Market Influences and the Professionals…
Japan is known for housing tons of audio brands from across the globe. It’s probably the most complete audiophile hotspot aside from Singapore. Do you think it’s important getting to know the competition?
Yes, I do visit e-earphone sometimes. I like listening to Sony’s earphones, because they have quite a unique hybrid system. When it comes to customs, I’ve enjoyed Vision Ears, Jomo Audio and Ultimate Ears.
Does it pressure you to be different or do you usually feel more confident knowing what everyone else is doing?
Oh, of course I have to be different! (laughs) Because, it’s not interesting if I just introduce the same products to the market. We have to add our own unique sounds to the market. But, seeing what techniques they use to achieve their sounds is very interesting to me.
How ‘bout in terms of build quality? I personally think you have some of the best-built IEMs on the market right now, but have you ever looked at what others are doing?
Oh, thank you so much. I don’t really look at what others are doing in build, because I’m aware of the quality I’m constantly trying to achieve. The products I use in finishing are all industrial-grade, so I always know what my goal is.
How much do you value events like PortaFest or CanJam? Do you look forward to feedback, experience or inspiration?
Yes! I experienced this during the last CanJam in Singapore. The Singaporean crowd really liked the KL-Sanka Mk.K and Mk.B. This is hugely different in Japan – those models aren’t popular here at all! (laughs) But, I was very impressed by the difference between the two markets. I definitely want to get more feedback from those events.
I heard you went to CanJam London as well.
Ah, yes! But, CanJam London wasn’t as big for us, because headphones and speakers were more popular in the UK. So, the earphone market was tiny there.
Why do you think Singaporeans liked the Mk.K and Mk.B so much? How is it different from the rest of the Sanka variants?
The standard Sanka has a very orthodox tuning – a linear, normal sound. The Sanka Mk.B has more bass and treble, and the Mk.K is even more v-shaped than that!
So, Singaporeans tend to like a more v-shaped sound in your experience?
Yes, but also in terms of treble texturing, they prefer a more clean, crisp sound.
Japanese brands, like FitEar, Ocharaku or Sony Just Ear for example, tend to be criticised for refusing to sell several of their products outside of Japan or Asia. They tend to enjoy keeping things local. Why do you think some brands are more reluctant to spread outside of their native homeland?
I think it has a lot to do with production capacity. FitEar has a lot of professional endorsements – stage artists, especially. So, even though they’re quite large in Japan and other parts of Asia, they just don’t have the capacity to accept global sales like Audio-Technica or JHAudio, for example. That’s why they’re more of a domestic business.
Speaking of professionals, have you had any experience working with musicians?
We’ve had a couple professionals purchase IEMs from us, but only for personal use; not stage use. They take listening as a hobby just as seriously, and they selected Kumitate Lab for music consumption.
How interesting! Did you receive any feedback from them that was different from what you’d receive from just hobbyists or enthusiasts?
Professionals tend to like a bigger bass for stage use. Because, in loud environments, bass leaks quite easily. This is different from what I’ve seen among hobbyists. I think this is why IEMs like the Westone W60 or W80 haven’t been too popular among audiophiles for pop music, while pop artists love performing with them. They have a big bass ideal for stage performances.
Image courtesy of Spiral Ears’ Facebook page
Professionals generally work with a huge variety of gear – all with different output impedances, noise floors, etc. Have you taken this into account design-wise?
Yes! When we were developing the KL-REF, Yamazaki-san visited several local studios to talk to their engineers and find out their preferences – how they use IEMs when mixing music. So, I think the KL-REF definitely has the essence of a studio item.
Do you plan on working with more musicians, or do you intend to maintain a more consumer-aimed focus?
Well, the problem with this kind of growth is – again – production capacity. Honestly, my company’s size… where I am right now is fine for me. But sometimes, expansion can be great too. If you look at 64Audio, for example, they started with five members and I heard they have over eighty members now!
I guess that is the side-effect of expansion. If you want to cater to professionals and what-not, you have to be ready for the workload.
I think expansion can be good, because you’ll be able to share your product with the rest of the world. But, that’s a secondary goal to me. My number one goal is to always create the most high-quality, most special product I can. The size of my company… it doesn’t really matter to me.
I see… Well that’s very honorable, I think. It shows you truly do have a passion for hand-crafting these IEMs as an artform; not just as a business… which transitions perfectly onto the topic of your famous – sometimes notorious – Raden faceplates!
Ah, yes. I have lots of backorders there. (laughs)
I think they’re very unique because they incorporate true, authentic Japanese artistry – tapestry almost – into your IEMs. In the past, I believe Raden was done with a substance called Urushi oil?
Yes, traditional Raden was done with Urushi oil. But, we create our artwork with UV-cured resin.
What inspired you to sort of combine modern technology with ancient, traditional artforms?
It actually started six years ago with an old customer of mine from Kyoto, who asked me to reshell his Shure SE530 with mother-of-pearl faceplates. It was a simple reshell; all I had to do was shape the material and apply it onto the faceplate. That was my introduction to the material itself. But some time later, I became inspired by Raden when I saw the artform on rice bowls and other traditional products. They had very impressive Sakura-inspired designs on them. It was then that I wondered whether or not I could attempt the same techniques, but in faceplate design. I immediately started researching the process and attempting it myself.
How does it feel to know that you’re – in some way – representing Japan with each and every pair you sell – knowing that anyone could point at a Raden faceplate and instantly tell, “Oh, that’s Japanese!” Don’t you feel a bit of that pride?
Hmm… yeah, I think so! (laughs) I never really recognised it as a symbol of Japan when I started it. But when I think about it, I guess it is Japanese! (laughs)