Exploring Audio's "Last Frontier"

Two elements that keep the audio business interesting are the new companies and technologies arriving almost every week (see also BW's story). Some stick around for years, while others fade away between hi-fi shows. But amid the incessant change are a handful of characters who stay with it, continually evolving with the industry and reinventing themselves with each twist and turn.

Mark Schifter has been here since his early days in retail, through the rise and fall of Audio Alchemy, and then on to Genesis Technologies. Recently, rumors have circulated about a new venture he was about to embark on as he slowly withdrew from Genesis. Those rumors were laid to rest with a posting to the audio newsgroups a couple of weeks back that read, in part: "Our intent is to answer the many questions we are being asked about our new product. In support of our new product, we visited with more than 40 loudspeaker manufacturers at this last CES. Rumors surrounding this product and its introduction have compelled us to put out the following information . . ."

The "product" turns out to be the first offering from a new company called Perpetual Technologies L.L.C., and is described as a DSP-based loudspeaker/room-correction system. The system, in development for six years, is called the P-1A. Schifter claims it "will ring in the future of AV systems. The first time one hears their speakers operating in phase all the way through the band, it will be a telling experience. In my 30 years in this industry, I have never heard a product that makes such a difference, system after system, time after time. I'm very proud of this effort."

Joining Schifter in the new company (called P-Tech for short), which he founded with his wife, Lynn, in late 1998, are several industry veterans from around the world, including Walter Liederman from Hi Fi Buys, Ceto Sandoval from Australia, H.H. Pu of Taiwan, and Doug Goldberg, who heads P-Tech's engineering group. The company is setting up in Boulder, Colorado and intends to design and manufacture its products in the US.

Along with the P-1A, which will retail for $950 (due this June), and a "Room" upgrade kit ($650, due early 2000), are several other new offerings. Set to ship in November 1999 is a DSP-based interpolator/upsampler based on the P-1A (Platform 1A) motherboard. Schifter says that this product will interpolate and upsample 16-bit/44.1kHz data to 24/96 with a selling price of under $1000. The third product will be an all-software-based DAC operating at 24/96. Schifter states that "there will be no DAC chips as such in this product . . . [it will be] purely software-driven" and will be sold in two-channel packages. The expected ship date is spring 2000, at a selling price of under $1000. Finally, for late 2000, the company plans to offer a "DSP-based preamp/true loudspeaker and room-correction system that is fully home-theater-ready (as is the P-1A) for under $1500. This product will have built-in A/D converters, along with many surprises."

Schifter claims that the P-1A is the first "true" correction system that is optimized for both time and frequency domains, and supports both nearfield and room correction. The hardware platform also uses an upgradeable DSP architecture designed for processing digital audio and supports 24/96 operation as well as AC-3, DTS, MLP, and HDCD decoding. The product ships as a full-band loudspeaker-correction system using MLSSA files as provided by the speaker companies, and will allow customers to advance to a complete loudspeaker- and room-correction system with the "Room" upgrade kit.

The motherboard is designed around the Motorola DSP 56362 DSP and features three digital inputs: one S/PDIF (via RCA), one AES/EBU, and one I2S. The I2S connection is present to allow the motherboard to interface with an analog I/O daughtercard. The digital and analog I/O support 24/96, and the motherboard also has three digital outputs: one S/PDIF (via RCA), one AES/EBU, and one I2S. In addition, the motherboard has six channels of I2S available via an internal header. The I2S outputs can be used to drive up six channels of D/A conversion for surround sound, or support twin tri-amplified outputs for a DSP-controlled loudspeaker.

Schifter says that "another unique feature of the motherboard design is the use of the Serial Host Interface (SHI) port. This port is made available on a header on the motherboard. It facilitates a real-time, high-speed interface with the DSP. This permits on-the-fly changes in coefficients and other parameters. It is envisioned that this interface will be used to link multiple motherboards and to permit the use of a PC to host graphical front-ends for applications such as a digital parametric equalizer.

"Perpetual Technologies will offer extraordinary technology at affordable prices. Our primarily web-based sales vehicle allows us to offer the consumer unparalleled performance at down-to-earth prices for products and services that everybody will need and want," says Schifter. "For example, the $650 'Room' upgrade software for the P-1A will involve a personal ID number and the Internet as our vehicle for getting the information to Perpetual and then back to the customer. It's very innovative and fun."

According to Schifter, "P-Tech will offer products designed and built to our specs, utilizing OEM relationships with famous designers and their factories, but sold via our web-based sales and technical service divisions. We will create one-on-one relationships with our customers through the sales process, and then (should the need arise) with technical service needs. Everyone who purchases a product from our company will immediately be assigned a tech services rep should they have any questions, needs, or concerns." Schifter also points out that while P-Tech products will primarily be sold via a web-based mechanism, they plan to allow dealers and importers to participate. "There will be a significant dealer margin built in. Also, we require no stock or other investments that typically erode dealer margins."

Schifter concludes: "The P-1A is the product that we've all been waiting for: the loudspeaker/room equation has always been regarded as 'The Last Frontier.' We have the precise vehicle necessary to bridge that gap and carry us home. I'm hoping for a very successful launch at HI-FI '99, and I know we'll be the talk of the industry. I'm excited and nervous all at once again: new company, new start . . . this is real serious stuff!"