Alpha Dog headphones

Alpha Dog headphones are the product of low-grade, low-resolution 3-D printers designed to make cheap tchotchkes and models, not production-grade components. And they are as close to perfection as it gets.

Technology: The 3-D Printing Premium

"I used to think that 3-D printers' biggest value was in mass-customization," notes Avi Reichental, CEO, 3D Systems. "But now, there seems to be even greater value in the production of these quality, high-performance products -- products that are built for exactly what their users need."

Dan Clark has been catering to the demands of audiophiles and headphone junkies for more than 20 years. And his latest project -- the Alpha Dog headphones -- is a play custom-tailored to that picky market.

According to early reviews, the over-the-ear headphones manufactured by Clark's San Diego-based company, Mr. Speakers, offer a sound that is apparently so crisp and balanced that some have already called it one of the best closed headphones ever created.

It is also the first 3-D printed production headphones ever created.

And those two points are no coincidence. 

"As we were prototyping the Alpha Dog design, we realized that there were technical things we could do with a 3-D printer that we just couldn't do with injection molding," Clark explains. 

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In fact, he adds, "We actually got a much more rigid cup with better isolation than we were able to do with injection molds, and that translates to a better sound."

In the audiophile world, that's all that matters. 

Beyond Mass Customization

Clark's production scheme for the Alpha Dog presents something new and disruptive even in the relatively new and disruptive field of additive manufacturing, and defies one of its biggest selling points in the process: customization.

"I used to think that 3-D printers' biggest value was in mass-customization," notes Avi Reichental, CEO of additive manufacturing pioneer 3D Systems. "But now, there seems to be even greater value in the production of these quality, high-performance products -- products that are built for exactly what their users need."

Historically (if that term can be applied to this market yet) the value of 3-D printing for finished goods has been the design freedom the technology provides. Because it builds objects layer by tiny, thin layer from the bottom up, 3-D printers allow engineers to employ architectures as wild as their imaginations without regard to the usual constraints of injection molding or machine tools. But they do so at a cost.

While it's true that 3-D printing makes "the price of one the price of one million," as the saying goes, the unit price of one 3-D printed good is -- as it will be for the foreseeable future -- higher than the unit price of mass-produced goods.

To sell that tradeoff, Reichental explains, manufacturers have typically played to users' vanity. 

"People have been willing to pay a premium for custom form," he says. "Asking consumers to pay a little more for a unique object, one tailored to their tastes, is an easy case to make."

But now, products like the Alpha Dog are proposing a different -- and arguably better -- application. 

"From this perspective, I think all of us will be willing to pay a little more for premium performance goods built for exactly how we need them to be used," Reichental says. "And that is worth a lot more than vanity."

That is exactly where Clark has positioned his brand. 

"If I were trying to hit a much lower price point, I'd have to look at other options," he adds. "But the quality that we've gotten from this both economically and visually is just beyond my expectations."

The Hard Road to Perfection

This is not to say that turning to 3-D printing was easy, however.

"There were so many challenges that we never expected, from the software being able to run parallel printers to how to build an assembly environment that could handle all of them," Clark explains. "I didn't know if it would work. I really didn't."

The challenges began with the machines themselves -- $1,500 consumer-grade machines that would seem more at home in a maker-lab than a high-end manufacturing facility. 

"We're a startup, so we couldn't afford the expensive production 3-D printers," he says. "So we made a design decision to make a very scalable production system using a number of printers that we could add as needed."

The low-end gear offered Mr. Speakers a couple of advantages: They freed the company from the massive investments and leasing terms required of higher-grade machines, and their open-source software design allowed them -- with a bit of hack work -- to be tied together to a single operating system. But going that route also presented a major resolution problem. 

"We had to work really hard to get things to look great," Clark says. "The product that comes out of these printers has all of these striations and lines -- it just looks too rough. And we make a $600 headphone, so it can't look like it just came off a printer."

To solve that, Clark's team developed a complicated post-production process that includes chemical smoothing and fusing, mechanical sanding before it is coated with five layers of automotive paint.

The result is a product as externally beautiful as it is internally complex; one that can wow the audiophile's high standards while reflecting the extravagance expected with such a big-ticket item. 

"For what we make, which is comparatively low volume and at a higher price point, this model makes great economic sense because we can deliver a better technical product," Clark says. "All of the cost and labor and all of the extra steps are worth it for the quality we get out." 

"I really had no idea we could get a closed headphone to sound so good," he adds. "And I don't think we could have any other way." 

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