Industry News

Audio Companies Respond to COVID-19

In a recent video Steve Guttenberg aka The Audiophiliac pointed out that Magnepan, VPI Industries, PS Audio and Emotiva have remained open during the coronavirus crisis. Like most businesses, they’ve had to adapt. It prompted me to ask around about how audio companies are handling the situation. As you’ll read, some are even helping in the medical field.

I received many responses. By no means a comprehensive list, here are some of the companies that are staying open, along with their comments. (This article is longer than usual for Copper, but I didn’t want to cut what people had to say.)

Andover Audio interim CEO Peter Wellikoff told us: “While these are challenging times, with some initiatives, there are some opportunities available for Andover Audio. In an effort to be proactive to the stay-at-home order, we planned for numerous operational changes. A large amount of inventory was relocated to a new logistics facility so as to allow us to keep fulfilling orders. In addition, materials from our suppliers were redirected to this facility.

We then set work-at-home policies for all employees. Regular scheduled department meetings and meetings with key suppliers are now being conducted via Skype. If, for an extreme reason a facility visit is required by an employee, pre-approval is needed and only one staff member per department is allowed on site at any time. Obviously, protective masks and gloves are required.”

On the marketing and sales side, we have enhanced our website and social media [efforts] and it has realized a dramatic increase in unique visitor traffic. In addition, our web store has realized an exponential growth in sales. The greatest sales demand is coming from our Spinbase (an all in one audio system) and our new PM-50 planar headphones. It’s also interesting how many consumers added the optional turntable to their Spinbase order. Consumer feedback has been along the lines of ‘if I’m going to be stuck at home I might as well enjoy some music on a new cool audio system.’ All in all, I believe Andover Audio is well positioned get through these extreme conditions and succeed going forward.”

John McDonald, president of Audience notes, “Audience is fulfilling all sales by drop shipping for its dealers, direct to customers. We encourage audio enthusiasts to take advantage of this time at home and try [our] products on our satisfaction guaranteed basis.”

Black Cat Cable’s Chris Sommovigo says, “[We’re open]…but since I work alone in the workshop, I’ve got the social distancing thing nailed.”

Angela Cardas Meredith of Cardas Audio tells us: “Cardas Audio is open. Some are working from home, others in an auxiliary building sewing masks for donation to front line workers. Definitely trying to figure this out day to day.”

Andrew Regan, president, notes, “Dan Clark Audio is still open. [I’m] working from home still answering phones and shipping headphones.”

Jerry Stoeckigt, director of sales and customer relations at Eikon Audio informed me that Eikon is continuing its Standard Home Demonstration Program, which was previously in place. In this program, Eikon sends the potential customer a demo system and offers home setup phone support. After 72 hours the customer must decide if they want to keep the demo system, order a new one or return it.

Klipsch is open and is extending their friends and family 25% off sale on selected products. Part of any purchase goes to the COVID-19 Response Fund.

From Bill Hutchins, chief designer: “LKV Research is open, making phono-, pre- and power amps.”

Jeff Sigmund, President of Luxman America states: “The health and safety of our dealers, customers and employees are of the utmost concern to us. We are following federal and New York state health guidelines and are monitoring the nationwide situation.

Luxman America’s warehouse remains open. We continue to fulfill orders the same or next day when received. In addition, we are working with our valued dealers and consumers on a daily basis to answer questions and provide whatever services are needed.

Luxman America is committed to maintaining best business practices throughout our entire supply chain. While there may be some production delays, we continue at near normal manufacturing capacity in Japan. In addition, our on-hand inventory position is strong for most models.

The long term history of the audiophile community in the United States assures me that continued participation by community members, in whatever way possible, will be highly beneficial in achieving this goal.”

Wendell Diller, Magnepan marketing manager comments, “Folks, what is going on out there? Is it cabin fever? We had just put online shopping on our new website when COVID-19 hit really hard. We are getting overwhelmed with orders – especially for the Magneplanar LRS (Little Ribbon Speaker) home trial. I would love to know what is motivating customers to order now. I can only speculate from my own experience.

My wife and I are taking the advised precautions. We are not panicked or paranoid about COVID-19. However, the constant drum beat of bad news takes a toll. I noticed more than ever that music is very effective in reducing stress – especially certain classical music. I can’t say that I really enjoy classical music the same way that friends of mine do. But for me, the calming effect of certain classical music is remarkable.”

EveAnna Manley, president/co-founder of Manley Laboratories comments, “At Manley Labs our factory workers donned masks and gloves and increased sanitation practices beginning March 2. Getting on this early and having our team take the threat of COVID-19 as seriously as this warrants, I think was key to protecting the health of my employees. So far six weeks later none of my people have reported any illness. They learned to get serious about the coronavirus at work and have carried that diligence home with them.

