©Tom Tyson 2011-2015
Edgar Marion Villchur was born in New York City on May 28, 1917, the son of Mark and Mariam (Vinograd) Villchur. He married Rosemary Mackay Shafer on November 18, 1945; the couple had two children, Miriam Villchur Berg and Mark Villchur. Edgar Villchur died in Woodstock, New York on October 17, 2011.
Villchur is usually remembered as the father of the modern high-fidelity loudspeaker, the man who invented the acoustic suspension loudspeaker and the dome tweeter. In fact, Villchur accomplished a great deal more. He was first and foremost a thinker and researcher, a man who specialized in reducing a major problem to its basic form and creating an elegant solution for it. He was also a clear-thinking and talented technical writer and author in audio and acoustics; and from 1954 until he sold his company, Acoustic Research, Inc., to Teledyne in 1967, he was also a greatly admired businessman. He had a serious, no-nonsense demeanor, but he also loved to play poker with friends and was a fine joke teller. Over the years, Edgar Villchur was recognized for his contributions to acoustics, and was awarded many citations for excellence.
Villchur was largely self-taught in mathematics and physics. Without formal engineering training, he mastered the full spectrum of electrical engineering and acoustics and became a recognized authority in the fields of audio and acoustics. And despite a professed disdain for going into business, he learned how to manage his company efficiently by selecting talented and trusted friends and colleagues to operate it. The company soon developed a reputation not only for top-quality audio products but also for fairness and generosity to its employees and consumers. Acoustic Research, Inc., was unlike any company before or since.
Early Years, New York, and World War II
Villchur grew up on a farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, and as a teenager in the late 1920s he began tinkering with early radio and phonograph equipment. His interest “was primarily musical; I took relatively little pleasure in the technical side,” he told audio writer Norman Eisenberg in an interview in 1960. He moved to New York and attended The City College of New York, graduating with a degree in art history in 1938. He shared a $30-per-month apartment in Greenwich Village and worked in the theater, with plans to become a theatrical scene designer. In 1939, he completed graduate school at CCNY with an M.S. in education and planned to become a teacher. However, nine months before the Pearl Harbor attack Villchur was drafted in the lottery and inducted into the Army Air Corps. Soon after the start of the war, Villchur applied to Air Corps Cadet School, and in October 1942 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Before his discharge in 1946, he rose to the rank of captain and became communications officer with the 340th Fighter Group of the 5th Air Force in Australia and New Guinea.
During the war, Villchur was decorated with the Bronze Star. He said, “The Bronze Star was at least partly related to an ‘unsatisfactory report’ I sent back from the Pacific, about an aircraft receiver used in the P-47 fighter plane and what to do about the problem. Incidentally, the Bronze Star can only be awarded for actions performed ‘in the face of the enemy,’ or some such wording. I was originally put in for a Legion of Merit, an award above the Silver Star, but I think they decided that was too much for a non-combat action.”
Villchur also kept the squadron’s consumer-electronics devices in good operating condition. “I worked on military electronics hardware when I was in New Guinea during World War Two,” Villchur said. “Our pilots had brought over a portable phonograph, and the pickup cartridge conked out. There were no electronics supply stores in the New Guinea jungle, so I had to make do. I located a dynamic-throat microphone (the standard-throat microphones were carbon and had no highs), attached the needle chuck of the old cartridge to it, and it worked like a charm. Another piece of military hardware I worked on was our movie projector. The light beam that went through the sound track at the side of the film was reflected from a metal mirror, which had become corroded with what we called Guinea crud. I removed the handle from a dental mirror that I got from our group dentist, and it worked better than the original.”
After the war Villchur returned to New York’s Greenwich Village and, with his military-electronics experience, taught in electronics trade schools and opened a radio-repair shop, where he worked on radios and designed custom hi-fi music sets, including a $612 unit he built in 1948 for his friend (and later business colleague) Abe Hoffman. These hi-fi sets consisted of a Jensen or Altec Lansing loudspeaker, a Meissner AM/FM tuner, a Garrard turntable, and an eight-watt AC/DC power amplifier that Villchur designed and housed in a solid-walnut cabinet. He designed and built the amplifier to operate on either AC or DC volt-age, as some Greenwich Village neighborhoods were still powered by direct current. He modified the Meissner tuner to eliminate persistent modulation hum, a problem that would occur only on tuning-in a station.
