The Audio Cynic

Arnie Nudell: RIP

At the very beginning of 2017, I  wrote about the passing of friend and colleague Ken Furst . I’d hoped to get through the rest of the year without having to write about another death, but sadly, that was not to be. Audio industry legend Arnie Nudell was laid to rest on the Monday before Thanksgiving, having succumbed to complications of pneumonia. He was 80.

Back in the mid-’60s, Arnie was a music-loving laser physicist at Litton Industries, working on exotica like guidance systems for fighter jets. He began building speakers in his garage with fellow Litton employee John Ulrick; Cary Christie was an expert woodworker later added as a partner. Their first project— which became a product when a local audio dealer began to sell them—was dubbed the Servo-Statik 1, based upon its combination of a servo-controlled woofer and electrostatic mids/tweeters (to the best of my knowledge, the servo-bass system was the first such application of the technology in a consumer product since Stan White’s servo-controlled speakers in the ’50s, which I wrote about in Copper #13). A business entity was founded in 1968, and was dubbed Infinity Systems.

I first learned of Arnie when I was 14 or 15, courtesy of High Fidelity magazine’s review of the Servo-Statik 1. That particular review can be found here, but you’ll have to scroll through to page 70. While you’re at it, look at all the speaker ads—and see that in comparison, the Servo-Statik looked like something from Mars.  J. Gordon Holt’s exasperated/awed review for Stereophile is a bit easier to access, here. In Holt’s experience, the Servo-Statik delivered unmatched performance—when it was working.

To teenage me, in a world populated by bookshelf speakers like the ubiquitous and boring AR-4xa, the Servo-Statik seemed outrageous and exotic. Reading about it provided the same exhilaration as did reading about Dan Gurney and Brock Yates’ record-setting Cannonball Run drive in a Ferrari Daytona, which took place in about the same period.

The Servo-Statik gave notice that Infinity was a company devoted to pushing the state of the art in audio. In the years that followed, a number of products were launched that featured cutting-edge technology, and not just in speakers. The FET Preamp, John Ulrick’s SWAMP (SWitching AMP, the first consumer Class-D amp), and the air-bearing turntable (designed by Bruce Thigpen, who would later found Eminent Technology) were all well ahead of their time—verified by the limited numbers in which all were built. Later on, the Black Widow tonearm was an early commercial use of carbon fiber, and the Monolumia Laser provided an in-home light show—-allied with a high failure rate (“I wish we’d never made that damn thing,” Arnie said when I asked about it). A variety of Infinity products can be seen here.

But speakers were Arnie’s passion and the primary focus of the company. Just as the Servo-Statik was never intended to be offered for sale, neither was the ironically-named IRS (Infinity Reference Standard), a massive tour de force designed just to explore what was possible in a loudspeaker system. Made famous by Harry Pearson in The Absolute Sound, the IRS was offered for sale in the early ’70’s and evolved through four versions, the ultimate being the IRS V (there was no IRS IV). Two towers per side, 12 woofers, 24 EMIM (Electro-Magnetic Induction Midrange) planar magnetic drivers, 72 EMIT (EMI Tweeters), 1500 pounds, the IRS V was made from 1987 to 1996, selling for $60,000 in 1996. 58 pair were made. The service manual can be seen here. 

In The Absolute Sound’s 2010 list of “The 12 Most Significant Loudspeakers of All Time”, the IRS V was #8, memorialized by Harry Pearson as “A dream realized and a dream for this listener.” The IRS was the biggest and baddest Infinity speaker, but technological innovation could be seen in dozens of models which utilized servo-woofers, polymer and graphite-fiber cones, Walsh tweeters, the previously-mentioned ‘stats and planar magnetics, and much more. The company truly brought cutting-edge tech to the masses.

As usual, things changed. At one point Infinity was the largest loudspeaker manufacturer in the world, and the company was bought by Harman International. Arnie spent more time managing than designing, and eventually, he and the equally strong-willed Sidney Harman didn’t see eye to eye. Exit Arnie.

With a little push from Harry Pearson, Arnie and Paul McGowan formed Genesis in Vail, Colorado. McGowan had sold PS Audio, and from 1990 to 1997, the two developed loudspeakers with advanced technology, great sound…and questionable aesthetics. Eventually, the Genesis 1 wasdeveloped, updating the technology and performance of the IRS while preserving its aesthetic.

McGowan bought back PS Audio in 1998, and Arnie sold Genesis to Gary Koh in 2002.  Arnie worked with Koh for a few years, and retired to pursue some fundamental studies in physics, and as always, design new speakers.

Arnie once again became involved with McGowan near the end of 2013, helping to voice some new PS products, an alliance which continued until Arnie’s death.

I met Arnie for the first time in October, 2014, as he and Paul set up a pair of Infinity IRS Betas for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I was fascinated to watch the two work together, making seemingly inconsequential adjustments which eventually resulted in an astounding soundstage and amazing dynamics from a pair of 30-year-old speakers. As they worked, the two sniped at each other, joined by longtime colleague Bascom King, who had designed electronics for Infinity decades before. It was clearly a group of old friends.

I was initially a little intimidated by Arnie, but found him open, personable, more than willing to answer a zillion questions from me. My favorite moment of the show came while chatting with Stereophile reviewer Herb Reichert outside the exhibit room before he went in to talk with Paul, Arnie, and Bascom. Herb said, “I feel like a Yankee fan about to meet Derek Jeter.”

Like sports fans, we audio geeks do have heroes—and Arnie Nudell was a hero to many of us. I learned from him every time I saw him, and in spite of his vast experience and knowledge, he always treated me as an equal. I’m sorry I didn’t know him better.

Arnie with Infinity partner Cary Christie.

Paul McGowan interviewed Arnie within the last year, and the audio can be heard here. A website, www.arnienudell.com,  will be set up detailing Arnie’s accomplishments and legacy.

[Apologies for the shaky header pic, but it commemorates that RMAF appearance in 2014. You can see the IRS Betas in the background, behind Paul, Arnie, Bascom, and tonearm guru Frank Schröder.]