GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Features" Archives

Published August 15, 2001

 

Interview with Michael Barnes of nOrh Loudspeaker Company

Srajan Ebaen: Michael, how did a computer specialist end up running his own loudspeaker company in addition to his daily workload?

Michael Barnes: I was always interested in electronics and technology. I was also very much into audio and worked in an audio store for four years. [As an audio salesman], I would ask my customers about their jobs. All of them made far more money than I did -- I could never afford to buy any of the equipment I sold. Many of them worked for computer companies but at that time few of the professional computer people knew or understood PCs. I did, so I was able to get into a professional position. Now I had a job that gave me the necessary income for audio.

Then the Thai economy failed and our currency eroded against the dollar. I knew that before long, imported goods would cost Thais twice as much as before. I believed there could be a market for a high-quality loudspeaker manufactured right here in Thailand. While I was mulling over this idea, I attended a Fong Nam concert (a group led by American Bruce Gaston, which uses Thai and Western instruments to play classical Thai music and jazz.). This was the first time I noticed the Thai Long Drum. As soon as I saw it, I was convinced it would be the ideal shape for a loudspeaker. I knew an engineer who had just finished school and needed a job. I hired him and together we worked out the details of the cabinet.

Our problem was that we didn't really know about crossovers. We tested ideas by buying used speakers and putting their drivers and crossovers into our cabinets to see if the sound improved. It did in all instances. We then figured out which drivers we wanted to use and built a crude crossover prototype. We went to Allen Isakson, the president of DACT, asking him to test the speaker and advise us, if necessary. He redesigned [the crossover]. We now had our 6.5. We took some pictures, put up a website and opened a store. We thought we might sell ten pairs of speakers per month. This would be enough to create four or five jobs and was all I was really looking to accomplish.

Once the website went live, I was amazed at the sales. Eventually, our Internet sales were so good that we had nothing left to show or sell in the store -- so we closed it. To this day, I still take no money from nOrh because I want the company to continue growing so I can employ more people. We can hire many Thais for what my salary would normally be. I prefer creating more jobs instead.

I recently left Sun Microsystems after 13 years, so I could devote myself to my own project ideas. I am currently trying to develop an x86-based server that should be about the size of the original Palm Pilot. I would like to put this server into production here in Thailand, which would create even more jobs.

SE: How big is nOrh?

MB: We did $80,000 USD in our first six months and about $260,000 in our second year. We finished last year with about $550,000 [in sales]. We believe we will top one million dollars this year. We employ about 12 people directly, but create jobs for about 35 people altogether.

SE: What does the name "nOrh" mean?

MB: I came up with ten names that I wanted to register for our website -- and they were all already taken, so I realized I had to invent a word. Since we refer to our design as an inverted horn, I thought we could mix up the letters in 'horn' to come up with a name. I came up with nOrh. We made the 'O' larger because it looked like the shape of our speaker.

SE: Is there much appreciation for your products in Thailand proper, or do you sell most of your products overseas?

MB: Thais don't appreciate Thai products. Many good audio products are made in Thailand without the country of origin being acknowledged. The company that produces our CD players builds several other high-end CD players. Most people just assume they are made in the US. Our nOrh products are 100% handcrafted. We have wanted to make this our company theme. The level of craftsmanship that still exists in Thailand has disappeared from most of the rest of the world. We don't try to be efficient because our goal is to create jobs. I don't know how many more years Thailand will be able to preserve this level of high craftsmanship. Better-paying jobs will lure future generations away from these crafts. I don't think that loudspeakers such as ours will ever be built again. Eventually, there will be no place on earth where you could get such products made.

SE: Looking at the ceramic review pair, I couldn't envision how they're actually put together.

MB: All of our loudspeakers are very difficult to produce. As I said, efficiency isn't one of our goals. Creating employment is. We spent a year developing the ceramic loudspeaker. The most difficult part was accounting for the 25% shrinkage that occurs during the firing process. Through trial and error, we worked out how to make the holes align. We went through a series of molds to determine the correct size.