Villchur’s electronics experience, night-school classes at NYU, and self-teaching in such things as differential equations helped build his understanding of sound reproduction, and in 1951 he acquired an instructorship at New York University’s Division of General Studies. For about five years he taught a weekly three-hour evening course on sound reproduction and electronics, a topic chosen in order to combine his interests in music and electronics. “I had wanted to move out of the city and do research in sound reproduction, but I had to earn a living, so I came down to the city once a week to teach, and wrote an article a month for Audio, Saturday Review, and a publication called Service. This gave me enough to get by on ($3,000 a year or so), and left two weeks out of the month free to putter,” Villchur said. After starting the class, Villchur moved from Greenwich Village to Chestnut Hill Road in Woodstock, New York, “to become 1) a free-lance writer, 2) a choral singer, and 3) a researcher in loudspeaker design, since he hated the massive and distortion-prone devices with which he had to listen to his Bach and Stravinsky,” The Atlantic Monthly reported in June 1960.
Over the course of his career, Villchur wrote approximately 150 articles, at least 30 of these while he was running AR from 1954 through 1967. During the early 1950s, C.G. McProud, editor of Audio Engineer-ing magazine (later Audio), asked Villchur to submit a series of articles on sound reproduction. He also invited Villchur to become a contributing editor. These magazine articles were later revised and became the chapters for Villchur’s 1957 Handbook of Sound Reproduction and formed the syllabus for his class lectures in acoustics and sound reproduction at NYU. The original book was revised to become Reproduction of Sound and published in 1962 by Acoustic Research and in 1965 by Dover Publications, Inc. This $2 book is thought by many to be one of the best-written books ever on the subject of high-fidelity sound reproduction. During the mid 1960s, a group of GM automotive engineers, in transit, stopped by AR’s Music Room in Grand Central Station, and “gobbled up every piece of AR literature available,” according to AR’s marketing manager, Jerry Landau: “One of them later contacted the firm to order AR founder Ed Villchur’s book, Reproduction of Sound, in quantity, so impressed was he with the author’s way of translating technical terms into English. In 2000, Villchur wrote a third book, Acoustics for Audiologists, published by Singular Publishing and Cengage Learning and selling on Amazon at $165 for a new copy.
Villchur described his method of teaching audio electronics at NYU as taking each audio component and breaking it down to its individual parts, discussing its construction, problems, and issues. He would start with the loudspeaker—which in those days consisted of a separate speaker driver and cabinet—then he would move on to the next component. Of all the audio components, the loudspeaker was the weak link, producing the highest distortion, particularly at low frequencies.
For many years, audio engineers had known that the single biggest problem in low-frequency loudspeaker design was the nonlinearity of the speaker’s mechanical suspension. Conventional mechanical cone suspensions would tend to “bind” at the end of their travel, causing distortion to rise at the lower frequencies. Speaker designers attempted to reduce this distortion with various designs such as acoustical-coupler, acoustical-labyrinth, corner-horn, bass-reflex, and large multi-driver, infinite-baffle enclosures. Referring to these efforts and their compromises to reduce bass distortion, Villchur once commented, “Rather than try to unravel the Gordian Knot, I cut it.” One of Villchur’s great talents was his ability to carefully analyze and identify a problem, reducing it to its simplest form.
In between teaching and writing, Villchur studied the problem of nonlinearity in speakers’ mechanical suspension. He devised the simple idea of using an elastic cushion of air within a sealed enclosure, which he termed “acoustic suspension,” a linear, pneumatic restoring force supporting the woofer cone in place of the usual mechanical suspensions. At first, he envisioned a series of pistons and cylinders placed behind the cone, but settled down when he realized that he already had the cushion of air he needed, in the form of the sealed cabinet itself. Therefore, instead of fighting the air in an enclosure, he allowed the cushion of air behind the woofer to become an integral part of the speaker mechanism, providing 85 to 90 percent of the restoring force for the speaker cone, with the remainder contributed by a loosely suspended, modified cone with a subsonic free-air resonance. This design produced uniform bass response down to 40 Hz and below and, while the small size of the enclosure was necessary for proper performance, it proved especially beneficial with the onset of stereophonic reproduction a few years later.
In a 1955 Saturday Review article, “A New Approach to Cabinet Design,” Villchur spoke of his invention as “a new approach to the problem of what to do with the air in the speaker cabinet. Why not use the springy air behind the cone, that is, design a system which actually needs it? I conceived of a speaker purposely lacking in normal mechanical springiness, a crippled unit, so to speak, which would not work properly in a conventional enclosure. The system would be completed by housing this ‘defective’ unit in a small, sealed box, the pneumatic spring of the enclosed air substituting for the decimated springiness of the speaker itself.” Villchur put his design on paper and subjected it to quantitative analysis, which demonstrated that this concept had the potential of producing low-distortion bass superior to anything currently in use—all from a small enclosure a fraction of the size of the behemoth speakers previously associated with this level of performance.
