Today I unpacked this coffee mug:
I remember that I bought this coffee mug. But I don’t remember buying it. I remember that I was in Hope, Arkansas when I bought it. I must have been in a building connected with Klipsch Audio Technologies. But don’t remember where they sold coffee mugs. I remember that I was in my late teens when I bought it. But I can’t remember which year exactly. I can only guess.
Let’s…let’s say it was the spring of 1980…
What do I remember?…
The building was small and filled with antiques. A strange old man named Paul Klipsh was playing a shellac disc on an old Edison record player. The music was a bassoon and piccolo duet called “The Elephant and the Bumblebee”. With the lower frequencies attenuated, the bassoon didn’t quite sound like a bassoon, but the piccolo was easily recognizable. The playback was purely mechanical — no electrons were harmed in this musical performance. How was this possible? The record player’s cabinet was all one large horn that amplified the vibrations from the record needle. The mechanically amplified music from this record filled the room. Klipsh could even turn down the volume by adjusting a lever that stuffed a felt ball into the mouth of the horn.
This room, part of Klipsch’s audio museum, was filled with horns that were twisted into all sorts of strange shapes. One humongous horn was curled up in a spiral. Klipsch let us talk and whisper into tiny opening at one end of horn and marvel at the surprisingly loud sound that emerged.
Who were we? Boy Scout Explorer Post 297 — a small group of teens who were theoretically exploring a potential careers in physics and engineering. You can forget the Boy Scout connection — we usually did. There were no uniforms. There were girls in the group…one or two at least. Basically, the Explorer post was a marvelous social group for nerds.
Every Monday we met in the Physics lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. There a young, earnest associate physics professor named Steve Crawshaw would show us cool science tricks. Listen! You can hear sounds at a distance with this parabolic microphone! Look! This diode emits a laser beam! (Those were still pretty new back then.) Stand on this spinning platform. Hold out your arms and we’ll spin you. Now lower your arms. Whoa! You’re spinning faster, like a figure skater! Angular momentum must be conserved. Dizzy now?
Every week was like a weekly episode of Mr. Wizard mixed with puns and bad jokes. (If you’re too young to remember Mr. Wizard, just think Bill Nye with a much lower budget.) And every spring we’d carpool up to Hope, Arkansas. There we were greeted by Paul Wilbur Klipsch and given a personal tour of Klipsch Audio Technologies and the Klipsch Audio Museum.
I have a confession to make. Earlier, when I said “Today I unpacked this coffee mug,” I was lying. I actually unpacked it several months ago. But I didn’t want to start by saying, “Several month ago I unpacked this coffee mug….”
Even if I had unpacked the mug the day I started writing this blog entry, it would be a lie, because weeks have gone by and I still haven’t finished the damn thing. Similarly, some of the memories I recount are only partly from my brain. Some are reconstructed from research. Some are not even my memories…
We were in the anechoic chamber at Klipsch Audio Technologies. We had entered by way of an enormous revolving door that formed one of the chamber’s corners. The rotating door allowed Klipsch a choice of four different corner options for testing his speakers. One corner was just a corner. One was a corner with a with a ledge. One corner was like a wall with a speaker hidden behind it. And one corner was lined with the same enormous sound absorbing wedges that covered each wall of the room. That was the corner facing us when the room was sealed…the large rubber gasket lining the edges of the corner door inflated. Ssshhhunck! We were now trapped inside one of the quietest rooms in Arkansas. Any noise we made vanished into the wedges. No reverberation. No echo. Anechoic. The silence felt like pressure in our ears.
Years later I read John Cage’s account of sitting in such a room and hearing the roar of blood in his arteries and the whine of his nervous system in operation. But we were nerds, together in a room, so we did what all nerds would do. We whispered stupid jokes. Our laughs fell flat — sucked into the walls. Then Klipsch let us out.
The reason for the unusual design of Klipsch’s anechoic chamber was that it gave him more options in testing and refining a special sort of speaker he’d first built back in 1946…a speaker designed to take full advantage of the amplifying properties of the horn shape. That’s why his audio museum was filled with horns. He was fascinated by them.
What Klipsch built looked sort of like this:
Doesn’t look like a horn. But inside this cabinet the speaker diaphragm send its sound waves from one expanding chamber, to another, to another… A folded horn. It was designed to sit in the corner in the room, where the sound would exit through the back of speaker cabinet, into the room’s corner, and finally out to the listener’s ears. The room’s corner became part of the folded horn.
Look at the picture of the coffee mug. Study the logo. It shows you exactly what a Klipsch corner horn does. Or, as it was soon dubbed, a “Klipschorn”.
