Ole Witthøft

For a snowman everything smells of carrots

When it comes to developing a new product, most companies have a clear idea of which disciplines need to be involved. But isn't there someone missing from this fine company?

There is often a lawyer at the table when a new product has to be developed, so that the company does not break any laws.
The financial manager is also part of the team, so someone keeps track of what the new product will cost, whether the budget is kept and how much money the product can make for the company.
The development manager is there to make sure the new product can be specified and produced to work.
There will be marketers and designers, and others who can help the product reach the world. That's how a development team might well be put together.
But where is the person in charge of the magic? The extraordinary.

The specialists are busy with their own

In the struggle to survive the project, to get it done on time, to avoid internal turmoil and to find solutions, magic is often the first casualty.
The specialists each look at product development from their own perspective, and the finance manager, for example, feels (probably) burdened enough with keeping his nose in the money, so he doesn't look over the fence for an extra area of responsibility.
For him, the whole project smacks of economics.
The designer's agenda is limited to the design and the lawyer sticks to the paragraphs.
Each fits his.
Everyone looks at the project from their own point of view. Like a snowman who smells what his nose is made of.
But who is obsessed with the idea of surprising, of creating a remarkable result, of stretching the company to the point where customers will be proud to own the new product?
Magic never invents itself. But then who does?

 

20-feb-2014-2

The floorstander has lazed on the sofa after the defeat to the compact speaker. Now it's back in action.

The listening team has had the last word

In the Speaker Q113 project, the listening team has been in charge of the magic, but it could have been different.
It could have been the designer, it could have been the financial manager, but neither would have made the project an engineering project.
And neither would (presumably) give the result we've been going for.
The listening team's assessments alone determined whether the project's speakers were on track, whether they should be modified or scrapped.
That means it's the sound - and not the price, for example - that has been the measure of success for the Q113.
Before I get too far into patting the project on the back, I have to say that it almost went completely wrong.
One of the speakers got us so thoroughly round the ring that I count myself lucky that we've had an incorruptible listening team and a round of blind testing at DELTA Senselab to put things right.

 

20-feb-2014-3

The floorstander did not fail on the technical side, on the contrary. There was no skimping, but the sound quality still failed.

The floorstanding speakers had it all, except the magic

Q113 is an engineering project where we have looked at all the exciting work that goes into measuring, calculating, designing and building (really) good speakers.
The project has not been driven by economics, because the design work has been solely about finding really good solutions, regardless of the price of individual components.
The ambition has been to create (at least) one world-class speaker.
The floorstander belonged to the part of the project we called Revolution, because here we had to allow ourselves to use slightly more daring design methods, in the hope that daring would reward us by pushing the boundaries of performance in compact speakers.
On paper, the intentions have looked promising and the Revolution speakers have delivered astonishing results on several occasions. On paper, that is.
We have been sitting with the prospect of creating a relatively small speaker that could, for example, deliver a bass response that normally requires at least a speaker three times larger.
The floorstander actually delivered the most incredible bass response in living memory.
It was almost unnaturally deep and in no way suggested a 5½ inch woofer at work in a 10 litre cabinet. The sound led the mind in the direction of a much larger speaker.
No matter what, it helped. For reasons no one has bothered to explain, the sound lacked the presence, clarity and precision of the project's compact speaker.
The Engineer's readers proved to agree with this impression when the results of the big listening test were tallied up.
The subsequent blind test at DELTA Senselab gave a similar result. Our technologies worked by the book, but not to the delight of the ears.

 

20-feb-2014-4-1024x445

The floorstander's misstep. First we developed a tweeter with a new acoustic lens. It failed a listening test. Then we introduced the tweeter from the competing Evolution speaker. However, it failed the listening test against the compact speaker. Now the floorstander has two new woofers and new hope.

The high price for lack of magic

Remember, nothing has been spared. We're dealing with a speaker that uses exotic materials in a relatively daring design.
Resources have been sacrificed for an acoustically well-functioning design, and when all was said and done, the floorstanding speaker would cost DKK 40,000 for a pair, if it ever made it to the shops.
Not only that, but it's twice the price of the winning compact speaker, which was both better and cheaper.
But also notice how easy it has been for the development team to create the wrong product.
There has been an opportunity to create a cross-border product, which has technically been achieved.
There is just no tool, besides the listening test, that could warn the team that the big money was not for the benefit of the sound experience. No one but the listening team could stop the delusion.

 

20-feb-2014-5

The wild woofer from the project's first floorstander. For inexplicable reasons, we couldn't get the sound quality we wanted out of it.

How often is the magic missing?

I have chosen to call it magic, because something extraordinary has to be called. But what is it?
Haven't we all compared one flat screen to another, and marvelled at how much obvious quality one manufacturer manages to put into the product, while the other seems completely clueless with a product at the same price?
Haven't we compared smartphones, computers, cameras or GPSs with just a hint of fascination that some brands just seem to do it right, while others seem illogical, clumsy and lacking that magic touch?
Sometimes you can identify the magic by, for example, the sound the car door makes when it closes, or the feeling it gives in your fingers when you press a button. Does it say click or bang? Does a given material seem credible for its purpose?
The magic can be in the little things, but I think it's often in the bigger picture. In the total experience.

The floorstanding speaker is back in action

Of course, it's not satisfying to see an otherwise successful product fail, as has happened with the floorstander, but that's the real world sometimes.
Now it's about getting it back in the fight. The opponent is ready in one corner of the ring and that is, of course, the compact speaker.
The task is to make the floorstanding speaker better than the compact speaker. In a nutshell. It requires a lot of work with acoustic measurements, listening tests etc. and I'll come back to all that, because the new prototypes have just been ready for testing.
Now we just need to make sure we don't put a vegetable behind the wheel.
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Ole Witthøft
Ole is the founder of System Audio. His 3 greatest passions are music, design and technology. Every day, Ole is working on some kind of projects, and you find him in the workshop, in the production, behind a computer or on one of his many presentations around the world.

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