Functional Audio Art: a Q&A with Randy Kunin of Sounds by Design

by Dennis Burger on Aug 5, 2010 at 08:53 AM

Sounds by Design Blackmore loudspeakerI receive a lot of Facebook friend requests from people I don’t know: people who work for consumer electronics companies, PR reps, and former classmates I can only assume I’ve purged from memory because they beat the snot out of me on a regular basis or rejected my amorous advances one too many times. I usually at least peruse their profiles before turning them down, though, and I’m glad that I do, because one unsolicited request a few months ago caught my eye: a friend-of-an-industry-friend whose profile picture was one of the most stunning loudspeakers I’d seen in ages.

As it turns out, he designed said stunning speaker. And that wasn’t the only one. Randy Kunin’s St. Louis suburb-based Sounds by Design is, without question, one of the most interesting and exciting new speaker companies I’ve seen in ages. Kunin calls his designs “Functional Audio Art.” And that phrase coming out of just about anyone else’s mouth would elicit groans and eye-rolls galore from me on the best of days. But with Sounds by Design, I’m struggling for a better description.

Kunin was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy day to discuss the philosophy behind his designs with me. And of course, I had to start with the obvious question…

HomeTechTell: So, where did it all begin?

Randy Kunin: I’m a second-generation audiophile. When most children were out playing hide-and-go-seek, I was out traveling around with my father to various hi-fi shops in the region, so I spent many hours in my youth listening to some of the best rigs money could buy. That’s what my dad and I did. I was raised on vinyl. High-end audio is ingrained into the essence of my being.

I was an art major in college. I love art as much as I love music. And I kind of got away from that for a long time, but one day, maybe five years ago, after being inspired by Josh Stippich from Electron Luv, I decided, you know, I can do that. I can blend art and audio. And that fueled my first design. That’s where the concept of Sounds by Design came from.

HTT: What was your first design? Was it the Elise?

RK: Yeah, the design of that speaker was emotionally sparked by the birth of my daughter. It was just such an emotional time, and I was on top of the world. Elise is actually my daughter’s middle name.

HTT: What influences your designs?

RK: Most of my designs are very organic and rounded by nature, for the most part. So you’ll see a lot of large, rounded baffles. I usually try to mechanically align voice coils. Internally, most of my pieces are completely random. I typically create my pieces in layers, and I create as much random chaos internally as I can to kind of break up any type of internal standing waves.

translam chaosHTT: How do you do that?

RK: I use a technique called translam. Essentially, what you do is create a master, and you continuously copy that master to create a general shape. And it’s usually done out of a wood material. I calculate my airspace that’s required, start doing some testing and simulations, and from that point on I just draw random shapes, cut them out systematically, and then along with that I’ll do a healthy amount of internal dampening and cross-bracing.

But the thing is, my designs tend to hide all of that. People don’t notice any of that neat stuff, so I have to bring it to the front page and say, “Hey, there’s some really neat stuff going on under the hood here.”

But that’s good! I really want to make hi-fi an interactive medium.

HTT: What does that mean by “interactive”? That’s sort of a vague statement.

RK: Well, starting later on this year, for example, I’ll be doing the first audio art show. I’m going to have my pieces, my speakers, displayed in a gallery, and I’m going to invite all walks of life: young, old, black, white—if you have a love of art and music, I want you to come and experience hi-fi and interact with it, discuss it. I want to make it so that people who’ve never given audio or hi-fi a second thought have an enticing venue to come in and experience it.

The sad fact is that most of the audiophile market is driven toward appealing to existing audiophiles. It’s an insular market, and they’re not working to attain new blood. They’re not following trends of society. People these days want to be a vital part of what they’re purchasing, or they at least want to have some input and customization or personalization, and that’s what I’m trying to create, to get people excited, to get awareness brought to the industry.

HTT: What sort of input does a customer have you’re designing a set of speakers for them? What can they change? What are the conversations like?

RK: There are a couple of ways I build speakers. I build some that are completely my design. But when I’m building a speaker for a client, what I really like to do is cater and personalize the design to the equipment needs, the room needs, and the aesthetic needs of the client.

You know, if the client has a completely tube-oriented rig, the design goes in one direction. If they have a high-powered Class A/B or Class A rig, it goes a different direction. If the room is small, then we shouldn’t do line-arrays or open baffles—we should make something that’s optimized for the size of the room.

And aesthetically, I want to know if the speaker should blend into the décor or be the focal point of the room. It’s very à la carte.

HTT: “Form follows function” is a cliché for a reason. Does the fact that your forms are driven by the artistry of it ever come into conflict with function? Is there a compromise here?

RK: That mentality has been one of my roadblocks, at least in the audiophile world. Not in the art world. But in the audiophile world, there’s the perception that nothing that looks as good as this can ever sound good. And I think that’s hogwash. I think it’s just the fact that some manufactures have become complacent with refining their designs to the point where they perform phenomenally, and leaving it at that. Whatever the thing looks like once the performance is locked in is what it looks like. Also, the amount of money it would cost to tool and produce my pieces on a mass-production scale would be astounding, so a more traditional company would have to charge an arm and a leg to recoup that cost. Or corners would be cut in other areas, like performance.

In an age of custom cars and motorcycles and homes, though, why not have truly custom hi-fi that also sounds awesome? I think there’s room for what I’m doing. And thankfully, some of the manufacturers have seen my work and jumped onboard, and I’ve been able to use arguably some of the best raw drivers and components on the planet.

HTT: What drivers are you using?

