Roadtrips to roadmaps: Inside Rockford Fosgate’s speaker development process

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn more ›

“And don’t forget to breathe.”

These are the last words I hear before the doors shut, and I forget to breathe. I’m choking on air pressure, disoriented by displacement, and all I do remember is that someone said there’s a panic button a few inches to my right—a big red button I desperately want to punch through the wall.

But I force myself to inhale, will myself to exhale, keep my clenched fist tight to my chest, and 45 seconds of suffocating cycles later, the doors reopen. Shaking my head, my thoughts begin to settle, and I start to remember where I am, why I’m here, what I’m hearing. 

I’m in Tempe, Arizona, in the garage at the headquarters of audio solutions designer and distributor Rockford Fosgate. I’ve just staggered out of the mobile SoundLab “Pressure Chamber”—a purpose-built enclosure in the back of a van that produces a low-end onslaught to demonstrate the brute force of four 19-inch T3 super-woofers, eight 6.5-inch Punch Pro midrange woofers, four Punch Pro bullet tweeters, and 11,000 watts of power. This exercise in excursion punctuates a day where I’ve toured every decade and company department to see how speakers and amplifiers are engineered for elevated performance and adrenaline spikes. 

Rockford Fosgate

A lot goes into output

If you’ve been into car audio, you’ve probably been in a car with some Rockford audio. The company was launched in 1980 by Jim Fosgate, who invented the Punch EQ in 1973 to make music more impactful before introducing the first car amplifiers to form the brand’s foundation. In the mid-1980s came Punch woofers, followed by computers, decoders, source units, signal processors. From four amps to over 40 years goes the story—hundreds and hundreds of components for mobile, marine, and motorsports. All recognizing that you can’t just take a car speaker, paint it white, and install it in a boat if you want it to last and make a lasting impression.

When I was young, I had friends into 12V (standard voltage for car audio systems and an enthusiast nickname), so I was familiar with the brand even if I never got to turn the family Dodge Caravan into an amateur SoundLab. While they were putting up posters of cars they coveted, Rockford was adding to its very real, very extensive patents wall. But that was just a consumer’s experience; I’m here to explore how concepts move forward in-house and on the road. And the first thing I learn is that you can’t separate the end-users and the end product, even when it’s beginning. 

So many people I’m introduced to throughout the day live up to the company’s tagline, “Built By Fanatics, For Fanatics.” If they haven’t worked for the company for 10, 15, 20 years, they at least worked for a Rockford dealer before they did. Almost everyone has a story about a custom job they did or a prototype they field-tested in their car, Side-by-Side, motorcycle, pontoon. Some of their personal low riders and bikes are in the company’s lookbook; their faces affectionately mean-mugging in promotional videos. But even if you can’t see them, the whole Rockford family’s proverbial fingerprints are all over everything. 

The tour begins, as many things do, at the beginning. In this case, that’s with Wayne Connolly, director of new product development, in the NPD corner—home to the company’s five-year roadmap and a repository for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and aftermarket product ideas. Connolly walks me through how, with the front of the building as a steering committee, a living list tracks commitments to growth in each category—whether that’s custom Harley-Davidson kits, plug-and-play Stage-5 Jeep systems, or the Power, Punch, and Prime factory upgrade lines, to name a few. This list is fed by suggestions for product research and revisions from people who live the lifestyle. Whether talking to dealers at trade shows and fans at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally or just spending weekends taking out the UTV or spending time on the lake, project managers are in the feedback loop. 

As the market has shifted, there’s more and more of an emphasis on plug-and-play, easing consumer pain points, providing installation kits that give the confidence to tackle them on their own. And it’s up to the team to recognize when a vehicle’s suspension switching introduces a harmonic and how digital processing can compensate, how to make small systems sound larger while keeping them lighter. It’s about identifying how to control the experience, how to reduce variables without diminishing options.

Once the business case is made, project management takes over. Supervisor JD Massad explains how the teams align to start the phase gate development process and ensure that, no matter how regimented things are, there’s a smile on everyone’s face at the start and the finish. The original vision needs to be addressed, but there are always lessons to be learned for other categories once dollars are attached; people are accountable; basic prototyping begins. On this side of the building, it’s a background in hand-built samples, a love of MDF, Bondo, sandpaper. On another, scanners and CAD, fabricators, and 3D printers. Together, it’s a great fit (and refit and refit and refit … depending on the product iterations).

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

Next door is RTTI, or Rockford Technical Training Institute. It started as a “Top Gun” program, bringing in nationwide installers to teach them how to work tighter, cleaner to give Rockford dealers an advantage. RTTI also handles building demo vehicles (like the SoundLab) to showcase the brand at events. And, on top of all that, RTTI works with the mechanical engineering team to develop enclosures and wiring harnesses and all the other parts to a Goldilocks box that answers the problem statements. Or, as Rick Jones, vehicle applications manager, puts it, laughing, “We chase shiny objects back here.” 

