Joey Roth on design


Joey Roth designed the bizarre, beautiful Sorapot, and recently turned his talents to audio. Out this fall in a limited edition of 200, the Ceramic Speakers are made of porcelain and cork. I asked Joey to tell us a little about himself and his inspiration.

ROB: Why industrial design?

JOEY: I started college at Swarthmore as a creative writing major, but realized that I was never going to be as good as the authors I loved. With design, I think I can contribute to the field as a whole while still constructing narratives and making each product an immersive world for the user.

ROB: Sorapot got a lot of attention; but was it a success?

JOEY: I designed Sorapot as a portfolio piece during my Junior year. I didn't intend to manufacture it until a writer for CoolHunting somehow discovered it and posted on it. The same day, I received a ton of emails from individuals and stores asking about price, availability, and minimum order quantities. They thought it was a real product, so I decided to make it one.

ROB: You make it sound easy!

JOEY: I ... found the right manufacturer through a great referral. I began to take pre-orders through my site, and was able to fund the first production run largely from these sales. About 2,500 Sorapots have been sold to date.

"Irony was the dominant approach a few years ago, and it's still popular. I think it has no place in design, since physical resources are consumed when something is mass-produced, and a joke is only witty for so long."

ROB: What do you see as your competition?

JOEY: I draw a distinction between competitors and enemies, although both motivate me to work harder. My competitors are designers and companies who make products that I respect, and would also earn the respect of my customers, current and potential. I don't want to see these designers/ companies fail, since I believe in what they're doing, but I need to make sure my work never becomes indistinguishable from theirs. This kind of competition keeps me on edge, and helps me make better products. If their products aren't directly competing with mine, I also like to collaborate with likeminded designers.

ROB: Enemies, then?

I see designers and companies whose work represents a disposable, ironic, trend-driven view of product design as my ideological enemies. Irony was the dominant approach a few years ago, and it's still popular. I think it has no place in design, since physical resources are consumed when something is mass-produced, and a joke is only witty for so long. My desire to design objects that represent a more thoughtful, sustainable view grew partially from the ironic, anti-design trend I encountered as I was getting into design. Even though these punchline-driven products don't compete in the same categories as my work, I'm motivated to work harder when I see them receive acclaim or recognition.

I don't see larger companies who make boring products as competition, even if their products are in the same categories as mine. It would be much harder for them to access the customers who actively seek out interesting new designs than for me to make something that appeals to a larger audience. They should be scared of small, blog-emboldened designers though.

ROB: How are new ideas born?

JOEY: When I start to sketch ideas for a new design, I pull from a mental material library that's filled only with sustainable, long-lasting materials. I want my products to become more beautiful as they're used: inevitable scuffs and scratches should make them feel broken-in and seasoned rather than worn out. At the same time, I never want to use a design's sustainable merits as a crutch for lazy or boring design.

ROB: Tell me more about the hardware used for the speakers.

JOEY: The speakers are made from hand-thrown porcelain in a workshop that usually makes vases. Their stands are made from Baltic birch off-cuts (smaller piece) and Paulownia wood (larger piece). Paulownia is a fast-growing tree that's best known for its use in surfboards, guitars, and traditional Japanese pottery boxes. The amplifier is made from stainless steel, and has a raw cast iron base and Paulownia volume slider. My goal was to bring the speakers out of the fast, trendy, disposable consumer electronic/ iPod accessory realm and make them objects that could last a lifetime, but are interesting in the moment.

The drivers are made by Tang Band, and they are a modified version of the W4-1052SD driver. (Specs here:

ROB: What's the worst sort of question you get asked?

JOEY: The worst question a writer can ask a designer is no question. Obscurity and irrelevance are nicely motivating fears that all good designers should have.

Sorapot and Ceramic Speakers are available to order at Joey Roth's website. Catch an early (and favorable) review at Gizmodo.


  1. Seems just about the worst thing to make speaker enclosures out of. Speaker enclosures should be soft and non-resonant. Also you need some sort of pressure equalization or as the cone moves in the air inside the enclosure will be compressed – not good.

  2. The link to the speaker PDF file has an extra ‘)’ at the end making it invalid. Great commentary on the long-term fallacies of ironic design. Good show Mr. Roth.

  3. I disagree that this is the “worst” material for transducers. It is not as simple as “ceramics bad” because it depends on the process and implementation. Certainly this speaker is better in most ways than a particle board box. Standing waves are way worse than any potential resonance.

    Hard wood and stuff like marble might be a better material choice, however.

    See for prior art.

