Green HiFi Returns

It’s been a long hiatus, I know. Part of it was writer’s block, but I must confess that I was genuinely discouraged too. After my report on Kharma, I received a lot of blowback about why I would review a company and its products when they are so expensive. True, there are better things one can spend money on and many of those are greener.

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Visiting Kharma International, maker of some of the world’s most desired speakers, Pt.1

Kharma: stately, world-class, ...and substantial!

Kharma: stately, world-class, ...and substantial!

Who is Kharma? How does a company making the Exquisite Grands, one of the most expensive speakers in the world relate to being green? What makes such a speaker world class? …and, does being a Dutch company change the company’s outlook?

Truth-be-told, Kharma International was a bit of a mystery to me at THE Show 2013 in Newport Beach. I knew a little, but that was limited to their speakers and amps being extremely rare, sought-after, and exotic, and I had read that they had designed one of the most expensive speaker systems in the world for some lucky person in Belgium (No.2 most expensive, according to this list). Beyond that, Kharma was a bit too far outside of my green radar. As I would come to find out, we actually had a few surprising things in common. For one, manufacturers such as Kharma share a concern in that they too work very hard to convince people that providing value typically requires a higher price point. Likewise, being green is not typically inexpensive. I’ve written about this in previous posts, but this reality isn’t always self-evident to many people. There is still a stygma that links green products to being less expensive than mass-produced products. The fact is that mass-produced products cut corners, sometimes in dangerous ways and I started this blog to point this out. Being green as well as being exclusive both require a different thinking about value.

The stunningly unique and beautiful P1000 preamplifier

The stunningly unique and beautiful P1000 preamplifier

As I was going to be in the Netherlands this Summer, I asked Kharma’s US Marketing manager that I met at THE Show, Vivienne van Oosterum, if I could possibly visit the Kharma factory while I was local. She was gracious enough to invite me. Graciousness, by the way, is often rare in HiFi, and Vivienne as well as Gerard van Ooijen, the Production Manager, and also the rest of the Kharma team I met at the factory were gracious, down-to-earth, and quite open about the company, the products, the marketing, and pretty much anything I asked about. Now I’ve had very good discussions with manufacturers over the years (my experiences with Ayre, Vandersteen, and Zu immediately come to mind) but with a product that sells to princes, one would expect quite a bit more deference. So it was very refreshing to speak to folks who seemed to understand that even audiophiles can be ordinary people too.

Kharma on the web and online

As I was doing some preliminary research for this article, I ran into more trepidation. The Kharma website, the online reviews, and the blog comments vary considerably. The fact is that Kharma’s primary focus is still to bring people to the pinnacle of audio nirvana – their company slogan is “beyond imagination,” and this is definitely a company that strives to bring you there. Their all-flash website, the intro video, and the media library show images of raw gold ore, beautiful women, expensive sports cars, and exotic animals surrounded by a mysterious exclusivity that permeates the site.

Beautiful flash-based website

Beautiful flash-based website

Likewise, online reviews gush over the immaculate construction and appearance, the exquisite sound, and the exotic materials of the review samples, while carefully suggesting that finding dealers, demos, and meeting the high prices are still significant barriers to owning their products. Blog posts are a mixed bag, some acknowledge the beauty and excellence, but most bemoan the unobtainability. Of course, this is primarily regarding the Exquisite line, and perhaps with good reason: if everyone had Kharma speakers, then it wouldn’t be very Exquisite anymore. 

We’ve all heard this said elsewhere before, but Kharma in their own way also seeks to ask what would be possible from an engineering and design perspective if there were no barriers at all. The answer? The Kharma Exquisite Extreme Grand Limited, a speaker so exclusive that only 25 pairs will ever be made, with the customer’s choice of colors, rare wood finishes, gold inlays, bejeweled surrounds, and the very best technology available at any price. A gift for kings not unlike Borzois, Cartier watches, and Spyker sports cars, the latter of which Kharma actually produces speakers for. This is not unlike the Bang & Olufsen partnership with Aston-Martin or the Burmester system available with the Porsche Panamera. It is only natural that Kharma would partner with Spyker, they even have a similar stylistic feel.

Karma & Spyker, a match of style and design

Karma & Spyker, a match of style and design

Obviously, back here at GreenHiFi this is definitely reaching outside my comfort zone. I’ll recognize that there must be a market for such a product, but beyond that I’m more interested in the technology inside. To that end, I still wanted to hear what a speaker at that level would actually sound like, without the encrusted diamonds and rare woods, which I worried weren’t from the most green sources (although at these price points, even that can be arranged, I’m sure). Fortunately for me, they actually had a listening room with a pair of Exquisite Midi Grands, which are just a couple of levels below the top speaker but likely retain most of the technology I was interested in hearing. It was connected to a full complement of Kharma Exquisite amps, cables and preamps, and some equally exotic third-party digital sources even I was not familiar with. That this would sound good, was not going to be a surprise, but a unique opportunity nonetheless.

The Exquisite Midi Grand

The only Kharma speaker I had heard before my visit was the Elegance DB9 at THE Show in Newport. If my memory served me right, it shared the same sound signature with these Exquisite Midi Grands I was hearing at Kharma. This beautiful speaker is not only larger and shaped differently than the DB9, but has considerably better technology, yet it sounds remarkably similar. While I’ve only heard these two speakers, I’m going to guess that there is actually a Kharma “house sound,” and that this trickles down to all their models. This is consistent with what other reviewers had heard as well. I’m not one to use too much audiophile-speak, but for lack of having other terms to use, I can say that Kharma speakers are beautifully consistent top to bottom, with nothing sounding overemphasized.

One absolutely stunning work of art, ...and this isn't even their top of the line!

One absolutely stunning work of art, ...and this isn't even their top of the line!

I’ve read (not heard, though) in other reviews that the older and quite popular (here in the US) Ceramiques are a tad hot in the mid-treble. These speakers did not exhibit this at all. The sound of the Exquisite Midi Grands was big, engrossing, and extremely detailed but also non-fatiguing – I could listen to them for hours. The bass was rich, powerful and tight and complemented the sense of air and ease that I heard. The room also had a pair of Exquisite series subs that I suspected were producing this prodigious bass, so I asked to have those turned off. To my surprise, the bass was still all there, albeit a tad lighter and perhaps a bit less extended, but really, that is splitting hairs, very fine ones, at that. We listened to a Bach recital and the sound was all there from the airiest highs to the lowest registers and the progression between was pure consistency. The proverbial analogy to actually being in the cathedral sitting in front of the orchestra was eerily true, but I would almost say that it  felt as if I was also transported back to the early 18th century – it was that engrossing. This is indeed a world-class speaker.

Regarding the construction, this is one incredibly solid speaker. When I asked whether there was any danger of these tipping over (after all, here in California, the earth does move every once in a while), I was reminded that this monolith weighs over 400 kilos (approx. 1000 American pounds). A grown man can lean against it comfortably without worry – don’t try this against a Dynaudio Evidence speaker. It also has some of the most robust high-grade aluminum feet I’ve ever seen on a speaker. The speaker itself is absolutely beautiful, with a distinct and unique shape not found anywhere else. The surface of the speaker is stunning, more striking than pictures can convey, with beautiful wood and metal inlays. Likewise every seam is identical and even. The attention to detail is remarkable – I am proud to say: this is Dutch design and engineering at its best.

I had an opportunity to also see the assembly room where two of these speakers were laying half assembled. Just as the feeling one gets when an orca sidles up in front of you at Sea World, this speaker seems even larger up close. The cabinets are made of 40mm (over 1.5”) HPL, the highest and most dense grade of wood composite generally available, I believe. Drivers are made of extremely difficult to produce Kharma-manufactured carbon-fiber cone materials. Internal wiring involves very high grades of silver and gold, and the tweeters are made of actual diamonds (really).

While many manufacturers will claim this, Kharma does indeed use some of the most hard to find and exquisite materials in the construction of its speakers… when this provides a sonic improvement. I mean to emphasize this: I really did not get the feeling that what goes inside the speaker is in any way expensive just for the sake of being expensive – there has to be a sonic reason for the selection of materials. While I can’t say the same for what goes on the outside of their most exotic speakers, that serves another purpose, of course. Even there, though, these options are only offered if it will not affect the sound in any way – the perfection of sound reproduction, being after all, the ultimate goal.

So how does Kharma relate to being green?

I thought this would be a hard question to answer.

Surprisingly, there is much to Kharma that is green, even if that wasn’t the goal initially. For example, Mr. van Ooijen told me that their cables do not use Teflon, which it turns out is an extremely carcinogenic product who’s manufacture is also violently toxic to the environment. Kharma chose not to use Teflon because it simply does not sound very good – according to a follow-up discussion I had with Ms. van Oosterum, it imparts a harsh quality to the sound which does not match the desired Kharma sound signature (a house sound?). While not using Teflon had another purpose initially, the avoidance of Teflon is good for the environment as well. We can certainly agree on that.

Doesn't look so bad in green...

Doesn't look so bad in green...

Another point is related to materials. Because Kharma uses some of the finest materials available and pays a higher price for them, this also ensures higher quality for these materials and the eventual assembled product. This makes green issues such as the acquisition of parts from unknown sources less of a concern. Given that they use diamonds, one of the more contentious gems in the world right now, this is a particularly salient point. Kharma does not have to source from disreputable sources in order to meet a price-point that competes at the bottom of the market with other less scrupulous manufacturers. In essence Kharma stands at the polar opposite of the walmartization of consumer electronics and the inevitable effect this has on quality. This is a good thing.

In a round-about way, a higher price-point also helps with related issues such as the cost of labor and the treatment of employees, which are also green concerns. It follows that Kharma doesn’t need to unnecessarily cut corners on labor and they don’t. While I was at the factory I asked if the employees were treated well, and the response was that there were no issues there. Sure, any company will say that, but the way Mr. van Ooijen said this, it was believable. I've asked this of many manufacturers in the past, and I don't always get the same sense of confidence in an answer. I also didn’t notice anything indicating otherwise from the people I encountered at the factory. People seemed happy to work there, and the atmosphere was relaxed, inviting, and calm. This sense of ease is a stark contrast to the deadlines and budget-focused, time-is-money hustle of your typical American manufacturer back here in Southern California.

As I always do, I asked what kinds of speakers Mr. van Ooijen and Ms. Van Oosterum had at home. This is a bit unfair of me to ask because it is a round-about way to see if they could afford such speakers on their income, ie. I'm asking if the company provides well enough for it's employees. When I'm asking this of employees who produce extremely expensive products, this isn't always a fair question to ask.  Mr. van Ooijen said, very diplomatically, that he used a pair of home-made speakers but assured me that they sounded excellent. I presume that, being the lead engineer, he probably had speakers at home that were quite similar to the ones he was developing at work. Ms. van Oosterum, however, enjoys a very nice Kharma Matrix surround system at home. Being the daughter of the founder of the company, Charles van Oosterum, this wasn’t really a question she could answer differently. Anyhow, I ask this question of everyone I meet in this industry, so take from it what you like.

Another good point that Mr. van Ooijen made was that because they use extremely expensive parts, this discourages waste. When cables are made with solid gold and speakers are cut from one of the more dense materials possible, those are not component parts where one can simply sweep the extras into the trash. I surmised that this sentiment permeates the entire manufacturing process and is likely to trickle down to even the less expensive products – basically: that this is the norm at Kharma, which I am fairly certain it is. For example, I noticed that there was considerable pride in talking about components, parts, and materials – there is a sense of ownership, a personal investment, in the final product. This indicates that the component parts are valuable and that these are to be cared for with respect, in much the same way I feel about green values.

On being a Dutch company

Right at home in The Netherlands

Right at home in The Netherlands

I presume there is also a bit of Dutch-ness to this company’s mantra, too, something that perhaps echoes the Protestant work-ethic that is so prevalent in the Netherlands. Obviously, this is a generic term and applies to non-Protestants too. It is something I know from being raised there and also from what I have witnessed around me each time I return. For example, the meaning of the word “neat” has a whole other dimension in the Netherlands, and this is reflected in the products that are produced there. This can be seen for example, in the way that pollution and waste are treated – quite conscientiously, as it turns out. I realize that I’m making some big generalizations, but I really did get the sense that this sense of responsibility is alive at Kharma. For example, the factory was surprisingly clean and neat, something that isn’t always the case with other manufacturers that I’ve visited. Unless they hustled to clean everything thoroughly before I arrived (the way I do before my in-laws come to visit), there was really a sense that this is just the way things are all the time.

This brings me to another green concern: more efficient and compact designs. Generally speaking, big, bold, curved, and ostentatious products are very much against Dutch style, manufacturing and design, which is typically diminutive, utilitarian, angled and modern. Ms. van Oosterum was quick to point out that Kharma also has smaller, more traditional lines and models too, and this is certainly the case, but there is another explanation that may not be as obvious. Take for example the complexity and difficulty involved in driving big sound from a smaller cabinet – this often requires difficult engineering and complicated design choices, which may not at all be that green. 

Also, this can involve significant compromises to the sound and sometimes even use psycho-acoustic tricks. This would not really be in line with Kharma’s company philosophy that I described earlier. Instead, it is my belief that there is a time & place for large and heavy products: when it fits the engineering and design need at hand. It that case, the product needs to be large and bold for the same reason that a grand piano is: there is simply no better way to extract acceptable performance from something smaller. Perhaps a passable sound can be weaned from a smaller, upright piano, or, in the extreme, a synthesized keyboard, but most people would agree that the sound will suffer unacceptably as the instrument decreases in size.

For example, I own a pair of Vandersteen 3A speakers: big, heavy, and some would say, quite unattractive cloth-covered pillars on each side of my listening room (one visitor thought they were just acoustical treatments). They require at least 150W of power that I drive from a much beleaguered NAD amp. I also own Magnepan speakers, also big, but at least they are thin and easier to move around (they also look like acoustical panels). Likewise, they require a solid amp and the NAD is just barely able to keep up with them. Then I have smaller pair of Canton Karat speakers that I use for home theater and that dip into 4 Ohms, so they still need a good 50W of clean power to sound good. Finally I have my beloved Zu Soul Superflys that I am currently powering with a diminutive 15 watt tube amp. I won’t list all the bookshelf speakers I have lined up as well, but my point is that with each step down in size and power, compromises have to be accepted. While certainly not in the same league as the Kharmas, my precious Vandersteens are still the largest most open-sounding, most full-range speakers I have. When I want to feel the pure visceral power of the opening moments of Straus' Also sprach Zarathustra  (the theme to the blockbuster 2001: A Space Odyssey, to those who don't care for classical), or the glory of the chorus in Vangelis' Mythodea, a tribute to the 2001 Mars Odyssey shuttle entering Mars' orbit, then I connect up my big, bad Vandersteens. Large sound requires large equipment, there is simply no way around that fact.

