How Origin Is Making Beautiful Music with Amazon

15 Minutes with Origin Acoustics CEO Jeremy Burkhardt

Spend a few minutes on Jeremy Burkhardt’s LinkedIn page and you quickly gain an appreciation of his passion for custom installation and desire to create products that simplify installation and push the boundaries of performance — to “innovate,” as he would say. You also find an executive who is anything but your typical corporate CEO — a man who talks about breaking “all the corporate rules” in describing his work history as CEO for SpeakerCraft, the pioneering custom-installation company he helped build before leaving in 2012. Today, Burkhardt is at the helm of Origin Acoustics, the architectural speaker company he founded in 2014, and his desire for innovation is as strong as ever. Origin was the talk of CEDIA 2017 with the launch of its Valet amplifier, which provides an ingenious way to integrate voice control into a whole-house music system. We caught up with Burkhardt to learn more about the system and get his take on the future of voice control.

S&V: Let’s start with a synopsis of Valet — the concept behind it, how it integrates with the Amazon Echo Dot voice-controlled device, and how it fits into a custom-installed “distributed audio” system.
Jeremy Burkhardt: Valet was created to provide a simple platform for integration with the Echo Dot providing voice-controlled distributed audio with a dramatic upgrade in sound quality from that found in the Dot itself. Having spent our entire careers perfecting architectural speakers, the team at Origin was excited to offer the power and performance our end-users have become accustomed to combined with the Dot’s technologies.

The concept is rather straightforward. The Dot connects with a standard Ethernet cable that powers the Dot and returns the audio signal to the amplifier. At that point, 50 watts of power is now available to drive speakers in the walls or ceiling of the remote room while controlling the zone through voice commands.

The system becomes even more appealing by mounting the Dot behind an in-ceiling speaker grille using our patented Tool-less mounting system. Now the Dot is essentially invisible and the experience mimics that of a Star Trek crew member walking into the room and verbally addressing the computer. The experience is further enhanced by the sonic quality that is transformed from that of a decent smartphone speaker to that of a quality pair of 6-, 8-, or 10-inch stereo speakers design for full frequency reproduction. Not only does this benefit the music quality but Alexa’s voice becomes so real you can easily imagine her sitting in the room.

The experience mimics that of a Star Trek crew member walking into the room and verbally addressing the computer.

S&V: How did you arrive at the decision to use the Echo Dot to provide voice control for the system?
JB: Voice control of the Dot is an amazing technology and offers a great user experience. Amazon’s commitment to the category is obvious and the technology is sufficiently advanced to make the system viable. The Dot’s inclusion of an audio output was necessary to feed the amplifier, and its form factor also allowed for integration into our mounting system.

S&V: How effective, or responsive, is the voice control when Dot is mounted in the ceiling? Are there limitations in terms of room size, etc.?
JB: A speaker grille is acoustically transparent by necessity so installing the Dot behind the grille is a perfect location for hiding it and keeping it accessible for voice recognition. Our tests have shown it to function at the same level as if the Dot were sitting on a counter top. The ability to access the system from a distance is dependent on the room’s acoustics and just how loud a person wants to bark commands.

S&V: Given the role the Echo Dot plays in a Valet-based music system, does Origin Acoustics have any formal relationship with Amazon? Coming at it from another angle, was it a coincidence that Amazon announced a new multi-room feature that lets you control and synchronize music across multiple Echo devices just a few days before CEDIA 2017 where you announced Valet?
JB: No, there is no formal agreement in place, however Amazon is very enthusiastic about the project and even went so far as to ask me to speak to the topic during their keynote address at a recent conference. The new multi-room announcement was a fortunate coincidence to be sure. We are certainly pleased about this development as it only enhances the Valet’s abilities.

S&V: I understand a couple patents related to the mechanics and operation of the Valet system are pending. Can you tell us a bit about the technologies covered in the patents — especially the mute feature? What makes them special?
JB: The muting circuit is a key element to making the Valet user friendly. When Alexa is addressed, the Echo Dot automatically mutes any audio program being generated by the Dot itself. However, we wanted the system to be able to access and amplify an external source as well. In this case, when Alexa receives a command, the amplifier automatically mutes the external source if it is in use, and unmutes it when the command is complete. This extends the voice control feature even further.

S&V: Mechanically speaking, what does it take to install the Valet system? And on the technical/operation side, can you talk about how the system supports external sources in addition to the streaming options you get through the Echo Dot?
JB: As I mentioned, external sources can also be amplified and muted through voice control. An example would be an input from a cable box attached to a dedicated TV in the room. While watching a movie with the sound coming from the speakers in the ceiling, Alexa could be asked the age of a particular actor in the film. The TV sound is muted while Alexa listens and responds and unmuted when she is finished.

There is also a 12-volt trigger for each zone that can be used to further enhance the system. For example, when connected to a control system, the trigger could activate a command to pause the TV in the room while Alexa responds and un-pause it when she is finished. The possibilities are substantial and easy to incorporate.

The physical installation requires running a CAT5 cable and speaker wire for each room, which is all that is needed to install the system. Installing the Dot behind a 5- or 6-inch grille is similar to installing one of our speakers, which is incredibly quick and easy. The balun that is attached to the end of the CAT5 cable, which is required to connect the Dot, is basically plug and play.

This will open the door to millions of people who never considered this as an option. You want music in the room? All you have to do is ask.

S&V: Is there a small-scale or DIY application for Valet?
JB: We see the Valet and the Echo Dot as a powerful solution for anyone and everyone who wants to enjoy music throughout the home. This could be someone looking for an affordable option they can install themselves or the billionaire looking to enhance his experience while visiting his villa in Tuscany. We believe this will open the door to millions of people who never considered this as an option. You want music in the room? All you have to do is ask.

S&V: How did the idea for the Valet system come about? Was there an aha moment?
JB: That moment was when we discovered a hole in the market that was limiting a consumer's ability to fully utilize the benefits of the amazing Amazon Dot. We filled that hole with a unique product that only Origin could provide. A product that put the Dot where a homeowner needs it and enhanced the audio performance to room filling proportions. Our entire purpose is to enhance the lives of those who use Origin products. Valet delivers on that commitment.

S&V: What role do you see voice control (and personal assistants such as Alexa and Siri) playing in AV/home entertainment and smart home automation moving forward? Is it a game-changer?
JB: Voice control is more than just a gimmick. Due to the incredible advancements in voice-recognition algorithms, devices are becoming more effective and the command and control more reliable. This is only going to improve as more people become comfortable with talking to their electronics. Since Amazon opened their system to third-party developers, the number of “skills” as they refer to them, has passed the 10,000 mark. Game changer? I would say the evidence is heavily indicating that is the case.

S&V: What’s next for Origin?
JB: We have just begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities represented by voice control. Additional components dedicated to future iterations of Alexa are already in development. But there is an entire universe of innovation and evolution related to this category that will be begging for products like Valet that are dedicated to expanding the experience. Origin will continue to be on the forefront of that effort.