A legend in audio: Fritz Sennheiser dies
May 24, 2010
To any who work in audio or communications, the name Sennheiser is synonymous with the absolute top quality in sound; indeed there are many who wouldn't dream of using anything less. So it is with regret that this year the industry loses the founding father of the brand, Fritz Sennheiser, who died on May 17th a few days after his 98th birthday.
Were it not for the depression in Germany we might be describing the Sennheiser Gardens, as Fritz Sennheiser initially wanted to leave school in 1932 to become a landscape gardener. Instead with limited career prospects he decided to study electrical engineering and telecommunications at the Technical University in Berlin.
As a research assistant at the Heinrich Hertz Institute, under the tutelage of Professor Dr. Oskar Vierling who was later to become his boss, an early sign of technical aptitude was his involvement with the development of a reverberation unit used for the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. This project involved modifying a grand piano to sound as if it were an organ being played in a church.
After graduating he continued to work at the institute as a chief engineer and assisted Prof. Dr. Vierling in setting up the Institute for Radio Frequency Technology and Electroacoustics. Together they worked in the field of cryptography during the war in the radio transmission of coded messages, but the Institute was destroyed by bombing in 1943 and although it was moved to the municipality of Wennebostel, it soon faced dissolution after the prohibition of cryptography by the Allied Forces punishable by death following the end of the war.
Fritz, now deputy director of the institute, felt a responsibility for the seven co-workers who stayed on and founded a laboratory known as “Labor W", or “Laboratory W” (short for Laboratorium Wennebostel), but once again the military were to impede the plan when a British military telecommunications unit occupied the building, and on leaving erected a sign prohibiting anyone from entering on penalty of death.
Remembering this time Sennheiser said: “We waited for a while and wondered how seriously we should take the threat of the death penalty. One night, I went and took the sign down. The next day, everyone was amazed to find that the sign had gone. As I still had a spare key, we decided to go inside. And that’s how it all began.”
The first products produced by Laboratory W were voltmeters, which found a successful market with Siemens in Hanover. Even at this early stage their commitment to product quality was to garner respect and attention and they were quickly commissioned to build a replica microphone, the DM1 in 1946. At first Laboratory W stuck to the Siemens design but soon they were able to offer a microphone of their own design, the MD2, which was to become the first in a long line of microphones that would see Sennheiser become a household name. In fact it wasn't long before Laboratory W began to make a name for themselves outside of Siemens and in the years that followed the brand owed much of its success to the growth of the telecommunications industries; first radio, and then television and film.
As with many influential brands, it is the personality behind the name that drives the success, yet despite his many accomplishments and accolades Fritz Sennheiser never lost sight of his humanity or ethics. The company initially founded on a heart-felt responsibility to post-war families from the Institute and as the Laboratory grew it was this commitment to his co-workers that drove the laboratory's productivity early on.
“In the early years, I just wanted to make enough money with my Lab W to make sure that we could all feed our families," recalled Sennheiser. "Later, we were virtually forced to grow in order to stay ahead of our competitors.”
Furthermore, global success was never on the agenda for Sennheiser, who merely saw money “as figures to calculate with.” He considered the company's independence to be one of its integral values and as the company grew, he consistently refused offers of takeovers or partnerships in order to preserve this.
This modest attitude coupled with his own creative curiosity meant Fritz permitted his engineers greater freedom. There can be no doubt that this was instrumental in providing fertile ground for Sennheiser's ground-breaking developments in sound transmission technologies and electro-acoustics, wireless radio and infra-red transmission.
“Our engineers have always been given a lot of freedom. They are allowed to give free rein to their creative ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem. Often, it is these very ideas that result in the best developments and the best products. Any reservations expressed by financial managers who first of all had an eye on profit were thus reliably dispersed. After all, a company doesn’t only sell products but primarily sells ideas,” said Sennheiser.
This is demonstrated in the development and patent of one of Sennheiser's most revolutionary products, which was discovered by accident when a tinkering engineer found that closed ear-phones actually sounded better when open. The resulting HD414 catapulted Sennheiser to a global market when manufacturers from around the world clamored to sign licensing agreements and “things started to get interesting” for Sennheiser. The HD414 is still in production today.
From humble beginnings as a laboratory researcher and developer, Fritz Sennheiser became a pioneer in the field of audio technologies and went on to become an entrepreneurial leader of major international brand Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co. KG. Yet despite the crushing workload of managing such a giant brand, staff remember that he always took time to share his expertise, and imbued them with his own enthusiasm for audio technology.
