[SoundStage!]SoundStage! Interviews
March 2000

Matthew Polk and Paul DiComo of Polk Audio
by John Potis (johnp@soundstage.com)


Paul DiComo (left) with Matthew Polk

During a visit to Baltimore, SoundStager John Potis sat down with Polk Audio founder and president Matthew Polk and marketing manager Paul DiComo to chat about the audio industry in general and the speaker business in particular.

JP: Please describe for me the genesis of Polk Audio.

MP: I got a degree in physics from John’s Hopkins; I really loved it, really enjoyed it. It was impossible to get a job as a physicist. In fact, way back in ‘71, I mean, you’re much too young to remember, but there were stories about people with Ph.Ds in physics who were wall-papering their rooms with rejection letters. It was impossible. I decided that I wanted to go into marine biology, that I would take my hard-science background and combine it with what I consider a soft science -- and I don’t mean that pejoratively, but it’s what I consider a less rigorous science.

JP: I understand, especially considering the day.

MP: Yeah, yeah. And actually it was a great idea. Almost immediately after I got involved in marine biology, the people I was working with and my professors saw the value of somebody who understood how to design an experiment, how to build and specify machinery to accomplish certain things. I actually made a nice contribution to what has become a standard experiment in biology called the "Edidin-Frye" experiment [after Professors Edidin and Frye] by working on an image-intensification system. And believe me, it would have happened anyway without my involvement, but it was nice to make some contribution.

The only problem was that I hated it. I didn’t like marine biology. Meanwhile, my buddy George, who was in my class -- we had history -- had gone off to seek fame and fortune in New Jersey, but mainly he had succeeded in getting fired from a bunch of jobs. I mean, if I’m fundamentally unemployable, George is completely unemployable. He’s meant to work for himself. [Laughter]

So George came back to Baltimore, and we were comparing notes, and to make a long story short, he said, "Jeez, we should go into business, and we ought to be doing something we enjoy!" And what we enjoy is audio. We had collaborated on building a few things in the past, and as it turned out, there were a couple fortuitous circumstances. Some friends of ours were going into the business of putting on bluegrass conventions, and they needed a sound system. They came to us for advice, and we said we’d build them a system. As it turns out, they couldn’t afford to pay us for it, so George and I became unwilling partners in owning this sound system. So we started using it for different jobs; we put the Polk name on it, and people would see that and come to us and say, "Gee, this is a pretty good system. Where can we get one?" And we would say, "We’ll build one for you." We actually started building professional equipment for people, and there are a bunch of interesting stories about that.

Our first big commercial venture was probably when we made a bid to do the sound for the first Baltimore Arts Festival. It was the very first one, and for reasons that I still don’t understand, they gave us the job. I mean, we had worked for nobody. We were working in a 12-foot-square garage with no heat! I have no idea why they gave us the contract to do the sound for a major festival in downtown Baltimore, but they did. And of course, we didn’t have anything like the equipment required to do this, so we subcontracted out all of the secondary venues for this fair, and we decided to do the main venue in Central Plaza ourselves. This was a big deal. They had Duke Ellington coming -- he was still alive then, so that was a big deal for me to actually do sound for Duke Ellington. We accumulated enough equipment to do it by calling all of our customers that we had to date. We told them, "We have some modifications that would really improve the performance of your equipment. Just bring it back, and we will get it back to you after four or five days." Everybody brought everything back, and we immediately loaded it into begged and borrowed trucks. Then we took it downtown and set it up. [Laughs] We made the modifications and gave the equipment back to them the next week!

JP: And everybody lived happily ever after?

MP: Yeah, and everybody lived happily ever after. But we quickly figured out that doing custom systems was extremely difficult. Every system is different, so you just can’t afford to put the engineering into those systems like you could if you were going to make a lot of them. We quickly came to the conclusion that we would rather make products for regular people instead of professional products. We saw that we could put a lot more effort into designing products up front and could make a much better product and, of course, reach many more people. And really, right from the very beginning of the company, the mission was to put great sound into the hands of regular people. Although we enjoyed the weird high-end gear and all that stuff as much as any foaming-at-the-mouth audio gear-head, we really saw our mission in providing great stuff at reasonable prices to regular people.

