The CI business is all about the personal touch. To get the job done right, you have to take the time to get to know your clients, and over the long-term, you need to apply that knowledge to service and support. But even after a baseline relationship is established, there's always room for growth.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Stealth Acoustics. I've known its co-founder and vice president, Steve Olszewski, for almost 13 years through his work on the commercial AV side of the business with Dimensional Communications Inc. (DCI), Stealth's sister company. In fact, you might even call DCI a parent company in the figurative sense, as Stealth Acoustics was borne of decades' worth of experience in the integration business.
While listening to the new LR-4 during the R&D process and hearing what they deemed a top-notch speaker, Hagman and his audiophile engineering team made the decision to produce a freestanding model to be called the Monolith, which will hit the market in the first quarter of this year. Click here for a slideshow of Kirsten's trip to Stealth's Washington State factory.
So when I had the opportunity to visit Stealth and DCI's headquarters in Mount Vernon, Washington last month, I thought I knew what to expect. But only after I arrived in the beautiful country that is tucked away in the Northwestern-most corner of the U.S. did I realize that to get the complete picture about this manufacturer of invisible speakers, you have to see what's hidden behind their walls.
Olszewski and Stealth co-founder and president Paul Hagman have a long history in business together. In 1974, Hagman founded the Dimensional Sound Center connected to his millwork business in Bellingham, Washington. One year later, Olszewski joined the company. The two, and several other core team members, have been working together ever since. In 2003, Stealth was borne out of Hagman's conviction that he could improve upon invisible loudspeakers.
As the manufacturing business continues to expand -- most recently with a 20,000-square-foot production and warehouse addition that doubled the companies' headquarters--DCI also continues to thrive today, its AV business remaining impressively steady throughout the downturn. Similarly, Stealth also rose above the tribulations of the recent economic downturn, its international business increasingly so rapidly that it now represents 41 percent of total revenues.
"There are two things that have elevated Stealth," Olszewski explained. "The passion of the inventor, Paul Hagman, who wants to create the best that he can create, and that intention is filtered through a supporting engineer who does all our crossover design and all our voicings, who is a two-channel-obsessed audiophile. He doesn't care if it's invisible; he wants to create the best-sounding speaker possible. It's those two things that have continued the improvement of our product. Rather than come to market and say we have a speaker that's invisible -- we had that trick 10 generations ago -- we're making it better to elevate the whole space."
Stealth's mission is to create a great-sounding speaker that happens to be invisible, rather than the other way around. "Our mindset about invisible speakers is to be able to say, 'I have a great speaker, and by the way it solves aesthetic issues,'" Olszewski elaborated.
Designing and producing speakers that integrate seamlessly into drywall produces some pretty heavy requirements for sound quality and reliability. But Stealth's track record is impressive. So far, it has succeeded in producing a steady stream of improvements over 10 generations of speakers in eight years of manufacturing, selling $10 million worth of product with only six known in-wall failures -- four of which were in the very early stages of development.
"What we build is magic, because most people expect invisible speakers to fail," Olszewski quipped. "In the invisible speaker arena, we are the only people that not only have a full-range panel that goes as low as 40 to 50 Hz on the low end, but we're also the only company that also offers invisible subwoofers," he noted. The same slim Stealth form factor, and the same install process "gives us something that can go from 20 Hz on the low end to 20,000 on the high end, plus/minus 3dB."
Lately, Stealth has been expanding into electronics, with a subwoofer amplifier filter, and the brand-new model 8400 multi-channel amplifier with DSP optimization that "you see all the time in the pro world, but you don't see it in the consumer world all that much, and you certainly don't see it in the invisible speaker space."
This year, Stealth is making another leap in the invisible speakers space, and it will also prove that its audio technology can stand on its own… literally. The new LineaResponse LR-4 invisible speaker system is a three-way, full-range system of two panels, a mid-high panel and a low-range panel. It will be available early this year.
Stealth Acoustics VP Steve Olszewski leading the factory tour
Meanwhile, listening to the new LR-4 during the R&D process and hearing what they deemed a top-notch speaker, Hagman and his audiophile engineering team made the decision to produce a freestanding model to be called the Monolith, which also will hit the market in the first quarter of this year.
These new models and all Stealth products will be submitted for third-party electro-acoustical measurement this year, Olszewski pointed out, adding, "Proving the legitimacy of invisible speakers is our number-one goal."
This fact becomes apparent on a tour of Stealth's manufacturing operations. The pristine new facility houses a team dedicated to the production of flawless product that maintains the company’s reputation for complete reliability. Surrounding the workshop space, the warehouse shelves are stocked with a year’s worth of raw materials, so Stealth can fulfill large orders at a moment's notice. "We are the antithesis of just in time," Olszewski laughed. "We always want to have product in stock, and we always want to fulfill without backordering."
He estimates that 99 percent of the time, if an order is placed by 3pm Pacific time, it ships that day. "People say we're one of the best companies to deal with, and our shipping capabilities are part of it," Olszewski noted. "That comes from our integrator background. We could not in eight years have gone from literally nobody to arguably the global leader in invisible speakers without the fundamental business and operations understanding that we got from being a systems integrator."
Kirsten Nelson has been reporting on the systems integration business since 1998. She is the editor of Systems Contractor News and co-creator of Residential Systems magazine.