ZVOX may seem like a bit of a different choice for a Copper interview, considering it’s a company that offers soundbars, headphones and hearing aids rather than high-end exotica. Yet ZVOX has strong roots in high-performance audio, and is committed to bringing good sound to a wider range of people, including those with hearing impairment. Following is an interview with Tom Hannaher, ZVOX CEO.
Don Lindich: Tom, I think a good place to start is with the people behind ZVOX. Your team has a great deal of specialty audio experience.
Tom Hannaher: I started in 1971 working for Dick Schulze at The Sound of Music, a chain of Minneapolis stereo stores that ultimately evolved into Best Buy. George Samuels was the sales manager for EPI (Epicure Products, Inc.) loudspeakers, and also worked for Ohm, but is best known for founding Genesis Loudspeakers. (Please note this was a different Genesis than the high-end company created by Arnie Nudell and Paul McGowan.) George’s Genesis Loudspeakers competed directly with Advent and EPI.) George was my original partner at ZVOX and managed factory relationships and worked on product development.
Sandy Bloomberg was brought in as a partner years later. Sandy was founder of the Tweeter Home Entertainment Group and of the Pro Group, which evolved into industry buying group ProSource.
Our VP of product development Jarl Salmela worked with the legendary Godehard Guenther at loudspeaker manufacturer a/d/s and also worked at MB Quart before he moved on to Cambridge SoundWorks. There, working with Henry Kloss (co-founder or founder of Acoustic Research KLH, Advent, Cambridge SoundWorks and others), Jarl made a name for himself as a designer of amplified speaker systems, which at the time were an oddity...most of the products on the market were cheapo computer speakers. He worked with Henry to create the world's first high-fidelity computer speaker – a satellite/subwoofer system eponymously named "SoundWorks." It is my opinion that Jarl is one of the best designers of amplified speakers in the world.
DL: Now that we know about your team, let’s learn more about you. You founded the company and are a life-long audio enthusiast. What was your inspiration and how did you get started?
TH: While attending the University of Minnesota I developed an interest in live recording and started recording, free of charge, musicians in the folk/rock/blues/jazz scene centered around the West Bank area in Minneapolis. By the way, this was one of the places where Dylan got his start. Eventually I needed money for better microphone, and so on so in 1971 I got a job at Sound of Music, a local store that sold, well microphones and tape decks. We were the second-largest Advent audio dealer and largest Advent video dealer in the country.
From there I was recruited by Fred Goldstein at Advent and moved to Boston in 1976. I eventually became head of marketing. Advent was the coolest electronics company around at the time, and was a finishing school for the industry. Among Advent alumni, John Zeisler became a VP at Apple and is currently an angel investor in Silicon Valley. Tom DeVesto started Cambridge SoundWorks and Tivoli and founded Como Audio. Tom Holman created George Lucas' Skywalker Sound, invented the THX movie sound standard – and is now chief audio engineer at Apple. Andy Kotsatos and Frank Reed started Boston Acoustics.
And I started Hannaher, Nobody and Nobody, the world's smallest marketing agency. HN&N had customers like Tweeter (at one time the largest specialty electronics store in the country), Lotus Development Corporation, NAD, Kloss Video, Boston Acoustics, The Computer Store and Trillium Telephone, though Trillium has been out of business for decades now. But the biggie was Apple Computer, who hired HN&N as one of their three ad agencies in the 1980s (Chiat-Day and Krupp-Taylor were the other two). Eventually Cambridge SoundWorks became a client, and then hired me to be VP of marketing. I left CSW in 2003 to start ZVOX.
DL: What was your first product?
TH: The ZVOX 315 single-cabinet home theater system. It was a 17" x 15" x 5" cabinet with three 3.25" speakers and a small woofer. It sold for $199.99. It was featured on The Today Show in January of 2004. It was a great-sounding, simple, small system. Michael Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet loved it and used it as his travel music system. It is the only sound bar-category product I know of to ever receive an official Stereophile “Recommended Components” designation.
DL: What came next?
