Our Business In Audio series is a set of interviews where we delve into the challenges of growing and developing a company in today’s audio market and economy. This is a slightly different slant to the usual product focused discussions. Here we are more focused on the people and the business challenges in staying relevant in a competitive and ever-changing environment.
The companies we will speak to are from all around the world and both big and small. Our sixth company for this features one of the biggest supporters of lossless audio, Essence. We reviewed their impressive HDACC DAC in 2016 and were impressed by its HDMI audio capability and the enthusiasm of their CEO, Bob Rapoport.
A lot of readers will know your brand and products but maybe not so much about you. Can you give us a little background on your career and why you started or work with this brand?
I am Bob Rapoport, CEO and founder of Essence For Hi Res Audio. I started my career in the audio industry as a So. Calif. audio sales rep in 1971. My first lines were Sennheiser, Bang & Olufsen, and Bose.
I was an audiophile in the early days of the hobby and over the years brought many new and innovative technologies to the marketplace. I retired in 2012 but got bored fast so I started Essence in 2013 and have been the industry’s leading advocate for the adoption of HDMI and Blu-ray as the best source ever for native hi res audio and high definition video of my favorite artists at their craft.
What are the challenges in launching a new product on the market?
The #1 challenge for any manufacturer is creating consumer demand for his/her products and deciding whether to sell through traditional dealers or selling factory direct.
Designing a product with a unique selling proposition and value is at the heart of meeting those challenges.
If you could define your typical customer, what would they be?
I have several customer profiles:
a. Owners of legacy analog stereo equipment who want to adopt digital formats including HDMI, USB, Optical, and Coaxial inputs.
b. Desktop Audio fans who store their music in a computer
c. Fans of Blu-ray Concerts looking for a better DAC than the one in their Blu-ray player
d. Adopters of 4K looking to upgrade their HDMI throughput to v2.0
e. Millennials just starting out in the hobby looking for the highest performance and value.
Right now, which geographical and vertical markets hold the most traction with you? Is there a different pitch you need to work within each of your key markets?
The USA and Canada are my biggest markets but I sell worldwide thanks to PayPal and UPS.
The language barrier in Asia and Eastern Europe remains an obstacle to gaining traction there, along with trade barriers in the form of tariffs and electrical safety regulations that raise the price of my products in export markets.
The product pitch is the same everywhere, my products solve common audio problems when it comes to accessing and managing the playback of digital media in hi-res.
How significant or important do you think partnerships with other audio companies are in this day and age? Does secondary product marketing play a strong influence on how you approach your core product marketing?
I’ve never found partnerships with other vendors useful except when it comes to sharing booth space at shows and even then they’re complicated.
I ran a cross-promotion with several Blu-ray labels (AIX, 2L) when I first launched the Essence HDACC, customers got a free sampler with their purchase from those labels and it seemed to be better for me than the labels so they stopped providing the discs at no charge.
I avoid the snake-oil and voodoo cable business, it perpetuates myths that give the industry a bad reputation.
How much of a factor are personalities in driving a brands success? For example, Steve Jobs and Apple often went hand in hand. Is that something you believe in or do you prefer the product to stand on its own two feet?
I don’t think personalities matter that much, its always the product’s features and benefits that determines its sales. Steve Jobs had a lot of failures before he invented the iPhone.
There are a few examples of it working, I sell a speaker designed by Phil Jones and those who know his designs are always drawn to the product for that reason. It can work but it’s no panacea for success.
I have a good reputation myself over 40 years but that alone would not have meant automatic success for Essence, I had to get the products right.
How much of a factor are trade shows and meeting your customers in person when it comes to your product strategy?
None, trade shows are not a factor because I sell factory direct with no middlemen anywhere, this creates a level playing field for consumers everywhere.
I don’t do consumer shows either, they cost a lot of money that would increase my overhead and be passed on in the form of higher retail prices.
I see some companies work a lot with feedback from previous product launches? Is this a good thing or does it bottleneck new ideas that your market has never thought of before?
I find that sticking to a successful process works but am always open to trying new things.
Message discipline matters but so does search engine marketing, which is a direct reflection of what consumers actually want to buy.
The perception in the market is that audio products are getting more and more expensive but the value proposition is dwindling. Would you agree with that or is the product itself becoming more expensive to make and market?
That perception is largely in-accurate, the primary driver of high priced products is over-engineering, the use of in-efficient parts. For example, 85% of the cost of a modern floor standing speaker is invested in the labor and materials to make the cabinet non-resonant and vibration free. Reducing the size of the cabinet lowers the cost of production and its retail price.
Part of my success has been to re-define the feature package and price point for those features. High retail prices often denote high distribution costs, every distributor and dealer adds 50% to the cost, the cost of advertising and shows also play a role.
What was the product that made your name as a brand in recent history and why?
The original Essence HDACC was my breakthrough product, the first affordable USB DAC to include HDMI input and output.
It has won a handful of ‘product of the year’ awards, high critical acclaim from trade journalists, and great testimonials from end users.
For 2018, what is the key product of your brand that will be focusing on?
The second generation HDACC II-4K is driving my sales. I added the new version of HDMI for 4K video pass though and integrated a 4 x 1 HDMI switcher into the product for the growing number of HDMI v2.0 devices now in the market like Apple TV 4K, Roku 4K, Nvidia, Chromecast, and numerous PC’s with HDMI outputs.
I’ve also added a new line of HDMI v2.0 Fiber Optic Cables for 4K content with a data rate of 18 Gbps, 4K TVs are finally gaining traction and need the higher speed connectivity to handle the increased amount of data.
For the audio market in 2018, what do you see as the next big thing or the rising trend? What are customers looking for in their audio products?
I can only speak for my customers, they’re looking for 4K TVs and DACs with HDMI v2.0 compatibility for all their 4K hi res sources and ways to connect it without data loss or compression by HDMI.
In terms of speakers, my customers want to get rid of the clutter of multiple components by integrating the electronics into the actual speaker cabinet. This all in one, plug and play trend is gaining more traction everyday as people downsize their living space and adopt digital sources. Bluetooth reception is also important.
Bob has been one of the biggest supporters of using HDMI and true lossless HD audio that you would normally find on formats such as Bluray. When I reviewed their HDACC it blew away a lot of my standard Flac recordings. It is just a pity that physical formats are dying in favor of streaming and faster digital consumption on the audio 2.1 side.
However, the home entertainment business still puts a lot of stock in BluRay and similar formats including 4k. It is this arena where true uncompressed audio might just have the biggest uptake. Certainly, Bob has intimated as such with his HDACC II-4k success, something we may look at in a review in the not too distant future.
More On Essence
If you want to find out more about Essence, the products they sell or just generally keep up to date with things you can find their website here.
If you want to read our specific HDACC reviews you can find direct links to them below. Thank you again to Bob and the team at Essence for working with us on this feature and kindly allowing us to reprint some of their pictures as part of this interview.