Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

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My book, The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, tells the story of three journeys—my own audio quest for the past 15 years, my love of all kinds of music since I was a kid in Hawaiʻi back in the 1950s, and the story of amplification itself from early acoustic instruments and classical amphitheaters to modern electronics and speakers. It’s part memoir, part personal audio chronicle, and part essayistic history of audio itself told through selected highlights. It took me a long time to write.

My passion for audio dates back to the Empire 398 turntable my father paired with a Dynakit Stereo 70 amplifier in our tract home in Los Angeles back in the early ’60s. But my personal quest began 17 years ago when I replaced a decrepit CD changer from a desktop combo unit with a California Audio Labs CL-15 I bought used from an audiophile friend. I put on a CD of Duke Ellington’s music, and the sound was absolutely explosive and magnificent compared to what I’d ever heard coming from my dinky all-in-one system. Then I went looking for full-size speakers and more powerful amps that could play orchestral music and Italian opera, classic rock, and post-bop combo jazz so they’d all sound more—I hesitate to say live, but as close to that as I could get. I started reviewing for SoundStage! Ultra (then Ultra Audio) not too long after that, and I’ve been writing for it since 2007. It’s been a great experience, and I’m grateful for all I’ve learned.

The Perfect Sound

The following is an excerpt from The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo.

The Mini-Flex Speaker

The University Mini-Flex speaker was one of the first bookshelf models that was part of the home stereo revolution in hi-fi back in the early sixties. Before these compact ones came along, speakers were huge affairs built on older, acoustic-horn technology designed for movie theaters and auditoriums. Costs were high and sizes were more than any average family man could accommodate in a standard postwar, three-bedroom, tract home like ours. Just two speakers like those built by Altec Lansing, Klipschorn, or Stromberg-Carlson of that era would have taken up at least a third of my parents’ living room, dominating the corners like the tuba-shaped ventilation ducts on a battleship. The bookshelf speakers were boxlike and much tidier, and they brought the world of hi-fi to the American middle class, introducing stereo as a new form of home entertainment and pleasure. It celebrated leisure and had the promise of making home-life “aesthetic,” cultured. After my father built his own system from mail-order kits he could assemble in his spare time, he made a retail splurge on a fancy belt-driven turntable (also a new invention), and he got compact speakers at Fed-Co, a membership discount store that targeted civil service workers (my mother worked for the City of L.A.).

These were the Mini-Flex, a three-way speaker system built by University Loudspeakers in White Plains, New York. Only fifteen inches wide, about ten inches tall, and less than six inches deep, one fit on our lamp table on the right corner of the living room and the other on the fireplace mantelpiece near its left corner. That they were on different levels didn’t seem to matter to anyone, so long as they both fit tidily into the space—and that they did for the decade I went from middle school to when I graduated from college. And their look was fairly chic—oiled walnut cabinets, dark brown and beige checkerboard grillcloths interwoven with gold thread, and a secure feeling of heft and density if you lifted them. They were completely unlike the flimsy, flip-top speaker that had come with our old Silvertone phonograph, a tinny gizmo of unadorned simplicity that wrecked whatever real music you tried to squeeze through it. The Mini-Flex, by contrast, played wonderfully, sounding superb and sophisticated, creating a deep sound-field that enveloped me whenever I heard it, its bass ample by comparison, supporting the higher frequencies so they could ripple and shine in a way that reminded me of the surface waters to a lagoon back where I grew up in Hawaiʻi.

Likely designed by Victor Brociner, an engineer originally a partner with Avery Fisher at Philharmonic Radio Corporation, the University Mini-Flex was a later, compact version of the larger Acoustic Research AR-1, the speaker that rocked the audio world into the hi-fi era back in 1954. A New York inventor named Edgar Villchur, trained in art history and largely self-taught in audio engineering, came up with a new speaker design, tackling the problem of poor bass response, uncongenial size, and frustrating distortion that made the big, tuba-like speakers of the day sound like shit in the lower registers. Before Villchur changed everything, bass distortion was a huge problem, the large speakers of the era sounding woolly and full of unnatural boom due to the mechanical suspension of the main woofer cone. Villchur came up with the idea to use a loose suspension, and instead of an open box that allowed the cone a wide excursion, he used a sealed enclosure that counted on the natural air-compression inside the box to keep the woofer under control, employing air like a spring that checked the cone’s horizontal movement, making its acoustic performance more linear, even across its frequency range. The sound was smooth, tighter, more accurate, and Villchur’s solution was simple and elegant—like the pulley and winch designed by Brunelleschi to build the Duomo in Florence, like his curved, terra-cotta tiles that used their overlapping, mutual lines of stress to make the eggshell shape of the dome itself.

A woofer cone gets moved by electric current in a voice coil embedded in its membrane. The voice coil interacts with a powerful magnet suspended behind it that itself is held in place by a mechanical basket, often called a spider. As the woofer moves, it excites and compresses the air in front of it, creating sound waves. But in the prior designs, the woofer’s excursion had often caused it to move outside the control of the magnet, creating distortions that made for unrealistic sound. To counter that, prior tech mounted the woofer in an open box and used stiff, mechanical suspensions that, though they curbed excursion, still resulted in other irregularities of performance. Villchur saw that the open box and stiff suspensions created more problems than they solved, so he did away with them, suspending his woofer inside a sealed box that used the compression of air behind the membrane of the woofer cone to control excursion. BAM! He’d created the sealed-box, air suspension, bass-loading speaker. It was cheaper, smaller, and easier to make. Hi-fi could move from mansions on Park Avenue and in Beverly Hills to tract homes in Levittown and Paramount, California, bought on VA loans by men like my father who’d gone to trade schools on the GI Bill.