With the help of his wife Rosemary, a skilled draftsperson during the war, Villchur was able to fabricate a fabric half-round suspension for one of his 12˝ WE 728B speakers (the other was left unmodified), and in 1953 he completed the 19˝ x 19˝ x 11˝ (1.7 cubic feet) plywood prototype acoustic suspension loudspeaker. After miscalculating the size of the initial prototype (it was too small), he developed a final model that delivered uniform output down to 40 Hz. This unit was compared with the second, stock WE728B, mounted in a stairwell infinite baffle arrangement, and the acoustic suspension prototype clearly outper-formed the large infinite baffle arrangement. “We achieve bass response not in spite of the small size, but because of it,” he would say. Villchur decided to apply for a patent for his invention, but without enough money to hire a patent attorney, he spent several months studying the complexities of writing and filing a patent. He ended up completing the patent application himself in 1954. In a 2005 interview with David Lander of Stereophile, Villchur said, “The estimate the patent attorney gave me was too high. I said, ‘How about if I just come talk to you and you tell me what I need to do to write my own? How much would you charge for that?’ He said, ‘$30 an hour.’ And I said, ‘I’ll take one.’”
Villchur was not interested in going into business. He decided to try to sell the patent to one of the established loudspeaker manufacturers, asking $10,000 for the patent but willing to accept less. Two large speaker companies, Altec Lansing and Bozak, were not interested. An acquaintance who worked at Altec said, “You know, Ed, we have a pretty good staff of engineers here. If there were something around such as you describe, I think they would have found it.” Another friend of Villchur’s approached Rudy Bozak to ask if he would be interested; he wasn’t, “because what you describe is impossible.” Villchur determined that he had no choice but to go into business himself, hoping to establish a company and then withdraw from active management and operation to spend his time writing, teaching, and conducting research in his lab in Woodstock.
In the spring of 1954, Villchur was approached by a student, Henry Kloss, regarding the acoustic suspen-sion system he had heard Villchur describe in his NYU sound reproduction class. After class one evening, Villchur and Kloss drove to Woodstock in his 1938 Buick to listen to the prototype speaker. Upon hearing E. Power Biggs playing organ music on this prototype, Kloss immediately grasped the importance of this invention. “That’s it!” he said. At a 1993 Audio Engineering Society convention, Henry Kloss stood up during the Q&A session after Villchur had delivered a talk on the birth of acoustic suspension. He said, “The intellectual experience of hearing Ed summarize the principle in just three sentences was the high point of my life—a real thrill for me.”
Acoustic Research, Inc.
After the trip to Woodstock, the two men decided to form a company to manufacture Villchur’s acoustic suspension speaker. At the time, Kloss Industries, housed in a loft on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was assembling and selling the $24.95 Baruch-Lang High-Fidelity Speaker. Kloss offered this site as a place where they could build the new speaker, and Villchur and Kloss, with associates Tony Hofmann and Malcolm Low, raised a total of about $6,000 for operations, with Villchur contributing his patent and his life savings of $2,000. The new company, Acoustic Research, Inc., was incorporated on August 10, 1954. Villchur, as president, held 50 percent of the stock and was responsible for product development and promotion; Kloss, as vice-president, was responsible for production design and operations and shared his 50 percent of the stock with Hofmann and Low.
AR’s first product was the AR-1, priced at $185 and completed in the fall of 1954 in time for the October New York Audio Fair. The AR-1 was Villchur’s design, including the cabinet size, shape, crossover network, and so forth, but the first few AR-1s were fabricated, primarily by hand, by Henry Kloss in his Mt. Auburn loft. Kloss was responsible for perhaps seventy-five percent of the final production model. An early disagreement between the two men had Villchur wanting to outsource the woofers to third-party suppliers and then modify them in-house for the final speaker; Kloss insisted on building the woofer completely in-house at AR. This became the superb AR-1 product as we know it today. Kloss’s final AR-1 production prototype was an important contribution to Acoustic Research.
