Innovating in Audio Without Chips or Millennials

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In a world obsessed with the latest smartphone apps, every now and then a real innovation pops up out of nowhere that is instantly dazzling.

Such is the case of Tectonic Audio Labs, a 20-person startup located in a strip mall in the small town of Woodinville, Wash., just north of


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’s Redmond campus. The company’s central innovation goes by the daunting name of “resonant-mode audio.” It produces beautiful sound, the kind that can fill a room, not just your iPhone earbuds.

On a recent October afternoon, Tectonic’s executives gathered around a conference table in their makeshift office, which is surrounded by a martial arts studio, a bar, and a tattoo parlor. Tectonic is just a few years old, but its long legacy of research exemplifies a trend explored in Barron’s cover story last month—the notion of “actuators,” devices that let computers physically affect our world (“Faster, Smarter, Better: The Next Chip Revolution,” Oct. 22).

The revolution in this case is not a chip, but a nimble assembly of mechanical parts—a magnet, a vibrating metal ring, and a piece of carbon fiber—that drastically reduces the size of a speaker while greatly improving the quality of its sound. It’s also an example of what happens when some passionate graybeards explore an area that millennial code jockeys can’t imagine.

The company’s chief executive, Todd Ostrander, and his comfortably middle-aged deputies are all veterans of the tech and audio industries. They offer some eye-rolling references, like catching a Who concert recently. But they also offer a refreshing appreciation for things not buried in code, such as the beauty of sound.

The demo proved there’s something special here. As I stood a few feet from two Tectonic speakers, each a three- inch-deep slab running 36 by 22 inches, the company’s demo expert, David Crocker, ran through a set list that included Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the Jimi Hendrix classic “Little Wing,” as played by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even to my untrained ears, the sound was clear and clean, with a distinct lack of abusive pounding that one expects from standing in front of speakers at a concert. It was loud without being painful. As Crocker points out, the Hendrix tune’s powerful guitar riffs didn’t “smack me in the face,” the way speakers can often do.

The key is a novel marriage of mechanics and materials. Speakers use a device called an exciter, a motor that pushes a column of air back and forth with a piston. In the case of Tectonic, the exciter is also a motor, but instead of a piston, a circular disc vibrates causing a large sheet of carbon fiber to resonate. The exciter and the carbon-fiber material are designed together by Tectonic, tuned to one another, as the company likes to put it, to produce precise frequencies.

The effect is a bit like an acoustic guitar, CEO Ostrander explains: “The body of the guitar gives you natural resonance. You sit anywhere in the room when a guitar is playing, and you hear the same frequencies, the same pleasant characteristics of what’s coming off the body of the guitar.”

WITHOUT A PISTON, the sound fills the space but doesn’t hammer you. There are other benefits as well.

The vibrating panels have slim cases rather than the deep boxes required in a conventional speaker, like flat-panel TVs versus an old cathode-ray tube. The flat speakers, which range in cost from $7,500 to $10,000 each, can be an elegant addition to a home audio system for those who care about aesthetics. They also use a fraction of the power of conventional speakers, so they can fill a concert venue at comparable decibels more efficiently.

The flat panels produce sound across an arc of 165 degrees, much wider than the 120-degree maximum sweep of conventional speakers. As a result, the same frequencies can be delivered to the audience throughout a concert venue with fewer boxes, while still giving each listener the effect of stereo sound. There’s also less muddying of the sound. In ordinary speakers, the piston motion is like dropping a bowling ball into a swimming pool, the company explains. Waves bounce back and forth off the sides of the pool. In audio terms, reflecting waves create spurious sound, experienced as noise. The Tectonic speakers are like an equivalent weight of sand hitting the water—it dissipates on contact. There’s nothing reverberating as noise.

For that reason, many churches are Tectonic customers, says Ostrander. The lack of reflection means congregations don’t have to hire architects to build baffling, thus preserving the integrity of some historical church sanctuaries.

All of this is known as professional audio, serving venues and audiophiles. Where things go next is intriguing.

The company was incorporated in 2011. In 2013, Ostrander and a group of angel investors bought out resonant-mode technology from HiWave, a British company in receivership. HiWave already had in place some interesting deals. For example, luxury car maker Bentley has made small speakers using the technology standard on its Bentayga model.


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(ticker: LHA.Germany) has built them into its planes for piping music into the cabin.

In a hint of things to come, one of the younger members of the team, Tectonic’s principal engineer, Marcelo Vercelli, points out that audio streamed off the Internet is “not so great.” This is kind, given the garbage most consumer audio produces. Tectonic’s resonant-mode audio can markedly improve the quality of the sound even with mediocre Internet content, claims Ostrander. He cites a device such as the Q Acoustics Media 4 soundbar, which retails for $380 on Amazon and uses two Tectonic exciters. “Even if you’re using just plain old mp3 files, the moment you hear this, you can instantly tell the difference from any other connected speaker,” says Ostrander.

The world has seen more and more connected devices, like


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’s (AMZN) Echo, which can speak Internet search results to you or stream Internet-based songs on request. Tectonic is talking with some of the major consumer brands to replace speakers in those kinds of devices, the company says.

To support these ambitions, a few weeks ago Ostrander obtained Tectonic’s first round of outside funding—$4 million—from WestRiver Group, a private-equity firm based in Kirkland, Wash., that has backed unusual ventures, such as Topgolf, a chain of driving ranges and sports bars.

Regardless of how far its resonant-mode audio spreads, what’s going on in Woodinville shows how a small, passionate team can give new life to a brilliant technology, and create experiences few would have imagined. This is technology at its best.

TIERNAN RAY can be reached at: tiernan.ray@barrons.com, www.blogs.barrons.com/techtraderdaily or www.twitter.com/barronstechblog

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