CanJam SoCal 2015 Highlight - A Conversation with Fang Bian

The panel discussions at CanJam were a little unusual in that they had the same schedule of talks both days. I thought the second day was going to be a bit rough, rehashing the same topic, but it turned out to be quite interesting.

Amos Barnett (Currawong) moderated "The Role of Measurements in Headphone Development" with myself; Skylar Gray, designer of the AudioQuest NightHawk; and Jacob Soendergaard, from G.R.A.S. Sound and Vibration. (G.R.A.S. makes the special microphones and head and torso simulators used for headphone measurements.) The first day was a really good conversation. (Thanks Amos!) It turns out that Rowan Williams, headphone designer at Philips, was in the audience. I wish he had piped up 'cuz I would have drug him up on the panel, which I did do on the second day. His presence mixed it up a bit, and the Sunday conversation was different and just as interesting as Saturday's.

I also moderated the "Present and Future of Planar Magnetic Headphone Technology" panel, on which sat Fang Bian of HiFiMan; Dan Clark of Mr. Speakers; and Sankar Thiagasamudram of Audeze. Saturday was a really good conversation—I'll try to remember to post up when the show videos come out—but the Sunday talk could have been a complete disaster. Sankar had a previous engagement and couldn't make it, and Dan didn't know there were talks on both days—my bad, I try to touch base with panelists 15-20 minutes before the talks, but ended up short on time and beat feet to the talk without mentioning it to Dan...sorry bud. Anyway, the clock ticked over to 3:05PM and I figured Fang and I would just have a conversation...little did I know.

I started with, "So, how did you get into headphone audio?" I was unprepared for the answer.

Fang got the bug for audio in middle school, he desperately wanted a Walkman but the price in China was far too great for him to afford. He discovered that down by the shipyards in his area they received huge shipments of broken electronics goods from Japan for recycling. Fang sorted through the waste and found some Walkman's and headphones and brought them home to repair. Soon, he had his very own Walkman. His success emboldened him to repeat the process, and in a short time he was fixing and reselling his finds. This is the seed from which HiFiMAN is born.

He continued through the years and hired help for the repairs. Eventually he got so familiar with the ins-and-outs of the little players that he wrote the definitive book for Chinese audio enthusiasts on the Sony Walkman.

Now, the thing to bare in mind is that Fang has had two tracks running in his life. One was his audio interests, but he's also had an academic career. An hour is a short time to talk through someone's life, and I don't have all the details, but working through to a master's degree in inorganic chemistry in the Chinese educational system is undoubtedly a lot of work. And doing well enough to get a grant to go to Boston University for his doctoral program...well, lets just say he probably got a lot more A's than I did. (Actually, that's a pretty low bar.) I'll mention that Fang moved to New York and completed his doctorate in inorganic chemistry with a focus on nanotechnology at City University of New York.

Fang said life was very difficult in the years of his masters program in China and during his schooling in the U.S. Often he would work until 8PM on his academics and then switch over to work on his business until the wee hours of the morning. I can't imagine the dedication it took to succeed both as an academic and an entrepreneur simultaneously.

In what I can only imagine is a deeply satisfying experience, Fang has finally brought the two tracks of his life together with the introduction of the HE-1000, a planar magnetic headphone having a nano-thickness diaphragm of his design, and which is widely receiving what I can only describe as rave initial impressions from listeners. Here's a video of Fang playing with some of the diaphragm material.

Click here if you can't see the video.

Fang Bian's audio journey is truly a rags-to-riches account. From a young kid bit by the audio bug picking through garbage for his gear, to a successful business man and engineer producing a world class, leading edge product. Quite a story.

The interview was videotaped, but is unfortunately missing the first 20 minutes or so after the initial introductions. It's still very much worthwhile getting to know Fang a little better through the videos. It was the highlight of CanJam SoCal 2015 for me.

Videos of my Interview with Fang Bian
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

COMMENTS
tony's picture

This man has that curious mind quality combined with some sort of long-view of things.

I'll wager Fang will be popping-up in other Industries, if he isn't already having a finger is some other range of projects.
I'm looking for him to end up being the CEO of Boeing or another Tech outfit ( in 30 years or so ), a man to watch.

How many other bright lights does China have?

I remember the Brits saying: "China is a sleeping Giant, let it sleep"!

So, who woke-up the Chinese?

and, Fang made a point of showing-up for your Seminar, I like a guy that shows up for work.

Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

Argggg... I wanted to listen to this interview with Fang, but it's got the worst sound in blazes. Whoever shot that video at Can Jam was NO audiophile! Did you hire a pro? Did you do it yourself? The sound is typical on-camera in middle of badly reverberant PA system... You can do better. Bring along a microphone to these conferences with a long cable. If you only have one presenter and presenter PA mike, then bring along a mike that's compatible with consumer camcorders and a long cable and plug it in and put it near your voice. If you have several presenters, then put that mike in front of the nearest PA loudspeaker and it will still be much better than what you got. Bring along a pair of headphones and take a listen to what the camcorder is capturing, too.

logscool's picture

It seems like the video was done by a friend of Fang's

tony's picture

Mr.Katz,

Sir, they needed you there directing, I'd preferred you on the Panel instead of directing though.

