Interview: David Solomon, Signal Path International, Makers of Era Speakers

HFR – How has the audio distribution market changed in the last 20 years?

I assume you’re asking about retail, so I’ll just address a few changes. One of the most significant changes in retail is the proliferation of more “non-specialty” outlets, while upscale audio specialty retail shops are on the decline. Audio is a sideline to most national chains, so expert advice is a lost art with most of the big box movers. As a result, many consumers are buying equipment that falls short of their needs. If there’s a lost opportunity in this business, it’s the fact that most consumers don’t realize that if they went into a specialty store, they could spend about the same money and get much better equipment.

Another change is that traditional retailers have morphed into custom, or c-tailers, selling larger full house systems. There are many who still have a good retail presence and are willing and able to help customers who care. However, the lion’s share of the business is custom.

20 years ago, if people wanted a music or video playback system, they pretty much had to go into a local specialty shop. These were the shops to go for informed opinions and to listen and watch some of the best systems available. These guys were typically practicing their avocation, which happened to be their vocation. There were typically 2-4 of these high-end shops per medium market, sometimes more. Now, you’re pressed to find more than two per market. The current alternative is to browse the Internet looking for answers on websites, chat rooms or blogs. Some are very good and others are packed with misinformation.

HFR – Many in the audio community claim that mid fi is dying out, leaving only entry level and esoteric brands on the landscape. Is this what you see?

Industry statistics show that the industry has grown in almost every way. Wal-Mart is the leading CE retailer, so yes; a lot of entry-level product is selling in high volume.

My question is what is “mid-fi” in 2006 anyway? If it includes 5 zones of distributed audio with $400 in-wall or in-ceiling speakers, then mid fi is doing awesome. If it’s a $2500 twochannel system or a $3500 5.1 system, then yes, my understanding is that business is down but on a comeback. Era is a mid-fi to “low esoteric” line. A full 5.1 system with electronics would start around $4000, affordable, but high performance.

High-end goes back to the first point. There are less high-end retailers so the manufacturers that are established do quite well and customers who will not settle for anything less than the best seek these high-end retailers out. Many other manufacturers suffer from a lack of distribution or places willing or able to sell their product. Many of these wonderful products will never be seen by most because the upscale c-tail format does not work well for them. The internet provides them with an alternative however. I will say that there are shining examples of retail/c-tailers who refuse to give up the business they built in there territory and are still doing very well with high-end two channel while they added to the business w/ custom.

HFR – What can the mom and pop shops do in your opinion to survive and grow, outside of home theater?

There are lots of ways, but one that’s been very successful lately has been Digital recording seminars! Specialty retailers have a huge potential market with 100,000,000 consumers walking around w/ two channels of music playing in their ear. People are listening to more music than ever before because of the ease and accessibility. Mp3 players and storage space are getting cheaper by the day. Most of the music they store sounds horrible because almost everyone is recording in mp3. Consumers aren’t aware that you can record in a WAV or loss-less format. After all, they’re not called wav or lossless players, they’re called mp3 players. So if specialty retailers provided seminars and demos in a controlled manner, they would find a new breed of customer to add to the existing ones. The really good shops are doing this now and preaching quality over quantity. Actually, our VP of operations listens to a system using uncompressed music from his laptop, the Apple Airport, and a Musical Fidelity DAC. And…. it sounds pretty darn good because he rips in lossless format.

I have seen first hand iPod demos that drop customers’ jaws and iPod demos that are so bad, they make you want to run out of the room. I’ve also heard the most jaded audiophile salesperson tell every customer they can get to listen just how terrible the technology is and how it will wreck America if allowed to continue.

I would love to see specialty CE dealers become digital recording leaders in their markets. There is absolutely a percentage (and it doesn’t have to be a big percentage) of people that would love to know this information if it were readily available and demonstrate able at their local dealer. If consumers knew that this concept could be transferred to the home, you’d have people buying more and listening to music every waking hour. This is where the docking station comes in, but your iPod as your only source will get old and I’d bet they will eventually change in form. Terabyte hard drives are now selling for under $600. The amount of uncompressed music you can store is immense. You can now stream music any where in your house, run the signal through a good tube D/A converter w/ amp an speakers and you have a true high-end system anywhere w/ almost unlimited music… This is a much better, and a more specialized way to distribute music.

If you remember, we lost the last generation to video games and I’m convinced that if done right, we will have their interest again through a technology they already own and love.