Conclusion of Pt.1

All that being said, it is ultimately about application – there is a place for the Exquisite line, but there is also a place for smaller and more agile products such as my Zu Speakers. Kharma is well known for their large, beautiful well-reviewed and often quite expensive world-class speakers, but they are not a company to simply rest on past glories. As it turns out, they are well aware of the global down-sizing trend, so they do indeed have smaller lines, models, and even (gasp!) a class-D amplifier in the line-up. They are developing these and other new products as well, and I will cover them in Pt. 2 of my report on Kharma International.

If you have any comments, please feel free to post below. 

THE Show Newport 2013 - The GreenHiFi Report, Pt.2

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More Green finds from The Home Entertainment Show in Newport: WireWorld greens up their packaging, Audiowood merges audio and art in an eco-friendly way, class-d amplification returns, and Coffman Labs uses recycled airplane parts from the Cold War.

I always enjoy going to THE Show - it's right in my backyard, it's inexpensive to attend, and the weather is well, just perfect. RMAF, Axpona, and the other shows, including the Summer shows, just can't pull that off. Newport Beach is also just minutes from the beach, not to mention some great restaurants, and lots of other things to do here in Orange County. This show is also one of the largest audio shows this side of the Atlantic, with plenty to see and hear. While I have yet to go to one of the monster shows in Germany that I keep hearing about, this show suits me just fine. It is also an opportunity to explore what new green things I can find in this hobby of ours, even from ...a cable manufacturer? OK, well then let's see about that.

 

WireWorld Wraps its Cables Around Green Initiatives 

 

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At the show, I had the good fortune to talk to Larry Smith from WireWorld Cable. Now I realize that talking about cables isn't exactly all that thrilling. Also, with the hundreds of choices out there for cables, most audio folks just pick one of the big names like AudioQuest, find something in their price range and move on to sexier items like speakers and amps. More often than not, even audiophiles settle when it comes to cables, so for a company like WireWorld to compete in that space, it isn't always so easy. That is why I think they have really hit on something that will resonate with young people.

To begin with, they hit all the targets when it comes to competing head-on with the competition: the prices are competitive, they look different enough so as not to be mistaken for the others, and they are solidly built. The cables that I saw at the show definitely met those criteria. All-in all, this is a no-nonsense cable that I would buy on those criteria alone. As a matter of fact, I own some very nice WW cables I use to connect the 7.1 outs of my Oppo universal player to my pre/pro. Now before I get called out as being biased because I’m an owner, I will say in my defense that I bought them some time ago, on discount, without knowing anything about WW. It turns out that I was pleasantly surprised and they sounded just right and so I've left them there ever since.

Of course, I could not hear the WW cables Larry was showcasing since they were simply on display and not hooked up, but I noticed that a large number of rooms throughout the show were using WW cables. So not only did a lot of dealers and manufacturers trust WW with their gear, but it also gave me plenty of opportunity to hear the cables in use. Everything I heard was without reproach. Of course, with all the different gear, the room setup challenges, and too many other variables to name, I couldn't really say that the cables were better or even different sounding. That said, I heard nothing objectionable.

But what Mr. Smith told me, ought to at least put another check in the “buy” category for us folks who are looking to be green. WW has some great green incentives in place, as he put it in an email to me after the show:

  1. Our packaging has always had very high recyclability and recently we've transitioned some products into reusable packages.
  2. Our cardboard waste is minimized by extensive reuse and the remaining amount is recycled.
  3. We reuse much of our scrap directly and the remains are reprocessed instead of becoming landfill.
  4. We've stopped using Teflon in our cables, partly because of the environmental contamination caused by the factories that produce Teflon resins.

Now Teflon is one of those sore point for green folks, and it’s refreshing to hear that a company is finding ways to minimize its use, despite the popularity of the material in cable manufacturing. I hope to write a more thorough article about WW and their incentives, but for now, kudos to this company for taking the initiative.

 

Audiowood: Yes, They Use Wood, But Sparingly…

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 Another room I stumbled into was the Audiowood room where I met Joel Scilley. He rebuilds turntables from Rega and ProJect into beautiful works of art by replacing the plinths with natural wood pieces that give these ‘tables a fresh new look. His projects are also up on Etsy, which  shows a few more of his designs. But Joel is also an audiophile, and his turntable mods are made with very high precision. When I looked at them up close, I could see that this wasn't some hack-job with a pretty veneer.

An interesting side note, is that just because it’s wood, doesn't mean it has to look antique. We've all seen some of those manufacturers that create gorgeous wooden cabinets for little boutique speakers that would be right at home on a mantle under a Rococo-styled picture frame around the family patriarch in his hunting regalia. No, that is not what Audiowood is about. Joel also makes classy  modern designs, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright and Art Deco styles, the kind that would fit right in with the home décor of millennials. As a matter of fact, an all-black version of Joel’s stylish Bachelor turntable:

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is making an appearance in the new StarTrek: Into Darkness film, as he explains on his facebook page. Very nice turntable, indeed.

But Joel is also passionate about using the right materials. He told me that he hand-selects the woods, making sure they are not from endangered trees. He searches for recyclable alternatives such as bamboo whenever possible, and he uses manufacturing and finishing products that minimize pollution into the environment. This is definitely worthy of a follow-up article and I certainly plan to write one soon. For those who want precision hand-built gear with a conscience, then Audiowood is definitely worth a closer look – highly recommended.

 

Class-D Makes a Splash in Newport Beach, or Rather a Bang… 

First a confession: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with class-D amps. The green specs are fantastic, and so I’ve always wanted to like them. The sound, however, to my ears at least, has always left something to be desired. I can’t put my finger on why this is, but in my home Class-D has always lacked in the mid-range and treble – almost as if it was veiled. I have stopped using Class-D amps as a result, but I am wondering if times have changed and the sound has improved.

 ***

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Now I had some great conversations with class-D manufacturers and Engineers at the show. One of these was Ryan Tew from Red Dragon Audio. In addition to cables and accessories, they make 250W and 500W monoblock amplifiers – the clean lines as well as the fit & finish are exemplary. They didn't sound as I remember them sounding  either, and considering that they double their specs into 4 ohms, they should be able to drive most speakers out there. I emailed Ryan after the show and he was quick to respond. I hope to follow that up with an interview about class-D amplification and the sound that these amps produce. 

*** 

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Channels Islands Audio, or CIAudio as they prefer, is an established brand and I've always been fond of their designs. They embody most of what it means to be green and I've always been impressed with the quality of their amplifiers. They have also been around for some time now and seem to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of many reviewers. One thing that is also commendable is that there aren't new revisions of their designed every six months. The D-100 monoblock, with the exception of a minor update, designated by the “D-100B” name change is essentially the same design that they have been selling for nearly a decade. This is definitely a green value.

At the show I spoke briefly with Dusty Vawter of CIAudio, and then I reached out to him via email after the show. I hope to go visit their showroom in the near future with some of the music I know well – I might scare him a bit with my techno and house selections, but from what I've read, the amps can handle just about anything. Maybe I should also schlep my Maggies along and see what these bad boys can really do, lol. Hmmm, maybe a little TMI… I hope that invitation still stands.

*** 

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No conversation of class-D can be complete without mentioning Wyred4Sound. They are practically an institution in this sector. Ever since PS Audio threw in the towel on class-D and started focusing their energies elsewhere, W4S stepped in and filled that void with aplomb. Their amps have received glowing reviews and I was pleasantly surprised to see their little 100W Mini-Integrated powering a Mini Maggie System. No need to make an appointment in front of the Magnepan room; I could hear what this little combination could do right here and it sounded very good. I don’t think there is a desktop/computer speaker system that could come close to sounding this good – heck, it could easily stand on its own as a dedicated 2-channel system.

I got the chance to speak with Clint Hartman from W4S and he had an very good sounding system in the adjacent room. Those were not Magnepans or similar panels speakers, though, and I really wonder how that would have sounded. That said, Clint was glad to answer all my questions and encouraged me to follow up after the show, which I did and he responded quickly. W4S has an excellent reputation for customer service and this was certainly evident here. I will be following up that conversation with a more complete article in the near future.

*** 

 Now my interest with class-D is primarily centered around my 7.1 Magnepan home theater system that just isn’t doing it for me. My suspicion is that I need more power to drive the speakers and, well,  class-D is really the only realistic way to do this. Buying 1000W class A/B amps will not only cost a small mint, but will also drill a hole in my energy bill. Yet, it’s class-D and my experience has been rather poor. Can I make the transition to class-D without compromising the mid-range and treble that I get from conventional amps? That is the million-dollar question for this technology. I will be reaching out to these manufacturers with that specific question, and hopefully the amplification has improved somewhat.

 

Coffman Labs: Recycling Old Airplane Parts – Could There Be Anything Greener?

 

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It’s not often you hear of a company actually admitting to using parts that are not new, much less parts that are half a century old. Yes, we’ve heard that tubes from yesteryear are supposed to sound fantastic, but that is likely more because of nostalgia for a long-lost sound that is simply not going to compare with today’s standards.

 At the show I had a good opportunity to talk to Rob Johnson, of Echo Audio, the distributor for the Coffman Labs preamps and headphone amps that use these parts. They not only re-use actual knobs and internals salvaged from airplanes from the 1950’s and 60’s, but they are built like tanks that could easily last another 50 years, not to mention that they look like nothing else out there. Here is a picture:

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Can you say Retro-Cool? Check out those sides: definitely millennial-worthy.  Did I mention it's built to last? Anyhow...

Damon Coffman is the designer behind this preamplifier; being a musician himself, he designed the perfect sounding amp, but it took some careful thinking to come up with a final product such as this one. That his thinking was based in large part on green concepts is more vindication that thinking green can lead to some great products. I followed up with the distributor, Rob, via email after the show. He was more than willing to answer my questions and, this being a product that is so uniquely green, I certainly intend to write a follow-up article about this ground-breaking product. 

A Few Final Suggestions About THE Show:

I've been to many shows, expositions, and showcases and while THE Show is certainly one that I enjoy attending each year, it isn't without flaws. Here are a few more things that I think they could do to improve the show for next year:

  1. Create an app. I know it sounds cliché, but let’s be honest, walking around with a booklet is so outdated. People want to travel light, so make the show easy to navigate with a well-designed app about where things are.

  2. Rethink parking. When I arrived on Friday, I was directed to three different lots all with different prices. To top it off, directions and signage were non-existent.

  3. Don’t separate the 10th floor part of the show at the Hilton from the rest of the rooms on the 2nd to the 6th floor. I’m going to guess that not too many people made the trek to the top floor. Keep the show together.

  4. OK, I know that cars, babes, booze and cigars appeal to a certain demographic, but it’s not really a good fit for the show. Find better alternatives to the car show, the wine tasting, the cigars, and the bikini-clad models on the signage. To me, it appears tacky and desperate, and I think that young professionals think the same. A much better fit would be a show next door about video and home-theater equipment. Or how about something about home security? Certainly folks with $50K in their listening room would want to secure that gear.

  5. Have a dealers-only day the day before the show. It is imperative that dealers, especially local ones, get re-acquainted with the manufacturers. They need an unencumbered day to build new relationships.

  6. Have a large conference room dedicated to young people (teenagers to college students) with gear that meets their needs.

  7. Have at least one day where you have a concert for a younger crowd – maybe hire a DJ instead of a band. Jazz and blues are great, but let’s be honest, that’s for an aging demographic.

  8. Get a professional designer to make the website. That is not a website that is going to appeal to millennials. You are practically telling them to stay away.

  9. I know I've said it before, but advertise locally and get that professional designer who’s doing the website to also do the ad.

  10. Finally, don’t do the rope-cutting ceremony in the lobby where folks are trying to register. Instead, do it in one of the large conference rooms with a backdrop of some fantastic gear. As a matter of fact, following the rope-cutting with Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra playing on that gear, with the organs blaring at full volume... now that would be an opening worth attending. Doesn't it seem self-evident that a show like this should open with a glorious musical presentation? 

Conclusion

OK, That’s the GreenHiFi report on THE Show 2013 Newport. There were many other products, manufacturers, and dealers there that I would have liked to cover, some also with green ideas and incentives, but I would never finish this. Some of them have also been covered on other sites so poke around online for more.

In upcoming post I want to ask what happened to HiFi in Orange County. I will also be covering some of the manufacturers I met at THE Show and who have responded to my questions about green ideas in HiFi.

Stay tuned.

- Michael GJK

 

T.H.E. Show Newport 2013 - The GreenHiFi Report

THE Show Newport 2013. Great show folks, but I do have some thoughts...

THE Show Newport 2013. Great show folks, but I do have some thoughts...

 GreenHiFi was at The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show, in Newport Beach, CA, again this year. In addition to some awesome sounding amps and speakers, there were also some very pleasant green surprises: several small manufacturers actually embraced green ideas and all was not what it seemed.

 This was a tough weekend for me. While I was promoting my blog up & down the show, my website was also up & down online because of some irritating DNS issues with my ISP. If you tried to connect and you saw some generic advertisement site instead of my blog, then I hope this report will make up for it. I certainly have some great stuff to cover. So here we go.

Starting on a higher note

THE Show started on Friday, May 31st, 2013, promptly at 10:00am. Things started out well, and after the requisite LA and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS) trumpet call, the celebrity rope-cutting ceremony took place. Here's a pic:

The rope-cutting ceremony of the 2013 THE Show 

I took several shots, but I was not able to get Robert Harley in there and only one with Michael Fremer - they're both a bit small, so they are hiding behind John Atkinson from my angle. If you look carefully, you can see Fremer's head-mounted webcam; he looked oh so Googled-out. Numbers-wise I think the show was a big success again this year, although the vast majority of these attendees were still aging men (see my previous post). It was a large show, spanning two hotels, and I did manage to get to every single room by the curtain call of 6pm on Sunday night, although I was clearly being rushed through by those last folks eager to start crating up their gear.

On to some surprises from the Show. I can't cover every room at THE Show, but I wanted to point out some stand-outs and perhaps also some names that people hadn't heard before. Along the way, I will touch on green issues and especially how these tie into the problem of appealing to a younger generation of buyers.

