TechnologyTell

The Man from Emotiva: A Visit with Dan Laufman of JADE Design

Sections: Audio, Features

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When I first met Dan Laufman—CEO of Emotiva and its parent company, JADE Design—I was still shaking off the 4.5 hours of boring interstate highway that connects my home in Montgomery, AL, and Emotiva’s headquarters in Franklin, TN. That lonesome stretch of highway was traversed in a rental car that wasn’t nearly roomy enough for my Wookiee stature, mere days after getting over the worst of a flu that literally nearly killed me completely to death. Literally literally, not figuratively literally.

So needless to say, I wasn’t in the mood. For anything, really. When I set out on this trip last month, I knew very little about Emotiva, aside from what I’d read on the interwebs (much of it dismissive). I wasn’t here to tour manufacturing facilities (they’re in China). I didn’t have the stomach for corporate ra-ra (although, had there been any, my stomach was fortunately empty). I went in with pretty much zero expectations—about the trip, the headquarters, and especially the man himself.

What I definitely didn’t expect was for Laufman to launch almost immediately into a discussion of his nostalgic passion for other audio brands—halcyon days of youth spent in stereo stores in California, oooing and aahing over old-school Infinity speakers and Harman gear. It took me aback, to be honest. And it was my first clue that, for me anyway, this trip would be just as revealing about the man behind the brand as it was about Emotiva itself.

As I discovered over the next couple days, Laufman’s passion for quality audio—no matter the brand—extends throughout the pair of buildings that house Jade Design. Pop into the facilities’ main home theater, for example, and you’ll see Revel speakers unabashedly on display, despite the fact that Emotiva has its own speaker line. Which isn’t to say that Emotiva’s speakers didn’t get quite a bit of play themselves, mind you. They did. For me, though, the presence of all the other brands scattered throughout the facilities is the first clue that Laufman isn’t isolating himself inside his own direct-marketed bubble. He’s not afraid to put his products right beside some of the most respected—and high-priced—gear in the industry.

A few rooms over and a day or so after introductions were made, a few fellow journalists and I were sitting in a darkened listening room, soaking up delicious sounds from the sort of system that, as a tech journalist, I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t even consciously aware that Emotiva made—pristine audio from the company’s ERC-2 Differential Reference CD Player/Digital Transport, driven digitally into the company’s new XDA-2 USB DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp, fully balanced into an XSP-1 Differential Reference Preamp, out to a pair of XPA-1 Differential Reference Monoblock Power Amps driving two XRT-6.2 Towers—when I finally decided definitively that Laufman is, for lack of a better way of putting it, the “real deal.” Not a marketing guy. Not a corporate shill. But a genuine, fervent music nut.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, coming off as something like a more grown-up, intelligent, and better-dressed-but-slightly-manic version of The Dude (sans only a rug to really tie the room together), Laufman talked a bit about the design of the preamp—its old-school analog signal path, which is enhanced with fully digital controls for better precision and reliability. “We threw out the first hundred production units and started over from scratch on this one,” he said. “The first try just didn’t sound right.”

Then, right in the middle of a surprisingly interesting talk about custom-tooled capacitors, he stopped the gorgeous audiophile recording pumping through the system—you know the type; music that no one actually listens to unless they’re trying to demonstrate just how good their stereo system sounds—and apologetically cued up a song he fell in love with during a cab ride in Europe. “This is Selah Sue—and guys, I know the recording sounds like shit, but…” he paused and sighed, “Just listen to that voice. That voice!” Then he closed his eyes, sat on the floor, and went somewhere else entirely in his head.

And he was right. The recording did kind of sound like shit—through no fault of the Emotiva gear, of course. It was exactly the opposite of the sort of record that a hi-fi salesman would ever cue up when trying to sell you a sound system. It was the kind of record that only someone that someone who really, really loves music would ever play for you. But he was also right about Selah Sue’s voice. And it was at that exact moment that I thought to myself, “Self, I want to hang out with this dude. I like him a very lot”

Luckily, I did get to hang out with him quite a bit during my two days in Franklin, and broke every rule of journalism by letting myself grow to like him even more. It’s hard not to like someone this passionate, this genuine, and this blatantly honest. The list of unprintable asides stretches for pages in my iPhone’s Notes app. But during those discussions, we really got into the meat of what makes Emotiva such a different brand.

We talked a lot about Laufman’s business philosophies, about his undying love of great sound, and the genesis of JADE Design and Emotiva, which he alternately described as “a hobby” and “therapy.” And then, of course, the discussion turned to Emotiva’s manufacturing process, which sprung from Laufman’s history as an ODM and OEM for some truly legendary gear from brands you already know and respect—gear sold for more than ten times what it cost to manufacture.

