Her name is on the circuit boards of the first units.
(click photo to enlarge)
Wow. How cool.
Metal Debacle, Valhalla Style
“Hey Mike, the new Valhalla metal just came in,” I said, holding one of the outer aluminum chassis in my hand.
“Great! I want one of those—” Mike began.
“They’re junk,” I said, cutting him off.”
Silence on the other end of the line.
“The second shipment of Asgards came in. They’re junk, too.”
More silence. Then: “How many?”
I looked around the garage, which was now piled high with crumpled sheets of foam that had been protecting the outer chassis. Dozens of U-shaped pieces of aluminum covered every horizontal surface. I’d already gone through every box. And every chassis I pulled out was complete crap in one way or another. All of them looked like they’d been refinished after the metal had been bent. What had been a smooth curve on the top and bottom of the front panel was wonky and uneven, where someone had manually tried to re-grain the parts. Some still had deep cracks at the bends, indicating why they’d tried to refinish the parts. They’d bent the metal, but this time it had cracked. And they’d tried to fix it.
“All of them,” I told Mike.
“How bad is it?” Mike asked.
“They’re unsellable. They used the wrong temper. Stuff cracked. They tried to fix it.”
“Fudge,” Mike didn’t say. He said something much more descriptive than that.
“And we’re out of Asgards. And it’s a week before we said we’d ship Valhallas. People are already asking when they’re gonna ship.”
Mike sighed. “And you’ve called the metal shop.”
“Yeah. They said that they can’t guarantee the alloy and heat-treatment they get from the mill anymore. And they think it’s cosmetically acceptable.”
“Bullschiit! Time for a new metal house.” Mike was pissed. “I hate being right…there's nothing more certain than…”
“…your metal vendor will screw up eventually,” I finished for him.
Of course, I’m compressing this story a bit, kinda like a 128k MP3. I’d already been down to the metal vendor by the time I called Mike. I had them try with a new lot of metal. I’d already had them try a different way of finishing it. And we didn’t have any answers. And when your metal guys start telling you what’s cosmetically acceptable (and you don’t agree), run. Fast.
But it wasn’t a joke. It was real. After a few weeks of shipping products, answering emails, and getting into a rhythm, I was crushed. I didn’t have an alternate metal supplier. And these guys didn’t want to help. They did mainly industrial control panels. They thought of us as the picky, pain-in-the-butt small client. And to them, we were.
And for the second time, I wondered if I really wanted to get into manufacturing again. It was clear that Centric would have a good year. Mike wasn’t working full-time on Schiit yet. Neither of us were going to see any money for a very long time. Maybe it was time to pack it up and go home.
But that’s just fear. Fear is normal. It’s ok to be scared a bit. It keeps you on your toes. You think about doing stupid things like abandoning the company, and then you come back to your senses.
So, what did we do?
We started looking for a new metal shop, of course. At the same time, we got to use the “Backordered,” notice on the site, and pushed out the Valhalla release date by a month. Little did I know how used to being in backorder we’d get. Nor did I know how often new product release dates would slip. To date, we’ve only been on time once.
To find a new metal supplier, we used both MFG.com and through personal contact to local suppliers. Most could be eliminated from a first round of quotes—4x to 7x higher than what we were paying. What this meant was that they were an aerospace supplier, usually. Not a good fit. Nor was it a good fit if they were only making machine tool front panels and industrial controls—they weren’t able to show any examples of “consumer finish.”
In the end, Mike found the metal guys we use to this day. They were local—only about 20 minutes away—so Mike took the initiative to go down and meet with them. They’d already made up an unanodized sample from our print—and it was beautiful, with consistent, perfect grain and nicely finished edges. Literally a hundred times better than we ever got from (name redacted.) For the first time, I saw what our stuff could look like—and it was very nice indeed.
