The Copper Interview

Ohm Acoustics’ John Strohbeen: Audiophile Engineering, Brooklyn Style

New York City’s Brooklyn is famous for a number of things. It has some of the most expensive real estate in New York; some of it with a higher square dollar per square foot price than in Manhattan. Brooklyn was the location of Ebbets Field, where the legendary Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier playing for the Dodgers. It is presently the home for numerous celebrities, such as Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Emily Blunt, John Krazinski, Michael Shannon, and Keri Russell. Jay-Z was instrumental in bringing the NBA Nets to Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. Nearby is the original Junior’s Cheesecake. Nathan’s hot dogs were made famous after starting in Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

And since 1972, some of the most unique audiophile loudspeakers have been designed and manufactured by Brooklyn’s own Ohm Acoustics. Utilizing acoustic design concepts from Lincoln Walsh and Neville Thiele, Ohm has consistently created speakers that delivered top notch sound quality and has pioneered engineering milestones, such as the omnidirectional Walsh conical speaker, which continues to this day as their signature product.

Under President John Strohbeen, Ohm has sold to over 120,000 customers and continues to innovate in the acoustic engineering industry and sell on a direct marketing basis to audiophile fans around the globe. John Strohbeen graciously took the time to take some questions from John Seetoo for Copper.

 

Ohm president John Strohbeen. Photo courtesy of Ohm Acoustics Corp.


John Seetoo:
I am old enough to remember Tech HiFi, which you founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was one of the first stereo specialty stores to feature Japanese hi-fi brands like Sony, Pioneer, Teac/Tascam, Kenwood, Technics/Panasonic, Onkyo and Sansui. How did you go from studying engineering at MIT to becoming a retail audio entrepreneur?

John Strohbeen: Having a good stereo was a high prestige item but low on the list of acceptable expenses for a scholarship student. At the time, Boston area dealers sold for list price but New York dealers sold mail order for about 20 percent off. I quickly realized that if I could get eight orders at 10 percent off I could afford [a good stereo] system from the margin. I only got four people to order; but it got me started.

A few years later, the school received complaints that I was using their tax-free dormitory as an audio store (which I was) and the school forced me to rent a retail space. Now that I had a store, I wanted to keep it open, so I hired other students to cover most of the time. One of these people was Sandy Ruby, the graduate tutor in my dormitory. Sandy ran the store for a summer when I went home to Iowa. When I returned, Sandy told me he wanted to do this full time and be the permanent manager. I offered him a partnership and we made the best decision of our careers: We opened a second store, but hired two store managers and devoted our personal time to growing the business.

The Vietnam War was hot at the time and veterans were bringing back Japanese audio products that outperformed the American-made products we could buy; so we wrote to the companies in Japan and became early promoters.

Five and a half years later, I left MIT without graduating.

J. Seetoo: While you are not the founder of Ohm, you have successfully manned the helm for over four decades. How and why did you get involved with Ohm and what led to your taking over the company?

J. Strohbeen: Marty Gersten had founded Ohm when his employer, Rectilinear [speaker company] of the Bronx, declined to license Lincoln Walsh’s patent. Tech HiFi was a very, very large Rectilinear dealer and Marty wanted us to buy his new Ohm line. I agreed [to carry Ohm] if he agreed to make less expensive speakers for us to sell under the TDC brand (our private label Transducer Design Corporation). We made a deal…

J.Seetoo: I am a longtime Ohm speaker fan and obtained a pair of Ohm C2 speakers back in 1978, the year you took over the company. I still have them and have even mixed recording projects with them. While the Walsh omnidirectional speakers are clearly the product that sets Ohm apart from its rivals, the C2 and L speakers were big sellers during their production time.  What circumstances led to the halt in production of Ohm’s conventional loudspeakers? As Ohm continues to service them, would a reissue production of these or even the later model CAM 32 and 42 ever be in the cards for the future?

J.Strohbeen: Being box speakers, the L and C2 suffer from the same problems with imaging and narrow listening “sweet spots” that are eliminated with the Walsh driver. I don’t think I am ready to go backwards. We do take any Ohm speaker in trade and give up to the full original selling price as a trade-in value. We refinish and upgrade the [older speakers]; then offer them for sale with our home trial and a warranty.

Ohm speakers at the recent New York Audio Show. Photo courtesy of Harris Fogel.


J.Seetoo:
One of the things that had attracted me to the Ohm C2 speakers at the time was a sense of realism in the music that, to my ear at the time, was comparable to what I had heard in professional recording studios, which often had the large UREI or JBL 4311 monitors. The projects that I mixed on the C2s all sounded great and had none of the thin bass or lack of depth often associated with speakers that colored sound with, for example, the exaggerated bass of Large Advent or Cerwin Vega speakers versus the thin bass and lack of depth of harsh-sounding reference monitors like Yamaha NS10s.

Did Ohm ever attempt to market to the recording studio industry or was it always focused predominantly on the audiophile market, and if so, why?

