Switchers

A Visit to Emotiva Audio in Franklin, Tennessee

As you can well imagine, there are many enjoyable aspects to writing for Secrets. Recently I experienced a rare treat when I visited the offices of Emotiva Audio in Franklin, Tennessee. I was fortunate to be traveling in the area, playing performances with my woodwind quintet. I found I had a free morning so I spent it with owner Dan Laufman and head of product development Lonnie Vaughn. To say I was a kid in a candy store would be a gross understatement. Not only did I see some really cool things but my conversations with Dan, Lonnie and a few other folks were tremendously educational.

First a little background: Dan Laufman started out doing OEM consulting work for other AV companies. His job is to take a product design, often from the paper stage, get it prototyped, tested and manufactured. This is something he has done “forever” to quote the source. After many years of this, Dan decided he wanted his own brand. This would be completely separate from any other work he’d previously done. With his tremendous knowledge and connections, it was a fairly simple matter to put his own products in the marketplace. For the first few years, Emotiva products were sold through the AV123 website. The first offerings were power amplifiers, multi-channel processors and stereo pre-amps. Not too many years ago, they decided to go completely independent and handle sales and support themselves. There are now quite a large number of components for sale and a line of speakers. And as I quickly discovered, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s a quick rundown of their current offerings: For power amps they sell the XPA line in one, two, three and five-channel configurations. The UPA series comes in one, two, five and seven. Both lines are class A/B designs with beefy toroidal power supplies and plenty of clean power. The XPAs are the ones to get for maximum juice with the class leader being the XPA-1 monoblock delivering 500 watts into 8 ohms. Moving to pre-amps, there is the USP-1 stereo model and the UMC-1 multi-channel processor. At $399, the USP-1 has been a breakthrough product in terms of value. The UMC-1 is Emotiva’s first HDMI-capable unit. It supports all lossless codecs, incorporates a Genesis Torino video processor and delivers sound quality previously only found in more expensive products. The UMC just started shipping earlier this year for $699.

Emotiva also has a line of speakers which deliver excellent value. Their line ranges from the ERD-1 surround up to the ERT-8.3 tower model. All of Emotiva’s speakers are sealed designs with fiber composite woofer/midrange drivers and silk dome tweeters. These transducers along with the crossover network and cabinets are clean-sheet designs. They also include tweeter level and boundary compensation controls to help tailor them to your particular listening environment. The ERD-1 surrounds can be switched between bipole and dipole operation.

Other products include an audiophile-grade CD player. This unit has a slick slot-loading mechanism that used magnets to move the disc rather than rollers. It also features a class 3 laser rather than the more typical class 1. The result of this is discs are more easily read when they are scratched or damaged in some way. Emotiva also now offers a complete line of AV cables. These are made to very high standards and the look great too. As with all their other products, value and quality are both very high.

Now to my visit: Emotiva’s offices are very nice and modern. The work environment is quite inviting and comfortable. I was immediately ushered to a fully appointed kitchen and offered coffee as Lonnie Vaughn and I compared backgrounds and he gave me a detailed history of the company. It turns out Lonnie has a tremendous interest in music and has enjoyed playing several instruments during his life. His real gift though is engineering and when the discussion turned to component design, the pride in his voice increased dramatically. There is no doubt in my mind that Lonnie loves what he does and enjoys sharing the fruits of his labor with as many enthusiasts as possible. How lucky for the consumer that someone so driven works for a company that offers such value!

Lonnie showed me around the front office area and introduced me to most of Emotiva’s key people. I saw a small photo studio where graphics are produced for their website. I also met the three hard-working ladies who are on the other end of the phone for sales. I met their newest salesperson, Vince who went from being a fan to working for the company just a few months ago. There were three rooms in particular where I spent a bit more time. The first of these was dubbed “the rec room. ” This comfortably appointed space had a pool table and of course, a wall full of gear. It was set up to demo various two-channel configurations. All the products I saw there are currently shipping. Lonnie was kind enough to pull the cover off the ERC-1 CD player. Inside I saw heavy shielding covering the central transport section. Not only does this make the unit dead quiet but it protects the retinas from that blaster-level class 3 laser. The transport, front panel display and audio sections are all shielded and serviced by discrete power supplies, very nice! Everything was connected by Emotiva cabling which I must say looked very high-end. I’m not generally concerned with the appearance of cable but if the back of your rack is exposed, fabric-jacketed interconnects and power cords can really step up the visual impact of your gear.

The next room I saw was a small lab. One wall had a whole slew of test equipment on it. I learned the power to that room was all 240-volt to allow testing for applications outside the US. Of particular interest was the immense amplifier Lonnie showed me. There have been some pictures posted of the XRF-7 already but seeing it in person really made me want one! This is a class H design with a single power supply that allocates power dynamically. Current-heads will drool over this box for sure! When powered from a 240-volt circuit, it will deliver 400 watts into 8 ohms with all channels driven! I think it’s time to start installing that nuclear reactor in the back yard. I’d hate to dim my neighbor’s lights while they’re watching Sex in the City. While I was in the lab, Dan Laufman joined us and managed to ratchet up the pride level another notch. As he and Lonnie talked about the design and features of the XRF-7, it was obvious they could barely wait to release the amp for sale. They told me it’s getting close. What I saw looked like a finished product. I won’t speculate on dates but sometime in 2010 seems reasonable.

