March 4, 2016
Tucked away in the woods of Eastern Pennsylvania is the Oswalds Mill, the last remaining integrated ‘house-mill’ left in North America, and birth place of some of the world’s most extra-ordinary sound systems.
Words: Anton Spice
Equally inspired by RCA’s 1920s cinema sound systems and disgusted by the degradation in audio quality across modern high-end equipment, founder Jonathan Weiss embarked on a creative, philosophical and technical journey to transform his 10,000 square foot mill into the spiritual and physical home of Oswalds Mill Audio.
Working with horn and driver experts to engineer speakers that draw on those formative technologies, he sourced ash and black walnut from the surrounding woods for the imposing conical horns, cast-iron from local ironmongers for the structures, slate from a nearby quarry for turntable plinths cut to shape by a Mennonite family who own the area’s only water jet machine, crafting a striking series of sound systems that have blown away the most experienced in the business. His first customer was photographer and director Anton Corbijn.
A music lover with a suspicion of the audiophile world, Jonathan Weiss is on a mission to bring great sound and striking design back to an audio world compromised by cost and convenience. We spoke to him to find out more.
So where did it all start? You’re not an audiophile in the traditional sense of the word…
It’s a little tough to get your head around what audiophile really means. To me it’s kind of a bad word but that’s because when I think of audiophiles I think of the people who are going to audio shows and they’re online all the time talking about their equipment.
I had this formative experience when I was a kid working in this old movie theatre in LA, outside of Los Angeles, where they still had all these technologies that were the last of the great analogue technologies. So it was pre-digital – and it doesn’t get much better than 35mm film soundtrack – on horn speakers with tube amplifiers, very old school. Then living in a loft in New York City and buying this mill, I didn’t have any neighbours, I had as much space as a I wanted. At the time the cinemas were being turned into multiplexes and nobody cared about this stuff, so I scavenged it and tried to understand what it was doing, because it certainly didn’t sound like anything else. And it was through this back door that I came into audio.
This stuff was just universally better made?
What I found very interesting from an intellectual stand point is that the further you went back in time with this equipment, the better it sounded and that’s just totally counter-intuitive. Technology is not supposed to work that way. Technology is supposed to promise us better and better and smaller and cheaper. But sound doesn’t work that way because sound waves can’t be miniaturized, they are basically very anthropomorphically proportioned.
So for you new audio equipment is a case of emperor’s new clothes?
Everyone knows that. There was this letter from some reader of Stereophile to the editor saying despite things supposedly getting better, their equipment from five years ago was better than the new stuff. The funny thing is, that was published in 1963. That was when everything was going from mono to stereo, so it’s a process that has been going on for a long time, but I don’t sense that anybody is really going to argue with that. Obviously the high end manufacturers will argue you with that.
Can the same be said for turntables? There are some extraordinary decks out there now.
When it comes to vinyl, I have to say the cartridges and tonearms made today are better than prior, but there’s been some genuinely innovative engineering, especially with this guy in Berlin Frank Schroeder, who makes really brilliant tonearms. But when it comes down to it, where turntables have got to is really sad. The original turntable technologies which were direct drive and idler drive are a whole lot better than belt drive and 99.9% of turntables, not in the DJ world but for high-end consumer application, are all belt-drive, because it’s cheap and easy.
How about the Oswalds Mill turntables?
The turntables that we make are both made out of slate and they both using existing, vintage motor units. One is the SP-10, where we throw away most of it and then plonk it down in a 200-pound plinth and the other is using a Lenco motor made in Switzerland in the ’60s, where again, we throw away almost everything, but we keep the motor and platter. The reason for this is simple. I wanted to give our customers a really good turntable at two different price points. Most of our customers come to us and buy a whole system. These things were never made to go into mass production and they were kind of a stop-gap until we developed our own turntables.
And are you developing your own turntable?
Yeah. As I always knew, the R&D on that has taken us years, and I hope to have this state of the art cast-iron turntable, built completely from the ground up inspired by Neumann cutting lathes. Eventually we’ll have an add on where you can cut masters on your turntable as well as play them, which I think would be the first time that’s been done for a consumer unit.
But the idea for offering the turntables was simply to be true ‘bespoke’ (a word that gets really overused now). If you go to Savile Row, you walk in they take care of you and you walk out with a full wardrobe, so the idea with our turntables was the same. I simply couldn’t find a turntable that fit the bill, and that’s also how the amps were developed.
Coming from the background of owning stuff made by Western Electric and RCA and other companies, when you see how that stuff was made and you see how very expensive stuff is made today, it’s basically like you buy a Lamborghini you open up the hood and you find out there’s a Kia engine in there. It would suck, but that’s kind of how I saw it. So we ended up developing our line of amplification specific to our needs and the needs of our customers.
So let’s take a step back again, it’s the early ‘90s, you’re sitting in your apartment taking apart an RCA driver. What was it that you saw in that equipment that gave you the confidence to take it to the next level?
If you had asked me fifteen years ago, I was a film-maker I was working on a TV show and I had these systems which I was very into. I really had a huge amount of space and I could really put whatever I wanted in there, with two-foot think stone walls and no neighbours. So I had a huge RCA 1930s horn system and RCA 1930s tube amplifiers.
What happened is, you meet people and you start talking and the word got out that I had this huge horn system in this place where you could play it. So guys who were making low-powered, mainly single-ended triode tube amplifiers, which would only produce 2, 5, 10 watts, they would ask to come over to hear their amplifiers on my speakers. I had a 2,500 sq-foot room for all this with good acoustics.