HFR – When I was in college in the early 1980’s just about every guy had a stereo with many afternoons spent fighting “stereo wars” in the dorms. Now, only a few students have such equipment. What can be done to bring in this new generation into the 2 channel audio world?

Exposure and cheaper hard drives…

HFR – Would the idea of two channel AudioFests on campuses work, in your opinion?

Sounds like a great idea if you could find the space on campus that would work for multiple manufacturers and dealer supported rooms. If you can…sign me up.

The medium age of audio fans is getting older which is a problem. Since high school and college students have no problem spending rather large sums on car stereos, can’t the audio industry gravitate them into home systems?

The Signal Path partners think that products like Sonos, Apple Airport, Slim Devices Squezzebox and a really cool unit from Escient that docks an iPod will capture the imagination of a younger customer who enjoys listening to music. You have to provide downloading systems to a “download generation”.

HFR – Switching gears, where and when did the idea of the Era Speakers come about?

We knew as long time audiophiles, there must be a market for those who like and appreciated music and quality, but have to do it small. Personally, I had “Audio Pre-nups” signed before getting married. After 15 years of marriage and two kids, I was informed that the statute of limitations was up on our contract. I was truly stunned and lost that battle. Eventually, I had to move my large speakers and amps to my office. If this happened to me, a guy in the business who had the foresight to get pre nups signed, it’s gotta be happening everywhere in wholesale fashion.

So how do you address the couple where the guy wants a pair of B&W 802D’s and his wife wants the little Bose cubes? Era’s a perfect product for them. Small, elegant, high performance. This is the reason we can exist.

HFR – Previously, you had mentioned that Jim Spainhour and yourself came up with the cabinet design. Were you both amateur speaker builders at one time, or just weekend woodworkers?

Jim and I have been audio hobbyists since the 70’s. Back then, we knew just enough about speaker design to get ourselves in trouble. By the early 80’s we had both built transmission line cabinets and several speaker designs. Jim worked at ADS w/ Michael Kelly and gained much experience there. But if you’re asking if we were smart or lucky, well lets just say we had a good combination working in our favor. We both had garage designs that were probably average at best…

Where we excel today is in knowing exactly what we want price-wise, performance-wise, and design-wise and how to make them all come together. It also helps that we have a good relationship and communicate very well and very often with our suppliers.

HFR – Did you have any brands in mind as “sound” you wish to target?

Not really, we started from scratch on the crossover and stopped when we really liked what we heard. The drivers were so good and had so much headroom that they were easy to work with. When we found the speakers also measured well, we were excited to have a good idea that our 5-year plan was achievable.

HFR – The Design 4’s and 5’s are priced in a very crowded market, the mini-monitor group (under $1000). What made you want to take on such a competitive category?

We asked ourselves what we would want in a mini-monitor. Curved side panels, internal bracing, real exotic veneers, custom designed drivers, high quality crossover voiced for accuracy, substantial terminals. Who else is doing that under $1000? Who’s doing a tiny 4” 2-way with all that at $600/pr? We knew, based on what was on the market at the time, that we could do better. 5-6 years ago, Jim and I started noticing a changing market…it was no secret that small systems were selling by the truckload. It was even more obvious that most lifestyle speaker manufacturers were concentrating mostly on low price points. We couldn’t find one mini speaker where quality was the number one priority. It seemed they all were convinced that small, cheap plastic boxes would sell well. Well, “they” were right. Most manufacturers sell more of these mini systems than anything else they produce to customers who don’t care, as long as it looks okay. Or to customers who don’t know that there may be something better on the market for a little more. We were convinced that there was a segment of customers needing to down size who would buy something better if presented…So Era was born and we were right as well. So as you can see, we took the opposite approach. Even if someone says, “I don’t like the way they sound”, they can never say that we that met our specs. Nothing had the right combination of power handling, excursion, and accuracy. The closest thing was a very expensive Scanspeak that didn’t even have the bandwidth that our driver has currently. So Michael went about designing from scratch and eventually did all our drivers. Needless to say, we were ecstatic that Michael would do this for us, and we ended up with woofers that are even better than we dreamed.

HFR – Can you describe a few surprises that happened during the process of launching the Era’s?

The biggest is that we accounted for 5% defective rate and as of today, we’ve had something like 3 speakers and 9 subwoofers fail. I think that’s .0000000000025%, but I’ll have to check w/ our accountant to be sure. Another was the fact that we were given options at every turn to buy cheaper parts or cut corners. Each time, our comment was, “No, just use the best and we’ll deal w/ the price later.” We still ended up w/ speakers that belie their price using parts and cabinets you’re not likely to see in other speakers at our price points.

