by Kirsten NelsonI thought I knew quite a bit about Stealth Acoustics. I've known its co-founder and vice president, Steve Olszewski, for almost 13 years because he has been a SCN contributor and columnist since nearly the first moment the magazine was launched. Not only is he a great source of information (and a heck of a great philosopher), his work with Stealth's AV integration sister company, Dimensional Communications Inc. (DCI) and his role on NSCA's education committee have been pivotal to our industry.
Stealth Acoustics VP Steve Olszewski
So last month when I had the opportunity to visit Stealth and DCI's headquarters in Mount Vernon, Washington, I thought I knew what to expect. But only after I arrived in the beautiful country that is tucked away in the Northwestern-most corner of the U.S. did I realize that to get the complete picture about this manufacturer of invisible speakers, you have to see what's hidden behind their walls.
Just as is the case with Stealth's loudspeakers, there is more to DCI than what you see on the surface. Founded in 1974 by current president Paul Hagman, this AV integration company differentiated itself with data and telephony expertise in addition to AV prowess. Olszewski joined the company in 1975, and he and Hagman, along with several other core team members, have been working together ever since. In 2003, Stealth was borne out of Hagman's conviction that he could improve upon invisible loudspeakers.
Stealth products were initially sold primarily into the residential market and are still holding their own there with growing market share, but the latest generation of technology is well-suited to the commercial AV space, Olszewski said. "We're at a point with our speakers now where you could install them in a commercial venue and be more than satisfied."
Imagine being able to tell an architect and a client that their boardroom sound system can be completely invisible. At the Stealth and DCI headquarters, the training room boasts a 7.1-channel surround system comprised of Stealth's invisible speakers. The center channel is hidden in a wall painted with a projection screen surface. Rear sub panels are made with a wood veneer panel to blend into millwork.
The training room not only hosts architects and reps, and is the site for company training, it also hosts apprenticeship training in one of only a few non-union state recognized apprenticeship programs, called the Washington State Electronics Systems Technician Program.
A new conference room currently under construction at the company will include a rear-projection setup with a 5.1-channel Stealth surround system.
You may have seen the massive projection screen with built-in invisible speakers that Stealth exhibited at InfoComm last June. Keep your eye out for more Stealth moves in the commercial space in the future. The company is well versed in reaching out to architects and pairing them with integrators, getting their dealers involved in projects early on in the design process. And of course, its history as an integrator would never allow for a single direct sale, in any circumstance. "Manufacturers who violate their food chain are doomed to fail," Olszewski said emphatically.
The pairing of these two successful companies is certainly beneficial for customers on many levels. DCI's experience as a systems integrator fuels the product development and customer service at Stealth. "We're systems integrators to the core, and we think that way -- the way we treat our customers, the way we handle inventory is based on how we'd like to be treated as an integrator," Olszewski emphasized. "That has been the key to our success. I've heard it enough that I believe that stealth is one of the best companies to deal with. We don't blame others if mistakes are made, and Stealth isn't burdened by trying to get rich or pay back investors. Profitability is important, but we're not driven by the quarterly report."
Olszewski describes the "culture of discipline" at Stealth as founded on the principle that "it's our responsibility to deliver product on time and have it work as we advertise." Again, this comes from DCI's integration history, as Olszewski pointed out that this commitment to customers comes from what he learned in working with QSC over the years. Early on in DCI's history, QSC did right by the company after a shipment didn't work out, and as Olszewski said, "They made a customer for life."
That's the kind of dedication Stealth seeks to achieve in its interaction with dealers, he added. "When we talk to dealers and they realize we're not guys in a garage or inventors or manufacturers who build stuff and put it out there without a clue about the realities of the field, the faith and trust in us goes up."
On the sales side, Stealth also refers to its years in the trenches. "We've had every kind of rep coming in the door here in the past 37 years, so we've seen good and bad reps. We learned what successful ones do, and that's what we've looked for in our rep channel."
Stealth keeps a well-stocked inventory so they can ship large orders very quickly.
"There are two things that have elevated Stealth," Olszewski explained. "The passion of the inventor, Paul Hagman, who wants to create the best that he can create, and that intention is filtered through a supporting engineer who does all our crossover design and all our voicings, who is a two-channel-obsessed audiophile. He doesn't care if it's invisble, he wants to create the best sounding speaker possible. It's those two things that have continued the improvement of our product. Rather than come to market and say we have a speaker that's invisible--we had that trick ten generations ago--we're making it better to elevate the whole space."
Stealth's mission is to create a great-sounding speaker that happens to be invisible, rather than the other way around. "Our mindset about invisible speakers is to be able to say, 'I have a great speaker, and by the way it solves aesthetic issues,'" Olszewski elaborated.
Designing and producing speakers that integrate seamlessly into drywall produces some pretty heavy requirements for sound quality and reliability. But Stealth's track record is impressive. So far, they have succeeded in producing a steady stream of improvements over ten generations of speakers in eight years of manufacturing, selling $10 million worth of product with only six known in-wall failures -- four of which were in the very early stages of development.
"What we build is magic, because most people expect invisible speakers to fail," Olszewski quipped. "In the invisible speaker arena, we are the only people that not only have a full-range panel that goes as low as 40 to 50 Hz on the low end, but we're also the only company that also offers invisible subwoofers," he noted. The same slim Stealth form factor, and the same install process "gives us something that can go from 20 Hz on the low end to 20,000 on the high end, plus/minus 3dB."
Lately, Stealth has been expanding into electronics, with a subwoofer amplifier filter, and the brand-new model 8400 multi-channel amplifier with DSP optimization that "you see all the time in the pro world, but you don't see it in the consumer world all that much and you certainly don't see it in the invisible speaker space."
This year, Stealth is making another leap in the invisible speakers space, and it will also prove that its audio technology can stand on its own, literally. The new LineaResponse LR-4 invisible speaker system is a three-way, full-range system of two panels, a mid-high panel and a low-range panel. It will be available early this year.
Stealth's new Monolith free-standing speaker
These new models and all Stealth products will be submitted for third-party electro-acoustical measurement this year, Olszewski pointed out, adding, "Proving the legitimacy of invisible speakers is our number-one goal."
This fact becomes apparent on a tour of Stealth's manufacturing operations. The pristine new facility houses a team dedicated to the production of flawless product that maintains the Stealth reputation for complete reliability. Surrounding the workshop space, the warehouse shelves are stocked with one year of run rate so Stealth can fulfill large orders at a moment's notice. "We are the antithesis of just in time," Olszewski laughed. "We always want to have product in stock, and we always want to fulfill without backordering."
He estimates that 99 percent of the time, if an order is placed by 3.00pm Pacific time, it ships that day. "People say we're one of the best companies to deal with, and our shipping capabilities are part of it," Olszewski noted. "That comes from our integrator background. We could not in eight years have gone from literally nobody to arguably the global leader in invisible speakers without the fundamental business and operations understanding that we got from being a systems integrator."