Acoustic Research made a major impression with the 1954 introduction of their first speaker, the AR-1. The combination of small size, clarity of sound and deep, undistorted bass made the AR-1 an immediate if modest success, even at the substantial price of $185.00 (roughly $1500 today).
In a fascinating interview with David Lander for Stereophile
, Villchur stated that product began shipping in March of 1955, and "...in 1955, we shipped 455 speakers....About half were AR-1s and half were 1Ws (a woofer-only speaker often sold in combination with a Janszen electrostatic tweeter)." The first year's retail sales of around $70,000 were enough to ensure the company's survival and growth. It's difficult to relate to the dollar of half a century ago, but today's equivalent would be sales of over $550,000
By 1956, Kloss and Villchur had parted ways; Villchur said, "you can't have two presidents". Kloss, Low and Hoffman left A.R. to form KLH, licensing the Villchur acoustic suspension patent. Later, Kloss would go on from KLH to form Advent, Kloss Video, Cambridge Soundworks and Tivoli Audio.
A.R. came out with the AR-2 in 1957, as databased in the Audiogon BlueBook
. The AR-2 utilized two 5-inch drivers as mid-tweeters, angle-mounted to provide wider dispersion. The cabinet was slightly smaller than the AR-1, with a 10" woofer, and was initially less than half the price of the '1, at $89 (nearly $700 in 2010 dollars).
The AR-2 was well-received both commercially and critically; J. Gordon Holt wrote in a High Fidelity review, "the low end is remarkably clean, and like the AR-1, prompts disbelief that such deep bass could emanate from such a small box. Like the AR-1, the AR-2 should be judged purely on its sonic merits...not on the theoretical basis of its 'restrictive' cabinet size."
Four years after his paper on the acoustic suspension principle had appeared in AUDIO, Villchur's paper, "New High-Frequency Speaker" appeared (AUDIO, October, 1958). The paper detailed the design and construction of the first "hemispherical radiator moving-coil loudspeaker units": the first dome midrange and tweeter units. Villchur's primary goal was improvement of dispersion characteristics, but tests proved the new designs to possess flatter frequency response and lower distortion than cone drivers.
The new dome drivers were featured in the AR-3, released in 1959. As the company's third model and its first three-way design, the '3 was aptly-named. At $216 (nearly $1600 today), the AR-3 reached new heights in pricing; it also reached new heights in critical praise, as seen by the review excerpted in an A.R. brochure
reproduced on the wonderful Classic Speaker Pages
The AR-3 became the speaker to have, in the eyes (and ears) of many music-lovers. Monoliths from Altec, Bozak, ElectroVoice or JBL often had less-extended low bass than did the AR-3, and its overall detail, smoothness and musicality were difficult to match. The more efficient "big boys" might have had the edge in dynamic impact or a sense of scale, but overall, the '3 could be very pleasing.
As stereo became the norm in the early '60's, the smaller size of the AR-3s gave them a sizable advantage in the marketplace over the bigger boxes. Bachelor pads shown in mainstream magazines often showed a Hi-Fi system including the '3s, and year after year, the enthusiast mags sang the praises of the '3s.
In 1964, A.R. introduced the AR-3a (see a pair listed for sale here
) which updated and improved the classic design, and made it even smoother and more dynamic. The '3a became the reference standard for many, and well into the '80's Stereo Review's Julian Hirsch still used the '3a as his reference for low-distortion, extended bass response. In 1966, that same Stereo Review listed A.R. as the leader in the U.S. speaker market, with a market share of nearly 33%. Their next-closest competitor came in twenty points lower.
The A.R. traditions of innovation, high-quality products and thoughtful yet daring promotion (including live vs. recorded demos and a listening room in Grand Central Station) made the brand respected and desired worldwide, and even today the AR-3a's are so highly regarded that a Guide to Restoring the 3a (pdf)
appears on Classic Speaker Pages. We will return to the A.R. story at a future date, and examine the influence of the A.R. turntable, (which often sold over 50,000 units per year) and look at just how many companies owed their existence to A.R. We will also look at the sad fate of a once-great brand.