The history of audio technology will remain indelibly etched with the Sennheiser name, and the high-quality and success of the brand are surely testament to the sincerity, integrity and generosity of Fritz Sennheiser.
Brief history of Sennheiser
- 1945 – Laboratory W founded
- 1946 – MD1: replica microphone for Siemens
- 1946–1951 – MD2: Laboratory W's first own microphone design and MD3: The “Invisible” microphone notable for its transducer located beneath a slim neck
- 1951 – MD4: First compensation microphone, also known as “the bug crusher” - popular with market stallholders for its sturdy design
- 1953 - MD21: “Longest serving reporter’s microphone” used at many pivotal historical moments and by celebrities such as John F. Kennedy and Louis Armstrong. It is still in production today
- 1955 – Laboratory W now has 250 employees
- 1956 – MD82: Revolutionary “tele-microphone” launched which allowed recording from a distance with pinpoint accuracy
- 1957 – Laboratory W's first wireless microphone system gains significant publicity when a popular German TV presenter tires of his microphone cable, chops it with scissors and continues with the show. New MKH series of shotgun microphones based on a 1949 Laboratory W design allows wider camera shots as the microphone no longer needs to be close to the speaker. Soon Hollywood recognizes the Sennheiser brand
- 1958 – Sales reach $9.9 million. Renamed Sennheiser Electronic as no longer a small laboratory and in deference to a report that the Australian prime minister refused to speak into a Labor W microphone thinking it belonged to the opposition Labor party
- 1960 - Sennheiser introduces the MD 421 studio microphone with outstanding sound quality and a robust design. This “all-rounder” for speech and vocals is also still part of today’s product range
- 1967 – Introduction of the world’s first open headphones, HD414, which gained global recognition
- 1970s – 40% of sales revenue being generated abroad. Fritz Sennheiser begins to promote globalization creating a wide-ranging network of sales partners in Europe and overseas.
- 1973 – Transformed into a limited partnership (KG). Fritz's son Prof. Dr. Jörg Sennheiser becomes a limited partner
- 1975 – Work on perfecting wireless microphone technology continues with noise reduction systems, diversity receivers and miniaturization all making Sennheiser a leading brand. Musicals especially benefiting from inconspicuous microphone technology. Wireless sound becomes available to the domestic user as Sennheiser releases the prototype of the cordless headphones using infra-red transmission. Simultaneously professional microphone technology becomes affordable in the home with the launch of the electret condenser microphone
- 1976 - Prof. Dr. Jörg Sennheiser becomes Technical Director
- 1980 – Sennheiser enters the aviation market, supplying Lufthansa with headsets
- 1982 – Sennheiser begins producing modern wireless microphones. At the age of 70 years, Fritz Sennheiser retires from the company and hands over management of company to his son Jörg Sennheiser
- 1984 – Production of active noise cancellation systems designed to reduce fatigue and stress from cockpit noise begins
- 1987 – Sennheiser introduces the “NoiseGard” range for the aviation industry. Fritz Sennheiser awarded the Scientific and Engineering Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the MKH 816 shotgun microphone
- 1996 – Sennheiser receives an Emmy award for its development in broadcast wireless microphone technology
- 2003 - Sennheiser Communications A/S, Denmark announced; a joint venture between Sennheiser electronic and William Demant (link) to develop and produce telecommunications products
- 2006 – Sennheiser reports revenues totaling € 300 million
- 2008 – Sennheiser generates a total sales revenue of over € 385 million
Today Sennheiser has over 2100 employees worldwide; 60% of them working in Germany, and is still headquartered in its birthplace, the municipality of Wedemark and also in Connecticut, USA. It has factories in Germany, Ireland and New Mexico; R&D; facilities in Germany and California; and sales branches in France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, India, Singapore, Canada, Mexico and the USA. Major subsidiaries of the company are Georg Neumann GmbH, Berlin, the studio specialist, Klein + Hummel, a producer of high-quality studio monitors, and the joint venture Sennheiser Communications which produce headsets for PCs, offices and call centers.
Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co. KG (branded Sennheiser) remains a privately-owned German audio company specializing in the design and production of a wide range of both consumer and high-fidelity products, including microphones, headphones, avionics headsets, multimedia headsets, speakers, telephony accessories, computer and information systems and sound-based electronic components for consumer, professional, and business applications.