Natural Born Kessler (No. 1): The Paul Klipsch Biography

Klipsch book article Ken Kessler

Pretend just for a moment that you’re a civilian, not a savvy audiophile. What exactly would you know about the following?: Single-ended triodes. SACD. Cable directionality. Speaker spikes. VTA. The answer is … precisely nothing. We function in a self-contained universe, and the arcana and secret language which we take for granted are about as meaningful to outsiders as, say, “weft” and “warp” are to non-weavers, or “chaton” and “Nivarox” are to non-watch enthusiasts.

I tell you this so you will appreciate that celebrity in our world is not the same as the sort of real celebrity which affects hundreds of millions because of the greater appeal of their milieu. Movie stars, sporting heroes, stadium-filling musicians, and terrorists are known to vast audiences beyond that of their fans and supporters. Our gods are as valid outside of audio as Mars is outside of ancient Rome. Or is that Greece ….

Examples: I’d rather suffer root canal work than sit through a soccer match, yet even I know the names “Beckham” and “Owen”. Opera makes me cringe, but show me a photo of Domingo or Pavarotti and I’ll tell you which is which. I’ve never subjected myself to an Adam Sandler flick, but I know who he is.

Now, ask any schmuck of the street to identify in what field David Hafler, Peter Walker, and Saul Marantz worked, and you’ll get a blank stare. The point I’m making is that precious few of the giants of our industry bear names known beyond the pages of hi-fi magazines or the portals of hi-fi stores, all of which makes even the mere appearance of a biography of Paul Klipsch all the more remarkable. Hi-fi heroes simply don’t generate enough interest, let alone romance, to justify books about them. You will never see a Hollywood biopic starring, say, Dom Deluise in Absolutely! – The Harry Pearson Story, or French and Saunders as Michael Fremer in Mikey – The Diary Of A Vinyl Addict.

Most of you could argue convincingly and eloquently that Klipsch deserves more fame, respect, or acclaim than, say, Akio Morita for founding Sony, Amar Bose for creating the biggest speaker-only company on earth, or Mark Levinson for inventing the high-end (and more recently for showing what he can do with his shlong). You could do so because you love horn loudspeakers more than you care about Sony, Bose or Mark Levinson wares.

You would argue that PWK created the longest-lived product in audio – the Klipschorn – and by extension provided credibility for the horn in audio circles, long before the Japanese revived the concept as an object of cult worship. And this probably affects most Listener readers more directly than, say, Bose’s direct-reflecting dictum, or Sony’s MiniDisc, or Mark Levinson’s maxi-shlong.

But that would be to adjudge Klipsch’s achievements in the context of our tiny world, thus blowing it all out of proportion. If we could quantify it, Bose, let alone Sony, would be shown to possess more brand awareness than all other makes combined, while Mark Levinson’s original company is possibly the only (true) high-end make known to civilians.

Clearly, their effect on the world at large is far greater than that of any manufacturer in pure audio, with the possible exceptions of Henry Kloss through a series of masterful concepts such as popularising Villchur’s acoustic suspension system and the suspended subchassis belt-drive turntable, or Stan Kelly for inventing the flip-over stylus. Which sadly proves my point: Kloss and Kelly were in all likelihood responsible for more products which benefited the world at large – and I mean actual unit sales rather than number of models – than even the gigantic Bose, yet Kloss and Kelly aren’t even on the general public’s radar. (If you think I’m crazy, imagine how many cheapo “record players” with flip-over “needles” were sold in the 1950s-1970s.)

As for Klipsch? Now his is the sort of saga which defies nearly all precedents, for Klipsch as a manufacturer was neither large enough to be “mass market” like Bose or even JBL*, and wasn’t tweaky or insane enough to be part of our borderline-psychotic brotherhood.** In fact, as illustrated by the recently-published biography, Paul Wilbur Klipsch: The Life…The Legend, PWK was an occasionally-ornery cuss who had little time for the trappings of audiophilia, and went so far as to wear a badge under his lapel which read “BULLSHIT”, flashed more often than not, in response to some wild hi-fi claim.

Having only met Klipsch twice in my career, and being undeniably a part of the audio community element which he deplored, I can only say that his civility and respectfulness (shown to a person who was both a total stranger and akin to something he’d not step in if found on the pavement) were the marks of the man. A gentleman? Hell, he oozed the sort of class possessed by a previous generation, exhibiting the very qualities which were almost an intrinsic part of an age when scholarship and etiquette and protocol and respect mattered.

He was a throwback to an era so far removed from the crassness of modern times that it’s understandable how he hated rock music (which I adore), was sceptical about wires (which I refuse to review but appreciate for their importance in system tuning), was suspicious of most hi-fi claims, and remained wedded to the same basic technology for a half-century-plus. And you cannot fault his consistency: the man wrote a massive rebuttal to all we hold dear, back in January 1958 – over 20 years before hi-fi went truly mental. This particular tract is reprinted in full in the book and – I hate to admit it – it’s tough to refute what he writes when you’re faced with such immutable logic.

Then again, I was taught to respect my superiors.

