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McClatchy-Tribune  04/26/2014 11:13 PM ET
Sol Republic seeks share of crowded audio market by blending fashion, technology [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. :: ]

April 26--Fashion and technology are converging. In Wilsonville, of all places.

A charmless industrial park, just east of Interstate 5, is home to one of the hottest new names in consumer technology. Sol Republic makes a trendy brand of headphones and other audio gear, splashed with vivid colors and university logos.

The three-year-old company, which splits its headquarters between Wilsonville and San Francisco, made waves by showing up on heads from the cult DJ Steve Aoki to Olympian Michael Phelps.

Sol Republic (Sol = "Soundtrack of Life") has attracted nearly $55 million in backing from investors betting that it's more than a fad and that it has the potential to be a durable brand in a competitive field, filling a niche between disposable headphones and top-end gear.

The company aspires to be a brand that connects with image-conscious "echo boomers," a generation groomed on social media who sport smartphones and dangle headphones around their neck as a fashion statement.

"Headphones used to be something an audiophile bought to listen in your bedroom, your living room," said Scott Hix, Sol Republic's president and chief operating officer. "Now, music goes wherever I go."

And Sol Republic is going along with them. The privately held company doesn't disclose financial information, but does say it's shipping tens of thousands of headphones a month, which retail for $40 to $200 a pair.

So what's a hip, young brand doing in a sleepy, suburban bedroom community?

The answer dates, unexpectedly, to Oregon's depleted cluster of electronic display companies. Hix was a former executive at InFocus Corp., the onetime Wilsonville company that pioneered the digital projector industry. (Hix's uncle, Steve, founded InFocus.)

Once among Oregon's biggest tech companies, with annual revenues approaching a billion dollars, InFocus cratered as projector technology became commonplace and bigger brands, such as Sony and Epson, moved into the market. Scott Hix left for Planar Systems, another display company in Hillsboro, then back to Wilsonville to start his own consulting business in the building that now houses Sol Republic.

He kept in touch with industry contacts he made at InFocus, including Kevin Lee, whose father Noel started the Monster brand of audio and electronics gear. California-based Monster, in turn helped launch the hugely popular Beats by Dre line of high-end headphones.

When Lee and business partner Seth Combs sought to build their own brand, they enlisted Hix as a co-founder for his operational and sales background.

Unshaven, in black sweats and black North Face jacket, the 45-year-old Hix doesn't look like a maven of fashion-oriented technology. And Sol Republic's faded industrial offices in Wilsonville appear an equally unlikely launching pad for a hip consumer brand.

Sol Republic's design and social marketing efforts are in San Francisco, where Lee and Combs work, but the company put its administrative office in Wilsonville, where Hix mines Nike and Adidas alumni for their expertise in building brand appeal.

Sol Republic set about remaking the building, which used to house a T-shirt screener and a carpet and tile business The company commissioned graffiti artists from Portland to spray paint logos and murals around the building, and literally punched a hole in a wall to create a pathway into an adjoining building to accommodate the company's growth.

And Hix, with four children under age 14, set his mind to figuring out a younger generation, working with Sol Republic's marketers in San Francisco to use new tools to reach those consumers.

"That was a demographic that didn't respond to mass marketing," he said. "They didn't care what was on a commercial because, you know what? They never saw them!"

Designed with a rugged plastic headband, Sol Republic made its headphones to be worn every day -- and simple to accessorize. The ear pieces can be easily removed to encourage buyers to buy multiple bands, sw

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