The problem, of course, was the wait. No metal vendor is fast, unless you bring wheelbarrows full of cash and park them outside their offices. And even then, maybe not. When your metal is bad, it’s 4-8 weeks of delay to get it fixed. Period. And that’s assuming you don’t have to go out and find a new vendor.
What’s worse about the wait is the nail-biting part. Wondering, Will it look like the sample, or will they screw it up, too? Because that could easily happen. They could buy the wrong alloy and temper, they could try to fix it too, they could mess up the anodizing, a hundred things can happen. And you won’t know until those boxes show up at your garage (er, I mean, “loading dock.”)
Metal and Manufacturing, a Triptych
Comment 1: there are many ways to finish metal. There’s no right way or wrong way. Graining, bead-blasting, etching, etc—as long as it produces a consistent, consumer-level finish, it’s fine. But the way we do ours is somewhat unique. We grain the aluminum first as a flat sheet, then bend, anodize, and screen it. This requires unique tools that won’t mar the grain, as well as a specific alloy and temper so the aluminum doesn’t crack when it’s bent. This method is a very inexpensive way to produce good-looking chassis—with one catch. If it’s scratched, nicked, dented, or marred in any way, it goes in the recycle bin. You can’t refinish it once it’s been bent.
Comment 2: the importance of an inexpensive chassis. Let me cover this now, because I’m sure I’ll be asked. Why do we use a process that results in chassis that can’t be refinished if they’re damaged in production? Because it’s inexpensive, and it allows simple, two-piece chassis designs. And an inexpensive chassis is key to a high-value product. At the higher-end of high-end, it’s not uncommon for the chassis to cost 3-10x more than the parts that go in it. And that’s fine, if what you’re looking for is audio art. But if you’re looking for value, you have to drive the chassis cost down to a level below the rest of the components—you know, the stuff that actually makes the product work. This is why our chassis cost a lot less than what goes in them, across the board, at all levels.
Comment 3: this is the reality of manufacturing. If you’re looking for a get-rich-quick-work-2-hours-a-week-from-home-with-auto-reproducing-spambot-software deal, making things ain’t for you. Stuff will go wrong. You will have to deal with it. Oh, you say you're going to make it yourself on your own machines for full control? Yeah, let us know how that goes when the machinist quits/when you get the wrong metal/when the machine breaks/when you start chewing up parts for no reason. As Mike says, “Bringing a product to market is like screwing a gorilla. You aren’t done until the gorilla’s done.”
The New New Normal
“The new metal’s here,” I told Mike, about 5 weeks later.
“And I don’t want to open it,” I admitted.
I said nothing. We were in deep backorder, and well past the intro date for the Valhalla. People were screaming. If the metal was junk, we might not recover from it.
“Open it,” Mike said.
I did…and it was perfect. It looked just like the sample. The anodizing was great, and the screens were even better than the old suppliers. We were back in business!
Rina and I went back to work. Soon, there was another “new normal,” with two different amps on the line. We were working late into the night, almost every night. The Valhalla got some very good reviews. And I was finally happy about the quality of the metal we were shipping.
In the midst of that euphoria, I got a second call from Jude at Head-fi.
“You know, Can-Jam is coming up,” he told me. “It’s at RMAF in Colorado.”
“I’d love to go, but I don’t know if we’re ready for shows,” I told him.
“But a lot of people are asking about you,” Jude told me. “Maybe you could share a space with Sennheiser. They were asking about amps.”
Wait. Did he say what I thought he just said?
“With Sennheiser?” My voice cracked a bit.
I was still in shock. “The Sennheiser?”
Jude laughed. “There’s only one, as far as I know.”
For a long time, I couldn’t say a thing. Sennheiser…and Schiit amps? Would they laugh us off the table when they first heard the name?
But I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by. “Let’s do it,” I told Jude.
“Cool. I’ll have you ship out one of each of your amps to Sennheiser at the hotel, and it’ll be great to meet you there.”
And that’s how we got roped into our first show—where we screwed up Sennheiser's plans, and insulted at least one industry bigwig…