The opportunity we saw at that time was this: There was a lot of interesting stuff going on with European loudspeakers -- they tended to have a great midrange, a great high range and pretty good imaging. But they wouldn’t play loud, they didn’t have good bass or any dynamics, and they blew up all the time. Then you had American speakers, we’re talking circa 1973-74, that were exactly the opposite. These had punch and dynamics, they had a lot of bass, they would go loud and handle a lot of power, but some of them had the most dreadful midrange and high end -- it was just awful. So we saw an opportunity.

PD: And they were boxy, too.

MP: Oh, yeah.

PD: They would typically be a 10" two-way. It was very common.

MP: Yeah, you would cross over from a 10" woofer to a 2" ring-radiator-type tweeter, and it was just awful. In comparison to something like a Spendor BC1, which was an 8" woofer, a 1 1/2" dome tweeter and a 1/2" super tweeter above that -- it was a totally different approach. But we could see that there was a real possibility of making a nice marriage between these two different approaches. We wanted something that was getting a lot of the benefits in the midrange, had imaging that the European speakers offered, but was robust enough and had enough guts to satisfy American tastes for rock and roll and for playing it loud. That’s why we initially came up with this idea of using small drivers to drive larger passive radiators, which we pioneered beginning around 1974, first with the Monitor 7 and then with the Monitor 10.

So, those are sort of the early days.

JP: What separates Polk Audio from your closest competitor?

MP: That’s an interesting question. Of course, from a commercial point of view, we have many competitors. Our mission is unchanged from what it was, from almost the first day that we sold our first loudspeakers, and the people who created that vision are still here; they still come into work every day. We still push towards that vision because I think we still have a long way to go. And by the way, it’s not just George and me. It’s guys like Paul and Stu [Stu Lumsden, VP of engineering] and so many other people.

PD: And Colin [Colin Campbell, Research Manager]. Stu’s been here more than 20 years, and Colin has been here about the same, maybe a little less than Stu. These are the two main engineering guys; Stu is the VP of engineering.

MP: At the same time we have had a very consistent vision and direction, and we have a very strong "culture" that supports that. I think we have been very adaptable: the market is changing, and I think we have been one of the few companies to recognize that this is, to an extent, a technology-driven fashion business. It’s a business that revolves around how people and their lives change, and it is often influenced by technology. We are in the midst of a significant sea of change that is obviously going to have profound effects for many, many decades to come in the way people live their lives and the way they use technology. That’s going to influence their personal entertainment strategy, if you will.

JP: Any prognostications as to what that will entail?

MP: Every time we see new technologies develop, everybody wonders if this is going to be the next greatest thing. And there are three or four questions that I always ask about these technologies. First of all, is it more convenient? Convenience is a huge motivator for a lot of people to adopt new technology. Second, is there an economic benefit -- does the technology lower the cost of partaking in that activity in some way? Third, is it higher in performance? People tend to like better performance if it’s easy for them. Fourth, does it improve access to the entertainment? Typically, you have to have a "yes" answer to at least three of these questions for a successful technology in a marketplace. This is interesting because it means that if it’s simply improving performance and the answer is "no" to the other questions, it’s not going to happen.

If you remember back to the introduction of DAT, which is almost ten years ago now, the people thought that this was going to be the next greatest thing. But if you ask those questions…. Does it improve performance? Yes, it does. Is there an economic advantage? Well, no. Actually, it’s more expensive. Is it more convenient? Well, this is an interesting question with regard to DAT because the answer is really no. This is because people who were interested in making recordings already have huge libraries of cassette tapes. So, is it convenient for them to adopt a new recording strategy? Absolutely not. And, of course, does it improve access to the entertainment? No, it’s a push -- it’s the same as it was before. In fact, it’s even a little more complicated than before because of the perceived schemes for copy protection since it’s a digital medium, etc. And while DAT is a wonderful technology, it was a complete bust as a consumer technology.

You can answer "yes" to most of those questions with a lot of the things that are coming along now, though. If you look at online delivery of software, certainly there is the potential to answer "yes" to all of those questions with the possible exception of performance. And that’s still the wild card out there. Right now I think it’s generally -- at least outside of the computer industry -- it’s generally accepted that MP3 quality is not the same as CD quality. If you talk to people in the computer industry, it’s the same, it’s "perfect!" Although many more people in the computer industry are beginning to accept that while MP3 has its applications, it’s not a substitute for CD-quality audio.

