How a Clemson student is helping Zipbuds prepare for the age of Bluetooth

Clemson University’s Ryan Heil is helping Zipbuds, a Charlotte, N.C.-based audio company that designs earbuds, prepare for the Bluetooth boom. Photo by Will Crooks.

Bluetooth technology is routinely touted as the future of wireless music. Wireless speakers and smart home setups are becoming more common. And the headphone jack is quickly disappearing from a number of smartphones, including Apple’s iPhone.

Clemson University’s Ryan Heil and Asher Swinney are helping Zipbuds, a Charlotte, N.C.-based audio company that designs earbuds, prepare for the Bluetooth boom.

Heil, 35, and Swinney, 21, are responsible for creating the company’s first line of wireless sport earbuds, “Zipbuds 26.”

It all started two years ago when Zipbuds CEO Robin DeFay discovered Heil’s social media and marketing research at Clemson University. Shortly after, DeFay met with Heil, a doctoral candidate studying leadership and organizational culture, to discuss the future of his company.

“Our company was going through a transition at the time,” said DeFay. “We had been designing wired earbuds since 2009, but I really wanted to go wireless. After talking with Ryan, I knew he would be able to help us map out that direction.”

DeFay later hired Heil as chief marketing officer to streamline their branding and help design and launch a wireless earbud line.

Heil, inspired by his experiences as a minor league baseball player, decided to create a product for athletes and people who live active lifestyles. “I felt like it was my chance to give back to the athletic community,” he said.

Photo provided by Zipbuds.

Over a decade ago, Heil was a closing pitcher for the Kingsport Mets, a Rookie league affiliate of the New York Mets. But he slipped in the bullpen while warming up for a game in 2005 and snapped his bottom vertebrae – an injury that ended his career.

Heil underwent four surgeries and coached several collegiate and minor league baseball teams before enrolling at Clemson University in 2010.

“I’ve spent my entire life as an athlete and coach, so I understand the importance of music to sports and fitness. Music can push athletes and non-athletes alike to meet their goals,” he added. “This became a passion project for me.”

Heil also noticed the increasing interest in wireless audio. Over the last few years, for instance, the market for wireless audio devices has exploded.

One study found Bluetooth speakers rose 68 percent year-over-year in 2015, and will continue rising at 36 percent per year for the next three. Another study found that sales of Bluetooth headphones more than doubled in 2016 from the previous year.

Companies, including Bose and Apple, have created wireless earbuds and headphones to meet the rising demand. But many products have been plagued by complaints about sound quality, comfort, and more.

Shortly after joining the Zipbuds team, Heil recruited Swinney, a rising senior marketing major at Clemson University, to help him address those complaints.

“I actually met Asher several years ago through his uncle, Dabo Swinney,” said Heil, who had become friends with Clemson’s head football coach during his time as an intern with the university’s athletic department.

“Asher and I eventually met up and talked about Zipbuds, and I could tell that he was a hustler and grinder and that he wanted to soak it all in. He went from intern to partner in just a matter of months,” he added.

Heil and Swinney spent months doing research to find out what people wanted in a pair of wireless sport earbuds. The duo recognized five areas of concern: comfort and fit, durability, sound quality, battery life, and style.

With those components in mind, they began seeking experts in each category. For fit, the duo enlisted the help of audiologists and ear anatomy experts to create an earbud housing that didn’t require uncomfortable ear hooks or bulky neckbands.

“We even recruited fashion bloggers out of Boston to help us pick the best styles,” said Heil. “Now we’ve got a product that is tough enough for a gym but classy enough to wear around town with your suit.”

Last summer, the duo launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $272,575 to cover manufacturing costs. In May, Zipbuds launched the duo’s product line on their website and Amazon.

The newly released earbuds cost $150 and come in two color schemes: black and space gray, and white and rose gold. According to Heil, “Zipbuds 26” feature a hybrid driver system that isolates the audio’s high and mid-range frequencies and a built-in subwoofer to balance out bass.

Among other things, “Zipbuds 26” are sweat-proof and waterproof and give wearers 15 hours of run time per charge. They also feature a magnetic clip-on battery for additional power. Photo provided by Zipbuds.

The earbuds also feature two assorted styles of in-ear stabilizers that work in combination with silicone and memory foam ear tips to maximize noise isolation and conform to the natural curve of the ear.

Zipbuds has already sold roughly 5,000 pairs of the wireless earbuds, said DeFay. At least half those sales are attributed to customers who backed the company’s Kickstarter campaign earlier this year.

“Many of our other products were in the $20 range, so we weren’t sure how our customers would react. But the ‘26’ really outshines the big name-brand products that are out there right now,” said DeFay.

Zipbuds plans to build out the “26” product line in the coming years, according to DeFay. “We’re already planning a new and improved model of the ‘26’ that will include some really cool technology, including better wireless charging options.”

As for Heil and Asher, the duo recently quit their positions at Zipbuds to focus on school but plan to consult with the company in the coming years.

“Our time at Zipbuds has been really fulfilling,” said Heil. “I honestly believe that Rob and the rest of the team can build their brand around our earbuds going forward, and I can’t wait to see their direction.”

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