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Behind the Business: Leon Speakers

Catching Up with an On-Wall Loudspeaker Innovator

After graduating from the University of Michigans School of Art and Design more than 13 years ago, Leon Speakers president and co-founder Noah Kaplan teamed up with a local recording artist, Jeff Gordon, to open a collaborative art gallery/recording studio/custom speaker shop in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. It didnt take long for the two men to start combining their interests. The first products under the Leon Speakers name maintained traditional speaker design but were crafted out of solid exotic hardwoods and even sculpted into wall-hanging art. Having a retail front, Kaplan and Gordon were able to get immediate feedback on their designs, finding that people were especially fond of the companys wall-hanging products. This led to the development of Leons first speaker line, called PictureSound, which were on-wall, flat-panel speakers with acoustically transparent, silk-screened decorative grills. That line was introduced at CEDIA EXPO 1999, which provided more positive feedback and a small dealer following. At the show, however, Kaplan took one look at the plasma TV and realized the possibilities for his company. He and Gordon returned to Ann Arbor and scrapped the art/speaker concept and put their full energy into a new product design, now called the Profile Series. Kaplan recently took time out of his CEDIA planning to discuss the business behind Leon Speakers, which still focuses on made-to-order speakers for the flat-panel revolution.

In the dozen-plus years that youve been doing this, what are some of the most valuable lessons youve learned about speaker design, specifically, and the custom installation channel, in general?
Because we were designing a product line specifically for flat-panel and architectural applications, we had to reconsider our own notions of high-fidelity audio. What we learned about speaker design for this industry was that a plasma TV is not a stereo. We came up with a theory called Direct Source Audio (DSA), which maintains that audio should enhance the visual experience. Our Horizon and Profile Series embody this theory. We use the finest compact woofers (Focal, Peerless, etc.) and extreme fidelity tweeters (Morel) to create the Leon sound: detailed vocal clarity while maintaining musicality. When Im watching Sports Center, Im not looking to hear Stuart Scott through my 1980s mega-tower stereo speakers. I want the audio to connect with what Im watching. The same goes for big TVs turned into small home theaters in non-dedicated rooms.

What Ive learned from our CI retailers is to listen very carefully to the needs of their customers. Most people choose looks and practicality when it comes to creating the modern entertainment system, and they want it yesterday. Thats why we offer the most custom solutions in the industry and the fastest turnarounds for custom orders. We are a true CI companyoffering custom colors, dimensions, mounting options, drivers, whatever. These are not compromises; these are the solutions our customers are looking for. Whether it is the 125-inch wide Horizon speaker out of solid cherry or the one-off custom sub with a hidden gun compartment, we have become the guys that will build speakers when no one else will.

It seems that most companies eventually manufacture speakers lines, instead of building each speaker made to order. How are you able to continue to do business this way without it being a huge burden to your business?
Built-to-order manufacturing has many advantages for a company of our size. We have never been stuck with a warehouse of inventory or ideas, only raw materials ready to be assembled into products. We have therefore been able to invest in process instead of speakers. What we call speaker lines are really just a set of parameters which can be easily adjusted to fit whatever comes through the system. After 10 years in the business, our craftsmen now thrive on the variety of each build cycle. As our New York rep, Anthony Chiarella, reminds us that our most valuable asset is our ability to create custom cabinets at a break-neck speed. Plus, as a product designer, this keeps us agile and ready to respond to whatever the industry is asking us for.

Besides the proliferation of flat-panel video products, what other technical or business trends are driving your product development?
This year we hired on a senior industrial designer, Robert Waissi, out of the Savannah College of Art and Design Masters program to drive a new generation of Leon products. For years we have developed ways to match our speakers into installs. Now, as design becomes more relevant in our homes, our new lines are made to be show pieces. We have refocused our Profile Series with our new X-A model to incorporate modern building materials into clean urban designs. Our flagship Profile X-A features bamboo baffles with clean white walls, painted to match the trim or wall color. They stand on either billet aluminum or solid granite bases. From a technology perspective, we have made a company promise: no iPod docks.

Economically speaking, its not been an easy year for the CI channel. What are you hearing from your dealer base as they weather this storm? Are you making any changes to your business approach in response to the economy and housing market slump?
As a business owner, I believe that times like these force us to think more creatively about all aspects of the company. We have created great new incentive plans for our dealers and reps. And, though we havent necessarily seen sales slumping at all, we have all watched margins on plasmas and LCDs plummet. Leons products give our dealers the ability to make back the margins lost on the plasma; and, they are now making far more money on the speaker sale. In fact, the panel is enabling the sale of tons of other products.

What do you hope to get out of the CEDIA EXPO show this year and what can visitors to your booth expect to find?
This year we are truly pushing the boundaries of the custom speaker market. Well have a Horizon Series OS (Over-Size) speaker built to exactly match the dimensions of the 103-inch TV with a tricked-out graphic wrap. To juxtapose the OS speakers, well also be showing off our new 1.5-inch deep Horizon 212 line that matches perfectly with the new micro-thin Hitachi 1.5. And to add the bottom end, well be featuring our new A-3 subwoofer thats less than four inches deep on custom chrome stands. It will change the way you think about subwoofer placement. Our new moniker is Audiophile meets Audiostyle. This is the year of Leon and we invite all to stop by our Booth 352 to check out our offering.