After the lab, I was shown a nicely appointed theater room. At the front was a 100-inch screen covered by a JVC HD100 projector. The gear rack had three XPA-1 monoblocks for the mains and center, and two XPA-2s to power the surrounds. They also had two of their upcoming 12-inch subs installed. These cubes are sealed and powered by a 500-watt Bash amplifier. The whole thing was anchored by the new UMC-1 processor. As I have one of these on the way to my home, I was quite anxious to take this box for a test drive. For those of you wondering, I’ll get this out of the way now; it works fine. Yes there have been teething troubles and a software update but all necessary functionality is there. This product is incredibly complex and I think Emotiva has put an amazing amount of quality and usability into a box that sells for a mere $699. They showed me a new remote that will begin shipping soon. This handset is similar to older models with its all-metal construction and heavy high-end feel. And yes, it does have discreet input selection for eight sources. I won’t go into too much detail about the UMC-1. I hope to see it reviewed on Secrets very soon. If you’re considering one let me just say it’s like fine champagne at beer prices. You won’t find a better value anywhere.

After spending some time watching concert video in the theater, I went back to Dan’s office for a relaxing chat. He and Lonnie told me about some exciting plans for upcoming products. In the near future, they will be incorporating a Sigma Designs video processor into their line. I don’t have to tell you how significant that is. Sigma is the current proprietor of the Gennum VXP chip found in boxes like the Anthem Statement D2v and the Lumagen Radience video processor. The idea of video processing that good in an affordable component almost made me salivate! Now that Oppo has thrown down their gauntlet with the Anchor Bay-based BDP-83, Emotiva can further redefine the price/performance expectations of the consumer. Dan and Lonnie also told me they’re considering a stand-alone video processor based on the Genesis Torino chip. The proposed price point is around $299. If they can make something like that plug-and-play, it’ll be a real winner. I was also able to see drawings of the upcoming Ultra speakers. They are a dual-ported design with silk-dome tweeters, 5.5-inch midrange, and 6.5 bass drivers. There will be a full range of models with multi-pole surrounds, a center channel and of course towers. Dan is also considering a slightly smaller tower which I thought was a good idea. This not only allows people to save a few bucks but it will increase choices for room placement and décor. Of course at $900 a pair for the big towers, what red-blooded male wouldn’t want them?

I spent the rest of my time talking about industry trends, product usability, and of course value. In today’s economy, value in AV has never been more important. Emotiva’s approach is simple and not unlike other internet companies. Build the product efficiently; add a reasonable amount for support and profit, and you have your price. There is no middle man. The support you would get from a dealer now comes from Emotiva. Customer satisfaction is something they take very seriously. And today, with modern prototyping and manufacturing techniques, high-end audio and video doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Dan and his crew are not trying to compete with high-end nor do they openly compare themselves to other companies. They sample other products, decide what they like, and engineer their own solution. Several brands were mentioned to me as benchmarks for them which I will not share here. Suffice it to say they are aiming high and in my opinion, hitting the target. If you are looking for accurate sound reproduction, smart design and good usability, Emotiva is a brand worth serious consideration.

My visit was truly a privilege and a tremendous learning experience. CEDIA really showed me the passion that people have for the AV business. Emotiva is that in microcosm. Seeing the process behind product development, sales and support is a real eye-opener. Meeting people’s expectations is a huge challenge for even the best of companies. Now that value is so often questioned, I’ve come to realize that people want more product for less money. In fact, expectations seem to go up as the price comes down! Emotiva understands this and I feel they truly deliver. Thanks so much to Dan and Lonnie and all the staff at Emotiva for a truly excellent morning and a great education. Good luck everyone!

Scroll down for pics…

Here is the business end of the rec room. The center stack is an ERC-1 CD player, a USP-1 stereo pre-amp, a UPA-7 power amp and an XPA-2 power amp. All are cabled with Emotiva interconnects and power cords.

Here’s a closeup of the above-mentioned stack of goodness.

These are the ERM-6.2 monitor atop an ERT-8.3 tower flanked by an ERM-6.3 monitor. The 6.3 can be used horizontally as a center channel speaker. The mics and stands in the photo are used to produce Emotiva’s webcasts.

Here is the front of the theater. Sorry for the dim picture. The large boxes are all the power amps, three XPA-1s and two XPA-2s. It’s all anchored by a UMC-1 with Sony Blu-ray players as the sources.

This is the upcoming remote for the UMC-1. It’s all-metal with a nice high-end feel and discreet input buttons for eight sources.

Here is the front of the soon-to-ship XRF-7 amplifier. The LEDs seen in the photo will rise and fall to show current draw on each channel, very cool!

These are the innards of the aforementioned XRF-7. This kind of power was only recently available in something akin to the space shuttle.