There are many other things that can go wrong. The drum can crack if the glaze shrinks faster than the vessel. The drum can also collapse from its own weight during the firing process. The glaze can run. To build the speaker, we mold three pieces. The drum, tweeter mount and port are all separate molds. The pieces are then assembled and glazed.

SE: The more upscale models don't use the pod-type tweeter. That seems like a very high-tech feature, especially on the affordable Model 4.0. Why isn't it carried over to the more expensive designs?

MB: The tweeter needed to be mounted above the drum because the baffle was too small to support both woofer and tweeter. We do think that given what we wanted to accomplish, we have been able to style the speaker in a way that makes it look modern. The more expensive speakers use larger and better tweeters. Those are designed to be mounted on a baffle, while the smaller tweeter is designed to be mounted in its own sub-enclosure.

SE: I noted that the bullet tweeter on the Model 4.0 is physically offset from the mid/woofer as though it were time-aligned. However, your specifications don't claim time or phase coherence.

MB: Without very sophisticated equipment, there really is no easy way to know what the acoustic center of a driver is, so as to correctly calculate the time differences. Most companies that claim to have time-aligned their drivers really don't know if they have them time-aligned or not. We knew that people would assume that our speakers were time-aligned. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. The fact that most people think they are just goes to show how effective audio hype is.

SE: How would you describe the sonic differences between the wooden, ceramic and marble versions of the Model 4.0?

MB: The wood version got very good reviews. It is our only product that was reviewed in one of the popular US audio magazines, The Abso!ute Sound. We then decided to place the same components into marble. We were shocked at the improvements. The sound became much more realistic, articulate and natural. Of course marble is a lot more expensive than wood so I did a lot of research on the acoustic absorption coefficients of other materials that might be less expensive to produce. The best materials turned out to be stone, cement, sand and ceramics. I investigated ceramics and found that while there had been earlier ceramic loudspeakers, they were often very expensive. Most of them used full-range drivers and glued the drivers in place because the manufacturers couldn't figure out how to attach the woofer. We perfected our process and can now offer truly affordable ceramic loudspeakers. Our customers agree that the ceramic and marble loudspeakers sound identical. Of course the ceramic versions are less expensive and also offer more color options.

SE: Weren't there some problems with the wood speakers?

We had some problems early on, but improving our curing process eliminated nearly all cracking. We did find that the likelihood of cracking increases with size. Larger vessels contain more cabinet moisture and have more surface area. However, the wood versions of the 3.0, 4.1 and 5.1 models haven't suffered any cracking. When we do encounter an occasional problem, we offer a replacement or credit towards an upgrade.

SE: I was surprised at how loud the Model 4.0 can play. Do you have specific design explanations for why that is so?

MB: This is something that most customers notice. There are several reasons for this. In standard box-shaped speakers, the energy generated by the inward-moving woofer reflects off the rear cabinet wall and returns again into the backside of the woofer. This means that as you drive the speaker harder, more and more energy is fighting the woofer. There are four different sources of cabinet-induced losses of acoustic output. The first is absorption. The stuffing used inside conventional speakers converts acoustic energy into heat. We don't need to stuff our speakers because of their shape. Another source is cabinet leaks. We don't have seams in our speakers and we also attach our drivers more securely than most, with threaded steel instead of MDF-anchored wood screws. Our vents are made from acoustically dead materials to avoid the energy absorption of conventional ports. You might also notice that the shape of our speaker resembles a jet engine. This shape minimizes the losses that a normal vented system would suffer. All this adds up to higher than usual output level capabilities for the level of transducers and cabinet size we use.

SE: Do you have any recommendations for music from Thailand that our readers might enjoy?

MB: Most Thai music is really not that well recorded. There are exceptions. Fong Nam is available outside of Thailand. Boy Thai is another of nOrh's favorite Thai groups. We make their CDs available to our customers and their reactions have been very favorable. I believe that there is a lot of interesting music here in Thailand as long as you stay away from Thai pop. That's as dreadful as American pop.


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