VTL Logo.gif

Virtuous VTL

One of the first rooms I visited was a well-known brand:  VTL (Vacuum Tube Logic) and I talked to Luke Manley. I've always been a big fan of VTL, and so I wanted to explain that I was interested in green initiatives without coming off too critical. Knowing this is a company that makes high-powered and high-priced tube amps, I first explained that I was also passionate about re-introducing young people to HiFi. This is a topic that is important to all of us in this industry, so I then explained that green issues are important to young people. I used this approach for the rest of the show and I found that this opened up a lot more doors than just presenting myself as interested in green issues above all else, especially if they were perceived to come before good sound.

Mr. Manley was actually very interested in bringing young people to HiFi and when I explained how green concerns tie into this, I think he saw the connection. I also explained that VTL, because of the way their components are produced, is also quite green according to my criteria. I really think this resonated well, but I will follow up and see if there is more that I can do with this. I really hope to be a resource for smaller manufacturers like VTL. Well, VTL isn't exactly that small, but compared to the Harmans and Sonys (who were also at THE Show), they are definitely smaller in scale and I think the priorities and goals are very different from the big guys.

vanatoo_logo.jpg

Vanatoo is for You

I then made my way to a small room from a name I didn't know: Vanatoo. They make a small, active, sealed-enclosure speaker with a built-in DAC and wireless connectivity. It is called: the Transparent One, no joke. It's a cute little number and it sounds quite good. Of course, I wanted to know what the green creds were. On the surface, it was small, includes a lot in a compact package, and it has a cool millennial-friendly name. I could not find out if it was made state-side, though, and since it was relatively inexpensive, I presumed it wasn't. That said, they did hit many of the green criteria, so I'm not going to knock it. Truth-be-told, I actually thought that the whole package was extremely well executed. The plain-Jane box-speaker looks are a bit of a let-down, but it's a good overall product.

Vanatoo's Transparent One competes with a new, albeit more expensive, offering from KEF as well as the well established offerings from AudioEngine, but unlike those two it has wireless as well. The KEF X300A that I also heard at the show is particularly intriguing because it uses the same coaxial 'tangerine' driver as their well received LS50 (that is one fantastic speaker, by the way). The other advantage is that the X300A uses seperate class A/B amps in each speaker, which sound quite amazing to these ears. Of course the X300A also costs twice what the Transparent One costs, so there's that too. But ultimately, both products are marketed straight at millennials.

So this raises the question: does the amping matter enough for a millennial to pay twice as much for the speaker? The KEF does sound better, I'll admit, but my guess is that millennials will opt for the wireless capability instead of having to be tethered with a cable. The Transparent One also uses a Class-D amp, which is greener too. So my nod goes to Vanatoo, despite the clear difference in sound and here's why. Aside from hearing the two speakers side-by-side in a store, millennials will never hear the difference and therefore they will buy the Vanatoo. I do love the KEF, but this is a telling argument to make, and I am making it.

The amazing king's ransom, Kharma Exquisite Grand Speakers

The amazing king's ransom, Kharma Exquisite Grand Speakers

Kharma Chameleon

I really wanted to hit a few manufacturers that, in my opinion at least, priced their speakers in the stratosphere. I wasn't out for a fight or anything, but I really wanted to know what went into a speaker or amp that only the 1% could afford. So I made my way to the Kharma room. Now Kharma is prime Robb Report material. Their ceiling height speakers cost in the hundreds of thousands, they partner with auto-jewelry makes like Spyker, and they are big in China, the Middle East and the Russian block. I entered the room ready to pose some hard questions.

To my surprise, they were showing the much more down-to-earth Elegance Speakers (not the ones in the picture at right), and to top it off, they were clad in the calming and strikingly beautiful Sub-Zero Blue finish. The analog music playing in that room didn't grab me right away when I entered the room, but once I sat down and paid attention, I noticed how absolutely controlled and even the musical representation was from the lowest bass notes to the upper frequencies. I had to readjust my barometer, here, and take a closer look, or rather, a closer listen. I sat down next to the representative of Elite Audio (located in San Francisco, CA) and started to chat him up.

My first (incorrect) assumption was that these speakers were from China. They weren't. They were from the Netherlands, my home country! Now that is also a country where folks tend to be a bit more green and a whole lot more concerned about equality, than China, for example. How could this be? He pointed me to a young lady who was standing in the room as well, who I had hardly acknowledged when I walked in - I guess I do need to learn some manners, lol. This charming lady was Vivienne van Oosterum, Marketing manager for Kharma and consequently, also the daughter of the owner of the company. She had flown into town just the night before. I was a bit surprised, but I did manage to stumble a few words of Dutch just to confirm this all and she indeed spoke fluently.

Now my Dutch isn't up to par anymore, so I continued in English. I got to ask a few questions, but the music in the room sounded quite good, the speakers were small, and the zeal had left me. So out of deference, I didn't want to be too much of a pest, and I decided to come back the next day and bring some of my own music. I got to speak to the dealer and Vivienne a couple more times during the show and it has certainly piqued my green interest in the company, especially since the price issue hits at the heart of one of the biggest gripes about HiFi.

A few quick facts about Kharma that I was able to find out:

Kharma speakers are hand-made in Breda, in the Southern province of North Brabant, in the Netherlands. The company has about 50 employees, their primary market is the Far East, and they have three authorized dealers here in the US, although I only saw Kharma speakers on the site of Elite Audio, the dealer that was with them at THE Show. He was a pretty nice guy, by the way, and knew his stuff about audio - highly recommended if you're up in the Bay Area. The Elegance line comes in many different color choices and they include matching home theatre speakers and a sub. The beryllium tweeters are voiced to tackle the edge typical of metal-domed tweeters, and this certainly sounded that way to me. The cabinet is also made of extremely light but rigid materials. I guardedly asked about the high price (in my mind) of these speakers, but Vivienne pointed out that this was typical for this level of speaker and that they had speakers at higher and lower price-points too. She also explained that the Elegance line exists at a lower price-point to appeal to young professionals and to better compete with other brands.

Well, I do hope to reach out to Kharma in the near future and perhaps, next time I am in the Netherlands, I'll ask if I could visit the factory. I certainly have a lot more questions to ask. How are these speakers made? Where are the parts sourced from? What goes into a $39K speaker such as the dB9? What goes into the Exquisite line? How does this compare to the competition here in the US? I'm thinking Rockport carries similar type speakers (they were also being shown at the show). Also, how does Kharma stack up against the Danes (Dynaudio) & Germans (MBL) who I also saw at the show? Anyhow, lots more to ask...

Some General Suggestions for THE Show

Now with all due respect to the hard work of dealers and manufacturers who made up the show, I do have some suggestions for the organizers of THE Show if they want to appeal to a younger generation. These observations below apply to a lot if not most of the rooms I visited at THE Show.

  1. Too much jazz. Seriously, I am so Diana Kralled out, I'm starting to hate her. As a matter of fact, if you're in the lower price bracket, leave the jazz at home entirely. Don't get me wrong, I love jazz, but by the end of the show I think I had started to hate the whole genre.

  2. Don't play what you want to hear. If you're a sales rep or dealer, don't bring your favorite Springsteen albums intending to just enjoy some good music listening. This is a show for the visitors, so ask them what they want to hear. If you don't have it, play something similar. For that of course, you have to know enough about the music that millennials listen to (I'll cover that in the near future as well).

  3. Try some silence. Too many rooms were like concert halls with everyone afraid to ask questions. Totally wrong approach - you want folks to ask questions.

  4. Do A-B demos. These are great attention grabbers and will give the product more value. Value is good, it's one of the prime green motivators for millennials.

  5. Do not, under any circumstance keep people out of your show room. Magnepan, I love your stuff, but I heard up & down how much people hated the way you kept folks out "until the next demo starts."  I'm guessing you lost a lot of business this weekend, including mine (I was thinking of those new bass panels).

  6. If your audio society is going to have a hospitality room, fill it with stuff other than drinks and alcohol. Every manufacturer at the show should have a stack of pamphlets or business cards in those rooms. Have some dealer coupons there, and some food coupons for local restaurants would be good too.  As a matter of fact, have more snack-type food in the room.

  7. There should have been a hospitality room for the represented magazines. Stereophile, Absolute Sound, I hope you're hearing this. Have some discounted subscription forms there and other shwag. Have your writers and editors hang out there, too. Lots of folks have questions for them.
     
  8. Don't have dark rooms. Darkness is fine for at home, but at a show, you want people to see your gear. 

  9. Advertise locally and especially at the local universities. I was at UCI, Chapman, and CSU Long Beach prior to the show, and not a soul knew anything about the show.  Even if you hate young people (some of you certainly seemed to), consider  that local universities are graduating around this time - this means that parents and donors are on campus, too.

  10. Triple the size of the headphone room. Allow headphone manufacturers to have booths or even rooms (open-backed headphones, hello?). Finally, have a transition from headphones to speakers - this is where your AudioEngine, KEF, and, yes, even Vanatoo should be located. It's not enough to cater to millennials with headphones, you also have to go the extra step of transitioning them to speakers and other equipment.

OK, that's it for now. I'll have more thoughts and suggestions in my next post. I'll also talk about more interesting gear, even a company that uses recycled airplane parts from the Cold War. 

Leave me a comment below, if you like.

 

Why HiFi Does Not Appeal to Millennials

HiFi for the millennial: simple, iOS-like interface, connected, sustainably-produced, compact, and HiFi enough (for now).

HiFi for the millennial: simple, iOS-like interface, connected, sustainably-produced, compact, and HiFi enough (for now).

Why can't HiFi see eye-to-eye with millennials? What do millennials want from their electronics? What can high end audio manufacturers do differently?

It’s almost June, and I’m gearing up to head down to Newport Beach to attend The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show – it’s kind of fun to hear folks stutter through the THE show in conversation. Actually, the name of the show is a bit of a misnomer, because it really is a HiFi show, with almost no other home entertainment electronics there – no cool gadgets, no cell phones, no whiz-bang video demos, no apps/games/cloud anything to speak of, really. You have to search hard for any home theater demos, too. It really is mostly stereo speakers, amps, turntables, and a lot cables & accessories. How much traditional home entertainment there is to be had at the The Show, is debatable.

Unfortunately, as such, it also tends to draw a certain demographic: mostly gray-haired men, most of whom also happen to lack a deep dark natural tan. This certainly isn't the fault of the show, which, thanks to the hard work of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS), is quite possibly the most successful HiFi show in North America. The problem is more endemic to all of HiFi – it is getting old and few young people seem to be joining the ranks. Despite a meagre and truly unexpected resurgence in LPs/turntables and being completely blindsided by a new wave of headphone listeners, the rest of HiFi is still getting old… very old, and millennials have been moving on to other things.

So what gives?

Well it’s quite simple really, HiFi manufacturers are not playing up how green they are, and millennials, it turns out, are quite green. This is not to say that HiFi isn’t green, it is on many levels, but this isn't coming out in the marketing. Online and Social marketing, by the way, is another area that HiFi is slipping in. This is unfortunate as well, because millennials are quite familiar with the power of marketing and ironically don’t seem to mind it too much – they see it as a fact of life in their magazines, on TV, in movies, and online.

Being online, by the way, doesn't just mean having a website. Millennials aren’t interested in just that. They are looking for engagement. Don’t bother killing trees with glossy brochures and putting a logo on a pen, either (a pen, are you kidding? People still use those?). Millennials don’t just see the web as a treasure trove of information, they also see it as a medium that is efficient, immediate, and everywhere. Consequently it is also a greener alternative to print.

So what really are the values of millennials?

Emily Alpert, in her LA Times article: “What's in millennials' wallets? Fewer credit cards”, does a good job of describing the economic factor. Millennials grew up seeing their parents struggle financially through several economic downturns, and this plays a very important part in shaping their own values. They are not necessarily cheap, but they are frugal and careful about where they spend their money. HiFi, at first glance, is expensive, so this does not seem to be a good place to start this discussion. Yet there is a silver lining here, and it isn’t just in the shiny knobs of that preamplifier…

To begin with, HiFi, for the most part, is also frugal – many of the smaller (i.e. greener) manufacturers truly believe in keeping costs down. Having built up their businesses in the same economic times, these manufacturers know that customers are not as wiling to open their wallets any more  Hard work and efficiency in manufacturing are values that millennials can relate to, but they don’t know this about HiFi. What they see on HiFi websites is an over emphasis on exclusivity, perfection, class, and the infamous “audio jewelry” factor. A few sites like Legacy and Wilson do have a few bits hinting at what goes into making their speakers, and this is good. However, this important information is often buried deep in bloated animations and far from the headlines and tag lines that RSS feeders are fishing for. These feeders send this to the cell phones of millennials. Unfortunately, there is not enough emphasis on this commonality to establish a bond built on starting from meagre beginnings, struggling and eventually succeeding.

Interestingly, millennials will pay more for quality if it presents a good value. According to Alpert's article, they typically will choose organic foods over cheaper non-organic ones. This is because it provides a better value. HiFi, especially when considered long-term, is also a good value. If this was only marketed better it would help, but it seldom is. Contrary to popular perception, millennials actually care quite a bit about the quality of their audio. After all, they will buy expensive headphones and DACs, and once they start families, they will want that same music they were listening to on the bus to campus, to now be in their living rooms while they are burping the baby. They won’t spend MBL prices (not yet at least) on this gear, but they will consider more affordable manufacturers and ones that have a full range of price points. Unfortunately, these seemingly higher value HiFi companies, such as Clearaudio and Cary, for example, companies that are actually quite green, tend to showcase their more expensive models above the fold. That is a sure way to get passed over by millennial customers.

Big is not Beautiful

Millennials are also more likely to move and be mobile. They want small, simple and convenient electronics – all green values. Just about every HiFi manufacturer has at least some of these in their product line, but that is not where their marketing efforts are. It takes a few clicks to even find a bookshelf speaker on the site of Totem Acoustics, an otherwise rather green manufacturer (with a surprisingly with-it Target-inspired marketing campaign, it seems). Yet. those few clicks may not seem like much, but they are enough to bore millennials and send them searching for HiFi from another manufacturer.

It seems that many HiFi manufacturers would rather sell that huge Summit speaker or Gibraltar cable because those profit margins are apparently higher, as their names imply. Millennials aren't that gullible - they've been around that block: not only are they well aware that these are more expensive, but they know these are large and inconvenient too, which is just not in synch with their lifestyle. They know this because they Googled, Audiogon’d, and RedLasered these already. They've read the blogs from customers desperately trying to unloads these severely depreciated extravagances in an effort to downsize. Simply put: if it doesn't fit in the trunk of their TL, millennials would rather not own it.

