Brand Focus: Beale Street Audio's Mark Cichowski
Memphis, Tennessee-based custom loudspeaker manufacturer Beale Street Audio is a relatively new player on the global integration scene, having shipped its first architectural speakers and amplifiers earlier this year.
Founded more than two years ago, the company has experienced rapid growth and global expansion not often seen in a startup breaking into a niche market. With the recent purchase of popular European custom integration distributor BMB Electronics, Beale Street Audio has staked a large claim in a field chockfull of excellent competitors and in the process has seen its speakers land in the U.S., Canada, Asia, the UK, EMEA, Australia, and New Zealand.
Beale Street Audio’s Executive Director Mark Cichowski, whose career is approaching 40 years in the AV industry, talks with HiddenWires about the company’s unique go-to market strategy, the technology driving Beale Street’s audio design, and why it is was important to burst out of the gate at world-record speed.
What was the impetus for starting Beale Street Audio? How did you and your colleagues go about getting it off the ground?
All of the credit goes to Jim Murray, my close friend and the managing director at Beale Street Audio. Before founding Beale, Jim was the owner of AVD, an integration firm in Missouri, and he was constantly frustrated by some of the product designs he had to work with, especially architectural audio solutions, so he started tinkering. I often joke that half of Jim’s brain is a mad scientist’s and the other half is a mathematician’s mind, which is useful in the world of product design because there’s imagination contained by structure and science. Jim started tinkering around with his own architectural speaker designs in an effort to bring something fresh to a segment that was pretty stagnant in terms of innovation.
Using his familiarity with ported transmission line design and other speaker technologies, Jim came up with a design for Sonic Vortex that made sense mathematically, but he still needed a prototype for testing. A personal friend invested the necessary capital to build the prototype and the results were something special.
The funny part is that Jim’s first play was to try and sell it as an OEM so he approached some of the biggest speaker manufacturers out there. Most of the engineers he met with said it simply wouldn’t work on a larger scale, but I also think there was a case of what I call, 'not-invented-here-itis'. Eventually, he was introduced to Arthur Fulmer, CEO of Fulmer Companies, which had a long history in the 12V car audio industry. Fulmer never intended to enter the saturated in-wall speaker market, but after seeing and hearing Sonic Vortex, he knew there was something special.
On the product design side of things, how does Beale Street approach product research and development?
It may sound cliché, but with Jim’s background as an inventor/integrator and mine rooted in the sales, marketing, and distribution side, our vision is really to take existing product segments, like in-ceiling/in-wall speakers, amplifiers, soundbars and accessories, and make them easier to install and better performing while still offering a tremendous value to our partners and customers. Every dealer and distributor we’ve met with has seen at least a hundred different speakers in their lives so we present them with a full solution, not just another me-too speaker. Our goal is to re-invent the architectural speaker category not just with Sonic Vortex speakers, but also with our innovative amps, installation accessories and the way we do business. This philosophy is really what drives Beale’s R&D.
As an example, when we set out to design a line of amplifiers, we wanted to do something a little bit different with each, so we made the D2.1 a learning IR amp with an optional Bluetooth module that allows integrators to calibrate the sound from their tablets. We built an app to drive it, and we knew it would add value and improve the performance, so we invested in the technology. Even things as simple as making an IR with flexible emitter for better positioning or making the connecting blocks for our speaker enclosures magnetic. We can’t re-invent every product category, but if we can offer a differentiating feature that boosts performance or makes life easier for installers, we’re going that extra mile.
What do you think has been missing from the custom speaker market and how is Beale Street filling that void? What sets your brand of custom loudspeakers apart from the rest?
I do not knock the competition because there some really phenomenal sounding custom loudspeakers out there, but when you talk about true innovation, the pivoting tweeter and bevel-less designs are really some of the hallmark marketing achievements our industry has made over the past 20 years. Sonic Vortex is a true, mainstream oriented technology.
From the onset, Beale Street Audio has been all about redefining the performance standard for architectural speakers, and we believe we’ve filled the innovation void that’s existed for too long. Our Sonic Vortex technology re-imagines the traditional ported enclosed speaker design by separating the main port into multiple sections called “fins” that are tuned to ideal listening specifications. The fins compress and move air at a high rate of speed without port noise and also add to the enclosure’s rigidity. Compared to sealed models, the Sonic Vortex design provides a 6 to 9 db boost in the mid-lower bass ranges and a flatter frequency response across the audio spectrum. This boost is what sets us apart on a visceral level when people here Beale speakers for the first time.
