Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Polk is a brand known to audiophiles from many walks of life. From professionals who have trusted the brand’s loudspeakers for decades to casual listeners who demand top level acoustics and aesthetics, Polk has carved out a unique niche in the market. Michael DiTullo is at the helm as Chief Design Officer, and he is tasked with making the products look as amazing as they sound. So far, so good, as the personal audio products like their protein leather and machine gold-plated aluminum over ear headphones look like they would be the main accessory for the fashionista crowd at Pitti Uomo. Even their in-ear Nue Voe model boasts beefy sound and iPhone controls along with a tortoise finish. These are not brightly-colored shiny plastic models; these earphones are made for those who won’t compromise form or function.
Before arriving at Polk, DiTullo made the rounds at Beaverton as a designer for Nike. He was employed by Jordan Brand and later as a Director at Converse. After making his mark in the footwear market, he headed south to the Bay Area to work as frog design, a firm responsible for iconic designs like Sony Trinitron TVs and the early Macintosh for Apple. There, he expanded his design language, working on ideas ranging for automotive to tech. By the time he signed on at Sound United, who represents BOOM, Polk, and Definitive Technology, he had already worked for some of the world’s most important companies and was ready to help the brand excel in at all price points.
It’s not easy to compete in a field dominated by Beats. But by separating the product in both look and performance at a competitive cost, Polk is poised to make its mark. If the reviews by both tech blogs and consumers on Amazon and other retail sites, Polk seems to be delivering on its promise. In our detailed conversation with DiTullo, we got a peek into the mind of a man who has designed for many international heavy-hitters. We learn about immersive listening, the process of staying on-trend, and much more. Click through to read our chat and then try out a Polk product to hear and see the beauty for yourself.
Michael DiTullo, Chief Design Officer of Sound United
Freshness: We interviewed you way back in 2006, and you’ve had an eventful 8 years since. Can you walk us through your time as Jordan Brand designer to your present position as Design Officer at Sound United?
Michael: I’ve always loved designing products that had an emotional connection. Prior to Nike, I had designed a lot of watches and housewares, and over the years I’ve done a lot of consulting work in the automotive sector, mainly for Icon. After designing footwear for some of the best athletes in the world, for the most premium sport and sport lifestyle brand in the world, I wanted to work at a more democratic and accessible price point. When Nike acquired Converse, it was the perfect opportunity. Initially I was heading up performance and advanced technologies where I worked with athletes like Dwayne Wade and developed cushioning technologies unique to the brand. That was a natural transition from Jordan. My last role at Converse was as director of the One Star group, which was simultaneously designing product for Target and Barneys NY. By the time I was hitting the 8 year mark at Nike, I had worked across the Nike Sportswear, Jordan, and Converse brands on everything from advanced design initiatives to line extensions for three iconic American brands. I thought it might be time to explore something different.
It was at this moment that frog design, one of the largest and most influential strategic design consulting groups in the world, asked me to be creative director in the San Francisco studio. For those of you who don’t know frog, they designed the original Apple Macintosh, the original Sony Walkman, and many of the most iconic products we grew up with. There I worked with an amazingly talented and extremely smart team of creatives, researchers, strategists and technologists on clients like Intel, Acura, Qoros, Google, and Motorola. I had started my career at a consulting group called Evo Design, and it was great to be back in that type of environment, applying what I had learned in the corporate culture of Nike.
Sound United was the opportunity to meld both sets of experiences around a core passion of mine, music. At Sound United I am able to work with our teams to craft a shared vision that spans three brands, Definitive Technology, Polk, and BOOM. Not unlike my previous experience. We were able to carve out a unique reason for being that strategically allows us to address anyone who loves music and offer them a product superior to the competition at every price, from $18 to $5,000.
Can you tell our readers about Sound United and why they acquired Polk Audio?
The vision for Sound United is a group of people that amplifies emotion through immersive audio experiences accessible to everyone. Polk is a 42 year-old American brand that has a distinct sound, and essentially brings premium audio experience to pretty accessible price points. It was started by three college buddies who happened to love music and be in school for engineering. They started crafting wooden speakers for themselves, then their friends, then their friends’ friends. Now Polk is the largest component audio loudspeaker brand in the United States. Their goal was to recreate a concert experience at home, and this is why the Polk signature sound is very warm; it has more bass, more dynamic range, better highs, more lows, frankly very unlike a lot of competition in that it just sounds really amazing. They were purchased several years before I joined the company, and it is a natural fit between the high end Definitive product line that has more of a pure studio sound, and BOOM which is more about difficult to survive use cases and a price point a college student can afford, ready for anything as we call it.
