Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013

 

Let's Make It Here Audio Manufacturing in the USA
by Mike Wechsberg

 

Among all the drivel we heard during the recent election campaign was considerable talk about the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States. Most of this talk centered on the automobile industry. This got me thinking about our hobby of audio and how it fits into this ebb and flow of employment across the oceans. How much audio equipment is manufactured here? What can be done to encourage more production in the US for the future? (apologies to our non-US readers for what follows).

First, why is it important to have "high-end" audio equipment built locally in America? The main reason is "jobs." The music industry as a whole, including hardware, software and live entertainment of all genres, is a large business. One Internet post I found claims that global music sales exceed $40B annually and that doesn't include the hardware. I couldn't find a good number for US or global audio hardware sales without paying for a proprietary marketing report, but I'm sure it's in the billions of dollars. Such a large market provides an opportunity for many jobs.

When I looked at the state of US audio manufacturing (I'm only going to address audio hardware, not software production) I found two separate worlds. The high-end business, and "the rest", with the latter being the much larger piece. It can be argued that high-end audio started in the USA with such iconic names as Marantz, McIntosh, Bozak, Fisher, Scott, Klipsch, Acoustic Research, etc. A few of these names are still around, and some are still making components in this country. McIntosh, for example, has been manufacturing components in the US continuously since the early 1950's although it is now owned by an Italian conglomerate. The same conglomerate also owns two other US-based high-end audio manufacturers: Audio Research, and Wadia. Klipsch Audio, now based in Indianapolis, has been in continuous production of speakers in the US since 1946, although some of their products are now made in China and elsewhere. The company is now owned by Hauppauge, NY-based Audiovox, which also owns the Acoustic Research and Advent brand names, among others. Audiovox makes most of their money on automobile audio and accessories. The majority of high-end equipment made in the USA today is relatively expensive and targeted at an older age demographic that has plenty of disposable income.

US-based high-end audio is particularly rich in speaker companies like Wilson Audio, Vandersteen, Magnepan, Rockport, Magico, YG Acoustics, etc., etc. But, there are also many fine US companies in the audio electronics business such as McIntosh and Audio Research mentioned above, plus Conrad-Johnson, Manley, VTL, Ayre, Spectral, and dozens of others. When you add in the US manufacturers that supply cables, power conditioners and other accessories to the high-end community the count reaches into the hundreds of companies.

It seems I could stop the article right here by noting the US high-end manufacturing community is already pretty prolific. However, the problem is that all of this activity is pretty small (in both dollars and jobs) compared to the larger market for music audio in the US and around the world. That market is today primarily home theater and portable audio with an additional large segment in automobile audio. Therefore, the majority of consumers interested in music are getting it via low-resolution compressed digital on earphones, or by listening at home with a big screen in front of them over players and speakers purchased from big box stores. Of course, most of this hardware comes from Asian manufacturers. There is nothing wrong with Asian manufacturers, as some pretty good high-end gear comes from there as well. The concern is the US is losing out on a significant job market, and the public isn't hearing their music in the best possible way, so they aren't getting all the enjoyment they deserve.

So, the question comes down to how do we increase the availability of high-quality audio systems, and how do we exploit talent in the US to make it happen? Now, many of the current US high-end audio manufacturers produce pretty expensive gear. Their target demographic in the US is men over 45 years old who have lots of disposable income. These days a substantial amount of US-made product is also shipped to Asia where there are quite a few new millionaires of all ages. These customers are less sensitive to price than the majority of people out there, so any cost penalty for producing gear in the US compared to overseas is not that important. The same is true for companies based in Germany, Italy, or France where labor costs are relatively high.

Some audio companies who aspire to reaching a broader market via more affordable gear go overseas for production even though design and engineering may take place in the US. An example of a company like this is Emotiva (see their web site at www.emotiva.com). They design all their gear at their facility in Tennessee, but manufacture at various facilities around the world, mostly in China. They are also a direct sales company rather than one that sells through distributors. That means lower prices, but it's harder to buy. Emotiva gear has gotten some good reviews for sound quality in audio magazines, including PFO, and their pricing is quite attractive. I have not had any of their stuff in my home, but their gear at various audio shows has favorably impressed me. I generally applaud what they are doing, and wish them success, but I am disappointed they went overseas for manufacturing.

A few audio companies manage to both design and manufacture very fine products here in the USA at an affordable price. Two speaker companies come quickly to mind: Vandersteen and Magnepan. Both of these companies have been around for decades producing extraordinary sound at reasonable cost. Although successful I would hope they could reach even more people, but their speakers don't suit everyone.

We need more companies like Vandersteen and Magnepan producing products in the USA across the entire spectrum of audio gear. Everyone thinks the problem is that wages are higher in the US than in other countries, but the root causes of the manufacturing gap are more complicated than that. More complicated than I want to get into in this article. I do have some suggestions for audio entrepreneurs out there to think about.

I'm not sure we will ever get back to a high quality tube power amplifier made in the USA that is affordable to the average US consumer. I recently spoke to Bob Carver who has come out of retirement to start a new company under his name producing mainly tube power amplifiers. Recall that in the early part of his career Bob pioneered development of affordable and decent-sounding solid-state amplifiers under the Phase Linear brand name. I have heard a couple of his new tube amps, and they are great so I'm grateful for his move into tubes, but on the other hand I wish Bob had turned his brilliant audio mind towards exploiting some of the newer technologies out there as he has done before. I believe one of the keys to expanding the market for high-end sound is by making use of the extraordinary breadth of new technologies developed in this country. My professional background is in the aerospace industry doing research for the government. Our government spends billions of dollars every year to foster new technology to service our military needs, and this research often finds its way into commercial industries. No other country spends more, and that has helped us stay in the forefront of high technology. For example, the entire basis for today's cell phone industry grew out of technology developed by the US government for military communications. The GPS system in your cell phone traces to US government programs in the 1970's to help submarines figure out their exact positions in the ocean. There are endless other examples.

