“I don’t care what it looks like, it’s all about how it sounds!” How often have we heard that? The implication is that companies who don’t commit the majority of a product’s R&D funds to its internals – “where it matters most” – have wrongheaded priorities. Those who do invest in aesthetics are sellouts, judged as inferior lifestyle brands.
There are two problems with this line of thinking.
First: the (counter-intuitive) notion that hi-fi gear is even more visible than it is audible. Yes, the purpose of hi-fi equipment is to make sound. But it’s often large, in your living space, and you have to look at it even when it’s not making sound.
Second: this attitude is from an increasingly bygone era, largely held by Baby Boomers who came into hi-fi by building Heathkit radios and surfing the first wave of consumer hi-fi in the 1960’s and 70’s. People in their 30’s and 40’s today (Millennials) have enjoyed very different formative audio experiences. Instead of a plasticky Walkman, they had the sleekly designed iPod – with its clever click wheel and chrome metal back – plus Beats headphones and UE Boom Bluetooth speakers. Millennials have been surrounded by high-quality, “just works” products their entire lives. Why would they expect to be greeted with anything less from their hi-fi? They want audio products that blend into their homes (and lives).
Moreover, Millennials’ spending power is soon to overtake that of Boomers. The former is more attuned to design and ease of use than any generation before it. They recognize that a product’s design sends important signals. One example is a story about a detail-obsessed VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech who – so the story goes – insisted that the VW’s glovebox interiors be finished in velvet. His reasoning? Customers often open the glove box when first trying a car and they’d be more likely to think “Wow, if they’ve done that in here, what must the inside of the engine be like?”
Let me pause for a quick intro so you know where I’m coming from. I’ve been a product designer for 25+ years, mostly in Silicon Valley and I’ve been into hi-fi for at least as long. I started out doing industrial design – design of physical products – and over time branched out into broader user experience (UX) to include interaction and service design. I’ve worked on everything from kids’ toothbrushes to mission control for NASA, and have written about design and innovation for Harvard Business Review and other publications.
Given the shifts going on in the hi-fi industry, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some products and companies that can be looked at as industry leaders in their effective and creative use of design. As this is is only a brief overview, many worthy examples will be left out. But I’m not simply trying to select the ‘best designs’. There’s no single standard for great design but there are common threads connecting well-designed products in terms of how they’re made, how they work, and how they make us feel.
Let’s look at some examples of good product design from hi-fi past and present, along with some quotes from a variety of designers.
Design for longevity
“Design is a formal response to a strategic question” – Mariona Lopez
The up-front investment by a manufacturer in a high-quality design language – one that scales across a range of products – can pay off for years, even decades. One of the best examples comes from the Jeff Rowland Design Group. I first encountered the company’s products at a hi-fi store in Berkeley, California in the 1990s. I was instantly smitten.
What set them apart at the time were two things. First was the machining quality of the casework and heatsink fins. But the real party piece was the front plate’s polished turned-metal finish, executed in a striated vertical pattern. It was and still is, a classically beautiful look, reminiscent of vintage aircraft or a Bugatti or a Bentley. It’s eye-catching but understatedly so. It doesn’t cross the line into bling.
Using the Model 625 S2 stereo amplifier as an example, the front’s gentle curve and the chamfers on the vents’ racetrack shapes soften what would otherwise be a brutal look. The glossy black paint offsets the machined aluminum front, while subtle treatments to the logos keep things confidently low-key. The product’s overall aesthetic announces the brand without the need to shout it with a splashy logo.
The Jeff Rowland Design Group has maintained the same aesthetic to the this day, proof that getting it right to start with can serve you for many years – and products – to come.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum is NAD, which established a consistent, quality aesthetic from the start. They began in the Dieter Rams/Braun school of simple shapes, rigorous geometry, and muted colors. While NAD later branched out into more expressive surfaces and material treatments, its design team never departed from its commitment to unfussy (but still attractive) designs. NAD is also a manufacturer pursuing a modular approach to internal circuitry. This makes for easier upgrades as features and technologies change — another way of designing for longevity.
Example: NAD 302 integrated amplifier
The 3020 integrated amplifier is the classic NAD, known by many, but I’m choosing to focus instead on the 302 that followed fourteen years later. It shows a significant refinement of the original’s look, with circular buttons replacing the 3020’s squares to lend the front fascia a less cluttered look. And I think it’s high time that NAD should bring back that olive green power button!
