Ken Kantor: Now Hear This Page 2

I was gone. It was my first real job. I'd done piecework for AR and Boston Acoustics, but now I was sitting down with distributors and learning what they wanted, then meeting with circuit engineers and discussing new parts and design considerations. It was a real education. Originally, NAD wanted me to design loudspeakers and develop a program for testing speakers, but that wasn't how I ended up spending most of my time. I designed tone-control circuits for the 3020 series, I designed test and measurement equipment for them, and I also worked on their turntable. I wasn't a team leader, so I worked on any project they handed me.

Phillips: You were more interested in speaker design than circuit design?

Kantor: Yeah! I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, no matter how carefully I put it, but circuit design is the much more analytic process. If a circuit operates correctly, it should be inaudible—you have a signal, and while you might make it larger, you also need to preserve it. There isn't a lot of psychology to that. If you find errors, you need to determine how to trade one element against the other. The circuit designer's goal is fixed, and the degree that a circuit deviates from that goal is quite straightforward.

Loudspeakers are different. Think about the recording process, which converts an event taking place in four dimensions to an electrical signal. That's data compression—lossy data compression. And what uncompresses that information is the loudspeaker. That's a psychological process. Something is missing from the datastream—a whole roomful of information, in fact—and you must fool the perceptual mechanism into believing it's there. You can measure a speaker, and that will tell you if it has too much treble, or too much low-frequency information, or if there is distortion, but none of that gets to the real meat of the matter: Did it fool you into thinking there's a real soundfield? I find that fascinating. It incorporates so much that you don't get as an amplifier designer: psychology, information theory—essentially everything we know about how humans respond to music.

I left NAD because I was homesick, and wound up working for AR—on electronic design, strangely enough. I was fortunate to work at AR when I did. I learned a lot from mentors within the firm: how the industry worked, and how goods went from the design stage to being a successful product. By the time I left, most of those people were gone and, in a bizarre proof of the Peter Principle, I found myself in a position to do whatever I wanted. My fiancée at the time—my wife now—got a job offer in California. She's in a field where there just aren't that many opportunities, so it was my turn to follow her. Since I couldn't land a job with any of the local companies, I started my own consulting company. I worked for companies ranging from Monster Cable to Faroudja Labs, to Goldstar in Korea, to Hewlett-Packard. If anybody needed audio work, I was there saying, "Please?"

Phillips: Have 'scope, will travel?

Kantor: Exactly. NHT was the next logical step after that. I had met Chris [Byrne] through my consulting work. We saw things similarly, in terms of what the market needed, and we made good complements to one another—we were very different, but we each had skills the other needed. Chris came from Pioneer, Akai—he'd been Pacific Stereo's buyer. And, of course, I'd been in the design section of all kinds of companies.

Phillips: Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do with your own company?

Kantor: I knew what I didn't want. I didn't want to make a mediocre product. On the other hand, I didn't want to make a boutique product. It's not in my nature to say, "I've made the world's greatest loudspeaker. I've used the best drivers and the best crossover materials—now how many can I make in a year, and how much do I need to sell them for to make a living?"

Phillips: Do you think that's the equation some companies operate on?

Kantor: Absolutely—and not just in hi-fi, either. A lot of sports-car companies calculate price that way. Restaurants too. They don't sit there and say, "We used 18 cents' worth of garlic and $2 worth of saffron on this meal..." They calculate how many people they can get through the door and what they'd have to pay to keep the place running—it's an overhead-driven price equation, not one based on the parts cost. I wanted to offer value-driven products. We had to find a balance between our need to bring enough customers in to make it worthwhile, and our desire to make really good products. That's basically all we did for our first few years: hone that equation.

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the techniques of the really huge companies to produce a new kind of mass-market product—one with the design ethos of the High End. We didn't see these two goals as being contradictory. At least, they don't need to be. If you don't think Bose could produce anything they wanted to, you're kidding yourself. They have the resources, we have the resources. It all comes down to who designs a product—what they're willing to accept, how long they're willing to let the design process go on, how many samples they're willing to throw away before they have the product they want.