Emotiva: Good Deal or the Real Deal?

As a consumer electronics editor and reporter, I’ve never been a big fan of company profiles. We are frequently contacted by public relations reps who think their client has a good backstory worth telling consumers. But I usually prefer to let those company’s products speak for them in the Court of Test Reports, believing that hands-on feedback about the equipment is what readers really want, and that positive observations we might report in an article do a disservice if the gear fails to live up to it. Matters are complicated further when the company is one that advertises in our magazine or on our Website. Any upbeat comments naturally become suspect, and might cast doubt on a good product review arrived at independently and fairly. We never want to look like we’re in bed with any manufacturer, so why even go there?

Such was the case with Emotiva, a Web-based direct-sale audio company out of Nashville, TN that has carved a niche for itself delivering what’s best described as “affordable high-end.” Both Emotiva and its sister brand Sherbourn are steady advertisers—you may even see one of their banner ads to the right of this article. So, I was hesitant when their PR guy phoned me up about joining a couple of other journalists for a facilities tour—the first such invitation Emotiva had issued to the press in the brand’s 10-year history. But, this time, curiosity got the better of me. Not only was I unfamiliar with the people running the company, but, more critically, I was largely unfamiliar with their products. I thought a visit would allow me to assess the firm’s offerings firsthand and open the door for more reviews.

So I took the trip, and I’m glad I did. Because in all my years of covering both the mainstream and high end A/V business as both a trade and consumer reporter, I can’t recall encountering a small audio company quite like this one. To put it simply, these guys are—or at least, look like—the real deal. At a time when more and more consumers are eschewing component audio systems for compressed music played through a smartphone and crappy earbuds, I left Nashville feeling a renewed sense of hope for the audiophile-centric industry I grew up with and loved.

Emotiva and Sherbourn are actually affiliated companies of Jade Design, an original equipment design (OED) firm that creates all the product designs and holds all the intellectual property for the two brands. Neither Jade, Emotiva, nor Sherbourn have any direct in-house manufacturing at this writing. Instead, manufacturing and some engineering tasks are farmed out to various original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) working closely under the aegis of Jade. By and large, the manufacturing is done in China, a very common practice today even among some high end audio brands and one that should not in any way imply a lack of quality. Actually, it’s just the opposite: the lower cost of sophisticated manufacturing in Asia is what, for now, makes it possible for Emotiva to deliver what I can only describe as truly remarkable build quality at prices that seem unattainable by typical market standards. The 40 or so employees that operate out of the company’s 38,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in Nashville are involved mostly in product development and engineering, customer and product service, shipping, and the usual administrative, marketing, and accounting duties.

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Jade Designs/Emotiva CEO Dan Laufman.

The whole kit and caboodle is run by 58 year-old president/CEO Dan Laufman, whose long and unusual history in consumer electronics manufacturing sets him apart from most audio entrepreneurs who think they can build a better mousetrap, then set out to do so in their garage or basement workshop. This is, in fact, how Laufman got his start in the 1970s. As a hardcore audiophile and electrical engineer in Los Angeles in those days, Laufman designed and successfully pitched a prototype car stereo amp to Arnie Nudell and Cary Christie, the founders of the Infinity loudspeaker company, then turned his home into a factory to meet the demand. This led years later to Laufman owning and operating a series of OEM firms with facilities overseas, where he produced thousands of units of audio products for a variety of well known brands. To hear him tell it, this experience of manufacturing for so many years for other companies under stringent cost guidelines was his high school, college, and post-grad rolled up into one. It taught him and longtime colleague Lonnie Vaughn, now Emotiva’s vice president/chief technology officer, how to engineer and build products from a price-down perspective and how to make the right design and manufacturing decisions that lead to real value. “Being smart doesn’t mean you’re being cheap,” Laufman told us, “it means being smart about how you use the materials. You have to put the money where it counts.”

Laufman started the Emotiva brand—taken from the Italian word for emotion —while he still owned his last OEM firm. This put him in the unusual position of having both abundant resources and the luxury of letting the company slowly build a following. After starting out trying to sell through traditional retail distribution, he turned to the then fledging World Wide Web, becoming one of the early practitioners of Internet sales and cutting out the middleman to offer better value to end users. He didn’t know it at the time, but this decision would prove to be one of the breakthroughs that has made Emotiva successful in the long run as the world caught up and became comfortable with online commerce.

