A Visit to Philips Research Labs

Eight simple words that Wiebo Vaartjes, CEO of Philips Lifestyle Entertainment Business Group, takes very seriously.

Last week I had the great pleasure of being invited (along with Jude Mansilla of Head-Fi.org and Michael Ting and Lieven Vranken of Headfonia.com) to Philips Innovation Lab in Leuven, Belgium. We were treated to a spectacularly interesting and invigorating presentation of Philip's efforts to re-establish themselves as a premier supplier of audio/video gear in general, and headphones in particular, in the 21st century.

To me, it's a story of corporate will, and the power that comes with large corporate resources and talented, clear-thinking researchers. It's a story of what it takes to turn a huge ship towards a new destination.

A Matter of Will
A dozen years might as well have been a lifetime ago in the world of personal electronics. No iPods; no smartphones; no Bluetooth; and at Philips—just like pretty much everywhere else—headphones were considered an accessory along with cables and adaptors, and were not a part of the main audio group.

Then black silhouettes on bold colorful backgrounds danced with white wires all aflutter on subway billboards announcing the iPod and—unknown to most of us at the time—the coming age of all the media you could imagine in your pocket. I wonder if Steve Jobs knew in that moment that he had begun to move the lowly headphone from accessory to necessity?

We all know the rest of the story: Monster spawned Beats, and made the $349 headphone an acceptable proposition in the minds of consumers, which was followed shortly thereafter by an avalanche of headphones from every possible angle. Not to mention the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets radically changing the average consumer's habits of media consumption, and birthing companies like Sonos and products like the Squeezebox delivering media in previously unforeseen ways.

Imagine what it must be like then, for upper management at Philips to see the world of consumer audio/video shifting so rapidly in a new direction and knowing something needed to be done...something that would essentially obsolete your traditional views and established product lines of audio/video hardware...something that, by definition, was so new that nobody knew the end from the beginning. The great thing about being a big company is you can bet lots of money on a new project; the bad thing is big companies can loose big on big bets as well.

It's obvious in hindsight looking at the new Philips audio/video products that the bet has paid off and the job was well done, but the question burned in my mind: "What allowed Philips upper management to have the will beforehand to go forward with the risky, complex, and ephemeral challenge of developing product suited for the coming age?"

I posed the question to Wiebo Vaartjes, CEO of BG Lifestyle Entertainment, Philips Consumer Lifestyle. He's the guy responsible for the bottom line; he's the guy that signs the checks to move forward; he's the guy that had to develop the will to move forward in a bold new way. What gave him the courage to do so?

A Living Heritage
091313_Blog_PhilipsVisit_Photo_WieboDevelopingCorporateWillWiebo told me of his confidence in the team of researchers and engineers at Philips Technology Campus in Leuven, Belgium, and in a long heritage of innovation at Philips. In 1927 Philips developed the first "pentode" radio tube powerful and efficient enough to drive a speaker in a tabletop radio, and thus enabled a shared listening experience for families. By 1932 Philips had sold one million radios, and their 1,000,000th radio valve a year later. Philips developed the compact disk (in cooperation with Sony) and revolutionized the way we listen to music. And in 2003, with the Streamium i250, they produced the world's first integrated audio device capable of streaming internet radio stations.

He told me of the sea changes apparent in the world of consumer media devices that simply demanded a response. Marketing people looked at the structure of the new web-enabled world, and then business managers looked within the company and saw all the needed pieces, but having some structural elements ill-suited to the demands of the new market. Headphones no longer belonged in the accessories group, and were now a centerpiece of the connected revolution. Networking and wireless engineers needed to work very closely with consumer product designers to provide a seamless control experience for users. Pretty much everything needed to be re-thought in the new paradigm.

Wiebo, and all of Philips, was at a tipping point and found them selves ready and able to the task at hand. Actually, I find it fairly easy to imagine Wiebo and his team of top managers developing the will to move forward—they had a great team and something had to be done. What I find hard to imagine is what it felt like to ask a talented team of researchers to come up with new and innovative things relevant to a new era, signing a bunch of big checks to get the ball rolling, and then waiting to see what would arise from the work. The anticipation must have been breathtaking.

