Interview: Direct Sound’s Jay Leopardi

Direct Sound Jay Leopardi

We recently had the chance to sit down with Direct Sound’s head of global business development, Jay Leopardi.

In the interview, we talked about new and upcoming products, including the new Studio Plus+ headphones line, which will be premiered at the 2017 Summer NAMM show.

We also learned a little more about Direct Sound’s new prosumer line of headphones, Fanstereo.

Direct Sound: Direct Sound is going to introduce the Studio Plus series at NAMM. Talk a little bit about those headphones and what they mean for the Direct Sound line and how they’re going to fold into the line in general.

Jay: We’re introducing a multitude of new products, including different headphone lines, and some other technologies, as well, to go along with it. The Studio Plus is a new, updated, sleeker version of the EX25 with some features very similar to the EX29. The Studio Plus models come in a multitude of different colors. The first colors introduced will be a matte black finish and a glossy white finish.

Direct Sound: And the Studio Plus features a new look as well, correct?
Jay: We’ve removed the extreme isolation imprint on the side of the headphone, and have started using a portion of the trademark, which is the sonar that people recognize. Aesthetically, it’s a much prettier headphone.

Direct Sound: What technical improvements have been made to the Studio Plus models?Jay: When you get into the technical side of it, we have made some significant improvements. We gave the headphones a new yoke to physically hold the ear cup. We have also re-engineered and remolded a new slider, and it actually enables the headphone to fold just a tad bit differently.

Direct Sound: The headband was also re-designed, correct?
Jay: Yes. We spent a lot of time and a lot of effort into redesigning a new headband that isn’t too tight and it’s not too loose. We feel it’s got a really good fit, because we’ve had some people say, “Hey, can you make the EX29, or the EX-5 tighter?” Some people say, “Well, can you make the EX25 or the EX29 looser?” The Studio Plus models give you an in between choice regarding fit. It still is a very flexible headband made out of some super proprietary material.

Direct Sound: What else changed?
Jay: We use aluminum grommets now, so we’re not just using the old rubber grommet. Some have a dye color, some don’t have a dye, but again, that makes it prettier. It also gives it a really tight seal because the physical grommet that runs in the side and locks in the yoke in the cup collectively is now completely silent. It’s sealed all the way to the maximum.

Direct Sound: Talk about the newly designed ear cup.
Jay: The Studio Plus ear cup itself is shaped very similar to the EX25. However, we’ve re-angled the inside, done some different kinds of layering. We’ve made some improvements on the thickness of the physical cup itself. We’ve changed the plate that snaps into the cups, so it’s a lot easier to pull that off and put new speakers in. We’ve actually made the ear cups about three quarters thinner than early designs, so they’re not such a big, bulky headphone. It’s a much lighter headphone for a drummer or a vocalist, or even a studio mix engineer to be able to feel very comfortable and not get fatigued while they are utilizing our headphones.

Direct Sound: OK, so that’s aesthetics. What about sound?
Jay: One of the biggest improvements with this particular headphone is, we’ve changed the driver. The driver is, I would say, it’s significantly improved and it’s very precise. When you talk about a true flat sound and you want to hear something right, this is definitely the headphone to do so. We’ve also changed the molding and now we physically have made the driver itself red for the right side and black for the left side. Along with the new grommet that physically connects to the speaker driver, instead of it being rubber like it used to be, and bending and things like that, we’ve now made those out of aluminum, as well, and a new wire that’s about 12 inches long and it snaps and unsnaps.

Direct Sound: What prompted this change?
Jay: Our purpose for doing that was to make it easier for drummers. I say that a lot just because Direct Sound headphones are very popular with drummers. When you’re playing drums, or you’re mixing a record, or you’re even doing vocals, or whatever the case may be, if you happen to move at all, you have no worries. This headphone will physically unsnap for you right there, around your neck and you won’t pull something out of a wall, or drop any of your devices you’re plugged into. Whether it be a computer, or the interface, anything along those lines, they’re not going to come yanking off of your studio console, or rack mount, or whatever the case may be.