Polk Audio has a great story beginning in Baltimore in the early 70s. How is the newest chapter of the company unfolding?
Our vision is to stay true to the spirit of those three friends who started making speakers for themselves. If they were in college today, I think they would absolutely be delivering their take on amazing sound to the categories of gaming, wireless whole home audio systems, headphones and bluetooth speakers. Our goal is to do that in a way that is authentic to who we are and tells the story of a premium brand that still invests amazing effort to give you the absolute best sound possible at that price. Sonically, I would say Polk is comparable to products that cost twice as much in many cases. We try to tell that story visually through design, for example the mahogany top on the Woodbourne Airplay speaker or teak cabinets of the Hampden bluetooth desktop speakers talk to those original wooden speakers the founders made even though each is very high tech, wireless, digitally amplified piece of equipment. Our Buckle headphones are made from protein leather and machined gold plated aluminum. Our Nue Era and Nue Voe in-ear buds are tortoise shell. These are design decisions that I feel only a brand with our stature can pull off. They feel natural to who we are and what our products sound like. The products have that same sense of warmth of materials to the touch and to the eye as the acoustic profile does to the ears. They look like what they sound like.
With such a well-regarded company, how do you negotiate the line between innovative design and respecting the high level of performance Polk buyers expect?
I think any designer worth his or her salt sees those two things as one thing. We work very closely with our engineering and brand management teams on ethnographic research synthesis and analysis to uncover product insights that are relevant to the way people listen in the real world. We bring that into our labs and our design studio and create solutions together from there. One great example of that is our new duo of sound bars, the MagniFi and Omni SB1. We determined that the height of the bars had to be reduced radically because of the height of TV stands and bezels reducing. So we set a height limit for ourselves of 2 inches. We also discovered that even though people had sound bars, they were still struggling to understand the dialog in movies, sports broadcasts, and TV shows. The ambient crowd noises in sports have gotten so pronounced that some people struggled to understand the announcer. Most vocal intelligibility comes from the center channel, which very few sound bars actually have. So we added that center channel and made it a key design element and added digital signal processing that can actually pick out the vocal ranges from a broadcast. Then we added user controls to that in the UI so you can actually adjust the voices in a movie separate from expositions or other background cinematic noises. Watching a movie you can turn that feature way up to understand the dialog like never before. When listening to music, though, you reduce it and the stereo separation and dimensionality becomes much more pronounced. You can transform it from a cinematic to a concert experience in a few clicks. We could never have done this unless design and engineering were working perfectly in concert and making those performance features key design stories, not unlike visible air for Nike. You can see the feature and visual, and it takes center stage in the design.
What portions of the design process are you directly involved in?
We are involved in every creative act the company undertakes. As Chief Design Officer, I have an industrial design team working on products and a brand design team that works on everything from web design to retail environments. We collaborate on everything, including user research and analysis, brand positioning, design language, product design, packaging, app user experience and design, web, retail, and trade show environments. Right now we are mid way through designing our 2-story CES booth. This broad scope and interdisciplinary team allows us to tell complete stories from first sketch to retail floor. I think it is a really rare role, and my day is super dynamic as you can guess. I love it.
In reviewing the company’s history of speaker design, it seems like you have honored the classic shapes and silhouettes. How has the history of the company informed your design choices?
As a brand, you have to understand and honor who you are. Look at the best brands in the world and they have a strong gravitational center. They can push the boundaries of that gravity, but they always come back to that natural center of balance. Polk has so many great products in its archives from the massive SDA SRSs to the LSiM’s. One of the things I did when i first started was spend a month with our most tenured employees just to sum up who we are. I surrounded myself with our most historically significant products and my team created an installation showcasing our most important achievements over our 40-plus years. I always think it is important when designing to take into consideration the past, present and future of the brand. The product should acknowledge where we came from before, represent who we are now, and push toward where we want to be tomorrow. Of course, this is much easier said than done. When you are on the 22nd round of that bent mahogany top with the factory it would be easier to give up and make it plastic, but that’s not who we are.
Are you in position to compete with the more expensive, and very popular Beats headphones? In what ways to your models compare?