As mentioned above, millennials are well informed. They will spend days comparing features, considering carbon footprints, and calculating ROIs for the electronics that they want. Ironically, this is not unlike a HiFi manufacturer spending countless hours listening, testing and selecting just the right capacitor. You would think that more HiFi manufacturers would see the connection and start blogging about how their companies, their products and their owners share the same values. Yes! Tell millennials that that capacitor is not just the best sounding one, but also a sound investment that will last a good 20 years. Tell them it will boost reliability which translates to a higher resale value on the used market! And no, resale is no longer a taboo subject anymore - millennials are already posting about this on their friend's blogs. HiFi manufacturers need to become part of that conversation.

Be Kind to Your Kind

This conversation should also be socially conscious - and if this thought is starting to sound too feel-good leftie, then I'm afraid it may be time to retire. Millennials have seen wars, famines, protests, misery and a fair share of personal struggle in their life-time, so they also care about the struggle of others. A manufacturer that uses slave or child labor is in for a rough night - no, not a rough week or year. This seemingly innocuous bit of information will spread virally over the internet and millennials are the ones spreading it. Apple and Starbucks may be able to weather an occasional slip-up such as this, but to a small HiFi manufacturer this is a company-ending calamity.

Ironically, HiFi manufacturers actually do care about working conditions because these  affect product quality. On small production runs, returns and defects cost a small HiFi manufacturer far more than the marginal savings they may reap from using unreliable labor. Even if this wasn't the motivating factor, it’s often the case that the owner of a HiFi company was once him/herself the one who toiled late into the night, after a hard day at the factory and the kids were long asleep, working tirelessly to build up that fledgling business. Unfortunately, this is not the story that is found on most About Us pages. Instead, this page often overemphasizes credentials, haughty excellence, and a sense of exclusivity that is a complete turnoff to millennials. If HiFi manufacturers would only make a greater effort to build on this connection with millennials, they might see far more interest in their products.

People of the World

Since we're on a socially conscious subject, we should also mention what is often the white elephant (ironic choice of words, here) in the listening room at audio shows: "Where's my people at?" That's right, I said it: aside from a few faces in the back of the room, this is an industry dominated by very pale men. Where are the Asians, Latinos, people of African and Middle-Eastern descent? Ironic really, since many of the LPs and CDs being auditioned at the show feature them, although most of these artists are more likely to be GenXers, still, it's ironic. Dare I ask for a blind American-Indian woman in a wheelchair? I'm pretty sure she could educate me a bit about what to listen for in a good amplifier.

Yes, I'm being a bit facetious, I know, but the point is that millennials don't segregate as much. They accept that the "average human" is not so pale, that the best break dancers in the world come from Seoul, and that the best DJs hail from the Netherlands, a country that is a whole lot more tolerant towards gays than we are here - and that's cool, too. Millennials don't have the same hangups about race, gender, romantic affiliation (that sounds so much better than sexual orientation, doesn't it?), or disability,  as the previous generation. Being a little different, or a lot, is just that, a bit different, and then they move on. Its all good!

Now this doesn't mean that every small HiFi manufacturer needs to immediately go out and recruit someone with a deep dark natural tan to grace their home page and put a big pink triangle in the corner - that would be so obvious as to warrant another marketing calamity. What it does mean, though, is that to cater to millennials, HiFi manufacturers need to start demoing their equipment with Rufus Wainwright , Hirome Uehara, Tinariwen, in between the standards from Common, The White Stripes, and Vitas - yes, these should be standards - I included links, in case these were so completely new to you as they were for me not too long ago ...and yes, these will still give your demo room the same workout as Brubeck, Krall and Wagner. Now if all this modern music really doesn't agree with you and you absolutely must play something more classically-inspired (I'm thinking of my dear father reading this, who is probably pulling his hair out about now), there is still hope: Beach, and Zwilich, representing women composers, as well as Vangelis' Mythodea representing the fusion of modern music with classical, Lou Harrison representing the gay community, and the always fascinating Philip Glass, to round out the mysterious & new in modern classical. Yes, this is the music millennials are drawn to, for many reasons.

Playing the music that millennials listen to is an important part of appealing to them and bringing them to HiFi. Consequently, since the under-represented are already part of the millennial population because they are more welcome there, then consequently it will also bring them to HiFi. It's a win-win because this increases the ranks of interested folks who will eventually become customers.

If this is all do-able, what is the hold-up?

Why does HiFi not play up those very qualities that millennials value? What is the fear? I realize that there is a small percentage of customers who simply do not agree with these values, but is that really worth risking the ire of a whole new generation of customers? More to the point, is this not a gamble that risks the entire industry?

Millennials want smaller, portable, and simpler technologies that connect to their existing world. There are, of course, many HiFi manufacturers that make these but at huge expense and complexity: Meridian Sooloos, for example, provides some of this functionality, but at a price-point that is simply not going to compete with Sonos. Take a moment to actually click on these companies' links. There is a wide chasm between the marketing philosophy behind the web sites! By the way, Sonos is considered expensive by millennial standards, but just barely. It's not for the college crowd, but it is feasible for new families. Sonos, to millennials, is HiFi, and not necessarily because it sounds comparable to a dCS digital sound system. The value of Sonos to millennials is more comprehensive: in addition to sounding noticeably better than the average mass-produced electronic consumable, it also offers a level of convenience, functionality, and interoperability that millennials expect from HiFi - it offers Acura-level luxury rather than Jaguar-like pretentiousness. 

Summing Up:

All these examples point to fundamental green values, the kind we've been covering on this blog. In the end, if HiFi is serious about catering to millennials, it needs to meet more of the green target points that speak to their values. It needs to accept that the point of diminishing returns in the price/quality ratio is much lower for millennials. Even if price is a barrier to entry, which it undoubtedly is for many millennials, then HiFi needs to play up the many other ways it does meet green criteria. Millennials will listen, they will do their research online, and they will see what, to them, is a good value and spend good money purchasing it.

There will always be a small customer base for whom the absolute highest quality sound reproduction is paramount. Companies such as Avantgarde, Magico, YG, Burmester, are there for them. However, this also opens the door for new, smaller, more agile and more focused companies such as Wyred4Sound, Magnepan, Grado, NuForce and (dare I say) Emotiva, to take their place in the hearts of millennials. Yes, I realize those are not the brands that grace the cover of the Robb Report. However, a paradigm shift has taken place in this industry. Even rich sheiks have children who no longer care for audio jewelry, even when they can afford it. The HiFi of the 90's and 2000's is just not in line with this new generation’s values anymore. Millennials, at all economic levels, are blogging, chatting, and texting this on Tumblr, Reddit, SnapChat and StumbleUpon.

…And if, like me, you thought millennials were still wasting time on Facebook/Pinterest (where their parents think they are keeping up with them), then you are so last year. If you had to click on these links to find out what these newfangled social media sites were, then you are definitely last decade. Just don't let anyone say you are last millennium, that could be calamitous.

Let me know what you think about this by leaving a comment.

- Michael GJK

Is HiFi Green Enough? Part2: Testing the Theory

Hmmm, this speaker doesn't fit in my test tube...

Hmmm, this speaker doesn't fit in my test tube...

Is High End Audio by default already ecologically-friendly? Is this an interesting hypothesis or an undeserved accolade? If true, where does this leave GreenHiFi.com?

As was noted in the previous post, Is HiFi Green Enough?, a well-meaning entrepreneur suggested that simply because HiFi does not follow the same manufacturing processes  as more mainstream home electronics, that perhaps it was already green enough. Well, to find out if that's true, we are going to apply the same criteria that we normally apply to products and manufacturers here at GreenHiFi.com. We're going to put High End Audio to the test and see if it is, as an industry, already ecologically-friendly enough. The criteria we will use are the seven we determined would serve as our measuring stick in our very first blog post, Rating System for Green HiFi.

Let's begin.

1. Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation

HiFi equipment typically uses little energy compared to other household appliances. There are exceptions, but they are balanced out by the many choices for low-wattage equipment out there such as those made by Sophia Electric and the high-efficiency speakers they are designed for such as the ones manufactured by Omega. This is a good point, when comparing to a refrigerator or washing machine, but this doesn't necessarily apply to all electronics - a computer, for example, can use less energy. That said, taking my trusty Kill-A-Watt around the house, I did find that the equipment that I have does indeed use little energy. Another mitigating factor is that most typical music listening and movie watching does not involve high volumes and thus also less energy - exceptions such as orchestral crescendos and loud explosions are typically very short.

So on this criteria, I agree (+1).

2. Product Quality and Simplicity:

It goes without saying that HiFi is neither low-quality nor complex. Just the opposite, it typically has much higher quality parts and typically has fewer features so as to minimize these from harming the signal. Consider the beauty in the simplicity and the high praise that Naim products have received over the years. Even their modern Unity line is exemplary.

This criteria is rather self-evident, (+1).

3. Adequate Packaging:

HiFi manufacturers typically pack things well because they typically care a bit more about the products. It's a bit of a generalization, but HiFi products aren't produced in high quantity so more care can be taken to pack well. YG Acoustics, for example packs their impressive speakers in solid re-usable aluminum crates - ensuring that they can be shipped many times (hopefully they are not anticipating a lot of repairs, lol). One could argue that mass-produced electronics aren't as likely to have adequate packaging because margins are thinner, so corners are cut, and the electronics are not expected to be as valuable. They are more likely to be considered consumables and thus not expected to be shipped back & forth as much. This then requires lower-quality packaging.

That said, economies of scale can play a part in making the packaging more efficient and specific to the item being shipped. Therefore the potential for savings is there, although that is not always the case. Also, some HiFi manufacturers, aren't as dilligent about using just what is needed, such as when packaging is used for several types of products which may have differing weights and sizes. I've seen wooden crates used, when it was, in my opinion, not really warranted. I suppose that when a manufacturer cares more about the product, they can go overboard on protecting it.

I'm not sure I can be swayed enough either way, so this one is a toss-up (+0).

4. Toxicity of Components:

With higher quality parts, and a higher budget for production, it is likely that quality control and adherence to international laws are a greater factor than with mass-produced equipment. When selecting component parts, the designer may not necessarily consider a greener one, but s/he may be swayed by the fact that the greener one has been more rigorously tested.

That said, designers maintain that the primary concern for them is the sound quality of a part - pretty much the mantra on every HiFi's "About Us" page. Thus, we can infer from this philosophy that if a component part that is less green sounds better, then that is the one the designer will select - tree-huggers be damned. As is often the case, finding a particular sound signature that has a preferred synergy with the rest of the unit, is the determining factor and this could be very subjective. If so, then this is not a green quality.

Unfortunately, I can see this one go either way, so I'm calling it a draw (+0).

5. Labor Relations

This one also seems rather self-evident: because greater care is taken to produce a higher quality product and because the production runs are much smaller, it is likely that the people who work in the factories producing HiFi are better off than those working in factories that mass-produce. With smaller production runs, better control over the production cycle, and greater pride on the part of the designer, there is simply less room for abuse, especially the kind we see in large-scale off-shore manufacturing.

Yes, this one was easy (+1).

6. Product Recycling

This one is also rather obvious. Because HiFi is made with greater care in smaller quantities and at a higher price point, it should also last longer, which then reduces the how often the product needs to be recycled. This is why some manufacturers such as Bryston and Odyssey offer such generous warranties on their products - they know that their products will last, sometimes for many decades. Likewise, I have yet to hear from any HiFi manufacturer that they will not take back old "end-of-life" equipment for recycling. Sometimes have parts that are no longer available and can still be salvaged for repairs of other old equipment (provided the owner is OK with that of course).

An associated point is that the HiFi industry has a very vibrant used market, so this is also why these products are a lot less likely to clog landfills compared to mass-produced ones. It is easy to see how mass-produced products can have a lower apparent value, and so they are often disposed of when just a simple repair is needed. Sometimes they are even disposed of because the owner is "tired" of them and they are still completely functional. I used to work for a recycling service and we found that most electronics still worked just fine. Granted, we didn't thoroughly test every feature, but there was never a time that there wasn't rock-n-roll playing in that warehouse, on equipment that had just been donated - often replaced with something different on a weekly basis.

This one was easy to see (+1).

7. Fair Pricing:

This one is always tough to justify. Some HiFi gear is priced in the stratosphere and I do wonder why. The manufacturing cost of Magico speakers or a Metronome CD player is really just a fraction of the retail price. So where does the rest of the cost come from? While I can believe that some of the cost is due to the research and technology behind the component, I also believe that this can be quite exaggerated. Sometimes that extra special metal doesn't necessarily improve the sound much over a lower-priced one. This is then professed to be better, when really it is just ever so slightly different and colored. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than with cable, where a $10K price tag for a pair of cables such the ones from Transparent Audio, used to hook up that Metronome CD player to an amp is accepted without hesitation.

While I am in no way saying that the market should not dictate these prices, here at GreenHiFi we do need to ask if it is an acceptable trade-off to spend enough on a stereo system to feed a small nation for a week. There are many HiFi manufacturers who truly do price their equipment fairly, but unfortunately the number of manufacturers who don't is great enough that I cannot agree that this is green, per the criteria we have on this site.

If we also consider that in a world where there is so much war, poverty, hunger and disease, HiFi is a bit more of a want rather than a need. Without invoking too much Buddhist philosophy, it is clear to see that choosing to support, for example Doctors Without Borders with a $2500 donation (please do, they really do good work, by the way), rather than purchasing a similarly priced MIT Oracle AC1 power cord, especially  when there is a perfectly acceptable one in the box already, is a personal choice that should be weighed with some care: which choice would do the most good for the most people?

Considering the whole industry, then, I cannot in good conscience give this a positive mark. There is simply too much inconsistency (-1).

Conclusion

So out of a possible -7 to +7 range of points, the High End Audio industry scores a +3. Not too shabby. I've considered products that scored way lower. To answer the original question of whether HiFi indeed is green enough, the answer is yes, and I'm rather elated to conclude that.

Also, will this warrant a new direction for this website? YES! I've already made changes to the Information/Bio page, and I intend to comb through the rest site and re-write much of it. I's a big job, so don't expect this to happen overnight, but I'll be working on this over the next week.

Thoughts? Let me know what you think.

- Michael GJK

Is HiFi Green Enough? An Introspective Commentary

Knock knock knocking on HiFi's door

Knock knock knocking on HiFi's door

Is HiFi greener than previously thought? Have I been wielding my sword in the wrong hand? An entrepreneur weighs in on GreenHiFi.com and I am left wondering if this blog needs a new direction.

