October 1, 2009
More Thoughts on The Great North American
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 Im 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 youre interested
in audio as an industry, thats fascinating subject matter indeed. Here are a few
random observations -- about the nutsnbolts 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: Whats 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 Wilsons 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 companys 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
worlds highest-priced audio gear. Many of the most technically sophisticated
audio products available can be had from Paradigm for what most audiophiles consider
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, Veritys 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 theyve found their direct path to that sound. Wouldnt 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. Its 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