Connected Objects Interviews Music

The Backerjack Interview: Mass Fidelity’s Ben Webster on packing big sound into a travel-friendly speaker

Mass Fidelity’s Core is a paradox — a portable speaker that’s designed to produce a convincing stereo effect from virtually anywhere in the room. Actually, that’s true of multiple rooms as the system can be networked throughout the house like a Sonos system. Backers responded and the Indiegogo campaign was one of the most successful ever for a Canadian campaign. We caught up with Mass Fidelity co-founder Ben Webster to learn more bout the physics and functionality of the powerful desktop speaker due this summer.

Backerjack: Tell us a bit about Mass Fidelity and the Core.

Webster: Mass Fidelity was founded as an audio technology company with the intent on redefining the audio space. The name has a dual meaning that encapsulates our goals of bringing high-fidelity audio products to the masses and making products of substance. I started by looking at how many of my friends and family didn’t have high-quality sound systems and how much the technology scared them away. There ceased to be a middle ground at somewhere in the late 70’s, early 80’s — that’s when the divide became extreme, to the point where you were either buying junk or extremely high end stuff. What I wanted to do was build something that was attainable for the normal person that would give them a real, engaging musical experience.

This prototype of the Core has been traveling with me for the last six months and it’s changed my life. As the founder of an audio company, I have a big beefy system at home and I barely use it anymore. This thing is so convenient and it actually sounds like a stereo. You’re not gonna get around physics when considering my living room system with nine drivers, but it’s also thousands and thousands of dollars worth of components whereas this thing we’re selling for $595 gets 80-90% there. I really feel like there’s a combination of technologies about to completely flip the audio game on its head.

Backerjack: You talked about this idea that you wanted simplicity and room filling sound from this technology, The Bose Wave Radio which, historically, has had that marketing message: big, room-filling sound in a compact package. There have certainly been other companies that have done the same thing.

Webster: It’s interesting because people don’t believe a statement like “It’s one speaker that sounds like two,” until you play it for them and they’re like, “Holy shit! It’s one speaker that sounds like two!” The Bose Wave radio does what it advertises. Putting aside frequency responses, size, battery life, and connectivity, all of which we are better in, — all of that aside — the difference is that we create that room-filling sound that’s accurate. When I say accurate, I mean to the source: if you have a good stereo recording, you can actually hear the stereo recording from this tiny little box instead of filling the room with the music which the Bose does exceptionally well.

Backerjack: You mentioned some technologies you use that hadn’t been available before?

Webster: The big one that we use in this product is called wave field synthesis. Other companies promote all kinds of different technology, but ours is very different. The technology was actually proven in a university in the Netherlands in the late 70’s and 80’s. It’s been studied ever since and regarded by prominent audio figures as the future for a long time. One of its biggest issues has to do with implementation, requiring thousands of drivers, wall-to-wall speakers, and a ridiculously complex set up. In sum, you can’t sell this to normal people.

With the speakers all around the room, what happens is that they all fire off perfectly time to have all the wave forms meet at a central point to make the acoustic equivalent of a hologram. So some scientists in Switzerland understood that wasn’t going to be sellable, and wondered if they could make the inverse of that — in other words, a bunch of speakers configured in such a way that fire out into the room. If the algorithm is flexible enough, these wave fronts will collide in space to make the equivalent of an acoustic hologram. I can’t tell you how flexible this algorithm is no matter what room its set up in. As future generations come to be, it will become better. The math says this is actually better than someone sitting in a stereo system’s sweet spot.

Backerjack: Could you talk about how you’re doing multi-room?

Webster: It’s an adaptive network that works between 5.2 and 5.8GHz, so it’s not going to interfere with any other wireless networks in your home. If there’s any issue with connection, it detects the issue and constantly adjusts itself to address it. We chose this technology because the company that makes the chipset gave us the source code, allowing us to look at the software and tweak it for the best possible user experience. If you look at other offerings from other semiconductor companies, they’re usually fixed configurations. We didn’t think the best user experience would come from that. As such, we were able to it make so you can push one button and make all other units hear the same music no matter what the source — analog, digital, or Bluetooth.

Backerjack: What is the expected availability?

Webster: It’ll be shipping by June 2015. We’re running a little late now after a few hiccups with production, but we’re saying June.

Backerjack: Could you elaborate a little on that? People are often curious about the process of mass production, and it’s helpful for them to understand the types of problems that come with producing something.

Webster: Simply speaking, the stuff you’re not paying attention to is the stuff that will get you in the end. We created a fantastic prototype that was exceptionally tuned and tweaked to the point it sounded unbelievable, but the problem lies in a long list of software bugs that affect UI. Things work, just not when they’re supposed to. Other companies would let these sort of bugs go, but for us this is an expensive product and we want the user experience to be perfect. User experience goes a long way, especially considering other companies make subpar products that are purchased simply because the user experience is so good.

Backerjack: Where can people expect to buy the Core?

Webster: Independent retailers all over the world. Everything from Apple-authorized resellers to high-end audio shops to design stores — that kind of thing. Because the product’s need to be heard to be understood, we’re avoiding big box relationships until the brand and what it does is more understood. This is a product that definitely that needs to be demonstrated.

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