Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Jonathan Levine, Founder and CEO of Master & Dynamic, about his love for architecture, learning from his sons, and ignoring research.
I discovered Master & Dynamic when their headphones appeared in our agency’s holiday gift guide. A few of our designers were raving about their pairs. I encountered the brand again in New York last month when I saw their home speakers at a friend’s shop. I was thrilled when that friend introduced me to Jonathan, who graciously agreed to talk with me. He was in China when we spoke, meaning our call took place at 6 a.m. his time. Before we chatted, he sent me a pair of headphones saying I needed to listen to them before we spoke. Once I did, I understood why our designers were so in love with his product
I have to tell you that I love your headphones. I hear things in my favorite songs that I’ve never heard before.
Yeah. We hear that a lot. Thank you.
When I first saw them, they reminded me of vintage aviation headphones. Then I read that you got the idea for the brand when you took your son to D.C. for a college trip and visited a WWII exhibit there.
Yeah. Well, to take you back a little bit: as a kid, I wanted to be an architect. I got talked out of it, much to my dismay. But throughout my life, I’ve loved design and materials. I collect a lot of things, my aesthetic has gravitated towards an industrial vibe. The combination of form and function has always fascinated me. I’m not a headphones guru or geek, but that was a seminal day in the museum when I saw this great exhibit and this fantastic pair of headphones.
If you know the story, you know that my son was 13 when he started DJing. When he was 15, he started teaching DJ lessons. When he was 16, he started producing music. I was inundated with that culture. For the first time, I was focusing on audio equipment. When I saw that pair of headphones, it was like a light bulb went off, where I just became obsessed. That was the genesis of Master & Dynamic.
Did your son help you design the product?
For sure. I have two boys. The younger one is now 18 and a freshman in college. He wasn’t a DJ, but he was into music and technology. While he played a lesser role then, he is quite involved today — guiding me, telling me what he likes. And, of course, if he disagrees with something, he’ll say something.
We wanted to create a sound signature for the headphones, so we created this playlist from high to low of all different ranges of music. The playlist had hip hop, Philip Glass, Van Morrison and Warren Zevon and Outkast. That’s what we used to tune the headphones. We got exactly what we wanted when the first reviews came out calling our headphones “genre-neutral” or “genre-agnostic.”
Why is how they feel as important as how they look to you?
Tactility is part of my DNA, so tactility became part of our design DNA. When we launched Master & Dynamic, we were the first headphones that Apple brought into their retail stores after they bought Beats, which I thought would never happen. That was a very proud moment for us.
Then someone told me that the award-winning recording artist Stevie Wonder had purchased our headphones in an Apple store in Santa Monica, California. I was able to verify it. I remember telling the story to somebody because I thought it was cool. And they said, “Oh, it’s a shame he doesn’t know what they look like.” And I said “Actually, I think he does because of how he has to see with his hands. You can imagine him feeling the mesh, the cool metal and the soft leather, and the buttons on the side.”
Why you were dissuaded from becoming an architect?
I remember it vividly. My father died when I was four years old. My family had a lot of aunts and uncles around as support. One uncle was a successful architect in suburban New Jersey where I grew up. He was like James Bond. He had great furniture, cool audio equipment and an amazing 1968 Jaguar. I thought, “Hey. He’s a cool guy. I think I’ll follow his path.”
When I was in high school, he let me work for him one summer. It was something out of a post-Mad Men show, late 70s, early 80s. He had a beautiful office with a large glass-walled room where a bunch of draftsmen worked. I was sort of their gopher. I would make blueprints, do anything they needed. There was one fellow I got to know. I asked him what it was like to be an architect, thinking that he was an architect like my uncle. I remember him saying in this curmudgeonly voice, “Hey, kid. We all want to be like your uncle, but most of us won’t be.” I’ll never forget that. It scared me. After that, I thought of architecture as something where only a very few people really made it. So I switched career paths to go into the financial sector on Wall Street.