Credit for the Acoustic Suspension Woofer
In the years after Villchur left AR in 1967, the question of who invented the acoustic suspension design and the AR-1 speaker emerged in magazine articles and advertisements. When Villchur retired from the high-fidelity industry, he did not look back, but embarked on his new work in hearing-aid research. He lost touch somewhat with the hi-fi industry, and for some time he was unaware that several inaccuracies had evolved which gave Henry Kloss credit for “founding Acoustic Research” or “introducing the first acoustic suspension speaker.” A 1982 Time magazine article erroneously stated, “In some exceptional individuals, however, the entrepreneurial spirit never ages. Henry Kloss, 53, founded his first company, Acoustic Research, in Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 22. It made stereo speakers, and he eventually sold it to his partner.” In 1989, Hans Fantel, writing for The New York Times, stated that “Mr. Kloss advanced prevailing standards of speaker design with such classic innovations as the original Acoustic Re-search and Advent loudspeakers.” A few years later an ad for Cambridge SoundWorks—a mail-order audio company cofounded by Henry Kloss—shows Kloss surrounded by various loudspeakers and devices and a picture of an AR-1. The ad states, “He has received numerous patents for his innovations in audio and video technology. Pictured at right is his first product, the Acoustic Research AR-1. Developed in 1952, it was the very first acoustic suspension loudspeaker. He went on to design innovative, best-selling audio and video products at KLH and Advent.” This ad implies that Kloss invented or developed the AR-1. Even the year was incorrect; it should have read 1954. Nevertheless, Villchur would later politely insist that Henry didn’t specifically say that he invented the acoustic suspension AR-1 speaker, but that he allowed it to be stated by others, especially the Cambridge SoundWorks ad and some KLH and Advent advertisements before it.
Regarding another Audio article on Henry Kloss and the Cambridge advertising, Villchur said in a letter in 1992, “The story doesn’t repeat the line of Cambridge Soundworks advertising, which implies that Henry was responsible for the acoustic suspension speaker. It merely puts a spin on the history—which I would expect—by emphasis or lack of it. For example, there is no mention of the working prototype I had built before Henry heard of the acoustic suspension, only reference to my “idea.” Henry’s contribution is made to sound as though it was part of the innovation. Henry’s real contribution was to create a production design (or rather, three-quarters of it) and production facilities when he had neither training nor experience for the job; he taught himself to become a speaker-production designer.”
The AR-1 was displayed in 1954 at the New York Audio Fair and the Audio Engineering Society meet-ing. In a 1961 product brochure, Villchur described the impact of the acoustic suspension principle: “Speaker systems designed for highest quality bass reproduction ranged in size from 6 to 15 cubic feet, and their prices ranged from $400 to $800. Today, owing mainly to AR’s introduction of the acoustic suspension design, the giant enclosure has almost passed from the scene, and speaker prices are a quarter of what they were. Most important of all, it is possible to achieve an undistorted naturalness in musical reproduction that was not previously attainable.” In 1990, equipment reviewer, engineer, and writer Julian Hirsch described his experience in first listening to the AR-1: “The occasion was the 1954 Audio Fair, and in the room was the exhibit of a newly formed company, Acoustic Research, Inc. In attendance were the company’s principals Edgar Villchur and Henry Kloss. Their initial product was a compact (‘book-shelf’) speaker system, the AR-1. As I recall the occasion, a single AR-1 was playing (stereo was still a few years in the future), and the sound was like nothing I had ever heard from a compact speaker, or indeed from almost any other speaker. When I heard the Acoustic Research AR-1 speaker at the 1954 Audio Fair, I felt certain that I had heard the future of high-fidelity sound in the home. As it turned out, I was right.”
AR continued to receive favorable reviews on the AR-1, and it soon became known as one of the finest low-frequency loudspeakers available. Although designed for home use, many AR-1s were used in professional installations. Harvard Medical School used AR-1s to reproduce the sound of the human heart; the United States Air Force bought 30 AR-1Ws to reproduce the sound of jet engines as part of a training setup. In 1956, the New York Audio League conducted a live-versus-recorded demonstration comparing the sound of a large Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ in Mt. Kisco, New York, with a recorded playback through four AR-1 loudspeakers. This successful demonstration added convincing proof of the AR-1’s remarkable low-frequency capability.