J.Strohbeen: The woofers for the C2s and L benefited from Marty’s experience with the full range Walsh drivers. These woofers needed no crossover and were connected directly to the input. Actually, for a couple of years this century I worked closely with one of America’s leading pro sound consultants on developing a Walsh based studio monitor. We made and sold a few systems together, but eventually realized that DSP work was going to cost as much as the hardware. Neither of us had the expertise to do the job right. Since then, the programming [for DSP] has become easier and we are using that experience with our 20/20K Series.

J.Seetoo: One would think that with best-selling Brooklyn artists such as Norah Jones, Grizzly Bear, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the late Sharon Jones, there is a wide range of Brooklyn originated music that would be optimally heard on Ohm speakers. As a longtime Brooklyn based company, has Ohm ever been approached by or been involved with the Brooklyn independent music scene?

J.Strohbeen: Not in my tenure at Ohm. Marty had once been approached by [race car driver and heir to the Revlon fortune] Peter Revson to develop super-sized versions of the Ohm A for outside monitors at the Metropolitan Opera, but Revson died in that tragic race track accident in 1974. We are currently developing a custom system for Jalopy, NYC’s premier ‘old-time” music venue. We shall see… (The Jalopy Theater and School of Music is one of NYC’s premier venues for folk, bluegrass, and other roots and Americana acoustic instrument based music. They also provide music instruction classes.)

J.Seetoo: Given the current generation’s standard of listening through earbuds, would Ohm consider producing a small bookshelf speaker to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in vinyl records? I would think given your design expertise that it would have the potential to blow away most of the current competition. If so, would such a speaker be something like the Ohm L?

J.Strohbeen: Is an Ohm L “small” by today’s standards? Would it need an expensive stand to sound right? Why fight old battles?

J.Seetoo: As (composer and record company founder) David Chesky has also acknowledged, the current generation listens to most of their music on earbuds or headphones. Has Ohm ever considered designing headphones, and how would you approach trying to recreate the Ohm omnidirectional aural experience with them?

J.Strohbeen: I don’t like the presentation of headphones; the sound should not come from the center of your head. When you move your head, you should get more imaging clues – not have the source move. Stax, with their ear speakers, have come the furthest [in achieving this] in my humble opinion.

J.Seetoo: The late Japanese composer Isao Tomita launched a series of large outdoor concerts during the 1980s and 1990s, including a 1986 show at Battery Park in New York that he called the “Sound Cloud.” It involved synthesizers, fireworks and lights, and a spread array of speakers that created an omnidirectional audio environment that surrounded the listeners with music coming simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere. Are you familiar with Tomita’s Sound Cloud, and is this the kind of approach that Ohm’s Walsh speakers strive to emulate in enclosed spaces?

J.Strohbeen: I am not familiar with Tomita’s Sound Cloud; but, if your description “…with music coming simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere.” is accurate – no. This is not what we try to achieve with Ohm speakers. We aim to position each performer in their own source location (height, width and depth) which remains firm from every listening position.

J.Seetoo: Following in that vein, you’ve written an article on the Ohm website about the cultural differences between sound and frequency curve preferences of Japanese audiophiles vs. US ones. While you mention the engineering work that went into modifying the voicing of Ohm speakers for the Japanese market while retaining Ohm’s characteristic imaging, is this cultural preference differential something that you have found in other countries also? Does Ohm keep its unique “Brooklyn audiophile sound” universal, or do you tweak it for international tastes?

J.Strohbeen: Yes, we have found differences in sonic balance preferences and occasionally [we’ve done] custom drivers for consumers that need to fit [their speakers to] a specific room/placement problem. I do believe these systems in their rooms sound more like our standard systems in our room.

J.Seetoo: What other manufacturers, if any, do you feel are Ohm’s rivals in terms of the omnidirectional and wide “sweet sweep” approach to hi-fi that you have pioneered? Also, are there any technologies that you think you would pursue if Walsh’s designs were unavailable?

J.Strohbeen: I feel MBL does a very fine job of [producing] fully omnidirectional speakers. But they still suffer imaging problems that come with fully omni designs: The center-channel image moves with you as you go from speaker to speaker. We also experienced this problem with the Ohm A and Ohm F. The current generation of Ohm Walsh speakers has nearly eliminated this problem.

J.Seetoo: From an acoustical engineering perspective, which would you say is your proudest achievement at Ohm?

J.Strohbeen: There are three: the width of the listening sweet sweep to [encompass] nearly the whole room; the firmness and precision of imaging and the naturalness and intelligibility of vocals.

J.Seetoo: Ohm is three years away from its 50th anniversary. Are there any hints as to what may be in store for Ohm fans to celebrate a half century of excellence in audio over the next couple of years?

J.Strohbeen: I believe the Ohm 20/20K Series can compete with any speaker in the world, when used in the right sized room, on any dimension of quality and surpass them in the width of the speakers’ sweet sweep. For our 50th Anniversary, we expect to claim top-ranking in a couple of other sonic dimensions.