September 12, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When my friend, Sandy Gross was responsible for marketing Polk Audio in the late 70s and early 80s one of the challenges he faced was acceptance of the brand as a serious contender.

It was a tough challenge. Their competitors were pretty serious people including Dr. Amar Bose, Edgar Villchur, Dr. Sydney Harman, and Henry Kloss to mention just a few.

Matthew Polk had studied marine biology at Johns Hopkins.

What to do to get Polk taken seriously by the stereo buyers of the day?

Dress him up in a white lab coat.

Matt is an excellent loudspeaker designer who pioneered a number of innovations still used today.

What he lacked at the time was credibility.


Can you think of anything around us that doesn’t fight for status?

Would you buy the world’s best sounding power amplifier if it were dressed up in a metal garbage pail?

Like it or not we judge books, equipment, and people by their appearance.

Maybe I should buy myself a lab coat.

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31 comments on “Appearances”

  1. On this point, again, I have to disagree with you Paul.
    If the best sounding amplifier that I could afford had an ugly cardboard box for an outer, I would purchase it rather than have some sexy looking thing like a Dan D’Agostino outer that sounded average.
    There’s a reason that the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” exists.
    People who buy home-audio gear on looks are completely missing the point.
    I guess that from a ‘sales’ point of view it makes sense, as most people are
    seduced by looks & not so much by performance.

    I learned a long time ago not to bother with looks so much,
    but rather concern myself with the sound quality performance.

    Btw, the best sounding car audio system that I ever owned
    had Polk Audio loudspeakers as part of the set-up.

    1. Thanks, Martin and it’s good to offer an alternate viewpoint. I am in admiration of people who can ignore the clothes, the demeanor, the cover and simply revel in what’s inside. A true talent not all of us possess.

      1. It depends if form has function. My last purchase, an RCM Sensor Mk2 phono stage, has no functional controls, so is a plain black box with a dim power light. There is nothing impressive about it other than the sound.

      2. Paul, I should’ve added that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
        Two people can be looking at the same piece of home-audio
        equipment with complete polar opposite opinions about its appearance.

  2. As FR said “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. If only you could get people to actually do that. ( As an aside, I actually wore a lab coat early on in my career. They have great pockets, you can carry all kinds of stuff in them. )

    In my audio journey I have been judged by my cover. Between 1998 and 2001 I spend a lot of time going to NYC and its surrounding suburbs shopping for my first “hi-end” stereo system. At that time I had a real job that I worked at 60 to 70 hours a week. The job often required me to travel and wear a coat and tie. Thus when I went shopping for stereo gear I relaxed and wore very casual attire ( blue jeans and a tee shirt ). I soon realized that when I went into stores such as “Sound by Singer, “Lyric Hi-Fi”, “Stereo Exchange”, etc. and asked to hear some of their best gear I was being given the evil eye. Why does this bum want to hear an $8000 preamp? I even got thrown out of the Lyric Hi-Fi in White Plains, NY once because they did not think I could afford what I wanted to hear. Some how I finally did buy a “hi-end” stereo system in 2002 ( and I did NOT buy it at Lyric Hi-Fi ).

    Fast forward to 2016 when I decided I wanted to upgrade my system one more time. I was now retired and my usual attire goes between shorts and a tee shirt and my bathrobe. But, by this time I had learned how to play the game. When I walked into one of the hi-end audio stores the first thing I said was “I’m replacing my Audio Physic speakers and have been considering either Wilson Audio or Magico as replacements”. The response that I would get was “yes sir, we would by happy to help you with that”. I was still being judged by my cover, I just learned what cover to put on. 😀

    1. It is commonly known that everybody judges (most superficially) another person within some milliseconds – based on learned patterns, prejudices. The problem with photos now is that they give only some visual impressions while normally our superficial judgements are based on all our senses (the body odor and the timbre of voice matters a lot). Not to forget specific decorations – see military uniforms! And it’s most difficult to correct a first impression! Concerning learned patterns: how can someone judge the quality of sounds when he has never experienced the sound patterns of live acoustic instruments?