Acoustic Research was up and running by the end of 1954; Villchur had published his disclosure article on the AR-1, and had placed the company’s first advertisement for it, in the October issue of Audio. Production of the AR-1 began in March 1955, and by the end of the year the company had shipped 455 systems. Villchur commuted between Cambridge and his Woodstock lab, where he continued to conduct research and write articles; in the meantime, Kloss worked at the plant as vice president in charge of production design and operations. By 1956, had AR moved from Kloss’s single-story loft to a four-story building on Thorndike Street in Cambridge, and had begun to develop a smaller, lower-cost speaker called the AR-2. This speaker, slightly smaller than the AR-1, was introduced at the New York hi-fi show in the fall of 1956 and began shipping in March 1957.
1957 Reorganization at Acoustic Research
From the beginning, Villchur and Kloss had differences on policy and personal issues, and by 1956 these differences had created a management impasse that resulted in a complete company reorganization in February 1957. By this time, Villchur and Kloss were at complete odds over the proper direction of the company, and it was clear that one or the other had to go. Villchur would politely say, “Henry was presidential material; there can only be one president.” Nevertheless, in December 1956, Villchur placed a telephone call to an old friend, A. J. “Abe” Hoffman in Queens, New York, to discuss this difficulty. According to Hoffman, this phone conversation developed into a serious discussion of possible solutions to the problem. After several back-and-forth meetings in Woodstock and Manhattan, Hoffman and Villchur met a final time in January 1957 to discuss the operations of AR and to prepare for the negotiation to buy out Kloss and his associates Tony Hofmann and Malcolm Low. In February, a final buyout agreement was signed, and by the end of 1957 the ownership was: 651 shares and 51 percent ownership to Edgar Villchur; 649 shares and 49 percent to Abe Hoffman and investors. Villchur remained president, and Hoffman was made vice president, treasurer, and head of operations.
Following this, Villchur brought in other individuals and friends he trusted to help operate of the company, such as Harry Rubinstein (a former teacher in music and dance) as plant manager, Manny Maier (a teacher with M.S.E. and Ph.D. degrees in German history) as materials manager, and Maurice Rotstein (who had a Ph.D. in history, mathematics, and economics) as sales manager. None of these men had any specific business experience or background, but this is just the way Villchur wanted it: honest people he could trust who could be taught to run a business. Most importantly, Villchur saw a need to bring good people with certain qualities into the organization, beginning with Abe Hoffman; by 1959 Villchur had brought in Roy Allison as a protégé to work closely with him on product development. Allison would go on to improve many of Villchur’s designs, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had designed a series of outstanding AR loudspeakers. Allison left in 1972 to form his own company.
After the reorganization in 1957, operations at AR began to improve. The AR-2 was completed in February (ironically, on the day Kloss left AR), and it began shipping in the next month. Selling for $96 each, the AR-2 became an overnight success, providing performance nearly as good as the $185 AR-1, sacrificing only one-third of an octave at the bottom in deep-bass response. As Villchur described it in a November 1956 ad, “The design sacrifices in the AR-2, comparatively small, have mainly to do with giving up some of the AR-1’s performance in the nether low-frequency regions.” The AR-2 received top acclaim in the press and became a best-selling speaker that helped propel AR’s sales from $383,259 in 1956 to $973,262 in 1957. By this point, Villchur’s company had grown solidly and profitably, and was well on its way to becoming the market leader in the loudspeaker industry.
The Company Atmosphere
By 1957 and into the 1960s, Acoustic Research began to develop many fine employee-friendly policies in order to attract and retain a high-quality work force. The company’s employee relations and benefits were unusual for a company this size, comparable to the largest corporations of the day, and reflected Villchur’s (and AR top management’s) sense of sharing the prosperity of the company and building employee loyalty. AR intended to make the company a good place to work, “create employee dignity,” as the company would say, by enabling employees to share in the company’s success in an environment where working conditions were pleasant, employment was secure, and the wages and benefits were attractive. The company’s business was seasonal—up in the winter and down in the summer—but AR’s policy was one of continued employment and job security, and the company tried to avoid layoffs by building up inventory in the summer and reducing inventory in winter, sometimes having employees perform odd jobs around the plant.
It was AR’s policy to pay above-industry-average wages (approximately 10 percent higher than area standards) and to offer excellent benefits and working conditions; some of these benefits are almost unheard of in today’s business climate. Nevertheless, after 1957, AR began paying a semi-annual wage dividend to company workers based on company profits. The company also provided a number of fringe benefits for all employees, such as major-medical insurance, life insurance, disability, sick-pay insurance, pregnancy-separation pay, paid holidays, bereavement pay, and paid vacations. AR paid to offset jury duty or military reserve obligations for up to two weeks, and, as an expression of appreciation, provided a small U.S. savings bond for employees who got married or who had a baby. The company offered reimbursement for tuition, “study grants,” in approved schools for job-related and non-job-related studies. AR had an effective nondiscrimination policy (race, religion, sex, or age) for employees, which proved not only fair but also beneficial to the company in attracting talented individuals who might have been passed over at other companies. AR also made non-interest loans to employees for emergency purposes, and employees could purchase company products at a discount slightly below dealer cost. Free donuts and coffee were available throughout the day during breaks.
