FORTUNE Small Business

The ultimate home audio system?

A New York tech startup swings for the fences.


(FSB Online) -- Here's an idea that probably wouldn't go far at your average start-up pitch meeting: Create a proprietary, digital home audio system. Build it from scratch using the best available computer and audio components. Create an interface never seen before. Brand it, again from scratch.

Oh, and one more thing: charge a fortune.

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Last August a New York-based small business called Sooloos started shipping - not showing, but actually shipping - the Sooloos, a custom designed and built, ultra-high-end, digital music system that starts at $12,900. But if you buy one, chances are good you'll spend $15,000 or more for the system you really want. That doesn't include speakers, amplifiers and other indispensable items (throw in another $10,000 minimum for that stuff).

The germ for Sooloos (the name is both palindromic and "ambidromic" - the same back and forth and upside down) was created in 2004 when Sooloos CEO, Enno Vandermeer, a successful Web programmer and engineer, began working with friends who wanted to digitize their collections of 2,000 to 5,000 CDs.

"We quickly found that if we wanted our audio to stay uncompressed, and there were 10,000 records, there was no way to listen to them," says Vandermeer, 36. Existing digital audio could not store the uncompressed music files he insisted on for highest-quality audio. Standard hard drives weren't fast, large or quiet enough.

Components found in most computers, PC and Macs, produced simply awful sound. There were noisy fans to manage. And the music information - track names and such - was difficult to organize and access on such a scale.

To get from idea to business, Vandermeer survived two years of boot-strapped, internally financed R&D - he says a low seven figures has been invested to date. He divided his attention between American and Asian designers and manufacturers and built a prototype: a fanless, diskless, purpose-built audio computer groomed for best-of-breed sound that could sit elegantly into any decor.

And once he saw what he had done, Vandermeer decided to go strictly high-end. "We saw that we could only realistically ship a few hundred units in our first year," he says. "And to get past our hard expenses we had to keep margins very high."

So while there is a chance that Sooloos could find a wider market - the interface could be licensed, for example - Vandermeer decided to target the super high-end, custom audio installer market. Reaching the industry's biggest spenders meant inventing a multi-room feature that can send different feeds to different rooms in a home or office - a must for high cost, custom-installed systems.

I stopped in at Sooloos' New York City showroom to see what Enno was up to. And right away I could sense the appeal. The unit features an elegant, light gray metallic finish and stacks like many better audio components. There are no moving parts, just a 17-inch touch screen, also done in light gray.

Actual album-cover imagery - not text like in an iPod - is the backbone of the interface. I simply browsed the music stored by touching the album images, not unlike the experience of browsing an old-fashioned jukebox or even a record store. I intuitively panned right or left through the collection. It was as if I had magical control over the records.

When I arrived at Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," there was the master himself playing his trumpet on the cover. I touched that cover, and, voila, up came the tracks and then the music in all its uncompressed glory.

To my ears, the sound quality was extraordinary for a digital player but nowhere close to master analog vinyls. Granted I'm a vinyl snob, and I should note that other hardcore audiophiles have embraced Sooloos.

"I believe in what they are doing, says Jeff Joseph, president of Joseph Audio, a manufacturer of premium speakers in Melville, N.Y. "Sooloos has found a way for anybody to find their way through their music without giving up a bit of quality. Not even Apple does that." Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.