Design the most with the least
“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I’m finished, if the solution is not beautiful, then I know it’s wrong.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
I’ve always liked the phrase, coined by Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman, that says “Simplify, then add lightness.” Even if lightness is not the literal goal, the idea of trying to wring the most functionality and performance from a minimal amount of materials and technology is both intellectually clever, and nowadays, an environmental imperative.
Buckminster Fuller was an iconoclastic pioneer of more sustainable approaches to design and manufacturing products, houses, and…well…everything. A late friend and colleague, Jay Baldwin, was a Fuller protege and helped champion the inventor’s famous geodesic dome. Another Fuller creation was “tensegrity” – a lightweight structure that gets its rigidity from combining tension and compression.
One of the few modern applications of this approach is Q Acoustics’ Tensegrity speaker stand, announced in 2019, to sit underneath its Concept 300 loudspeakers. The stands can now be purchased separately for use with other speakers.
Many conventional speaker stands rely on bulk, real and visual. But the Tensegrity stands are elegant, lightweight and minimal tripods, making them easier to integrate into real-world living environments. Unfortunately, Q Acoustics haven’t made obvious the Fuller lineage of their design.
Example: KEF KC62 subwoofer
Staying with loudspeakers, the newly arriving KEF KC62 is another example of a manufacturer creatively realizing a minimalist design, one that works for smaller living spaces or where audio gear is just one part of life. And like Q Acoustics’ Tensegrity stands, this micro-subwoofer likely wouldn’t have been possible without a priori software modeling. The company’s Head of Acoustics, Jack Oclee-Brown, has said as much. KEF adapted the design language of its equally striking LS50 standmount loudspeaker to suit the sub, with characterful sculpted surfaces that soften the volume. It also shows what can be achieved when the hardware is augmented by a DSP software layer. KEF could optimize the whole because it knew the capabilities and limits of each.
Example: Schiit Aegir amplifier
Lastly, I can’t not mention Schiit. The company seemingly runs a master class on how to get the most design value out of the least number of components across the widest variety of product types. All sell for relatively modest prices but are made in high-cost California (and now also lower-cost Texas – Ed). The Aegir amplifier is, from a design standpoint, one of their more ambitious products. While the detailing and fit-and-finish aren’t as refined as you’ll find at higher price points, you get a distinctively well-proportioned amplifier with Schiit’s signature waterfall front fascia. The contrasting dark gray of the vents and control panel add sophistication and reduce the unit’s visual mass.
Design is in the details
“The details are not the details. They make the design.” – Charles Eames
The design process, whether creating a product, poster or building, is characterized by zooming in and out: surveying the whole, diving into the work to focus on a single detail, and then returning to a wide view to see how the new detail and the whole work together.
Any designer will tell you: the simpler the product the harder it is to design well, as you have to nail each and every detail.
Example: Elekit 22 hybrid tube amplifier
Many tube amplifiers trade on an old-world steampunk aesthetic. The Elekit 22 looks like it could be sold in an Apple Store. Designer Koichi Futatsuma (of 22 [tu:tu:]) gets everything just right here; and beautifully so. The length and width sit in a perfect 1:2 ratio when viewed from above. Each brushed rotary comes with a position indicator groove cut into its center whilst the edges are delicately chamfered. Furthermore, each rotary’s diameter matches the height of the painted case. The graphics are functional but subtle, with the “22” treated like a stencil as though it were punched out of the sheet metal.
Futatsuma makes it all seem so effortless (often the hallmark of a good design) but really is difficult to pull off so well. Compare the 22 to a superficially similar amp like the Heaven 11 Billie and the latter comes off as clumsy by comparison.
Example: Shinola Runwell turntable
The Runwell was Detroit-based Shinola’s first foray into audio gear and while it’s built from components made by American turntable bigshot VPI, the Runwell’s design was completed by San Francisco firm Astro Studio who so thoroughly rework VPI’s fundamentals to give us something completely new. And absolutely gorgeous.
I love how the machined curves of the feet, counterweight, and power switch all mimic one another. The satin plinth provides a neat contrast to the wood grain and polished metal. And notice how the rounding along the plinth’s top edge isn’t a simple full round – it has crisp edges where it meets the top and sides so the form doesn’t become too “blobby”.
Design is in the materials
“It’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.” – Jonathan Ive
While plastic and metal are the day-to-day materials for most industrial designers, it’s always exciting to work with other materials in fresh ways.
