The New Audio Geek
It's no secret that the high-end audio industry has done a poor job of reestablishing the mainstream respect it enjoyed through the latter half of the 20th century, but its lack of reach has never been as painfully obvious as it is today. Teens are inextricably tied to smartphones, moms and dads are infatuated with Bluetooth streaming, and most people would rather pay too much for an MP3 than anything at all for a DSD download. In a world dominated by fancy gadgets and intriguing technologies, the pursuit of true high-fidelity sound remains an obscure pastime for a relatively small group of aging males. Everyone knows Apple, Beats, and Bose, but few have heard of Vivid, Wilson, or YG.
Even high-end audio's most respected companies lack the capital required to attract celebrity endorsements and launch advertising campaigns on the scale enjoyed by those more popular brands. So how can the industry reach a wider, younger audience?
Many audio companies have taken to various forms of social mediaastounding when you consider that, as little as five years ago, you'd be lucky to find a high-end audio company with a halfway-decent website. Then, it was not at all uncommon to discover that the person responsible for writing complex audio code was incapable of sending a simple e-mail. Today, things are different. You may still be unable to find their products in local stores, but you can easily find their presidents and marketing managers on the Web. Arcam, Grado, Meridian, Peachtree, Sonos, VPI, and Zu are just a few brands juggling weblogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Spotify playlists, Pinterest boards, and Instagram accounts.
A more interesting and possibly more effective opportunity comes in the form of Kickstarter, the vastly popular crowd-funding website. Since its launch, in April 2009, the New York Citybased company has helped collect over $839 million from more than 5 million backers, resulting in the successful funding of over 50,000 products ranging from affordable 3D printers to fancy food thermometers to space-age dress shirts.
Strictly speaking, Kickstarter is simply a platform that allows creative people to reach an audience; it's not directly involved in the development of projects. The success of Kickstarter, as well as of the projects it hosts, is based on the relationship between "creators" and "backers." Creators retain complete control of their projects. It's their responsibility to describe the benefits of those projects and to then attract the financial support of backers. Creators determine a funding goal and a deadline by which that goal must be met. If a project reaches or exceeds its funding goal, backers' credit cards are charged for the specific amount they donated, and Kickstarter charges the creator a 5% fee on the total funds raised; if a project does not reach its goal, no one is charged. Backers don't stand to make a financial profit, but they do receive some sort of reward for their support. If, for instance, an LP is successfully funded, backers may receive a signed copied of that LP.
The consumer-electronics industry has embraced Kickstarter with eagerly opened arms. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, the spaces typically controlled by corporate giants were suddenly dotted with independent, Kickstarter-funded startups. The most popular of these was the Pebble Watch, a customizable, Bluetooth-enabled wristwatch for use with iPhone and Android devices. If you thought the wristwatch was dead, think again. The Pebble creators collected $10,266,845 from 68,929 backers, making their smart idea the most successful of all Kickstarter projects thus far. If Sony or Samsung sold 68,000 smartwatches, we might not notice; when Pebble does it, heads turn.
Today's angel investors and venture capitalists may not take a special interest in small, independent tech companies, especially those with no sales history, but Kickstarter allows an entrepreneur to simultaneously pitch a business idea and build a customer base. Young audio companies have taken note. In July 2012, Los Angeles's Urban Fidelity (see "The Entry Level" in this issue) proposed a single-driver, cabinet-free loudspeaker whose front panel features expertly printed designs by independent artists. Within a month, the project was successfully funded. In December 2012, the Boston-based startup U-Turn Audio used Kickstarter to introduce the Orbit, a $179 turntable. By the end of its 35-day funding period, the company had raised $233,940 from 1133 backers, easily exceeding its $60,000 funding goal. Orders are shipping now.
We smiled when startups like Urban Fidelity and U-Turn Audio successfully launched their Kickstarter-funded projects, but when Light Harmonic, maker of the highly regarded Da Vinci DAC ($20,000), turned to Kickstarter to fund the production of a $299 device called the Geek Out, the high-end audio industry raised a collective eyebrow.
Like AudioQuest's successful DragonFly, the Geek Out would be a portable DAC and headphone amp that plugs into a laptop's USB port to deliver improved sound to headphones or a stereo system. But whereas the current DragonFly model is limited to a maximum resolution of 24-bit/96kHz PCM, Geek Out would employ trickle-down technology to handle 32/384 as well as native DSD files. In addition, Geek Out's two (0.47 and 47 ohms) outputs would make it compatible with a wide range of headphones and in-ear monitors.
Light Harmonic's 30-day Kickstarter campaign was launched August 13, 2013, with a funding goal of $28,000, intended to cover the costs of final production and packaging for an initial run of 500 units. Depending on their pledge amount, the Geek Out's backers were offered rewards ranging from a simple thanks ($1), to discounted Geek Outs for "early adopters" ($99$219), to a trip to the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show ($5000). A media blitz ensued. In addition to its Kickstarter page, the Geek Out had its own dedicated website, blog, Facebook group, and Twitter feed. Press releasesmany of them, from several of the best-known agents in the industryfilled our inboxes.
If you thought high-end audio was dead, think again. The Geek Out reached its funding goal in less than 11 hours, and by the campaign's third day had exceeded its target by 300%. By the campaign's final day, Light Harmonic had raised $303,061 from 2146 backers. According to Gavin Fish, Light Harmonic's VP of sales and marketing, most of that support came from outside the traditional audiophile community. Fish told me via e-mail, "For every backer who asks, 'How will Geek Out sound with my Audeze LCD-3s?,' there are five who ask, 'Will this make my Beats sound better?'"
Fish may be optimistic, but with the recent well-documented success of LPs, headphones, and computer-audio components, he has good reason to be. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before the pursuit of true high-fidelity sound reaches every music lover. After all, these days, it's cool to be a geek.