When asked to mentally picture what goes on inside AudioQuest’s headquarters in Irvine, California, what do you see? Huge spools of cable turning slowly for the deft handiwork of desk-bound terminators? Or perhaps a brightly-lit, lab-coated environment where strips of cable are waved through flame and dipped in chemicals? I’ve met with AudioQuest employees all over the world – Boulder, Jersey City, New York City, Sydney, Munich – but until four weeks ago had yet to visit the mothership in Irvine, California.
With the T.H.E Newport Show relocated to the Hotel Irvine for 2015 and AudioQuest’s headquarters located just across the road, a perfect opportunity presented to poke my head around the door. What exactly lay behind those beige concrete walls? Playing the long-distance-traveller card but with extra purpose, I invited myself. Could I also pick up a pair of the soon-to-released NightHawk headphones that sounded so fine at their CES 2015 debut? “Yes” and “Sure thing” was the spirit of AudioQuest’s VP of Communications Stephen Mejias’ replies. That was April.
By the time I hit the ground in Irvine six weeks later the tour-for-one had been expanded to include other interested parties: Herb Reichert of Stereophile, Paul McGowan and Scott McGowan of PS Audio, their PR guy Bill Leebens, Jack Wu and Michael Liang of Woo Audio. More attendees meant sushi and beer in the listening room before the tour proper. I can heartily recommend Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra, an ‘India-style Export Stout’ brewed just down the way in San Diego. The label’s eight-legged sea creature points to the taste complexity held the bottle. A pitch black pour delivers big to the palette: green curry and coconut flavours go bullish before hints of liquorice round out the after-taste.
Remember this beer – we’ll be coming back to it.
Founder Bill Low and SVP [of] Marketing and Product Development Joe Harley led the AudioQuest HQ tour proper. Just along the hallway from the listening room we are shown a space hosting cable termination stations. Nothing unexpected about that.
In the room’s corner, spools of cable.
Across the hall a door leads us into a warehouse that fulfils orders that come from all over the map; not the entire world though. Similar facilities in The Netherlands and Hong Kong supply AudioQuest product to Europe and Asia respectively.
Mirrored supply solutions notwithstanding, AudioQuest’s warehouse space in Irvine is arrestingly large. How large? 32000 square feet. Australians – think Bunnings Warehouse, Americans – think Staples or OfficeMax, Brits – Homebase. This primary warehouse space houses around 2400 pallets of gear whilst the adjacent, smaller 17000-square-foot warehouse (that we didn’t see) reportedly houses half as much again. Stored across the two spaces is around 6-8 months’ worth of stock.
Both warehouses pre-date AudioQuest’s arrival but all of their inner workings (shelving, conveyors, etc.) were built and/or selected specifically to meet the company’s needs and standards. A quick glance at the shelves shows just how exacting organisational standards are at AudioQuest. Under the watchful eye of Bryan Long (VP of Operations), AudioQuest ship anything between five to fifteen pallets per day and almost any order received by noon will ship that same day.
Shipments head out to destinations all over the world to big-box stores, independent hi-fi dealers and online retailers. Mejias tells us that Long is also affectionately referred to as the VP of Getting Shit Done. No doubt a mandatory requirement for anyone overseeing a warehousing operation of this magnitude.
In a follow-up email, Mejias would later point out that it’s far from a one-man show: “We also have a warehouse manager named Chris Flanigan, a facilities manager named Jason Althouse, and a QC manager named Ken Lauzon. All awesome dudes, who’ve been with the company for years and who put a great amount of pride and joy into their work, keeping the place clean, organised, and running efficiently.”
Even more memorable than the size of the space is its cooling system. Off to one side, a Joape Misting Fan from down under. Firing air down from the above is a Big Ass (ceiling) Fan. Yes, that’s the brand name – no clarification required.
In 2015, AudioQuest is no longer just a cable company – they’re a tech company. Like the many-tendrilled Octopus of the Ballast Point beer artwork, AudioQuest’s product line points in many directions but especially towards computer audio. Code from Wavelength Audio’s Gordon Rankin does the heavy-lifting on the DragonFly DAC, whose second, superior-sounding revision came with a price drop.
Almost a year on from its publication, consistently strong reader click-throughs to my own DragonFly v1.2 review underscore thirst for good, simple and affordable computer audio products – something that AudioQuest seemingly have been aware of for some time.
