Artist, Musician, Innovator, Businessman – part one of our recent talk with an industry legend.
By George McClure
PROMISING “PICTURE PERFECT SOUND”, Leon Speakers is an American manufacturer of custom audio and audiovisual solutions that mix art with audio and design with technology. A family-owned and operated company out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Leon has grown into a multi-million dollar business with over 60+ employees that has consistently made Inc. 5000’s list of “Fastest Growing Companies in the U.S.”
GEORGE MCCLURE: Take us back to the beginning. How did you come to start Leon?
NOAH KAPLAN: Well, we’re talking about more than 25 years ago. I came from New York to go to art school at the University of Michigan. During art school I also got super interested in playing music. Basically, I was an artist and musician. I got a commission right out of art school to do portraits of all the scholar athletes from U of M’s history, which kept me here. So right away I was a working artist. Because I’m an extrovert, music kind of became my battery pack, even while I was working on drawings. I was completely music-obsessed my whole life. That was going back all the way to the Village and New York City, flipping through crates of LPs, all the way to learning how to play music. And we had a band at that time that became a touring band.
There was a little bit of a swirl at that time where there were enough musicians, enough craftspeople and enough artists to create the formation of a business. Now, that business was not exactly like what Leon is today. For our first project we set up a pirate radio station together — we literally put a 30-foot antenna on one of our college houses where we started Leon. We also built a recording studio there, and then we moved into thinking that we could make other kinds of products, like instruments.
GEORGE: Just as an aside, what’s your instrument?
NOAH: I play guitar and write music and play percussion. What led me to play was that I was an obsessed fan. I was a tape collector, a vinyl collector, everything I could get my hands on, and super immersed in tour culture. Our little group slowly formed the concepts of an early business, and we started building studio monitor speakers first. We invested literally about $600 into Leon Speakers. It was definitely a true startup business.
This thing called Leon was a group of artists, musicians and engineers who got together to just rethink the way things were made. ‘Cause at that time, when we were graduating from schools, it was the mid-to-late nineties, and products had become really boring. I remember searching on the early internet and just seeing streams of black plastic boxes. It just seemed too boring. There was no design. There was no connection that we could find to something that we even wanted. Sure, there were super high-end speakers from companies like Wilson, but that was out of range for people like us.
So we started building and designing studio monitors, and slowly from that house we started finding some customers. We went to Zingerman’s, the highest end restaurant here. We’re like, “Hey, we just designed some speakers. They’re made of solid hardwoods.” They were completely receptive.
And really, that was the beginning. We made CD racks, we made speakers, we made interesting shapes. I made my first sound sculpture at that time, that was one of the first things I did. And eventually we found a small downtown location in Ann Arbor that was right near campus. It was called Leon Speakers and Noah’s Underground Gallery. We kind of combined an art gallery and a speaker shop.
GEORGE: Are you still based in Ann Arbor?
NOAH: Yes, we are in our Ann Arbor facility. We’ve moved factories three times. This one is about two miles from the campus in U of M. We started in one building, but currently we now have five buildings where we manufacture. We have seven acres. My new vision is really to build what we call the creative campus. The creative campus is where we design, build, manufacture a lot of products at scale. We do a lot of products for commercial, for residential. We even do a lot of art products now. We have craftspeople working at different zones of different buildings. And right now we’re adding on a complete craft brewery onto the front of the whole property.
GEORGE: That sounds like fun.
NOAH: Leon has about 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space across five buildings, and one of those buildings is in Maine. We’re a lean manufacturing company, so we don’t stock products.
GEORGE: You make them on demand?
NOAH: Yes, they’re ordered from what we call a palette of products. Our factory is optimized to create products for the individual customer. When you come to Leon every day, we are transforming wood and components into finished products on a large scale. We deal with almost every country and over 2,000 dealers across the world. It is a diverse set of products that we make every day. You’ll see sound sculptures, you’ll see 25-foot video wall speakers. You’ll see subwoofers, you’ll see every possible iteration of a frame or wood going across the factory.
The factory’s divided into different, what we call, lanes. So we have whole zones that will make the custom soundbars and sidebars. We have whole lanes that will make the frames and the artwork products. We’ll have whole zones that are just making the high-end commercial products. We form and cross-train, and some of our craftspeople have been with us now for 15 years. The people running the company are the people I grew up with.
GEORGE: Where did the name Leon come from?
NOAH: There’s a lot of mythology about where Leon came from, but what I can tell you is Leon to us was more of an adjective: “To be Leon.” It came from a very hysterical part of our lives, from a very ostentatious and interesting character. We used to say, “Oh, that’s so Leon.” And it slowly became the name of the business. When you’re 21 years old you’re not really thinking that you’re going to do this for your whole life. But here’s the funny thing — as a designer, I like the four-letter word Leon. ‘Cause at the time we were building these lean speakers, it just felt right. The scale of the word looked right and it looked like something that was a brand, like Sony.
GEORGE: Well as a music fan, this is probably before your time, but I think of Leon Russell or Kings of Leon.
NOAH: I totally agree with you. Leon Russell, he was one of our complete spirit animals of the business. One of thehighlights of my life was we got to build Leon Russell’s entire system before he died.
GEORGE: That’s very cool.
NOAH: We did a campaign called I Am Leon, and he was the final Leon, and it was right before we lost him. It was a white-on-white system, like gloss white and matte white, white grilles. It was a really beautiful system that he helped design, and it was one of those landmark moments, to get Leon Russell to actually be Leon.
