The Man Who Changed the Ears of the World: R.I.P. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser


Musicians, and those who toil in the radio, TV or film industries may find life today sounding quieter, a little less crisp, even. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, the founder of the eponymous family engineering firm, has died a few days after his 98th birthday. The good doctor leaves an enormous legacy, having been the driving force behind the creation of some of the best products in the audio industry, including a mic that won him an award from AMPAS, as well as an Emmy and a Grammy. The product that resonates most with consumers, however, is the firm’s headphones–most notably its noise-reducing cans, which use virtually military-grade technology, and are a panacea for frequent fliers the world over.

If he’d had his wish, Sennheiser would have gone into landscape gardening, as plants and trees were his first love. Weimar Republic-era Germany, however, was not in possession of the strongest of economies, and so he chose to study electrical engineering–at 12, he had built his own radio receiver–at the Technical University in Berlin. One of his first projects was a reverb unit used at the opening of the Berlin Olympic Games, in 1936.

When the Second World War broke out, Sennheiser, who had helped one of his tutors found the Institute for Radio Frequency Technology and Electroacoustics in Hannover, worked as a cryptographer, founding the company that would (eventually) bear his name a couple of weeks after the conflict ended. Named Labor W, after the lab he worked in in Hannover, Laboratorium Wennebostel, it started off making voltmeters for Siemens. The switch into audio followed a year later, which is what made the company its fortune and reputation. Sixty-five years after its inception, Sennheiser products include I.T. and conferencing equipment, audio products for assistive listening, aviation headsets, and monitoring systems.

Among Sennheiser’s milestones are the world’s first open headphones, the HD 414. The MKH 816 shotgun microphone won him the Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy, and much of the wireless technology the entertainment industry relies on, including the company’s first ever wireless microphone system back in 1957, is the product of Sennheiser’s creativity and innovation. This wireless and infra-red technology led to the noise-reducing headphones that you now see everywhere–just one of the reasons why the firm’s turnover stands at $476 million.

For Dr. Sennheiser, however, his business was never about the former. “For me, money was always just figures to calculate with,” he said. Sennheiser is still a family firm, with the founder’s son Jorg now in control. He retired in 1982, at the age of 70, and not without regret. “I had prepared myself for retirement–although I must admit that I would have been happy to have carried on even longer, simply because I enjoyed it, and of course because we had always been successful. After all, it took me two and a half years to get used to not being able to make the decisions any longer.”

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.