Features

Austin-Based Brane Audio Is Changing the Laws of Physics in Speaker Tech

All about that bass


The little speaker that could: Brane's Repel-Attract Driver (RAD) (Courtesy of Brane Audio)

In the foyer, more or less, of a small, generic office in an even more generic North-Central Austin office park, I am listening to something that should not exist.

“First, I’m not playing these because they are my favorite songs or anything,” says Joe Pinkerton, holding a phone Bluetooth-connected to a small portable speaker sitting on a table. Pinkerton is the CEO of Brane Audio, an Austin-based “sound technology” company that, in the grand tradition of Austin doing Extremely Cool Shit, seems to have produced subwoofer sound in a portable speaker. No, really.

Pinkerton hits his phone. “God Is a Woman” by Ariana Grande starts to play.

And the bass kicks in. And I feel it in my chest.

You know the sensation. When a song hits that low note, something shifts. It’s the drop in the club. It’s the thump from a car.

And it shouldn’t be happening from a portable speaker.

And yet, here we are.

Pinkerton stops the song and starts playing it from another portable speaker, this time from a popular, internationally recognized brand. The sound is much, MUCH quieter.

Parts of the song are actually missing. “They’ve got two stereo channels that they’re mushing into one and they’re out of phase on that part,” Pinkerton says. He moves the song back to the original speaker. It pops to life.

Joe Pinkerton and his team of engineers seem to have solved a problem that has plagued audio for years: How do you get subwoofer audio in a portable speaker?

Behold: the Brane X, which will be getting its Austin debut during SXSW.

The Brane X might very well be a new thing in the world, a portable speaker that includes an actual subwoofer, producing a great deal more deep bass than other speakers in its class and size.

Here is why this is a Big Deal: There has been massive innovation in audio over the past century, but the basic audio driver has stayed the same. Like, literally the same since the 1920s.

Brane audio has developed what they call a Repel-Attract Driver (RAD). It weighs under 8 pounds, has an 8-inch subwoofer, and uses permanent magnet forces to cancel internal air pressure forces. Basically, it allows the Brane to produce much deeper bass sounds than a regular small speaker.

“We replace a lot of that voice coil with these little specialty permanent magnets,” Pinkerton says. Those permanent magnets interact with some stationary magnets to perfectly cancel that compression force.

With Pinkerton is Dave Badger, a manufacturing engineer with Brane. He’s been working with Pinkerton since 1997, back when Pinkerton was working on a novel magnetic bearing technology, then clean energy systems for backup power with a company called Active Power. That company went public in 2000, and Pinkerton left AP to found Clean Energy Labs in 2007. “We started working with graphene,” Pinkerton says, a carbon substance that is one atom thick. “The strongest material in the world and the most electrically conductive and thermally conductive.”


Joe Pinkerton and Dave Badger of Brane Audio (Courtesy of Brane Audio)

As the engineers were trying to make graphene membrane switches, they noticed the switches were making sound and started Brane (short for "membrane") Audio to try to make speakers. “We spent about four years working on electrostatic membrane-based technology,” Badger says, something called a Submillimeter Electrostatic Membrane Array (SEMA). “It was a cool little tech that we integrated into a speaker,” Pinkerton says. They decided to make the tech’s public debut at SXSW 2020.

Whoops.

Pinkerton can laugh about it now, not so much then. “I had just wired the money. I mean, I just wired it, and about four hours later, it was canceled.”

Then everything shut down.

At that point, Pinkerton had been thinking about the magnetic cancellation idea for about six months but didn’t want to rush it; after all, the SEMA tech was its own innovation. Like everyone else, the guys at Brane suddenly had a lot of time on their hands. So they started exploring, spending months and months and months just making hundreds of little prototypes and spending the next few years, as Pinkerton puts it, “refining the hell out of this.”

The Brane X breaks something called Hofmann’s Iron Law, a rule that has dominated speaker design for decades. The idea is that in order to produce deep bass, a speaker must either be large or draw a tremendous amount of electrical power. The Brane X breaks that law, producing deep bass without increasing size or power consumption. It doesn’t draw unreasonable power. It is not large. Yet, it moves air.

Now, there are two types of folks who think about audio: Audiophiles and Normal People.

Audiophiles keep up with all the changes. They think about the thickness of cords and the size of speakers and changing out phonograph cartridges and the quality of CD players and owning a working cassette deck. This is Austin, so you know at least one of these people. They also might very well disdain uncorded audio.

Normal People don’t care about any of that, as proved through the rise and rise of the MP3, streaming, and “good enough” sound.

This speaker is the sort of device that can get Audiophiles and Normal People on the same page. It sounds terrific no matter what codec is being used in a portable speaker.

Pinkerton hesitates a bit when audiophilia comes up – he wants the Brane to be the sort of thing that’s for everyone. After all, bass is contemporary music, from hip-hop to dance music to, well, Ariana Grande.

“My 23-year-old daughter came home and she hadn’t heard this,” Pinkerton says, gesturing to the Brane. “And it was cute. She put on certain songs and she was just amazed. And she sat and listened for a solid hour. It was clear that she was hearing notes that she had never heard before. And those are her notes.”


Brane Audio at SXSW


Brane Audio Lounge

Sun 12-Wed 15, 10am-5pm, Fairmont, Elm Room

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
South by Southwest Film & TV Festival Announces Audience Awards
South by Southwest Film & TV Festival Announces Audience Awards
Audience and jury love Bob Trevino Likes It

Richard Whittaker, March 18, 2024

SXSW Adds Ho99o9, Kikuo, Sofia Kourtesis to 2024 Music Lineup
SXSW Adds Ho99o9, Kikuo, Sofia Kourtesis to 2024 Music Lineup
243 artists make up the festival’s second artist announcement

Carys Anderson, Dec. 6, 2023

More by Joe Gross
SXSW Film Review: Dory Previn: On My Way To Where
SXSW Film Review: Dory Previn: On My Way To Where
A songwriter like no other gets an intriguing portrait

March 12, 2024

SXSW Film Review: Grand Theft Hamlet
SXSW Film Review: Grand Theft Hamlet
“To be or not to be” in a virtual reality mid-pandemic? Fantastic.

March 11, 2024

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW 2023, Brane Audio, Joe Pinkerton, Dave Badger

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle