Tucked away from Seoulʼs flashy fashion and meet-market districts is a unique and foreign world. Geeky and lively, Yongsan is home to major electronics companies, importing thoroughfares, haggling hawkers, and most importantly, a thriving distribution/ manufacturing community. This teem of life and business spans the gamut from massive corporations to one-person electronic chop-shops: an organic melange of commerce and concoction. It is also home to SoundCAT, sponsor of Head-fi, and one of the audio communityʼs most diverse and fastidious distributors.
As you know, TouchMyApps reviews headphones and other audio equipment: the simple prerogative set by an audio-obsessed editor whose handheld platform of choice just so happens to be the iPod. Before coming to Korea, I started reviewing custom earphones with Sleek Audioʼs excellent CT6, and after arriving in Seoul, I directed my searches firstly for a good audiologist. But here, they arenʼt easy to find — especially if your Korean is about as good as your gaming skills. Fortunately, SoundCAT just so happened to come up under the Google search for: ʻcustom earphones Seoulʼ. Under one roof, they supply high end professional audio interfaces, cables, headphones, amplifiers, a host of musical adapters, and a growing list of well-respected suppliers and customers. Among those who pay their bills are: Westone, Jerry Harvey, Ultimate Ears, Jays, Sensaphonics, CrossRoads, Sleek Audio; the list goes on, but suffice it to say that SoundCAT are deeply entrenched in both hobby and professional markets.
In South Korea, SoundCAT is also one of the only companies to cater to professionals with custom earphones; they fit enthusiastic musicians and audiophiles alike with many of the worldʼs finest (and most personal) earphones. This “cutting edge” — precisely where president Woni Chang wants to keep the company — business brought SoundCAT into the high-end earphone business which began with the importing of Westone’s expensive dual-driver UM2. This decision opened the door for SoundCAT to import many other fine pieces of audio equipment. And, years later, the UM2 remains a great seller.
In Korea, the iPod has been beset by many obstacles such as high pricing and an almost invisible Apple Store presence. And the audiophile community? They have been an outcast lot in the flashy Seoul population. In fact, according to Mr. Chang, high-end audio is “usually perceived as an old-man’s business” where stodgy fogies eek out a living in the relegated hermitage of high-powered magnets and expensive cables. Fortunately, headphones are coming into vogue as more and more young people plug themselves into the innards of buses and trains to get to work; the resultant combination is a hitherto absent fashion-conscious crowd of hipster portable audiophiles who would as soon leave home forgetting their mobile phones as their high-end earphones.
After the successful Google search, I made a couple of telephone calls, and a few hot summer days later, I suffered the strange pleasure of sucking a syringe and gooey gel into my ear canals for custom earphone fitting. That was the easy part. Finding SoundCAT, however, was no small task. The surrounding area is crammed to the brim with small audio vendors, computer parts shops, SRO cable companies: a cacophony which seeps through SoundCATSʼ four walls. Currently, SoundCAT employ 8 people whose fastidious schedules keep them hopping from sales to after service. They also sponsor cdpkorea, one of the countryʼs largest audio-websites. As you can imagine, things are hectic. But inside, you can count on a few constants: SoundCAT employees will have at least one ear plugged by something sweet (think q-Jays) and the other cupped by a telephone; at their finger tips: headphone amps and fingers which dance to the tune of customer response emails, manufacturer’s orders, and the audio world’s most influential medium: the internet.
Mr. Chang and I cross paths at various points. He listens to a lot of Hip Hop and thus, loves the bottom- heavy s-Jays. And for trance, he loves the prodigiously deep Ultimate Ears UE11 Pro, the custom earphone which he reckons is ʻitʼ. On an uppity note, he loves pop and the warm, but accurate sound of the Sensaphonics 2X-s, a custom which I also own and love. And thanks to SoundCAT, I have been fitted for what arguably is the best production-level custom earphone on the planet, the Jerry Harvey Audio JH13Pro. Of course, Mr. Chang is eagerly awaiting his own in which case, I think we will have even more to talk about soon.
SoundCATʼs early days were invested into the professional market, a category which they have not forgotten. So, while Ultimate Ears and Jays earphones sell well in the audiophile arena, Sensaphonicsʼ soft silicon customs are the bread and butter for musician customers. Currently, SoundCAT make ear impressions for about 10 customers per week.
But, how has this relatively small Seoul-based company broken free from the shackles of an ʻold manʼs businessʼ stigma? The answer is simple: internet. Their customer base is composed of young enthusiasts who eagerly purchase new and exciting products, and on the trusting recommendations of their peers, make big decisions. TouchMyApps is honoured to be read by many of these up-and-coming audiophiles who are customers and regular traffickers at SoundCATʼs beautiful website which is new and fresh every day.
Especially on the web, their efforts are revolutionising the home market. Currently, 90% of business is concentrated in Korea, but SoundCAT also have a USA office and are linked with Uncle Wilson’s in Singapore. And under the bonnet, there is a lot going on. Mr. Changʼs staff do loads of travelling — think of it as sending diplomats to spy out foreign lands — where they meet manufacturers, attend conferences, and firm up their growing place in a market which they lead. But, one could argue that SoundCATʼs claws scratch at too many posts. Interfaces, cables, amps, customs, fitting – the list marches on and on, but no matter how much they expand, SoundCAT remain focused and well-connected. They also stay clear of a problem which has been infecting audio circles lately: commercial shilling. The products they sell come from abroad, and so too do the reviews; their review resources come from outside and keep customer’s interests in mind.
I expect to see Mr. Changʼs dream of expansion into the USA fulfilled in the next few years – SoundCAT possess the drive, knowledge, and business sense to thrive even in that competitive market. This Canadian will remain hopeful that the woeful industry north of those borders too, will open to true geek pioneers.
SoundCAT – SoundCAT’s main webpage
Mold Sarang – SoundCAT custom fitting services
Uncle Wilsons – Uncle Wilson’s audio