Industry Profile: Skylar Gray—Director, AudioQuest's Ear-Speaker Division

For the past eight months, my headphone of choice at Stereophile's New York office has been a pair of AudioQuest Nighthawks. That's eight hours a day, five days a week, for approximately 32 weeks. Not eternity, but we've spent a good chunk of quality time together. The overall setup comprises an Apple MacBook Pro (usually streaming Tidal, Spotify, or Amarra for Tidal), an AudioQuest Jitterbug, an AudioQuest DragonFly Red, and said NightHawks. I suppose it's safe to say that my ears tend to jibe well with AudioQuest products.

As such, my subject for this piece ("industry profile numero dos") is none other than Skylar Gray, Director of AudioQuest's Ear-Speaker Division, aka the man who designed the Nighthawks and their closed-back counterpart, AudioQuest's most recent release: the NightOwls. I started by asking Skylar what kind of music he listens to when designing headphones. (Did he listen to different music for the NightHawk than the NightOwl?)

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Skylar Gray: I don't listen to different types of music for different products, but I do try to include new music I've never heard along with my standard "critical listening" playlist. That playlist is not particularly interesting; it's just an array of pieces familiar to me spanning different genres. What is interesting, I think, is discovering new music when developing products because that process helps understand, for instance, how well this new headphone enables an emotional interaction with music and sound. As a designer, I have to look at both the objective (known-by-heart playlist) and the subjective (capacity for creating new experiences).

Jana Dagdagan: What's your favorite type of music to listen to for fun? (Irrelevant to headphone designing)

SG: If I want to listen to music for fun, that almost always means that I want to sing along—usually harmony. So I will listen to anything with vocal harmonies or that is susceptible to harmonization. That could be Beatles, cheesy 1980s pop, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my man Aaron Neville, etc. Otherwise, I end up listening to a lot of R&B and indie rock.

JD: Do industry people treat you differently because you're young?

SG: Yes. Before I was 30, it was difficult to get support for what I saw as innovative and forward-thinking design and overall business initiatives. Older people in the industry see a lot of risk in forging new paths, so those ambitions were difficult to execute. I am 34 now, and the situation is completely different—probably a combination of breaking 30, becoming a better communicator, and just having more experience.

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A much larger issue that I see in the audio industry is actually people being treated differently because they're women. I have seen many industry vets adopt the attitude that women don't buy audio gear, so those men become interested in only making and marketing male-oriented products. And that has led to a male-dominated product landscape as well as audio industry at large. Well, I don't share that perspective. I am interested in making products that accommodate the needs of all types of people. Are women not buying audio gear because they're not interested in it . . . or is it because products aren't being made that fit them (aesthetics, ergonomics, convenience, usability, human factors, etc.)?

JD: What other headphone designers do you respect, and why?

SG: I have tremendous respect for anyone with passion enough to create. Plain and simple. So all headphone designers have my respect. Specifically, I love what's being done by Antonio Meze (Meze Headphones), Dan Clark (MrSpeakers), Dr. Fang (HiFiMan), Karl and Kris Cartwright (Westone), just off the top of my head. And a special shout out to my friend Masaaki Nobuki (Foster). These are people moving the industry forward. True innovators. My salute to them and all headphone designers.

JD: What're the easiest/hardest parts about being a headphone designer?

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SG: Easy: Given the growth of the headphone market, designers, engineers, and specialists in this field are in high demand. There's a ton of energy in the headphone community, and it's just plain fun.

Hard: Breaking out of the old-school thinking about headphone tuning. There's a trend towards less bass and more treble as one moves up the headphone price point ladder. So there's a whole slew of "bright" headphones that had become the reference for neutral but weren't neutral at all. Bright headphones became normalized.

At AQ we have a great analogy of the amber-tinted snow goggles. Put on the amber tinted goggles, and the snow looks yellow. By the end of the day, your eyes adjust to the coloration, and the snow seems normal until you go back to reality by taking the goggles off. Now with the goggles off the snow is purple! If we get too accustomed to a particular coloration, then even true neutral is perceived as colored. The good news with the headphone industry is that the trend is starting to swing back toward more natural sound signatures; folks are realizing that it's no fun trying to listen to headphones with over-emphasized treble.

JD: What are your top 5 favorite headphones (non-AQ)?

SG: I never have favorites of anything. But here are 5 headphones that I think are really cool and innovative (in no order):

• AKG K340
• Sony PFR-V1
• Sony MDR-R10
• Shure SE846
Jecklin Float (ha ha!)

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JD: What are your personal goals within the audio industry? (As in: what kind of impact do you hope to make, what future projects do you have in mind, etc. etc.?)

SG: Personally, I want to move the state of the art forward by:

• introducing products of higher value that outperform more expensive competition

• rethinking materials, processes, packaging, and supply chains with an emphasis on sustainability, efficiency, and conservation

• considering male and female human factors to design gender neutral products that are inclusive—not exclusive

I hope what I am doing encourages other manufacturers and brands as well as the entire community to take note and demand more from the products they make and purchase.

COMMENTS
Herb Reichert's picture

I don't know who is more Lucid Plus - you Jana or Skyler, or the photographer. As I type, I am listening with the Nightowls (review in progress) and am in awe of this little piece. And Skyler, you are totally right about the "hard" part of headphone design --- it is also the hard part of headphone reviewing. Very nice work all around. hr

Odin 412's picture

"So there's a whole slew of "bright" headphones that had become the reference for neutral but weren't neutral at all. Bright headphones became normalized." Very true - and thanks for stating this openly. I've listened to way too many high-end headphones that are painfully bright in the name of transparency and resolution. I look forward to checking out the Night Owl at an upcoming meet. Great article - keep up the good work!

dalethorn's picture

I've reviewed around 160 headphones, and indeed many, especially the older ones like the Senn HD800, Beyer T1/T90, AKG K812 et al, are either too bright or are very peaky in the mid-upper treble. But a great headphone has to serve the existing music, and with my extensive collection of musical genres, the NightHawk didn't pass muster on neutrality - its treble was too recessed. Rather than judge that on my personal hearing, making the comparisons of these many headphones, the different music genres, and how they sound compared to live music tells the story. Hopefully the NightOwl will be better.

veentage's picture

Excellent interview!

skylargray's picture

Is it too late to change my answer to question #2 to just Daler Mehndi?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTIIMJ9tUc8