Chinese rockstar Wang Feng is pulling a Dr. Dre with his headphones brand. Like Beats, Beijing-based FIIL glosses itself as fashionable but still high-fidelity.
Wang rose to fame in China in the late 1990s. Now 45, he’s morphing into a rock veteran who likes juggling lots of projects – such as his headphones startup, launched just last year, as well as his position in the big, red chair as one of the judges on China’s version of The Voice.
Most of FIIL’s customers are in mainland China, but like a number of young hardware startups across the nation, it’s aiming to go global in the hope of replicating the success of DJI, Xiaomi, and OnePlus.
That’s why FIIL is hitting Kickstarter this weekend, taking pre-orders for the Carat Pro, a set of wireless headphones that come with some sporty features.
The buds do real-time heart rate monitoring, audio coaching, and tracking of distance, steps, and workout duration. It’s the first time the company is blending a fitness tracker with its earphones.
The Carat Pro earphones connect wirelessly to your phone, but they won’t be as easy to lose as some other Bluetooth buds – looking at you, Apple – thanks to the handy wire that connects the pair together. In terms of size and shape, they’re a little like Will.i.am’s Button earphones, which came out last month. But FIIL is a bit cheaper.
Come on FIIL the noize
Leon Wu, FIIL’s CTO with a decade of experience in audio engineering, name-checks Beats and Bose as brands that the startup admires. “We try to absorb good things from both,” he says.
Just like OnePlus does to the iPhone, FIIL pitches its headphones – it has five models so far, a mix of cans and in-ears – as being top-spec but about half the price of comparable premium brands.
Most of the crew is split between two offices – the mobile app people up in the capital, and the hardware folks, Leon included, in Suzhou, a city just outside Shanghai.
The CTO shows me into the R&D office’s anechoic chamber, which is like a cross between a bank vault and a lunatic’s padded cell. Inside is a humanoid figure on which the headphones are tested; speakers in each corner are ready to blast the dummy with traffic noise or anything else that simulates the kind of clatter we hear out on the street.
Leon describes the startup’s celebrity co-founder as the “super product manager” and a “super user.” Wang Feng, who divorced his previous wife while their child was eight months old, is now married to actress Zhang Ziyi, star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She’s arguably a lot more famous than the rocker himself.
Wang is quite the tech enthusiast, last year proposing to Zhang, 37, by using a drone to fly the 9.15 carat diamond ring across the room.
“When we decide if we make a certain kind of product, we talk with him,” says Leon of Wang Feng, “and if he buys into the idea, we move on.” Next, the new headphone project moves to the industrial design stage. “Normally we work with a world-class design house, ask them to give us a few concepts, and then we put them in front of Wang Feng and talk together.”
At this point it gets a lot like the judging process on The Voice of China.
“From ten to five to three – and then we make three real models. Then we review together. And very carefully make a final selection, which is the final one,” he explains.
The rockstar also passes back feedback he gets from friends who are musicians or DJs after they’ve tried out FIIL’s headphones. Plus, the startup benefits from a ton of free and very glamorous publicity when Wang Feng’s buddies wear them in front of the paparazzi.
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