sharing it with folks over there will be really exciting. I'm psyched about it.
You mentioned some of those differences. Just off the top of your head, can you think of anything as far as from the perspective of a manufacturer, the big differences between trying to do business here in the U.S. as opposed to overseas?
Well, shoot. Just things like color ways are different. Knowing that black is what sells in the U.S.—that's not necessarily the case over there. You really have to be on point with fashion more so than you do here. And then adjusting to currency rates, and it's not just the euro now, with the U.K. and Brexit, accounting for the pound in a big way again and understanding how you talk about it and the VAT (value-added tax) involved.
Credit: JLab UK Twitter
Operationally, from a marketing perspective, it's all encompassing. You can't just say, "Yeah, we're going to go international," and plug and play what you do in the U.S. and expect that it will work over there—that’s not the case at all. You really need to be prepared and understand how those markets work, how the culture is different, and adapt to your business to them versus the other way around.
So pressing forward a little bit just with the Epic Air, that's a product that's been out for you guys for a little bit. Talk about the successes there. I know when we talked in Berlin you mentioned that you guys were the second fastest growing wireless ear bud brand but that's since changed from what I hear?
From an overall brand perspective we're actually the fastest growing brand in the U.S. market. That's led by our wireless platform, and our Epic Airs in particular are the from what we understand the second best selling behind the Apple AirPods. We really took a different approach to how we developed our true-wireless product. We built it for sports and for fitness. We're the only product on the market that has hooks that go behind the ear to really lock your product in place.
Some of the biggest complaints we heard from users, specifically fitness users, was, 'Hey we love the AirPods and that there's no wire behind our head, but they can slip out a little bit." So we tried to design a product that really didn't move when you're running, when you're jumping, when you're doing anything.It's really locked in place with that same true wireless freedom that you gain with no wire behind your neck.
So I know that they're not too far removed from their launch, but are you guys looking ahead to how the Epic Air can advance and what version two might look like?
We were just meeting about it recently before our team headed off to China for some trade. But yeah we were talking about version two, which, sneak peek, it looks like it'll be called the Epic Air Elite. And really we’re looking at correcting everything from all the feedback that we were getting from folks. They thought we could improve upon simple things, like when we adjust the volume up, today it's a long hold the right, and it's a long hold on the left to make it go down. People came to us and said, "Why don't you make that a tap instead of a long hold?" That actually makes some sense. So it adjusting the user interface, cranking more out of the battery than we did before without losing the soul and the essence of the original product, which really is those ear hooks, the large 8mm drivers, and the long battery life. So ensuring we keep the soul of the essence of the Epic Air, while we are improving upon what we have.
How about just this this wireless earbud space in general? What have you guys seen? Obviously were convinced to get into the space with the Epic Airs, but just from a kind of a higher level view, what do you see as some of the bigger trends in this this wireless earbud space and kind of where it's heading?
Well if you're looking at true wireless—so you're taking that cable completely out of the equation—I mean it's definitely a hot topic right now. Lots of people are getting into the game and it's fun to see the different designs come to market and what different brands are trying to accomplish with their products.
It's a market that's growing. It has a lot of interest, but with that there are a lot of challenges. I mean, when you're trying to remove the wire completely from the equation, there are so many things to think about, from battery life, to connectivity, to fit in the head, to functions that you can bake into the product itself. You know, you see folks out there that are putting in heart rate monitors in your ear, and they're doing all of these funky things, and that's awesome to see.
Our approach is—you know my dad taught me at a young age to "keep it simple, stupid." He said, you know, if you have something that works, make it better but don't change it. And we try to keep that approach here. We want our product to sound really really good and we want it to have a long battery life. That's what we find are important for our customers, and that's what we do. We don't see the need to bake in all of these extra features that your phone could have or that a Fitbit could have. We're going to make a product that sounds really really good. We're going to make a product that stays in your ear really well, and we're going to give it the longest battery life in the business. Now that's not to say that what everyone else is doing is wrong. It's just a different spin on it, and it's cool to see it all.
One of the things you brought up there, and it's something that I've heard from other manufacturers in the in the true wireless earbud space is the connectivity issues, just in terms of the Bluetooth. Because if you think about it you're having to get one earpiece to connect to the other, then to connect to the device. As far as that goes, are you guys seeing challenges? How can this space evolve so that we stop having these challenges in terms of connectivity?
Yeah good question. You know I think Bluetooth 5 will help fix some of that, and I'll get to that in a second. But yeah the connectivity from the device to one ear bud and then one ear to the other is very very hard to do. And when you look at it, Bluetooth doesn't go through water right? And your head is made up of 80 percent water. So bending the signal around your head is very, very challenging to do. Our approach was, those ear hooks offer not just a functional feature but they also offer a technological feature as well. We actually built our antennas into the ear hooks so the the distance that the signal has to transfer just goes behind your neck versus trying to push it through your head or curve that signal around your head. That was our approach. We believe in it so much so that we patented that idea and we think it's a unique way to ensure that the connectivity remains strong between the two ear buds.
And you mentioned Bluetooth 5. I mean obviously there's many things that can do and that it'll help with moving forward.But as far as top of mind for you guys, what are sort of the advancements you think you'll you'll be able to realize there?
Bluetooth 5 is really cool. Not only does it lower the power that's required to make the signal work or to accept a signal from a device like an iPhone or Android phone, but it splits the signal between left and right channels so you can have—very similar to what the Apple W1 chip works with their Apple AirPods—it's sending two wireless signals from the device like a phone to the ear buds themselves, and it's sending to your left and right signal. So you really—once Bluetooth 5 is out, and it's going to take a year or maybe even longer for this technology to really get adopted, but you won't have to worry about that connectivity from the phone to the ear bud and then to the other ear. The signal from the phone will be going to both of your earbuds. But that creates another problem: you've got to ensure that that signal is strong enough in order to be received. But it really removes the bottleneck of trying to push the signal through your head.
I mean it's advancing in all kinds of ways, which is really cool to see and is making it easier for the user, but not so easy for manufacturers I guess.
We're definitely at the—we needed to wait for the phone developers, what I refer to as device one, to design to build out a technological ecosystem, and then we get to play within that ecosystem, which is cool, but we have to wait for that stuff to come to us before we can design around it.
Any challenges as far as, from the consumer's perspective, selling consumers on truly wireless as opposed to wireless earbuds that have a wire.
Yeah, I mean, I think the challenge is the price point. You know you can get a quality wireless, not truly wireless, but wireless earbud for $25 today, and ours has a six to seven hour battery life, and you're only spending $25 bucks for it. So it's convincing the consumer that you need to spend $150+ just to remove that cable that goes behind your neck. That's a hard proposition to some. I think the benefits that you get with that—removing that wire, being the early adopter to do so—it does create a different experience if you truly want to be wire-free and not have that wire either dangling under your chin or behind your neck, it can create a really cool experience, especially for those that are running or working out, you're just unencumbered, and it's really cool.
I've seen a few different takes on them and they're all different in their own right. But I mean, I have a much easier time adjusting to truly wireless because of all of the convenience it provides. I think it's definitely one of the top selling points from my mind.
Totally, the convenience is there. In our business, the percentage of people that are early adopters continues to grow. People really like tech and they're spending their money on stuff that's unique and cool and different, so that pie is constantly growing and getting larger, and people that invest in innovation or try things usually get rewarded to some extent by that larger early adopter pie.