How can a sound so big come out of a speaker so small?

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on October 14, 2013

From The News Desk

My inbox runneth over with email pitches from publicists, marketers and company reps promoting some new app, an ad network this, a crowdsourced that. I receive hundreds of these a day, and there are times I want to shout, "Stop! Don’t tell me your new app that can manage my calendar, ‘cloud-based solution for sharing documents or yet another ride-sharing company or imitation Uber. Don’t email me until you make something truly awesome.”

You can probably predict where this is going. Recently, through an email pitch, I learned of Grain Audio, a New York-based startup run by five music-loving friends who have designed and are selling something truly remarkable: a hand-crafted 7-inch-wide, 3-inch tall and deep Bluetooth speaker with less surface area than a brick yet sounds better than many high-end bookshelf speakers. The “PWS,” which stands for “Packable Wireless System,” has a walnut cabinet and is rimmed with gray silicone -- the kind used to earthquake-proof buildings in California -- so that when you pound the bass the vibrations don’t cause it to shake and bounce around your desk, shelf, or table.

The wood cabinet, about an inch thick, is an integral aspect of the design, Mitch Wenger, president and co-founder of the company, told me. It helps the speaker pump out bass without distortion and tinges the sound with warmth. The company tried out more than 20 types of wood before settling on solid walnut sustainably harvested in Pennsylvania -- something about the grain imbues the audio quality with different characteristics, making the sound warmer and fuller. The wood also gives the speaker, which weighs a hefty 3.5 pounds, mostly from magnets, a more aesthetic look than the usual plastic boxes you often see adorning workstations.

Apparently I’m not the only one impressed with this little guy. The Wall Street Journal says “the speaker resonate[s] with a depth and clarity that makes plastic competitors sound, yes, plastic.” The New York Times calls it “a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind Bluetooth speaker” that looks “as great” as it sounds while Maxim dubs it “the indie darling of Bluetooth speakers. No, that doesn’t mean it has a moustache,” with its solid walnut cabinet making it “classy as hell.” Retailing at $249, the PWS looks like the kind of audio gear you’d find at Design Within Reach.

While former ad exec Mitch Wenger, 39, was working at Altec-Lansing, renown for the speakers used at the original Woodstock music festival, he recognized the commoditization of the business. Speakers had become consumer electronics products instead of music products. Audio quality took a beating through junky, off the shelf speakers, which had become pervasive in the marketplace.

Yet, a number of niche players like Peachtree Audio and Geneva had risen, providing high quality digital first products and modeling themselves, in a way, after Bose, which for years had dominated this highly compact, high fidelity sector. To the discerning ear, however, each has a different sound signature. Peachtree's deepblue Bluetooth Music System is so warm that digital music sounds analog, almost like vinyl, at least to my ears. With Grain Audio, Wenger and his compadres wanted a naturally flat sound, the kind you find in music studio monitors. When I listen to music on the PWS I practically have flashbacks to times I listened to playbacks in the studio during a recording session.

When Altec-Lansing informed East Coast staff it was relocating back to the West Coast Wenger decided to stay in New Jersey, and he and three like-minded friends plus his brother, Eric, launched Grain Audio in January 2011, pooling their money and raising additional funds from friends and family. To date, they have burned through about $1.3 million.

They agreed they would be, first and foremost, a music company founded by music lovers and their first product would be a portable Bluetooth speaker, which they saw as an emerging market. The problem with many Bluetooth speakers, however, is sound quality. At first they fooled around with Apple Airplay, but that would have limited them to Apple users.

Then they came across the MaxxAudio chip, which is normally used in higher end products, and found that the audio quality through Bluetooth met their exacting standards. At the same time the speaker is solid state and has heavy magnets at its base, with two active woofers. Because bass creates air, it has to go somewhere; in this case it winds through the company’s patented racetrack-shaped passive radiator.

It took the fledgling company about a year to develop a working prototype, and everything in the speaker, with the exception of the MaxxAudio chip, is custom designed.

“There are always shortcuts you could take,” Wenger says. “We could have used off-the-shelf parts or a smaller battery, and if you change the design by two millimeters you have to redesign the whole thing.”

Buying off the shelf parts would have been cheaper and faster, but, he adds, “the drivers and batteries, the specific shape with the power we wanted, were proprietary to what we wanted to do. That took more time and money. But sticking to our guns differentiates us in the market place.”

The one gap in Grain Audio’s team, which includes an audio engineer and a designer, was someone who could actually make a speaker. That led them to a Taiwanese company that Wenger would not name -- he says it works with major companies and prefers to remain behind the curtain -- which has been working with the Grain Audio team on prototypes and manufacturing techniques.

Some of the press coverage claims that Grain Audio is a Kickstarter-funded company, but this isn’t accurate, although it did raise some money this way before putting the speaker on sale. Wenger says they raised more than $1 million in friends and family money coupled with their own since launching in January 2011 and decided to use Kickstarter as a way to market-test their speaker and build a base of brand loyalists.

“We wanted to have an actual product, not a cosmetic sample,” he says. “It had to be real but not so far down that we couldn’t make adjustments. We were in preproduction mode. We made a video, product imagery, we knew how it would work.”

Wenger and his team originally set out to raise $120,000, enough to put them over the edge to fund some of the initial round of production of 1500 units. Starting in late March they raised $155,000 over 45 days, treating it like a real campaign. They bought Google AdWords and created Facebook campaigns, as well as being active on social media.

The company certainly gives the appearance of a lean outfit. Recently I visited Wenger in a tiny, no frills room Grain Audio rents on Broadway in Greenwich Village for a demonstration and interview. He showed me several earlier prototypes, with different wood and different colored silicone ringing the outside of the cabinet.

Just because Wenger and his friends have created a winning product doesn’t ensure success. As with any consumer electronics product, distribution is key. The PWS is too niche, too high end for the Best Buys of the world, and starting their own distribution system – like Bose did -- could be a long and arduous process with no guarantees for success. What's more, technology is fleeting. Right now the PWS offers something that few products can match. But it won't be long before others, some of which are massively funded, could hopscotch ahead.

I could see the PWS, and Grain Audio’s other products, including headphones and a larger passive bookshelf speaker, sold at Design Within Reach, through FAB, or perhaps at the Apple Store. It’s priced cheap enough that I imagine college students would find it irresistible, as well as anyone who wants a small speaker to look as good as it sounds. My only gripe is that I got about half the eight-hour battery time the speaker is supposed to provide. But this is a minor complaint.

While Sonos is wireless you can’t pick up and carry your speakers with you wherever you go – say, to the beach or park. The other portable systems with good fidelity, like Peachtree's, are bigger and heavier. I've taken to bringing the PWS test unit I was loaned outside to my backyard patio when I grill, streaming jazz from iTunes or Mog.

Nothing goes with barbecuing quite like Miles, Monk, and Coltrane.

Image via Grain Audio.