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Another contributor to the company’s recent success has been a customer-first philosophy, one that became most evident a couple of years ago when Emotiva had to deal with some quirky firmware issues that emerged after shipping its first surround processor, the UMC-1. Preamp-processors are notoriously challenging projects for small companies, and the UMC-1 proved something of a learning experience; if nothing else, it taught Emotiva to really take its time and be doubly sure before releasing any sophisticated new product to market. Along with working diligently to solve the issues, a contrite Laufman apologized publicly to the Emotiva fan base and extended the money-back trial period for that product from 30 days to six months, thus allowing customers a lengthy span to live with it and send it back if they so chose (relatively few did, he says). The company also issued a 40% off trade-up certificate to all purchasers of the UMC-1 to be cashed in for one of its next generation processors. (Simultaneously, they also introduced a 25% off upgrade allowance for any new purchaser of an Emotiva prepro to keep them in the family next time around.) The company further demonstrates its loyalty by holding an annual Emofest at the Nashville headquarters, where all customers are invited to come in for a weekend to enjoy free food and equipment giveaways. It allows the Emotiva staff an opportunity to talk with their customers, show their thanks, and conduct informal research about how to improve things or what new products to develop next.

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COMMENTS
kevon27's picture

How can Emotiva, Outlaw Audio, ATI and others produce amps, pre/pro, cd players, speakers, etc which perform on the level of the "High End" big boys of the business (Krell, Mark Levison, Classe, Bryston) yet cost so much less?
I've seen the reviews of Emotiva gear, and the measurement numbers are impressive.
There are people with really high end speakers, B&W Diamonds, Paradigms Ref Signatures, Focal Utopia's, Dynaudio Confidence Signatures, they've slapped Emotiva XPA's or XPR's monoblocks on their speakers and are extremely happy with the outcome.
And these are people who can afford the good "High End" amps from the likes of Classe, Bryston, etc.. One guy on a site even sold his Byston monoblocks and got the Emotiva XPR-1's and said the Emotiva hands down is better the the Bryston.

So what the hell gives? What are the "High End" big boys putting in their gear for it to be so expensive?

Jarod's picture

Great article! I love my Emotiva XPA-3 I use to run my LCR's. Power house.

emotivalover's picture

What gives is:

These products while designed here, are made in China where labor costs are significantly less..

They are sold direct to the enduser with no distributor and no brick and mortar storefront (dealers). This alone can save 50% or more from MSRP.

Emotiva is happy with reasonable margins and it shows in their pricing. The small, N. American companies that build "high end" A/V need huge margins to stay afloat. Many need ten times their build cost to remain in the game.

There is also "snob appeal". Believe it or not, there are many well heeled people who actually think if something cost a lot it must be better. They don't mind paying. Well, there is only so much you can put in a power amp for parts, and when I look at at mono blocs for $22,000 a piece I laugh... Sure they sound great, but at what cost and how much better than an Emotiva or Outlaw or ATI or whatever. A/V is truly a bell curve with very little gained by spending 4-5 times more.....

The traditional high end industry is dying. Why should I give a 50% markup to some dealer just for ordering me some piece of A/V and handing to me when it comes in? Those days are soon gone...

The internet has changed everything...

I am Porscheguy...

Rob Sabin's picture
My observation is that EmotivaGuy is generally correct about Emotiva's philosophy, which calls for not being greedy on their own margin and selling direct to offer aggressive pricing. We could add to this mix Outlaw, and a number of web-direct speaker companies that do some awesome work (Aperion Audio, SVS, NHT, HSU Research, Axiom come immediately to mind). There are also a couple of speaker companies I can think of that still sell exclusively through dealers who specialize in delivering astounding value and real high-end sound at more affordable prices. Paradigm inhabits this space, along with Definitive Technology and GoldenEar. With great high end electronics behind them, these companies best (and often their most traditional) speakers deliver sound that rivals some of the best high end demos I've heard, at prices that seem ridiculous for that level of performance. If only these respected brands would take their model fully direct and drop prices even further, the audio world would be a better place, though I suspect the need to get in front of non-audiophile customers in walk-in, brick-and-mortar environments is still important to them. For how much longer, I don't know, especially for brands that are so well-reviewed and recommended on the Internet.

