Hear, hear: Renfrew startup Riverwood Acoustics turning 'lost' lumber into sought-after 'craft' speakers

Riverwood founders
Riverwood Acoustics founders Ben Seaman (left) and Scott Rathwell have combined their passion for music, engineering and wood into successful startup. Photo courtesy Riverwood Acoustics

The logs that once rode down the Ottawa River are now making waves – sound waves, that is – as the foundation of a growing local startup that’s crafting premium speakers out of the centuries-old wood.

Renfrew-based Riverwood Acoustics was born four years ago when longtime buddies Ben Seaman and Scott Rathwell, both engineers by trade, started talking about ways to combine their various passions, which also included music and woodworking.

The pair, who live just a few minutes away from each other near the Ottawa River, soon hit on the idea of crafting speakers out of the vast swaths of lumber that still line the riverbed.

“Every spring, these amazing logs would wash up,” explains Seaman, who runs his own consulting firm and whose resume includes previous stints at Honeywell and JDS Uniphase. “I knew it was sought-after wood.”

Seaman and Rathwell – a mechanical engineering graduate of Queen’s University who now works at Ottawa’s Bayview Yards innovation hub – started experimenting and soon came up with a small model designed to fit comfortably in a kitchen or living room.

Riverwood’s speakers use “lost” timber that fell to the bottom of the river while it was being driven to mills in the 19th century. The firm buys the lumber from Ottawa-based Logs End, a flooring company that sends divers down to retrieve the precious wood.

Riverwood speaker

Birch makes for the best speakers, Seaman says, explaining that it’s fairly lightweight yet still dense and rigid, so it vibrates and distorts sound less than many other types of timber.

The lumber the old “rough riders” of days gone by delivered to mills is far superior to the stuff you find in the forest today, he adds.

“It’s denser, it’s more beautiful wood, there’s no knots,” he says. “It’s just perfect wood.”

Striking in appearance and pristine in sound quality, Riverwood’s handcrafted speakers are gaining a vocal chorus of devoted fans who’ve posted five-star reviews of the product online. 

The firm’s high-profile customer list includes Canadian country star Brett Kissel, bestselling author and marketing guru Seth Godin and former Dragons’ Den panellist Bruce Croxon. Riverwood also has a mighty corporate ally in e-commerce giant Shopify, which powers the company’s website and has installed several of its speakers in its offices around the world.

Seaman says it’s not just the speakers’ sound quality that strikes a chord with a growing legion  of buyers – it’s also the fact they’re produced by a small, independently owned enterprise that’s reclaiming centuries-old wood and keeping the production process as green as possible. 

"We’re like the craft beer of audio."

“There’s already a million plastic speakers out there,” he says. “We’re like the craft beer of audio. (Customers) love the story behind it.”

The company produces two Bluetooth-enabled models dubbed the Hudson and the Madawaska, which retail for $799 through the firm’s website and have been shipped to customers in nearly every Canadian province and U.S. state. 

Riverwood has turned out about 500 speakers so far, and Seaman expects the firm to manufacture another 1,000 over the next 12 months as it hires more workers and ramps up production. In addition, the company is poised to roll out a pair of new products – larger, bookshelf-sized speakers and a 54-inch sound bar designed for use with big-screen TVs.

The production itself is a group effort. While most of the electronics are assembled at a plant in the town of Renfrew, the distinctive wood casings are put together at Bode’s Cabinets in Arnprior and the metalwork is done at Virtucom Metals in Carp.

Initially self-financed by Seaman and Rathwell, Riverwood got a hefty boost in 2018 when it won a $100,000 pitch competition sponsored by Renfrew County’s Community Futures Development Corp.

As material costs continue to rise, Seaman says the company hopes to land additional capital from agencies such as the Business Development Bank of Canada. He’s also looking to add to the firm’s core team of four employees as it expands its product lines.

“Our batches just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Seaman notes with a smile. “That’s the end goal for sure is to scale, create more local manufacturing jobs and continue to grow the company and the brand.”