Rankin’s code smarts were contracted again for the USB/Bluetooth Beetle DAC that launched in Munich (US$
149 US$159, covered here) and again, in collaboration with Garth Powell, for the JitterBug USB filter (US$49, covered here and here). Front-footing the message of high digital audio utility at sensible pricing is Boulder-based VP of Development Steve Silberman. His Computer Audio Demystified seminars at audio shows are consistently filled to capacity. AudioQuest is now a brand name that buzzes in the minds of a different, broader and younger demographic. Hats off.
Powell was also fundamental to the development of the Niagara 7000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System ($7995) that could be seen/heard back across the road at The Hotel Irvine’s Optimal Enchantment room. Don’t be put off by the product name. It’s par for the course in the context of AudioQuest’s forward lean with grandiose-sounding job titles.
At the business end of this system were Vandersteen Model 7 Mk.II loudspeakers driven by matching M7-HPA amplifiers. On source amplification duties a Reference 10 preamp and Reference Phono 10 phono pre-amplifier from Audio Research. I punched in something from AC/DC. The resulting sound should have taken heads clean off when played at Sunday afternoon’s louder volumes…but it didn’t, all the while staying just the right side of vibrant and energetic, a result consistent with the glare-reducing and instrument separating talents of the JitterBug that I hear back in Sydney.
Following his schooling in AudioQuest Ethernet cables, I lent a JitterBug out to skeptical audiophile pal, Barry. My only instructions were, “Put this between your computer and your DAC and tell me what differences you hear (if any).”
Barry’s thoughts came down the web wire two days later: “First impressions of the JitterBug. I’ve plugged it in to a Macbook Pro that feeds a Chord Hugo outputting to OPPO PM-3 headphones. The little blighter definitely opens up the top end, lending more definition to the highest notes. There’s perhaps a little more control all around and timing seems a little better. On Belle & Sebastian’s “Enter Sylvia Plath” guitars chime with greater clarity. Energy on bass synth delivery is a bit better too. Vocal separation is enhanced. The little thing upgrades sound quality more than any USB cable I’ve tried.”
AudioQuest’s product diversification continues with the NightHawk headphone. Ex-Westone Labs engineer Skylar Gray was appointed as AudioQuest’s Director of Ear-Speaker Products in December 2012. Gray lives a fifteen minute walk from AudioQuest’s Irvine facility where his office/development lab is located upstairs, above the warehouse. The space is divided into two. Up front in a space that measure no more than 2m x 3m, all the modern office conveniences – a desk, a chair a phone and a computer – nothing too exciting about that.
In the similarly sized section up the back we see numerous prototypes of the NightHawk hung on the left wall. CES 2015 attendees saw a selection of these at The Venetian. To the right we are introduced to KEMAR, a head and torso simulator (HATS) made by Danish firm G.R.A.S. Acoustics, used to study the performance of loudspeakers/headphones/hearing aids/etc. or even to binaurally record music & sound.
KEMAR has been designed to simulate the physical effects of the head, torso, pinnae (outer ear), and middle ear on an incoming acoustic sound source. It (he!) comprises a stereo microphone with anatomical features that are statistically averaged from a large sample of human body measurements across a) both western and eastern cultures and b) both genders. G.R.A.S. Acoustics are apparently the only HATS manufacturer to do so.
“There are limitations to KEMAR’s accuracy or any HATS for that matter. I had the option to purchase any HATS I wanted…from B&K, Head Acoustics, G.R.A.S., etc. These things are not cheap, often tens of thousands of dollars. I have been fortunate to have had direct experience with all of them but for AudioQuest I chose what I consider to be the best on the market right now,” explains Gray.
Christened Data, after the Star Trek: Next Generation character, Gray uses his KEMAR to harvest headphone measurements. “If you know where to get a screen-accurate wig and uniform, let me know,” says Gray. Sorry, I don’t.
On the software side, Gray uses Listen, Inc’s SoundCheck to generate ‘stimulus sounds’: tone sweeps, noise and even music are fed via an RME laboratory-grade DAC / headphone amplifier into headphones strapped onto KEMAR’s cranium. KEMAR captures the signal and his output fed back into the A/D converters of the RME device. The software then analyses the incoming signal and can generate all manner of measurements from frequency response to various types of distortion to impedance to cumulative spectral decay, waterfalls and more.
As planned, I walked my own pair of NightHawk out of AudioQuest’s Irvine HQ at the close of the tour. A formal review from yours truly is set to appear in TONEAudio in a month or so.
Back in Sydney, questions hovered over NightHawk’s street date but just a week ago, this from Gray via email: “We just received our first shipment of NightHawk, so there was much champagne to drink.” Expect to see ’em in-store next month stickered at US$599.
Further information: AudioQuest