This was the work of a jiggle cam, I think, I didn't check the resolution feed but it was at least 720p, I'm guessing, which is tons better than it having been 480 or something lesser yet.

We did get a glimpse, which is better than what we had before . I'm happy to struggle thru listening and sad the other panelists didn't show. Fang accepted his fate here and trudged on, his english is better than a year or so ago. I have to give him full marks for this and in thanks will buy something from his outfit. ( probably his in-ear things as I'm investing in a Sennheiser 300 G3 IEM system ).

He did present the concept of headphones needing a certain amount of energy (power) regardless of their impedance: Electrostatics need it as Voltage, lower impedance stuff needs current. I knew this already but it's seldom referred to in headphone amp discussions.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've collected some of your recorded projects now, these are A+ recordings, I glad I came across you.

tony's picture

Dear Bob,

They shot it in 1080p, I went back and checked.

Tony in Michigan

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It was just someone with a handheld who works for Fang. Good news is that the talks were recorded with better gear and better videos will eventually become available. Don't know when, depends on the CanJam organizers.
tony's picture

Fang did seem to be Genuine, I can believe in him, so the result was a positive for Hifiman.

And, you gave him an hour to speak to the world, you were a positive too.

None of these headphone people have the big PR organization needed to do Glitzy/Polished TV ready presentations, it's kinda like you're all they got. I'm happy to accept your efforts to bring these folks out and present them.

I would've had two free-lance Video guys triangulating on you two, 1080p & Audio , cost would be in the $2,000 range. You guys don't have that kinda Dinero so ametuer hour is all we can and should expect. NO apologies needed!

I enlarged the video to see Fang resigning himself and digging-in, he accepted the reality that he'd have to carry this solo, he trudged on without looking back, he gets my vote. You can tell him so.

I say : "Thank you for this effort" and shame on those lads that forgot to "Show-up". You can apologize for them but I've been involved in lots of these types of things, the panelists either commit and stand behind their word or they don't, the cream rises to the top.

Tony in Michigan

Bob Katz's picture

All valid points about not having budget, etc. But an audio person like Fang should know better. If you know that a friend is going to shoot a video, then bring along a mike with a long cord, plug it into his camera and you're going to improve the intelligibility of the sound 1000%. I honestly found the sound so disconcerting as to stop listening to this video. I'm hoping that a better sounding video will emerge as Tyll pointed out, because Fang clearly has a lot of valuable things to contribute.

tony's picture

Of course, quite right.

I brought out my iMac's talents at peering into crappy and focused on Fang and Tyll, it was difficult but I got thru it. I'm a bit more desperate for knowledge about this emerging technology, I wanted to hear some secret being revealed, something I might use in making some future decision, I'm hunting clues.

If Tyll knew he would be going solo with Fang he might've prepared to dig a bit deeper into things, as it was I think Tyll got blind-sided by the long table being empty.

As a manufacturer myself and thinking this "seminar" thru a bit, I'm guessing that the others not participating was the result of Fang's new "Category Killing" 1000 headphone. These other's new products seem "also ran", ho-hum creations by comparison.
I suspect "others" didn't want to help brighten Fang's Spotlight.

I'd be charging $500 (non-refundable) to have a seat on these Seminar tables, make em pay and they'll make a point of showing-up!

I'm thanking whoever did the little jiggle-cam video for sharing it with us, it's a whole lot better than nothing and I'm not a Mastering Engineer with the World's Superb equipment ( Lapinski ) or an intolerance for anything below perfection. ( I'm collecting Katz mastered stuff now, it's beautiful to listen to; A+) .

Tony in Michigan

zobel's picture

I enjoyed the interviews. It was interesting to see three different (and successful) approaches to building planar magnetic headphones. It goes to show that there is no "one way" to best produce an audio product. What's exciting is the creative variety in combining art and science to such wonderful ends. Bob Katz, himself, is one who has made a very successful career doing just that, both creatively and flexibly.

I find, as a retired business owner, who strove to build the very best handcrafted log homes possible for the past 40 years, the passion of producing the best product was a lifetime commitment that made what we did worth the effort, and gave us purpose, and our customers a great deal of joy and satisfaction. You need to love what you are doing, because you have to put a lot of love in your work for others to really love it. I find this passion to be evident in all four of you. People really do love your work, Tyll, Fang, Dan, Sankar, and Bob, and appreciate it. I think you are all brilliant, and really have the passion to be the successes you are because of the love you have for music, and the honest desire of sharing it in the best way possible with us. Makes me glad. Thank you all.