Let’s talk about this new pair of Indian-made headphones. That itself is unusual enough. Headphones come from places like France and Germany and China (also sometimes the United States, if a company is feeling patriotic enough). But in the audio world, India barely even qualifies as a bit player. So for a home-grown company to start making a little bit of noise in the way that Kaldas Research has done… well, that’s kind of surprising.
But it goes even further. Because you see, the pair of headphones that Kaldas are making in Mumbai - the RR1 Conquest – aren’t a pair of cheap, wallet friendly earbuds, or a pair of plasticky noise-cancelers. They’re a pair of goddamn electrostatics, the picky divas of the headphone world, which require special amplifiers to run. Not only that, but they look like what would happen if a supercar crashed into the Sennheiser factory at a million miles an hour. The things have wires on the outside, fer chrissakes! And by the way, Kaldas are currently the only high-end audio manufacturer in India. A country of 1.3 billion people, and they are the only ones doing it. Oh, and they’re designing and building everything in-house. Every. Single. Part. No ordering drivers from China. No outsourced headbands or cables. Nothing.
Clearly, there was something very interesting going on. So we went to talk to the man responsible.
(Full disclosure: we haven't heard the RR1 Conquest yet. We will soon.)
Who is Aumkar Chandan?
“Ten years ago, I was in Canada – my family lives in Toronto – and my uncle is a headphone guy. He had the Sennheiser HE60s. The first time I heard them I was obviously quite surprised. A couple of years later, I was building a gaming PC, and I need a nice pair of headphones. I came across Head-Fi, and bought my first good headphones. I didn’t have a professional background [in audio]. It was and still is a hobby for me! The RR1 Conquest headphones – yes, we are making them and manufacturing them, but technically, this is not my main business. I’m just doing it for the fun of it. It’s a passion.
“I am involved in contract R&D and manufacturing. We do everything engineering related. If you don’t have the manufacturing capabilities, we can help you make your products. That’s our main business. But now we are focusing on the production of the headphones. Handling both those things is slightly difficult, so I want to focus more on headphones...we’re just trying to keep up with demand.”
Most people who design headphones go for dynamic or planar models. You guys are different – you’ve gone straight for electrostatic headphones. Why?
“For me, it’s very important to do everything in-house. We make every single part – we don’t outsource anything. We make every thing by ourselves. That was a huge priority. If you make your own dynamic drivers - planar drivers are easy, but making your own dynamic drivers is extremely difficult. Far more than an electrostatic driver. Those drivers are easier to manufacture and develop. But even then, there’s a lot that can go wrong in the quality control of electrostatic drivers. For me, I’m just a fan of electrostatic headphones. I wasn’t interested in planar magnetic headphones – it’s not something I personally like.”
Why is it so important for you to make everything in-house?
“I don’t really have a straight answer to that. Maybe it’s just personal. I’m doing this to make me happy – there are very few things that make me happy personally, and making something completely by myself is one of them.
“My inspiration is Horacio Pagani [of Pagani Automobil] and Christian von Koenigsegg [of Koenigsegg Automotive]. All these people, they are also passionate, and they make everything themselves. They don’t go to other companies, take the parts, and make a recipe.”
There must be quite a few challenges there, because you’re starting from scratch. You can’t just order in a batch of drivers.
“It’s incredibly complex. For the last two years, I’ve been working every single day, including holidays. I’ve been incredibly busy.
“There have also been machining challenges. We have a small team of only four people, and our main machinist used to work for the Indian Air Force. He has quite a bit of experience in machining jet engine parts. So now when you’re machining, say, the components of an electrostatic driver, you need that experience. Electrostatic drivers in general are extremely sensitive to tolerances. If you get anything wrong, you have to scrap them.
“It definitely isn’t easy! It would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just go to China. But there is no fun in that. And no challenge.”
The design of the headphones is really eye-catching, with the wires on the outside. We’ve never seen that before – what made you go that route?
“Before we did electrostatic drivers, we were experimenting with a new driver – I haven’t talked about this with anybody, and I probably shouldn’t talk about it! But it wasn’t a dynamic driver or a planar driver. It wasn’t electrostatic or ribbon. It was a completely new technology. That driver was supposed to be angled, and not coupled completely flat to the ear. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish the driver, because making a completely new driver is extremely expensive and extremely difficult to get right.
“So our initial prototypes are all angled. And when we decided to make electrostatic headphones, instead of scrapping the design and making something completely new, we worked around that design and tried to incorporate the electrostatic driver into it. The exposed wires are just something that came about in development. The final product is always going to be very different to what you’ve originally conceived.
