TU spin-offs: What happened to ...

... Brandenburg Labs. From Ilmenau to a global brand with a wow effect

With his start-up "Brandenburg Labs," Prof. Karlheinz Brandenburg, known worldwide as the co-inventor of the MP3 format, wants to revolutionize the way we listen. At the Technology and Start-up Center Ilmenau, he is developing intelligent headphones that promise lifelike spatial hearing.

TU Ilmenau TU Ilmenau/Eleonora Hamburg
Prof. Karlheinz Brandenburg founded his start-up Brandenburg Labs in 2019.

"Our technology is years ahead of others," knows Prof. Karlheinz Brandenburg, senior professor at TU Ilmenau and entrepreneur. His startup, Brandenburg Labs, has been working since its founding in 2019 to develop smart headphones that produce sound that matches the real world, according to the professor's goal.

Prof. Brandenburg, known worldwide as the co-inventor of the MP3 format, founded Brandenburg Labs shortly before leaving his position as head of the Electronic Media Technology Group at TU Ilmenau. At the Technology and Start-Up Center Ilmenau (TGZI) on the university campus, he and a young international team are developing the technologies we will use to listen in the future. In doing so, he uses the findings from the basic research of his many years as a professor and director and founding father of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT), develops them further and transfers them to application. From its Ilmenau campus, the start-up aims to grow into a globally established brand for audio technology "designed by Brandenburg Labs".

Realistic surround sound via headphones

Karlheinz Brandenburg has had the basic idea of using headphones to generate realistic spatial sound since the early 2000s. In January 2000, the scientist came to Ilmenau from Erlangen to set up the Fraunhofer IDMT and his department at TU Ilmenau.

At that time, I made a conscious decision in favor of Ilmenau and against having my own start-up in the USA. The overall package of the media technology major and the application-oriented research at the TU Ilmenau and Fraunhofer IDMT convinced me. When I arrived at the TU Ilmenau, there was a real sense of optimism. I noticed that there were people here who, like me, wanted to take their future into their own hands and build something.

Even today, more than 20 years after his start at the TU Ilmenau, there is a spirit of optimism in the offices of Brandenburg Labs. Prof. Brandenburg and his team, including bright minds from Spain, Brazil or India, are designing headphones that promise an unprecedented sound experience. Whether during virtual video conferences, watching concerts in front of the TV or jogging - the headphones are supposed to make every audio reproduction feel lifelike.

Demo-System als Proof of Concept

Prof. Brandenburg demonstrates with a demo system that this is not just a dream for the future, but is already technically possible. In a specially designed room at the TGZI, a song is first played through loudspeakers. Then the song is played back through headphones, which make it sound exactly as before, without headphones - something Karlheinz Brandenburg and his team are proud of. They have just returned from a trip lasting several weeks on the west coast of the USA. In Silicon Valley, among other places, they presented their system to some of the leading technology companies. They also took part in a number of conferences - with very positive feedback from the experts, as Karlheinz Brandenburg describes:

Although other companies offer similar products on the market, they are based on simplified systems. We measure the room acoustically with a microphone and record the position of the headphones in the room; in this way, we can adjust the sound transmission so that sound over headphones feels lifelike. Only we have this wow effect, which puts us years ahead of others.

The demo system is considered a "proof of concept" and is the basis for the first product that Brandenburg Labs will market. Initially, the start-up company will focus on the B2B sector. Music producers and manufacturers of headphones will be among Brandenburg Labs' first customers. Later, private customers are to follow. At present, the development team is focusing primarily on generating authentic sound via headphones; in parallel, they are supplementing these with an intelligent component. For example, if the person wearing the headphones is jogging while listening to music, environmental noise is not completely blocked out. Autonomously and without the listener's intervention, the music can even be turned down if a loud noise such as a bicycle bell requires the wearer's attention. However, it will take many years before such a scenario becomes reality, says the 68-year-old.

Young talent in demand

In the coming years, the start-up wants to grow strongly. Starting with three employees in the company's founding year, Brandenburg Labs currently has 18 employees. However, to grow into a globally known brand, the company needs about 250 employees - this is the number Karlheinz Brandenburg is aiming for in the future. More and more graduates, including a large number from Ilmenau Technical University, are finding their way to Brandenburg Labs - many with international backgrounds, as the senior professor explains:

Half of my employees come from abroad, and women also make up 50 percent of my staff. That's important to me. We need these talented people to build something great together.


Franciska Wollwert

Chief Communication Officer Brandenburg Labs