How fast things can change!
This application note will be a departure from normal. I will make a few observations about the current situation and then look at the nuts and bolts of how we reconstructed our operations in less than 48 hours. Benchmark is 100% operational, but nothing looks the same as it did last week.
It is March 23, 2020 and we are currently battling the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. It has found its way to New York State and our State and Federal governments have declared a state of emergency. New York State has been declared a federal disaster area and our Governor has ordered that most businesses send their entire staff home. This seems to be a serious situation and things are changing quickly. Life is anything but normal!
Like everyone else at Benchmark, this is my first day in my new home office. In less than 48 hours, Benchmark has transitioned from a traditional work environment to one where our entire office staff works from home. We are connected by computer networks, video conferencing, email, messaging and VOIP telephones. Most of us even have our Benchmark audio components set up so that we can listen to music and conduct collaborative sessions without struggling with poor audio. In the short term, our new offices are the new normal.
In our headquarters, I could look through my office windows and see most of the other offices and a portion of the manufacturing floor. Now I am looking out my windows overlooking the snow-covered fields on our farm.
As I look around our community, restaurants, schools and churches are all closed but the liquor stores are open. It turns out that liquor stores are classified as "essential businesses". Who knew?
In New York State, day care centers and public transportation have also been classified as "essential". Nevertheless I don't think I would want to be in either of those places! When asked about the reasons for keeping public transportation open, Governor Cuomo replied "people need a way to get to the hospital". Wow! Stay well and stay off of the trains and buses!
The grocery stores are open and are doing record business. It is a good time to be in the grocery business. They are having a hard time restocking quickly enough to meet the record demand. Some items are hard to find. Who would have guessed that the hottest item would be toilet paper? There are definitely some people who will not need to buy any toilet paper for the next few years! The bright side is that some of the people who were laid off by restaurants are being hired by the grocery stores. Every crisis has winners and losers.
As we look around the world China claims they are returning to "normal", Singapore seems to have escaped the worst, but Italy is deep in the middle of a very serious crisis. Will the USA be the next Singapore or the next Italy? Time will tell. Things are not good in New York City, but we are doing well here in the rural areas of the state.
Most members of the medical community are taking a very cautious approach and are warning that this is very serious. A minority are saying that this is no worse than a bad flu and that we are victims of incomplete statistics. Again, time will tell.
It is clear that we need to find the proper balance between over reacting and failing to react. We seem to be faced with a difficult choice between two bad options. If we over react we may kill the economy but live to tell about it. On the other hand, if we fail to react, we will die and the economy won't matter.
As an engineer I try not to choose the lesser of two evils. If all of the choices are bad, I keep looking for a solution. More often than not, we can find a solution that makes us stronger, better, and more resilient.
Stop asking yourself how you will survive!
Ask yourself how this crisis will make you better.
To do this, ask yourself the following questions:
1) How can this crisis make my company stronger?
2) How can this crisis make me a more productive employee?
3) What do we need to stop doing?
4) What do we need to start doing?
For Benchmark these questions are answered as follows:
1) We will be fully functional without the use of our main offices. This means that our computers, telephones, networks, desks, chairs and coffee cups exist in both places. We have full redundancy and both sets of offices are equally equipped. Nothing has to move other than the people. We can step back into our main offices and be ready to work. The key is to be able to step in or step out without setup time. Earlier this year we eliminated set-up tasks from our production line. Each work station is fully equipped and fully stocked for a specific task. Anyone can sit down and begin the task immediately. We are now applying this principle to our offices.
2) When we walk into our home offices we will approach them with the same level of professionalism that we have in the main office. We will stay focused on work and then step out of the room and go home at the end of the day. Our salaried employees clock in and out of our time clock system to encourage this separation between work and family. It also lets us see which co-workers are working. Work hard, keep regular hours, and then leave work and go home! Don't try to do both at the same time.
3) We will not do things just because we have always done them. We will adapt and find new ways of accomplishing daily tasks.
4) We will pick the most efficient communication method for the task at hand. This may be a simple phone call or it may be a video conference with screen sharing. Keep communication quick and simple. Don't get bogged down with a bunch of fancy tools when a quick phone call would have sufficed. Know how to use the fancy tools but only use them when they are required.
We cheated! We had a head start. This is essential. Give yourself an unfair advantage.
