For a company that prides itself on its ability to make noise, Cerwin-Vega goes about its business quietly. The loudspeaker manufacturing firm tightly limits the number of dealers that sell its newest products, spends little on advertising and displays its name outside of its Arleta headquarters with nothing more than a piece of paper taped to a window.
The low-profile Cerwin-Vega takes, however, hasn't prevented its speakers from becoming well known to audio buffs who like their music at volumes that sometimes prompt sleepy neighbors to summon the police. One recent stereo guide described a Cerwin-Vega speaker as having "an awesome ability to shatter glass and break leases." Another review said a Cerwin-Vega speaker is "just the ticket for the 'let's-crank-it-up-until-our-ears-bleed crowd.' "
The 32-year-old company doesn't shy away from its eardrum-ringing reputation--"Loud Is Beautiful If It's Clean" is its corporate slogan. Customers have included high-decibel rock stars such as the Rolling Stones, who used Cerwin-Vega speakers five years ago during their last U. S. tour, and MCA, which developed with the company the "Sensurround" sound system that simulated the giant temblor in the 1974 movie "Earthquake."
Compact Disc Players Boosts Sales
Cerwin-Vega's business recently has boomed largely because of soaring sales of compact disc players. Industry executives expect more than one million of the players, which have been available to consumers for about three years, to be sold this year.
That's good news for Cerwin-Vega because many consumers upgrade their speakers after getting the players to take advantage of the wider range of sounds they offer.
Also helping Cerwin-Vega is the increasing dominance of the big electronics retailers that are its major customers, such chains as Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City, Brooklyn's Crazy Eddie and the City of Commerce-based Federated Group.
Competition among speaker manufacturers is tough, with about 400 brands vying for the home stereo buyer's dollar. Even so, executives at Cerwin-Vega, who plan to move the company and its 250 employees next month to a new building in Simi Valley, say sales doubled last year. The private, family-owned business declines to disclose its profits or revenue, but industry sources estimate sales at about $20 million.
Want to Maintain Quality
Company executives downplay Cerwin-Vega's growth, saying they don't want to expand too rapidly for fear that it might hurt the quality of their products. Said Roland MacBeth, director of sales and consumer products: "We simply don't want to be the largest loudspeaker manufacturer."
In fact, the company frequently limits the number of retailers that carry its speakers. For example, it will allow no more than 100 retailers nationwide to carry its newest models.
Cerwin-Vega tries to avoid retailers with financial problems, and has dodged the difficulties suffered by some of its counterparts that sold to Pacific Stereo, a chain that in May filed for bankruptcy court protection.
Cerwin-Vega also refuses to make speakers for sale under another company's name. It continues to do much of the work on its speakers by hand and has resisted moving its manufacturing operations overseas, as many competitors have, to cut costs.
Founder Was Aerospace Engineer
Company executives say their approach reflects the philosophy of founder Gene Czerwinski, a one-time aerospace engineer who loved big band music and was determined to reproduce it as realistically as possible.
Czerwinski founded the company in 1954 as Vega Associates. He soon added the "Cerwin," which is pronounced the same way the first part of his name is, so it can't be confused with another company named Vega.
Czerwinski, still the company's president, is involved in developing speakers. The business, however, now is run mainly by Marshall Buck, the chief acoustical engineer, and Czerwinski's daughter, Connie, who handles much of the administration.
The retail prices of Cerwin-Vega's equipment range from roughly $150 to $750 a speaker. Company engineers strive to make their speakers "efficient," meaning that they will play loudly with little distortion while using as little power from an amplifier as possible.
Still Use Aluminum Frames
To achieve that, Cerwin-Vega outfits its speakers with magnets larger than those used by most of its competitors. Most loudspeakers produce sounds with a vibrating paper cone manipulated by a magnetic field.
Cerwin-Vega is among the handful of speaker manufacturers that still make speaker frames with cast aluminum rather than the less expensive stamped steel. Company engineers say they prefer aluminium because steel drains a speaker's magnetic field.
The company's speakers generally draw good reviews from trade publications. The current issue of Consumer Reports calls one of Cerwin-Vega's medium-priced speakers, which goes for about $530, "much better than average" and gives it a high rating.
But the praise for Cerwin-Vega's speakers isn't universal. Rick Weisman, manager of the original equipment manufacturing division for Harman Manufacturing in Northridge, a unit of the company that makes JBL-brand speakers, said Cerwin-Vega's speakers are loud but, as a result, lack some "finesse and detail" in reproducing sound.
Cerwin-Vega spends little on anything that isn't related to designing, making and selling speakers. Executives cite the company building's worn carpet and lack of a prominent sign.
"A sign on our building won't make our speakers sound better," Buck said, although company executives say they probably will have one put up on the new Simi Valley facility.
Buck said the company was fortunate to have anticipated the advances in compact disc technology in the late 1970s. He said the company began working back then on speakers that worked well with the digital technology and thus prospered when sales of players took off.
Now, Buck said, Cerwin-Vega sees further opportunities in the merging of home video and audio systems. The recent introduction of stereo videocassette recorders and the increasing number of programs broadcast in stereo, he said, will encourage many people to build larger, more sophisticated home sound systems.