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.