We had an entire set of duplicate VOIP telephones that were stored up as part of our disaster plan.
We had a few extra computers, monitors, desks and chairs. Last week we purchased what we didn't have. The new computers arrived on Friday and were deployed on Saturday.
By Saturday afternoon, most home offices were ready to go. All were ready by Sunday night.
In a few cases, we borrowed equipment from some offices. This is being replaced so that the home offices can stay intact when this is all over or partially over.
It is important to remember that the equipment is much cheaper than your time. Don't be afraid to replicate everything. Full redundancy is the way to go.
Here is a photo of Michael's home office:
We have redundant internet connections at the main office. These connections come from two different providers and enter opposite ends of the building from two different streets. We use redundant fail-over firewalls, switches, and servers. We have on-site and off-site backups of every computer on the network (not just the servers). Even the off-site computers are backed up daily. The goal is to minimize down time and maximize our resiliency to withstand the unexpected.
Our VOIP phones can be plugged into the internet almost anywhere in the world and they act as if we are in our main office. We can see who is on the line and we have all of the exact features that we have when we are in the main office. Our phones ring both places at the same time.
Several of us have iPads on our desks that show all of our security cameras. This keeps the remote workers in touch with what is happening in the main office.
An internet connected doorbell, electronic lock and intercom system allows us to accept deliveries without being at the office.
We all have headphones in our home offices so that we can have collaborative sessions without the usual echo and feedback problems. Headphones are essential. They can also provide some isolation from noise and distractions.
Most of us have Benchmark DAC3 D/A converters connected to our computers. These provide top-quality output to our HPA4 headphone amplifiers and AHB2 power amplifiers. These Benchmark components are everyone's favorite part of our home offices. I am streaming music from Tidal using a Roon server. We are not just surviving!
It is now time to quit for the day. I am hitting the time clock and walking out of my home office for the day. It is a very short commute, one stairway and about 10 steps. I am going home to spend some time with my family and I won't be back until tomorrow morning.
Stay safe and don't just survive. Figure out how to be a winner not just a survivor!
Secrets contributor Sumit Chawla recently caught up with Benchmark’s VP and Chief Designer, John Siau to get a little more in-depth on several subjects.
Q: "Benchmark is one of the few companies that publishes an extensive set of measurements, but you also balance that with subjective testing. Can you talk about the equipment, the listening room, and the process for subjective testing?"
Q: "Was there ever a time where you learned something from a subjective test that was not captured by measurements?"
Q: "You conducted some listening tests to determine whether distortion in the “First Watt” was audible. What test material did you use for this, and what did you find?"
Q: "The AHB2 amplifier incorporates THX Audio Achromatic Amplifier technology. When and how did the partnership with THX come about?"
Q: "Linear power supplies have been and remain quite popular in high-end devices. You favor switch-mode power supplies. When and why did you make this switch?"
... and more!
At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. When all of the measurements show that a product is working flawlessly, we spend time listening for issues that may not have shown up on the test station. If we hear something, we go back and figure out how to measure what we heard. We then add this test to our arsenal of measurements.
Benchmark's listening room is equipped with a variety of signal sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers, including the selection of nearfield monitors shown in the photo. It is also equipped with ABX switch boxes that can be used to switch sources while the music is playing.
Benchmark's lab is equipped with Audio Precision test stations that include the top-of-the-line APx555 and the older AP2722 and AP2522. We don't just use these test stations for R&D - every product must pass a full set of tests on one of our Audio Precision test stations before it ships from our factory in Syracuse, NY.
Paul Seydor of The Absolute Sound interviews John Siau, VP and chief designer at Benchmark Media Systems. The interview accompanies Paul's review of the LA4 in the December, 2020 issue of TAS.
"At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. But since listening tests are never perfect, it’s essential we develop measurements for each artifact we identify in a listening test. An APx555 test set has far more resolution than human hearing, but it has no intelligence. We have to tell it exactly what to measure and how to measure it. When we hear something we cannot measure, we are not doing the right measurements. If we just listen, redesign, then repeat, we may arrive at a solution that just masks the artifact with another less-objectionable artifact. But if we focus on eliminating every artifact that we can measure, we can quickly converge on a solution that approaches sonic transparency. If we can measure an artifact, we don't try to determine if it’s low enough to be inaudible, we simply try to eliminate it."
- John Siau