In a Blackstone Valley mill complex, where thousands of workers once made textile machinery, a small cluster of companies is helping to bring new life to an old Massachusetts industry. And it has nothing to do with textiles.
The Whitin Machine Works in Whitinsville, about 15 miles south of Worcester, is the home of firms that are producing state-of-the-art speakers, audio equipment, and components, extending the legacy of acoustic firms that emerged in Massachusetts in 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. These companies made speakers that were admired by audiophiles for accurately reproducing live music down to the lowest bass tones, a sound so distinct that it became known as the East Coast sound.
Today, the next wave of acoustic firms is building on the technical and entrepreneurial talent sown by the pioneer companies, branching out to everything from commercial sound systems to Internet radios for consumers.
The pool of talent proved critical to David Gunness five years ago when he and his two partners founded Fulcrum Acoustic LLC in the Whitin mill complex. Fulcrum, which makes high-end speakers used in Disney theme parks, Las Vegas nightclubs, and Bible Belt churches, has grown rapidly, with sales increasing 50 percent over the past 12 months. It added two workers over the past year, bringing total employment to nine, and plans more hires next year.
“The very first cabinet we manufactured was never touched by anyone with less than 20 years experience,” said Gunness, chief technology officer. “It was very easy as a start-up company because we didn’t have a big learning curve.”
Fulcrum’s neighbors include Eastern Acoustics Works, which makes commercial speakers used in Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium and employs about 70 people in Massachusetts; Bergantino Audio Systems, which makes bass amplifiers; and A List Wood Works, a contract manufacturer of speaker cabinets and other products.
Fulcrum cabinets now account for about half of sales at A List, up from about one-third last year, said A List president Brian Moore.
“If it keeps going at this pace, it could be 70 percent,” Moore said. “It’s still growing very strong.”
The Whitin mill complex, known locally as “The Shop,” is one point in a broader acoustics cluster scattered around Eastern and Central Massachusetts. Like many technology industries in Massachusetts, the acoustics business traces its roots back to MIT. The best known company, Bose Corp., was founded in 1964 by MIT professor Amar Bose who died this month at 83. But the genesis reaches further back, to an MIT student, the late Henry Kloss, who helped launch Acoustic Research in Cambridge in 1954 and followed that by starting other companies familiar to almost anyone who bought speakers and stereo systems in ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s: KLH, Advent, and Cambridge SoundWorks.
The spreading acoustical know-how spurred other offshoots, such as Boston Acoustics, founded by Advent veterans. And there was another factor that helped the industry thrive here: a captive audience of tens of thousands of college students.
“That was really the business — selling hi-fi’s to college kids,” says Tom DeVesto, the chief execute of Boston-based Tivoli Audio, which he founded with Kloss in 1999.
The arrival of music downloads, however, reshaped consumer demand. Convenience trumped high fidelity and sound systems that cost thousands of dollars. Some local companies, like Advent, folded or, like Boston Acoustics and Acoustic Research, became part of larger conglomerates.
The companies that survived adapted to the changing market with different products. For example, Tivoli Audio, which employs 30 people in Boston, makes radios that stream music from the Internet wirelessly with Bluetooth.
ZVox Audio, founded 10 years ago by audio-visual veterans from Advent, Cambridge SoundWorks, Tweeter Etc., and other companies, makes flat, bar-shaped speakers that plug into TVs. It employs about 20 in Swampscott and is growing “pretty fast,” says CEO Tom Hannaher, who first worked with Kloss at Advent.
Whitinsville-based JamHub, founded five years ago by guitarist and former Bose engineer Steve Skillings, makes a special mixing board that allows each musician in a band to listen to a personalized mix of the music they’re playing through earphones. It’s one of many local audio technology companies making gear for musicians.
Fishman in Andover, Source Audio of Woburn, and Acton-based Gig-fx make sound equipment, such as effect pedals for guitarists. Cambridge-based iZotope makes mixing and recording software.
Other companies, such as Fulcrum and Eastern Acoustics Works, focus on the commercial market, making speakers and sound systems for stadiums, corporate offices, and other large venues. Both are on the forefront of acoustic technology, using sophisticated digital signal processing and software to customize sound to meet the specific requirements — and peculiarities — of any venue.
Audio executives say there isn’t one fast-growing product area where Massachusetts companies have a distinct lead. But as with other technology industries, the state’s advantage lies with its skilled workforce.
Audio and speaker products are increasingly high tech, which means that these companies need engineers in acoustics, electronics, software, and mechanical design, said says Jeff Rocha, the president of Eastern Acoustics Works. EAW’s latest speaker systems, for instance, create a highly consistent sound throughout a venue, using software to fine-tune the speakers, rather than moving them around the stadium or hall to get it right.
The access to technical talent is one of the reasons that EAW, founded in 1978, moved half its manufacturing — primarily of its high-end speakers — from China back to Whitinsville, where it located in 1981.
Both EAW and Fulcrum Acoustic specialize in customized installations, so manufacturing in the United States allows them to hand-craft goods to exact specifications and quickly respond to customers for adjustments. Having all its operations — production, inventory, sales — in one place makes the company more efficient overall, Rocha says.
It also makes sense to have engineers close to production for quality control, says Fulcrum’s Gunness, who has six patents in acoustic design. “It can only be done by ear and having good judgment,” said Gunness. “When a guy in our shop is not sure if a certain noise [during testing] is acceptable, I can drive across town and say, ‘That’s OK.’ ”
Cue Acoustics, founded in 2006, assembles its consumer radios and speakers in Woburn, buying plastic parts, electronics, and speaker cabinets from local companies because it’s more efficient than dealing with Asian suppliers when issues arise, said chief executive Sam Millen. In many ways, he said, it’s a throwback to the days of the East Coast sound, when components were locally made and sourced.
“The reality,” said Millen, “is we’re following in the footsteps of what other companies did to grow.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Acoustic Research. It also misstated the role and date of the involvement of Henry Kloss in the company. Kloss helped launch the company in 1954, when it was incorporated.