Noah Kaplan is a commissioned artist, woodworker and business owner. He admits that he can’t paint a picture without a piece of music playing, so it makes sense that the successful entrepreneur would be the driving force behind arguably one of the coolest companies in the U.S., Leon Speakers.
In fact, Leon Speakers are used by a host of celebrities including New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, who shared an image on his Facebook page highlighting his custom Horizon Series Soundbar.
It illustrates how far the company has come since its inception. Kaplan started Leon Speakers in 1995, after graduating from the University of Michigan. With $600 borrowed from his father, the 21 year old rented 1,000-square-feet of space in an Ann Arbor basement.
“I was an artist and a woodworker. My vision was to mix art with audio and design with technology,” says Kaplan, founder and president. “Speakers at that time were often made of plastic. They were black boxes hanging on a wall. We thought we could combine a good look with good sound.
“We wanted to raise the bar,” Kaplan adds, and 20 years later the company continues to do just that.
Headquartered in Ann Arbor, Leon Speakers occupies a 40,000-square-foot facility and employs 45 people, including 25 custom fabricators at its Michigan office and four at Media Décor, an operation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which it acquired two years ago. “The rest of the staff is comprised of design engineers and electrical engineers. We are a true custom shop,” Kaplan notes.
Leon Speakers and Media Décor manufacture speakers and audiovisual treatments for both residential and commercial spaces, which are sold nationwide as well as internationally, including: China, New Zealand, Portugal, Great Britain and France. Products include the Leon ToneCase Hardwood Cabinets for Sonos, which lets customers “personalize your design as easily as you customize your playlists. It is one of our highest sellers,” said Kaplan.
The Timber Series is a full range of bookshelf or desktop speakers, available in solid hardwood and finished to match any color. Also offered is media decor, such as Edge Media Frames which conceal TVs and speakers and Moving Art Screens, which conceal TVs up to 100 inches wide with high quality prints.
A variety of materials are used to create the custom media products. “We use a lot of wood in our case goods—white oak, walnut, exotics, and MDF and HDF, all tailored to a customer’s specifications,” Kaplan says. “We hand select the wood from Armstrong Millworks, a gem of a wood store that is top notch.”
Equipment at the Ann Arbor shop has evolved over the years, from a standard table saw to now include CNC routers, a sliding table saw, double miter saw and a joiner.
Also integral is TigerStop’s precision cutting automation. “I love how it operates. It allows you to automate almost any machine or table saw,” Kaplan says.
“It was a big help in letting us do more customization,” he adds. “With the TigerStop you can type in what you need instead of having to manually adjust. It saves time and it takes some of the guesswork out of fabricating. We estimate that with some jobs, the TigerStop saves as much as one hour and 25 minutes per employee a day.”
Kaplan says they also are looking to purchase a TigerStop for the Florida operation. “The beauty of it is that it saves time.”
In addition to faster setup and production, the TigerStop also provides a big step “toward lean manufacturing and a huge savings all around,” by reducing material waste and rework; among the benefits of TigerStop is that it is 100 percent accurate, with a repeatability of 0.004 inch.
The productivity and flexibility are integral to the company as it continues to grow. “We are interested in doing more 3-D design of products,” Kaplan says. “We are continuing to look for what we can ‘conceal’ next — who knows, it could be a refrigerator. But at our core, we are all about art, audio, design and technology.”
Factory tours provide a firsthand look at Leon Speakers. “We want people to be able to see the design process and we want them to hear our products,” Kaplan says.
The company also hosts national and international touring musicians in the “Leon Loft” — a dedicated performance space above the shop — in conjunction with the Acoustic Café. “It’s another way to showcase Leon Speakers but it’s also a lot of fun,” he says.
It also supports the firm’s mission: “As complex as our world may seem, we promise to bring the music to more people and more spaces, and always do it with style.”
Watch Noah Kaplan's presentation: Transformation, Realignment and the Dream of the Dragon — TEDxDetroit 2012