By 1958, Villchur had completed development work on a new loudspeaker using a revolutionary new tweeter design. His research led to one of the simplest of devices to reproduce high frequencies—the dome tweeter—the first of its type to be used in a commercial loudspeaker. Basic dome-shaped diaphragms had been used in horn-type tweeters dating back into the 1920s, but never as a direct-radiating tweeter. Villchur’s final dome design, looking much like a small reddish-orange fried egg, had very low distortion, smooth response, and wide dispersion, but it did not come easy, as Villchur went through nearly 250 prototypes of soft and hard materials before a workable model made from phenolic-plastic material was completed.
The soft-dome prototype, using a cloth dome coated with butyl rubber, provided some efficiency gains but poorer off-axis dispersion, and was rejected in favor of the plastic dome. The dome shape provided a rigid, piston-like diaphragm, and the position of the voice coil at the periphery of the radiating surface allowed a large voice coil to be used with a relatively small-diameter radiating surface—thus providing greater power-handling capability. Villchur’s dome used an aluminum voice coil suspended in the gap with urethane foam, without the typical bobbin or “former,” thus assuring low mass and simplicity for the total moving parts. A patent, No. 3,033,945, was issued on May 8, 1962.
The finished product was to become the AR-3 loudspeaker, using the AR-1 low-frequency section and a new 2-inch dome midrange tweeter and 1⅜-inch dome “super” tweeter. A prototype of this remarkable new loudspeaker was shown in the 1958 summer hi-fi show in Chicago to gauge public reaction, and in October, the final version of the AR-3 was exhibited at the New York High Fidelity Music Show. In the words of Abe Hoffman, “[It] was the hit of the 1958 New York hi-fi show…the only really new development this year in speakers.” Villchur wrote a disclosure article on the dome tweeter, “New High-Frequency Speaker,” published in Audio in October 1958, and the speaker began shipping in the early spring of 1959. This new tweeter was also added to the best-selling AR-2 model in December, making it the AR-2a, and sales of this new model grew rapidly. It was reported that AR sales had grown over 200 percent in 1959 alone, on account of the AR-3 and AR-2a model introductions.
An early test that summarized the outstanding quality of the AR-3 was reported by Hirsch-Houck Labora-tories in the October 1960 issue of High Fidelity magazine. Julian Hirsch stated, “The sounds produced by this speaker are probably more true to the original program than those of any other commercially manufactured speaker system we have heard.” Hirsch continued, “Prior to performing any tests on the AR-3, we listened to it for some time. It was compared against other fine speaker systems, including those with high-quality electrostatic tweeters. The listening test showed beyond doubt that this was a superior speaker system—a match for any composite system we could compare it to.” This test report clearly described the top-notch performance of the AR-3, and for many years the AR-3 received excellent reviews in the audio press and from consumer organizations, and it was generally considered to be one of finest loud-speakers available from any manufacturer at any cost.
In the summer of 1959, Villchur and the Fine Arts Quartet, in conjunction with Concertapes/Concert-Disc and Dynaco, began a series of 75 public live-versus-recorded music concerts that were performed in several major cities across the country. Members of the press and the general public were invited to these concerts, featuring Villchur’s new AR-3 speakers alternating with live music performed by the Fine Arts Quartet. Later series included guitarist Gustavo Lopez and a restored 1910 Nickelodeon. These concerts were very successful and received positive comments from the high-fidelity press, newspapers, and the public. Those in attendance at these concerts generally could not detect the switchovers from live music to the AR-3s reproducing the same music. It is noteworthy that in addition to the AR-3’s high level of sonic performance, Villchur’s analytical and careful preparation for these performances made these AR live-versus-recorded concerts remarkably successful, and AR’s reputation in the industry for making accurate loudspeakers continued to climb. Towards the end of these concert series, Villchur published an article describing the method of conducting the concerts, “Techniques of Making Live-Versus-Recorded Comparisons,” in Audio, October 1964, but there are no reports that any company or individual has succeeded to this degree with similar public live-versus-recorded demonstrations.