I recently had the good fortune to speak with a successful HiFi entrepreneur. I would mention who it is, but he asked that I keep that private. Anyhow, he started by explaining how he had started out working at a large corporation as an engineer, decided mid-career that he could make a better product, and thus decided to start his own company. He literally built it up from his garage into a highly successful business. I realize this isn't exactly unique, many people dream of leaving their corporate cubicle jobs to do this, some even do it, but to succeed isn't so easy. Needless to say, this is something I greatly admire - it is the American dream.

Despite a busy schedule, he was kind enough to take time to read my blog and give me some honest feedback. I felt quite privileged, but I was also a bit worried - honesty can be hard to hear. He said that while my blog posts are entertaining enough (ouch, this wasn't starting out well) they also appeared a bit antagonistic. I think he was being kind, here - some of my articles, such as the one about replacing TVs instead of repairing them and the one criticizing Outlaw Audio for not producing a full-featured pre/pro, will be seen as downright blasphemous, I'll admit, but I wasn't convinced at all about what he was saying.

With considerable suspicion, I listened. Was he suggesting that I sugar coat what I was writing? If so, this would really strike at the core of being a blogger with integrity. There are workers suffering horrible labor conditions as I write this, and our environment is being polluted at an alarming rate. He understood my passion, and said that it was a good thing to have passion about writing, but he also suggested that perhaps I was focusing my attention in the wrong direction.

There was an inexplicable part of me that wanted to believe this, but I wasn't sure where this was coming from. He said that at the end of the day (such a business school 101 term, but I'll let that slide...), I was challenging the HiFi industry, the very industry I was dependent on for soliciting content from. If I wanted to be part of that community, to receive gear to evaluate, and to generate the feedback I needed to grow my readership, I needed to redirect my energy somewhere else.

Uh, yeah. Where else?

Dark clouds seemed to be forming in the sky above us.

I felt a bit like my world was crumbling under my feet. The whole purpose of this blog had been to champion green thinking, to challenge that which is wasteful and unjust, and to convince people that there is a better way. Now he was telling me that what I was writing about was the wrong direction? So what direction should I be facing? Was he going to point it out at least?

A faint ray of sunshine seemed to illuminate his head like a halo...

He explained that for the most part, HiFi is actually quite green because most of it actually uses far less energy than your typical home appliance.

Hold up! Sunshine gone. The roar of thunder was heard in the distance.

Now I know this wasn't the right time to bring this up, but I always get particularly irked when people, especially business people, condense what it means to be green into just energy-efficiency. To me it's so much more than that. So at the risk of coming off ungrateful, I reached for my armor and made it a point to describe this in vivid detail with the many stats and figures that I had collected over the years.

The battle lines were drawn, I thought.

He patiently let me finish, but with a wry smile he replied: "So what?"

So what?!? My hand involuntarily went up to signal the dogs of war....

I was now getting quite irritated and I thought we were talking past each other. I thought that either he's just a self-important oaf trying to re-educate me, or he's just toying with me. I guardedly went with the latter assumption and surprising even myself, I stayed my troops.

The tension was high. I just needed a spark...

The wry smile now turned to seriousness (should I have launched a preemptive strike?), but what he said next made quite a bit of sense: it didn't matter much what I cared about or what he thought about it. However, it did matter that this is what the public at large hears when they see the term "green" thrown about. So for all practical purposes that is what it means. OK, there's a ring of truth to that, I suppose.  

We had reached an uneasy truce, it seemed. The skies were clearing a bit, although darkness still lurked over much of the battle field. We weren't done yet.

He continued: regarding the bigger issue, that I'm on the wrong side of HiFi, that is one that I can actually do something about, he said. I simply need to point out how green HiFi typically is. I again fought back urges of actual violence as he spoke those words, but curiosity won out and I wanted to hear where he was going with this. An uneasy detente was forming, so I stood and listened. 

He pointed out that I didn't need to give up fighting against those injustices that I had so eloquently described with my plethora of facts and figures, I just needed to direct them at bigger offenders.

There were bigger offenders in HiFi? OK, he was now finally getting my attention.

Actually, I was beginning to see where this was headed. Thinking back on it now, it should have been a foregone conclusion: he said that my real fight should be focused on describing how mass-produced electronics are less green than HiFi and that they are a far greater blight on the environment.

Like the long-awaited ending of Mahler's 8th, the heavens slowly began to open up and a full chorus of angels was singing above us.

Now it was sinking in. I realized that this was indeed useful information.

I thanked him for his candor and after a few more niceties, we concluded our discussion and I went about my way. 

I've had a few days to ponder this now, and I'm truly glad I had this opportunity to hear this. Considering that statistically only about 1% of blog readers actually provide feedback, I don't get to hear much about what I'm writing. Blogging is a lot like talking about a revolution (thank you Tracy Chapman): it's a whisper, sometimes for years, until it can find something meaningful to intersect with that then gives it a life much greater than its author originally intended. Will the meeting of green objectives and a new focus on the good in HiFi electronics be the intersection that builds this new movement? 

Well I would like to hope so.

This is going to be a new direction for this blog. I may even have to change some of the captions and graphics if I'm going to go through with it. As I do with my reviews, in an upcoming post I'm going to put this new paradigm up against my GreenHiFi criteria and see if it stands up to scrutiny.

- Michael GJK

Replace a broken TV? Perhaps not the greenest solution

Landfills pollute

Landfills pollute

HomeTheaterReview.com recommends a wasteful approach that boosts sales but isn't at all green. To suggest that this is a good economic decision begs the question: for who?

I ran across this article today: "What Happens When Your HDTV Finally Dies?" by Jerry Del Colliano, on Home Theater Review. In it, the author justifies buying a new $3000 TV over repairing it for $600. This is a problem many of us have faced when an old piece of equipment fails, but the green answer is to repair it, although that is not the message in the article. I can agree that new TVs are more energy efficient and perhaps use less toxic materials, but the author says that replacing it is an  economically sound investment, encourages others to do the same and gives the following cost-benefit analysis:

"To feel better about saying goodbye to your old HDTV, do some simple math. What did you pay for your old set? (Yes, I really spent $4,500 on the old Panny; that's what they cost back then, and that was from the local distributor, not retail.) Then divide it by the number of years you owned it. I spent $4,500 plus $600 to repair the TV, and I sold it for $600 used. So, $4,500 divided into six years equals $750 per year or $62.50 per month. The set had lots of hours on it, so the cost per hour of enjoyment was pretty affordable. All in all, this HDTV not only provided me cutting-edge performance in the day but offered long-term value over its lifespan. Could I have kept it longer? Absolutely, and the amortization of the TV would have given me more and more value.... However, for $2,999, I was able to replace the old TV with a very thin, edge-lit LED from Samsung that was a whopping 15 inches larger and could cover the entire niche that I built. The new set had a 1080p resolution, came loaded with apps like CinemaNow and worked better in a room with more ambient light. The truth was that I needed a new HDTV, not a repair on an old one."

If I may correct the author, the new TV was a want and not a need - new features swayed his decision. More to the point, the math is overwhelmingly lop-sided. Owning the TV longer would have lowered the cost of ownership significantly below the $62.50 per month he paid for the old one, even if adding in the $600 to repair it. Now, that $2999 price tag for a new TV may not seem expensive to purchasers of HiFi, but a new TV isn't exactly HiFi, it's consumer electronics. That TV is mass-produced in a factory somewhere far away and the $62.50 per month is about the weekly wage of the person who assembled the TV, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (and those are official figures, assuming fair labor conditions).

The idea that someone should pay that much for a new TV every six years, and then encouraging others to do the same, is exemplary of a level of consumerism that is simply not sustainable when considering the waste that is produced therefrom. It justifies a lifestyle that encourages the regular replacement of refrigerators, cell phones, computers and cars as well. This amount of electronic waste is massive and excessively contributes to landfills the size of cities (such as this one in Guiyu, China), which are, ironically, located in the same countries that these TVs are assembled in.

At some point in the very near future the misery caused by this level of consumerism will inevitably float back to our own shores. So no, Mr. Del Colliano, I do not agree that this is a good idea. Even if that new TV is slightly better for the environment than your old one, the cost to the environment of this lifestyle is immeasurably greater.

- MichaelGJK

An interesting side note: I tried to post the same sentiments I made above in the comments section of this article, and within minutes my post was rejected. As a matter of fact, now the article won't even allow comments. I guess I wasn't the only one with concerns about the validity of the argument being made....

Update 05/08/13: Today, commenting was re-enabled so I posted the main point of my article there. I wonder how long it will stay up this time....

Several Smaller Audio Systems Are Better Than A Whole-house System

Why having multiple audio systems throughout the home is a greener alternative to a single whole-house audio system.

When I managed a large computer network which spanned several buildings, we planned our server locations very differently than conventional wisdom would suggest – they were distributed to several locations rather than in one central “super” data center. This was a conscious decision because we wanted to guarantee greater up-time. Aside from considerable cost savings, this model had several advantages: little beyond standard cooling was needed, no large power backup systems were needed, and if one location went down, it only represented a percentage of our network, so people could continue to work – we supplanted this with considerable redundancy so that downtime was often not even noticed – there was never one single-point-of-failure. Most importantly, because of the lower cooling and power requirements, it was more green. So this makes one wonder if this same principle could be applied to a home’s audio / video needs. Hmmm….

The Single Point Of Failure Problem

I have a good friend who had a very nicely integrated whole-house sound system with a large amp and centralized management – very sophisticated stuff. However, when his amp overheated due to electrical problems (we do live in SoCal, after all), he was without sound for months as the cost of repairs/replacement seemed to be insurmountable. Additionally, this sophisticated system that was originally purchased at premium  prices was now worth far less due to advancements in technology, and replacing it would be another considerable investment. This was a classic case of single-point-of-failure. It bears noting too, that even while it was operational, the whole house system also required a significantly larger amount of energy on average because even when one wants to listen in a single bedroom, the whole system needs to be on.

In contrast, I’ve followed the distributed model in my home. I have a separate sound system in each room. Granted, not all of these are the most energy-efficient (i.e. my surround sound system uses extremely power-hungry planars), but then I don’t need to turn this system on when I just want to listen in the dining room. Right off the bat, it’s more energy-efficient. As an added bonus, if one system is down, I can still listen to music or watch movies in another room – not ideal but workable. Even when my pre-pro in the main TV room went on the fritz, I used one of my spare 2-channel preamps while the unit was being repaired. It wasn’t surround sound, but we could still enjoy a movie.

Other advantages of Distributed Smaller Systems

  1. It allows me to try different equipment and to try different pieces in different combinations to see what sounds best
  2. It allows me to custom tailor each system to the room because what works in a large living space may not work in a small bedroom
  3. I don’t really have any heat-problems, even in my home theater / planar setup
  4. While it does require a bit more equipment over all, the equipment itself does not need to be complex because it has a more specialized purpose (rather than a jack-of-all-trades / master-of-none)
  5. These more specialized pieces tend to be less expensive
  6. The pieces and even whole systems are more movable – if I re-arrange a room or have some construction done, I can more easily move things as they are simpler, smaller, and modular
  7. If I grow tired of a piece, I can resell it on the used market and find another (and used the other systems while I do this)

I’m sure I could think of a few more advantages, but you get the general idea. It does require a little more work to get this all set up, and I realize not everybody has the time, but for most folks in the audio hobby already, this is a small price to pay for greater flexibility. Just one question remains: does it stand up to our 7-point GreenHiFi rating system?

Comparing to the Whole-house Super System using GreenHiFi Ratings

Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation (+1)

It needs less energy because I only need to turn on those parts that I’m using in that room, whereas a whole-house system has to be on everywhere all the time. As for heat, even with one or two high-powered systems, the heat is distributed to several locations around the house. This typically does not require additional cooling, thus also reducing power requirements.

Product Quality and Simplicity (+1)

Because the pieces are more specialized to each location, they can be simpler and of higher quality. This also contributes to a longer-lived product.

Adequate Packaging (-1)

Well, this would not be a green advantage. More equipment requires more packaging and more shipping (i.e. more green-house gasses).

Toxicity of Components (0)

While this is obviously dependent on the type of equipment purchased, the fact that it is more specialized, of higher quality and simpler, this does help reduce pollution in the production and disposal of the equipment. It also is less likely to off-gas during use. That said, because more equipment is needed, those advantages are diminished, hence the (0) rating.

Labor Relations (+1)

This has two parts: the labor to produce the equipment and the “labor” to own it. For the first part, if I am concerned that the equipment is of higher quality and simpler, then I would typically also take the time to ensure that it is from a company that has better labor relations. Moreover, since I would typically purchase the system in parts, I would have something in place to listen to sooner, so this would take some of the pressure away from a rushed purchase, which would give me the time to research the product and company further.

As for the “labor” to own it, a sophisticated and complex whole-house system is more likely require a specialist to set it up – if it requires construction into a specialized space, that would also require non-technical labor, some of which may be unfairly treated. I could do this myself, but then I put myself at risk. However, a simpler and more specialized system for each room is less likely to need this and I could do this myself more easily. If so, then the issues with labor are likely to be less acute.

Product Recycling (+1)

Again, because the product is likely to be of higher quality for all the reasons listed above, then I could also take the time to ensure that the manufacturer includes a recycling program in place. As for the additional packaging that is required to ship more equipment, I could take it upon myself to recycle it, maybe better than a company would. Finally, if the manufacturer does not take back the equipment, I could still take it upon myself to ensure that it is repurposed, disassembled and/or recycled properly at the end of its useful life.

Fair Pricing (+1)

Because I would be buying more pieces, over a longer period of time, I would be better able to ensure that the product is priced fairly in comparison to the competition. Also, a single super-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink system is going to have less competition – there will be fewer choices and so prices will be high across the board. It will be stuffed with features and buttons, most of which will seldom be used, but they will still increase the product’s price. This is all less likely in simpler and more modular products.

Total Score: +4

Conclusion: Distributed is Liberating

It all boils down to being able to get products that I can take more time to select and configure over a longer period of time. This gives me choice and freedom, and who would not want that. And just so that I don’t come off as being completely off my rocker, the trend all over the country is distributed rather than consolidated. Just consider the desire for people to buy local, to bank at smaller banks rather than big multi-nationals, to install their own solar panels rather than purchasing electricity from large power companies, and to favor simple Apple iPhones/iPads over big PCs with too many features. Even in the home, distributed power, heating, and cooling systems are being adopted. One interesting new trend is to install small in-line water heaters under the kitchen sink and the bathroom tub rather than wasting gallons waiting for the water to warm up.

