Okay, so I finally caught up with Paul McGowan, but it wasn’t easy. I cornered him in a room, and with a light shining on him border guard-like, I grilled him about stuff I was dying to know about him and PS Audio.
Okay, that’s not quite accurate. Truth is, Paul was at his home in Colorado, bathed in sunlight shining in from his office window, while we were conducting a Zoom interview together. And he was exactly like the person I see in his videos—charming, smart, soft spoken, inspiring, and open, so no grilling was necessary.
I started off by asking Paul about the trickledown comment he’d made in one of his videos, in which he spoke about his company’s intention to make smaller, more affordable versions of the FR30.
“Yeah, that plan changed,” he said, sounding a little dejected. “The original vision was to bring out a whole line. You know, a 30, a 20, a 10, just fewer drivers, smaller boxes, down the line. But then we realized that the price of $28,000 for the FR30s is a little too low to be able to do that.
“At one point, (FR30 designer) Chris panicked. He said there was no way we could take this technology and that box (referring to the FR30) and shrink it. Because the drivers aren’t that expensive where we can just cut $10,000 or $20,000 out of the FR30’s price and have it work. So what we’re now thinking of doing, and what I’m hoping we can do, is bring out one model for around $US 20-21,000 and another for as low as $US 15-16,000. And then maybe have two models above the FR30.
“But the mission of the company is still the same. I’m passionate about having stuff that people can afford, so the backup plan, which emerged recently, is to create a Stellar speaker line, Stellar being our step down from the PerfectWave series.”
I knew Paul was an avid skier (“I was more avid before”, he said). I asked if that had anything to do with his speaker being called the aspen FR30. “No, that was totally coincidental. We had searched hundreds of names. Then, (PS Audio Director of Marketing) Jim Heekin said ‘let’s make it Colorado. Let’s make it into something that’s us, that we can own’.”
The aspen isn’t Paul’s first venture into speaker making. In the ‘90s, he and Arnie Nudel formed speaker manufacturer Genesis. Seven years later, Paul returned to PS Audio to concentrate only on electronics. Was his experience with Genesis negative? “No,” he said. “When we started over with PS Audio, the company was in disarray. We bought it back for a dollar and wanted to start from scratch. So, I went back to what I knew and designed the Power Plant and built up the electronics. But in the back of our head was always ‘one day we want to do speakers. And one day we’re going to have a recording studio. We’re going to make the records, the speakers, and everything in between’. So, we’re finally there. We have a studio and our own record label called Octave Records, and we’re releasing two albums a month in DSD.”
Are headphones also in the cards? “Oh, yes. My son, Scott, has the Sprout line, which right now includes an integrated amp. He wants to launch headphones, a separate set of speakers that Chris will design, and a turntable. We want to expand the Sprout line as our entry level.”
For reasons to do with health and ethics, Paul is a vegetarian and has been for 40 years. I asked if his vegetarianism somehow influenced his approach to how he runs his company. “I don’t think so,” he said, before pausing reflectively and adding: “Well, maybe, in a sort of pretzel logic. Part of the reason (Paul’s wife) Terri and I became die-hard vegetarians is because we’ve always believed that it’s kind of hypocritical to have somebody else go out and kill the animal. If I’m not willing to whack a deer over the head and cut it up myself, I won’t eat it. And with audio, if it’s not something I would take home, that I would be proud to own and crank up myself, I don’t want to produce it.”
What was the hardest thing to get right in the design of the F30? Paul didn’t hesitate: “The aesthetics. We went through four versions. It’s so hard because it’s furniture. After the third version, I went to (GoldenEar’s) Sandy Gross, who’s a dear and lifelong friend, and he said, ‘call my Buddy Miles at (Canadian industrial design firm) Studio 63’. And that’s what we did.”
In Paul’s bio on his LinkedIn page (“I’ve never been on LinkedIn in my life”, he told me), a couple of the things stood out. First, that he is, purportedly, passionate about communicating and marketing. Regarding the latter, best-selling author, marketing guru, and popular podcaster, Seth Godin, is listed as a “hero”. Turns out it’s all true, and I asked Paul if the way he communicates with people in his videos was something he learned from Seth.
“Seth and I have been friends for years. He wrote a book in which he describes his philosophy of permission-based marketing. There’s intrusive marketing and there’s permission-based marketing. Intrusive marketing is when you’re watching a TV show, and suddenly it breaks and now they’re going to try to sell you beer. Permission-based marketing is about coming up with something you offer people that they want to hear about, and they invite you into their homes to hear it, and they gave you permission to market them. And that has always been my approach.
“About eight years ago, Seth said to me, ‘You need to write a daily blog. Nobody’s blogging about audio. Just start blogging every day’. Which was terrifying, because I came up with about 30 things I could write about, then ran out. But Seth talked me through it, and that started to build an audience. And a couple of years back, Seth said, ‘Time for you to start doing videos’, and I said, ‘Okay.’ And then my son suggested a ‘send-me-a-question-and-I’ll-answer-it’ format. And now there’s 180,000 followers.”
You’re famous, I told him. “Yeah, well, it makes me smile,” Paul said. “Because I started with just one person—my first subscriber. It’s really about coming out with daily content that people want to watch where you’re not pitching them on something. You’re just sharing with them.
“But Seth didn’t teach me anything about how to present. I think I’m just a natural ham. Plus, I spent years in radio. And when you’re in radio and it’s just you and the microphone, you learn quickly how to speak to a fantasy person.”
Also mentioned in the LinkedIn bio is the fact that Paul is a self-taught electronics engineer, with no formal education in the field. Was it true? And if so, was school not for him? “School and I never got along,” said Paul. “I graduated high school in ’66. I had every intention of becoming a big-time disc jockey and a small-time photographer. And I went to school so I wouldn’t get drafted into the Vietnam war. But school bored me to death. At some point, I thought, ‘this isn’t working so well’, so my friend and I hopped in my ’55 Chevy, packed all our crap, stole my mother’s credit card, and we drove to Canada. We were going to be defectors.
“And we got to the Canadian border, and the Canadians looked at us, two 18-year-old boys with all their crap in a ’55 Chevy with no hood, and they’re like, ‘Why are you coming to Canada?’. We said, ‘Uh, our friend lives up there in Vancouver and we’re going to go see him.’ They pulled us over and demanded that we each have $50 in cash, which was enough to get a bus ticket home just in case, but we didn’t have a nickel. So they turned us around and sent us packing. And I got drafted.
“I wrote a whole book about it, called 99% True. It’s basically a memoir. It has all my crazy stories in it.”
Considering where Paul is now, it’s hard not to think that it all happened for the best.