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Odesa physicist creates 110 dB acoustic system out of a coconut with a €14k price tag

31-year-old Maxim Chizhov lives in Odesa and works on creating a Ukrainian brand of premium acoustic systems based on coconuts with own mass production. One such system costs more than ten thousand euros, which, according to the inventor, is a low price for such features.

Maxim holds a Master’s Degree in Theoretical Physics. He has devoted his entire life to acoustics. He has more than 20 patents in the U.S., Europe, and Ukraine for technologies that formed the basis of his acoustic systems.

In his interview with AIN.UA the inventor talked about his extraordinary Copra acoustic system, how to extract sound from the air, what is the beauty of a coconut shell in terms of acoustics, and why the school of theoretical physics in Ukraine is dying.

Presentation at Masterskaya audio space, Kyiv

Tell us how it all began

In fact, the project is already 15 years old. I had the idea back when I was at school. Remember, during physics class, we used to conduct an experiment – rubbing an ebonite rod with wool, and then it begins to attract pieces of paper. So, while browsing the Great Soviet Encyclopedia again, I stumbled upon an article about ion technology, and I thought, if the air is first ionized and then subjected to an electric field, then you can make it oscillate, i.e. generate sound.

I made the first prototype out of a kinescope TV, network adapter, a stereo system, and several tools that came handy. It was then when I made up my mind about studying physics. Interestingly, that same year, while walking in a department store, I came across a coconut – I was immediately very impressed with its unusual properties – it is incredibly hard and light. At home, I opened it carefully, installed the speaker and heard a magnificent sound.

I put aside both projects for some time because I had to work. I used to assemble traditional acoustic systems to order. Two years later I got enrolled in the Department of Physics of Odesa National University named after I.I. Mechnikov, Department of Theoretical Physics. There were only 7 people in our class.

Our entire class of theoretical physicists

Wow! Why so few?

Because it is a very difficult department with unclear prospects. Now the situation at the Department of Physics is even more deplorable. This year only 14 people applied to the department. Department of Physics is dying. The situation with the Department of Theoretical Physics is even worse.

In my time there were 150 people studying at the department, of whom two-thirds dropped out before the master’s program. In Odesa, only Mechnikov used to churn out theoretical physicists. Recently, if I’m not mistaken, the department was merged with the department of mechanics and mathematics, but I am not sure about it.

There were only 7 students in our class, four of which immediately left the country following the graduation to South Carolina, France, Moscow, Japan… In other words, the brains drained right away.

We were very lucky. We had the best teachers who gave lectures in Cambridge, California Institute of Technology and others. Today, many of them have died, the cohort has decreased 20-fold, many institutes have wound up, and the departments have been shrunk.

I remember that we had difficulties with passing only physical education – the stadium was far away and no one visited it. So, in order to complete all finals, we preferred to make a ‘donation to physical education teacher’s help foundation’ 🙂

In my sophomore year at uni, when I was fulfilling another custom acoustics project, I met my first investor – the director of one of the Hi-End hardware stores in Odesa. I laid out my ideas to him. He showed interest in the ion system, but the “hairy coconut with a speaker inside” idea made him smile, “This is not serious, put it away!” So I did and received from him my first $100, which allowed me to build a prototype of an ion system.

First prototype of ion speaker amplifier (photo made in 2007)

Can you explain the know-how part of it? What’s so exciting about ion acoustics, and what perks does it have that traditional systems lack? And how does it work?

The know-how is that sound is created right in the air. This is the ideal sound source: it has no mechanical limitations that can lead to distortion. The air does not oscillate, but pulsates along its entire range and therefore has no obstacles.

Having received a huge amount of knowledge at the university, and having conducted countless experiments and a number of theoretical calculations, I realized how naive my idea was at its core. Since then, everything has changed a lot. Today, the system works on a similar principle to a home ionizer: ions of positive and negative polarities are produced, which then meet with each other and exchange charges. This process is accompanied by an increase in pressure, which can be modulated, i.e. change it rapidly and by doing so get a high-quality sound.

I built a prototype and showed it to university professors. They got enthused and offered me to get my postgraduate degree with this contraption.

At the beginning of 2017, we revealed a ready-made demonstration prototype of Waveion ion acoustic system at the international consumer electronics and CES products show in Las Vegas. Now, this technology is protected by a number of patents in the United States, the European Union, and we have patents pending in China and Russia. Representatives of multiple large firms, including Harman, Samsung, and Bose, expressed their interest in our system, which inspired me a lot.

Ion acoustic system Waveion at CES 2017

Why have you built your business around Copra instead of ion acoustics?

