About a week before Apple agreed to buy Beats for $3 billion, one of the company's earliest employees filed a lawsuit against the headphone-maker, accusing it of cutting him and others out of potentially millions in royalties. That man is Steven Lamar who, in his lawsuit, claims that he came up with the idea for Beats and was instrumental in developing three of its first models, as well as the company's logo and branding.
Now Lamar has started another headphone venture aimed at eating Beats' lunch, called Roam, and its first product is Ropes, $299 earbuds designed to hang on your neck when you're not using them, like a fashion statement. Lamar boldly says they also happen to be the best-sounding earbuds on the market, with the most customizable sound.
While much was made over the bass-heavy sound of Beats, Lamar is trying to define Ropes with an adjustable five-band equalizer and presets for different types of music, similar to what you'd find bundled in your phone or MP3 player's settings. The difference is that you can adjust the sound straight to the headphones using a mobile app, then carry those presets to any other device with an audio source.
Making those changes to the sound involves plugging the earbuds into a small pendant that dangles from the headphones, almost like a necklace. Inside is a rechargeable battery, amp, and Bluetooth to let the headphones work wirelessly. The pendant powers the sound into the headphones (which work on their own when plugged in, though passively), as well as the EQ settings, which can be adjusted through a companion app.
"Everybody hears things differently in the left ear than the right ear."
That customization is key, Lamar says. "Everybody is different. Everybody hears things differently in the left ear than the right ear," he says. "I'm going to give you an app to personalize it the way you want to hear it."
Lamar admits that there's nothing particularly unique about the EQ presets that will be offered in his company's app, but believes he's done it in a way that people will not only use, but also want to share with others. "It means I am going to have a different setting on the phone for Beethoven and the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers," he says. "You can have different settings for your listening habits, and you can share those settings with your friends."
There are some downsides for using a pendant, though. Despite the benefits you get with turning wired earbuds wireless, it still takes juice. The battery is rated for six hours of use, which is similar to what you get with other wireless earbuds — including an exercise pair made by Beats. After that, you can still use the headphones plugged directly into an audio source, but you'll miss out on the EQ settings. It also adds one more dangling element if you plan to use Ropes and the pendant while exercising, though Lamar says there is a clip that helps mitigates that.
Lamar sees Ropes as a rebuke to the laziness he says has developed in the headphone market. Picking up two different pairs of Beats headphones — the larger "can" style headphones and the earbuds — in the conference room where we're speaking, Lamar says this very important accessory for listening isn't keeping up with the times.
"We've tolerated the shit they give us. But I like good sound."
"Where's the evolution? Smartphones evolve every six months to one year. Where is that in this?" he asks while holding up the Beats earbuds. "We've tolerated the shit they give us. But I like good sound, and we don't have to have that crappy sound anymore."
Funnily enough, Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine said something similar back in May when talking about Apple's pack-in white headphones onstage at the Code Conference. "You listen to Apocalypse Now, and the helicopter sounds like a mosquito," he said. The main difference, of course is price, with Beats' entry-level headphones coming in at $99, or more than three times the price Apple charges for its EarPods.
As for how good Ropes will sound by comparison, you're going to have to take Lamar's word for it — at least for now. When we met last week, the company was not ready with hardware it could demonstrate, and Lamar said he'd be ready to show it off for real sometime later this month. In the meantime, the company plans to have Ropes ready for the holiday season, and is taking preorders from its online store, which will be the only place to buy them. The company plans to branch out to other retail avenues, and add additional models, including one Lamar described as "very fashion-forward."
Lamar eventually envisions Ropes reaching a level of popularity where people will be able to spot them from across the room instantly, in a similar fashion to Apple's white earbuds, and what ultimately happened with the seemingly endless array of colors from Beats. That involves plans to offer ropes in a large palette of colors beyond the silver-and-black, orange-and-gray options available at launch. In the meantime though, Lamar thinks he's already nailed the look.
"You're not going to be able to miss it," he says.