October 1, 2009

More Thoughts on The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour

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Jeff Fritz is happy to tour Verity Audio, one of six companies visited on his 12-day trip.

The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour took me on 12 flights that spanned almost 8000 miles in a mere 12 days. I visited six companies: Wilson Audio Specialties, YG Acoustics, Verity Audio, Paradigm, Rockport Technologies, and EgglestonWorks. The trip was great fun, as I’m sure you can imagine -- what card-carrying audiophile could resist? I ate some great food (the tiramisu in Quebec City must have been the highlight) and got to see numerous beautiful sights (the lake in Maine was so nice, but so were the Rocky Mountains outside Denver). To experience some of the most ambitious stereo systems in existence, one after another, was an honor.

There were also some really good -- and enlightening -- conversations. The company principals, marketing directors, engineers, and distributors I spoke with all have different takes on and approaches to what is a fairly niche industry. Each has a specific plan about how to grow his company, and all have specific ideas about what the industry could do better to help educate the consumer. If you’re interested in audio as an industry, that’s fascinating subject matter indeed. Here are a few random observations -- about the nuts’n’bolts of loudspeakers, manufacturing, high-end audio, and business in general -- that I picked up on the Tour.

Visiting manufacturers at their facilities was enlightening not only because I got to audition their products under hopefully ideal circumstances, but I could also get a flavor of the various corporate cultures. Each company I visited has a unique vision not only of what its principals want their products to represent, but also of the sort of environment they want to provide for the people who make their speakers, and of the processes that will ensure that their creative visions are manifested in the actual products shipped. Simply put: What’s important to the head guy(s) is translated almost directly into the final products. Value, precision, passion, music appreciation, scientific excellence, tradition -- all of these and more shape what you finally experience in your living room.

Wilson Audio Specialties, for instance, places a high value on its 45 employees’ benefits, working conditions, and overall job satisfaction. David and Sheryl Wilson’s stance is that if their employees take pride in their workplace and are content with their jobs, they will produce better products. Touring their factory, it was easy to see this attitude exhibited everywhere I looked. Clean, efficient, well managed -- it was all there in plain sight.

Smart companies know full well which sorts of products they can design and produce in a competitive fashion, and which are best avoided. Although certain product genres or price points would seem to be natural avenues of expansion for many of these firms, the real key to their success is sticking to a core set of values based on established corporate or individual ideals. Andy Payor of Rockport Technologies personally tests each loudspeaker that bears his company’s name to ensure that it meets his admittedly lofty technical, physical, and sonic standards. He also has a hand in building each one. Such personal attention virtually precludes the idea of mass-market products, and Payor is cool with that.

Some companies have vastly more resources than others, and Paradigm is an interesting example. It was clear from my tour of the plant with marketing director Mark Aling that, under the Paradigm and Anthem brands, Paradigm builds some of the highest-value audio products in the world. Yet their manufacturing capability, engineering talent, and testing facilities must be the envy of those firms that make the world’s highest-priced audio gear. Many of the most technically sophisticated audio products available can be had from Paradigm for what most audiophiles consider entry-level prices.

The collision of art and science was nowhere more evident than at Verity Audio, where I found the technical discussions fascinating. From a design standpoint, Verity’s products fly in the face of conventional loudspeaker wisdom. Unlike companies that make products without taking this wisdom into consideration, Verity founders Julien Pelchat and Bruno Bouchard know full well what their choices mean in the technical sense -- but they have a vision for the sound they want to achieve in each speaker design, and they’ve found their direct path to that sound. Wouldn’t most companies disguise what might be controversial positions in marketingspeak? Not Verity, and it was refreshing to witness it.

The technical side of manufacturing loudspeakers can be quite complex, and I was impressed at the design sophistication achievable by a relatively small company that has made the right investments in equipment and manpower. YG Acoustics is able to fully machine and produce their aluminum loudspeaker cabinets in-house with efficient use of space and minimal investment in labor. Their use of high-tech CNC machines and a design that requires no gluing or clamping makes the assembly process sophisticated yet compact. Yoav Geva, the Y and G of YGA, has a modern way of thinking about his company that takes full advantage of such efficiencies.

Last, the physical location of a company can have a great impact on the culture it adopts, and nowhere is this more true than at EgglestonWorks. Located in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, the company has seen fit to reinvest in the local economy in what are trying fiscal times. Company principals Jim Thompson and John Callery seem to understand the local community, and strive to work within rather than circumvent it. It’s a position worth admiring, and one that we can only hope will take off in other parts of the country.

Ultimately, The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour was more about the people behind the products than about the actual boxes, crossovers, and drivers. Learning about and getting to know the folks who guide these companies was fascinating, and something not possible in a conventional product review. All in all, it was worth flying all over tarnation for.

. . . Jeff Fritz


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