After Breaking Away from Beats, Monster Searches for New Identity

A powerful little speaker pumps out soulful electronic music on the table as Noel Lee gleefully pours a glass of ice water it. The SuperStar BackFloat manages to continue functioning, pleasantly bumping away while water droplets and ice cubes bounce off its black exterior with every beat.

Lee is the founder of Monster, a company once known for crafting Beats headphones and, before that, for expensive audio cables. This past weekend, Lee was in Seattle to show off his company’s latest wireless speaker line (and to speak at MindCamp). The Monster SoundStage is a multi-room speaker system using both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi that looks to compete with Sonos. But the star in Monster’s lineup is the waterproof BackFloat.

While the founder’s card says Head Monster, Lee is a little bit like the patriarch of his family-owned business. Monster started in a garage as a company selling high-end audio cables when stores were giving low-quality cables away for free. He talked salespeople and audiophiles alike into the idea that better cables could result in better sound.

MONSTER BEATS

Monster has seen success replacing technical details with an appeal to ego in its advertising. Some people see Monster’s $100 HDMI cable as a needless markup for a product that functions the same as a $7 equivalent, but the emotional appeal of luxury electronics helped Monster sell the world on Beats by Dr. Dre.

Lee is partially responsible for the craze of big, gaudy headphones seen on athletes, rappers, college kids and rock stars. Monster was Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s original partner for Beats, but the musicians and Monster parted ways in 2012. Dre and Iovine kept Beats, first as a partnership with HTC and eventually selling to Apple in 2014. Monster kept Lee’s engineering know-how and love of audio.

“We call him the golden ear,” business manager Robin Lee said. “People look to Monster to see where the trends are going, since [Lee] is the one that created the biggest headphone market.”

While Beats undeniably set trends, it remains to be seen if Monster can maintain that reputation.

The BackFloat is one of only a handful of powerful yet waterproof speakers on the market, but it’s not going to turn many heads. Sure, the construction is solid and the sound is loud enough to hear even as a truck rolls by on a busy Seattle street. But it doesn’t set a trend like Beats did. The Jambox by Jawbone is the obvious trendsetter in the space, with plenty of copies available on Amazon.

Monster’s new Bluetooth earbuds are also innovative, sticking so snuggly to the side of the head that users can wear a helmet over them. Again, it’s a welcome improvement to an existing product type, but it’s not the trendsetter that Beats was. That doesn’t worry the Head Monster.

The latest push for Monster is mobile devices. The company has a full lineup of speakers and headphones, but Monster is also pushing battery packs, cables and transmitters for tablets and phones.