Now all this talk may have been marketing folks pulling the wool over my eyes, but I think not. When I look at some of the novel thoughts the Philips team have found, and the interesting and very new feeling products they've developed as a result of this effort, I can't but feel they've really done the job well. Turn the page and I'll give you some examples.

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Gooberslot's picture

At first I was confused why they seemed to care so much about race and gender but when I got to the end and saw that they were making different product lines for different groups it made a bit more sense. Still, it seems like looking at age would have been a better move since that's the grouping they seem to be going with.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I think I remember them saying age was also looked into.

Headfonia_L's picture

Nice article Tyll. I should have shaved though ;-)

It was nice meeting you!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

So glad you could come along for the tour as well. Wish I took more pictures of Leuven. You live in a lovely area. 'Course the beer is pretty good too.

ultrabike's picture

I have been curious about the Philips Spheres. They look similar to my Mirage Nanosats. Unlike the Mirage's however, the tweeter does not seem to have a diffuser. Could be that the spherical cap is optimized for a fairly wide (and smooth) radiation pattern... Spheres have a much larger woofer and port, which is a good thing. The connectivity and integrated amp makes it the more interesting.

Interesting Philips is using the flat measuring rig for repeatable results. Makes sense (EDIT: for repeatable results). 

As far as Philips products, I have a neckband that doesn't sound too bad at all for the price. Their low priced IEMs seem well liked. I also have a Boston Acousitcs set of speakers for my TV (mm220s) which are surprisingly good, and look a lot like the Philips MMS 321 and 322!

Lots of good research by these guys.

I appreciate the book recommendation. I just skimmed thru chapter 14. I'm reading this book. THANKS!!!

John Grandberg's picture

The Spheres appear to have been around for a few years, though I'm sure there have been updates. Or maybe they were announced back then but never actually released until now. Either way, they have potential.... We'll have to see if we can get our hands on a pair. At one point they even had a variation with a wood enclosure - very cool. 

ultrabike's picture

Yup, the Spheres have been around. BTW, didn't notice this before, but the Spheres seem to look more similar to the Linkwitz Lab's Pluto than the Mirages.

... Guard your wallet.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

It looks like we'll be able to get you the whole line-up of Fidelio home products to liter your home with and experience for a review. Warm up your AirPlay, John, I think you're going to have fun with that!

thune's picture

So...what is pipeline latency for Phillips products (I remember a Koss representative at RMAF-2012 saying that products in the pipeline, with contemporary styling, may not even be ready for RMAF-2013)? I'm assuming it is more than 2 months, meaning you saw stuff they asked you not to talk about. What did you really see? :P

Tyll Hertsens's picture

There was one upcoming headphone product that we heard about that we can't discuss. Most of the proprietary info we got was regarding the details of some of the studies undertaken. Philips understandably doesn't want the detailed results of their work public knowledge. But the gist and nature of the results I've published here.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I  really applaud their efforts and the breadth of their line.  I see so many students with beats in my HS and wish they cared less about style and more about sound quality, but with what they are listening to, I am not getting my undies wadded up over it. 

If kids see something stylish first, they may give them a listen and then make a better quality choice. The heqadphone market is crazy crowded now.  Ty, you have some serious job security and a long list of headphones for review.  

Best Buy is carryhing many models, but the FYE at our mall really needs to up their game in the headphone market. Where do kids hang?  At the mall. 

Three Toes of Fury's picture

Loved this article Tyll.   As a headphone addict its always a treat to learn more of the 'big picture' when it comes to great cans.   Moreso,  its fabulous to find out that a company reallllly cares about the sound comming out of their product and ways to improve it.    Im very impressed at how much of their process they shared with you.   I will certainly be checking out their offerings now and to come.  

Thanks for sharing the info and pics!!

        Peace .n.  Philips Phones looking Phantastic!