But when I connect the dots backwards, I can see that I never lost that love of design. I probably embrace it more. And while I’m not designing buildings, Master & Dynamic is coming back full circle because we are building things that stand the test of time.
It’s interesting with your classic consumer goods background that you didn’t do any research.
Yeah. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have entered the business because it’s very competitive. At the time, I had blinders on with a child’s mind — like, “Hey, I can do this. What’s the big deal?” I think the fact that we didn’t over-research and instead we built a company based on what we loved and what resonated with us was a great starting point. Filling a void is how a lot of great companies get started.
Tell me why you aimed to create products for creative people?
I don’t think anybody’s asked me that before. Or not in that way. The answer is two-fold. I saw an opportunity because I saw what my kids and other people around me were using. I created the company in the wake of Beats taking over the world of headphones. It became curious to me that my kids and other people really weren’t using them.
So I did this really crazy thing. I developed a product that I would use and that my kids would use. That’s really the genesis. We never created prototypes and put them in front of the focus group. Everything was based on what we loved and what we wanted to do.
The creative community is very broad. It goes across all different age groups. Living in New York City made me realize the need for headphones in open work spaces, and a lot of open work spaces tend to be creative companies: advertising, design, fashion.
If I see somebody wearing my headphones or earphones on a plane or the subway, I go up to them and ask where they got their headphones. Then I ask if the headphones are any good. They always say, “Yeah, they’re amazing. Best headphones I’ve ever owned.” This happens very quickly by the way, it’s not a long drawn-out conversation or I might get punched. The last question I’ll ask is, “Do you mind me asking you what you do for a living?” Anecdotally, with about 95–98 percent of the people, the answer is some type of creative field.
The point of that story is that we created the concept of sound tools for creative minds, and the people we’re seeing gravitate towards our product are in the creative field. I’m not sure which came first, but it seems to be working.
I like that you say you’re not in the sound production business but in the sound re-production business. You understand that you’re a conduit between two creative enterprises, which is pretty cool.
And we’re also not trying to change the sound. We really want it to sound pure. There are companies that will tweak the sound. Make it more bass-y or hit the highs. But we really want the music to sound as close to what the original artist envisioned. And we get that feedback a lot.
I’m not from the music industry but through Master & Dynamic, we’ve engaged with a lot of studio owners and engineers and producers and recording artists. People, just like you say to me, “You know I’ve listened to this song 1400 times, and it’s never sounded the way it sounded on your headphones.” I take that as a great point of pride, that people talk about them sounding as good as they look. That’s important to us.
I know you are interested in the home space with your new home speakers. Are there other spaces you want to explore as well?
I knew from day one I didn’t want to just create a headphone company. I wanted to create a full-fledged audio company — on par with the great brands I grew up with. A lot of them are my competitors today. It was important for us to do minimum one speaker. I think we nailed it on many levels. Getting to work with David Adjaye on it was a dream come true. He and I built a great friendship through it, and we did it at a time when literally everybody in speakers was sort of dumbing down their product. Everything became cylindrical and plastic and maybe had some fabric on it. I’m not saying some of it wasn’t executed nicely, but everybody was sort of going down this rabbit hole. That became very inspiring.
Some of the audio products going into the home now are a bit uninspiring. They’re more about function than form. I’m interested in bringing form back. We also see opportunities in the automotive industry. We’re having some very interesting conversations with leading companies who also see an opportunity because audio in the auto industry has also been dumbed-down a little bit.
If you think about it, when we grew up, chances are you had one audio system in your living room. It was a tuner. It was a turntable. Whether it was big or small, there were substantial speakers, and that was your system. That doesn’t exist as much today obviously with streaming and things like that. The design and the detail that went into those products is just amazing. It’s sort of been designed out of a lot of products. There’s an opportunity to bring some of that back.
When you’re in an autonomous car and not driving it, all the other things become more important. The materials, design and acoustics become a sort of home on wheels. That’s an interesting opportunity for a company like us.