The thing is, he has nothing bad to say at all about that business model, nor the brands that thrive on such markups. “It’s just one business model, man,” he said. “But it’s not a business model I’m interested in anymore. I don’t want to sell ten amps a year; I want to sell ten thousand. I just want more people to be able to afford great sound. Granted, if you look at the design of a lot of those expensive amps, you can really see the value in them. The luxury. There’s nothing wrong with luxury! I love $10,000 watches. But really, do $10,000 watches tell time any better than a $10 watch? They don’t.

“With Emotiva, affordability and transparency are the driving forces behind all of our designs. I don’t want to set the price of a piece of gear based on what the market will bear. With our stuff, there’s a direct correlation between how much it costs to manufacture and how much we sell it for. As a result of that, we never have to have big discussions about how to price our gear. It’s an incredibly simple formula.”

To cut to the heart of the relationship between manufacturing costs, design, and retail price, Laufman launched into a really wonderful analogy that, for me, really cemented what he’s trying to do with Emotiva. As the story goes, Laufman sketched out a design for some new bookshelves and gave it to his carpenter, who did some quick math and told him the materials would cost $1200. When Laufman balked, the carpenter did a little more math and told him that that he was wasting a pretty significant chunk of wood. By shaving two inches off the depth of the shelves, from 26 to 24 inches, they could cut the materials cost in half by using each piece of plywood twice.

“I didn’t need a 26-inch bookshelf, man,” Laufman said. “24 was more than enough. 26 was just an arbitrary number I pulled out of my head. But my carpenter knows wood, and knew how to make changes to the design to save me a ton of money.

“I don’t know that much about wood. But I do know about audio. The whole shelf thing illustrates the sort of smart design decisions we’re making to keep costs where we want them. It’s not about being cheap, though; it’s about being disciplined. It’s about designing for cost without compromising quality.”

And, well, there’s the fact that Emotiva gear is made in China, right?

“Yeah, we’re made in China,” Laufman said. “But here’s the thing: so is everyone else. That iPhone you’re typing on is made in China, and look at it. Look at the design! Nobody calls the iPhone ‘cheap Chinese crap.’ Look, we live in a transparent world, man. Customers know exactly which factory in China Monster Cables are made in. Why bother hiding from that? Why be ashamed of it? We embrace it! Chinese manufacturing has allowed me to do what I do: make true audiophile gear for the working man. Reviewers may not respect us because we’re not expensive enough, but I’m not trying to change the world here; I’m just trying to do right by my customers.”

Laufman’s daughter Jess—for whom Jade Design is half-named (“JADE stands for the ‘Jessica And Danielle Endowment,’ ” Laufman says with a laugh”)—interjects at this point: “You know, that’s the thing about building a brand around the customers: we actually hire a lot of our customers! I think literally all of our sales guys were originally customers.”

Of course, with a brand that sells as much gear as Emotiva does, they can’t hire all of their customers. To show their appreciation for those they don’t hire, Emotiva throws a big annual party on the Jade Design property called Emofest. “The thing about our customers is that no one buys just one thing from us,” Laufman said. “They end up buying everything from us, which is why we have our Upgrade for Life program. And it’s why we get together every year to say thanks to them.”

And although direct internet sales have always been at the core of the Emotiva brand—“six, seven years ago, internet sales were sketchy, so everybody thought we were crazy, but look how good it’s been for us!” Laufman said—the company is seriously kicking around the idea of setting up some sort of retail presence in the Franklin/Nashville area.

And that’s not the only change in the works: despite the fact that the company’s identity very nearly hinges on Chinese manufacturing, Emotiva has an initiative in place to bring production to the US. “It definitely makes sense for speakers,” Laufman said. “Because, let’s face it, by manufacturing the cabinets overseas you’re basically paying a lot of money to ship air. And a customer we met at Emofest said he could build the cabinets for us. We’re also assembling our Emotiva Pro amps here already.”

As he said this, we were gathered around a massive beast of an amp, with a gorgeous, rock solid chassis—an upcoming addition to Emotiva’s Pro lineup, which presently covers powered studio monitors—when Laufman asked, “How much do you think this should retail for?” Even taking into consideration the incredibly low price tags attached to other gear we’ve seen around the facility, my fellow journalists and I started rattling off numbers that tiptoe right up to the five-digit point. The actual price? Well, I won’t spoil that, since Emotiva hasn’t officially announced this model yet, but let’s just say it’s less than a third of the lowest number any of us guessed.

That’s definitely one direction that Emotiva is exploring, but what about the other? Are there perhaps plans for the company—which is best known for its separate surround processors and amps and DACs—to explore AV receiver territory? Laufman doesn’t dismiss the idea, nor does he completely embrace it. At least not yet.

