Vintage Whine

Spica, Part 2

In the last issue of Copper we briefly looked at loudspeaker manufacturer Spica, the company’s founder John Bau, and the company’s speakers, which are still used and revered by many, decades after the company’s demise.

Luckily, founder/designer Bau is still alive and well; I spoke at length with John on February 7th, 2017. What follows is a transcription of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity (C= Copper, JB=John Bau).

C: For a company that’s been out of business for 20 years, there’s certainly a wealth of material on the ‘net about Spica.

JB: Yeah. There’s a very loyal group of users out there. John Allen’s website spicaspeakers.com is a great resource for Spica owners.

C: Personally,  I was surprised to discover your involvement with PS. They just did the plate amps on the subs?

JB: Well, as far as product, yes. Paul and Stan were in a big way responsible for getting me into the mainstream  of audio marketing, really. Back around 1979 I was sitting in my house making these speakers and pretty much selling as many as I could make, locally. A friend of mine in Albuquerque said, “you should talk to the guys at PS Audio, they’re really cool guys and you’ll like them, and they’ll give you some pointers on getting going in the business, maybe a little more scale.”

So I took his advice and called them, and just hit it off with both Paul and Stan immediately. At one point they asked if I was going to the summer CES show, and I said, “what’s that?” I had no idea what it was. They explained to me what t was, and I thought it sounded pretty interesting. All the exhibit rooms were at the Americana Congress [in Chicago], which had a different name back then. They said, “all our rooms are sold out, but we’ll put you on the waiting list.” I said, “okay, that’s cool.”

My wife was scheduled to have our first baby right around the time of the show anyway, so there was some conflict there. A week or two before the show I got a call from CES saying,  “we have a room open on the fourth floor. ESS just bought out Dynaco… and so you can have their room.”

I didn’t know until I got there, but this was a prime location. Right as you came up the stairs you’d see Spica’s room (laughs)…I don’t need to tell the rest of that story, but Paul and Stan were the ones who got me to show my stuff and got me to go for more national marketing.

C: That was back in the day when you could do that at CES, and get results.

JB: Yup, I think that’s true. I got lucky—I was the only one on that level. Most of the guys got rooms on like the 20th floor…I really lucked out.

C: At CES this year we were a little disheartened by how little presence there is of high-end audio [at the show].

JB: I’m amazed there’s any, to be honest with you. I haven’t kept track of audio, but it seems to me….I was surprised when you told me PS Audio was still in business. I was like, “you’re KIDDING!!”

C: I read your interview with John Atkinson from almost thirty years ago, 1988, and the beginning of how you got into speakers sounds suspiciously like the way Dave Wilson got into building speakers: you’re doing recording, you wanted to have a reliable portable monitor, couldn’t find anything you liked and/or could afford, and you just started making your own. Your first product, the SC-50…were they made out of Sonotube [the cardboard tubing used as a concrete form]?

JB: Yep, they were Sonotube with a glued-in baffle and solid wood end-caps.

C: I recall being impressed with them at the time, and then a few years downstream the “wedgies” [the TC-50] came out, and those were even more astounding. You  always made products that performed well above their price. Was that by design, is that just the way you are?

JB: Yeah, I’m a minimalist at heart…I wanted the Henry Ford thing, I wanted normal people to buy my products. That’s the audience I was trying to serve.

C: I think that’s the thing that has splintered the audio business—there’s the one-percenter products, and then there’s everything else down at the bottom….at CES there were speakers being shown that were $400,000 per pair. I can’t in my wildest dreams come up with any way to justify those kinds of prices.

JB: I just find it offensive, and I ignore it. I don’t care how good it is, creating unobtanium is to me an empty exercise. There’s no challenge in it.

C: The big question about Spica is : you had a fairly popular brand, within the realm of high-performance audio. The company is sold to Parasound, and then it just kinda goes away. So…what happened?

JB: The answer to that is multi-leveled. Part of it is that at some point in the early to mid-’90’s I saw the writing on the wall for what I was trying to pursue in audio,as far as being able to market it at an affordable price to a broad audience that could afford it. That’s when VCRs started having stereo, and then pretty good stereo recording, and then digital. I wasn’t interested in making speakers that were essentially a video accessory. My interest was in chasing after two-channel holography, that was my total focus. When it became  clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to survive—-I had the advantage of owning the company,and being the designer AND the owner, and when the challenge and the carrot disappears—the obvious thing was to collaborate with someone who was good at the marketing end, which was Parasound…I really liked Richard Schram and the crew, but it was a little late in the game and a couple critical mistakes were made in the transition. We needed the home-theater stuff, the surround-sound, and that’s when it kinda became a job for me, rather than a creative deal.

C: I think we’ve all experienced that at one time or another (laughs).

JB: Well, yeah (laughs). I’m a realist, and there are levels of trade-offs in that, there are things in designs that I didn’t incorporate because I knew they wouldn’t be acceptable aesthetically. What we all jokingly call the “wife acceptance factor”, well, that’s a real thing (laughs). There’s a 3-way speaker we didn’t come out with even though it was finished, just because I didn’t think people would accept having a 12-inch step in front of the woofer that sat next to the floor because it  needed a predictably-reflective surface for that first 12 inches in front of the driver in order for it to couple with the midrange.