“I used a different kind of elastic restoring force, one derived from an air spring, instead of the mechanical springs of the suspensions,” Villchur said in a November 1993 article by Steve Birchall in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. “ . . . After all, the speaker has a cabinet which encloses a cushion of elastic air,” he explained. “All I needed to do was to decimate the springy stiffness of the speaker suspensions, and reduce the size of the enclosure until the air spring was strong enough to replace the mechanical springs that we threw away . . .”

To make his prototype, Villchur used a standard twelve-inch woofer made by Western Electric for their own loudspeakers: “I cut away part of the spider of one of them, making it more compliant. I also cut away the entire rim suspension and replaced it with a suspension made of mattress cover material (because it is very compliant, and adequately impervious to air) . . . The acoustic suspension speaker was substantially superior [to the Western Electric speaker] in fulness of bass, and especially in lack of distortion.”

The story goes, Villchur hatched his idea in the early fifties while teaching a night class on audio engineering at New York University, the first class of its kind anywhere. He tinkered, he studied books on electronics and physics, he repaired audio equipment, and he built custom systems for the rich, all the while dreaming shit up. Once he figured out the principles of his speaker, he went to two of the biggest speaker companies of the day with his design, only to be dismissed out of hand. Altec Lansing told him if his idea was any good, their corps of elite engineers would have already thought of it. Bozak said what he’d proposed “was impossible.”

Villchur went back to tinkering and teaching and met Henry Kloss, a student in the NYU night class, who understood the merits of his design immediately. Excited by Villchur’s talk of his prototype, the two men drove up from New York City to Villchur’s home in Woodstock (already a haven for eccentrics, artists, and bohemians) to listen to it. Villchur is said to have played an LP of organ music by E. Power Biggs, and its playback reached such massive low pedal tones, Kloss went nuts. Kloss already had a shop in Cambridge where he made speaker cabinets. And Villchur had a magical design. On a shoestring, the two men started their own company, Acoustic Research, and began to produce sealed-box loudspeakers out of Kloss’s shop. Right away, the speakers set the hi-fi world on fire, and the revolution in speaker design took off from there, influencing the entire home-stereo industry.

The Perfect Sound

Yet even after amazing technological and commercial successes, Villchur wasn’t done. He started thinking about another weak link in loudspeaker design—the tweeter that produces the high frequencies. In 1958, he came up with a new one for his AR-3 speaker.

Villchur explained the challenge in Birchall’s article: “The secret of high-frequency dispersion can be stated in two words: small size. Shrinking a cone tweeter to a small size doesn’t help because the voice coil becomes too small to handle any appreciable amount of power. I placed my voice coil at the large diameter of the diaphragm [instead of within its circumference]. When you do that, the shape of the diaphragm emerges almost naturally as a dome. That has the further advantage of making unnecessary a second suspension . . .” In Villchur’s new concept, tweeter size shrank considerably, going from the 8-inch Western Electric 755A in the AR-1 to the much smaller 2-inch and 1⅜-inch Villchur-designed tweeters in the AR-3 and AR-3a speakers.

Yet Villchur’s AR-1 and his subsequent models (AR-3a notably among them) were still fairly largish affairs, bigger than an orange crate, nearly the size of a twelve-gallon trash can, taking up a fat lamp table’s worth of space, and needed at least 60 to 100 watts of amplification power to function right—about ten times more power than the older, more efficient speakers required. As new, higher-powered solid-state amplifiers were being introduced, this wasn’t a commercially significant problem. But the sound the new combination made got away from the traditional, liquidinous warmth of the vacuum-tube amplifier.

A few years after Villchur’s contributions had been established, engineer Victor Brociner closed his own audio speaker and electronics company in New York City and came to work at University Loudspeakers in White Plains. He had a knack for cramming and miniaturization, having already figured out how to shrink down electronic gear to fit into some of the first stereo consoles—the furniture-like, lifestyle products that combined electronics, speakers, and a turntable in one long and lavish buffet-sized unit. These had become all the rage as signs of prestige and cultured leisure in the American home. At University, Brociner designed an even more compact speaker than the AR-1, trimming the size of Villchur’s twelve-gallon enclosure to four-tenths of a cubic foot (less than the volume of a quart of milk), using a more efficient bass driver (requiring fewer watts to power it), and matching it with other tech Villchur had created in the meantime (the dome tweeter and dome midrange driver) to make for an ultra-compact, sealed box loudspeaker that would sing like a midget Caruso. Brociner’s Mini-Flex speaker was an easy fit into modest-sized living rooms like ours, needed much less power than an AR speaker to run it right (a tube amp of 20 watts could do it), and looked cool too. But its main feature remained the stiff acoustic air spring of Villchur’s provenance, creating superior bass down to 40 Hz (human hearing goes to about 20 Hz).

My father powered his University Mini-Flex speakers on the mere 35 watts per channel his home-built Dynaco Stereo 70 amplifier put out. And the sound it made tutored my ears, the S-70’s EL34 vacuum tubes providing the current to the Mini-Flex speakers that produced the music of warmth and lavishness in our living room, upholding sensuousness over raw power, its sound the wellspring of my passion for hi-fi and my entry into the worlds it let me travel.

Garrett Hongo
Contributor, SoundStage!