“There are two big things to consider if we decide to go down the receiver route. One, I don’t want our core fans thinking we’re selling out. And two, receivers these days are expected to be packed with features that, really, I just don’t want in a receiver. I mean, these days you see every receiver trying to be a media streamer, too. Why try to build a better media streamer than Roku? I just don’t get it. But we’ll see. Who knows what the future will hold? We’ll do what’s best for our way of doing business. More than anything else, I’m just focused on making great audio gear that people will love, and that they can afford before they’re forty.”

I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there, Dan Laufman, takin’ ‘er easy for all us cash-strapped audiophiles.

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6 Comments

  1. Dennis,
    Any chance of a follow up article on the Sherbourn line? As a custom integrator the Emotiva products appeal to me but no real ability to offer it to clients. I’d be interested to better understand how Sherbourn models will be merged or derived with respect to the Emotiva line up.

    Scott
  2. Hey Scott,

    Well, that might require another trip, or at least a phone call! We really didn’t discuss Sherbourn too much, except the fact that Sherbourn was the last of JADE’s OEM customers, which made the transition of ownership easy, and the fact that he doesn’t see the lines competing at all. The plan is to keep them distinct. The Sherbourn line requires a different business model, a different support system, and a different way of thinking.

    This trip was all about the Emotiva brand, though — its business model, its support system, its way of thinking. So the overlap was minimal. Of the literally pages of notes I took over the course of two days, I have literally two quotes about Sherbourn jotted down: “We’re talking about two different brands for two different markets; they don’t scavenge each other at all,” and “If you can’t make a difference in a market, why be in it?”

    But, hey, let’s say there were a follow-up visit or phone call (which I would probably cover over at Resi Systems, since that’s where I write when I’m wearing my custom hat). What sorts of things would you want me to ask, aside from the obvious? What specifics would interest you as someone on the ground?

    Dennis Burger
  3. Ack, and of course, as soon as I hit enter, I found another note. I didn’t try to capture a direct quote on this one, since it was obvious by then that Sherbourn wasn’t going to factor in this story significantly at all, but I do have a few scribbled sketches from a conversation where Dan talked about the different sort of thinking that goes into designing a product for the CI channel: mostly in regard to heat management — the fact that custom gear has to be designed and built to be able to withstand being stacked and mounted in gear closets, etc.

    We knew that, of course. But the note I made for myself after is that, from that conversation, it’s obvious to me that we won’t be seeing the same piece of kit marketed under both the Sherbourn and Emotiva brands, just with a different face plate.

    Dennis Burger
  4. I own a few Emotiva products and to cut the story short. DON”T buy anything from Emo with mechanical parts, I was well inform about it but didn’t listen.

    Beside that I don’t really know much about this website or company, BUT before the comments line……there are lots of PORN advertises which tell me not much real readers.

    Denis
  5. Denis,

    Could you please take screenshots of these “PORN advertises” [sic] that you’re claiming to see? There shouldn’t be any links to any pornography, and if there is, I need to look into it, pronto.

    Or are you talking about the link to the story from Gamertell about porn stars creating a video game fan site? That’s news, not porn. There’s absolutely nothing in that story that could be considered porn, unless you were interested, clicked through to the link, ignored the “Adults Only” warning, and registered for the site.

    Dennis Burger
  6. Made in China? Yeah, a lot of things are made in China, but the big dollar high end audio gear isn’t largely made in China, it’s either made in the USA, Europe or Canada. And they are using (depending on the company) VERY expensive component, some of which are custom made and they are small production which drives up the costs. But if you look at the big dollar “cost no object” products, they aren’t made in China.

    I personally think that Emotiva and the other brands they market and sell is just another brand on the market with a lot of products, but no real focus. If this company doesn’t watch itself, it may end up running itself too thin. They should stay out of the Pro audio market, that market is already crowded with a lot of brands as is. That market doesn’t need any more companies in that market. Heck, I only heard of Emotiva a couple of years ago, Sherbourn a couple of months ago and I’ve been researching the audio equipment producers over the last 40 years ago when I was a teenager. Never heard of this company until recently and they are acting like they’ve been around all these years.

    I think they do marketing really well. At least it LOOKS like it. I don’t how much product they actually sell, but they seem to attract the Joe Six pack that’s pissed off at the high end audio market because they can’t afford it, so instead of just buying something else that’s in the same price range they really can afford, they just want the bypass the middleman to buy it direct. Kind of reminds me of those crappy stereos guys would try to sell you out of their van, only this has the internet selling them and they are more expensive. Yeah, I know it’s more affordable, but I don’t see anything that really indicates that it’s really that much better. I’ve read some horror stories on the product in terms of reliability and since most of the buyers of the product just want loud stereos, I can’t really judge that they even know what they are talking about since they are usually those that listen to pop/rock/movies and don’t get into classical, jazz and reference quality recordings. So I don’t know what to say. The traditional reviewers may not review the products because they may not like the sound quality, so instead, they would rather just abstain from reviewing the product. Oh well. Just one more company to flood the market with products and time will tell how long they actually last.

    Rich