Yes people, being green is to favour specialized, simple, distributed, modular, and quality products over the bloated super-everything systems of the last century. Even millionaires drive Priuses! Don’t agree? Then drop me a note below.

GreenHiFi Review of the Qinpu Q2

Ecological Review of the amazingly priced ($99) Qinpu Q2 headphone / integrated tube amplifier

Transient

This is a quick review of the Qinpu Q2 integrated amplifier. I have been using it for various functions for about 3 months now and I am actually quite happy with it. It’s not audiophile quality, but for what it does do at a whopping $99 is pretty impressive. But the question for us here is whether it qualifies as being green. As such, this isn't a review about the performance of this amplifier as much as it is about how green it is. There are several reviews online about how this amp sounds - just Google Q2 for a quick list. Here we will be evaluating the Q2 and Qinpu based on the following criteria:

  • Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation
  • Product Quality and Simplicity
  • Adequate Packaging
  • Toxicity of Components
  • Company Labor Relations
  • Product Recycling
  • Fair Pricing

Introduction

The Q2 is the least expensive integrated amplifier sold by Chinese manufacturer Qinpu. It retails for $99 at many online resellers, including Audio Advisor, where I purchased mine. It is primarily billed as a tube-based headphone amp but it also happens to have speaker binding posts, which makes it quite versatile. However, at only 2.5 Watts RMS, this isn't an amplifier that is going to drive electrostatic speakers; it will drive primarily highly sensitive speakers.

Energy-Efficiency and Heat-Dissipation: Score = 4

The Q2 was quite remarkable in this area, considering it is a tube amplifier. While not running as hot as other tube amps (after all, it only has one), it does put out a very small amount of heat. I listened to several LPs amplified by a Project PhonoBox phono preamp into the Q2’s RCA CD input. The Q2 dial was at 50% and at the end of the fourth album (classic rock: Rush 2112), and I took a temperature reading on the tube of 103 degrees. A bit high, but considering this is from a single tiny tube doing all the work, that’s not too bad. (Actually, the Q2 is a hybrid amp, so to say the tube is doing all the work, isn’t completely accurate, but the tube was the hottest part of the amp - hence the reading). Other parts of the amp were cool to the touch.

Energy consumption is low, but considering that it only puts out 2.5 Watts RMS at 8 ohms, this is expected. The Q2 uses a comparably low 10 Watts (119.1 volts / 0.11 amp) of energy during typical operation - actually I drove the amp pretty hard and that was the reading - I measured this while running the volume dial at 50% listening to first Ravel's Bolero and then the more dynamic Mysterious Mountain from Allan Hovhannes. Not bad.

A note about the power & the volume: I am using the amp with a pair of Zu Audio Soul Superfly speakers rated at 101dB SPL @ 1W/1m and 16 ohm. Those are extremely efficient near-full-range speakers and not typical fare. The power output was acceptable and the sound quality about average.  I then also tried a pair of Klipsch RB35 speakers at 96dB and 8 ohms, and the performance was already slightly diminished. That said, those Klipsch speakers are still very efficient, so I don’t expect this amp to be a good match for many mid-priced speakers out there. Perhaps a more down-to-earth load was through the Talon Audio Khites, 90dB SPL and 8 ohm, which is about average for today’s bookshelf speakers. This combination still produced respectable music, but this was no longer what I would consider Hi Fi. Dynamics were diminished, volume was quite a bit lower, and the bass was anaemic. To put it succinctly, the sound was thin and lost much of what makes tube amps so unique. This may be acceptable for background music, but this was quite a bit to give up. Considering that many higher end speakers are far less efficient, this makes matching the Q2 to the right speakers something one must do very carefully.

Product Quality and Simplicity: Score = 3

Transient

At first I was pretty impressed, but I have to say that after some moving around of the unit (headphone amps tend to get moved around more than other components), I noticed that the tube was a bit loose – I had to straighten/re-seat it a couple of times already. The RCA jacks and the headphone inputs & outputs on the back are a little flimsy as well. Also, I just noticed this week that the power supply (the heaviest part) was loose. It looks like I will have to open the amp to tighten the screws in the near future. The selector and volume buttons, white pretty solid feeling, are also off-center. This is a pet-peeve of mine and seems to be quite common in mass-produced equipment.

While it certainly has a distinctive look, I also have a very small bone to pick about that. It has lots of surfaces that collect dust and grime. Its unconventional shape also makes it a bit inconvenient to pick up & move. One also needs a recommended 8” of clearance between shelves if placing it on a rack or bookcase. Granted, it’s not very big (5.3" x 7.1" x 3.1"), but it does have an awkward shape and because of its weight (4 lbs.) it is not as easy to pick up as other headphone amps that have come across my desk.

The product is pretty simple. No unnecessary features or buttons, although it does have a lot of capability in such a small package. I would say that this is more of a plus than a minus. The power rocker switch on the side is a bit odd, but otherwise it’s fairly straightforward. One doesn’t need a manual to figure out how to set it up. The manual, by the way, is pretty sparse and covers other Qinpu models as well, but it’s adequate.

Transient

The power cord is attached, so it cannot easily be replaced should it become frayed or weak over time. It can also not be upgraded with an after-market cord, of course. Likewise the included RCA to 3.5mm cable is a generic back/white/red cable that will likely not last more than a few years of active use.

The black surfaces of the amp are brushed aluminum which means that fingerprints are less visible and scratches are also harder to notice. The red plastic is also pretty solid and while glossy, it is unlikely to deteriorate or become scratched too easily. The tube cage is a little flimsy. It is made of chromed metal of some sort, so I don’t expect too much trouble there, but it is fragile. I would not accidentally drop something heavy on it.

Adequate Packaging: Score = 3

The Qinpu Q2 came in a single standard white packing box, made of non-recycled cardboard. It’s reasonably solid, being able to withstand at least 2-3 shippings, but not much more. The amp is not double boxed, and I believe all amps should be. Inside, the amp is in a plastic cover surrounded by thick foam on six sides, although this does not cover the entire amp. A puncture of the box in the wrong place could damage the exposed tube or tube cage, although the rest of the amp would probably survive this type of mishap.

Transient

Toxicity of Components: Score = (3)

Qinpu does not offer any information about this. I am going to presume that minimum requirements for shipment to the US market are met. However, this does not suggest many of the safeguards that are typical in products manufactured in Europe such as the use of lead-free solder. I have no way of testing this thoroughly, but a quick look inside suggests a rather rushed manufacturing process typical of mass-produced components. I emailed Qinpu repeatedly to ask them to offer more input on this issue, but I received no response. Unfortunately, I have little more information to relay than the picture below.

Transient

I wish I knew more about China’s regulations on this issue, but unfortunately I don’t. I have therefore no choice but to give a rating of three on this category. If anyone has additional information to offer on this issue, please add a comment at the end of this post.

Labor Relations: Score = (3)

Qinpu products are manufactured in Guangzhou City, at their factory. They have 12 years of manufacturing experience and I have not found any labor issues with this factory. This doesn’t mean it is without issues, but there are no formal reports or complaints, so I must presume that the employees are treated fairly. that said, the price-point of this product makes this suspect. I asked several manufacturers what it would cost to manufacture this type of product here in the US and the price was several times more. While a comparatively poor wage by our standards goes further in China, that is still out of proportion with the $99 price tag of this unit. Considering that shippers and resellers typically account for roughly 40% of the retail price of goods manufactured abroad, that would make the manufacturing cost of the Q2 roughly $60. I don't know how that is possible and I really don't know if the math adds up.

Product Recycling: Score = (3)

Because the products ship from abroad, there is no real product recycling or exchange program after the useful life of the product. The US distributors will offer to take products back, but there is no information on whether Qinpu then takes ownership back. Actually, the only reseller that responded to my inquiries on this was Audio Advisor (they have fairly comprehensive recycling and green initiative programs in place, and returned audio equipment is refurbished and resold via the second-hand market - come to think of it, I should probably do a story about this).

Fair Pricing: Score = 5

Obviously, this is one area where the Qinpu Q2 shines. The product is about as inexpensive as can be. I do not think anything manufactured abroad or locally can be priced any lower. As such, it represents an amazing value. I wish I could combine this with viable information about manufacturing and labor, but unfortunately that is not possible at this time. So I'm giving it a guarded but deserved score of 5. 

Transient

Conclusion: Average Score = 3.4

I wish I had more information on Qinpu's corporate practices. Unfortunately, with them being located in China, this is a bit hard to ascertain. I have attempted to contact Qinpu and its resellers but the only ones who were responsive were Audio Advisor (hence the reason I purchased from them), but they could only respond about their own corporate policies and could provide little info about Qinpu. I believe they purchase the product from another US distributor, so AA is even further removed from the company.

Elsewhere on this site I also mention that I expect customers to bear part of the responsibility for ensuring that products are green. Of course, my decision to purchase this product without being able to confirm that it is manufactured in accordance with my own standards does smack of hypocrisy to some extent. I could excuse myself by saying that I hadn't exactly established these standards when I purchased the amp, but that would be a cop-out. I therefore bear some responsibility for encouraging the manufacture of products that may not be fairly produced. That said, the whole point of this web project is to try an redeem myself from these mistakes. I do intend to find something better to replace it. As a matter of fact, I already have two new amps on the docket, including the Schiit Audio Asgard and the NuForce Icon2 - stay tuned.

As with all my posts, please feel free to comment and let me know how I can improve things.

Greening up the ManCave

Adding plants to the listening room and why this is an ecologically sound practice

Is there anything ecological about adding plants to a room with a sound system? Aside from the fact that most plants are likely going to be green in color, plants also contribute to a creating a greener and healthier environment for people in the room. Now before you click away to another site, let me just say that there is good evidence for this. Personally, I’m not a believer in auras, telepathy, bending spoons with the mind, or the idea that a power cable will dramatically change the sound of an amplifier. The fact is, if I’m going to write about it, it better be verifiable and repeatable in a controlled setting.

The color green

Aside from being symbolic of the green movement, the color green has interesting properties on its own. Psychologist have shown that the color green has a calming effect on people. It is used in public spaces where this is important, is encouraged for the bedrooms of children with hyperactive children, and is also used in therapies (ref. All About the Color Green).

More importantly, green is recognized by the eye as balanced and centered. Because green is in the middle of the color spectrum, the green wavelength hits the eye in a way that requires very little adjustment. As a result, the mind recognizes green easily and interprets it to be centered and balanced (ref. Wikipedia: Green). This could be helpful when audiophiles are trying to evaluate two different pieces of equipment or different musical selections. Of course, for many people and many types of music, actively listening also requires a peaceful and balance setting.

Finally, green also symbolizes life & nature. At some level, perhaps only subconsciously, adding green to a sound room is a tacit acknowledgement that ecological issues matter. In rooms that are traditionally dark and typically painted or decorated in color schemes ranging from beige to pure black, adding a little green color suggests that there is more to this room than just the ordinary hum-drum sameness of all the other sound and home theater rooms seen in magazines and movies. I’ll even go out on a limb and suggests that it can add a modicum of still-acceptable life-giving/nurturing feminism to this otherwise dark and ominous place.

Plants help cool the room

Aside from the fact that the calming color serves to cool the room psychologically, plants can actually cool the room that a sound system is in. According to several recent research projects on the topic, such as the one done at Washington State University, “Plants cool by a process called transpiration, which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decreases air temperature in offices by ten degrees” (see: Why Go Green?). This is quite significant for sound rooms since the equipment there, everything from home theater processors down to simple amplifiers typically raise the temperature in the room. If we also consider that people in the room also raise the temperature, plants almost become a necessity.

So did that work for me? I can’t really say. I’ve added several plants to the room now and still have not been able to measure a difference in temperature. Granted, I’m not doing extensive or carefully controlled testing of this. I’ve merely placed a thermometer in the room and have been keeping a record of the temperature, but I have not been able to establish a reliable baseline to rely on yet. Perhaps as I continue to do this will there be more data to draw on, but for now, my results have been inconclusive.

Plants clean the air in the room

This is already well known, but for audiophiles there are additional details to consider. Sound equipment has many parts made of synthetic materials, plastics and glues that off-gas when they reach a certain temperature. Some of these gasses can actually be toxic when equipment overheats. While ordinary sound equipment does typically go through some testing to ensure that toxic chemicals are not released under normal use, this is also where products from countries where this testing is not as rigorous, show their disadvantage. Can we really be certain that that beautiful preamplifier manufactured and assembled in a sweat shop in some poor country by overworked and abused workers is going to meet the higher standards of quality control? Likewise, is that rock-bottom-priced tubed CD player really designed to be listened to for hours on end in sunny Arizona all day? Can we really be sure that it doesn’t emit just a trace amount of chemicals that over the lifetime of the equipment could contribute to some illness?

Now plants aren’t going to prevent this process, but they can help a little. As a matter of fact, plants are designed to do just that. It is their function in the wild. NASA researchers found that some plants can actually “remove many of the more than 300 chemicals found in the air of a spacecraft” (ref: Manfred Kaiser). Certainly adding a plant or two to the room can help clear the air just a smidgen.

So does it work? Well, I can say that it has worked for me. My TV room always had a distinct burned iron smell – it was very minor but always noticeable. So I added two potted ficus trees and a large money plant to the mantle of the fireplace in the room and after just a few days, the smell was gone. Now I doubt the smell was toxic in any way, but it was certainly nice to get rid of it. Not to belabor the point, but one could think of other “smells” in that room that could probably be addressed with a strategically placed plant or two…

Plants clean the dust in the room

Now for anyone who has stereo equipment of any type, this should be reason number one to add plants. As we all know, hi fi equipment is like a magnet to dust. If the equipment is black, which most hi fi is, then this is easily seen after just a month or two of owning the equipment. Over my lifetime I have probably wiped a whole suitcase full of dust off of my equipment. Well, there is some good news here.

According to researchers at the University of Washington (same group of folks referenced above), plants can remove as much as 20% of the dust from a room (ref: Impact of Interior Plants). Now 20% may not seem like a lot, but that equates to 1/5 less dust to wipe off of equipment. If we also consider that most of that wiping just re-distributes the dust into the air, and that vacuum cleaners also release dust back into the air, then adding plants can certainly help. Speaking of vacuum cleaners, I use one with a pretty good filter, but the fact is that even the best HEPA filters will still blow the smaller particles back into the air of the room. This is OK for plants, since they can more easily remove smaller particles than bigger ones, so together, vacuuming and plants are likely to remove far more than just 20% of the dust in the room. Using air filters can help as well, although these will require more energy to run as well and they typically are noisy and need to be kept on a while to be effective.