Direct Sound: Sounds like that design increases mobility versus other headphones with a regular single wire connection.
Jay: We did that to facilitate quick interchangeability. Now, if you need to run to the booth real quick, you can place the headphones around your neck and move to another place in the room without snapping off a wire that’s plugged into the wall or a console.

Direct Sound: And there’s also a new type of wire.
Jay: Yes. We’ve also redesigned a new wire. Our new extensions come standard in a 36 inch length, with the 90 degree patented angle plug that we have. That’s pretty much a standard feature. We also have made some new screw on adaptors with the gold screw tips. We’ve made the new wires out of a cotton mesh that you could drive over it with a truck and it’s not going to harm the cable. Not to mention it never twists, it never gets tangled. We also have an aluminum version of that cable. We call it the armored wire. They also come with aluminum grommets and a casing.

Direct Sound: Sounds like the materials you are using now are designed to be more rugged.
Jay: We have pretty much moved to aluminum and stainless steel in our designs. The Studio Plus is going to be very impressive. It sounds incredible. We did show little portions of it at the Winter NAMM and some of the sound experts there said, “This is by far the best sounding headphone I’ve ever heard.”

Direct Sound: In addition to the professional models for musicians, there are also Plus versions for travel and other uses, correct?
Jay: Yes. We also have the Serenity model, which a lot of people are familiar with which is the travel headphone. The Serenity model has also been metalized, it’s very, very beautiful. I think that people are going to be very, very impressed when they see this headphone, as well.

Direct Sound: You mentioned the association with Direct Sound as a drummer’s headphone, but there are so many other musicians, from bass players to guitar players using the headphones for isolation as well. Guitarist Paul Gilbert for one, is a big proponent of the Direct Sound headphones for live, which showcases an alternate use for the headphones. Paul uses the Direct Sound headphones live so he gets a great mix and he also gets the hearing protection, which is important to him because he has a little bit of tinnitus.
Jay: There are a lot of different artists and producers that are now using Direct Sound headphones, such as super producer Teddy Riley. We also have a multitude of artists in the urban community as well. And not just urban, but pop as well. We’ve got country artists coming to the table, rock artists coming to the table, blues artists coming to the table. We’ve had a lot of different people now saying, “Hey, this is the headphone for me. I’ve never heard anything like this, this works very well for me.” We’ve got some really big customers, including colleges, for that matter, that are ordering headphones from us now to use for their students.

Direct Sound: That’s because Direct Sound has created sort of a specific niche that other headphone types don’t fit in, correct?
Jay: Yes, that’s correct. We’re not in competition with the Sennheiser’s, and the Shure’s, and the AKG’s, and so forth. I think they’re in a little bit of a different market than we are. I think we really are catering to a very specific sound and level of isolation that enables our end users to be happy and to be able to hear the music exactly how they’re playing it, or recording it.

Direct Sound: Talk more about the appeal of the headphones to schools and colleges. It seems the new color selections will enable these organizations to identify certain headphones for particular uses, such as blue for drummers, red for bassists, etc. And this is something that no other headphone manufacturer currently offers.
Jay: I’m glad that you actually brought that because we’ve noticed that every time we do something such as color options, within six months of us doing it, and showcasing it at a convention or trade show, somebody does the same exact thing. A lot of people color co-ordinate, put stickers and things along those lines, on their board when they’re recording so they know, “Okay, this is this guy’s headphone, number one, number two, number three,” and so forth and so on. So the color options address that need.

Direct Sound: And this color feature is modular, correct?
Jay: We developed a new aluminum clip that actually goes on to the physical headphone. They come color coded so you can buy that unit, not just the headphone, you can buy any of our Studio Plus headphones but also buy the clip, the aluminum clip that goes over the top of it that will be color coordinated. They come in a multitude of different colors. This way, you can say, “Okay, yeah, this is channel one is red, and he’s the vocalist. Channel two is the drummer, channel three,” and so forth and so on. Each color will match that you have on your console with the person wearing the headphone. They never get mixed up. They walk in the studio, everybody’s color coordinated. It’s very important in our minds to be very organized when we’re developing and engineering products for a studio musician, and producers and mixers, engineers and everybody else. That’s why we’re doing it.

