Sunfire’s Weisenberg Still Believes in High-Quality Audio -

Sunfire’s Weisenberg Still Believes in High-Quality Audio

by Jeremy Glowacki   Mark Weisenberg, general manager, Sunfire Legendary audio technology inventor Bob Carver may have stepped away
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by Jeremy Glowacki

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Mark Weisenberg, general manager, SunfireLegendary audio technology inventor Bob Carver may have stepped away from the day-to-day operations of Sunfire (the company he created) but his passion for audio lives on through the company’s general manager Mark Weisenberg, who took a moment to chat with me recently about his company’s relatively new home within Nortek’s AVC Group, about his take on current consumer tastes, and how Sunfire’s new products have been designed with those in mind. During our conversation, I learned that Bob Carver does, in fact, continue to consult with Sunfire on a project-by-project basis (you might have noticed him in the company’s CEDIA EXPO 2010 booth wearing a white lab coat) and that Sunfire’s new products this year will include technology straight from its founder’s inventive mind. Here are excerpts from my discussion with Weisenberg, a warm-hearted veteran of the industry who, by his own admission, is never at a loss for words (he is a sales and marketing man at heart, afterall).

On making audio exciting for a cost-conscious consumer…
“Our focus, of course, is reproducing sound. Now audio is, to a lot of consumers today, pretty boring, because nobody, for example, looks at an iPad and considers the quality of its sound. It’s just a cool product that people love to find uses for. And now with the iPad2, it’s got even more of a social interaction functionality with the cameras and so forth. From a category perspective it might appear to be boring, but the trend for specialty dealers that are both brick and mortar as well as custom installers is to accentuate audio and sell more high-quality audio than ever before and that’s what Sunfire does for a living. And our tenet of the brand is really performance before either price or specifications. Performance includes form factor, which is small, and high fidelity and high output. There’s no other subwoofer line that has a complete line of small-box, high-power subs. Many companies have very large cabinets squeezed into very small cabinets. They use ported designs, short-throw subs that don’t produce a lot of bass and the proper characteristics of bass to perform across all kinds of content that’s available today to the consumer, whether it’s streaming audio or video, DVDs of live concerts, CDs of live concerts, you name it. And audio systems today have to be better than every because the choices of content are so much wider than ever before.”

On why the evolution of consumer electronics is good for the audio business…
“Do you remember in the old days when you switched from your turntable to your cassette deck and the audio was different? There weren’t many companies back then that would have circuits inside that would compensate for the difference in impedance, so we all just had to live with it. Today that’s not the case. You can program systems to compensate for impedance issues so that the volume is the same when you switch from one source to the other. These kinds of evolutions continue in the audio world, and new technologies and new materials are being discovered all the time to reduce the size of a speaker—to reduce the size of a woofer and yet still maintain high-performance. The evolution of technology is good for our business and the evolution of wireless technology and the connected world that we’re all living in is finding new opportunities for audio that we never had before. For example, the relevancy of a small subwoofer is much higher today than ever before. People are putting stuff in their house that is small, like an iPad or touchscreens, things that don’t take up space but enhance the enjoyment of their living space. So small form factors in audio make perfect sense, because it goes a long way to what a consumer thinks is cool, which is usually small form factors that do a lot like an iPad or any of the other pads that are coming out. But people still want good quality audio. And the thinner the TV sets become, the worse the sound is, which opens up opportunities for dealers to present good-quality audio products. At the same time we have the economic challenges around the world now that force manufacturers to produce higher value products, meaning that consumers are wanting more for less money.”

On the motivation behind Sunfire’s new Dynamic Series…
“While we still have people that will pay more for higher quality audio, the mass market is looking for more product for less money, so we developed the Sunfire Dynamic Series or SDS, utilizing Sunfire digital amplifier technology for the first time in the history of the company. Why did we go to digital amplifiers? Because the technology has reached a point where we can fine-tune the sonic characteristics to match Sunfire’s requirements and to comply with the customer’s needs for subwoofers that perform equally well with all kinds of content, yet without the price of the legacy Sunfire product. The current amplifier technology that we use in the rest of the line is this Class A/B tracking downconverter TDC power supply. That is a very expensive amplifier. Digital amplifiers are more efficient to build, so we took that technology and made it into a Sunfire digital amplifier, by working on the interaural response within the subwoofer frequency range (how each frequency relates to the next one). We did this science in previous subwoofers, including the Sub Rosa, as well as the HRS Line, and we call it Frequency Filtration Design (FFD), and so what we did in the Dynamic Series is apply that science to digital amplification to get us a very musical performance, at a price that the consumer wants. As the power output increases, in our Dynamic Series for example, our distortion goes down, which is unique among the subwoofers in this price class, which is $350 to $550. All of the subwoofers we tested, as their power output increased so did their distortion, and as their distortion increased, their linearity was destroyed, so the musicality of the subwoofer was minimal. We spent a long time in working on frequency filtration design, distortion that goes down as the output increases, while maintaining linearity. It was a huge science project for us, because nobody had ever approached it like this before.”

