Open source sound

PERTH -They say necessity is the mother of invention. Luck can also play a role.

When Tyler Chilton was a student in Fulton Montgomery Community College’s electrical technology program he wanted an amplifier for his headphone system, but he didn’t have much money for the kind of high-end, low sound distortion amplifier equipment he was looking for. He went to the Internet looking for solutions.

“I found a circuit online and I built one, using all the stuff I learned at FM,” he said.

Chilton said he found an open source amplifier circuit designed by an anonymous audio engineer who went by the Internet handle Northwest Audio Video Guy, or NwAvGuy for short.

“No one knows who he is. He’s just some kind of insanely good audio engineer and he just does this stuff for free,” he said.

Because the circuit design was open source, which means the design is not patented and anyone can use it to create a product, Chilton was free to sell it as well as make one for himself.

“It sounded good, looked good and me being a college kid, I needed some money. So I put one up on Ebay and i made some money,” he said. “So, I built another one and I sold one and every time I needed some money I’d do it, and I was working part-time at Pet Smart, but I was making more money selling the headphone amps, so I just quit there and after college I thought, I really don’t want to work for anyone else.”

Chilton said he was able to build his headphone amplifier, called the Objective2 for about $30 to $50. He discovered he could sell them online for between $225 and $300. Chilton said he realized he could start his own business producing American-made high-end amplifier and headphone products.

“There was another company selling these at the time and he basically had the whole market to himself. I didn’t like how he did his thing and we made some [aesthetic] modifications to make it look and sound a little better,” he said. “I kind of found my own little niche in the market and I kind of wedged my way in from there.”

When he graduated from FMCC in 2013 with an associate degree in Electrical Technology Chilton said he faced a choice.

“I was going to [transfer for a bachelors], but I decided to take a risk on the business instead. The worst case would have been if the business failed and then I’d just go back to college,” he said.

Operating first out of his parents house and then eventually from a rented location, Chilton created Mayflower Electronics. He said the name came from his grandmother telling him he had ancestors that came to America as passengers on the Mayflower.

Chilton said Mayflower Electronics grew each year and now sells 1,000 to 1,200 units from his website, www.mayflowerelectronics.com, and when combined with sales from his distributors in Australia, Canada, and Europe he sold about 1,700 total units in 2015, earning estimated revenues of $500,000.

He said he mostly sells his product to 18 to 26-year olds, often for use as part of a video game system. Another type of customer is often people who work in computers or engineers.

“That’s our main market, people who have money and have nice stuff and want something a little bit better than the average product,” he said. “With [my amplifier] there’s no distortion, you can crank up your music as loud as you want, all you’re going to do is damage your hearing in the long run, but it doesn’t distort; it doesn’t clip; it’s 100 percent neutral, clean audio. That’s why people buy my product.”

Retired FMCC professor Richard Prestopnik, who taught the Electrical & Computer Technology program Chilton graduated from said he’s impressed with Chilton’s entrepreneurial success.

“To actually find the market and have these kinds of sales is remarkable. I think you have to be a certain type of very motivated person and you have to have a passion for that product you want to build or that business you want to start,” he said. “Most of the students we saw the last few years that I [taught], people were coming in because of Global Foundaries, nanotechnology and the chip fab plants. We had people coming out of FMCC, out of our program, with $50,000 or higher starting salaries with full benefits after two years. That seemed to be the focus for most students. Tyler’s route was really unusual.”

Chinese competition

Using an open source design does come with some disadvantages, anyone can make your product. Chilton said last year he noticed a Chinese manufacturer was putting out a product claiming to as good as the Objective2, but he also noticed the manufacturer wasn’t following all of the rules of what is called the “Creative Commons License” the public copyright guidelines under which open source designs are used. Chilton said the creative commons license for the Objective2 prohibited any manufacturer from changing the circuit used to create the product. He said aesthetic changes, like the ones he made, adding aluminum knobs and a larger headphone jack, are allowed but the Chinese manufacturer was altering the circuit itself to produce a less expensive product.

“If they followed the rules the cost of making the amplifier would bring their costs up to the point where they would have to charge as much as we charge,” he said.

Normally the creator of the open source design would be the one to attempt to enforce the license, but Chilton said in 2012 Northwest Audio Video Guy stopped posting to the Internet and no one knows where he is.

“He went rogue. We don’t know what’s going on with him, so basically it was left open to myself and all of my competitors had to band together to stop this company because basically this Chinese company was taking this circuit and selling it for half what were,” he said. “We basically went to the supplier and said they can’t do this because it’s under the creative commons license.”

Chilton said the American manufacturers of the Objective2 were able to convince the parts supplier to stop selling parts to the Chinese company, but he knew he was going to need to change his business model.

“When this whole Chinese thing happened, it scared me to death because it could basically put me out of business. I have no other product besides the headphones that would keep me in business. So right there I said we need to design our own product,” he said.

Chilton said he will soon start producing a new amplifier designed using suggestions from his customers.