The Hub: Acoustic Research - third in a series

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 " 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 website.

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.
Thanks for this great historical series. In the early 70's as a college student, I worked part time at a local mom and pop audio store in Austin, TX. We were AR dealers. As an employee, I got products I wanted at cost. While the AR3a always sounded best in the store, it was the AR2ax that people overwhelmingly preferred after in home comparison. I bought a pair of 2ax's which I kept for almost 20 years and still consider one of my all time favorites (along with the KEF 104/2). We were also Dynaco dealers and I always thought the AR2ax (not the 3a) and the Dyna A25's were the two finest "affordable" speakers of that era for home use and neither demoed terribly well in the large open space of our shop.
The '2ax, A25 and Larger Advents were similar in concept, differed in character and execution. I lived with '2axs for a while and found them more forgiving than he A25s, if perhaps a little less punchy in direct comparison. Build-quality was impeccable, although the pots tended to get noisy.

I don't really see many speakers that stand out from the rest, the way these did; of course that may be because speakers in general are far more competently-designed than they were then.

Obviously, my opinion, as always. Feel free to disagree.

Thanks for the compliments and the comments.
AR did many things well and to a large extent fueled the high fidelity industry. I owned many of their speakers and turntables. Great value, great sound for its time. Most remembered was their special constructed demo room on the balcony in Grand Central Station in New York City, no sales done. You could go in there and listen for hours to great music played on great products. Often spent my lunch hour there. In this high traffic area I am sure got many people 'hooked'. Most of these people would never have gone to a stereo store.
While in the Air Force back in the early 70s I had a friend who came back from Germany with four AR2axs. We would sit and listen to "Dark Side Of The Moon" at some pretty ear splitting levels. If the people next door were banging on the wall we were oblivious to it.
Thanks for reviving that memory.
Buco: I remember the Grand Central room; visited it as a 16-year-old. Very cool.

Tim: Thanks for that image! I was thinking I needed to find some 2axs for my kids, but now I'm not so sure!

Thanks to you both for taking the time to comment.
The AR-3a was one of my favorite speakers during the '70's. I used them mainly with a Dynaco ST-120 amplifier with AR-2ax's as rear channels in a "DynaQuad" setup. I had a Technics SL-1300 turntable with a Shure V15 Type III cartridge and later a Grado Signature 8M, and Micro-Acoustics 2002e. I also bought Dynaco's bigger amplifier, the ST-400, which had more power.

The AR-3a's replaced my previous JBL L100 Century speakers and in my opinion sounded worlds better... much less peaky in the upper midrange with deeper more even bass response than the JBL's. I also used the Large Advent speakers for a while in the same system, but did not like them as much as the 3a's.
My system for many years was comprised of an AR turntable with a Shure V15-II cartridge, a Marantz Model 18 receiver, and a pair of AR-3a speakers. I still have all of these, and hope to set them up in a vintage system someday. Incidentally, Pgulrich, my current mains are a pair of KEF 104.2s.

A highlight for me of one of the national Acoustical Society of America meetings when I was a grad student was a heated discussion between Edgar Villchur and Paul Klipsch in which Klipsch said I don't care of you use a broom handle you still have to push the air -- it was a lot more interesting than the paper I gave.