C: That’s probably still a deal-killer (laughs).

JB: Yeah! It probably is (laughs). I was just going after what satisfies the need. Back in the ’70’s I remember going to hear an author talk here in town, and she said, “to be a successful artist, you have to create to fulfill your own need.”  If you’re creating to fulfill what somebody else wants or expects, that’s kinda bogus creativity.

C: Regarding creativity, one of the things that came through in your products was the sense of traveling to the beat of a different drummer. They weren’t “me too” products, they were incredibly well thought out. I look back at the performance you got out of them at the price-points you had, and it’s still astonishing to me. Even now, compensating for inflation, the Angelus would sell for about $2500/pair today [about double what they cost originally]. I can’t imagine being able to make them today even for that amount of money.

JB: Wow. The cabinet is the kicker. Going back to your earlier question, that was one of the other factors [which caused the company’s demise]. Our cabinet-maker in Colorado went out of business….He closed down and turned his facility into a paintball range! (laughs) Sitting here in New Mexico, that was like the kicker—you can’t be in the speaker business without a good, reliable, affordable source of cabinets….there’s just a huge labor component involved in making cabinets. And the minute you get away from 90-degree angles in a speaker enclosure, the prices just soar.

C: There was a very interesting interview with you on Enjoy the Music in 2000,  and you mentioned some of the things you’d been working on when you closed up shop. The one that jumped out at me was a “resonance-free helical transmission line subwoofer”.

JB: Yeah, I still haven’t built one of those…

C: What the hell does that mean, exactly?

JB: When you look at a transmission line and what makes it work…the ideal implementation of it is a smoothly-tapered line. You need a certain amount of volume behind the driver so it doesn’t interact, so it doesn’t load the driver. Then you want the line smoothly tapered with a damping material interspersed uniformly throughout it, and then the dimensions of the port at the other end are tuned….it’s basically a damped, attenuated line.

C: Sure. But what’s helical about it?

JB: The dimensions are typically a quarter-wavelength or longer of the frequency you’re tuning to, which means it’s LONG! (laughs) And so, racking my brains, like how do we DO that?—I woke up one morning and went aHA! We’ll just have two tubes, one inside, one outside, and then have a smoothly-tapered line as a helix within those tubes. And BAM!, you’ve got it,  there’s no reflections due to right angles, you can pack a long line in a small enclosure—in theory it’s a great idea. I’ve just never gotten around to making one.

C: That sounds like it could still work.

JB: It could still work, it’s still a great idea. I don’t know if anybody’s doing transmission lines any more.

C: Not so much. I think it’s largely due to the labor component and the cost of lambswool, or the resistive elements….

JB: (laughs) I haven’t been monitoring that one….

C: Well, I haven’t either. That was kind of a shot in the dark….  Over the last 20 years [since Spica shut down] you apparently have kept busy rehabbing test equipment and selling it?

JB: Yes. One of the things I loved [designing at Spica] was the test equipment. The way I did speaker design was very measurement-intensive, and computationally-intensive, too. When I look back—learning computer languages and programming, and learning about the test equipment and techniques—that took more time and …challenged me intellectually more than just the acoustical and reproductive aspects of speakers. From the measurement aspect, I quickly developed a really deep respect for the folks that were designing test equipment.

It involved relationships with Richard Heyser of course, but also Deane Jensen, who had created a computerized optimization program that suited my needs almost perfectly. Heyser’s work led me to make good measurements; Jensen’s work led me to take that data, make accurate models of the system and optimize them via computer, in order to make the models work before building prototypes. I built very few prototypes, maybe a dozen over 17 years. Another relationship was with Gerald Stanley, the guy at Crown who eventually built the first time delay spectrometry (TDS) box run by a computer. The measurement angle [of design] was really big, and I absolutely loved it.

I sit here in New Mexico surrounded by two Department of Energy-funded laboratories at Los Alamos, about 30 miles north, and Sandia Labs about 60 miles south, they’re spitting out about 1,000 pieces of surplus a month. So, it was a really natural transition.

C: That makes sense, now that I understand the bigger picture.

JB: Now I get to own all the boxes that I drooled over, I get to play with them for a short period of time, and once I realize that they’re overkill for anything I might possibly do with them, I get to sell them (laughs), and make somebody happy….it gets me over my addiction, my infatuation, and keeps me real.

[We’ll conclude our talk with John Bau in the next issue of Copper. We’ll look at how John’s way of  designing speakers was different from almost anyone else, the influence and legacy of Richard Heyser, and would Bau do it all again?—Ed.]

 

“I held on to my Angeluses for 25 years. It wasn’t because of ‘sonic holography’. Instead, there was something addictive about the way they energized a room— almost like a spigot filling a glass with beer—that made me want to listen to music. They lent an excitement and humanity to recordings that I haven’t encountered since. In the end I went in for the jump and presence of vintage 15″ coaxial drivers, but the Spicas will always be my first love.”—Alex Halberstadt, who reviewed the Angelus for Listener.

That same pair of Angeluses (Angeli?) in the Monkeyhaus—the listening room at DeVore Fidelity. Photo by John DeVore.