What 50 Cent sees in headphones

December 8, 2011: 12:01 PM ET

Money -- and lots of it. The personal audio market is booming and the rap star -- who has made a killing extending his personal brand -- wants in.

By Sierra Jiminez, contributor

sync_by_50_whiteFORTUNE -- 50 Cent, née Curtis Jackson, has gotten rich and not died trying. The 36-year-old rapper founded his own label, G-Unit Records, under Interscope Records early in his career, launched a clothing line, appeared in films and video games and reportedly reaped upwards of $100 million from the sale of his Formula 50 sports drink to Coca-Cola in 2007. Now, Jackson has set his sights on another business: tony headphones.

Jackson is by no means the first rapper to break out of music and into high-end audio equipment. Dr. Dre built a big business around his Beats headphones, founded in 2008 in partnership with Monster Audio. The brand has grown through partnerships with the likes of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber and, earlier this year, mobile phone manufacturer HTC took a majority stake in the company as part of a $300 million investment. It's easy to see why Jackson wants in now. Demand is surging; sales of headphones in the U.S. were $2 billion this year, up 79% from last year, according to NPD Group.

Sync by 50 wireless headphones and Street by 50 wired headphones will hit stores around the country by mid-December. Earbuds are due out in January. But Jackson's products have been a long time in the making. G-Unit Brands Inc. first sought a licensing agreement with Sleek Audio late last year. After the agreement fell through this spring, Jackson decided he would take a more direct approach. "I thought, I have the money and this is something I'm passionate about, so I'll just start my own company," he says.

His company, SMS Audio, acquired manufacturer KonoAudio in August, and Jackson along with president Brian Nohe began working on designing headphones between that cost between $300 and $400. The company is pitching the gear as lifestyle, similar to successful products from Skullcandy and Bose. The secret sauce, the company claims, is in wireless technology that doesn't distort audio. You wouldn't get that with the Bluetooth technology found, for instance, in Beats headphones, Jackson says. "This is something I'm really passionate about, so we're using better wireless technology so the sound isn't compressed," he adds.

It's that passion mixed with Jackson's celebrity status that is likely to give the brand a shot, says Paul Swinand, a retail analyst with Morningstar. "Rappers don't want to be on a box of Cheerios, it would look kind of corny. So they want to be on something that's badass," he says.

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