In many respects the AR-3 loudspeaker—one of the most important high-fidelity loudspeakers of all time—might be considered Edgar Villchur’s greatest achievement, an embodiment of two of his principal inventions, the acoustic suspension woofer and the dome tweeter. In 1993, an AR-3 was placed on permanent display in The National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
The AR Way — Advertising and Promotion
Villchur established a marketing policy based on the belief that a better product at a better value would sell on its merits. These customer-oriented policies differed from mainstream manufacturers with regard to dealer margins, promotions, relations, and channels of distribution. AR kept retail prices and dealer margins low (below 35 percent) and did not solicit new dealers, but depended instead on customer demand to create dealer interest. This was a laissez-faire, free-market sort of business model: No matter how large a dealer, the discount was the same, and there was no dealer pressure on the retail price of an AR product. AR required of dealers only that they purchase a minimum number of each model and that they display and demonstrate AR speakers at all times in a suitable acoustical environment. At first, AR did not use distributors or manufacturer’s representatives but sold directly to dealers.
Villchur’s customer-oriented policy, coupled with product innovation and quality, succeeded in bringing AR products to a large segment of the population and allowed the company to gain market strength each year, such that by the mid 1960s AR was the clear market leader in the US speaker market, according to the annual survey given by one of the leading high-fidelity magazines. In 1961, the company extended the factory warranty for speakers from one year to five years, making it an all-inclusive, full product warranty. This pro-consumer repair warranty included failures caused by defects and workmanship, and included the cost of shipping to and from the factory or service center during the warranty period; in practice, this warranty went further than five years and usually covered any failure, including lightning-caused fire damage in the case of one set of AR speakers.
AR participated in major audio shows and advertised extensively in most of the high-fidelity magazines, including Audio, High Fidelity, and HiFi/Stereo Review, and occasionally in general-interest periodicals such as Saturday Review, Atlantic, Esquire, and Playboy. From 1954 until the mid 1960s, Villchur planned and wrote virtually all advertising copy. The purpose of these understated ads was “to portray simply and accurately the idea of advanced design,” according to Villchur. Villchur’s ads became the benchmark for understated and highly effective product advertising during this period.
One of Villchur’s marketing concepts did not do well: the AR Speaker Rental Plan, available through participating dealers. Villchur’s idea was very consumer-friendly: The customer could rent the speaker and have time to listen to it at home for a week for only $2.00; they then could either return the products to the dealer if not satisfied or purchase the speaker with the rental fee applied to the purchase. But from the outset this plan was quite unpopular with dealers. Customers were happy with the rental idea, but dealers—already grumpy about AR’s dealer relations—did not like it at all, and it was eventually discontinued.
High Fidelity at Grand Central
In the summer of 1959, AR opened the first AR Music Room on the west balcony of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, and the next year opened a similar listening room at Brattle Street in Cambridge. Villchur had planned to open a listening room where visitors and travelers could listen to AR products with-out any sales pressure whatsoever. Perhaps as a reflection of his educational and pro-consumer business attitude, Villchur envisioned the music rooms as places in which people could ask questions about audio or simply listen to music. These music rooms were kept for fifteen years, and served the company well. “There were two kinds of people: those who used the terminal and were between trains, and people shopping for high fidelity equipment who would come in and ask general questions about component music systems. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people visited the speaker demonstration room in a given year. These were generally knowledgeable people who had shopped around and wanted to try questions on someone not pressured to make a sale. Not one order was ever written at either of the firm’s music rooms, but it helped us a great deal,” said Gerry Landau, AR Director of Marketing and the first employee of the Music Room. During the Christmas season, a pair of AR-3s—mounted on the roof of the Music Room—provided music for the entire Grand Central Terminal.
A 1961 AR brochure, “AR Inc. Acoustic Suspension Loudspeakers,” written by Villchur, described the music room: “High Fidelity at Grand Central…you are cordially invited to visit the Music Rooms. A variety of program material from Vivaldi concerti to Dixieland jazz (but no boat whistles or ping-pong games) is played continuously in stereo, through AR-2, AR-2a and AR-3 speaker systems. No sales are made or initiated at the Music Rooms, but AR personnel are on hand to answer any questions, technical or strictly amateur, that you may have.” It is difficult to gauge the exact effectiveness of this educational, no-sales-pressure atmosphere, but because of the many tens of thousands of visitors who passed through, it was extraordinarily beneficial to AR sales over the years.
