The Copper Interview

Ohm Acoustics, Part Two: An Inside Look

The Columbia Street Waterfront District of Brooklyn is technically in Cobble Hill, but it is partially separated from the rest of the neighborhood by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Access can be had via overpass walkways or certain streets that are not intersected by the highway. Warehouses and similar industrial structures face the water, while further inland, a series of restaurants, bars, shops, and an Aikido school can be found.

Halfway to the end of DeGraw Street, an outdoor sculpture garden with updated full sized takes on Egyptian, Chinese, and The Lord of the Rings-type fantasy art casts varying shaped shadows across the sidewalk. Several doors down, a nondescript, unmarked white wooden door with a buzzer is the only identifying signifier that it is the HQ entrance for the internationally acclaimed audiophile loudspeaker manufacturer, Ohm Acoustics.

Upon entry, one can see that the open space embodies a combination of chaotic clutter with mad scientist practicality. To the immediate left, President John Strohbeen’s office space, surrounded by wide screen video monitors, files, computers, a gargantuan music library, and parts of various Ohm speakers, is guarded by his two rescue dogs from Puerto Rico. To the right, a number of boxes sit on the loading dock, with many more still folded and unopened. A 16-foot high rack holds large sheets of lumber for making cabinets in the rear carpentry area.

John Strohbeen and Evan Cordes of Ohm Acoustics.

History

“We’ve been in this space for 20 years,” says Strohbeen in a calm, world weary voice rich with experience from being based in Brooklyn for the last half century. “We were originally in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant). The area got very rough in the 1980s and there was a period when I was wary of going there without an armed guard. The building got sold in the 1990s to a new landlord, who decided to convert it all to high luxury residential units, so we had to move. We found our current space in 1999.”

A listening area has been established in the left middle space several feet in, where a pair of medium-sized Walsh speakers is set up for audio comparison with Ohm’s latest project: a PA system designed for the Brooklyn-based Americana music club Jalopy.  To the right, a wall of boxes and varying speaker components surround the office area of Strohbeen’s Vice-President and operations manager, Evan Cordes. The glows of computer screens, oscilloscopes, and phone lights festoon the area and cut through the shadows.

From its beginnings in 1972, Ohm Acoustics was founded on the acoustic design and engineering theories primarily of Lincoln Walsh, and to a lesser extent, Neville Thiele. They have long been renowned for their sense of realism and “sweet-sweep,” which is the term Strohbeen uses for speakers that allow for a wider field area of accurate sound than with conventional box -type loudspeakers. Under President John Strohbeen, who took over Ohm in 1978, Ohm has continued to pioneer new ways to bring its unique quest for sonic accuracy and audio realism to what is at present 172,000 different customers worldwide.

How Do They Sound?

At John Strohbeen’s invitation, I was invited to a listening session and small factory tour as a follow up to my interview with him in Copper  Issue 103. An Ohm component diagram mounted to a plywood sheet of roughly 12 feet x 4.5 feel served as a simulated “wall.”

“Most speakers are in interior listening environments with walls,” explains Strohbeen, whose 1981 patent created a design to make use of the sound wave reflections off walls to enhance stereo imaging from a wider range of listening positions, i.e., the “sweet-sweep” effect.

Although they also make center channel speakers, subwoofers and omnidirectional satellite speakers for 5.1 systems, Ohm’s best-selling Walsh Tall floorstanding speakers are their main products and are tailored for the room size configuration in which they will be utilized. See specs below:

I had heard earlier versions of the Walsh speakers in private homes but had not conducted any focused auditioning on any of the latest models, so I was admittedly eager to listen and make comparisons.Evan lined up a pair of medium-sized Walsh Tall 2000 Speakers for the session. As a longtime owner of a pair of Ohm C2 speakers, I have been a fan of the Ohm sound for decades and have spent thousands of hours listening to music and even mixing records with them. However, as John Strohbeen has noted, while Ohm will service their older model speakers, they lack the “sweet-sweep” and enhanced voice articulation that are found in the Walsh Series loudspeakers.

