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 conversationI'll try to remember to post up when the show videos come outbut 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 daysmy 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.