While I don't condone the crazy mark-ups and pricing associated with the most expensive high end gear, I do think there's another side to that. In the end, all this gear, including the electronics, does indeed sound different on a high resolution system. High end audiophiles get hooked because little things and big things can make quite audible differences, and it does become a matter of degrees after a while. The snob appeal factor put aside, there's only one way to get a late generation Dan D'Agostino amplifier design executed to his highest standards, and that's to buy one of his uber-expensive amplifiers that not only sounds but also looks incredible and is built like a tank. If that's the amp that opens up the sound of your system a little more and gets you a few degrees closer to the holy grail and lets you hear all of your best reference recordings anew, and money is not an object for you, how much would you pay? For all I know, an Emotiva monoblock for $1,500 might deliver a similar ephiphany (though not necessarily the same sound) with your mix of ancillary gear, and without the fancy brand name or crazy price attached. But my experience tells me I would hesitate to make that judgement short of a direct A/B comparison with the source, preamp, and speakers you're mating them with, and I certainly wouldn't make it off the specs alone.

chilipalm's picture

So is this a precursor to you reviewing their products?

maj0crk's picture

A well-written article, but, until you DO that direct A/B comparison, it's just that - words!
Emotiva has advertised a long time in Home Theater, as have the other traditional firms, yet, to date, no review(s) have been forthcoming for poor ol Emotiva. There seems to be a definate disconnect here. Traditional independent or chain dealers who carry some of the products you always review (they CAN carry just so much) get all the play. Despite it's loyal advertising in Home Theater, Emotiva continues to be ignored.
Come on Rob! Until you finally assign one of Emotiva's product to a reviewer & put that review in the magazine (not just on-line), no article such as we have here will cut it.

Rob Sabin's picture
We are acquiring a sample of the new budget prepro, the UMC-200, and will be mating it with their more affordable amps. We have also just completed a review of the new Sherbourn prepro and matching amp. Please note: lack of Emotiva reviews to date has not been for lack of trying! Every time we've asked for something, we were told something newer was coming out and they were more interested in waiting for the new units in development. And then, if those models get delayed... etc. So to date we've only done their latest gen speakers. http://www.hometheater.com/content/emotiva-x-ref-xrc-52-speaker-system

But the electronics are coming now...I promise!

cavchameleon's picture

Thanks for the nice review! I've tried many amps in the past. I'm very happy with my XPA-3 and XPA-2. For the price, I think Emotiva gear is extremely hard to beat. They also have great customer service, at least from what I have experienced.

Mike McLachlan's picture

in this article of Emotiva's XMC-1 pre-pro, awaited by the Emo faithful for 4 years. Given the checkered history of its forerunner, the UMC-1, Mr. Laufmann's reticence is understandable. Depending on whom one asks, Emotiva's handling of the UMC-1 problems are either laudable or woefully negligent.

Still, problems with bringing a complicated piece of equipment like a SOTA pre-pro to market should not overshadow the quality, success, and genuine value of their amps and pre-amps. And unlike their erstwhile competitor, Outlaw who has had its own share of misery in bringing a next generation pre-pro to market, Emotiva appears to have real breadth and depth in it product lines to sustain continued R&D.

Companies like Marantz and Integra continue to advance the goal line for the next generation pre-pro so it remains to be seen, for me anyway, whether the XMC-1, should it ever appear, will have been worth the wait. In the meantime, I am giving very serious consideration to trying the XPR-5 five-channel amp in my own system.

Maggie1.7's's picture

It's highly recommended to have 12/2 Romex with a 20amp receptacle to power "The XPR-5 Monster". Just a heads up. I'm going with the XPA-2 & 3 for my 5.1. Let us know how it sounds if you get it.

mdanderson's picture

I am an Emotiva owner of the UMC-200 and XPA-5 amp and I have been very statisfied with the outstanding performance of these quality components. I can attest to Emotiva's customer service which is excellent and I look forward to your future reviews of their products.
Thank you Rob for this article and getting to know Emotiva closeup.

choirboyjw's picture

I have wanted Mcintosh since the 90's. Now that I can afford it, I'm ready to make the jump. However, how can I justify purchasing a $5k processor and $7.5k amp when I can get the same from Emotiva for $2100 (which is probably what I paid for the SAE equipment I purchased in the 80's). I want you guys to review the product. I need you guys to review the product. But for some strange reason, I think you guys won't. Call me a conspiracy theorist but until you prove me looney.......

David Vaughn's picture
I have the UMC-200 in for review right now. Just unboxed it today and have installed it. So no conspiracy theories needed :)
BrolicBeast's picture

I am a long-time Emotiva fan and owner. I am currently awaiting delivery of a very high-end set of speakers. As I have been researching an amplifier to go with these speakers, I realized--why leave a company that makes the product I currently own and love (XPA-5)? I'll be pulling the trigger on three XPR-1 Monoblocks next week. My point is, even when higher-end products are an option, there are folks like myself who are pleased enough with their Emotiva products to buy MORE Emotiva products.

Maggie1.7's's picture

I saw your arsenal on Youtube. Beautiful clean setup. I'm looking forward to start building mine.

golfer77's picture

Give Emotiva a try, they give you 30 days to return their
products, so you have nothing to lose!! And a ton of $
to save!!

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