Its uniqueness played against us. This kind of invention entails the need for inventions in other areas, and we managed to find a solution to all technical issues. However, we faced one completely inconspicuous complexity – micro- and nanoparticles of sand form an unusual chemical compound with carbon dioxide in our system.

The peculiarity of it is that carbon dioxide and sand do not react with each other, however, in the case of electric ion-exchange processes they form a specific compound. This compound, as it is formed, reduces the intensity of ion generation, thus reducing the electrical and acoustic power of the ion loudspeaker.

Now, in order to understand exactly how this micro plaque is formed, and what needs to be done so that it does not form, we have arranged for cooperation with several U.S. research groups in the field of aerospace technology – plasma chemistry, ion technology, in other words those areas that pertain to ion thrusters designed for space satellites and thermonuclear fusion.

Unusual residue on iridium electrodes

What is Copra? What’s its competitive edge?

Working on the ion system changed my perception of sound as such, especially its dispersion in space. Different sounds vary in nature, generating equally diverse sound vibrations with a wavelength from 17 mm to 17 m.

The whine of a mosquito and the rumble of thunder are very different in their properties of dispersion, attenuation, deflection, and reflection, which radically changes the sound depending on the space acoustics.

Copra’s design approach is the perfect sound reproduction for each band individually. We distinguish four bands, each of which we process in a unique way, both in the technical sense of amplification and sound reproduction and in terms of the peculiarities of distribution, without adding any distortions and changes in the signal.

In addition, the traditional approach to the development of acoustics is a complete standardization and unification: a rectangular box made of the same material, and a set of different speakers with a single direction of the sound. Such acoustics is very specific about the positioning – the sound quality depends greatly on where you are with respect to it, whether you are sitting or standing.

Our system remedies this disadvantage on account of its design.

How does it do it?

Copra is essentially a sound architect. It is the first dynamic, physically changeable acoustic system that generates a high-quality diffuse sound field. The frame is made of two completely different materials: the bottom part of the system is molded from polymer concrete. This material is completely unsuitable for midrange frequencies – for example, for a voice range – it greatly distorts it. But it is ideal for low frequencies.

The top part is made from the very coconut endocarp. It is a unique material. It is durable, lightweight, it has a lot of microfibers and micropores making the shell very dull and at high vibration loads the sound does not pick up resonance unlike any other material of a solid frame.

Midrange speakers are installed on flexible mounts inside.

If you put Copra acoustic system against the wall, you can point some of the nuts to the walls, ceiling, floor. Then the sound will be reflected and create a virtual musical reality: you will hear sound from behind, from the side, from the left, you will immerse into it. Thanks to this, we get a natural, lively surround sound.

Our system allows to reach the effect of a maximum presence. Imagine you hear birds singing and the sound of a water stream, or a sudden strike of lightning. It’s like a drug, and people pay dearly for such quality and power.

Our amplifier, which we created from scratch, is very important here.

When it comes to high power with high quality of sound – there are difficulties. To provide a sound pressure of 110 dB at low frequencies from a speaker in a closed case, very high power with pulse currents is needed, as in a welding machine — in hundreds of amps. At the same time, high frequencies are very sensitive to the slightest distortion, and therefore amplifiers capable of providing the corresponding characteristics are very cumbersome, heavy and expensive.

We took a different path: each of the two acoustic systems, i.e. left channel and right channel, has 4 spectra each. Thus, our stereo amplifier has 8 individual amplifier boards, each of which is configured for its own range. This solution provides a unique sound quality with a weight of a mere 15 kg.

What are the technical specifications of Copra? Its capacity, dimensions, range

Acoustic systems weigh 38 kg each, providing a maximum volume of 110 dB at 1.2 kW. This is the volume of a large symphony orchestra and it covers the entire audible range – from the lowest to the highest frequencies.

In terms of volume and quality, the accuracy of sound, our acoustic systems are equivalent to Hi-End systems with a weight of under 100 kg.

How much does the system cost?

You can buy it with the amplifier for 14,000 euros. In the future, it will get more expensive. But it is important to understand that Copra is a high-power, precision electromechanical system. This is a piece of upscale market equipment.

Comparable in terms of capacity, range and quality acoustics systems cost 25,000 euros, and you will have to pay another 10,000–15,000 euros for the amplifier.

Sound mechanics is very intricate, and in order to implement it, you need to deal with a lot of confusing issues. It takes about 300 hours of skilled work to produce a single set of Copra. We use the best available components that we buy from overseas because in Ukraine you cannot find the proper quality.