GEORGE: One of the first concerts I ever saw was Leon Russell and Little Feat at Folsom Field at the University of Colorado. For the opening number he stood on top of a white baby grand piano playing a white guitar. I thought, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
NOAH: That era of music to us, it was so raw and real. I mean, of course there’s tons of it going on right now. But for us, Leon Russell was a songwriter’s songwriter. My bandmate had a giant beard and he sounded like Leon Russell. So he was just built into our soul, though he had nothing to do with the company name.
The company back then was more of a cultural group of people who gathered together. We were really working on a lot of new designs, new inventions. We met people, we met engineers who studied with Amar Bose. We met people who knew a lot about woodworking. We met really influential people and musicians who helped us figure things out. Leon Speakers at that time was really about transforming sound as we saw it to sound where we thought it was going. It was kind of the dawn of the flat panel revolution in video.
We were trying to do two things: add back musicality, cool materials and design to audio, but also we saw the coming change, that flat panel TVs were going to change the landscape of sound. And so we were imagining all kinds of things.
GEORGE: Well, it sounds like you understood from the beginning the idea about the aesthetic integration of a sound piece with visual integration into the home.
NOAH: You know, I was always an artist and a musician coming into this and I remember some of our early customers saying things like, “I have this wall and I want to get a flat screen TV. What can we do here?” Or, “Hey, I’ve had these six-foot towers in my living room for the last 13 years. What can we do about this?”
I have the word on my shoes that says, “Listen.” And my job to this day is still about really listening to the customer and listening to the heartbeat of modern design and being flexible. Things change. And so I just loved the medium of speakers. To me, I immediately saw them as like, “Why are they all rectangles? Do they have to be these rectangles? Why are they so boxy?” Then you start looking in Europe and Italy, and they don’t have to be. Sound is more organic. And so you could really play with form and function.
GEORGE: Yeah, when you look at something like Sonos faber, where it’s a sculpture…
NOAH: Exactly. They’re literally beautiful sculptures. And even the early Nautilus by B&W, where you see people starting to depart from normalcy. Because we also remember, a sports car could have a beautiful motor and a beautiful body, and they kind of go hand-in-hand.
GEORGE: You were one of the first companies to do a custom soundbar that would be the exact width of the TV and could fit on the bracket. So it was a whole presentation instead of two different things there.
NOAH: Yes, that again was super visual. My job was to really go out there and see what designs were needed. What I realized was that video was really starting to become the centerpiece of the room. So the first Horizon speakers were based on two things. The first one was, I wanted that visual to be a whole look that kind of created that golden ratio of three to four, but not disrupt the picture. I also noticed that most people listening to TV, they weren’t listening to music on their TV. They were listening to the news. So it wasn’t a recorded stereo image where you want stereo imaging. And then if you wanted to watch a movie, 80 percent of the signal goes to the center channel. So just mathematically and artistically I was like, “Well doesn’t it make sense for the sound to come from the picture with the TV?”
And that’s not a new thought, because I know about the history of the whole thing. All TVs used to have integrated, really nice sound, dating back all the way to the 1940s and 50s. So it’s been a crazy journey. The first custom-built soundbar was called the Horizon because we wanted people to understand this beautiful horizon line. And nobody knew to call it a soundbar. They used to say, “Can I get that Horizon thing?” And it was five years before we even had a competitor in that hemisphere.
GEORGE: How did you come to partner with Sonos and Bose and Crestron and some of these other companies to create solutions for their products?
NOAH: Part of our vision at Leon has always been to mix art with audio and design with technology. We’re very open — when a great technology comes along, where you see a sea change, instead of pushing it away and trying to compete, we kind of like to embrace it. When Sonos came on the market, I remember the first time I met with them. Even trying to wrap your head around what it was going to mean to have a fully wireless system, not Bluetooth wireless, but actual wireless. And to this day they’re still continuing to innovate. Their software integration was so strong, and actually their speakers sound really good. But the design level and the design concentration wasn’t really integrating into the large-format houses that we are used to working on.
Our cultures were similar in that we both love design, we both love art, we both love music. And so we thought, “What would it look like to give Sonos that same integrated look as it does with the integrated technology?” And it created that perfect balance. Our mission at Leon is balance by design. So let’s personalize with people. Let’s add the natural materials, let’s allow them to hang it on the wall without seeing wires. Let’s customize a grille to make it look like it’s integrated with the TV and it’s not a separate part. And going as far as, let’s add it into a sculpture or a piece of art to make it completely a new system that you can buy for your house.
With the Sonos I was like, “Let’s make it so it feels like it’s a plug-and-play piece. Let’s add the beautiful materials, let’s add the fabrics, the soft touches and then make it so we just don’t see any of the behind the scenes work.” I sometimes point to an Ente Soundtile or a sound sculpture and say, “Hey, this is your whole stereo system.” You have a pair of studio monitors in there. You have a Sonos amplifier in there. It’s wireless. You can control it from anywhere and you can expand on it.
GEORGE: I remember seeing those when they first came out, and I was really amazed. And again, you guys were early to the party in that category.
NOAH: It was fun. Throughout this whole way, George, I’ve always had way more naysayers than yaysayers. I’ve always had more people say, “Why are you doing this? Why are you working with your competitor? Why are you making a sound bar? Why are you compromising?” And at those times I know I’m doing the right thing. Because what they’re really saying is, “It’s been this way, I want to keep it this way.” And what I’m saying is, “I want to see design change. I want to see us change with the times and with the era.” I think we can make greatness out of what we have today and the past. And the things that, and we’ll talk about it later, the things we’re working on today are even a further departure from where we are now.