TH: We then introduced the ZVOX 325, a more stylish and sophisticated version of the 315. (It had a remote control!) Next came the ZVOX Mini in 2005 – a tiny, easy to transport version of our design about the size of a cigar box, and, among other products, the 550 SoundBase in 2008, which was the first home theater system built into a TV stand.
In 2014 we began adding AccuVoice technology to some products. AccuVoice is aimed at improving dialogue clarity using DSP to mimic the way hearing aids function. It was first included in the SB400 and SB500 soundbars, which also had built-in subwoofers. In 2017 we debuted what we consider to be a very distinctive product – the AV205 TV speaker, which can be tuned by an audiologist to match the audiogram of someone who is hearing-impaired.
In 2018 we expanded into VoiceBud hearing aids and more recently, wireless headphones with AccuVoice built in.
DL: These are certainly different approaches than most audio companies. What were the biggest transition points as ZVOX evolved and you expanded and diversified your product offerings?
TH: The first SoundBase system (the Model 550 and the first AccuVoice speaker (the model AV200) were the big game-changers in our history.
DL: I do know that AccuVoice technology was a big deal for ZVOX, as so many television viewers, especially older viewers, have trouble understanding TV dialogue due to the tiny speakers in today’s TVs and the way the audio mixes are done for many shows. In fact, having trouble hearing dialogue through a TV is the most common complaint sent to my “Sound Advice” newspaper column. Can you explain AccuVoice in more detail?
TH: AccuVoice technology is based on Bell Labs research done in the 1930s and on design work done by audiologists. In other words, it is hearing aid technology mated with a powered loudspeaker. Our patented technology actually separates the dialogue signals from the rest of the soundtrack (it doesn't matter if it’s a multi-channel Dolby signal, or two-channel stereo) and manipulates those signals to make voices clearer. The primary tools used are equalization and compression, applied to the "consonant range" of dialogue frequencies. Hard-edged consonant sounds define our ability to understand the spoken word.
But that's not all we do, although we prefer many of our other "tricks" to remain secret. We don't want to provide a clear outline for our competitors.
Our SuperVoice technology, which we introduced in 2020, focuses on reducing background sounds. Whereas AccuVoice algorithms sharpen and clarify voices, SuperVoice focuses on softening and minimizing the non-voice signals in a soundtrack. The combination of the two approaches (when you are in SuperVoice mode, our AccuVoice technology is still in play), provides what we feel is the ultimate in loudspeaker voice clarity technology. Whether you have great hearing or strong hearing loss, you should be able to find a setting that is right for you. In our AV157 speaker with AccuVoice and SuperVoice, for example, there are 12 settings to choose from.
DL: What products does ZVOX currently offer?
TH: We have five AccuVoice speaker models, one SoundBase, three soundbars, our AV50 wireless AccuVoice headphones, and two hearing aids. Prices for our products range from $59.99 to $699.99.
DL: ZVOX has achieved commercial success but is still relatively small compared to the Sonys, Samsungs, and LGs of the world, companies that all offer soundbars that compete with yours. How have you managed to stay relevant in the face of such competition?
TH: We stay competitive with constant innovation. CNET called our very first product, the Model 315, “the first commercially successful soundbar,” so I feel we’ve had an advantage since the beginning. And we continue striving to improve peoples’ listening experiences with technologies like AccuVoice.
DL: Other companies obviously use DSP technologies like virtual surround sound, voice enhancement and even room correction. What differentiates your products in terms of striving for higher-quality audio? Another question – many in the high-end audio industry wring their hands over how to reach a new generation of listeners. Are you doing or planning to do anything specifically to address this?
TH: While we do use DSP technology to create three-dimensional "virtual surround sound," our primary goal with digital sound correction is to make dialogue clearer. This currently defines our unique approach to speaker design and our marketing goals.
Regarding the goal of raising awareness of quality sound for younger people – we have given up on that, leaving the job to people and companies that are better-qualified. Our target is to improve the lives and the listening experiences of people over 50. We're good at that.
DL: Have you ever considered offering audio-centric speaker systems, as opposed to TV-oriented products?