For example, a few years ago, a group of RTTI guys set out to address how to get more low energy on a motorcycle; where to fit a subwoofer on a Harley. A saddlebag was the logical solution, but one of the biggest challenges was not forcing a rider to give up storage space permanently. So, making the enclosure removable became the primary objective, requiring custom parts to manage wires. 

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

What makes RTTI, and Rockford in general, perfectly suited for this challenge is the wealth of machines (including SawStop, CNC, and router tables, FDM and resin 3D printers and laser cutters) plus the interplay between departments. When it comes to sound for speed, speed to market is key to success. So once they decided on the slim-fit woofer and a sealed versus ported enclosure, the team could quickly pull a mold of the bag, do some fiberglass models, foam them out. Pretty close? Grab the Creaform 3D scanner, capture the rough mock-up and more exact vehicle dimensions, then kick the concept to mechanical engineering to clean it up in CAD to get the exact geometry and ensure the driver’s full excursion clears obstacles—all to make sure it fits the mechanical envelope. Do some thermal modeling. 

Soon, the time comes for a rough 3D print to outfit with an actual driver and make sure everything is hitting the acoustic target. Then it’s on to fit, fastenings, finish … a textured pre-production part. A physical object that lets you know if the render translates into something inspiring to handle. Straightforward, eh? It almost sounds simple (it isn’t) … maybe if the goalposts didn’t change constantly (luckily, project management’s got their back as things move forward).

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

You’ve gotta be flexible to get the right stiffness

From the install bay, we wander to the engineering bullpens—tight pods of cubicles set up for quick collaboration, a FaroArm scanner set in the center as another tool to get prototypes into SolidWorks CAD and make sure drawings match parts. Detection, inspection, perfection. Here, they help realize the vision of how parts should integrate with vehicles, assuring every bracket allows an easy install and every material choice and position allows for airflow and thermal efficiency, all while working with an industrial design team to marry Rockford’s visual flavor with the mechanical intent.

On the other side of the aisle is loudspeaker engineering, tasked with ensuring everything put in those painstakingly designed enclosures sounds good and holds up no matter the sustained volume or extenuating circumstances. Unlike two-channel home audio manufacturers, who have the luxury of designing for controlled environments, Rockford has to look beyond magnetics, electrical, thermal, acoustic motion to motor structures, spiders, suspensions—all parts that can perform in and stand up to open-air elements.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

Frank Barone, director of acoustic engineering, and Ada Puyot, acoustic design engineer, walk me through modeling software for motor geometry. Simulations allow the team to see the typical things, like efficiency, how low it’s going to play, motor force, how much it can move without getting distorted, etc. Any changes—for example, to the length of the voice coil, the fine wire that reacts to the motor’s magnetic field and moves the speakers—are reflected in real-time, showing how decisions will affect the sound signature. The press of a button can change the shape and surround of a speaker, pull up any legacy assemblies to see what can be adapted. 

And after broad simulations comes far more granular finite element magnetic modeling, which allows for fine-tuning, seeing how any tweaks to material will impact response well before actual money is on the line. Seeing how to avoid saturation can improve design while addressing costs. Being able to change spider geometry or corrugation heights helps design for the roof of a UTV versus a standard car mount. Programs inform what individual parts are worth ordering to test to see where prediction meets actual measurements on the way to a finished product. A wall of code-named concept speakers shows how many precursors go before production. Purpose-built, indeed.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

All the modeling in the world doesn’t matter if the math doesn’t check out, of course, and that’s where the testing and validation department comes in. Once it’s decided that it’s worth calling in hard parts for prototyping, it’s handed over to Tom Dubeck, loudspeaker technician, and the Klippel diagnostics system. Measured in a test baffle with a combination of a laser displacement sensor to calculate efficiency and a microphone for acoustic data, material parameters like how much force it takes to move a cone five or 10 millimeters can be analyzed, helping determine what stiffness and damping are needed. Collecting these parameters informs the modeling of how the speakers perform in different boxes and situations.

Getting farfield measurements and capturing curves is invaluable. But people who don’t measure output response don’t listen to sweep tones quickly running through low to high frequencies. So, on the other side of the room are two shrouded arrays of speakers in development. Versions with slight changes—to motor structure, tweeter material, crossovers, what have you—are set in parallel behind acoustically transparent fabric, flanked by in-production Rockford drivers as well as competitor transducers. Folks from around the building come in to do some partitive listening and take notes. 

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

One place they don’t go to listen, however, is our next destination. It’s called the Boom Room, a trailer separate from the main building where Dubeck puts devices under test through a gauntlet, leaving them to play at full volume for days—first to see if they can maintain at a certain voltage and then pushed to the point of failure. A Klippel system in the Boom Room control room monitors a test of up to eight speakers at a time, generating a signal sent to 1600W amplifiers that is sent back to the Klippel and out to the drivers. Subwoofers, ported and sealed, can be seated in permanent enclosures, while full-range speakers hang from the ceiling. It smells of torn surrounds, burnt voice coils, and victory. There’s also an apparatus to simulate high ambient temperature if components need to be evaluated in a thermal chamber. Eventually, the speakers return to the control room, where autopsies are performed and points of failure confirmed.

