Just so you have some background, Klipsch's headquarters are located in Indianapolis, Indiana, with another major production facility located in Hope, Arkansas. The Indy HQ (where we visited) is home to a dedicated design lab, one of only a smattering of anechoic chambers in the world, an in-house painting facility, a construction lab (for building wooden mockups as well as cabinets and the like), an environmental simulator for testing product response to weather variations and an SLA machine that's used to create minuscule mockups of earbuds. Oh, and there's also a handful of extremely passionate employees, a few one-off speakers that were built but never sold and a corporate mandate that music must be played be played at all times. Just kidding on that last one.
Our tour started out with a roundtable discussion involving a number of Klipsch's best and brightest headphone engineers and product managers, and we simply asked them to tell us (and in turn, you) what exactly goes into designing some of the smallest speakers known to man. Klipsch itself hasn't actually been in the headphone business forever; a few years back, the outfit made a few check swings (and misses) in the sector, but it wasn't until it dove deeply into ear canal research that things started to come together. You'll notice that the outfit's entire range of earbuds (including the S2, S4, S4i, X10, etc.) sport ear tips that aren't exactly round. In fact, they're oval.
An engineer explained to us (and showed us boxes upon boxes of proof) that hundreds of ear impressions were gathered in the name of research, and while each one obviously boasted its own unique shape and size, one single characteristic remained uniform across the board: the entrance into the ear canal is not a perfect circle, it's an oval. For decades, in-ear headphones have been forcing users to shove circular tips into oval-shaped holes, and that certainly explains the nagging pain that generally sets in after a few hours of solid listening. Klipsch decided to change the game up, and just recently it was granted a patent for its oval ear tips. We've tested these tips against more conventional alternatives, and there's no question that the oval ones fit more comfortably (and for longer periods).
We were also shown the actual speaker mechanism used within the S4 and S4i, and while it was far smaller than even a raisin, engineers somehow managed to implement a dual magnet design for the added kick on the low-end. During the briefing, we were introduced to a pair of to-be announced products that the company let us talk about early. The first is the new black-and-white Image S4i, which is the first set of iPhone remote-equipped earbuds that Apple has sold in white aside from its own. We're told that these will be out early next year for $99, and based on the immense amount of color mockups we witnessed in the design lab, we're all but certain that more variations are on the way. The second is an iPhone-friendly version of the high-end X10 (dubbed the X10i, naturally), which will ship in early 2010 for $349.
We also inquired about Klipsch's stance on wireless, and the answers we received were certainly interesting. We mentioned our underwhelming reaction to Kleer's new W-1 wireless kit, and the staff tended to agree that existing wireless options simply weren't elegant enough to be considered a part of "a great user experience." From what we could gather, the team isn't interested in shipping a set of cord-free 'buds if a dongle (or two) are involved; they weren't shy in longing for Apple and the Bluetooth SIG to both put a greater focus on wireless technologies for audio, but until something completely outside of their control happens, it's probably tethered or bust.
Klipsch has certainly carved out a good chunk of market share in the segment, but it has no illusions of guaranteed success. Our camera was allowed to snoop around within some fairly classified pages detailing design ideas, comparisons with rivaling companies (Ultimate Ears, anyone?) and sketches of the next best thing(s). Speaking of changes, we were informed that a fourth set of ear tips may soon be joining the three that currently exist, with an "extra-small" version on the horizon to satisfy those with atypically small canal entrances.
If you're curious as to how exactly these things get created and tested, we've got plenty to share. We asked how exactly a speaker (or headphone) went from a far-out idea in someone's head to a shipping product, and essentially, there's a six step process that any given pipe dream is forced to wade through. For starters, a product is molded and defined; then, a project team is assembled to align demands with acoustics, shape, color, cost, etc. so that a compromise can be accomplished. Following that, a manufacturer is tentatively chosen, the development is initiated, the product is verified and a launch is given the green light. We were told that the process typically takes between 8 and 12 months, though some fast-tracked wares have been shot through in 6 months -- though, such a speedy (and pricey) turnaround generally requires an engineer or two to live in China so that design samples can be inspected, tweaked and okayed on the spot.
The in-house construction facility was a real stunner. In essence, it's a single room with a single mad scientist, and hardly any rules to speak of. The lone ranger running the show can receive designs that were created in SolidWorks and convert the code into instructions for one of two precision cutting machines to grab hold of. Essentially, this facility enables Klipsch to generate wooden mockups of speakers, cabinets, etc. on the spot, enabling the turnaround time to be shortened significantly. As you'd expect, this method also allows the company to keep its next-gen designs close to the chest. There's also an accompanying paint factory as well as a lighting simulator that gives the company the ability to test out different hues and coats under varying lights -- after all, the lighting within a Best Buy is drastically different than the lighting outside or within your home.
If a mockup is too small for a drill bit to carve out (like, you know, an X10 earbud), the instructions go to a quarter-million dollar SLA machine. For those unfamiliar with stereolithography, the machine takes 3D CAD instructions and funnels them to a laser. The laser pinpoints a vat of underlying UV-curable goop, and as minuscule portions of the liquid are frozen in place, new layers are placed on top and the process begins again. Eventually, a hardened model emerges from the mire, and from there, it's baked in a specialized oven. It's pretty remarkable how detailed this system can get, and we've got plenty of shots in the gallery below (as well as a brief video of the laser in action).
Once products are actually built in Asia and shipped back to Indy, quality assurance kicks in. An environmental simulator enables speakers and earphones to be battered in ways mere mortals wouldn't even think about, and given that some of these products end up in stupendously humid regions of India and staggeringly cold portions of Canada, it's critical that products can withstand the pressures that they'll (possibly) be faced with. Rain, humidity, extreme heat / cold -- you name it, and this machine can unleash it. Klipsch maintains an internal list of acceptable benchmarks when it comes to reliability, and if any product fails to meet said marks, the company is forced to go back to its Asian manufacturer in order to implement the needed tweaks.
Our last stop was a real treat. The company's anechoic chamber is accessible within the main building, but it's actually its own separate entity. The building is mounted on loads of underground springs, and the walls, floor and ceiling are coated with triangular slabs of foam. The purpose? To test any given speaker's frequency response. We were actually locked within the chamber and asked to speak to someone, and we have to say, the sensation of talking and not hearing even the faintest echo is indeed surreal. When gadget editors aren't yodeling within it, Klipsch actually places a single speaker on a rotating stand and points it directly at one of the most expensive microphones on this great planet. Once the door is air sealed, a variety of frequency tests are ran in order to determine where crossovers are needed and what frequency specifications should be published on the packaging. Have a peek at the video we took of a live test while standing inside -- but be warned, some of the frequencies are downright ear-piercing.
In case you're hungry for more from within the Klipsch lairs in Indiana's capital, feel free to poke around in the galleries littered about. Our major takeaway is that speaker (and particularly earbud) creation is a huge, huge undertaking, and nailing a design is no small feat -- particularly when you've got consumers demanding more for less. We also get the idea that many of the process steps that are taken in speaker / headphone development takes place in other sectors, though we'd also surmise that smaller outfits like Klipsch can generally take products from concept to commercialization far quicker than larger firms. Unfortunately, after all of this, we still can't promise a hard release date for those hot pink and neon green headphones. But trust us, we're working on it.