So did my plants help remove the dust? Yes, I do believe so. I now vacuum less often (and not just because I’m lazier, lol). While it’s hard to prove this conclusively, it does seem to me that I need to vacuum the room less often and I also dust less. I have several smooth piano black and glass surfaces in the room and they seem to need less dusting now that the plants are there.

Plants help diffuse sound

Now why is this important? Well, we’ve all clapped our hands in an empty room and heard the echo. This is reflected sound and it arrives at our ears just slightly later than direct sound. When listening to music or speech, it makes the sound seem blurred and imprecise. Typically, most people turn up the volume, but that doesn’t really solve the underlying issue. What is needed is less reflective surfaces around the room. Audiophiles will typically hang special sound-absorbing panels at reflection points around the room, and good movie theaters use thick curtains for this, but these solutions can be expensive, unsightly and cumbersome.

Another way to reduce reflections is to use large small-leafed plants at those same reflection points and in corners of the room. This is especially true for panel speakers like electrostatic panels since they project sound from the whole surface of the panel against the side and rear walls. A well-placed ficus behind each speaker, as this person has done: (see: Paco's Living Room System), would certainly help tame those reflections.

Did it work for me? Yes, but I’m not certain if I like the change as much as I would have hoped. The Ficus I have behind my Magnepans do help diffuse the sound that is reflected onto the back wall and does improve the sound, but I can’t quite say that I like the new sound any better than the old. It now sounds crisper and more focused, but I kind of liked the softer sound I had before adding the plants. Perhaps I just need to get used to the new sound but I’m not sold on it yet. The difference is also minor in most cases.

So do plants help contribute to greening up one’s system?

Yes, a little. Combined, the benefits listed above do make a compelling reason to adopt a few green plants in the audio/TV room. They contribute color and life to the room, they help clean the air, and they help tailor the sound to one’s liking by diffusing some of the reflected sounds in the room. This in turn may also persuade someone who was about to purchase a new set of speakers or “better” equipment to try adding plants to the room instead. This in turn helps reduce electronic waste over the long term.

Green Thoughts on the Demise of Outlaw's Model 978 HT Processor

Outlaw Audio’s announcement of the abandonment of the long-awaited Model 978 Home Theater Preamp/Processor, spells more trouble for the company than people may think, and could have been avoided.

This is a picture of what it was expected to look like (linked from the Outlaw Audio website)

This is a picture of what it was expected to look like (linked from the Outlaw Audio website)

Demise may be a strong word. This is just one product, after all, not the whole company, right? Perhaps, but after so many excuses and delays as well as the inclusion of competitor’s products to fill this critical hole in their product line, I am worried that this may be a bad omen for the company as a whole. Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t like the company. On the contrary, I have owned amps, pre/pros and even their ICBM with great enjoyment. But despite their still-solid selection of amps, it is with pre/pros that Outlaw put themselves on the map, so well in fact, that they completely eliminated their 2-channel amps several years back. Now they have been dealt a serious, perhaps fatal blow in this crucial market sector, leaving the battlefield wide open for Integra, Cambridge Audio and others who make receivers and pre/pros to fill the void.

From a green ecological perspective, I also believe that they could have done things differently, with this pre/pro as well as long before it. I’m thinking not only of energy-efficiency, but also many of the other factors that make a product green. To wit:

Product Quality and Simplicity

Outlaw was pretty solid on quality. In all the years I’ve owned their products, I never had one fail. I did however receive a 970 pre/pro that was missing the 12v trigger jacks on the back – evidently they had not been soldered properly and had fallen out. That to me says quality control was lax. Of course, when you ship hundreds of products from a factory in some far off land, that is bound to happen. To their credit, Outlaw fixed the problem fast at no cost to me.

The bigger issue to me was simplicity. Outlaw tried in vain to provide the latest features like Trinnov audio processing on their announced but never released 997 pre/pro. It was eventually offered to the mainstream consumer on the Sherwood Newcastle Receiver, but this advanced and complex feature was a bridge to nowhere and Sherwood was quick to realize that. Outlaw pulled the plug on that pre/pro completely, apologized profusely to its patient but still-loyal customers and announced that they would offer an even better pre/pro at a slightly higher price-point. Feature bloat led to more delays and broken promises and to the announcement today that this pre/pro would also be abandoned.

The sad fact is that the 990 pre/pro, their most respected product to date, in my opinion, was lacking just one critical feature: HDMI. Initially Outlaw steadfastly stuck to DVI and refused to add HDMI claiming it had too many issues and that the spec was changing too fast for their product schedule. I believe that had Outlaw simply added HDMI to the 990, and continued to provide a rock-solid performer that was reliable throughout, with maybe a few extra certifications and software additions here & there, that over time, they would now be giving Emotiva a run for its money.

Energy-efficiency & Heat reduction

These are green factors that I think could have been added to the product line at minimal cost. That said, they could have provided a healthy new source for advertising: Outlaw: “An American company doing the right thing for the future!”

Energy-efficiency could have been added with minor tweaks to the hardware and software over time as the product evolved. Additional heat sinking could have been added to deal with heat. The 990 (and 970) were already pretty cool-running, so reducing this a bit more could have been done at minimal expense. As for energy use, low-power modes for standby could have been added with a simple upgrade as well, perhaps entirely in software. Another feature that could have been added at minimal cost is the option to turn off unused channels and/or to add a low volume use mode. Most of the programming people watch is TV, which typically doesn’t require the full capabilities of the whole pre/pro. Even movies are mostly dialog and low-volume, so this would have been a welcome and often-used feature, I believe.

Adequate Packaging

Adequate packaging is a no-brainer. Use recycled cardboard, work with a green organization to design packaging that reduces excesses, and find delivery methods, routes, and carriers that also use greener solutions. All this could be added to the marketing without affecting the product in any way. For a more aggressive approach, some components inside the pre/pro could be exchanged for lighter ones at minimal cost over time. That said, packaging alone could have been a marketing point.

Reducing the Toxicity of Components

For the toxicity of the components used inside the pre/pro, the situation is a bit more complex, I realize this. This would invariably raise the price of the product. However, there are some longer-term benefits to consider. It would make the product ready for future regulations that will require them, such as lead-free solder requirements. It would also extend the potential market for the product to countries, especially in Europe, that already require tougher guidelines for product distribution. In short, it would make the product more competitive with those coming from Europe. This would not only allow more expansion there, but also compete more aggressively with European products imported here into the US that are in the same price-range such as Rotel and Arcam.

Labor Relations

The simple fact is that the reason products are less expensive to assemble and manufacture in China, where Outlaw and most of its competitors source their products, is because the employees there are paid less, have fewer protections from abuse, and work longer hours. Ultimately, asking for a product to be manufactured in China entails a gamble of the sort that Outlaw lost. It is my opinion (and I make no claims to be an expert), that had this product been manufactured closer to home, the kind of underhanded pressure that drove Outlaw away from its chosen factory in China, and ultimately doomed the product entirely,  would not have been possible in the US. Even if this had occurred, Outlaw could have challenged the action in court and the cost of fighting this by said rival would have been too great to be as successful as it was in China.

If we add to this the fact that it is simply too difficult to monitor quality and proper output with the same diligence that Outlaw’s larger competitors do this, it becomes clear that Outlaw’s options in China, or any other far away place for that matter, are limited. I’ve spoken to many representatives from PrimaLuna, Cambridge Audio, and others about the difficulties of ensuring quality in China, India, and other Far East countries and it’s an uphill battle that requires significant infrastructure and investment to do effectively. Outlaw is a much smaller player and simply does not have the resources to compete at that level.

While I don’t want to belabor the obvious point, but I am also convinced that employees paid a fair wage, working less hours, and offered such important benefits as health insurance and savings options, produce a higher quality product. This is especially true over time. People may disagree with me, but in my own work (yes I do have a day job, LOL), I see this model repeated over and over again and this is true in the private sector as well as the public sector. Employees that are unhappy cut corners, work less energetically, and are sick/absent more often (not to mention that if they come to work sick, they make others sick). If you’ll permit a small segue, it amazes me how much backlash there is against workers’ rights in the US, especially by conservative lawmakers, when it has been shown over & over again that happier workers produce better goods faster and that this is better for the bottom line of the company/organization, as well as the economy as a whole. What is true in Chinese sweat shops is true here too, I’m afraid.

Product Recycling

Here is another area where I think Outlaw could have done more. They are already half-way there, since they do occasionally purchase back products such for refurbishing, parts salvaging and resale. I can’t fault Outlaw too much on this since they are one of the few companies that do. However, it should be something they promote more, on their website and on other websites through ads.

I understand that there is a downside to this – namely that it makes people see Outlaw as a recycler of goods rather than an innovator of new products. I agree that this is a stigma endemic in American consumerism that is hard to ignore. However times are changing. I believe that if done well, with a carefully managed marketing campaign, such an effort could dwarf the negative impressions that consumers may have. If Outlaw made it part of a broader “Green and Made in America” campaign, I think this could very well become an important selling point.

There is a significant backlash against the “walmartization” of products for the American consumer, and this is especially acute in mid-fi and hi-fi audio where Outlaw competes. I’ve been to many audio events and the resellers/manufacturers of Chinese (and other foreign-sourced) products stumble over themselves downplaying where the products come from. Those show-rooms are also the emptiest and least visited. While it is likely not the case that these products sound or perform significantly worse, the fact is that consumers tend to avoid them nonetheless. Outlaw could build on that trend by returning to manufacturing and assembly in the US.

Fair Pricing

This seems to have been the primary motivator for Outlaw’s decision to outsource its manufacturing and assembly to a Chinese factory. Despite this, the product was expected to be more expensive than the previous 990, and ultimately after years of delays, it never materialized. I firmly believe that consumers at all levels, from middle-class consumers to price-is-no-object millionaires, are willing and able to pay a bit more for products that they feel is of higher quality, will last longer, supports local economies, and won’t take months to have repaired. I’ve asked this of consumers everywhere I go and while money is tight, to be sure, the benefits of longevity usually outweigh the quest for the lowest price.

I’ve also talked with Hi Fi manufacturers and resellers about this as it is a cornerstone of my project here, and they also concur that the quality control issues and distance of products sourced from the Far East negatively affect sales. Consumers are realizing that cheaper prices don’t necessarily imply better value. While at the lowest-levels of mass-market quality, price is still the dominant factor, this is not where Outlaw is trying to compete, and one could argue, nor should they compete there. What Outlaw needed to do years ago, is realize that prices would increase if products were produced domestically, but that this would ultimately work out for them in the long run. With such a loyal following in the industry, I truly believe their customers would have accepted this honesty and continued to purchase their products. Unfortunately, Outlaw now doesn’t have any pre/pro product that their loyal customers can defend.

Final Thoughts

Those were my initial thoughts about Outlaw Audio’s announcement this morning that they have abandoned the development of their Model 970 pre/pro. I can’t say I am not a bit bitter about this, and perhaps my disappointment shows in my post today. If so, post a comment. I should also add that I’m not privy to any inside information or other details about what led to this debacle – I don’t even know what rival company pressured Outlaw’s chosen factory for producing the 970 to abandon them – although I’m sure that will be leaked onto the internet in the next few days.

Ultimately, this is a tragedy for a company that has tried to find a niche for itself in a very competitive market, and this time it has seriously miscalculated its abilities. I believe that if Outlaw had adopted more green initiatives a long time ago, they would have reaped the benefits early on and been in a much better position today. Instead, it is now going to struggle to survive and demonstrate where in this industry it can still have an impact. I sincerely hope this is not the end for Outlaw as I have greatly enjoyed their products and service over the years, but this is certainly not a good omen for the future of the company.

Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio on Being Green (pt.2)

Part 2 of my interview with Jason Stoddard, co-founder of Schiit Audio, about ecologically-friendly solutions in manufacturing HiFi equipment.

Jason Stoddard (linked from the Schiit Audio website)

Jason Stoddard (linked from the Schiit Audio website)

Last week, I posted part 1 of my email interview with Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio, a California-based manufacturer of award-winning headphone amps & DACs. What sets the company apart, according to Jason, is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, they manufacture the products here in California, and their amps can drive even the most inefficient headphones, all at a very competitive price.

I should also mention that I was rather impressed with Jason’s candid answers. I was also impressed with the fact that the manufacturing does indeed follow the kind of green thinking that this website believes in. After some more discussion with Jason about the headphones I own, the music I listen to, and my interest in keeping things green, he recommended I try out one of his amps. I decided to purchase the Asgard, their entry-level amp. Even though it is their least expensive product, Jason assured me that I would be impressed.

So I ordered the amp through a third-party vendor and paid full price for it, just so there isn’t any bias. It will go straight up against my beloved, tube-based, Chinese-made, little $67 Quinpu Q2, a small 2.5 watt integrated amp. The Qinpu is about as non-green as they come and the polar opposite to the Asgard in every way. The Asgard also costs a whopping 3½ times as much, so will it also sound 3½ as good? Will it be greener? Well I will write about it as soon as I can get them side-by-side: review coming soon.

So on that note, onto the rest of the interview.

Jason, where does Sschiit source parts?

Depending on the parts, we either buy direct from manufacturers or through distribution. They come from all over the world. The majority of our cost stays with US manufacturers, but there are definitely Japanese and Chinese parts in our products.

Do you have any checks in place to ensure that parts quality meets standards?

Absolutely. All suppliers are qualified through product testing, and any changes are re-qualified. We have not one, but two Stanford Research SR-1 audio analyzers—one optimized for analog, and one optimized for digital. In addition, all products are "burned in"--left on for 24 hours--to catch any early failures before shipping.

Are your amplifiers sold in Europe?

Yep!

If so, do you need to modify them to meet stricter environmental standards?

Nope!

Do you check if the companies you purchase components from treat their employees fairly and follow environmental laws?

I think that's a little outside the scope of a small manufacturer. The major parts suppliers we've all been on-site with and I'm confident they're cool, especially seeing as how they're in California. The smaller parts must be RoHS compliant for CE certification, so we're covered there.

How do you dispose of electronic parts and possibly toxic materials at your manufacturing facility?

We don't really have much in the way of waste, since our PC boards are assembled by a contract manufacturer in Simi Valley. We don't use any chemicals stronger than Windex. Bad metalwork and stuff like that goes back to recycling. To be honest, we haven't thought about it much yet.

I haven't ordered a product from you yet, although I certainly intend to. Are there any measures taken to use recyclable materials in the shipping boxes and packing?

