Name: Noah Kaplan
Company: Leon Speakers
Overtime: In the years prior to founding Leon Speakers, Noah Kaplan experimented building everything from handmade guitars to pirate radio station antennas.
SCN: Shortly after graduating from Michigan with a fine arts degree, you launched Leon Speakers. How did a background in visual art and design lead you to begin a career in audio?
Noah Kaplan: My passion as a visual artist has always been powered by music. While getting my fine arts degree at the University of Michigan, I secured some large commission jobs drawing portraits, so I was drawing all day and playing music with my band at night. Along the way, I met my original business partner, Jeff Gordon, who was a monster musician and aspiring entrepreneur. We were both highly individualistic and into building new things from the ground up—and we definitely weren’t interested in “real” jobs. We started collaborating and recording together, and during those formative years, we dreamed big and built all sorts of things, from handmade guitars to pirate radio station antennas. Of all the projects we were working on, we were always most passionate about capturing, producing and creating perfect sound, so naturally, we started designing our own studio monitors and speakers. We started our first shop in the basement of my house in Ann Arbor with a $600 investment.
Fast forward through the deluge of startup trials and failures, we opened our first collaborative retail store called Leon Handcrafted Speakers and Noah’s Underground Gallery in 1997. That space became a cultural hub in Ann Arbor where we met designers, engineers, architects, builders, and, most importantly, customers, who helped us define the market that we serve to this day.
SCN: What was it like to have your first experience in the audio industry be with your own company?
NK: We entered this industry with an extremely open mind and high hopes to bring back American craftsmanship and innovative thinking. I think that part of our success was our naiveté. Because we weren’t tied to preconceived notions of what we were supposed to be doing, we listened closely to our customers and learned firsthand from them what they needed. This was, and still is, the driving force behind our product design.
Noah Kaplan’s visual arts background and passion for perfect sound led him to start designing studio monitors and speakers, and eventually, to launch Leon Speakers.SCN: How did your Michigan roots shape your vision for Leon Speakers?
NK: When I got to Michigan, I met a new and incredibly diverse group of talented teachers and people that introduced me to entirely new ways of thinking. Michigan’s deep roots in manufacturing and the university’s infinite resources create a great breeding ground for the entrepreneurial spirit. From the vast automotive companies to the amazing factories of Herman Miller, there’s no shortage of inspiration here for any aspiring company.
SCN: Leon Speakers had its beginnings in the residential soundbar category. How did that lead you into the commercial market and where is that taking you?
NK: As I mentioned earlier, we always listen closely to what our customers need and let it drive the creation of our products. In the early 2000s, we began building custom soundbars for a commercial integrator that was very interested in the emerging telepresence market. Their goal was to create turnkey solutions for Fortune 500 companies that would produce an immersive sound experience that also blended visually with their design. From there, we began building these solutions on a global scale and our commercial business continues to grow.
SCN: With last year’s acquisition of Media Décor, Leon is no longer simply an audio company. Describe how that has shifted the company’s goals, and what type of opportunity does the Media Décor brand have for the commercial market?
NK: At Leon, our vision has always been to mix art with audio and design with technology; Media Décor only enhances that vision. We had been designing audio solutions for Media Décor products for almost a decade and began to realize a great synergy between the product lines. Acquiring the company has enabled us to offer complete audiovisual solutions that speak to the design community.
We’ve found that modern companies want more from their audiovisual systems and have showed increased interest in design. Our commercial integrators that deal with high-design companies know that they need differentiated ideas to present to their clients. We believe Media Décor is more than the name of a company; it’s a new genre of design that provides innovative ways to elegantly integrate technology.
SCN: To support the local music scene in Leon’s backyard, Ann Arbor, MI, Leon Loft welcomes national and international touring artists in a performance space above your offices. How did this idea come to fruition, and how does it represent the broader mission at Leon Speakers?
NK: For years we’ve been sponsoring a nationally syndicated radio program called Acoustic Cafe that’s produced here in Ann Arbor. We became good friends with the host, Rob Reinhart, and the vision to collaborate and create the Leon Loft grew organically from there. For us it’s been an amazing experience and a complete return to our roots.