Nevertheless, answering "yes" for three of the four questions -- the one question mark being performance -- suggests to me that MP3 has a real future and that it’s definitely going to succeed. I think that the higher performance options will come along as the bandwidth makes them practical. Right now, online download on demand of software is the first mainstream application that really requires broadband access to work. And it’s no surprise that it’s enormously popular with two groups of people – high-school and college kids. In the case of college kids…

JP: They don’t have any money!

MP: Well, it’s not even a question of money. You know they really like the idea of doing something that’s a little bit illegal [lots of laughter] for which they are not likely to get caught. And the one thing they have is lots of time.

PD: Yesterday my son downloaded a song that took a half-hour to download. I couldn’t believe it! He thought nothing of walking away from it for a half-hour. He said, "I gotta have this song!"

MP: And college kids? They are on a college campus with a very broadband network, and they can download songs just like that. So for them it’s practical -- they have no money, they have time and it’s practical because it doesn’t take much time. But for other people, like us, they are not going to wait a half-hour to download one song. No way. We’ll do it a couple times because it’s a novelty. And we are peripherally involved in the business. I mean, I’ve done it. I’ve opened up like six sites and gotten six downloads going on at once and literally gone out for dinner! I come back and most of them are there by then. But it’s no way to get your music. The fact of the matter is that in that amount of time I could have driven to the store, bought the CDs, come home and listened to at least one of them halfway through. Real people are not going to want to go out and essentially appropriate someone else’s copyrighted intellectual property. Real people are not going to want to go out there and steal the music. There’s going to have to be a means.

PD: They’re working on it now. Companies are developing MP3 strategies for how they can get paid for it.

MP: And that’s not fundamentally difficult. However, they have the opportunity to really blow it. Certainly it can be extremely inexpensive for people to get their music that way, but they can easily make it very inconvenient. In this case, it would really stunt the growth of the technology.

JP: While we are on the subject of computers, last year I think it was Marantz that came out with that system that integrated the theater system with the home PC.

MP: Philips.

JP: Do you see anything in the future for that?

MP: Oh, yeah. Absolutely! I think that video online is ultimately a natural -- it’s just another source. You can watch a movie on DSS, you can even record the box on your TiVo and play it back later -- it’s essentially the same thing. I see hard-disc recording and storage for future retrieval as a natural. And there are huge benefits. So yes, I see a lot of future in that. It’s going to take a while to get it worked out because it takes more of a user interface than consumer-electronics equipment typically has. So that…

JP: So that takes us back to convenience.

MP: Right. I find it amusing that people will go out and buy a computer knowing that in six months it will be essentially obsolete or that they could buy it for a whole lot less than what they originally paid. They will also put up with having the thing crash a lot. I don’t know how you are with your computers, but if I’m using mine all day, it’s going to crash. In the consumer-electronics industry, if people think a product’s going to be obsolete within their lifetime, they will wait. [Lots of laughter] "I’m waiting to see if CDs are really here to stay, but now I understand there is something new…" And jeez, if the thing were to ever, you know, lock up on you, boy, that would go right back to the manufacturer. It’s just a different world.

There was allegedly an exchange between Bill Gates and a GM executive at a government technology conference. Gates was wagging his finger, saying, "If you guys were innovating like we were, cars would get 900 miles to the gallon by now, and they would sell for less than 500 bucks." And the GM executive responded, "Yes, and they would crash five times a day, and we wouldn’t know why!" [Lots of laughter]

We’ve surveyed people visiting our website a lot, and we get many different questions. It is one of the great things about having a well-traveled website -- people who are interested and willing to talk to you are there. And of course, the fact that we are giving them the chance to win a new powered subwoofer doesn’t hurt either, but they really seem to open themselves up. One of the questions we asked recently is, "Do you see your entertainment system more like your computer or linked to your computer, or do you see your computer becoming more like your entertainment center or linked to your entertainment center?" Most people said that they did not want to see the two linked together. It was a significant majority, I think maybe 60 some percent, but the comments were really interesting.

I personally read at least a thousand comments, and the thread that came out of them was that people seem to have a real conflict over whether their computer is an entertainment device or a work tool. Now, obviously if you are 18 years old, there is no conflict -- it’s an entertainment device. But once you get to the adults with real jobs there is this enormous conflict. There is no confusion about consumer electronics, home-entertainment electronics -- they’re entertainment. And people don’t want their PCs to become anything that reminds them of work tools. They just want to enjoy them. The comments were quickly divided up into two groups. There were the people who thought it would be pretty cool if their computer ran their home electronics because they could fiddle with all the parameters. They could fiddle with it.