For years I thought that I’d made the trip to Hope at least twice. But lately I’m thinking that I just went once. My friend Tommy Trussell had gone the previous year and told me all about it, told me about the rotating anechoic door, about being invited into Klipsch’s home, and even about riding in Klipsch’s Mercedes…
The car was big and Klipsch drove fast. Some one noticed an unusual gauge mounted onto the dashboard.
“An altimeter. I’m using it to monitor the air pressure in the carburetor.”
Klipsch didn’t say anything else. We had figure things out from there. “Oh yeah…that’s how altimeter measures altitude. By measuring air pressure…” We never did find out why he wanted to monitor the air pressure in his carburetor.
Even though we were high school students, Klipsch never talked down to us. While showing us his speakers and his lab he would reel off the technical specifications of what we were hearing and seeing and then wait for us to pick up our side of the conversation, staring at us with intense eyes set inside a totally impassive 70-year-old face. This face here:
Since I usually didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about, I found that gaze rather intimidating. Fortunately, some of the others in our group were a helluva a lot smarter. They kept the conversation going.
Later, while visiting the airfield to look at Klipsch’s plane, he asked, “did you hear about the cow that backed into a spinning airplane propeller?”
Once again, the stony, impassive gaze. But this time I knew what was going on. I may not know circuitry, but I know comedy! Yes, he said “diss-assed-her”. Yes, it was a pun. Yes, we all laughed weakly. We weren’t about to tell him it was a lousy joke….
I know I was on that airfield, that I heard that joke. I know it because he’d make the exact same joke a year ago when Tommy had visited. In fact almost everything Tommy had told me about the previous trip was happening again. So did I go to Hope once or twice? Did I ride in Klipsch’s car? I seem to have vague, snapshot memories of it, but I can’t be sure.
I don’t recall ever seeing Paul Klipsch smile. There are pictures of him smiling. It’s not the most comfortable looking smile in the world. But he very much had a sense of humor, one that we would now categorize as classic nerd humor. Puns and arcane, technical satire. Klipsch once wrote an entire fake article proposing a combination hi-fidelity loudspeaker and cooking oven. It was his way of satirizing the high power requirements of many deluxe stereo systems. He was quite proud of the Klipshorn’s efficiency — even one watt of power produced good, strong audio.
And he was hugely fond of the word “Bullshit”, which became the unofficial slogan of his company. According to legend, the slogan was born when Klipsch was reading a hi-fi magazine. After growing increasingly annoyed by reading the hyper-inflated claims of a competitor’s line of speakers, he threw the magazine in the air and yelled “Bullshit!”
Thirty years after he did that, I was able to buy this T-shirt:
Wait. Let me show you the back.
I wore this shirt every chance I could get. How could I not? There was a hobbit sitting on a cool piece of technology on the front and the word “bullshit” on the back.
I also had a yellow button that said “Bullshit” in a fancy Old English font. I didn’t have to buy that. Klipsch gave those away. Originally he only gave the buttons to purveyors of bullshit at meetings of the Audio Engineering Society, but by the time we visited Hope he’d just give ’em to anyone who wanted one.
Paul W. Klipsch died in 2002. He was 98 years old. At that point his company had grown beyond Hope, following the corporate growth policy of eat or be eaten that characterizes modern capitalism. After buying out several small audio companies you’ve probably never heard of, Klipsch Audio Technologies was itself bought out by Audiovox in 2011. But hi-fidelity equipment is still manufactured under the Klipsch name. Of course it is. If you type “Klipsch” into Google, Klipsch Audio Technologies and the late Paul W. Klipsch dominate the search results — in fact, I had to go to page 14 of those results to find an an unrelated Klipsch. The name itself was worth the money.
Modern Klipsch equipment is made in Indiana. None of it looks much like the old Klipsch speakers. On Consumer Reports, the earbuds get the highest ratings. Tiny little earbuds. Who’d a thunk it?
However, you can still buy Klipschorns and several other classic Klipsch speakers. Here, let me turn around my souvenir mug:
The first four speakers listed are now called Klipsch Heritage speakers. They’re still being made in Hope, Arkansas. Actually they’re made to order. Handcrafted, with a beautiful sound. Set you back a pretty penny though…they ain’t cheap.
But just think about it! Two excellent loudspeakers to finish that vintage stereo system you’ve been assembling. Think of how well they’ll go with your decor, your belief systems, your deeply held convictions of how life should be in this impersonal mass-manufactured world.