The AR Turntable
Villchur’s third major contribution to sound reproduction was the AR turntable. It was introduced in the fall of 1961 at the New York High Fidelity Music Show as a $58 manual turntable, but no units were sold until 1962 due to manufacturing issues. Because Villchur was working on the AR-3 at the time, and knew nothing about turntables, the company had hired consultants in to develop the original model. After nearly two years and considerable development cost, the turntable they developed was completely unworkable, so Villchur—with the AR-3 completed—took over all development work on the turntable and started over.
Just as he had done with his previous speaker designs, Villchur examined and identified the basic problems of turntables and designed an elegantly simple belt-driven, suspended turntable that outperformed nearly every turntable on the market. The initial selling price was optimistically set too low, but eventually it settled at $78, where it remained for many years. The turntable gradually gained traction in the market, and it received high marks in nearly every report, eventually becoming top-rated in most magazines and consumer-testing organizations. The turntable sold in the hundreds of thousands before it was discontinued, becoming one of the best-selling turntables in history. “Despite being cheap, the AR turntable turned out to be the single most important turntable of all time,” said Ken Kessler of Hi-Fi News. Villchur published an article on the turntable, “A New Turntable-Arm Design,” in Audio, September/October 1962.
Over the years, Villchur received many citations and awards for his contributions to the science of acoustics. He earned the Audio Engineering Society’s Silver Medal award in 1972 for the acoustic suspension loudspeaker; he was awarded the Emile Berliner Maker of the Microphone award from the Berliner Historical Society in 1974. In 1980 he was named to the Audio Times/Stereo Review Audio Hall of Fame, and in 1984 he was awarded the Hi-Fi News Award from British publication Hi-Fi News and Record Review. In 1995, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Auditory Society. Possibly Villchur’s greatest professional recognition was being chosen as No. 1 of the 50 Most Important Audio Pioneers, in Hi-Fi News “Celebrating 50 Years of Audio Excellence” issue in 2006.
In June 1967, Acoustic Research was sold to Teledyne, Inc., and Ed Villchur returned to his Woodstock laboratory to devote time to hearing-aid research. He established, and completely self-funded, the non-profit Foundation for Hearing Aid Research. By this time, Villchur had also become a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.
Villchur wanted to “get out of the rat race,” as he would say regarding his commute from Woodstock to the AR plant in Cambridge, in order to give his full attention to hearing-aid research. He said, “The reason people are ashamed of hearing aids—as they are not of eye glasses—is that everyone knows they don’t work. At least they don’t work as well as they should. When you wear a hearing aid, people feel obliged to yell at you. I think, or at least I hope, that I can design some that do work.” Initially, Villchur improved on the standard method of hearing-aid technology, but in time he pioneered multichannel-compression technology, soon to become a standard in hearing-aid technology and now in widespread use in the industry. His pioneering work in this technology was intentionally left free to the public through his papers and in his third book, Acoustics for Audiologist, published in 2000.
Who’s Who in Science and Engineering, Science-04, PS 22668180, ©1996, Marquis Who’s Who, Providence, NJ.
1 Hoffman, A.J. “Baby-Sitter,” Harvard University senior studies and memories, privately pub-lished, 2006.
2 “AR Closes Door on an Era,” interview with Jerry Landau of AR, Audio Times, October 1974.
3 Birchall, Steve. “Edgar Villchur on the Birth of Acoustic Suspension,” AES Boston Section Newsletter, September 1993, p. 2.
5 “Risk Takers,” Time Magazine, February 1982, p. 40.
6 Villchur, Edgar. Letter, February 27, 1992.
7 Hirsch, Julian. “The Audio Time Machine,” Technical Talk Column, Stereo Review, June 1990, p. 40.
8 Hoffman, A.J. “Baby-Sitter,” Harvard University senior studies and memories, privately published, 2006: 3.
9 Learned, E.P., and others. “Acoustic Research, Inc.,” Business Policy Text and Cases, Revised Edition, 1966, Richard D. Irwin, Inc., p. 408.
10 “AR Employee Handbook,” Acoustic Research, Inc., November 1969.
11 “Information Age Exhibit,” The American Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, September 13, 1993.
12 Learned, E.P., and others. “Acoustic Research, Inc.,” Business Policy Text and Cases, Revised Edition, 1966, Richard D. Irwin, Inc., p. 450.
13 “AR Closes Door on an Era,” Audio Times, October 1974.
14 Kessler, Ken. “Audio Milestones,” HiFi/News, May 2009.