Everything's recyclable, and we don't use any color printing or toxic inks.

Would you consider adding a statement on your website mentioning ecologically-friendly  manufacturing, shipping, and recycling.

Perhaps in context--I'd much rather key on the "buy it and use it forever" argument than simply lip-service. We have a different philosophy, based on the long view, rather than short-sighted profit chasing and endless obsolescence. That's where I think the value is.

Let's end this with a thought exercise: Which is the most environmentally conscious decision...(a) Buying a new Prius and reducing emissions, while commuting 60 miles each day down the 405 to your job, and requiring the global infrastructure necessary to make and ship tens of thousands of components all over the world for its manufacturing and maintenance, or (b) Driving the same old 1968 Mustang for 40 years, 2 miles back and forth to your job, and eliminating the whole new car thing entirely? Hint: there's no necessarily "right" answer. Or it's "get a bike." Or "convert the Mustang to biodiesel." Or something like that.

Like I said, we don't take ourselves too seriously around here!

High Prices in High End Audio

Are high prices of high end audio justified? …And are they Green?

As I pointed out in a previous post about pricing (See: Are Green Audio Products More Expensive?), people can expect to pay slightly more for products when they are also ecologically-friendly. This then begs the question of whether hi fi should command much higher prices. Some products certainly are priced extremely high and one has to wonder whether this is justified. Likewise, does being green require such expenditures.

Cables

One type of hi fi product that often raises eyebrows is cabling, especially when these are priced extremely high. For example, the Oracle MA-X Super HD Bi-Wire Speaker cables from MIT retail for $42,000, more than an entry-level luxury sedan. So, does this cable sound better than their next model down, the Oracle Matrix Super HD 120 Bi-Wire Speaker cables, retailing for a more modest $26,000? This  is the cost of a mid-level  Toyota Camry. With such a considerable difference in price, does the extra $16,000 buy an equivalent amount of improvement over the next model down? Common sense would suggest not.

Personally, I’ve never had the opportunity to hear such expensive speaker cables, but everything I have heard (up to about ~$5000) sounded pretty much the same as considerably less expensive cables. In the sub-$1000 category, everything I have been able to compare with home A/B testing sounded 90% the same. Only when dipping down to the generic and sub-$50 bottom of the heap, can I honestly say there were noticeable differences from more expensive cables, differences that I could hear and replicate. Of course, these are my personal experiences with a small number of cables I have had the opportunity to hear and test.

My opinion on this is that at the very bottom, mass-production errors and low-cost construction materials combine to arrive at a verifiably sub-par product. At the other end, where high-prices are the norm, my opinion is that the cables may, under very particular circumstances, and when connected to very specific equipment, exhibit differences that a very small number of people can hear. However, those are, in my opinion, only differences in sound character, and not necessarily differences that represent higher sound quality – in short, they may sound different, but not better.

What about other components?

Cables are a fairly easy target since most people don’t believe that the differences significantly audible. They are, but only slightly so in my experience. Consequently, most people do not believe that the higher prices are justified. All right, but what about larger, more complex components such as speakers and amplifiers? Does the same argument apply? Again, it is my professional opinion, from what I have heard, that yes, above a certain price-point, the components may sound different, but not necessarily better. For example, a $10,000 preamplifier will sound different, but not necessarily better than a $5,000 one, despite the 100% increase in price. Dipping down into the $1000-2000 price point there are models that give the more expensive ones a run for their money. Odyssey Audio makes an amplifier called the Khartago. While perhaps not the most energy efficient amplifier, for a mere $895 it meets many of the green criteria, competes with amplifiers 2-3 times its price, and can drive just about any speaker available, even Magnepan ribbon/planar speakers.

It is important to point out here, that while products such as the Odyssey Khartago aren’t the most green, they meet enough of the criteria that we do include it here. At these price points, compromises have to be made. This then begs the question, what is the price point for a truly green product. Unfortunately, just as there is no product that is entirely green, there also isn’t a precise price point. Like all things in life, it’s a matter of compromises. Our hope is that if customers make the conscious choice to demand greener products, then the industry will gradually conform to that demand – after all, manufacturers do need to sell their products. In the mean-time, we’ll continue to point out products that go a bit farther than the competition to be green. Likewise, there is ample competition to be green for us to compare products against each other.

Speakers

There are a number of speaker manufacturers who have adopted very green position and make it a cornerstone of their corporate philosophy . For example, Escalante Designs, a company that strongly emphasizes green manufacturing and design, has an entry-level monitor, the Pinyon, that retails for $7000, a hefty sum for a medium-sized bookshelf speaker. There is considerable experience and research behind Escalante speakers, however, so the question before us is whether the $7000 price point is justified.

Zu Audio, another company that has a strong commitment to green manufacturing, also has an entry level  speaker, the Omen Bookshelf, that retails for $1200. We then have to ask: does Escalante’s speaker sound $5800 better? Having heard both, I can say that the Escalante speaker sounds larger and more authoritative. That said, this doesn’t  really justify a price-point that is nearly 6 times as much. The Escalante speakers sound very different, yes, but this is less a function of sound superiority than it is of simple difference in character – it is different much more than it is better, in my experience.

As for being green, these two bookshelf speakers’ credentials are surprisingly similar, especially if measured by our own criteria. If being green is a primary concern, then either speaker will meet the customer’s needs. That said, sound preference and system synergy should determine which would be the better fit for each individual customer.

From a green perspective, one question that remains is whether paying 2-20 times as much for a product that sounds different but not necessarily better is justified. It is true that many people who buy at these price points aren’t too concerned about the cost, and for them perhaps this is a moot point, but that is not the position we hold. That difference could go to purchase solar panels, fund a soup kitchen, support a children’s hospital, or fund student scholarships. At the risk of sounding too preachy, it could bring a poor child from the third world to this country and change their life profoundly, and quite possibly that experience will change the lives of many other people.

In conclusion

There should be a common sense limit for how high a product is priced. That extra smidgen of performance or synergy that the higher-priced product may provide should be weighed against what else that difference in cost could fund. This decision is ultimately the responsibility of the purchaser. We will try on this site to identify products and companies that do not price their products excessively high, but we can’t evaluate every product. In the end, the customer should use common sense and a little research to arrive at a product that meets minimum sound quality in the system it is intended to be used in, and also not be priced excessively high. From their end, manufacturers should be able to justify higher costs to the buyer without too much difficulty. If not, the buyer should look elsewhere – there are enough other choices to select from.

From our perspective, there are many products in this industry that are simply priced too high. Even those products that have ample research behind them, use the best components and materials, and/or are assembled by hand in the US should be reasonably priced. This is so because there are other products from different manufacturers that meet the same or comparable criteria that cost less. Buyers should shop & compare, or if they really have money to burn, have someone do this for them.

What this ultimately boils down to, is that there is a shared responsibility when it comes to being green. Just as manufacturers should make efforts to be green, so too should customers  request these. Since this is a large and competitive industry, this should not be too difficult.

Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio on Being Green (pt.1)

Interview about ecologically-friendly technologies with Jason Stoddard, co-founder of Schiit Audio, a California-based manufacturer of award-winning headphone amps & DACs.

Jason Stoddard (linked from the Schiit Audio website)

Jason Stoddard (linked from the Schiit Audio website)

I met Jason at T.H.E. Show in Newport. I had read about Schiit Audio in passing, but didn't know too much about the company, the products, and what makes them so unique. Unlike most of the other rooms at the show, I actually wanted to enter this room - it wasn't stuffy, no one frowned at me for letting the door close too hard behind me, and I didn't feel like I was entering a temple and meeting royalty.

Jason was laughing and seemed to just be having a good time. Next to him, a young lady with leopard-print pants and a style all her own was dancing with headphones on. I later found out this was Rina, one of the engineers at Schiit audio and someone who could probably teach most of us a thing or two about what makes an amp sound good. And while I didn't take the opportunity to listen to the headphones amps (I prefer to do this with my own cans), everything I've now read about them makes me wish I had. As a matter of fact, I'm about to order one right after I post this.

I spoke with Jason for a few minutes but there were so many other rooms I still wanted to see before the end of the show, I rushed through our conversation. I did however ask him if I could follow this up with some questions via email and I didn't really expect a response. Well, Jason was kind enough to respond to all of my questions, even the thorny ones about ecological issues. Here is the first part of the interview:

 

  1. Jason, to be perfectly honest, I stumbled into your show room at T.H.E. Show in Newport by chance. You and your engineer Rina looked like you were having a good time just listening to the music, which seemed a bit out of place at this show where folks are a bit overly serious about things. So I figured I would pop in and see what made your products different from the rest of the exhibitors. I've now had time to read the website and some product reviews, and I have a better idea, but in your words, what makes you different from other small headphone / DAC manufacturers?

    A ton of things, starting with one you noticed: we don't take ourselves too seriously. There are way too many companies out there operating like they are selling the cure to cancer or something equally serious. We're selling cool electronics, cheap, that sound good. It's all about the music. If you're not having fun with your music, you're doing something wrong.

    Beyond that, our difference really comes down to three things:
     
    1. We make our stuff here in the USA. Really. As in, all of our major components (chassis, transformers, etc) are made by companies that are within a short drive of our office. No "make it in China and slap a label on it after final assembly" hanky-panky going on here.

    2. We make our stuff as efficiently as possible and price it based on a standard margin, not on "what we think the market will bear."

    3. We tell it like it is. I'm not here to tell everyone our most expensive amp is the best thing since solar panels--I can't count the number of times we've told people not to buy our products, and invest in better headphones or speakers first instead.

  2. We're both living & working in California. It's a wonderful state with great parks, decent infrastructure, sunshine to enjoy the outdoors with, and a fairly healthy green movement. What are your thoughts on having manufacturers of high end audio also adopt ecologically sound (i.e. green) technologies and initiatives?

    I think it's entirely up to them. I'd be thrilled to see them take a longer, more equitable view, rather than trying to sell $15 made-in-China products in fancy full-color-printed packaging for $250--which they will obsolete next year with a fancier model.

  3. I like the fact that your products are fairly priced, seemingly well-constructed, simple, functional, have a great waranty, and that you make them here in California - those are green values. However, the amps are class-A, little "space heaters" - definitely not ideal in our warm climate. From a technical perspective, is this energy and heat production necessary to attain the sound you're looking for? Is there room for a lower-energy/lower-heat model in your product line?

    Short, flippant answer: yes. Longer, more technical answer: none of our products uses any more energy than a 45 watt light bulb (a conventional one, admittedly.) Sure, we can drive the power consumption lower, but the cost will come in terms of either noise or distortion or more components. In the end, it's a profoundly different amp. We'd rather concentrate on making amps designed to last for a decade or so, which means you don't have a bunch of electronics ending up in landfills.

  4. Headphones can allow the listener to hear minute details in the music as well as the equipment. What are your thoughts on the effects of AC power on headphone amps? What about for DACs?

    AC is an evolving quantity. If you're talking about rectification and regulation of the standard 60 Hz supply, that's a well-known regime, and it's easy to get dead-silent DC from AC in that way. Unfortunately, with computer switching supplies, laptop bricks, and switching wall-warts now in a typical home, there's likely to be a ton of high frequency noise on the AC line as well. That's why we employ AC line filters in critical applications.

  5. From a technical perspective, what are your thoughts on battery-power?

    It's cool if you want to carry enough insurance to cover your assembly personnel accidentally shorting a lithium cell and losing some fingers. It's for China, not for us. At least not in current form. Plus, you have to deal with battery disposal.

  6. There are a number of class-D "digital" amps out there for speakers, but I don't believe anyone has been succesful doing this with a headphone amp. With B&O Ice chips and others cheaply available, this shouldn't be too hard to develop at a decent price-point. Why has no one done it? Would Schiit consider being the first?

    Why hasn't anyone done it? Well, to be blunt: they sound like crap. Speakers are more forgiving than headphones, so the deficiencies of class D are less apparent. Headphones uncover every flaw. That's why you'll see a plethora of Class-A, single-ended, no-feedback, tube, and other "alternate" topologies in headphone amps--because they're ruthlessly revealing. I think that's why you haven't seen anyone venturing into the class-D realm in headphones. Not to mention the additional switching noise, filtering, etc you have to deal with, or the fact that it's an evolving technology, which practically encourages obsolescence the second one of the big Class-D guys says, "hey, we have a new and improved module now!"

  7. You and Mike Moffat have backgrounds in companies that are known for big brawny "monoblocks that would cook a cat" as you put it on your website. In light of the fact that "Headphones are now the standard" for music listening, is big & brawny the direction for headphone amps in the future?

    Big and brawny, certainly, but everything's relative. Our 8W headphone amp is about 16X more powerful than a super-power headphone amp of yesteryear, but it's also kinda like saying, "We're the biggest gnat in the room." It still only uses about 45W of AC power. And anything more than that, strictly for headphones, is really not necessary. The trend is for more efficient headphones, so I don't expect to be introducing a more powerful, headphone-only amp.

  8. You mention on the website that there are other products you are considering, including "a full line of DACs." You already have two. Are more needed?

    At least one more is needed to round out the line and provide a new direction for digital. One of the problems we have with current DACs (yes, including ours) is that the delta-sigma D/A converter IC throws away all the original music samples. It provides only a digital "guess" as to what the original samples were. Some guesses can sound rather nice, but we'd like to see what we can do to change the model.

  9. Your amps can drive the most difficult headphone loads (to 600 ohm!). Surely that can also drive some sensitive speakers (I own a pair of 16 Ohm speakers, for example).

    Not necessarily. Our amps are developed for flea-power applications, and have protection in them to limit the current. 16-ohm speakers may be possible on Mjolnir, but you'll start hitting the overcurrent protection. Our headphone amps are, well, just headphone amps.

  10. Any thoughts on developing speaker amps? If so, would they also be big, brawny, and hot-running class-A monsters?

    We've thought about it, but we have to see what we can add to the party before we just rush in. I'm certain we won't be venturing into Class A again. The last 100W Class A amp I did dissipated 1500W or so at idle--ridiculously inefficient. I think that if we do speaker amps, we can get where we need to go with either our own Dynamically Adaptive output stage or our own Crossfet™ output stage--both of which provide significantly better efficiency than even the most efficient Class A designs. At idle, for example, a Crossfet 60-watt stereo amp would probably only draw about 50W, even though it could drive 4 ohm speakers at about 100W per channel.

 

In part 2 of the interview, I will focus on some issues dear to our website, such as labor issues, recycling, and environmental factors. If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas, let me know via our online form.