“Some people don’t like it, although I personally like the exposed wiring. It’s very safe – everything is insulated, and there is nothing to be concerned about. But it is a very polarising design!”
But polarising can be a good thing. If you want to make a splash on the market, you don’t want to look like Sennheiser or Grado or Meze. You want to look like Kaldas, right?
“I didn’t want to copy anybody. I wanted to make a novel design, with a novel driver, without taking too much inspiration from anybody else. It’s a new take on everything. You see so many headphones coming out that are homages to or copies of existing headphones in one way or another – we didn’t want to do that. Our product had to be its own thing, and that was a priority.
“So for example, many electrostatic headphones look very similar to the original Stax electrostatics. The [RR1] doesn’t look like a Stax headphone in any way – it doesn’t even look like an electrostatic headphone! And the thing about electrostatic headphones is that there are concerns about high voltages, which makes the designers conservative with the housings. But honestly, if you look at the numbers, there’s not a lot that can go wrong. Even though they are high-voltage, they are almost completely current-less. It’s all completely safe. And they are extremely reliable, thanks to the lack of moving parts in comparison with a regular pair of headphones. They should last a lifetime.
I have an old pair of electrostatics which is the first Stax headphone ever made, called the SR1. There are only three or four in the world. I could be wrong about that, but my headphones are over 60 years old, and they are still working.
We haven’t had a chance to hear the Conquest RR1 yet. What sort of sound are you going for here?
“The thing about electrostatic headphones is that in general, they have minimal excursion, which of course is the displacement of the drivers. Because of that, historically, electrostatic headphones have been known to have minimal bass, and slightly high treble. Quite obviously all of that can be tuned, and my biggest goal with the RR1 was not to mess with the high and mid frequency characteristics of electrostatic headphones, but just to play with the low frequency characteristics. We were able to extract a lot of bass response.
“So the RR1 is slightly more deep into the bass. But if you don’t like electrostatics in terms of how they sound and the highs and the mids, then you may not like the RR1. It’s slightly darker than other electrostatic headphones, but because of the extended bass response, it doesn’t sound like an electrostatic.
“With the measurements, you’ll see that electrostatics have very narrow dispersion patterns in the high frequency response, but that’s mostly a measurement artefact and a headphone artefact. We were talking about this with the people at the AUDEZE factory in Los Angeles last month. The thing about measurements is that they have become so widespread that there is a lot of misinformation floating around, and it’s very hard to keep people educated on exactly what is happening. So it’s a complex issue. But in general, the RR1 is a slightly more bassy electrostatic, and slightly darker.”
Normally electrostatic headphones don’t respond well to bass heavy genres like hip-hop and EDM. Are you saying that’s not the case here?
“Absolutely. All those genres will be slightly more vibrant because of the bass response. For example, the Stax L300, which is an entry-level headphone, that rolls off at around 100Hz. My headphones go down to almost 35Hz, which is only 5Hz shorter than AUDEZE headphones.”
Let’s talk about the audio community in India. There are very few audio companies in the country – there’s you, and Tymphones, and that’s kind of it. Are there any other companies that are worth checking out?
“No, there’s nobody else. This is a very small market. Tymphones don’t make anything in-house – it’s all brought in from China. We are the only Indian headphone company who make everything ourselves. If others exist, they are all rebranded Chinese headphones and earbuds. That’s the reality.”
Is that because there is no demand for audio gear in India?
“There is an extreme demand. We have a group called IAF, the Indian Audiophile Forum, which is quite a big group. Mostly the market here is focused on in-ears, rather than full-sized headphones. Those seem to be a bigger hit. It does exist, but it’s definitely quite limited compared to everybody else.
“There are companies here, like Boat, that put out headphones, but they don’t make anything themselves. If you were to ask me to name two German headphone companies, I’d say Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic, because they actually make things. But if there is a German company that isn’t actually making anything, I wouldn’t consider them to be a company in general. To be considered a German headphone company, you have to actually make something in Germany. Same thing in India.”
How have you been received by the Indian audio community then? Because there must be an element of national pride.
“There is - we are still fulfilling the local orders right now. We have shipped a couple internationally, but very limited. Mostly we are trying to focus on the local market, because there is a lot of demand for the headphones. Production is a big issue for us, and we want to be able to keep up.
“So the market is there, but even if you want to get into the RR1, it’s quite a proposition. The headphones are $500, and of course you need an amplifier with that. That’s another $500. Even though people are excited about the company and the headphones, it’s still a limited market.”
Where can people hear the RR1 in the US?
“We aren’t going to be at Rocky Mountain Audio Festival this year, unfortunately, as we are extremely busy with the production. But we will be coming to CanJam NYC in Feburary 2020. That’s your best bet right now.”