Cheap Echo Dot Meets Premium Multiroom Audio: The Genius of Origin Acoustics’ Valet Amp
Debuting at CEDIA 2017, Valet Amp from Origin Acoustics delivers premium whole-house audio, Alexa voice control, and a host of Amazon services with about $200 worth of Echo Dots.
More about Origin Acoustics
Origin Acoustics Company Info
Origin Acoustics’ new Valet audio amplifier, debuting at CEDIA 2017, is all kinds of WOW. It takes a bunch of cheap Amazon Echo Dots and turns them into elegant sources for a premium whole-house music experience. The solution is unique. There’s nothing like it … today.
If you think about melding a $50 Dot with a high-performance sound system, it seems a little absurd; however, Origin founder and CEO Jeremy Burkhardt says the Dot’s role in the whole set-up is pretty simple: “We’re using it as a mic and an Internet device.”
And when he says “we,” he means long-time integrator Joe Whitaker, who co-developed the system with Burkhardt and team.
Makes sense since Whitaker’s Dallas and St. Louis-based company The Thoughtful Home does higher-end projects but “always incorporates technologies that clients already love,” he says. “First it was iPods in the early days, and now Sonos and Echo today.”
Meanwhile, Origin Acoustics makes great loudspeakers and audio amplifiers for professional home-technology installers. Typically, the installer connects these products to specialty music streamers, and maybe adds voice control as an afterthought.
It’s not always an elegant integration, but that’s beside the point. The point is that no one’s heard of Origin or the premium streamers that smart-home pros typically specify. Oh, and the customer has to be trained on them because they're stuck in their old ways, just asking Alexa for whatever the need. So they get frustrated and tell the installer to “just give me something that works like Alexa.”
Why not meld the familiarity and remarkable power of the $50 Dot with the luxurious audio experience provided by not-$50 components?
Enter the new Origin Acoustics Valet Amp, which does all of that and more.
Origin Acoustics Valet Amp: The Product
There’s an interesting business story behind this innovative system, but first … the product.
Like other amps, Valet takes in audio sources, and distributes the sound to regular loudspeakers via regular speaker wire.
The key difference is that the audio sources in this case are Echo Dots. And the Dots are mounted in the ceiling (optionally). And they only need one Cat 5 cable running to the amp.
In one direction, the cable feeds power to the Dot. In the other direction, the Dot delivers audio to the amp. At the Dot location, the Cat 5 plugs into a proprietary balun that breaks out into a USB connector for power in, and a headphone jack for audio out.
That’s not necessarily the magic of it, although the whole architecture is very clever from a business standpoint (below). Instead, two of Origin’s patent-pending technologies relate to the mechanics of the ceiling mount, while a third relates to a clever and very valuable muting feature. We’ll get to that.
On the mechanical side, one invention is a “toolless” mounting system developed for Origin speaker brackets – the so-called ziptie method.
The other is a harness (or “ring”) that sits on the bracket to hold a device in place – in this case a Dot – so it hovers flush with the wall. Top it off with a grille that snaps into place with magnets, and the Dot disappears into the wall like a little speaker.
This particular ring is built specifically for the Dot, but Whitaker says it’s cheap to swap it out for the next big thing in voice control … or anything that might take refuge in a ceiling, say, a wireless access point.
Whole-House Audio with Alexa
At this point, you have a four-source, four-zone audio system. You’ll hear both the music and Alexa’s silky voice through the connected speakers. Until yesterday, though, Valet would just be a point-to-point solution: One Dot associated with one set of speakers.
At about $1,500 retail, Valet is just an amplifier. It is not a matrix switch, where software would enable the system to distribute any source to any zone.
“It would have cost twice as much for that,” Whitaker says.
Origin was banking on the very thing Amazon announced yesterday: multiroom synchronization. Now users can send music anywhere, to and from any Alexa device. From the kitchen, you could ask Alexa to play NPR in the den. Devices (zones) can be grouped as well, so you could ask Alexa to blare the William Tell Overture in the “kids’ rooms.”
Clearly this Alexa feature was going to happen at some point. It’s just that Origin was the first to “make a big bet on it,” Burkhardt says.
Now for just $200 more (four Dots), you can add voice control, streaming music services and whole-house audio to a high-quality amp. No need for a separate multiroom audio system, home-control system or media player. And of course, that $200 also gives you home automation and a host of other Alexa services.
So far, Valet could be fairly easy to replicate. But Origin has some really special sauce: a patent-pending muting system that automatically kills audio in a zone the second you say, “Alexa.”
But of course! Valet is powering the Echos, and each Echo is associated with a single zone, so just shunt the zone when it hears “Alexa.”
“Because we manage the power,” Burkhardt says, “we can reset each Dot individually.”
The Dot Business
Conceived by Whitaker and Burkhardt on a mountaintop after hours of philosophizing, Valet was never meant to be a “technology” play. It was a business venture – business for Origin dealers, that is.
Amazon has sold some 35 million Echo devices, including dozens to Whitaker himself, who uses them to entice new customers. How do home-technology professionals get in on that action?
In this business, integrators fret about inexpensive mass-market solutions that always promise to upend the custom-installing industry.
More on Joe Whitaker: Dealer Drops Amazon Echo on Doorsteps, Reaps Control4 Business
Today, the pundits (and many integrators themselves) predict doom for the industry. They predicted the same thing last year, and the year before and 20 years before that. And yet, we’re still here.
That day on the mountaintop, the two inventors “came to the conclusion that custom is more viable than ever,” Burkhardt says, “but the business models have to change.”
If the world wants Alexa, give ‘em Alexa. And then attach a few thousand dollars’ worth of fine products and labor on top of it.
In fact, that same thought occurred to Burkhardt about a dozen years ago when the SpeakerCraft CEO thought it would be a super-great idea to incorporate this new iPod thing into a good whole-house music system. The mere thought was an affront to the custom community which would never stoop that low. Well, the SpeakerCraft MODE did just fine, dealers made a whole lot of money around this inferior, no-margin device, and soon everyone was doing it.
Whitaker is downright giddy: “I’m going to sell a ton of these things.”
More Details: Valet Press Release, next page
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at email@example.com
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