“Our landlord just made more space available for us to construct a fancier listening room, but we think this will do fine for now. Once we finish the new room, you’re welcome to come back,” said Strohbeen. A pair of wheeled office chairs were positioned about ten feet away. “We find that people who haven’t experienced the `sweet-sweep’ like to roll the chairs in different directions and distances from the speakers to convince themselves.”

One of John Strohbeen’s proudest achievements with Ohm’s loudspeakers is what he feels is the greatly enhanced intelligibility and authentic reproduction of the human voice when used to listen to vocal music or when the speakers are part of a home entertainment system for watching movies, videos, and television programming. We thus decided to focus first on music with vocals. The compact discs that we used to listen to this typical Walsh setup included the following:

  • As I Call You Down – Fistful of Mercy (Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison and Joseph Arthur; acoustic-based Americana roots music)
  • The Best of the Alan Parsons Project (art rock)
  • Graceland – Paul Simon (world beat/rock/pop)
  • Vienna Concert – Keith Jarrett (jazz)
  • Martha Argerich – Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 (classical)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd (classic rock)

“Eye In the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project is one of their best known songs.  Produced and engineered by the legendary Alan Parsons (The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat), the song was co-written by Parsons and singer Eric Woolfson. Featuring Stuart Elliott (The Who, Cockney Rebel) on drums, the record’s clearly-defined instruments leapt through the Walsh speakers. The shimmer of the chorus effect on the guitars, the pulsing bass and the soaring harmony vocals all seemed enhanced by the Ohm Walsh speakers and the “sweet-sweep” gave the music a natural three dimensionality of added depth that is usually only achieved with digital sound processing (DSP) delay and reverb effects.

The humble Cal Audio DX-1 CD player and Outlaw 2160 receiver. No doubt as to what those controls do!

Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” on the Walsh 2000s displayed subtle additional layers of multiple reverbs that are almost inaudible on consumer-grade headphones or loudspeakers. The blaring accordion introduction is punctuated with a cannon-like drum hit that physically impacts the listener with a body blow soundwave. On the a cappella “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the wider stereo spread and magnified intelligibility of vocal phrasings finally made clear to me that actual words that are murmured in between the sung lines, and from which directions those snippets hailed. In my opinion, the claim that Ohm speakers sound as natural as if the sound source was in the same or next room is no hyperbole. I walked to the far perimeter edges of the “sweet-sweep,” which entailed a roughly 220-degree arc, and was impressed by the lack of artificial depth and narrow stereo range I’ve heard from many conventional box loudspeaker sound systems.

The standard home stereo wiring used for the system’s connections.

Next, the thunderous attack of a then 19-year old Martha Argerich’s fingers on the keys as she performed Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6,” punctuated through the cavernous factory loft. The sonorous concert grand piano debut recording from 1961 on Deutsche Grammophon introduced the mercurial Argentinian virtuoso to the classical music world, and she has continued to forge her own path and march to the beat of her own drummer for the last 60 years. The dynamic range is fully captured, from quiet inhaled breaths between passages and the faint depression of a sustain pedal to the impact of the hammers on the strings of the piano and the emotional climaxes Argerich builds and sustains in her interpretations of Liszt, who was himself the greatest keyboard virtuoso of his era.

Conversely, the quiet elegance and improvised complex harmonic chord voicings of Keith Jarrett conveyed an intimate, private room recital sound with the Walsh 2000s. The 1992 Vienna Concert release on ECM, part of Jarrett’s series of totally improvised concert piano recordings that began with his bestselling The Koln Concert from 1975, showcases some of the more introspective moments in Jarrett’s playing, in contrast to his trio concerts from the same era with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock.