Now that your system is complete, you’ll invite me over to your house so that you can show off the legendary live Klipsch sound. I’ll admire the workmanship that went into each speaker as we sip a rather hoppy, micro-brewed beer lovingly crafted in the Belgian style because the Belgians are the greatest beer brewers in the world — everyone knows that!
You will, of course, be playing only vinyl records on a restored Yamaha YP-211 belt driven turntable, amplified through a Kenwood Ka-7100 amplifier, because the analog sound is so much warmer than the digitally encoded sound of CDs and even modern lossless digital files. I’ll smile weakly through a mouthful of locally sourced salad greens that I can only assume have a wonderful fresh flavor hiding behind the truffle oil in the salad dressing. Yes, I guess James Taylor does sound warmer. Sounds like he might even be here the room with us, hiding in the Klipschorn corners. I wonder if he’d like the blue cheese topping you placed on what would otherwise be an excellent grass-fed free-range beef tenderloin.
I think I can almost taste the grass. Or maybe that’s the quinoa pilaf.
Yes. Please. I’d be happy to have another glass of burgundy. Fill ‘er up and I’ll entertain the notion the Texas Hill Country is the new Napa Valley. At least this wine will allow me to bide my time. I might even make it halfway through side one of Workingman’s Dead before your repeated comments that Jerry Garcia sounds so much warmer, so much more organic on vinyl, force me to unholster my vintage Colt Derringer and fire a locally sourced, handcrafted silver bullet into your skull. I get the bullets from an eccentric old gentleman in Smackover, Arkansas. So much warmer, so much more lovingly organic as the silver penetrates your forehead and slags into your grey matter, don’t you think?
But I digress…
I know the next memory is truly mine…
The only time in real life that I’ve ever sat listening to a pair of Klipschorn speakers was in Paul Klipsch’s living room. Bright sunshine illuminated the patio on the other side of an enormous picture window. The picture window was a bit of a problem for one of speakers — the large pane of glass was not a good surface for the final part of the speaker’s horn. To remedy this, Klipsch built a free-standing wooden corner. It sat on the right side of the room with the speaker nestled inside.
We weren’t listening to vinyl. We were listening to a reel-to-reel tape of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra that Klispsch had personally recorded. Every time the ASO had a Sunday concert Klipsch would leave church, get into his car, and drive like a bat out of hell down to Little Rock to record the matinee.
The tape sounded…fine. In sounded like a live recording of a 1970s semi-professional orchestra. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra sounds much better now. Modern recordings of the ASO sound better too. But what we heard sounded good, sounded great in fact because we hearing it through Klipsch’s passion for the music and through the grace of his hospitality.
More than a month has gone by since I started this post. Why so long? I had to read up on Klipsch, which was interesting. I had to talk to Tommy Trussell, which was a pleasure. I even had to research details for a fictitious scene of appalling violence, which raises the question “Dude, what’s your problem?”
I guess I must feel rather ambiguous about consumer electronics. The reason I so violently dispatched the hypothetical Klipschorn owner is that I feel like I’m in constant danger of turning into him — particularly now that I’ve bought a big house and a big flat screen TV to go in that house. (That big flat screen TV is another reason it’s taken me so long to finish this. Think twice before getting one — they’re horribly addictive.)
I’m sure the mostly male species I’ll dub “Assholes With Stereos” goes back as far as the first Edison phonographs. Klipsch was always very savvy about marketing to this species, which is why he was such a successful businessman.
But there’s another strain, another human species with DNA wrapped around the history of hi-fi. It is the species that includes old ham radio enthusiasts…and electronic hobbyists…and nerds who take things apart and put them back together. On that day Klipsch invited us into the tradition of that species, the tradition of eccentric inventors, obsessive tinkerers, and mad engineers. Some of the members of Explorer Post 297 sitting Klipsch’s living room were already a part that tradition. One member had even started to build his own loudspeakers in his bedroom. His dad was a professional inventor.
I never really had what it took to be part of this tradition. But some of it is in my DNA. As I worked on this post, I was surprised to realize that both my dad and Tommy Trussell’s dad had built their own stereo amplifiers, the ones that we had grown up listening to. Although I was never a builder, my dad did help me research and buy the components for my first stereo system. I still have two of those components. They still work. I still use them.
I was a visitor, not a member, but I can still thank Paul Wilbur Klipsch for showing me his hospitality and his passion. And now I can raise my souvenir coffee cup and toast him. Cheers!
I’ll leave y’all with an Opera selection that sounds like we built an assortment of odd electronic creatures and set them loose in the studio:
(For a shorter, more factual article about Klipsch, click here.)