HFR – Will the Era line expand in the near future?

Absolutely. We just released our onwall plasma speakers w/ 6 way adjustable brackets, a first in the industry that allows the speakers to meet the front of the panel instead of being behind the frame. They can also be angled top, bottom and sides. They have the same sonic signature as the highly reviewed D4, only more efficient and they make even more bass. At CES, we’ll (hopefully) show a prototype of our new tower speaker.

We also have a few tricks up our sleeves but it’s a little early to talk about it.

HFR – You seem to be big on the music server concept, are you surprised it hasn’t hit critical mass yet, especially with all the iPod’s, etc. out there?

Not really. The whole thing is still in its infancy… Most of the best c-tailers sell a lot of servers, but that’s not the Best Buy customer, yet…When the general public sees how easy is to get music from their computer to any room in the house wirelessly, it will happen more and more. We see what’s happened to the Apple download generation. They listen to more music that any other generation in the past. When we readily have this technology in the house, with easy access to a music library in all rooms, every thing will change and many people will listen to music every waking hour. The big hold up has been a good interface and there are only a few good products that do this now. You can bet there will be more down the road.

HFR – With the tens of millions of iPod’s, etc., does it surprise you that so few manufacturers of integrated amps and receivers offer a USB port as a bridge to this new generation of potential customers?

Yes I do, but for all I know, the entire 2007 receiver line from Sony or Yamaha will offer D/A conversion w/ USB, sp-diff and toslink inputs… Our company, Signal Path, is currently designing three products to address this business. We’re building a 60wpc and 150 wpc tube-hybrid integrated amps w/USB D/A converters built-in. They’ll be great for local desk-top amplification as well as the main D/A conversion and output for a music server or hard-drive. Then we’ll also have a high-end USB DAC with balanced ins and outs for the audiophile. Coaxial digital and Toslink inputs are being addressed and all three units should be very competitively priced.We see this as another way Signal Path can elbow its way into another niche’ ignored by the big boys. It’s already caught on in the audio underground and is certain to hit the mainstream soon. The next trick is to get civilians to burn in wav or a good loss-less format and to hear that MP3 is evil. The 30/60/ 80G iPod can all hold hundreds of uncompressed songs and sound much better doing it.

HFR – Tell us about your first stereo system?

I had a Magnavox console that played music to its best ability…. It was sad because cymbals or real bass didn’t exist. I wore many albums out w/ nickels and quarters on the piece of metal they called a tone arm. It housed a diamond stereophonic needle of the finest quality.

When I started meeting some of the guys that came back from service overseas, they were bringing back Pioneer, Sansui, Teac back in the days when all of the aforementioned was still about as good as it got… I caught the fever and bought a McIntosh 2100 w/ Technics Flat group series pre/and parametric eq, Teac 3340 reel and Technics SL-D3 table w/ ESS speakers…It was all I could afford but sounded great to me. This system morphed many times over the next 27 years as do most who catch the fever of hi-fi. My next move is to stream 16/44 w/an interface like the Sonus to several rooms in the house. Instead of in-ceiling speakers driven by a 12 watt distribution amp, I’ll have audio all over the house using “real systems” in each room.

HFR – You’ve been in audio long enough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to tweaking a system. Can you give us your favorite inexpensive tweak or two?

Don’t record in MP3.. moving on…

Good speaker placement is the most important tweak… Placing speakers so they have a good balance between pressurizing a room, not being boomy and as much depth perception as placement will allow. If you can’t get this right with above average gear, almost nothing else you do will ever satisfy you. I like tweaks that make an immediate and noticeable difference like solidifying stands so they’re rigid and allow the speaker to deliver all of the impact it has to offer. Step up power cables and resonance minimizing platforms for CD players and anything that sports tubes… Cleaning connectors and tube sockets from time to time, nothing really out of the ordinary. Tube buffers in some systems make a tremendous difference and or improvement. I’m not a big believer in the extremes, like cable lifters or bricks that suck evil spirits from amplifiers, or anything else that requires Kool-Aid…

Although, having said that, I have experienced a few tweaks throughout my career/hobby that have truly baffled me like the CD clarifier. How does spinning a non-magnetic disc over a magnet make my CD’s sound better??? The final favorite tweak is advice to your ears. Let them hear real music from real instruments. Let them experience live performances so you have a good reference point.

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