Direct Sound: How did the idea of color options come up?
Jay Leopardi: Steve Rois, the CEO, and the co-founder of Direct Sound, is a really amazing person. His number one objective in the company, at the end of the day, is customer service. I’ve never seen anybody have this much passion for customer service in my entire career. When we started going through our brainstorming sessions for the Studio Plus and asked, “How can we be different?” Steve comes up with the idea to offer color options. My first reaction was, “Steve, come on, colors are for five year olds!” He’s said, “I think it will work,” and he’s right. He comes up with these ideas that might seem silly at first, but at the end of the day, he’s right and it’s my job to go make it and so I do that.

Direct Sound: Talk about the Studio Plus headphones in a broader sense, in terms of the overall line of the Direct Sound headphones line. You are keeping the EX29 and EX25 while adding the new Studio Plus, correct?
Jay: Yes. We are keeping the line intact, however, we have changed the EX29, but not from a sound standpoint, just the aesthetics. It has a new yoke, it has a new slider, it has a new headband. We’re keeping what we call vintage, the original version. We’re not getting rid of that. We’re keeping it just the way it is, because we do have users that like it just the way it is and will not change and that’s just the way they are. We will continue to make that. That’s why we’ve expanded and we’ve made new molds here in the United States of America. We actually opened up another plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, right around the corner from Martin Guitars. We are manufacturing now here in Allentown, as well, the new yokes and the new sliders and the new headbands, and some of our new cups and plates and so forth. We are keeping everything the way it is and just adding a lot to it and then changing some, as well. We’re not discontinuing anything.

Direct Sound: Talk about the new packaging design.
Jay: One of the biggest complaints that we’ve had for many years has been the packaging. That’s been the biggest complaint by our retailers and, quite frankly, I can’t blame them on that. Originally when Direct Sound was founded, packaging was not where the company was putting a focus. The concentration was on building a great headphone, which is where it should have been. Today, a lot of the competition out there is focusing on great packaging to get that eye appeal in the stores, which I believe is smart and very important. However, I think it’s more important to deliver a quality headphone. And now we have both — a great new package design, and a stellar headphone.

Direct Sound: And Direct Sound is branching out into some new partnerships with companies like Waves.
Jay: Yes, we have done a co-branding deal with Waves, which we consider a promotional partnership. When you buy a pair of Direct Sound headphones, you’ll save on a plug-in. We will be offering a special promotion. Waves is the Apple of the pro audio industry, in my book, at least. We’re very excited to have put a deal together with them like this.

Direct Sound: Before we wrap up, can you talk a little bit about Direct Sound’s new venture, Fanstereo?
Jay Leopardi: I’m involved at a different level with Fanstereo. With Fanstereo, Steve and I set out to cater to the consumers by making a hybrid headphone. One that can be used in the professional audio space, simultaneously be used in the consumer space, and deliver sound that consumers never heard in their entire lives. Fanstereo is a full audio/consumer brand, but we have licenses with some of the biggest artists in the world. We spent the last year and a half, executing agreements and so forth with some of the biggest named people in the industry and creating their headphone brands.

Direct Sound: How do the Fanstereo models compare with other headphones?
Jay: We’ve had a series of consultants come into our studios and the Fanstereo corporate office in Allentown, Pennsylvania. We’ve put our headphones up to the sound test, blindfolded people and so forth. The Fanstereo headphone versus a plethora of the biggest headphones in the pro audio industry. At the end of the day, every single person, when they pulled the blindfold off, said, “These (Fanstereo) are the ones.” We have two different models. One of them is the Paradigm, the other model is the Audinox.

Direct Sound: Talk a little bit about each model.
Jay: The Audionox is the interchangeable headphone, so it’s very similar to a pair of glasses. If you were to go buy a nice frame, a very expensive Gucci, or Louis Vuitton type of frame and then you pop in the lenses. This headphone is very similar to that. You would pop in and out your ear cups, and you can change colors, and different designs that we make. We have a soul version that is coming out. We’re working on deals with sneaker companies to do these headphones as sneaker headphones. Simply put, the Fanstereo headphones are very amazing looking and the sound quality is just off the charts. It’s probably the prettiest headphone that I’ve ever seen.