So we had this event one year in the late ‘90s/early 2000’s which somebody dubbed “The Oswalds Mill Tube and Speaker Testing”. The first year it was a big success there were like ten to fifteen guys, the second year it more than doubled and after that it went totally out of control and people were asking to come from all over the world.
Who were these people?
These were really talented amp builders, but in this country there wasn’t really any business for this. The people who came were really serious people who I became friends with. And two of them started this company called Cogent making these loud-speaker drivers based on this 1930s RCA design that we all really liked. And this other guy called Bill Woods, who was one of two or three of the world’s top horn engineers.
I started going to these audio shows to help Cogent and I saw what this world was like. You’d go to these hotels where they would strip the rooms of the furniture and you would go round and listen to this stuff. And it blew my mind. The sound was terrible, the stuff was ugly as shit and I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding, that thing is $100,000?
Mini with sub-woofer set-up
Then I thought, I’ve got everything. I’ve got an amazing industrial designer, I’ve got one of the world’s best horn engineers. My friend is making the world’s best drivers. I’m sitting in a building that’s surrounded by some of the world’s best wood with sawmills all over the place. The forest is filled with black walnut trees and ash. Plus in this part of Pennsylvania it was the start of the industrial revolution in the United States, it’s got this history of people making things, casting things, machining things going back hundreds of years and there’s still tons of small shops still here where you can have anything made. And so it didn’t take too long to put all this together.
There’s the quarry where I know the owner so I’m able to get material that’s very hard to get otherwise, it just seemed obvious to me. Instead of making art, ideas, culture, intellectual stuff, why not make something physical that will make people happy or blow their minds?
The use of local materials is really interesting…
There’s a reason to use this. If you were to look at this from a technical stand point, there’s a great reason to use slate. What do you want from a turntable? You want it to be non-resonant and drain vibration. Wood is a great material but slate is like infinitely dense ply-wood, layers of mud that have been compacted down. No other rock has that quality. So slate is perfect but then you have to figure out how to work with it and if you don’t have a water jet machine you can’t do it. It’s a very high tech machine and yet the family that owns the water jet machine, they’re Mennonites, very religious, no one has had more than an 8th grade education, and they taught themselves how to use a $300,000 water jet machine. So we have really great people, companies, without that we couldn’t do this because the craftsmanship is a big deal.
The emphasis on making things is very present in the aesthetic that Oswalds Mill presents.
With our Apple culture now of design and manufacture, it’s as if all this stuff just got beamed down from outer-space. You have no relationship with it, it’s like you can’t even hold it. It’s hard to even engage on a tactile standpoint. So our stuff is very against that trend. And the funny thing is, Apple came to me over the summer and they shot their 6s commercial in our showrooms. And that blew me away because it couldn’t be a more diametrically opposed aesthetic, but even Apple saw something that they thought would resonate with their customers.
Visually, the design of the speakers are particularly striking. Are they based on the old theatre horns?
There is no nostalgia beyond our horn designs. Hi-fi has been very afraid of making things too big, but our approach is that it’s good to be as big as it has to be. Then we’ll figure out how we’ll make it look like something you want to have in your living room when it’s not playing. When you get to the larger horns, you can’t cast those in metal, they’d be too heavy and at those frequencies wood sounds better. So if you want to have a solid hard wood horn, you’re going to have to make it in segments and join them together with splines. It’s the only way to make it.
So the design of our horns simply follows from the necessity of manufacturing. It has absolutely no connection to gramophones or anything that came before. With our speakers, it can be challenging to explain to people that we didn’t make a sculpture to stick speakers into.
Who are your customers? You’d need a lot of space, as well as a sensitivity to the attitude or concept OMA puts forwards.
Our first customer was the photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn and the AC1 is named after him as it was essentially a commission after he moved from London back to Holland. And so I went to the building he’d bought in the Hague and we came up with the AC1 and the GM70 amplifier, all these things went into production after that. That’s how the company really launched.
Most of clients have are not serial audio or audiophile buyers. They really like music, they really like great design, and they’re buying something that is basically heirloom. All our equipment, I guarantee you, unless someone knocks it over or drops it on the floor, your grandchildren will be playing. The stuff does not date from a technical standpoint. You can’t change sound waves. If a speaker is as good as it can be that’s not going to change, there’s no technological breakthrough that’s going to change that.
NYC loft showroom
But ultimately this stuff is going to be out of reach of almost everybody. Is part of the OMA project to simply show the potential of what is possible with sound?
I get people coming into the showroom in New York who are Grammy-winning music producers and engineers and you sit down and I drop the needle on something that was recorded in 1964 and you just see the look of disbelief on their faces. These are people who spend their whole life in studios with expensive equipment and they’ve never heard sound like this. There’s an old Tibetan Buddhist saying, it’s like trying to explain the taste of salt, it’s hard. Even people in the industry, most of them have never heard properly reproduced sound. Which means for lay people they’ve never heard it, I guarantee you.
And that’s one of the most amazingly sad things, how important music is and yet what’s happened to it. The destruction of sound quality in favour of convenience and cost. People basically now treat music like wallpaper, a way to carve out territory with their headphones in offices or public spaces, to distract themselves. It’s not the way it used to be when even playing a record was an event. So for me, there’s a philosophical or spiritual aspect in this. Modern life has been rather denatured. It could use a little enriching.
Photos: Cynthia van Elk / Oswalds Mill Audio.