Polk Heritage Collection

I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple of months but I just never found the time to go through the records and pull together the files. This is one I’ve been working on for the last two years and included ethnographic research, segmentation, strategy, branding, product configuration, building a design language, product design, packaging, art direction, model selection, working with ad agencies… I think the saying is ‘soup to nuts’. In addition to directing, I dot to work hands on with three of the 6 products (with a designer assisting me in each case to do the heavy lifting, I don’t have the time to really do the documentation work I used to… bitter sweet, sometimes I miss the days when I could spend hours on a CMF spec! But doing all this is fun too!)

Anyway, I wanted to share it. The goal was to take brand that had 40+ years of history and expertise in making awesome home audio and get them into the personal audio categories of headphones, bluetooth speakers, and airplay speakers in a way that was authentic to the brand, meaningful to the user, and impactful to the business.

We wanted the design language to communicate this sense of history, expertise, and craft. The language is organic and the material pallet is very warm, lots of real wood (mahogany in this case), leathers, gold plated metals… all of which have challenges in working with. We call the aspirational persona of the brand “The Devote”, very much a craft oriented person, with a passion for music and how it sounds. Each product has an innovative idea behind it that centers around acoustic performance. For example:

The Woodbourne: this is one I worked on a lot with one of my designers, Ken Chae. The shape is pretty, but mainly it is that way to minimize standing sound waves inside the cabinet. The housing is made of wood, not plastic, that creates a specific sound, inside the cabinet is split in two and it has two separate amps so it works and sounds more like two traditional bookshelf speakers than a typical dock like speaker. The top is real mahogany veneer that took months to dial in the finish. I wanted it to be very matte, not overly poly’d, which makes it easier for QA, but I wanted focus to be on touch, feel. I wanted the touch of it to feel like the sound of it. Super warm. The speaker has airplay and bluetooth so it can be used with iOS and Android. Plus optical in to connect to a TV, Blueray, or game console, and USB with a high end DAC, plus an aux in of course. So you can connect it to anything, and it is loud enough to be your stereo.

The Camden Sq: I didn’t work on the ID of this, but I did work a lot on the Ux. It was designed by one of the Sr guys at frog, coincidentally the same guy that designed the original Beats Studios, Francois Nguyen. Here the innovation is centered around sharing. 4 phones can connect, which is neat, but the cooler thing is that with an app all 4 phones can create a shared playlist that is stored in the cloud. the cloud then pings each phone and tells each one when to play what song to the device. Up to 125 other people can be logged into the play list and they can up vote or down vote songs allowing the 4 DJs to accumulate points. The top is that shale because there are 4 drivers all pointed at 10 degree off axis angles in a L/R/L/R patented arrangement. The net effect is that when the speaker is placed in the center of say a picnic table, no matter where you are you get a stereo experience. The battery also lasts for 24 hours of playback at real volumes.

The Buckle and Hinge: The Buckle was also designed by Francois and the Hinge by Luke Saule at frog. They sound more true to the studio sound but with a touch of warmth that gives them that Polk sound. Leather and cast and post machined metal pretty much everywhere you touch. The Buckle has an interesting jog switch that allows you to jog up and down to adjust volume and multi tap in. The first ever approved by Apple like this.

The Nue Era and Nue Voe: These I worked a lot on and even dug up the early sketches. Both are tortoise shell and gold (some of the original sketches show wood inlay but it proved difficult). The concept was to create something that felt more like cufflinks or eye ware than a piece of consumer electronics. The oblong shape is designed to tuck behind your anti-tragus (that part of year ear just above your earlobe). This does two things; first it prevents them from falling out and distributes that task across a larger surface of the ear to minimize any point pressure, second it releases pressure off the ear tip flange and allows that to maintain a proper seal. A proper seal means more bass response, so the headphone doesn’t need to have the bass artificially jacked up, making it a more pure sound. The Nue Voe uses a super high end and accurate dynamic balance driver. I worked with Ken Chae on these as well along with some awesome engineers at both frog and Polk.

Anyway, I could go on about these forever, sorry about the long post. Pretty pumped about these, this is as short as I could make it. On top of all that selecting models, art directing photoshoots, working with ad agencies, our marketing team, and musicians on the go to market strategy… pretty awesome. I think a few of you have actually bought some of these. Thank you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

The collection has a microsite if you want to check it out: http://www.polkheritage.com

On the marketing side, we bought the rights to the Doobie Bro’s song “Listen to the Music” which debuted the same year Polk was founded in '72. We then collaborated with the band Walk Off The Earth (WOTE) to do a cover of the song to launch a campaign encouraging other bands to cover the song. The top voted band gets to perform at The Joint in Vegas and open for WOTE who opens for John Legend.