JP: The "techno-geeks."

MP: Yeah, yeah. Those are the people who were clearly not as much as listening or watching a movie. What they really wanted to do is play with the technology -- change this and change that and reformat it to do something else. However, most of the people said, "Jeez, I just want my entertainment system to be entertaining!"

JP: "I just want to flip a switch and get music."

MP: Right, and "I want it to happen, like, every time! And I want it to come on right away. I don’t want to wait for 90 seconds while it decides whether it’s going to work or not." And that was really clear, and I found it very interesting.

JP: That may be fine one day, but we clearly don’t have the technology to get us there now.

MP: Well, in order to be simple, technology has to be enormously sophisticated. Unsophisticated technology is complex. And if we look at what’s happened with automobiles, I think it’s a good example. Automobiles are enormously complex, technologically. But they have never been easier to operate.

JP: Or more reliable.

MP: Or more reliable. And the fact of the matter is that ordinary people can go out, buy and enjoy on a daily basis enormously high-performance automobiles because the technology has become so sophisticated that it’s invisible.

JP: All you have to do is turn a key and go.

MP: Right. And step on it! I mean, the current high-performance sedans have active handling packages that will correct a spin. You can take something like this out on a racetrack blind and stoned, and it would keep you out of trouble!

[The conversation detours for a while onto the equally enjoyable subject of cars.]

MP: Which brings me back to the technology. It’s not sophisticated enough now to be simple. It’s changing too quickly. It’s unstable. I think in our industry we have really blown at least one foot off over the last half a dozen years through the transition from analog to digital. Analog surround sound was a great thing. It was a very easy technology for people to access, understand and use. It was not particularly expensive for people to get involved with, there was a lot of software out there -- basically every videotape ever made had already been encoded with Dolby Pro Logic -- so, no problem there. Then we made this transformation to digital and digital surround sound. We had pieces of equipment with eight zillion DSP modes where you could make your car sound like your home and your home sound like a stadium, or whatever. You could make your home sound like Paul’s office!

PD: If you’re lucky.

MP: Right, if you’re lucky. There are a lot of questions in people’s minds as to whether there is any software that really takes advantage of digital features. And then there’s setting it up, which we started on earlier.

JP: When you look at a market where most people have "12:00" flashing on their VCRs, you are making some assumptions when you think that people are going to run with that.

MP: Right! And go into a store sometime and check the Dolby Digital settings on some of those demonstration systems.

JP: We have been talking online a lot about how you just can’t get a good surround-sound demonstration from a dealer. It seems like it’s impossible.

MP: It is impossible! I mean, that is the right answer -- it’s that it is impossible. First of all, even if you grant that the people in the store understand the technology, navigating these menu systems is so time-consuming and so unnatural that they just don’t have time for it. They are not going to get it right. That’s granting that they understand how it works. And based on our own experience in designing the RMDS-1, they don’t have an understanding. Very, very few people really understand how these systems work. It was just a shocker as we rolled up our sleeves and got into digital surround technology. It was just amazing.

JP: I know surround-sound zealots who admit that it takes months and months of adjustments to set up their Lexicons to get the best performance. Most people don’t want to spend that kind of time playing with their hardware.

MP: And it doesn’t even have to be as complicated as the Lexicon. Just your common garden variety of $699 Dolby Digital receiver is complicated enough!

PD: And maybe even worse because on those, the documentation is zero.

MP: Right.

PD: "Is my subwoofer output jack filtered or isn’t it." It doesn’t say. "If I put this to small, and that to large, where does the bass go?" It doesn’t say. At least the Lexicon is probably documented up the wazoo.

MP: A high percentage of the Dolby Digital receivers I see in friends’ houses have nothing connected to the digital input.

PD: They’re using analog.

JP: Last year I wanted to simplify my system because I would get home, my wife would have friends over to watch a movie, and the only thing working in the system was the center dialog channel. They didn’t know and didn’t care to know how to get it all working.

MP: Right. And I would say that your wife is typical of real customers. Nobody wants to take a six-credit course in this stuff. They have other stuff to do.

JP: While we are on the subject, as you know, I had your Digital Solutions system at home for review. Why isn’t there a music surround mode?