Oh, how I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask PWK what he thought of his contemporary Lowther, of the 1990s horn revival, and of arrivistes such as AvantGarde, Edgarhorn, Acapella, et al. He probably would have said that he was pleased that there was a new cult which adored horns, while adding something to the effect of “even if they like them for the wrong reasons,” or “It’s about bloody time.” Klipsch was clearly of the objective rather than subjective school, fully trained and qualified to deal with electronics and things electro-mechanical, “properly educated” and very much NOT of the temperament which inspires current high-end tweaking. Mumbo-jumbo, black magic, blind faith, and peer pressure played no parts in his life.

Where Barrett and Klementovich’s book succeeds best is in charting Klipsch’s growth and development through both the university and the military, the latter including research in armaments during WWII – experience which Klipsch put to good use during peacetime and while manufacturing loudspeakers. Unfortunately, the authors are devoted fans who appear to have eschewed either the talents of a knowledgeable editor or proofreading by an audio scribe. Thus, you will read this book for its content, not for its literary worth.

Once you get past their continual gushing, and the feeling that maybe the book was sponsored by a church, the story itself carries you along for Klipsch was a true polymath, a renaissance man of the sort which rarely emerges at a time when everyone seems to specialize. You can only marvel at the breadth of his expertise, the myriad interests, even his quirks, like collecting oxymorons – the latter listed here in full. It’s an easy read, unless you choose to wade through every one of the patents (a full 60-page chunk of the book), and the breeziness makes it feel more like a long magazine article than a book of some 200-plus pages.

It is far too easy to criticize this book. A canny editor would have added an index, maybe some “classic” review reprints (I’d love to know how the Klipschorns were received in the 1950s), a comprehensive product listing with specifications – all manner of data which would have made it a definitive reference work. This would have been the icing on the cake, as it’s unlikely that another Klipsch biography will ever follow, one with the missing factual and statistical material.***

But, as you can tell, even without such data, it’s almost of reference standard by virtue of the inclusion of all of Klipsch’s patents, the wonderful photos and drawings, lists of his awards, the aforementioned oxymorons and more than enough anecdotal information to create a three-dimensional image of the man.

When I finished reading the book, it occurred to me that it was as if the recently-departed Klipsch timed his death perfectly, passing away after its publication, and at the dandy old age of 98. One can only assume that PWK left when he was darned well good and ready: either he stayed alive long enough simply to be there to read the finished book, or he stayed alive long enough to leave it open-ended, and thus needing revision within months of its arrival to include his passing. He had that kind of a sense of humor.

Most of you won’t need a book to tell you just what we owe to Klipsch, even if his speakers were never the most fashionable, rarely topped “Best of the Best” or “Editor’s Choice” listings, or even cut much ice with today’s salivating horn crazies. But I will tell you two things about the esteem in which Klipsch is held, both personal observations but one which reveals more about Klipsch the Man than his speakers ever will. It involves one of today’s giants, one with an appreciation of historical precedents and PKW’s worth.

When the Klipschorn reached its 50th anniversary and PWK actually attended a CES for the first time in many years, there was a palpable buzz around the show. It was as if Chuck Berry had turned up at Midem. I don’t recall precisely quite what role I had to play in this, but somehow I got involved in ensuring that Dave Wilson, of Wilson Audio fame and a purveyor of dynamic speakers which are categorically NOT horns, got to meet the great man. PWK, then in his early 90s, was seated in a comfy chair in the Klipsch suite, greeting all and sundry – press, dealers, distributors – and enjoying it immensely.

Now Wilson is no minor player in audio. He has a resumé to die for, produces superb speakers, and is respected far and wide. In the nearly 20 years that I’ve known Dave, I’d never seen him acting as nervous as a teenager on his first date, nor as choked up as my wife when viewing Bambi. It turns out that one of Dave’s first-ever audio acquisitions was a Klipschorn, and he couldn’t believe that he was finally getting to meet the man himself. He greeted the man with so much reverence that I was humbled to a degree I’ve never experienced before, during those memorable occasions when I’ve been lucky enough to meet a legend. And I swear Dave had a tear in his eye after their brief exchange.

The Wilsons Meet Paul Klipsch photo by Ken Kessler

Dave and Sheryl Lee Wilson meet Paul Klipsch

My other observation will mean little to you unless I first explain that I despise horns. As I’m new to this magazine, you may not know that my “speaker hierarchy” starts with ribbons, followed by electrostatics, then real-world designs such as BBC LS3/5As, Sonus faber Homage speakers and Wilson’s WATT/Puppy classics. (And you are probably wondering why Editor Dudley is allowing me to sully these pages.) But I have always tried to be open-minded and will admit without prompting that – should someone shove an Uzi up my ass and threaten to pull the trigger unless I start using horn-loaded speakers – there are six models with which I could live.

And four of them were designed by Paul Wilbur Klipsch.

Paul Wilbur Klipsch: The Life…The Legend by Maureen Bennett and Michael Klementovich. Hard covers, b&w illustrations, 208pp. Published by Rutledge Books, Inc, Price $24.95.

*Although the Klipsch company circa 2002 is something like the third or fourth largest in the USA, after Bose and Polk.

**Even those of you with fire-breathing PC inclinations have to admit that world of audio worship boasts so few females that the masculine collective is wholly appropriate.

***But I wouldn’t bet against it: a couple of years ago, not one but two biographies of Alan Blumlein hit the stores.

(Listener, 2002)