NA BLur's picture

Tyll, remember when I brought over those Philips SBC HP910 headphones and you took some measurements.  Sure they were bright sounding and did not measure well, but soon after Philips started to make better headphones.

It is great to see companies care about what they make and improve upon how they make it and how it is perceived by their customers.

I wonder if a company would ask you to be involved in developing a headphone.  If they contacted you would you be interested?



MarcoGV's picture

Thank you for the very interesting article, which brought back good memories:  I lived with my family near Brussels (Tervuren) in the mid-eighties for about three years, and on weekends we would sometimes ride by bicycle from Tervuren to Leuven (about 15km, on secondary country roads).

Philips announced the sale of its consumer-oriented lyfestile entertainment division to Funai at the end of January.  This includes home speakers, DVD players, and headphones.  I think that Funai bought the TV division of Philips in 2008, and the two companies have collaborated for two decades before then.  According to a report from late January 2013 (http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57566380-93/philips-sells-audio-video-u...$202-million/), Osaka-based Funai will license the Philips name for five-and-a-half years and will develop headphones as well as other consumer electronic products.  See also http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/2013/01/29/philips-sells-consumer-business-to....

I am confused.  Are the Philips Innovation Labs you visited actually a part of Funai now?

JRAudio's picture

This is also, what I was thinking, when reading this article. I definitely know (because I am working as an electrical engineer in the audio industry (for 30 years now)), that philips does build no CD Drives any longer, they are build under the Japanese Company Funai, mainly in the Chines factory in Shenzhen, but still, as above mentioned, under the brand name Philips, because Philips sold also the license to use the Brand name, for the next 5 years. I thought, this would not only belong to the cd drives, but, as above mentioned, to the complete consumer hifi sector.

So my question: Are the headphones, branded as Philips, still real philips, or are they Funai, with philips brand name. I know, Funai has access to the same machinery and workers, that build the Philips products in China as it was before, when it was “real” Philips, not just the brand name. The same questions for the spheres loudspeakers.


Tyll Hertsens's picture

They mentioned it when one of us asked about it, and my impression is that Funia owns the whole shooting match of Philips audio asset. But that's just a guess. I think they're keeping that topic out of the conversation because it's just a change of owners, and the brand remains focussed as before. 

Headfonia_L's picture

Hi tyll, I was the one who asked and they confirmed there would be no change for the consumer, it will still be "Philips" as it is now

JRAudio's picture

I am sorry, but this doesn't answer the question. Does this mean, the consumer does buy now hifi products under the brand name Philips, but Philips (the company) does no longer stand behind the products, but Funai. I know, they partly “using” the same people and machinery, but wouldn't it not more than fair to tell the customers, that there is a new company behind the Philips brand name.

At Asian hifi shows, you do see so many european brand names, but it is only the brand name, no longer the company, that stood behind it in the past.


Mark Groves's picture

Hi Tyll and everybody,

I just came across the post and, as I work for this business, I wanted to see if I could clear up the unclarity regarding ownership of our company. All Philips audio products (along with video, multimedia and accessories products) are made by a company called WOOX Innovations. 

We launched WOOX at the start of this week - you can find out more about the company at www.woox.com. We're a standalone subsidiary of Philips, and we're committed to continue delivering innovations in the categories of Philips products we're responsible - that includes headphones. The people that Tyll met with when he visited our site in Belgium have all transferred over to WOOX, and so have the facilities themselves.

We're keen to hear your feedback on the headphones we bring to market. We take great pride when we read positive words about our products in this expert community, and we also take on board criticism so that we can improve in the future.


Mark Groves

WOOX Innovations

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thank you for the clarification, Mark, and best wishes to Philips in their ongoing work to create great audio products.

silentrigger2's picture

Nice Innovations of Personal Audio sets really more than just a walkman. I must amazed knowing this new inventions. More attractive and pleasant looks.


Omid's picture

Fidelio-X1 is definitely among the best HPs we've ever tested. Its FR is the most preferred among 24 highly regarded hi-fi HPs by 40 trained listener. Great job, Philips!