This is the launch video we did with WOTE featuring the headphones.

Went well, we got just under 50 entries… kind of a high barrier to entry. To help we kitted out a tour bus and had it travel the country for the last 3 months. Inside the bus was a complete roving recording studio.

Not to mention in store displays… OK I’ll stop :slight_smile: This is why I resisted posting this earlier!

Display video explaining the concept for the Camden Sq.

CES trade show booth is the next piece of the puzzle… almost done… anyone else going this year?

Yeah I was in Best Buy a few days ago and saw all the Polk Stuff. It had a good presence inside the store, and sales associate pushed the Camden pretty well. Cool to know Francois designed it. Always a cool feeling to personally know the designers behind products.

Cool to see all the imagery at one place too. I never realized how much of an ongoing project this was. Cool too see it all come together at once.

This is awesome behind the scenes information! I have the Nue Voe’s sitting under my Christmas tree right now, I’m stoked to try them out!

The Camden seems like a modernised muji CD player to me which is a good thing.

Cool stuff Michael!

Did you guys develop the concept of utilising the anti-tragus as the “anchor”? I haven’t shopped for headphones in a while, but last I saw most were using the anti-helix as support. Are you hitting a percentile range for the sizing? I interviewed at a startup a week or so ago that were looking to 3D print custom inserts, again using the anti-helix, it would be awesome if using the anti-tragus could solve the problem entirely!

Did the shape of the Woodbourne also allow you to escape the traditional “golden ratio” sizing constraints? I found that to be a huge constraint back when I was doing some speaker work.

That is one awesome collection, Yo.
I love the designs, detailing, materials & its superb integration.
I love the concept behind the camden sq. (& its video.)
The oblong shape & material for Nue Era and Nue Voe is interesting find. It has also a strong identity /connection to the brand.
The Nue Voe is simple, elegant & beautiful.
Great Work! :smiley:

Just unwrapped mine and got away to open them. I’m a pretty big geek when it comes to the experience of how things are opened. I was really giddy about the ribbon attached to the inner packaging to slide everything out in one piece. Also the finger hole slot to pull out the accessories box is so small but really enjoyable! Definitely like the sound these are putting out, very open, and sound like a headphone not something that’s jammed into my ear. And lastly the oblong shape works really well. What a cool experience!

The connector is really unique as well!

Thanks everyone for the positive words.

@Emmanual, yes, massive on going project. More products in the collection will be released at CES!

@Aaron, I hope you enjoy those Nue Voes as much as I do!

@mas2, I can definitely see that. The pictures don’t do the grille justice, the cross section there is a like a very shallow bell curve.

@Michael, I had an older pair of earphones that utilized the anti-tragus, but they didn’t fit quit right in a wide enough variety of ears. We cast and scanned a huge number of ears in our shop when we started designing headphones and earphones. We probably have one of the larger sets of data around ear shapes. and we found this to fit better and easier. The anti-helix solutions seem more polarizing. On the Woodbourne, our acoustic engineers don’t seem caught up in the golden ratio, cross section is more important to them in dealing with internal standing waves.

@Abhinav, thank you. We really tried to pull the design language away from the conservative CE space with the goal being to make products that were at once more style oriented and more timeless. The average smartphone last 18months for most users, but a good set of headphones could last a lot longer, so they should be visually tech agnostic. Since the phone mainly hides in the pocket (even with copious amounts of use), and the headphones are always exposed, we felt they should relate more to what someone wears than a typical piece of technology would. This is where I think smart watches haven’t figured it out yet…

@aaron, thanks… if you want to leave a review on our website, that would be cool :wink: The balanced armature driver in those makes for excellent mid and high frequency reproduction. Ironically the BA drivers are much smaller than typical dynamic drivers such as those in the Nue Era, which is why we were able to put the giant hole in it. The profiles are the same between the two, but the sculpting on the Nue Voe is much softer. We labored over all of those packaging decisions… should their be a ribbon, the leather patch on the carry bag, the paper pulp tray that is recycled and natural… we wanted to tell a complete story start to finish. Naming these things itself is a design project. The Nue Era was always called that from the first sketch, I just called it that when I drew the first doodle, but it took us weeks to come up with Nue Voe for some reason! Finally one of our newer designers wrote it on the white board under Nue Era after a long brainstorm session. Same with Buckle and Hinge. Buckle came right away, Hinge took forever to name… though it seems so obvious to me now. The right angle connector is designed that way to be more comfortable when you are holing your phone in landscape mode. The slightly long tip is meant to penetrate through most cases. Everything has a purpose on these little guys.