On the reaction the company’s new SDS8 mini subwoofer…
“It’s blown people away when they get in this little eight-inch SDS8, and they hook it up and listen to it. The first thing they say is, ‘Wow this is really light; it’s not going to perform very well, because digital amps are so much lighter; they don’t have a transformer!’ Between our big transformers that we have, along with the large magnet structures, and the tracking downconverter Class A/B amp, our [legacy] products are pretty darn heavy. So with the Dynamic Series we said that we would think outside the box and develop a product that’s high value for this target demographic. and high value usually has to do with price as a consideration. So our dealers are the first skeptics to get the product, and they put it up for display, they turn it on, and they say, ‘How are they doing this?’ So, we surprised them too. That was not a direct intention but we knew it was going to happen if our science was correct, and it turns out to be true. Our science turned out to be true science. We said, ‘Here is our hunch. Let’s see if we can follow our hunch and make it work and take a digital amp at 200, 250 or 300 watts RMS and tailor the sound to fit Sunfire. Then, we improve drivers for long-throw applications, in a sealed enclosure, while still following the tenants of Sunfire.’”

On the need for a wireless subwoofer product in the line…
“What drives audio for today’s consumer includes thin TVs with lousy sound. The need for small form factors and certainly wireless technology helps connect these small form factors to people’s systems more easily. So we offer a wireless subwoofer for instance… a wireless kit, and it’s a universal wireless kit, so you can use it for any subwoofer that’s powered. And it’s purpose built, single channel for low frequency only and the transmitter and receiver both sell for a total of $150. Have you ever redecorated your room and moved your couch to another wall? So sometimes people do that and there’s one use for wireless technology. The other is if you want to add a second subwoofer. The other is if you just don’t want to mess with installation and have somebody run wires for you. You use wireless. That’s been very helpful for our business, and that’s Sunfire’s entry into the wireless connected world for subwoofers. We worked with an OEM that is established in the wireless field. We didn’t invent the wireless technology; we didn’t have to. But we modified it for our own needs; for example the purpose-built subwoofer. It can be used for any one of Sunfire’s subs or, if required, any other brand of powered sub. Again following the trends of consumers today, location of the subwoofer has always been a difficult task in balancing fidelity with convenience as far as location is concerned. Some people say, ‘I don’t want that black woofer in the corner of my room, put it over there,’ and over there means that you have to run a wire under a carpet or over a door jam. So now wireless provides a no new wires solution to move the woofer anywhere you wanted. While it might not be acoustically optimized it provides the customer with the solution that they didn’t have as an option before.

On the decision to stop manufacturing receivers and preamps…
“While we continue to develop speakers, subwoofers, and amplifiers, this year we decided to temporarily move away from receivers and preamp processors. As a small audio manufacturer with parts prices going up and lead times extending out, and the velocity of the change in processing protocol, we felt it wise to stay focused on our core competencies, which are amplification, subwoofers, and speakers.

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Sunfire’s tiny Atmos subwoofer features a custom-designed 6.5-inch woofer paired with a new asymmetrical cardiod surround, allowing more than 1.5 inches of excursion.
On Bob Carver’s role with Sunfire…
“You may have noticed Bob Carver in his white lab coat at CEDIA EXPO last fall showing the science behind some of our products that we’re coming out with this year. Carver is a physicist. He’s not an electrical engineer. And as a scientist, failure is success, so a lot of the work that he has done in his career in our industry was looked at as, ‘Are you crazy?’ But that’s what scientists love. They have a hunch. They follow their hunch. They follow it to conclusion and then send it out for other scientists to challenge it. And if it stands up to challenge, then it becomes a matter of fact. That’s what Bob has done for his entire career. Some of this new science we were showing had people were scratching their heads. One was the world’s smallest subwoofer that has ever been made [the Atmos]. The science we used to put that together took a really long time because no one has ever done it before, including us.”

On how the formation of the AVC Group has helped Sunfire grow…
“The formation of the AVC Group has given Sunfire resources over a broader area in terms of new exposure to companies like Niles and Xantech in their technology evolution and that benefits Sunfire in that we can work as a group in sharing engineering resources as well as technology resources that might fit into products that Sunfire would build. This includes wireless or even amplifier designs or in some cases speaker technology. We’re exposed to that as a family so that we can investigate opportunities to share technologies where it’s appropriate. That was the promise we made when we worked initially with the ELAN team, when Sunfire was folded into the ELAN group. When we had processors and receivers, we had a version of the ELAN Via! panel that was plug and play. In this case, the technology that these other brands are developing might be ending up in the Sunfire line. The focus of the AVC Group is audio, video, and control and the processing of all of those things. Sunfire is heavily involved in the audio portion of that, so there are opportunities to integrate some of their technologies into what we do and what we’re going to do. Really it’s about what we’re going to do. One of the biggest benefits to Sunfire is the sharing of that technology on a more free basis because we’re a family now.”