Eventually, prototypes graduate to production runs, which is when the Klippel system comes into play one last time. Assembly lines are equipped with special QC enclosures, and every speaker that rolls off undergoes a short tolerance test of nonlinear parameters to ensure there’s consistently no distortion and impedance falls where it should. 

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

So, a new speaker is born. But it still needs help finding its voice. And that takes place in the tuning room—a room big enough for a car, UTV, or a couple of Harleys, which is what’s in there when I meet Joe Merritt, acoustic systems engineer, to hear about how the amplifier’s DSP is used to put the finishing touches on the sonic signature. 

In the case of the H-D CVO platform, which is fitted with a model-specific speaker and amp package, Rockford has a custom six-microphone rig built into a seat, so it’s perfectly positioned. The microphones are at various heights to simulate the range of average rider heights and reflect what they’re hearing. The room also allows the engine to run and the bike to be tricked into thinking it’s moving at speed, so the dynamic EQ reacts accordingly. Plus, there’s a PA for playing wind/road noise. The microphones feed their readings to a computer sound card, and a real-time analyzer puts an average curve up against the target—a rising response with naturalistic mids surrounded by energized bass and treble to compensate for outdoor applications. The DSP chip is then tweaked to achieve the desired outcome—one of the benefits of one company producing all the kit components.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

Staying power

It’s now time for the last tour stop, which is also the company’s starting point: amplifiers. Rockford started out producing big power, big watts per dollar, Class A/B all the way. But vehicles have gotten smaller and—especially in the case of motorcycles and marine—the company adapted, moving into the more compact, higher efficiency Class D. Similarly, in 1993, the company introduced something called Symmetry, which was a modular, card-based rack computer for the car—DSP before it was convenient. Since then, there have been infotainment systems and other integration pieces. Rockford has always evolved while maintaining an approach that controls the signal path from start to finish for maximum reliability.

Erik Gundersen, director of advanced engineering, walks me through the solder and sine waves. As in all divisions, there’s a real whiteboard-to-blacktop approach, with simulations allowing the team to tweak circuits on a screen well before anything gets to PCB layout and physical samples. And there are a host of internal and external challenges, from designing an amplifier that can maintain more uniform power across varying impedance loads to dealing with radio frequency challenges and electromagnetic compatibility in the age of Bluetooth, WiFi, USB, DSP. Especially with the finite form factor in something like a Harley, where it’s harder to ensure tightly oriented circuitry won’t produce interference and excess energy will have somewhere to dissipate. Marine products have to perform in completely different harsh conditions. Plus, everything needs to play nicely with RF Connect, the proprietary smartphone app that pairs via Bluetooth and allows users to set up, control, tune, and update products. At the same time, electric vehicles open up new possibilities, if current from their batteries is opened up.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

One of the ways Rockford guarantees its amplifiers perform (often over-perform) as promised is through another homegrown creation: RATS, or Rockford Automated Test System. Jason Gerlitz, senior production validation manager, explains that all overseas production facilities have this custom hardware-software combo and—as units undergo tests for Signal-to-Noise Ratio, burn-in, and more—results are sent to the cloud so that headquarters can analyze it and identify any issues. And only devices that pass every test get a “birth certificate,” as well as a serial number, allowing them to ship.  

And once they’ve shipped? Well, Rockford even films its own installation videos—providing a visual reference, the estimated time it takes, and the expected difficulty. They have a podcast studio, as well, to produce collateral for dealerships and OEM partners that maintains the brand’s voice. The same marketing team responsible for all this output to promote current products is always gathering input from shows and social media to feed back into the steering committee and product development. Know what they didn’t capture, thankfully? My time in and after the SoundLab. That doesn’t mean I’m done with Rockford’s demo vehicles, however.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate

To wind down the day, we drive northeast of Tempe out to Saguaro Lake. First, we take a Polaris Ranger onto the Butcher Lake off-highway vehicles trail. The SxS is equipped with a Rockford “Element Ready” all-in-one concept, including an audio roof with eight 8-inch speakers, two 10-inch subwoofers, a 1500-watt amplifier, and a 2.7-inch source unit, as well as a rear audio cap with four more 8-inch speakers and 800 watts and 10-inch subwoofers under the back seat. I’m told that despite all that, the system can be easily installed in under an hour, ready for the trails, dunes, mud, bonfires. The rocky loop we take does a great job of rattling my bones, but even if we were stationary, the $10,000 in closed-loop audio concepts would have left me thunderstruck.

Finally, we head down to the lake itself and board a supercharged pontoon equipped with the company’s Marine Audio components, naturally. It’s a different environment but the same built-to-endure experience. Requests are taken, and while I might not love Steely Dan or Dave Matthews Band, I can appreciate the open-air clarity delivered by these shiny objects. As I reflect on Rockford Fosgate’s commitment to engineering from the ground up, even when the ground is this big blue watery road, I don’t forget to relax and breathe.

Speakers photo
Rockford Fosgate