Book Review

Audio Research: Making the Music Glow

Issue 126

If I had to bet on it, I’d say 99 percent of Copper readers are familiar with Audio Research Corporation (ARC) and its creator, William Z. Johnson, as Audio Research is one of the most important manufacturers in audio. Celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, the Minnesota-based company is, simply put, one of the progenitors of the modern era of high-end audio and Bill Johnson one of its “founding fathers,” as The Absolute Sound’s Jonathan Valin named him.

Audio Research: Making the Music Glow is a new book written by audio writer Ken Kessler (he also digs fine watches, pens, wine and other stuff) that chronicles the history of the company through copious interviews, photos, personal insights and good old journalistic, well, research. It’s gorgeously designed by Henry Nolan – the presentation is first-class all the way. Kessler and Nolan have collaborated on three other books: Quad: The Closest Approach, McIntosh…for the Love of Music and KEF: Innovators in Sound. (Full disclosure: Ken and I are friends and so are ARC’s Dave Gordon and Terry Dorn. I knew William Z. Johnson and have met his wife Nancy and others whose stories weave through the fabric of Making the Music Glow. I received a review copy of the book. My opinions would be the same regardless.)

Bill Johnson and those interviewed are candid, and don’t shy away from talking about the company’s failures as well as triumphs. A couple of examples: upon its introduction in 1985, the SP-11 MkII preamp was hailed by Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound in which he said, “there is no question that this is the world’s best preamplifier.” Stereophile’s J. Gordon Holt stated, “I get two consecutive gut reactions. First, my jaw hangs slack. Second, I get chills and goose bumps.” Yet engineering technician Chris Ossanna relates the story of meeting sound engineer and expert listener Jack Hjelm for the first time around 1991: “I came into the room one day and he’s got a pair of M-300 [amplifiers]…and he had a broom and he had his hearing protectors – shooting protectors – on. And he’s reaching out with the broom handle to turn on the amplifier from as far away as he could because he’d had way too many of these blow up in his face.”

As pointed out many times throughout Making the Music Glow, Bill Johnson was a man of unquestionable honesty and integrity. He was strong-willed and reluctant to listen to the opinions of others at times (though he mellowed in later years). Well, you had to be strong-willed to embrace vacuum-tube technology as the best means for reproducing music in the late 1960s, a time when everyone else in audio was abandoning it as antiquated, obsolete. Later on, he’d venture into hybrid (tube/solid-state) and pure solid-state designs, though tubes were and are the beating heart of ARC.

Johnson constantly strove to make the products better-sounding, sometimes going through dozens of circuit iterations before deeming a product ready for prime time. He was rooted in practicality, yet willing to take risks in his pursuit of sonic “High Definition” (a term the company was quick to trademark). On the other hand, he had to be persuaded, strongly, when others at ARC wanted to switch from black to silver amp handles.

Johnson was an avid pilot, devout churchgoer and husband and fiercely loyal to his employees – and this loyalty was returned. He would hire them on the basis of their character over their experience. Many times, when an Audio Research employee was facing financial difficulty, Johnson would personally help them. “He maintained a wholly professional relationship with the press, respectful but not worshipful or susceptible to their whims,” notes Kessler. He loved hearing a piano through a fine audio system but detested the sound of a saxophone.

The book is packed with such personal and factual details. It covers Bill Johnson’s pre-Audio Research days of building one-off custom tube amplifiers and modifying stock Dynaco units for better performance, and then founding the retail store Electronic Industries. Naturally, the 1970 origins of Audio Research are carefully examined, as are company milestones all the way through Johnson’s retirement in 2008 and the post-Johnson era of subsequent owner McIntosh Group, Inc. (in August 2020, the latter sold ARC to a privately-held company.)

The history of the company is illuminated through conversations with Bill and Nancy Johnson, recently-departed Audio Research president and CEO Jeff Poggi, plus present and former ARC employees Dave Gordon, now the new managing director of ARC, and Terry Dorn, Chris Ossanna, Leonard Gustafson and Warren Gehl as well as business associates and a who’s who of audio reviewers.

Of course, there are the products, presented in gorgeous photographic detail, from the first Electronic Industries SP-1 preamplifier through the modern-day offerings including 2020’s Reference 80S stereo power amplifier. The evolution of the aesthetic design, from Bill Johnson’s utilitarian preferences (amps like the D-79 look more like industrial laboratory equipment than audio components) to former design chief Livio Cucuzza and the McGroup Design Lab’s refined grace, is a topic in and of itself and, like almost everything in the book, is covered in depth.

Rather than a by-the-numbers account of every product Audio Research ever made, Making the Music Glow presents the Top 25 all-time greatest models, as chosen by employees and authorities on the company. Among the Top 25: the SP-6, SP-10 and SP-11 preamps, the Dual 100, D-79, D76A, D150, GS150, M300, VT 100 and VT150 power amplifiers, the Reference One and Reference Anniversary line stage and the Reference Phono phono stage. For completists, there’s a listing of every Audio Research product ever made, more than 170 in all, in chronological order.

The book isn’t cheap at $150 US, but it’s beautifully done, and its depth, attention to detail and illumination of the historical record are absolutely exceptional. Whether you’ve ever owned an Audio Research product or not, if you’re an audio enthusiast I think you’ll find it fascinating.

 

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