There are many government research programs that could impact the audio industry with the application of the appropriate engineering talent. For example, over the last 20 years the US government has fostered the development of a new type of solid-state device based on Gallium Nitride (GaN) technology that has advantages in thermal dissipation and efficiency. These are being used mostly for microwave amplifiers, but maybe there is some way they can be used at audio frequencies as well. These devices are being produced mostly in the US, but other countries are now learning how to make them as well. GaN technology is also being used in the lighting industry.

Many of the new technologies today are digital technologies. Many audiophiles don't like digital formats for audio, but these have been improving steadily since the introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980's. The newest high resolution downloads are finding acceptance with even the most diehard analog audio fans. Even though the CD was developed in a joint venture between a Japanese company (Sony), and a European company (Philips), much of the underlying technology was developed first in the US seeded by government dollars. We have only scratched the surface of the potential of digital processing to enhance the realism of audio reproduction. One area that I know something about is room correction by means of digital processing. The algorithms and techniques that are being explored for automated room correction today sprung out of government work in radar and sonar processing dating back to the 1960's and continuing to this day. Based on what is going on in the military arena I know we still have unexplored potential in enhancing audio system performance.

My point here is that the US is developing many new technologies and we need to turn our best audio minds toward exploiting. This can lead to newer and better products that we can produce here in this country. I want to acknowledge just a couple of companies that seem to have the right idea here. Nuforce, based in Milipitas, CA, is coming up with an interesting line of new audio products using cutting edge digital technologies. Some of them are quite affordable (they may use off shore manufacturers). Another is MSB Technology in Aptos, CA which is a leader in raising the quality bar for computer-based audio. Most of their products are quite expensive, but much of what they develop could trickle down into more affordable products in the future.

So, we can break new ground with technology to make high-end audio both more available and more affordable. But, more effort is needed to make it practical to produce new products here in the US. The US has the most spectacular manufacturing engineering in the world. One example is computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools that have revolutionized machining processes. Companies like Rockport and YG Acoustics use CNC machines to make unique and very rigid aluminum enclosures for their speakers. YG also uses these machines to make their aluminum drivers. A revolutionary new manufacturing technology that is just in its beginning days is 3D printing. Companies such as 3D Systems in Rock Hill, SC are producing machines much like ink jet printers that can produce complex parts seemingly out of thin air using a computerized drawing as a source. Most applications today are in producing prototype parts very quickly, but these machines may eventually be used for production as well. They eliminate many steps in the production process, and operate almost without any human attention once the computerized drawing is created. In my work in the aerospace industry I encountered many terrific industrial engineers who were brilliant at determining how to take unique designs and mass-produce them. We need to do a better job of connecting our great audio design talent with these manufacturing specialists.

Where the needle meets the groove in manufacturing is with the technicians who put things together. Certainly we can devise machines to make things automatically all day long without much human intervention, but some things will always require the hands of a skilled technician for precision and judgment. And this is where many job opportunities may exist. In China, and other Asian nations, large-scale assembly mills have become very adept at breaking tasks down into simple steps that can be executed by almost anyone (including, unfortunately, very young people). This, of course, is the basis for mass production pioneered by Henry Ford in the early part of the last century. These companies have just a few real experts who figure things out first, and also lots of quality oversight staff to look over the shoulders of the generic assemblers. Most of these folks don't get paid much because of the low cost of living in these countries. The advantage we have here in the US is that we currently have a highly skilled work force. Sure, they get paid more, as everything is more expensive here, but they can do so much more as well if given the chance. Our technicians who work in the electronics assembly industry, or who manipulate machine tools and wood working equipment, have a vast amount of talent and intelligence. A problem I see is that many audio components are designed to fit into configurations that favor assembly methods optimized for the factory mills in Asia, and don't take full advantage of skills we have in this country. For example, dozens of home theater receivers exist that are loaded with front panel controls, and rear panel input/output connections. They all look alike. Why not get rid of all the front panel stuff and replace it with a new type of interface, and/or get rid of all the rear panel stuff and replace that with some networking topology. To use a hackneyed expression, we need to "think more outside the box," and, if we do, a huge boost in productivity and lower cost is possible. A concern is that our skilled work force is aging, and shrinking due to the ongoing reduction in our industrial base. Plus, we are not training enough new people to replace the ones who are leaving the work force. I wish we had something of a national strategy to address this problem.

So, I have outlined three things to grow the US audio industry using assets we have in this country. First, we need to encourage our best audio designers to look more at the new technologies our country is creating for other purposes. They should concentrate on the directions audio will go in the future rather than work on the past. Second, we need to put those designers together with equally capable manufacturing engineers in this country who can turn the electrical and electro-mechanical audio designs into unique industrial designs that can be produced efficiently. Finally, we need to exploit our highly skilled work force of assemblers and technicians to put things together, whether by operating complex automated tools, or by using precision hand tools.

The formula I have outlined above is not simple, nor is it easy to execute, but I hope an entrepreneur or two will give it a try. I should add a thought on something our government and educational organizations could do to help. I don't see enough fundamental research happening in audio. The Canadians have their National Research Council whose sponsorship of research in the audio field has spawned a number of new companies. The US does the same thing in many industries like health care and defense, but not in audio as far as I know. Also, I would like to see more courses in audio at our engineering universities, in addition to more emphasis on industrial engineering.

Music is important to improving our quality of life. By providing a more immersive and emotional experience, the availability of high-end audio can improve that quality and enhance the lives of more people. Using existing skills and talents in this country to move high-end audio forward we can also improve our economy through more jobs. Let's do it!

 

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