I refuse to have a conversation about sound that’s divorced from music. The things we at Plugged make let you make music yours and the most meaningful choice we make answers this question: what moves a person? Technical acoustic expertise is a fundamental requirement but it isn’t enough; we believe the only way to create worthwhile experiences is to live and breathe the music that these products are entrusted to deliver.
Three waves – one old, one young and one new - are setting the agenda in music today. The first is really just the continuation of an obvious but too often overlooked attraction of music in the first place - incredible voices. Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, The Weeknd – demand for these R&B-influenced crooners is exploding, as evidenced by Sheeran’s 860 million Spotify listens in 2014, Sam Smith’s 4 Grammys in that same year and The Weeknd’s 3 songs in the current Billboard weekly Hot 100 top 20 . Of course, talented vocalists have always been rare and sought after and the music these artists are producing today is demanding more attention and dollars from the masses. This shift could in part be a response to changes in the distribution model of the music industry. Physical media barely has a pulse and we’re still working through the economics of sustainable digital distribution. Live performance is driving earnings in the industry and who is better suited to shine live and sell tickets than singers? Global tours pour huge resources into local radio play and other kinds of promotion and it follows that enhanced exposure has a real effect on tastes.
Second is the entry of rap & hip-hop to the mainstream of music over the past decade or so. Maybe the only evidence you need for this is the fact that Juicy J has an Academy Award. The average radio listener or Spotify streamer might not play rap exclusively but you’d be hard pressed to find any music lover who doesn’t have some Kanye or Drake in rotation. And production in rap is embracing new sounds as well. A heavy dose of synthetic bass still hits the spot at times (think, the opening to Fabolous’ Can’t Deny It) but from the tribal drum effects of 808s & Heartbreak to the g-funk melodies of To Pimp A Butterfly, rap is all over the map musically – and it’s never been more popular.
The third trend we’re watching is the permanence of electronic music. Producers in this genre have flirted with mainstream success for years, consistently on the cusp of crossing over. Recently though, evidence is mounting that electronic music is more than just a niche genre or fad. The key development has been collaboration between these producers and mainstream musical talents. Since 2010, artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris have charted Billboard Hot 100 Hits on singles working with the likes of Rihanna and Nikki Minaj. But the tipping point of this trend may have been the Grammy success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2014, especially the Pharrell-featured single Get Lucky, and its launch of electronic music into the mainstream spotlight. As of this moment, Diplo, Skrillex, Afrojack, David Guetta, DJ Snake and Major Lazer are all charting top 100 hits at 25 or better.
These shifts impact the requirements for any great sound. The obvious takeaway is that the bass and sub-bass frequencies (0 – 250 Hz) have to hit in virtually all forms of popular music and especially rap & hip-hop and electronic. With that shallow insight, some of our competitors have built a bunch of bass toys expecting you to be satisfied with a boring, and frankly insulting, sound. But too much energy in the low-end response and the neighboring midrange (250 – 4000 Hz), where the majority of vocals live, is at risk of being drowned out. At a time when voices matter more than ever, clean, tight bass that hits just the right vibe without overtaking vocals is a must. Further, putting rap & hip-hop and electronic music in the "all you need is bass" bucket and calling it a day is just lazy. New and hybrid sounds in those genres demand performance across the frequency range. Production with vocal samples, live instruments, synthesized effects and drum machines is resulting in more dynamic, genre-bending sounds - you've got to have more than just bass. Designing for sound is like painting - you wouldn't only use red all the time, would you?
While I’m confident that any person could hear and appreciate the difference between a dumb bass toy and a smarter sound, I’m not so naïve that I expect opinions of our products to be formed solely on objective, individual review. We’re building beautiful products and a brand that stands for values that are important to us out of a passion for great design that enhances every facet of owning a Plugged product. With that objective in mind, we define great design as anything that accelerates adoption. At the end of the day, if our ideas of what constitutes beauty and meaningful values also moves tastes for sound towards a richer experience, I’m just fine with that too.