When Beats by Dre headphones debuted in 2008, the size of the $100-plus headphone market was a faint $92 million. Four years later, the good doctor's b-emblazoned earpieces have achieved near ubiquity, and the $100-plus segment has been cranked up to $512 million. That's some no-joke volume—and 50 Cent is angling to get in on it with his new SMS Audio brand of headphones. Here's how he and SMS president Brian Nohe are trying to avoid being just another headphone company owned by a hip-hop artist.
50 CENT: "Beats made headphones fashionable. Look at consumer electronics. Other than TVs, everything is getting smaller. Headphones used to be the same way. Then Beats came out. Now headphones are getting larger, more visible."
BRIAN NOHE: "That made us realize we not only need to think about high quality of sound but also about the headset as a fashion accessory. People want to dress them up, so we have to give them color options."
NOHE: "Beats blazed a path in the high-end market. I liken it to what happened with sneakers. Not long ago, we were paying $25 for shoes. Then people saw they could get higher-end, more stylish, celebrity-endorsed products, and the cost jumped to $200. Same with headphones. Our Sync by 50 line is priced at $399.95, which is comparable to Beats' top model. We wanted it to be premium. If you believe in your product and don't discount it, consumers believe it's worth what they pay."
50 CENT: "Obviously I'd like to have partnerships with companies, like Beats has with Chrysler. When a company has been around as long as Chrysler, you know there's quality to it. That reflects back on you. I want SMS to be associated with a brand that's perceived the same way. I've done it before, in a different category. I worked with Right Guard to create RGX Pure 50 body spray. People knew the Right Guard name and quality and then saw something new and wanted to try it."
NOHE: "We didn't go with an active noise-canceling feature because that degrades the sound. Our wireless technology is called Kleer—it's a lossless, CD-quality signal. To add something that affects the clarity wasn't reasonable."
50 CENT: "Even if other headphones out there have wireless, they use Bluetooth. That's not the same. We want you to be able to hear the highest-quality music. That's why I called the company SMS—Studio Mastering Sound."
50 CENT: "If you say Sony, I think of a roomful of Asian men. You say Bose, I don't know what I think of. It's just a corporation. You say Beats by Dre, I think of a person who means something to the culture. The more the public respects someone's art, the more it drives a sense of cool with his or her products. I'm going to release my fifth album this summer, and obviously we'll tie SMS in with that. The recording is done. Now it just needs a few songs to be mastered. Coincidentally, by Dre."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.