  3. IMO credibility and valuable appearance today is, when someone shows proper knowledge of given alternatives with advantages and disadvantages, has an undogmatic, realistic opinion about them and can explain why he follows the one he does in comparison to the others, in a balanced and believable way. Rather the convincing general expert in most alternatives than the preacher or the expert in his limited focus of choice.

    And with a lab coat, one would rather be a suspect of not listening to own theoretical designs today I guess 😉

  4. I guess the point could be nowadays there’s no reason for a great amp to look like a dogs dinner. Anyone who can design great circuits should take the trouble to package it for the target market. Unlike FR I don’t want tin cans in my room-and these days, don’t need to.
    How to get up and running in a crowded area? Good product, good marketing, do your research stay the course for 5 years and hope your preparation meets opportunities.
    Lab coats? The implications clear. The truth may be different!

  5. If you were going to wear the lab coat then you should have done it long ago! You have accomplished what that would have done and so much more it’s a moot point now!

  6. I started my engineering career in the mid 70s as a Co-Op student working in design and road test for Pontiac Motors in Pontiac Michigan. On an off semester at my university in Chicago, I attended the Chicago auto show with some friends. They’re on display with the latest Pontiac models being shown by a team of men and women in immaculate white lab coats. I didn’t recognize any of the individuals on the platform presenting the cars to the public, so when I get a chance I asked one of them what section of Pontiac engineering they were assigned. The guy looked at me confused and then replied “All of us here are just actors hired to read a script and stand around the cars, we’re not engineers”. I should’ve realize that by myself, they were all too good looking to be engineers 🙂

    Do I read a book by its cover? Absolutely! But differently than most.

    If an individual surrounds themselves with awards and diplomas, I am very wary of their capabilities. The same goes for audio products that are housed or decorated in Elaborately machined billets of aluminum. This is why I prefer the looks of Nelson’s First Watt amp over a Passlabs amp.

    Paul, I would ditch any idea of a lab coat. But you should consider ditching the jeans and going to REI and getting some good technical pants. They’re more comfortable than jeans, and definitely more modern. My wife convinced me to ditch my jeans five years ago.

    As far as your product cases are concerned, have you considered offering an option for a transparent glass top? The current black tops on your products scratches easily, and hides the beauty inside. So consider this a book with a transparent cover 😉

    1. I beg to differ, AA. Natural fibers such as cotton against the skin are more comfortable than quick drying, abrasion-resistant synthetics that are more useful in rugged hiking and climbing situations. I revel in my jeans with torn knees because I’ve earned them with years of use, rather than buying them new that way with a designer label. The music also sounds better when I’m wearing my jeans than when I’m wearing my EMS synthetic hiking pants with zip-off legs. 😎

  7. Thanks for the Polk shout out Paul. Being from Baltimore, Polk Audio was THE brand to go with back in the day. My first venture into high end was a pair of the SDA tower speakers with the speaker-to-speaker interconnect cable. Listening to Brian Eno, Steve Tibbetts and Jorge Reyes on those speakers was an other-worldy experience. I don’t even think imaging or ambient music was in our collective vocabularies at the time.

  8. I had an integrated amp years ago that was absolutely incredible, but also lacked cache and brand recognition. Which only matters really when you go to sell it.

    Re Polk….I had Monitor 10s back in the day. They were really excellent. Better, IMO, than the poplular Advents, KLH and JBLs of the day.

  9. Innovator.
    He pushed past convention, and rewarded with many patents on developing unique solutions.
    (as opposed to manufacturing similar audio internals all dre$$ed up)

  10. Paul, please wear TWO lab coats at the same time. Then the people only believing in some measurements will back you 100%. Also add a pocket protector. And wear glasses.

  11. Henry Kloss spoke to me about a hour on the phone about loudspeakers, he loved to talk to his fans. I didn’t have to ask for him when I called Cambridge Soundworks because Henry answered the phone! I also spoke to Windslow Burhoe and Ken Kantor who should be added to that list. Great Pioneers and friendly people much like Paul McGowan. I put Matthew Polk in the Bob Carver category. These are all legends.

    1. Someone who owned the old Advent speakers would always ask Henry Kloss do I need to upgrade now and his honest response was always no what you have is still fine. Just goes to show how slow audio technology was advancing after the mid to late 70’s where a big jump in sound quality happened.

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