RK: If it’s a wide-band or high-efficiency driver, I tend to gravitate toward a Lowther. If it’s a lower-efficiency design, I usually use stuff from Markaudio. Depending on the speaker, I also use everything from Scan-Speak to Audio Technology to Dynaudio to Accuton—some of the very premiere drivers. It’s really a matter of what’s best for the design, though.

I’m also using Cardas Audio for all of the interconnects and connections in my builds. They’ve been incredibly supportive, as well.

Sounds by Design Blackmore loudspeaker in progressHTT: Let’s talk a little about the Blackmore. Because, obviously, it’s a very striking looking speaker. The bulk the material you’ve put into the Blackmore isn’t what you’d typically think of as “speaker,” though. Looking at it, I imagine most people would assume that most of the mass of this speaker has nothing to do with the propagation of sound.

RK: Blackmore took everything I thought I knew about audio and tossed it in the trash and gave it the big middle finger. And the design has everything to do with the propagation of sound. Typically, high-efficiency drivers are either front- or rear-mounted horns. I think the problem I’ve had for so many years is that every single horn I’ve ever stood in front of sounded awesome when playing about five songs, and outside of those five songs—once you start listening to things you’d typically listen to—they’re rancid. And that’s just me, of course. Everyone listens and hears differently. But I became jaded against horns, and it wasn’t until hearing a set open-baffle at a local reviewer’s house that I was kind of turned back on. The driver wasn’t the problem; it was the application.

With the Blackmore I took the design even further and thought, well, what about eliminating all coloration? What I found out was that, even in an open-baffle design, once you start removing all the nastiness, all the little-bitty details come to light: in the baffle, we’re still introducing a form of coloration. So I decided, let’s remove that, too, and see what we can do. And I sat down and listened to them, and it was a revelation. Everything I thought I knew was wrong.

Essentially, the Blackmore is a completely colorless presentation. It’s effectively transparent.

HTT: What would something like the Blackmore cost, if I wanted a pair?

RK: Pieces start at $4400 to $4500, and it goes up from there. Every design is dependent on different materials and finishes and drivers, and billable hours on top of that. When I’m building a set of speakers, though, I can go about it one or two ways: I can do material costs plus hours, or you can come to me and say, “I have $5000 or $10,000 or $20,000 to build a speaker with; what can we do?” And we go from there.

HTT: What else are you working on?

RK:  I’m currently building a two-way design spawned from the Blackmores I just recently built for a client. It utilizes the Lowther PM6A in the same dipole configuration but is mated with a pair of dual 8-inch Dynaudio drivers per side, and is a hybrid passive/active design. So a client can power the Lowther with a nice tube amplifier if they’d like, and then actively control the Dynaudios using an external DSP unit with a much stronger Class A, A/B, or D amp.

I also have an enormous set that I started, and they’re actually inspired by the birth of my son, and they bear his middle name. I’ll keep those and use them during my gallery shows. They’re called the Marek. They look like three orbs suspended on a spine. It was a very wild design fueled by a bunch of emotions.

Sounds by Design Elise loudspeakerHTT: When we were discussing client customization earlier, you spoke in terms of very practical things: room considerations, existing equipment, and so forth. But when you discuss your own personal designs, it’s all in terms of emotions and familial relationships. Have any customers come to you with emotional inspiration? Would you be open to that: creating a new piece musical art based on someone else’s milestones?

RK: I haven’t yet, but that’s essentially what I want to do for the majority of my work. I’ll be doing limited runs of pretty standardized models, certainly, where your only options are color choices and maybe materials. But want the majority of my work to be emotionally charged pieces, designed and hand-tailored so that when someone walks into the room and sees their speakers, they’re emotionally involved, not just acoustically interested.

To me that adds an immense amount of value above and beyond anything you can buy in a hi-fi shop. You know, you can buy some amazing pieces from hi-fi shops, but if I want the same piece, I can buy it, too. And the second we take it out of the showroom, it loses value. Look at AudiogoN and you’ll see $100,000 speakers selling for $20,000. My goal is to design speakers that, once they’re finished, that’s it. There will never be another speaker like that again, ever. There may be design elements that I apply to things I build from then on out, but I will never make that exact same speaker again.

You tend to keep something like that. It’s something you pass down through generations. I would love for my clients to be able to tell the story of why a speaker was made when they pass it down.

HTT: Have you done any surround sound systems yet?

RK: Not yet. I’d love to do an entire room, though, where the equipment racks and speakers and even the turntable have the same kind of feel and flow.

HTT: Do you think your approach lends itself to something like a 5.1 or 7.1 system with subwoofers and center channel and the like?

RK: I have to keep an open mind. I expect my clients to keep an open mind with my designs, and I need to keep an open mind on application. It would to make tonal and acoustic sense, and the system would have to sound as good as or better than it looks. But I am definitely open to anything.

HTT: Have you thought of experimenting with any non-traditional driver technologies like electrostats or folded ribbon tweeters or the like?

RK: There’s a company called Manger that makes a really neat transducer that’s kind of—and I’m probably not doing justice to the technology—but it seems like kind of a mixture of an electrostat and a traditional driver in one. I’d like to design something around that, as well as some large ribbons, some crazy high-efficiency pieces. I have to keep it fresh for me, because that’s what keeps me going. The last thing I want to do is bore myself with design.

HTT: What’s the one thing you absolutely won’t do?

RK: Novelty designs. I refuse to build a speaker cabinet shaped like a fish. The last thing I want to do is create a comical piece.

Contact info:
Sounds by Design

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