TH: “Audio-centric" products (vs. "TV-centric") is how we started out. The 315 was designed as a music speaker with a wide soundstage in a small box. It was only by accident that we determined that the method for creating the wide soundstage also produced reasonably realistic virtual surround. In terms of new products, we always strive for musical accuracy, but sometimes dialogue clarity represents a goal that doesn't exactly align with that – especially when accommodating people with genuine hearing loss. The "AccuVoice Level 4" setting in some of our products makes noticeable equalization changes that audiophiles (with good ears) probably would not approve of. But for many of our customers, those equalization changes are life-transforming.
DL: When and why did you decide to enter the hearing aid market?
TH: In 2017. We had been exhibiting at the AAA (American Audiology Association) annual conference and trade show, trying to sell AccuVoice speakers through the audiology channel, so we had learned a lot about the business. When the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 (OTC Hearing Aid Act) was being worked on I thought, "Hmmm, I bet a lot of non-traditional companies will enter the hearing aid business if this law passes." Then I thought, "Why shouldn't ZVOX be one of them?" So I started meeting with vendors and talking with my friend, Dr. Tom Powers, who at the time was chief audiologist at Siemens, then the world's largest hearing aid manufacturer. [Siemens was subsequently purchased by Sivantos Group, now part of WS Audiology. – Ed.] Within six months we were evaluating samples and developing our own hearing aid designs, which we now sell directly to the consumer. When the OTC law is implemented, we will be able to sell them through resellers.
DL: What might you be doing to address the needs of aging audiophiles and music lovers with hearing loss?
TH: I think Michael Fremer gives the best answer for this. It can be seen at https://www.analogplanet.com/content/two-weeks-zvoxs-vb20-voicebud. But essentially a hearing aid for people with moderate hearing loss can improve voice clarity without destroying musical fidelity. However, it is a nuanced thing. The two goals – musical accuracy and enhanced voice clarity – are often opposed to each other. You can wish it were not true, but the wishing won't help.
DL: What are the most popular ZVOX products?
TH: Right now, those would be our AV100, AV203 and AV157 AccuVoice speakers and our AV50 headphones. By the end of the year we will have sold about 400,000 speakers with AccuVoice included.
DL: This may be a question for your engineer, Jarl. Is there a key engineering or design philosophy found throughout ZVOX?
TH: We are very old fashioned in this sense. We don't believe in focus groups or market surveys. Instead we build products that we would like to own and use. We build products that we would proudly sell to our friends and family members. Our products are not the most expensive (I find extreme high-end audio a little bit off-putting...sorry) and certainly not the cheapest.
Henry Kloss used to talk about fuel pumps for cars. In the 1960s he said something like, "A Rolls Royce fuel pump costs $388 to make and it is very good – but it doesn't take a genius to design an expensive fuel pump that is good. A GM fuel pump costs $34 and functions much like the Rolls Royce model – that is something to be proud of." That's how we think – thank you Henry!
Also, we don't like making "me too" products.
DL: Is there such a thing as a typical ZVOX customer? Where are your products finding the most acceptance?
TH: Our customers tend to be older and appreciate a combination of performance, style, simplicity and value. We have way more customers over 50 than under 30. But there are 95 million people over age 50 in the US.
DL: For a long time sound bars and bases were your only product offerings. Given your hi-fi/home theater roots and your evolution as a company dedicated to helping people hear better, do you think such products will always have a prominent place in your product line or do you plan to expand or evolve from that?
TH: We still have a good, strong soundbar and sound base business, and we like making those products. But it is a very competitive arena that is dominated by Asian TV manufacturers who have a lot of leverage in convincing big resellers to carry their products. So most of our "home theater" sales are generated by our website and marketing – not by big box stores.
At this point those traditional-style products represent only about 10 percent of our sales. AccuVoice speakers, headphones and hearing aids – that's where the action is for us right now. In many ways we have evolved from an entertainment company into a health company. And I must say, selling products that solve problems for people, products that literally fix people's lives, is a lot of fun. Really rewarding.