MP: We wanted to keep it simple, frankly. We felt that the easiest way to handle this was "surround on," "surround off" and let the thing decide in order to default to the highest level of surround mode available. That’s basically the reason. I’ve heard some good music surround modes -- I think Meridian has a very good surround mode, in fact, but it doesn’t sound good on everything, and selecting it is a problem. And again, we are just guessing, but we think that most people would like a simple choice. Do they want it in surround or don’t they? And if you do it that way, more people are apt to enjoy what they are after.

From the surveys we have done, people are to the point of anger with these pieces of equipment. They don’t realize when they go out to purchase something how difficult it’s going to be. First of all, just to buy it -- just to make the buying decision -- becomes enormously complicated.

PD: And I wonder how many people have been scared away, you know, to your point about "Why can’t I get a good demo?" Well, if people aren’t getting good demos in stores, you gotta believe that people are walking. They are saying, "Screw it, let’s go to Paris," or, "I’ll get a new car."

MP: Our market research suggests that people who have the money and go to the store are planning to buy something that is good. They plan to spend, let’s say, $3000 on a home-theater system, but they decide that it’s just too complicated. So they end up walking out with a $499 home-theater-in-a-box, saying, "The hell with this; I’m buying this cheap thing over here and…"

JP: "It’s good enough."

MP: Yeah. "I’m hooking it up to my TV and that’s it. Or buying a TV with a surround-sound system attached to it."

It was fascinating. Among the people who had bought the equipment, most had no idea how difficult it would be to actually use it. Most had trouble hooking it up or using it, and once they had hooked it up, as I said, many people were to the point of extreme anger.

PD: Some of the comments from that survey were more telling than the actual numbers.

MP: So, anyway, as far as worlds to conquer for us? We hope to do our part in making the benefits of these high-tech systems accessible and easy for real people. And we think that loudspeakers are the natural place to start. It’s probably the single largest determinant of the system’s ultimate performance. It’s also, interestingly enough, the most stable part of the technology. The fundamental idea behind loudspeakers has remained unchanged for a century. And it makes a great platform to integrate new pieces of the signal chain. It also has huge performance benefits. When you begin to optimize more of the signal chain to suit loudspeakers, which we know are a long way from perfect, not only do you get a higher-performance system, but you get something that’s much easier to use. And it’s much easier to make a decision on because you have fewer individual decisions to make.

PD: The customer-service phone and the customer-service manager sit right out there, so I get to listen all day long to the customer-service calls, and there are another two guys over there. A very common question is, "OK, I’ve looked at your website, I’ve been to the store, I like these speakers. What is the perfect receiver for these speakers because I know there is some magic joo-joo here? What do I buy?" And they really don’t like it when we say, well, there is really some good stuff out there. They don’t like that answer, but it’s the only answer we can give them.

MP: And they don’t like it for a couple of reasons, I think. First of all, they’d like someone to make the decision for them. "Buy this one, and it’s going to be great." But we can’t tell them exactly what to buy. They don’t trust the sales person, so they are going to go to some friend who will tell them. Also, if you tell them, "Oh, just pick any good $800 receiver," well, that’s great. You’re telling them, "It doesn’t matter -- they are all the same, just a dime a dozen. Just pick one, it doesn’t matter!" Well, they sure feel good about that purchase, don’t they!

JP: I guess it ties in with what we were talking about before. I get the same questions, and I’ll make some recommendations of brands that I know and trust, and I’ll tell them to let the remote control be the deciding factor. "Get the one that’s the easiest to use."

MP: Right, let the remote be your guide…

PD: I think that’s pretty good advice, actually.

JP: One last question: Is speaker design an art or a science?

MP: Yes.

[Lots of laughter]

JP: I’m not going to let you get away with that answer!

MP: It’s the only answer!

JP: It’s got to be both.

MP: Yeah, there’s a lot of science and good engineering that goes into it, but at the end of the day, the result is subjectively appreciated. You have to keep the subjective result that you want to achieve in mind. And basically, our systems are supposed to be fun. They are really supposed to be fun. When it comes down to weighing the alternatives, you know, we can take the voicing in this direction, we can take it a little in that direction; from a technical and engineering point of view they are equivalent. And from the point of view of any relevant measurement you are likely to make, they are equivalent. We just remind ourselves that people are going to have fun with this. So, we take it in the direction that is going to be fun.

JP: Hopefully.

MP: Yeah.


 

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