Educar regularly “sits down” virtually with industry veterans worth listening to, and asks questions about their careers and what they’re working on now.
This month we’re chatting with Steve Irby, a true industry pioneer.
Steve Irby is the founder and president of Stillwater Designs, the corporation behind KICKER. Over the years, KICKER has grown into one of the largest and best-known manufacturers of aftermarket subwoofers, speakers, and amplifiers in the world. Steve is also widely known as one of the nicest guys in our industry, and he very kindly agreed to do an interview with us over email.
How did you first get into car audio, and when?
I installed my first car stereo in 1968, when I was a freshman in college. It was an Automatic Radio 8 track player, and I used two Stephens (an offshoot of JBL) 8” full-range speakers in the rear deck. These were cast-frame drivers with edge wound voice coils and alnico magnets – very nice speakers for the day. It sounded great, I thought! But I had been building speakers for my rock and roll band since 1965.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen from then to now?
With the advent of switching power supplies for amps, there was more than 18 watts to push systems, and especially subwoofers. So the systems just kept getting bigger and bigger. But the really big change that exploited all that power and subwoofers was the CD, with its extended range, no background noise, and clarity. That propelled Kicker to an average of 70% growth per year for all of the ‘80’s.
What are your responsibilities at Stillwater Designs today, compared to the early days?
In the early days I did everything from design and build speakers, run the shop, deal with customers, to clean the toilets. Over the years I’ve been able to find excellent people to do most everything, and so I can somewhat limit my time to those things I do best (and enjoy most), which are product design. Of course I’m also still directly involved in the overall management of the company.
Your company was one of the first to introduce vehicle speaker enclosures which were ready to go right out of the box. What have you learned about this category over that time?
We are still probably the largest supplier of loaded speaker enclosures to the car audio industry. Although car audio has a large DIY segment, the majority of purchasers want something ready to go – and the Dealers want to sell something that doesn’t require them building a box, unless it’s a very custom system. Of course we sell all our components separately for the DIY’er too.
How has it changed?
In the early days most car audio shops needed a wood shop to build speaker enclosures. These days there are those that still do that, but they are supplemented much more with pre built and loaded enclosures because it’s less labor (and sawdust!).
Over the past decade Kicker has launched several products with DSP – the Q line of amplifiers, and some KEY amplifiers and processors. What have you guys learned about this category of products?
DSP is amazing, and the capabilities are truly remarkable – for someone that understands it and how it operates. Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t take the time to learn how to operate the equipment or exploit its full potential. So there’s definitely an educational component necessary. What we’ve learned it that generally people want simple solutions, not complicated ones – no matter how good they may be. This is what led to the development of the KEY line of products – that self-equalize, time align, compress/limit, etc. This is fine for the majority of people – the ‘easy button’. For those that want to fine tune – and understand how – we have the IQ line of amplifiers. Different strokes for different folks!
Are there any ways that Kicker approaches these products which you think are unique or different from the rest?
Our focus is on customer satisfaction, so our approach is to first ask, ‘How can we satisfy the most customers with this product’. We try to understand their needs, and level of interest and time to work with the product to get it to sound right. Then once we have a product that meets the needs of the largest group of people, we focus on products for more of the niche, or enthusiast customers – the earlier adopters. My goal has always been to be able to provide a great sound experience to as many people as possible, regardless of their level of expertise.
I’d have to say the original Solo-Baric, which has now progressed from a round shape to a square. It was initially patterned after an Isobaric mounted pair of drivers, which have the same low frequency extension in one half the enclosure volume that a single driver has in a standard enclosure. It dawned on me that if we cold make a sub that played in one half the enclosure volume, we could fit more subs in a car! Or, just take up less space. (The L7 SoloBaric gained 20% more cone area on top of that when we switched over from the round to a square shape).
What we did was to measure the T/S parameters of the Isobaric Pair wired together as one woofer, and then we designed a single woofer with those T/S parameters. It worked! – All the Bass in Half the Space was our tag line!
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about our industry?
I believe what our industry needs is more visibility to the everyday music lover. Car audio is not just a one-time thing for many – it becomes a hobby that can be enjoyed for many, many years. But we are somewhat hidden these days, with so many good systems in new cars that people just aren’t aware of how truly great their car could sound and what is available out there. If they’re a DIY’er, car audio can open up a whole new world of fun, learning, and rewarding audio experiences that can be enjoyed day in and day out.
Finally – if you could convey one thing to dealers and their staff about car audio, what would that be?
I fell in love with audio and sound because it coupled so well with my love for music. To me it was the greatest experience to enjoy my favorite music played on an awesome sound system that made it feel like I was ‘there’ – right in front of the band. I believe we should never forget that we’re not selling equipment, we’re selling an experience – that can be truly amazing! So, don’t forget to demo that audio system whenever and however you can. An awesome sounding system is the greatest ‘hook’ that a car audio salesman can have!