As a point of listening comparison, the mini Walsh speakers were also brought out from the area outside of the carpentry room. Ohm’s quality control is very impressive – as Evan Cordes explained, the sounds of the mini Walsh and medium-sized Walsh are indistinguishable close up and that the projection distance-capability of the two speakers is what differentiates them, which is how Ohm is able to maintain the overall sonic behavior of its speakers in a wide array of room sizes and space configurations. This is why Ohm dissuades customers from upgrading to larger systems unless the customer’s space configuration has also changed, since bigger will not necessarily be better when it comes to the Walsh design.

The Mini Walsh and the Walsh Tall 2000 speakers.

All of the Ohm Walsh models are passive speakers. I was told they are agnostic when it comes to power amps and preamps. The Ohms we were auditioning were being fed with a rather humble Outlaw Audio 2160 receiver and a 25-year old-California Audio Labs DX-1 CD player. The speaker wiring was over the counter copper zip cord. Cordes and Strohbeen both stated that the amount of variability in the sound of the Walsh speakers with different power amps and preamp configurations “is about the same as if they were physically moved a few inches.”

Strohbeen noted that Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is the most often requested listening reference from Ohm customers. “More than half the time, just listening to a few songs from Dark Side is all they need to hear.” Alan Parsons’ meticulous mix of this timeless classic rock landmark simply sounded amazing on the small Walsh speakers, with the only difference from its larger cousin being the projection distance, where the volume started to level off after walking 20 feet back. The intelligibility of dialogue underscoring parts of “Us and Them” was superb, and did not demand cranking the volume to discern the words, something that’s often a requirement even with headphones. The “sweet-sweep” gave the wide stereo panning effects an almost cinematic surround sound-like breadth in spite of the source coming from the two lone Walsh minis.

Live Sound: The Next Frontier?

Ohm’s latest project is its first ever PA system. Specially designed for the Jalopy Theater and School of Music in Brooklyn, this prototype system, dubbed the PA-1, may be a breakthrough design for urban clubs and music venues where floor space is at a premium.

Jalopy’s reputation as a premier venue for acoustic folk and Americana-based music in Brooklyn has been hampered by an antiquated sound system that was designed for punk rock tours in the late 1980s. The PA-1 is housed in three approximately 3-foot by 3-foot modestly sized wooden enclosures that look like “ramps,” with an approximate depth of no greater than 9 inches. Inside them is a center 15-inch Walsh shaped metal mesh dome driver mated to three high-efficiency super tweeters. The remaining panels hold eight 12-inch subwoofers powered by four amplifiers delivering 2,000 watts. The PA-1 has a point source radiation pattern.

The prototype Ohm PA-1.

The unique aspect of this system is that it is designed to be mounted to the ceiling of the venue, thus preserving floor space for additional seating, dancing, or tables. The crisp clarity associated with Ohm products is ideal in my opinion for reproducing acoustic music, and installation and testing is scheduled to commence this month.  Listening to the system at reduced volume, it appears that the Ohm characteristics are fully retained with the PA-1. Perhaps a follow up review post-installation will be published in a future issue of Copper.

While on the subject of acoustic music: Fistful of Mercy is an acoustic team up of lap steel maestro Ben Harper, singer songwriter Joseph Arthur, and Dhani Harrison, son of the late George Harrison. They play Americana-influenced acoustic music with Beatlesque harmonies. “Father’s Son,” a bluegrass-type song with Harper’s Weissenborn lap steel slide riffs prominent in the mix, radiated a down-home presence reminiscent of a back porch acoustic jam. “In Vain or True,” with its Fab Four arrangement and lead vocal tradeoffs, was startlingly lifelike and listening behind a closed door or blindfolded could easily fool one into thinking that the performers were but a scant few feet away.

Ohm Acoustics has carved out its own unique niche in the audio high fidelity arena.  Listening tastes are as extremely subjective as musical tastes, and I feel that companies like Ohm, who have been able to create a product that a large-enough segment of the market will staunchly support, are worthy of the accolades they have garnered. John Strohbeen is one of those who continue to take their own path in forging ahead in the pursuit of audio excellence.