Breaking the sound barrier in West Berkeley with precision manufacturing

BERKELEYSIDE — There’s a door near a small sign at the end of a block on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, not far from Ashby. Blink too long and you’ll drive right by.

But once that door opens, it’s kind of like Willy Wonka opening up the candy factory, only for audiophiles.

Meyer Sound is celebrating 40 years in the sound business. And by sound, they mean big sound – literally, like stadium-sized sound at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium and Stanford Stadium. And groundbreaking sound for customers like Metallica, the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, the San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, and large venues in New York, Moscow and Vienna, among others.

It’s not a stereo store. The public just can’t walk in and buy something. It’s for professionals.

“We don’t put up signs, like ‘Here. Here are the speakers, come on in,’” said Gary Robinson, the director of facilities and campus expansion, who’s been with the company for more than 30 years. “But one of the main tenets is that we manufacture in Berkeley. People say there’s no manufacturing in Berkeley. Well…”

John and Helen Meyer founded their eponymous company in 1979. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Owners John and Helen Meyer have been part of the Bay Area’s music scene since the 1960s. John was interested in sound from an early age: his uncle was a sound technician for “The Mickey Mouse Club.” By his teen years, he was working in radio at Berkeley’s KPFA. The Meyers started their first company, based on their Glyph sound system, in 1969. Their main client was San Rafael club Pepperland, which is memorialized in posters inside the current building. The sound systems John was developing were getting lots of attention from Bay Area pros, and – once the company ran out of steam – John was hired to go to Switzerland to create a sound lab called Institute for Advanced Musical Studies. After a couple years of creating his own patented equipment – the company now holds over 100 patents – he came back to the Bay Area and, eventually, founded Meyer Sound in 1979 in San Leandro.

Four years later, Meyer was back in Berkeley – and all these years later, occupies a bigger chunk of Berkeley than the storefront on San Pablo leads one to believe, extending to the next blocks over, west and south of the main office. Six buildings add up to about 225,000 square feet. The company occupies the first floor of the Heinz building, where a massive gymnasium-sized manufacturing facility is full of workers piecing together and testing components by hand.

A visit to Meyer Sound is fascinating. In October, the company offered rare behind-the-scenes tours to the public as part of the City of Berkeley’s Manufacturing Day. Meyer Sound also hosted the annual gathering of the Bay Area Urban Manufacturing Initiative, where the city’s Office of Economic Development (OED) brainstormed with government leaders from across the nine county region on how to strengthen urban manufacturing companies, continue to build support services to help them scale and grow in their communities, and create jobs with family-sustaining wages.

“It’s minimally automated,” said Joe Mistretta, Meyer Sound’s business development project manager. “Every manufacturer has their own way of doing it. But I don’t think anyone else goes to these lengths of quality.”

The company employs about 350 people – 300 or so in Berkeley, and 75 to 85 percent of what it produces is reusable, which aligns with its certification as a California Green Business (a program which OED help Berkeley businesses participate in). “No old or rejected electronic components go to landfill,” says Robinson. “We take an amplifier down to the PC board, stripping and recycling the copper, aluminum and plastic, even the steel screws. And for lunchroom waste, we now have composting bins.” It’s a global company run by people who nevertheless believe in centralized operations here in the United States.

“When you farm things out, you lose quality,” said Robinson. “We control the process from beginning to end.”

Mistretta added “Meyer Sound is unique. It’s not dissimilar to Tesla making its stuff in Fremont. We’re getting to do it here, where we can control it. If you have to stop production for some reason, it’s much easier to do when it’s on site.”

A small theater at Meyer Sound enables the company to demonstrate its technology. Photo: courtesy Meyer Sound

The site includes a demo theater where Mistretta shows off technology that enhances, or completely deadens, his voice. Then, in a large room across the street he demoed CAL, a loudspeaker that is able to precisely steer sound to anywhere in the room.

The founders are still very involved in the operations, but they also take the time to travel the world as company ambassadors, getting to know longtime customers face-to-face, sometimes after years of doing business. Though most of the operation is in Berkeley, the company has footprints in Germany, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, and other places around the globe.

“The last thing you want is a customer way out there (on tour) on their own,” Mistretta said. “We try to have someone in their time zone.”

Products are manufactured and tested at the West Berkeley facility. Photo: courtesy Meyer Sound

Meyer Sound is known for pushing the sound industry over the years, including the now-standard trapezoidal loudspeaker, processor-controlled systems, and curvilinear arraying. Its technology isn’t just for music, evidenced by the presence of large artistic “acoustical ecosystems” called Libra, which are sound-manipulating panels doubling as art, which are sold to restaurants and other businesses.

“We actually help control the sound in the room,” Mistretta said. “We can control it as the room gets louder and gets quieter, so it can keep the atmosphere of a restaurant where they want it.”

Photos and concert art spanning the decades are constant reminders of Meyer’s customers, from Stevie Wonder playing on stage facing one of the company’s first manufactured speakers, to photos of the founders with the Grateful Dead, the Dalai Lama, and the stage set-up at the premiere of Celine Dion’s “A Brand New Day” Las Vegas residency. And the imprint of Meyer Sound can be found throughout Berkeley: sound systems at the Berkeley Rep, The UC Theatre and Comal restaurant, among other places.

But no matter how impressive Meyer Sound looks to the eyes, ultimately, it’s all about the ears.

Robinson explains, “What our speakers are able to accomplish, sonically, is really what makes them works of art.”

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED staff help entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley. 

What Next

Visit Discovered in Berkeley to find more stories about innovative local businesses. The campaign spotlights local businesses enriching our community and building a better world.

Contact OED if you’re considering opening or growing a business in Berkeley.

Learn about urban manufacturing in the Bay Area and watch for future Manufacturing Day tours in Berkeley.