We have a team system at our 12,000 square foot factory to ensure safe working conditions. Team One is a husband, wife, and son who all live together. They can work in the back of the factory, focusing on kitting up sets of parts in preparation for the assembly workers to come collect them and then take them home to build. Team Two is one man who is performing quality control and repairs. The two teams rarely see each other. They use different bathrooms. Where possible, doors are left open are left open so that nobody needs to touch door handles. We have plenty of hand sanitizer, soap, disinfectant, gloves, and masks, as we normally carry these in the course of normal operation.

After teams One and Two have gone home for the day, at around 3:00 pm our Chief of Operations, Gamma Ibarra, aka Team Three, reports for duty in order to test microphones and prepare shipments for the following day. Team Four consists of two brothers, and Team Five is our transformer winding specialist. We stagger the working days so that the teams are working on different days, with some teams coming in on the weekends because in these times every day seems to be the same as the next day. Our secular workers don’t mind working on a Sunday.

Gamma Ibarra and Absolute headphone amps at Manley Laboratories.

Everybody who can work at home is doing so, including administrative, sales, engineering, and tech support staff as well as the people doing assembly in their homes. I’ve been on a campaign for the last several years to move many aspects of our operation to the cloud and upgrading our databases, communication, and information systems. This foresight has allowed to keep us working and able to produce audio equipment in America.

Gamma and I have been easily pulling 105-plus hour work weeks as we both cover the jobs of like ten people each. We are flooded with correspondence and struggling to keep up with it, honestly. So my message to the customers out there is, please be extra-patient with us as we are working our asses off and trying to keep everybody happy! And while we might be considered an essential business, because we do provide some equipment to the broadcast chain, I know that we are also an important business to so many people who seek solace and comfort with music, either creating it in their homes or playing it back on their systems, and we are doing our best to be able to provide this humanity during this time of insanity.”

PBN Audio founder Peter Norbaek says, “we’re open – busy setting up at our new shop, but still shipping inventory. Building of new product will resume in two or three weeks.”

Paul McGowan, CEO of PS Audio notes, “PS Audio is staying open, though the majority of our employees are working from home. In order to comply with state guidelines and ensure the safety of our team members, we’ve had to move production and shipping to three shifts beginning at 4:00 am and ending at midnight. In this way we can make sure no more than two people are in a room at any one time and they can maintain proper distancing. However, we haven’t had to lay anyone off and we’re on track with new products, like the M1200 mono block amplifiers Lou and Roger (pictured) have just finished building. Stay safe and we’ll get through this.”

Lou and Roger at PS Audio.

Reference Recordings states, “during this time of uncertainty, we want to assure you that we are here for you. Music is so important to help uplift our spirits. Our small business thanks you; your purchases support our artists and make new releases possible. Our owners/employees are working hard to package and ship your orders, but due to the shelter in place situation there may be minor delays. Thank you for your patience and understanding, and we hope you stay safe and healthy.”

Schroeder Amplification and Schroeder HiFi “are still open. No foot traffic but orders are coming in and shipping out,” notes owner Tim Schroeder.

According to Keith Pray, general manager of TEN (The Enthusiast Network, publisher of Stereophile), “Just about all [companies] are open from what I am seeing on my end. Reduced staff, temporary layoffs and tightening of the belt is what I am seeing.”

Christopher Hildebrand is the owner of Tektonics Design Group, parent company of Fern & Roby. He told me about his efforts in both the medical and audio fields. “To give some background: I started Tektonics Design Group 17 years ago, as a contract design and manufacturing firm. After getting our business established with our regular work, I wanted to explore some of my own ideas and started Fern & Roby as an in-house product line. While Fern & Roby has grown we have continued to do contract manufacturing at Tektonics for other audio companies, contractors, and a couple of medical device manufacturers. Our basic purpose at Tektonics is to solve problems and make things for people.

Precision parts from Tektonics Design Group.

With all that has been going on, the first thing we had to do to stay in business when it was clear this was a dangerous situation was to figure out how to keep everyone safe. We have had an open door policy and welcome a lot of interaction between our staff, but this just wouldn’t work in this new and scary context. We have a 20,000 square foot shop with a team of six talented people so we have plenty of room to space out, but under normal circumstances everyone would be moving around freely throughout the shop.

The first thing we did was to clearly define smaller teams and use separate entrances to our work zones. We wipe everything down when we come in at the beginning of the day, and again at the end. In a place where you touch tools, materials, and machine interfaces all the time, the only choice possible is to limit the number of people in each process and then clean the work if they move between teams. We also advanced a project to build a shipping and receiving room with its own new entrance for our shippers to use. This is helping us isolate people and products coming into and going out of the building and allowing us to unpack carefully and clean everything before we bring it into our space. We also carefully clean and package products as they go out to our vendors and clientele.