First our sound signatures are very different. When you listen to our headphones, you are getting the benefit of 42 years of making the best speakers in the world. No one can compete with that. It is organically woven into the very fiber of our company. It is as much and art as it is a science. When working with our engineers, we are constantly discussing if we tweak something millimeter this way how it will affect the sound. The other aspect is our attention to detail, the stitched protein leathers, the machined plated metals, these are things you just don’t get from other brands. I believe we represent the opposite end of the spectrum of most of our competitors. I travel all the time, and when I look around at how people are dressing, from athletes entering into an NBA arena dressed to the nines, to people walking around New York, San Francisco, West Hollywood, Portland, Chicago, London…. they are dressing in a way that is aligned to our design philosophy. I feel we are more on-trend in terms of apparel and other wearable accessories like sunglasses, bags, and watches, with authentic timeless materials, finishes and forms that compliment who you are.
Our favorite listening scenario is this: Playing a vinyl album on a Technics 1200 with speakers on and also listening it on the headphones through the mixer at the same time. We can still remember doing this for the DJ Shadow Entroduciing album. We were stuck on the floor in a daze. What is your ideal listening environment?
First of all, Entroducing is a great album. It is one of my favorites to get lost to. I remember listening to that on headphones walking around the city when it first came out and all of a sudden realizing I had just kept walking way past where I was going by 30 minutes. I always listen to music; silence is odd to me. I come from a family of musicians. My grandfather Carmine had 8 brothers, and they all played a different instrument and toured the Catskills performing. I remember coworkers always asking me to turn down the music in previous companies. Now it is my job to keep it up at eleven. By studying the way people listen, including myself, I notice there are two modes of absorbing music; passive and active. The scenario you described above is active listening. You are focusing on the music and nothing else. For that I love being at home, I have a good set up flanking a nice Eames aluminum series leather chair, and I’ll just tilt back and listen. I’m always switching out the speakers there to our latest and greatest, usually a prototype. My other favorite is when I’m running. I use our Nue Voes which have super accurate balanced armature driver technology. Getting a new album on those I can go double the distance. I’ll get out along the water and just go. For passive listening I have a 5-zone wireless set up that is Definitive W series in my downstairs and Polk Omni series in my upstairs. It all talks to each other wirelessly so I can have the same song perfectly synched throughout the house. Having the music engulf me uniformly as I move throughout the space doing other things is an awesome feeling. It is changing the way I listen.
What are a few recordings that you’ve been amazed to hear in your ideal listening environment?
I recently got a remastered version of Pink Floyd’s Meddle. I’m not a huge Floyd fan, but it really makes Polks come to life and I found myself getting deeper and deeper into them just because the sound its quite mesmerizing on the right speakers. On the recommendation of one of our head audio engineers who started at Polk in 1976, I started to get into David Tipper, an electronic artist from London who crafts these digital soundscapes and layered beats. Beck, Sea Change is also one of my go to’s. The warmth of that recording just pairs perfectly with a pair of Polks in my opinion. If I want to test out something with a little more noise, distortion and angst I need to put on Nirvana, In Utero. I also need to always test out some J Dilla, NERD, and Daft Punk. You also can’t go wrong with Thriller. My aunt bought me a vinyl copy when I was in grade school. I’ve listened to that on every stereo I’ve had since I was seven years old. I still need to listen to those first few percussive hits and the melodic bass line of Billie Jean to see if I like a speaker.
You’ve designed for Nike, Burton, Timex, Google, and Motorola. What experiences from those varied projects do you carry with you to Polk?
I feel like I’m always learning, always taking things in. There isn’t a single project I wouldn’t do differently today, and that is success as I define it. It means I’ve gotten better, I’ve improved, I’ve grown. If I’m not doing those things then what am I doing? From Nike, I had some amazing mentors who taught me what it really meant to communicate an idea through a collection of products and how to create a vision that worked across multiple brands. Nike, Jordan, and Converse tell distinct stories, and yet those stories come together into a bigger narrative. Like different musicians in a jazz trio… or like Voltron if you prefer. They are masters of their own mythology. At frog, I feel like I learned how empathize with an end user’s true needs, to understand who a brand is talking to, what its unique proposition is, and develop a system for design that codifies that into a symbol for the brand and the technology within like a talisman. The products we are creating are amazingly complicated on the inside technologically, but the user experience we are creating is designed to be incredibly simple; we want to get people to the music as fast as possible. I’m still a student of design as much as I am a teacher of it. It’s more fun that way.