For the everyday, personal music consumer, there is less emphasis now on the personal, individualised collection – on ownership, on inspecting album artwork, on all of the other parts of an immersive experience that go past the simple act of listening. Formats in music design have bled into one another, disappeared in some cases.
Enter the TMA-2 Modular headphones. The work of Danish audio design company AIAIAI and industrial design studio Kilo Design, the TMA-2 system starts with a number of preset configurations, each with tailored interchangeable options across sound, function, comfort and design, always striking a balance between an unfussy aesthetic and professional audio quality.
desktop spoke to Lars Larsen, founder and head of design at Kilo about developing a modular headphone system – complete with clever interactive packaging – that brings the personal, paramusical elements back to the experience of listening.
How did the collaboration between Kilo and AIAIAI come about?
It actually started in 2006 in an abandoned building/creative collective called A-huset. AIAIAI were throwing parties and wanted to find a way to make a living out of doing what they loved. Headphones seemed like a natural extension, which is why the AIAIAI founders approached Kilo who were based in A-huset at the time. The rest is history…
What kind of experience are you hoping to create for an everyday music nerd?
First of all, TMA-2 Modular includes the user in the product and provides a kind of ownership. There’s an individual experience in being able to build your own product. I think we’re adding greater nuance to the market and to the way that people use headphones. But that also presents certain challenges because we have to educate our customers: it’s essentially about teaching music lovers to play with Lego. A big part of this is making the act of assembling the headphone interesting. There’s no reason now to have three different headphones. You just need different components. This effectively means you can have one configuration for when you’re on the go, and when you get home and want to produce you can just change your settings. All of this should create a satisfyingly simple and diverse experience for professionals, music nerds and regular users alike.
You’ve spoken before about “aesthetic sustainability”. Can you talk more about this concept and how it figures in the way you approached the design of this product?
It’s a term related to the consequence of a lot of design classics living a long life and being aesthetically sustainable after many years on the market. You could say that the basic aesthetic of the TMA design DNA was born in 2009 with the original TMA1 DJ – a simple and iconic appearance born from the idea of stripping the product down to its essential functions. The aim was to make the product original enough to stand out in the market and clean enough to live a long design life. The design process was not driven by right-here-right-now tendencies, but based on a user-driven strategy (25 acclaimed international DJs), thorough research and ideation, and an ambition of creating a sturdy tool for the user. The evolved TMA2 Modular basically carries the aesthetics in a rapidly changing world where things are moving fast and appearances are driven by chasing newness.
How do you balance form over function when you’re working your way through the process of designing a product that’s targeted at both a general and a specialised market?
The design of the original TMA-1, which forms the basis of the TMA-2 was very much reductive, meaning that we cleaned out as much as possible in the design process and preserved the essentials. This creates a form and an aesthetic, which is primarily driven by function and utility. It’s a classic case of form following function. We believe that this has a universal appeal and caters to niche segments as well as the wider market.
Did you have to make any concessions in order to capture optimum sound, functionality, comfort and feel?
We don’t really think of it as a concession, but there’s been a bit of ‘fuck-up control’ in terms of preserving sound quality and anticipating how users might act. Other than that, the most significant new design change has been the overall change from a static product into a flexible product. And the innovation here is in the new connection. All soft pads and cushions are reengineered for optimised appearance, production feel and fit. These are hardly noticeable to the customer who will likely pay the most attention to the new plugs. But we market a better and optimised product now than before.
Let’s talk about the product’s striking branding and packaging. Each element comes in a ziplock foil bag with a tearaway top and a sticker on the front, which, to me, makes each packet resemble a specimen bag. What was the idea behind this packaging?
Peter Willer, AIAIAI creative director: Having 360 different possibilities of how the product looks when assembled means that a more generic and graphical approach was chosen. The user didn’t need to see the product inside the bags – only on the lids of the so-called pre-sets available in retail.
The overall box and graphic design are a minimal interpretation of the actual products and parts, and of their aesthetics. Simple and stripped down, as well as having a playful yet systematic visual grid, inspired by the monoliths from 2001:A Space Odyssey and the hyphen from TMA-2 – symbolising the system and its many potential connections. We developed a new lock system where you push two circular buttons on the sides simultaneously to unlock the lid from the lower box.
Making the packaging part of the experience of buying a modular product was important. We gave the packaging an overall industrial product feel, with the materials carefully chosen to make each component a special part of the modularity. The bags are made to fit tight when stacked in the box, so the user may peel one layer at a time when unboxing.
How did you hope the product would be interpreted and responded to, and what elements of the branding in particular do you think achieve this?
If we can provide everyone from music professionals to regular users with a system that offers a wide range of choices in terms of design, comfort and sound, we’ve come a long way. And if people engage with and take ownership when putting the product together, that would be a great response for us.
What design choices went into the uniformity of the unit?
The unit is designed with a clear reference to the iconic outline of an old school speaker unit. It’s a simple shape that creates a platform for cushion mounting in one end and a transition in steps to a smaller clean circular shape facing the world. A subtraction of material has been made where the brace and speaker unit intersect while two smaller units are fitted here controlling jack plug lock and unit movement.
What do you hope to achieve next with this system?
Frederik Jørgensen, AIAIAI co-founder: What’s so great about this system is that it makes us much more agile and flexible in everything we do. We can innovate on individual parts and thereby continuously upgrade the system at a much higher frequency than in a normal rigid product design process – and we can do it in a way that makes it possible for users to adopt to these upgrades without having to make big investments, changing only specific parts and thereby reducing waste. This flexibility also enables us to have a much better dialogue with our users and ability to react to feedback – when everything is in parts, it is easier for the users to specify their preferences and feedback and for us it is easier to actually use this feedback and implement into the system.
Further down the road we strive to expand the system to address even more preferences, and also implement some new technology which will enhance the modularity substantially.