Once we got our own processes nailed down, I started thinking about what was going on in the current situation at large and what we could do about it. I reached out to friends we work with in the product engineering and industrial design community to ask if we could pool our resources to help in some way.

One of them mentioned that they had designed a respirator several years ago for a New York firm, but it was in limbo around FDA approval. The gist I got from our conversation was that being able to jump start something to get it going would be a long shot. Honestly, after looking into it and thinking about it more, I understood why. Making things that aren’t proven through a rigorous process can kill people instead of help.

I then got buried working on the Small Business Administration paperwork we needed to submit but about a week later (felt like a year…), my friend contacted me to ask if we wanted to help make six sets of prototype valve mechanisms to submit for an expedited FDA approval. In the past week we completed the six sets of 10 different parts, from machined and turned polycarbonate. We sent them out on Saturday, April 11 via next day air and we are waiting to hear what happens.

Since we are already in the saddle, we will likely be a part of the production run to make 1,000 respirators in about 30 days. This is about 10,000 parts and honestly, way too much for our shop, so I pulled in some colleagues in the Richmond, Virginia machine shop community to help us. If we get the job, I will be managing a group of firms to manufacture the parts in time to do some good for the people up in New York.

Our team’s work will be part of a larger effort managed by a much larger contract medical device manufacturer and honestly at this point we don’t have a great deal of visibility of the road ahead. We just let our contact know that we are ready to go whenever they need our horsepower. Even if we don’t get to be a part of that effort, we are glad to have contributed in some way.

Being nimble, responsible, and willing to help is at the core of our day to day business model and I feel very fortunate that we’re able to do something like this, turning from our normal type of work to something deeply relevant and practical for healthcare workers and their patients. Existing in the manufacturing environment in the US has sometimes felt like a tough path to follow but it is situations like this that reinforce my view that capable, local manufacturing can be a very powerful resource for society and I hope we see more manufacturing come back to the USA. We are still filling orders for our audio manufacturing clientele like Linear Tube Audio and DeVORE Fidelity, as well as our own work for Fern & Roby.

Beyond our clientele, we have a lot of friends in the audio industry. I have been thinking about how they are doing, about the industry’s challenging prospects for finding some near-term normalcy, and about the challenges of running a small manufacturing business even when things are fine. I hope people out there are considering buying the products they have been planning on for the past year or two; if we want great small businesses to be around when this is over, we need to support them now. I am hopeful about this because people in our market love the nature of the work and we are all passionate about our community.

I’m very proud of the work we do in the medical industry but I am also proud to be a part of the audio industry as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and parts supplier. In this crazy world we need not only respirators and masks but also the essential equipment to enjoy great music with, so go buy something from a business you care about!”

Roy Feldstein, CTO at Audio Den says that “VANA is open. We’re handling drop shipments for our dealers who can’t open their showrooms.” VANA imports brands including Atlas Cables, Audio Physic, E.A.T., Marten, Okki Nokki and Revolv.

In Issue 108 Jay Jay French interviewed VPI Industries president Mat Weisfeld about his company’s efforts in switching from making turntable products to hand sanitizers and face masks. Some excerpts from Weisfeld: “I realized that we had all the ingredients [to make hand sanitizer] because we make vinyl cleaning fluid. We have the stations for bottling it, we had the alcohol, we had the 1-ounce bottle containers. We started to reach out to other suppliers and at that point I said that this product was going to be made by us for no profit. It would all be distributed for free.

We put up a post on the New Jersey Monmouth County Facebook page and were flooded with 500 emails overnight. I knew it was real when I had hospital administrators reaching out to me.

I am delivering it myself. I even had to meet late at night with a hospital administrator in a parking lot of a QuickChek [convenience store]. She had to go out on a limb because she needs this!…We have even had walk-ins to our factory and we had to set up a pickup area outside our front door for all the safety reasons.

The decision [to make face masks] was made…when we realized that we had the materials left over from when we were making [turntable] dust covers. We had supplies and materials like plastic to make DIY face shields. We didn’t have elastic but we are using the flat Shinola turntable belts as a headband. We [now] split [our] time between making turntables and the sanitizer and masks.”

Owner Jeff Wells says, “Wells Audio is still open. Actually business has been better the last two months than in November, December and January. Weird, huh?”

Wolf Audio Systems is open for business!” notes Fred Parvey, one of the company’s founders. He also points out, “House of Stereo [which Parvey is involved with] is open for business and we ship anywhere in the world.”

Other audio companies who contacted me and advised that they’re open in some capacity are: Alta Audio, Audio-Technica, Daedalus Audio, Emotiva, Heatshrink, HIFIMAN, Lenbrook (NAD Electronics, PSB Speakers and Bluesound), Kanto, Kimber Kable, MQA, Music Hall, NOLA Speakers, Pangea Audio, Periodic Audio, SVS, Synergistic Research, Tributaries, WattGate, WBT and Wisdom Audio.