Example: Meze 99 Classics headphones
Wood has been a part of audio equipment since hi-fi’s earliest days so it makes perfect sense for Meze to craft their 99 Classics headphones out of it. In fact, it’s surprising how few headphones have been made with wood. Grado and a few others have done it but with less scope and finesse than Meze achieved on their first outing. I’ve heard from other Romanians (from where Meze hails) that the country is famous for its walnut forests, so it’s especially fitting here. This is the only product on this list that I personally own and they are beautifully executed – no surprise given that founder Antonio Meze has a design background. The wood ear cups look like a simple shape but actually have complex surfaces, and get combined with polished metal elements in bronze or silver. The 99 Classics look so much better than most of the awkwardly shaped high-end headphones out there.
What could we plug the head sculpture of the 99’s into? How about the jewel-like cubes of the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies, a tube headphone amplifier & DAC with an optional matching tube power supply. While it’s common to surround tubes with cages or glass cylinders, Jack Wu takes the Fireflies a step further to encase them in a glass block. This has the visual trick of both showcasing and partly obscuring the tubes. The glass refracts their yellow glow as you move around the product.
Design is in the interaction
“People don’t use a product because of the great design; great design helps them use the product.” – Viran Anuradha Dayaratne
Many people still love a hardware switch or rotary, especially now that so many interactions involve taps and swipes on glass. Streaming audio gear has traditionally been pretty hands-off but that’s changing, especially when one is charged with managing large digital libraries. hi-fi manufacturers are going to need to get a lot better – quickly – at combining screens and physical controls in order to meet this demand.
Example: Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 2400
Bang & Olufsen has a long history of innovating the human/hardware interaction, and their Beomaster 2400 receiver is a watershed moment from 1977. Most receivers of the day were plastered with various sized switches and dials, but B&O’s lead designer, Jakob Jensen, stripped all that away by hiding the less-used controls under a flip-up panel. This reduced their visual clutter and helped the 2400 look nice and sleek.
These days this idea of revealing controls and functions as needed is known as “progressive disclosure”, and is common in tech products due to their complexity.
So which hi-fi manufacturer is going to pick up the baton a full half-century later and reimagine the music interface for today?
Example: Burson Composer 3XR
The Beomaster 2400 also had a custom remote control – highly exotic for its time. That brings me to Australia’s Burson Audio who, despite their modest prices, includes a high-quality remote that’s much better than the common plastic ones with squishy buttons. Instead, it’s small, metal, offers the essential functions, and matches the look of Burson’s products. A remote control can be the most intimate interaction point with a hi-fi brand, and yet many companies building multi-thousand dollar products treat them as an afterthought. One other notable exception is Devialet whose Expert series remotes are simply gorgeous (see header image). However, Burson shows that it can be done at a much lower price point.
Burson also does an exceptional job with its products’ front panel displays. They aren’t garishly colored or backlit in blue (terrible when listening in the dark), nor are they giant red LCDs that could have come from a 1980’s clock radio.
Design is in the emotion
“Form follows emotion” – Hartmut Esslinger
The above quote is from the founder of frog design, a global design consultancy famous for creating the look of Apple’s products in the 1980s (and where I worked for ten years). Hartmut meant it as an antidote to the overly simplistic responses to the idea that “form follows function”. A central job of design is provoking the right emotions (depending on the product’s goals): joy, calm, excitement, confidence, etc. Two functionally similar products can have very different emotional impacts due to choices of shape, materials, proportion, and color. Here are two amplifiers that illustrate this perfectly.
This is a fresh take on Technics’ 1980ish SE A5. And boy does it look the business. It retains the full-width VU meters of the original but with a modern cool white twist and adds pre-amplifier functionality. The SE A5 was just a power amplifier. The rotaries look great and are nicely weighted.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the combination of retro character and modern precision is very well executed. The Technics name may not have the cachet of other brands but when their products look as good as this, they’ll win people over.
Example: Borg Audio Zoom Stereo
Here’s another integrated amp. In fact, with built-in DAC, Roon streaming and VU meters, it qualifies as a super-integrated. And it makes the Technics seem pedestrian. The Borg Audio Zoom Stereo looks like a scaled-down brutalist concrete building from a 70’s sci-fi flick, with a shape that is both playful and menacing.
It lacks standard concessions to usability. There are no familiar controls, all the corners are sharp, and it’s hard to even tell what the Zoom is at first glance. It’s inscrutable and a little threatening, yet seductively intriguing. It’s not your typical piece of hi-fi gear.
There’s the chef’s adage that “we eat with our eyes first”. It’s why high-end restaurants pay as much attention to food’s presentation and the dining room’s decor as the quality of the ingredients or the way the food is prepared. Each quality informs the diner’s overall experience. Similarly, we listen to high-end audio gear with our eyes first. Its look and feel in addition to its sound quality inform the overall experience. Manufacturers should miss this at their peril. Because hi-fi product design matters.