Hearing-aid maker making it big in music industry

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Westone’s ES5 handmade earphones have five speakers per ear.

Westone’s ES5 handmade earphones have five speakers per ear.

By Monica Mendoza

In June, a group of Westone employees set up a “silent band” in Tokyo for dozens of Japanese music technology reporters. To listen to the band, the reporters put in Westone’s new ES5 earphones, and as one Westone designer put it, “we rocked their pants a little.”

No wonder. The ES5, a hand-made earpiece made to order for the buyer’s ear, has five speakers per ear and was developed for both professional musicians and dedicated music junkies. Never mind that the earphones cost $950. People are buying them.

“It’s a custom product and it was intended primarily for performing musicians,” said Lynn Kehler, Westone president and CEO. “However, a lot of the people buying them right now are people who want something unique and the latest and greatest.”

Weston’s expansion, and growth, into the music products business has been unexpected, even to Kehler. For 50 years, the Colorado Springs-company made its name in the development of custom earpieces in the hearing health care industry.

Back in 1959, hearing aid salesman Ron Morgan thought he could make a better-fitting earpiece than the ones he was selling. He built his first earpieces in his Divide, Colo., cabin. Shortly after, he moved his business to Colorado Springs. By 1979, Morgan had 12 employees. Today, Westone, which is still owned by the Morgan family, is a leading worldwide manufacturer in custom-fit hearing earpieces with 250 employees and annual revenues above $25 million.

Over the years, the company has added new lines including custom earplugs and audiology supplies. The company also developed an earpiece for Air Force fighter pilots and crews that allowed them to communicate under and around the roaring F-22 jet.

It was in the 1990s when two Westone employees, Karl and Kris Cartwright, twins who by night perform in local bands, started experimenting with the earpieces by putting speakers in them. Around that time, audio engineers representing the rock bands Rush and Def Leppard called Westone asking for custom in-ear monitors. The musicians wanted to ditch the clunky floor wedges and asked for monitors that would allow them to hear themselves clearly at the loudness level they wanted while they were performing. The Cartwright brothers built the earpieces to those specifications.

At the time, Westone was one of the first hearing health care companies to venture into the music business, Kehler said. Today there are others, but Kehler puts Westone in the top tier. Its client list is a who’s who among musicians, from Celine Dion to Kenny Chesney to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Three years ago, Westone took notice that people were buying its pro-audio earphones to listen to their iPods.

“We started thinking maybe we need to develop a line of earphones that is specifically designed for personal listening,” Kehler said.

Westone entered the market in 2008 at the upper end with the Westone 3, earphones with professional-audio quality and a price tag of $399. Over the last two years, the company rounded out the personal listening earphones series with the Westone 1 and Westone 2 — the number of speakers in each ear.

“You would think that all the bad news that has hit the financial market, with job loss, the recession word thrown around, that people would rein in their spending and not buy $400 earpieces,” Kehler said.

That hasn’t happened, he said.

It seems, Kehler said, that people have put buying big-ticket items — like cars and boats — on hold but are still willing to spend money for a new toy. It’s that growth in the company that pushed it through the weak economy, Kehler said.

“Because of our diversification, parts of our business have actually surprised me in terms of their strength — the music business has surprised me,” he said.

The core business of Westone continues to be custom hearing health care products. The company has a new line of technology that allows it to make the ear molds virtually and hopes that, along with direct scanning of the ear, it can help transform the industry in terms of speed, accuracy and customer service.