Designer Chris Weir is dismissive of products that take a Swiss Army knife approach to features. He thinks a speaker should be a speaker — and nothing else.
“It’s a speaker, not a speakerphone,” he says.
He’s talking about his Packable Wireless Speaker System, a diminutive Bluetooth speaker he designed for Grain Audio, a hot audio startup. Weir resisted all temptation to add a microphone (for phone calls) or the ability to charge phones from its internal battery. It’s just a speaker, and a surprisingly good one at that.
In a market crowded with dozens of unexceptional, me-too products, Grain Audio stands out. Not only are all of its products made of wood (solid walnut, not wood veneer), Grain’s products do one thing, and one thing well: Pump out sound.
Weir brought some of the company’s products to the office for a sound check. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations. I’ve heard dozens of Bluetooth speakers, and they mostly sound ho-hum. I wasn’t looking forward to standing there, weakly smiling as he talked up his products. But the PWS blew away Jawbone’s Jambox (we did a head-to-head) and his bookshelf speakers absolutely smoked the office speakers, which I used to think were great. Don’t get me started on Grain’s in-ear headphones, my new favorite audio accessory. They sound better than any other in-ear headphones I’ve tried. In just a few minutes of listening, Weir convinced me to ditch all my favorite audio gear in favor of Grain’s products.
The audio market is exploding, driven largely by the mobile revolution. You buy a smartphone, then you get a case and a pair of headphones and/or a speaker. The premium ($100-plus) headphone market dominated by Beats (which Apple is supposedly acquiring) has seen double-digit growth for the last few years and is now worth more than $2.1 billion annually, according to market research firm NPD. But the market is packed with cookie-cutter products, which neither look nor sound good.
Working out of his office on the Sausalito waterfront, a pretty town in Marin County with spectacular views of San Francisco, Weir designs all of Grain Audio’s products from scratch. Weir explains that in today’s audio market, a lot of companies fly to Asia and pick a goody-bag of components off the shelf or rebrand cheap, white-label products. “We work with the manufacturers to make all the materials from the ground up,” he said.
The PWS Bluetooth speaker sports a pair of 2-inch drivers and a passive radiator at the back to pump up the bass. The 7-inch box looks small but packs a bit of heft, thanks to the walnut. Its rechargeable battery is rated for eight hours. It retails for $249, which isn’t cheap, but it sounds great. When Weir first fired it up, it filled the office with clear, rich sound that I initially thought was coming from the bookshelf speakers. I was surprised when I realized it came from the little Bluetooth box. Later I compared the PWS to the Jambox — still widely considered to be the gold standard among portable speakers — and it made the Jambox sound muddy and weak.
The only off-the-shelf components in the PWS are 18 screws and two input jacks — USB and 3.5mm. “Everything else is made to our specification,” says Weir.
Grain’s most distinctive material, of course, is wood. All of its products, including the in-ear headphones, are made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified solid walnut, which means it’s sustainably harvested. Solid wood has long been used for high-end speakers, but until now hasn’t appeared much in consumer-level audio equipment.
“The outstanding design feature of all of our products is we’re using solid wood (for) the entirety of the acoustical enclosure,” Weir says. “We use that both for design reasons as well as for performance reasons…. What the solid wood does is that it tends to attenuate a lot of the high-frequency sounds throughout the material itself rather than just reflecting it back into the acoustical chamber. And that provides a much warmer, richer sound than you can find in a composite or plastic enclosure.”
Weir has a background in furniture design and architecture. He has a taste for hard rock and metal, as seen by one of his Spotify playlists.
Grain was launched by veterans from highly respected audio brand Altec Lansing, he said, and the new company is focused on making the best speakers — not the best audio gadgets. Hence the lack of extras that turn a speaker into a gizmo. All of Grain’s speakers are tuned using Waves’ MaxxAudio, the Grammy-winning software used in soundboards at recording studios. The idea is to replay the music with the same technology used to create the music.
While in the Cult of Mac offices, Weir wired up his Passive Bookshelf Speakers (or PBS), a pair of hefty boxes with matched-grain walnut tops and gray metal grills. When he fired them up, they were a revelation. They conjured a rich, sonorous bubble of sound with super-clear separation between the instruments. It was like hearing in 3-D with almost hallucinatory clarity. I was enraptured.
The PBS was originally designed as a one-off for the green room at The Capitol Theatre in upstate New York, a venue famous since the ’60s for attracting legends like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. The handmade speakers sounded so good, Grain decided to launch them as a product. At $799, they aren’t the cheapest, but I’m buying a pair as soon as they are back in stock. (They’re currently sold out.)
I’ll also likely be buying Grain’s over-the-ear headphones (also in wood) when they debut next month. I just wish I had more ears.