Beyond the ear test, the Sonic Vortex design gives us incredible flexibility to customize the size of the enclosure designs to achieve the best possible performance for any installation. I don’t want to give away too much, but you can certainly expect to see Sonic Vortex technology in non-architectural solutions as soon as CEDIA this year.
Beale Street Audio is only two years old, but has made great strides on the international scene. One of your recent significant moves was the purchase of popular international distributor BMB Electronics. Why was this an important step for Beale Street?
Most importantly, the acquisition of BMB made us a global player overnight and also demonstrated our commitment to building long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with the international community. It’s really remarkable when you consider that Beale Street Audio was a two year old start-up audio company that just started shipping products in January, and we acquired a 25 year old distribution company with a rich history of success in its market.
From a logistics standpoint, having the BMB Electronics location in the Netherlands as our European foothold allows Beale to efficiently and effectively support international clients with faster shipping times, easier access to product, better training support and more.
From a market perspective, acquiring BMB is part of a larger international growth strategy that is centered on bold dealer and distribution policies and aggressive but practical business tactics. We understand that on some level, everything interconnects, so as we expand into different countries, we want to streamline operations as much as possible so we can ship product quickly, forecast better, and build a closer connection with customers, just like we’ve done in the U.S. When Beale Street Audio invests in owning real estate and setting up infrastructure in the places it operates, that shows a deep level of commitment and reinforces that we are around for the long haul.
How has this new partnership with BMB Electronics benefited you both?
Well, I think I covered how Beale Street Audio benefited, but I think a lot of the benefits BMB enjoys are mutual. The acquisition injected BMB Electronics with important capital that solidified it as a force in the European market and gave the brand a well-received jolt that put it on the radar of many new dealers and gave it a path to growth.
Looking long-term, both BMB and Beale will benefit from cross-pollination between the brands BMB represents. Since the acquisition, there has been great attention paid to how Universal Remote Control (URC) and other BMB brands complement Beale Street Audio, and how those synergies can benefit dealers. We’re working on some branding and other programs now that both sides are really excited about.
It’s also worth mentioning that BMB has some phenomenally talented and technically oriented people on staff who will remain as part of our team. Beale has, and will continue to benefit greatly from their expertise and market insights. Whether it’s streamlining operations, choosing the right brands or just the nuts and bolts of logistics, the BMB team has been a phenomenal resource for us in the EMEA market. In my previous lives, I’ve helped many companies expand internationally, and there can be some harsh and unexpected realities along the way, but working directly with the BMB team has really streamlined the process more than I can ever remember.
BMB Electronics is well known for its training programmes and dealer loyalty incentives. What new programmes and training offerings will you be providing to your expanding dealer and integrator base?
We have nothing specific to announce in regards to dealer loyalty incentives but I can assure you we are talking to dealers and working on something that will reward those who remain loyal to us.
On the other side, education is extremely important, and moving forward Beale Street Audio will place an even larger focus on dealer training and resources to ensure all partners understand how to integrate different product lines together, and how to remain as profitable as possible. Specifically, we’re investing in training seminars for URC and solidifying our commitment to the control market that BMB covers. A lot of effort is also going into the web presence and digital development, including a whole series of videos for online training. The goal is to have more “on-demand” info on the website, allowing for easier, 24 hour-a-day access to educational and technical resources, instructional materials, etc.
Beale’s intention isn’t to just sell products, rather it’s to become a solid resource and partner that helps dealers build stronger, better businesses. Just recently, we had our first ever “Dealer Day” at BMB, which was a tremendous success. Jim was able to personally connect with some of the top dealers from around the Benelux, share the value proposition of Beale Street Audio, and answer the tough questions some of them had. This direct engagement is a huge part of our model and the knowledge we gain feeds directly into product development, training materials and our other dealer programs. It really comes down to building a better business for everyone and making it a sustainable model, not just selling products.
Llanor Alleyne is the Editor of HiddenWires.