A very interesting component is the dial indicators that indicate the safe level of power (like a car’s tachometer). We do not make devices with the high-precision mechanics that we need, therefore we buy the best of what is available and reassemble it to fit our requirements.

This is a very long and painstaking work. It takes 5-6 hours of fine engineering work to prepare one dial indicator.

All in all, it’s complicated when it comes to components, especially coconuts.

Is it so? Please tell, what’s the problem?

There are many varieties of coconuts, but only a few are suitable for us. In addition, all nuts must be of the same correct shape – we do not process them with anything, they are only polished and furbished. Therefore, we have to handpick them on site – we cannot trust this task to the supplier.

We worked with different suppliers, from Sri Lanka and India. They have a peculiar mentality. Instead of focusing on work, they endlessly ask why we need the nuts, what we are going to do with them, they keep on offering to partner up with them. When we explain to them that we are going to pay only for nuts of the desired shape and size, without additional questions – they lose interest, preferring to “sunbathe on the beach”.

Once we made a deal with a supplier and even paid the money, but instead of handpicked coconuts, we got all kinds of coconuts. I had to fly and personally handle the situation.

On coconut business trip

Now we have a designated employee who handles selection and shipments of nuts.

Have your sales kicked off? What is your target audience?

Copra is a home acoustic system. People buy it for their houses and apartments. Our target audience is wealthy people who understand and appreciate the sound quality, want to have a unique, good product, and who care about the design too. 

We focus on the markets of Europe and the U.S. And we, frankly, did not expect that Copra would also be in demand in Ukraine, because for many people acoustic systems may seem like a strange priority. Nevertheless, we have quite a few people in Ukraine that are ready to splurge on such equipment.

We have already fulfilled a few sales at a discount, and customers had to wait six months for their order to be completed. It was not about making money. These sales were random. And we essentially didn’t profit from them.

The first two clients were close acquaintances of the investor. They visited us at the laboratory, they grew interested in the product and decided to buy it.

The last client visited us to see the presentation, and eventually placed an order. He said that he was looking for a home acoustic system at the time, and he chose the one he needs, but it came with a price tag of $40,000, while ours generates the same quality at a price that is a lot cheaper, and he was won over by the Copra’s design.

Laboratory

Now, when we are finalizing all legal paperwork and have entered into agreements with dealers, we can start full-fledged sales. Customers already can make orders online on the site and they no longer have to wait to get their system for so long – today we produce three sets of Copra per month and we are going to streamline the production.

Copra is a Ukrainian exclusive thing, and now we are introducing our flagship, the Hydra model. We are already working hard to release a wide range of acoustic systems using our technologies.

Tell us about the team, your partners. Do you do everything alone and with your own money or someone is helping you?

I’m not alone in Copra. Aleksandr Korzun has been working on this project alongside me for the past 14 years. He is an electronics engineer, and he is developing electronic circuit designs.

A friend and colleague, our electronics engineer Aleksandr Korzun

I implement the rest: from ideas and patents, development of project documentation, design of electronic boards, system design, workflow, components, and everything related to the project, to business processes, strategic planning, recruitment, and presentations.

I enticed an investor who believed in me and the project. He is not a public person, so, unfortunately, I cannot reveal his identity and the terms of our cooperation.

Our team in the laboratory is still small, 5 people, and we have to work very hard.

We work with 5 factory contractors, lawyers from Odesa, Washington, and Berlin, and with a number of other organizations and people from other relevant walks of life.

Why did you look for an investor? You could have simply launched a Kickstarter campaign; similar projects often raise a lot of money.

We decided not to do crowdfunding until we address all legal issues. It was important for us to patent our inventions so as not to worry that at the stage of our development someone could overtake us on our own turf and business. It takes time.

It took me 4 years to patent the nuts alone. All in all, we have about 20 patents in Ukraine, China, Europe, and the U.S.

Toiling over Waveion

We might start a crowdfunding campaign in the future. We are currently studying the possibility. However, right now we have a myriad of other plans. We applied for participation in the IFA exhibition in Berlin in early September. Now we give presentations across Ukraine: Odesa, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Dnipro. Presentations allow us to establish contacts with dealers to expand our sales footprint.

In parallel, we are preparing a batch of products, a small safety cushion to make sure we are ready to take orders.

Are you going to make in Ukraine? Have you thought of moving production elsewhere? For instance, to India, closer to where nuts come from.

We position ourselves as a Ukrainian company. We want to produce acoustic systems here, instead of moving production to wherever it is cheaper. We are going to tap into the Western markets, like Europe and the U.S., flying the Ukrainian flag.

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