  4. quibbler, speaker enclosures need not be sound-deadening when they are functional wave guides. They only need to be sound-absorbent when they are so poorly designed (c.g. rectangular boxes) that their haphazard reflection of sound waves would destructively interfere with the reproduction of the desired waveform. I have no idea if these speakers are viable wave guides in real use, but they look like they could be.

  5. With a single wide-range speaker with a list price of 40 Euro and no baffle there is no way this speaker will have close to the kind of acoustic performance anyone could expect for something in this price class. And from the way Joey talks about it, he has clearly not thought about it in acoustic terms at all, so god knows what kind of electonics is in there. At least the kind of folk that make mid-price mini-speakers which can only fail from the get-go (eg Bose) put their mind to tinkering with the insides to try to make it sound half reasonable (usually with dubious success).
    There are a hundred aesthetically beautiful and/or radical speakers costing this much which are properly designed, ie which synthesize visual and acoustic aesthetics. Why BB is giving space to something so obviously poorly designed is beyond me.

  6. I have a quibble with Quibbler:

    “A transducer is a device, electrical, electronic, electro-mechanical, electromagnetic, photonic, or photovoltaic, that converts one type of energy or physical attribute to another for various purposes including measurement or information transfer (for example: pressure sensors). … An example of an actuator is a loudspeaker which converts an electrical signal into a variable magnetic field and, subsequently, into acoustic waves.”

    Please don’t mess with the internet. It is pedantic, and quick to anger.

  7. I haven’t yet commented on the plywood “stand” which it is claimed is made form baltic pine.
    The amp is actually a switched mode design which I’m sure the purists would not approve of.
    Thank goodness the design includes oxygen free copper and banana plugs.

  8. Looks purty, but it wont have good audio reproduction with a mid-range/whizzer cone speaker crammed into that “vase” as a previous commenter called it.

  9. Thanks for your comments, and thanks Rob for this interview. I worked with an audio engineer who is somewhat obsessed with small speakers to design this system. Their shape and materials are my attempt to make his physics-dictated requirements look good. The driver is modified quite a bit for this enclosure- its cone material is paper, the magnet has been enlarged and motor modified, and the dust cap has been replaced with an aluminum phase plug (non-moving). These mods extend the driver’s range and help it compensate for the enclosure’s small size and baffle-free design. The enclosure itself is indeed a wave guide. The cork on the back is coated on the inside with natural wool, so it essentially “eats” the sound waves that would otherwise be reflected off of the flat back plane. The curved inner walls of the enclosure are designed to be predictably reflective.

    The amp is based on the Tripath 2024 chip, which you can read more about here:

    We chose the Tripath because it adds minimal color to the signal and intensifies the speaker’s already optimized sound stage. It is also efficient and compact, allowing me more freedom with the amp’s small design.

    My overall goal with this system was to create the most simple path from source to ear, so that the details of high-resolution music (FLAC, vinyl, etc) could be enjoyed. I also worked to optimize the system’s size and physical beauty.

    If you have any other technical or more general questions, don’t hesitate to email me:

  10. This system is pretty good technically. The TB driver is a very decent performer and Tripath ‘digital’ amps have the respect of a lot of critical listeners. There’s no reason this shouldn’t sound significantly better than typical powered speakers and it should stomp most computer type speakers. In terms of aesthetic design it’s yards ahead of anything like it. This DIY audiophile gives it a thumbs up.

  11. Concerning resonance – there is no such animal as a non-resonant material. But ceramic is so exceptionally rigid that it may well not resonate at audio frequencies; this would allow it to function as a waveguide. The size and shape appear be inexpensively manufacturable as well. Kudos Mr. Roth! It is a thing of beauty.

  12. This is the same concept as B&W Nautilus speakers. It’s basically sound. (Ha!) The cork plug is a bit cheap looking though. The texture is nice, but it’s not really strong enough to be mounting hardware in. I’d rather see the binding posts mounted in a cap of ceramic, metal, or wood, with a cork or rubber gasket ring.

  13. I’d quibble with the speaker connectors as well. As a matter of safety I never use all metal connectors any more where significant voltage and low impedance is present. They can get shorted together too easily and who knows how the amplifier that’s connected will react to this. Fire is one way. There are a number of safe speaker connection types that are fool proof and look decent. Speakon is one.

  14. This was a very good, thoughtful interview. No one asks, “who is your competition?”, and it’s a very good question because it’s reveals so much if answered with any earnestness. The answer about competitors and enemies was even better.

  15. Pertaining to many of the previous comments: Have you ever struck your fingernail or another object against your mother or grandmothers porcine vase. I can recall it making a nicely clean pitch in what ever key that vase’s structure allowed it to. So ask yourself what is acoustically better material? Right on for Joey Roth in making anything that could produce and or alter sound. By the way Wikipedia is not the be all end all of research.

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