Book Review: Audio Research: Making the Music Glow
Written by Ken Kessler, designed by Henry Nolan. 220pp. $150. Available at Audio Research dealers and online at audioresearch.com.
I never met Audio Research Corporation founder William Zane Johnson, who died in 2011. But when he founded his now-legendary company in 1970, I and my ragged troupe of Dynaco modifiers were in the trenches, fighting the sand-warrior hordes during the first transistor onslaught. Our battle was almost lost when that shiny new warrior appeared on the north ridge. He, too, brandished a modified Dynaco Stereo 70. He hailed from Minnesota, a land of extreme cold, walleye fishing, and northern lights. His company’s flag displayed a glowing vacuum tube, under which the words “High Definition” were inscribed.
I felt certain he was fighting a lost causethat we all were.
I was wrongand here we are today, celebrating William “Bill” Johnson’s achievements and the 50th anniversary of his company with a super-deluxe LP-sized hardcover book, Audio Research: Making the Music Glow, authored and curated by respected audio historian and Hi-Fi News & Record Review journalist Ken Kessler.
By the mid-1970s, Bill Johnson’s relatively expensive glass-tube watts were not only battling the mainstream’s cheap silicon watts; on a second front, they were defending against new, high-quality transistor designs from the young audio-design wizards at SAE, Threshold, Mark Levinson, GAS, and Phase Linear. To compete, Johnson developed an output stage similar to that of the ancient Quad II tube amplifier; ARC called it “partial cathode coupling.” The name was likely a riff on McIntosh’s “unity coupling” and, like those designs, the stage was a form of cathode feedback that assured low output impedances, lower than usual (for tubes) distortion specs, and enhanced potential for current delivery. This last characteristic allowed Johnson to team up with another Minnesota startupMagnepanwhose radically beautiful planar-magnetic panel speakers played their best when driven by Audio Research tubes.
I remember the tremendous impact this famous partnership had on me. The first actual “high end” audio dealership I ever visited was Mike Kay’s Lyric HiFi in New York City (footnote 1). During my first visit, Mike demonstrated Jim Winey’s elegant, white-clothcovered Magnepan panels powered by one of Bill Johnson’s supercool pro-styled amps, with handles. I had never seen, heard, or even imagined audio equipment that looked or sounded like that. That was unquestionably my first-ever “Wow!” audio experience.
This paradigm-shifting moment occurred as the mainstream audio publications, Stereo Review and High Fidelity, were championing measurements, features, and the latest technologies. In contrast, these new perfectionist niche brands were championing good sound.
As I was leaving Lyric, Mike Kay sold me two digest-sized “underground” audio magazines: one founded by J. Gordon Holt (Stereophile), the other founded by Harry Pearson (The Absolute Sound). Reading them, I discovered a strange new world of exotic gear that was not sold at Crazy Eddie’s or J&R. These “outsider” editor-scribes were the first to understand and fully explain what ARC and Magnepan had accomplished. Fueled by the market-influencing powers of Holt and Pearson, Johnson and Winey (and a coterie of small British and American companies) were the vanguard of what I now lovingly refer to as the Golden Age of audiophile audio.
In creating Audio Research: Making the Music Glow, Ken Kessler collaborated with Johnson’s widow Nancy, ARC’s former president and CEO Jeff Poggi, and the book’s talented designer, Henry Nolan, to create a Rizzoli-level work of book-publishing art that celebrates not only Bill Johnson and his company but also the lives of everyone associated with ARC: family, friends, customers, and employees.
The book contains informative interviews with Mr. Johnson by (among others) Stereophile‘s John Atkinson and Paul Messenger (1983) (both then with Hi-Fi News & Record Review). Also interviewed are Richard Larson, ARC’s chief engineer from 1979 to 2004, and Terry Dorn, ARC’s marketing director from 1986 until 2008, when he became ARC’s president. One of my favorite interviews is with Warren Gehl, ARC’s “Aural Evaluator”the man who followed Jack Hjelm as the company’s critical ears and setup person. Since 1995, Gehl has made “music you can’t ignore” the company’s sonic-aesthetic goal.
My favorite parts of Making the Music Glow are all the little human stories about the diverse characters who helped form the audio world of the present. I was especially pleased to read humorous anecdotes about Magnepan PR Director Wendell Diller, who started out representing the ARC and Magnepan partnership and 50 years later is still on the road, representing Magnepan. While celebrating ARC’s legacy, this book provides a fascinating, cheerful insider view of audiophile culture since 1970. Best of all, this beautiful book does a definitive job of describing, with text, pictures, specs, and reviews, every Audio Research product from 1970 to 2020.
While I’ve never owned an Audio Research product, William Zane Johnson’s 50-year battle against the silicon hordes has absolutely affected the quality of my 50 years in audio. Audio Research: Making the Music Glow is not just for ARC fanatics or even vacuum tube lovers; it is for every audiophile who seeks an intimate, human-filled picture of our shared culture. I enjoyed every page.
Footnote: 1 Lyric HiFi closed its doors for good this past winter. See our coverage in Re-Tales (p.119) and My Back Pages (p.122).
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