HiddenRadio and the innovation ceiling for the portable speaker

By James Robinson , written on January 28, 2014

From The News Desk

I rely on a series of sound systems in my home that would make an audiophile cringe: $70 speakers affixed to a turntable, bottom of the line headphones, a laptop and basic TV for the rest of my music-listening and movie watching needs.

John van den Nieuwenhuizen, on the other hand, followed up years of designing phones for Motorola and working as the lead designer on HP’s now discontinued TouchPad by designing (with help from a former colleague Vitor Santa Maria) what he felt was the perfect portable speaker.

HiddenRadio as it came to be called, raised $938,771 on Kickstarter in January 2012 to launch its first production run and sold 20,000 units. A second iteration, HiddenRadio 2, raised over half a million dollars on Kickstarter earlier this month and will go on sale in June, retailing at $149 for one or $219 for a pair.

Spurred by disappointing experiences of listening to bad computer speakers in hotel rooms while travelling, van den Nieuwenhuizen and Santa Maria leaked a rendering and product description of their dream stereo to two design blogs in 2008. It was picked up by over 500 other sites and the interest crashed their website.

The picture was of a sleek, silver tube, with a cap that twisted up to reveal a speaker underneath and used the resulting air chamber to amplify bass. The interest in it was the inspiration for their Kickstarter assault three years later.

The HiddenRadios borrow every page from the Apple design book: slick, simple and metallic. The new version will open and is controlled simply by tapping the top panel, it will provide lossless audio over bluetooth, link with all household media players within a 33 foot range and work as a speaker phone.

But as I challenge van den Nieuwenhuizen, how do you make the layperson care about speakers enough to spend a couple of hundred dollars on them? I worry that I won’t have the ear to tell the difference between good speakers and the ones that come for free. It is a nagging fear that has stopped me from ever parting with good money.

The way to attack this is by appealing to consumers in a way that isn’t inherently rational, van den Nieuwenhuizen says. “It’s an emotional appeal. You put something in front of someone that looks nice and you can see them respond to it. It works well and it looks really good and it has a way of transcending logic for them.”

It’s a Steve Jobs line of thinking, and HiddenRadio’s design-first thinking has a heavy overlap in appeal with Apple products. The company says that over 95 percent of its Kickstarter supporters in its first campaign were iOS users.

The respect might be mutual. Apple has reportedly approached the company about stocking its products. “A partnership like that would be an amazing way to grow our brand,” van den Nieuwenhuizen says.

The economy is flat but there’s an upside in this for a company like HiddenRadio. Van den Nieuwenhuizen sees that house prices have risen out of the realm of affordability for a lot of young adults so many young professionals are now choosing instead to focus their money toward renting and enjoying their disposable income.

“A lot of these people are putting their money into taking holidays and buying themselves nice things,” he says.

The second key to getting people to pay for better sound at home is letting them see the benefit in person, comparing two sources side-by-side.

Van den Nieuwenhuizen swears to me that my ear is better than I think.

“If you play sound out of your $70 speakers it might sound good up to at a certain level. But if you turn it up it is just going to sound loud. If you turn up our speaker to a similar volume, I think anyone can notice that it has that same kick but instead you can hear all of the notes.”

As the HiddenRadio 2 makes it way to market, innovation around speakers now happens at a weird pace.

“We were at the Berlin electronics show and we saw a stereo system that had a subwoofer the size of a small apartment. You couldn’t tell the difference between its sound and a small orchestra,” van den Nieuwenhuizen says.

Which is fun to look at but has a retail price of over $100,000. What’s left in product innovation in speakers is to go bigger and bigger. There’s less room for improvement with compact speakers now. The basic idea of the speaker itself was perfected decades ago and is more or less identical still.

“It’s not like the silicon micro-processor, it’s not going to double in capacity every year or so. Change now is going to be more incremental,” van den Nieuwenhuizen says.

Van den Nieuwenhuizen claims that HiddenRadio’s product edge is from custom engineering its own two-way speaker system, giving it superior range with better bass and treble, rather than combining off the shelf speaker drivers combined with a passive radiator.

A lot of the ability for HiddenRadio to keep improving came from Kickstarter, van den Nieuwenhuizen says. The first pool of 5,358 backers served as both product evangelists and critics, helping it see that the original twist-up cap was clunky and convincing it to make the speaker compatible with a new Apt-X sound codec, to allow it stream audio at CD quality.

The HiddenRadio is approaching the edge of its capacity to improve the portable speaker formula. van den Nieuwenhuizen says that he’s already starting to think of new products for the company to focus on.

But in a market well off the front edge of innovation, where companies like Jambox steal much of the available oxygen in the first place, why even make a speaker in the first place?

“Honestly, we were just making a product that we wanted to buy ourselves,” van den Nieuwenhuizen says.

[Image via HiddenRadio]