Inside phonon, the boutique Japanese headphone workshop (excerpts)
by Anton Spice, Vinyl Factory
phonon is a small headphone company based in Kawasaki, south west of Tokyo, that’s beginning to make an international impact. Like the hand-assembled Condesa rotary mixers we recently featured, phonon is building a reputation among an international DJ community that is demanding a little more personality from its audio gear.
The company describes itself as “for the artists, by the artists”, testing its products in the lab and the booth – with this immeasurable sense of feeling and musicality just as important in the final outcome, as a rigorous attention to detail.
Talk us through the process of assembling the headphones – where do you start and how do they come together?
Isao Kumano: Originally, I had been running my own music studio, maintaining and re-modelling it myself as well as making all the equipment I needed. phonon’s products are an extension of this, and of what we’ve been doing for years in the studio.
Now let’s talk about product development. The studio room is full of parts. I try various things until I get distracted, then start again, working until something inspires me. I then go to Akihabara to gather materials. Gradually, I develop the sound I envision. At this point, it’s necessary to go through a professional manufacturing specialist in order to go into production. I place an order, then wait until I receive the headphones. We go back and forth with the manufacturer, trying things out and reviewing them. When I listen to the music and think, “we made something great!” and when the headphones can be used in the studio for several hours, then they pass the test.
Yusuke Uchiyama / Alex Prat: We try various kinds of materials, such as rubbers, types of wire, and substances of different masses, to see how they act on sound. We try to utilize that know-how for development.
phonon CEO Isao Kumano is a top mastering engineer who has been influencing every aspect of the Japanese music scene. He is constantly tuning his mastering studio set, embracing the latest trends in music, and updating his expertise. Kumano made his own rubidium clock hardware in the early stages of his studio work. This true DIY spirit is the basis of phonon.
Why did you decide to start making headphones?
Isao Kumano: I worked for a long time with speakers in the studio, and every time I would use headphones I would get confused and it would interrupt my work. I also felt a sense of incompatibility between what I would hear in the headphones, the music being played, and the sound in the control room coming out of the speakers. I had nearly given up on headphones when I met some veteran Japanese audiophiles and engineers through my studio who introduced me to some interesting speaker technologies. I got a good feeling when I applied them to headphones, and so development started.
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