I was curious as to how you guys handles the multitude of ear sizes for the headphones. I knwo that I could not wear the same ones as my wife. What material is the piece? I assume it is some sort of hard plastic. Did you guys consider any malleable materials that could deform a little bit to contour to the ear?

The audio geek in me wants to know more about the box design of the woodbourne. What drivers are they using in it? What is the separation inside the cabinet? Is it sealed/ported/bandpass (4/6 order)? I know a lot of guys were playing with Transmission line lately, so Im wondering if that is what is going on here. Although, Im still a sucker for a reinforced sealed built around T/S parameters.

I do however love the look of it. The simplicity of the surfaces and materials are very refreshing to see. Is the grill cloth a bright white, or more of a creme to add to the warmth?

@ Yo - the Camden Square arrived in the studio a few weeks ago and is sitting out front with the rest of the line. The build quality is really nice and the materials translated well from concept to production. Haven’t had a chance to turn it on, but I’m sure it sounds great!

The link below is to the tech brief on the Woodbourne. Details all of what is going on inside. The grille cloth is slightly off white.


Nice, you guys should download the app and play around with it. Quinn, are you going to CES?

Having followed your move from frog to Polk, I have been awaiting this post as I have been at a very similiar situation.
I can imagine it has been a wild ride to come to these results looking at their other “off the shelves” gear.

3 things to get right away from my chest:

  1. I am missing an overall design-link through the complete family product line (details, formal language etc. besides the vineer inserts)

  2. Packaging design / POS from the 80s, looking like sold in the 80s (edges on the packaging of the woodbourne worn off, yellowish packaging color of the muji-like player).
    In my opinion the packaging is killing right now all efforts to sell the product.

  3. Why the use of different vineer styles on the same photograph? (cold/warm colors vs 50s design vineer)

and lastly:

how does this design/specs relate to an x-box gamer (wooden feet? curious to see that user/persona mood board, 40+ gamers?)

Okay so Kudo’s to you and your team Micheal for the polk woodbourne. I have mine and love it hands down, there are only minor things that i would change but i have a feeling that they are the way they are due to constraints.

My one question though and this is something that i see as a missed opportunity, what happened with the remote? I do enjoy the simplistic and elegant form but over all it has a feeling of disconnected with the rest of the unit.

Material - all plastic
Color - brown with out the richness of the wood that is on the main unit - and a Off white that looks out of place next to the virgin white on the main unit.

But because i do love the it my next questions is this - of the Polk family what product do you recommend for my office which is a closed in space of aprox, 12’ x 18’ im looking for something that doesn’t need to blow the doors off but i can use when not in the mood to put my head phones on. (which may be replaced with a pair of yours)

Good catch Chevis. Originally we had a grille that was more off white, but we switched to the whiter grille cloth based on the initial sample, but the remotes were already shot. Soft touch plastic is an upgrade for the typical membrane switch remotes that come with these products, if it was wood, the product retail would have done up quite a bit.

I do have something to recommend for your office, but I can’t tell you about it until CES :wink:

In the mean time, if you wanted something from our premium brand Definitive, we just launched these. Machined aluminum bases, bi-polar sonics, super loud and the sonic reproduction is amazing. The Definitive voicing is a little more of true to studio sound, so it sounds a little crisper and colder than the Polk sound.

Cameron Nielsen, who also posts on here quite a bit, worked on these along with Luke Saule from frog.

You could also get the Camden Sq, it has an Aux in in addition to BlueTooth.


Excellent work.

The Nue Voe is awesome: beautiful organic shape, the tortoiseshell plus metallic brand id strip is classy. Several companies are making earbuds as jewelry, customizable even, which I think is a proper embodiment of designing for women, unlike some of the examples discussed in other thread.

I take exception to the Camden square design. In audio world the Apple popularized slab-brick with radiused corners is so overdone as to be creatively bankrupt or outright copying. You want a list of 20 - 30 companies making various audio equipment with this design style? Awhile ago I was commissioned to write article during Apple-Samsung lawsuit and I chose this topic, the gross overuse unto exact copying of Macmini design style (not published, magazine decided otherwise). Of course, Apple doesn’t own this style, the first to use this shape in audio was Werner Panton in 1963.

Pier, I’m a bit biased, but I am honestly surprised you’re having trouble seeing all the originality in the Camden Square. What other wireless speaker has a contoured metal grille with unique record groove perf, and on top of that metal grilles on the sides along with leather and rivets? This is worlds apart from the Mac Mini form factor or any wireless speaker I’ve seen recently.

I think it is one of those things you just need to see in person.

The bell curve dome of the grille reads a lot more in person as does the brown leather and gold metallic.