Roots of High Fidelity: Paul Klipsch

by Karen Ravich (High Fidelity Magazine 1979)



Occasionally, talent, timing and an energy which fuels itself from some mysterious inner source combine to produce a man whose personality is genuinely unique and compelling. Inevitably, we tend to affix labels to such a man, in an effort to categorize just what it is that makes him tick.
The most fascinating thing about Paul Klipsch, who has been called every-thing from a fanatic to an eccentric, is that he eludes any strict definition. The complexities of his very nature are what he and his products are all about. Paul Klipsch has the aura of a man who has wisely utilized every shred of time in his 75 years on earth.

Born in Elkhart, Indiana, he received a BSEE degree from New Mexico College for Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) and an engineering degree from Stanford. After a stint in the testing department at General Electric (1926-1928), Klipsch spent 5 years with the Anglo-Chilean Consolidated Nitrate Corp. managing locomotives in Chile. There he used his ham radio background to build several radios so that he could listen to the stock market reports from WGY in Schenectady or enjoy some music. He always built his own equipment. "It would have been cheaper if I had gotten a job someplace shoveling coal and bought it," he said, "but the challenge was in making it." Back in the States, Paul Klipsch entered
the communications group at Stanford and became interested in transmissions lines and wave filters. "Those were fascinating for me". One of my fellow students was writing a thesis on loudspeakers and I learned how he measured loudspeakers." If many others have been affected by Paul KIipsch, it is part of the chain: he is fond of the quotation by Isaac Newton I have seen farther than Descartes, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of Giants."

His giants include A.L. Thuras and E.C. Wente of Bell Labs (late I 92Os who promoted knowledge in the field of horn type loudspeakers. While working as a geophysicist in Texas in 1939, KIipsch and his wife attended a Bell presentation at the Houston Engineers Club. Perhaps this was a moment of reckoning. He says on reflection, "My wife and I listened and she said, 'You've wanted to build a loudspeaker... use the back room for a shop.' It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull." By early 1940, Klipsch had what he refers to as 'dirty pictures' drawn on the backs of envelopes. These are the graphs and notes which he jots down, although his memory for detail is so incredibly sharp that one is sure he carries duplicates of everything in his head as well. What followed was a working model of a speaker (later to be dubbed the Klipschorn) which Klipsch says gave him a sense of direction more than anything else. "By 1942 1 found out some important facts about back-air chambers and made new drawings." It was during this time that he be-came acquainted with the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, which he came across in the Rice Institute Library. He obtained a collection of back issues dating to the first volume, in 1931. Nothing Klipsch read gave him cause to swerve from his firm belief that horn-loaded speakers were best - a belief he still holds.

The war interrupted his work on the Klipschorn and he served with the U.S. Army Ordnance Dept. from 1941 until 1945, becoming a Major in 1943 and a Lt. Col. (Reserves) in 1953. Even before his discharge, however, he had made a decision about the future. He contacted his former boss during the war and said, "Don't hold my job open, I'm going to make speakers." What did people think about loudspeaker development then?
"They didn't. I had to go out and tell them. It's an uphill pull to sell something that's different no matter how much better it may be.. I. tried to sell my patents and I'm glad I couldn't because I would have gotten a few hundred dollars and been looking for a job. We have brought a new company into being with a group of new products that are challenging the rest of the industry. Our speakers are not for the mass market."

At the close of the war, Paul Klipsch remained in Hope, Arkanas, where he had served at the Army Munitions Proving Grounds. While his wife, Belle, taught school, he perfected his loudspeaker and wrote several technical papers in what he describes as "a little tin shed behind what used to be a laundry." Gradually, Klipsch and Associates expanded to include some of the old proving ground buildings, accommodating their need for more space. But something was still missing. "We didn't have a knack for salesmanship," Klipsch says, "When I am asked to speak to engineering students now, I tell them to learn how to peddle an idea."

A turning point came in the early sixties. A man named Bob Moers, bought a pair of Klipschorns and was inspired to journey south to see Paul Klipsch. He stayed on, as a salesman for the company. At that time, there were only 8 or 9 employees. Paul Klipsch was drawing a nominal salary which he reinvested back into the company on a regular basis. "Within a year after Bob came," he states, "we started giving back pay and drawing salary." Moers is now the President of Klipsch & Associates and in 1978, over 30,000 Klipsch loudspeakers found their way out of the shipping doors in Hope and onto the market, both here and a~ road. A tour through the present Klipsch facilities in Hope is an educational experience. One gets the impression that every step in the construction process of a Klipsch speaker is part of some timehonored tradition, a blend of technology and custom. Everywhere, there are enclosures in various stages of development. Some wait for sanding, others are ready to go. Exotic woods are made to be functional as well as beautiful, polished to perfection. A testimony to the way employees feel towards the product is the fact that a woman who works in the sanding room has recently built her own set of speakers and everyone connected with the effort has signed their name on the enclosure. This includes Paul klipsch. "1 like to have employees own our products," he says, "that's pride of ownership, pride of working here." It's difficult to disassociate the atmosphere inside the company with the peaceful landscape of its Arkansas surroundings. As for the Hope locale, Paul Klipsch says, "The living is easier, it's less strain. 1 wouldn't have chosen it but I like it. It's interesting to be a big frog in a little pond."

Coupled with the resolute determination of the engineer/geophysicist is the Klipsch sense of humor. It is a dry wit, and one that can be subtle. Often it is self-directed: "I used to pride myself on being a professional mistake maker when I was in geophysical activity. I think about 10% of my ideas panned out. I've offered to drink all the oil that’s ever been discovered by the methods described in one or my patents, and I've never been challenged." Paul Klipsch is a big man, over six feet tall. His figure is trim and belies his age. He is very much at home in his office, a room which reflects the nuances of his personality. On the wall is a small sign which reads: A Clean Uncluttered Desk is the Sign of a Sick Mind. The room resembles organized chaos. This is not the workplace of a man who is simply manufacturing and marketing a product. What transpires here is quite obviously a labor of love. A diploma hangs playfully from the wall, taped at a lopsided angle. On close inspection, it becomes a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the 'University of Arkisippia,' a gift from some friends who share the tongue-in-cheek humor of Paul Klipsch.

But the real tone of the company is set by Klipsch's absolute belief in his product. "I'm conceited enough and mean enough to think that our loudspeakers are better than anyone elses, we go for performance rather than cosmetics... our success speaks for itself in that respect," Klipsch insists. Although more and more Klipsch buyers are first time buyers, most have stepped up from the mass market items which are characterized by what Paul Klipsch likes to call the 'Blastophonic 88.'

Recently, a Klipsch ad entitled 'Ho Hum, Another Major Breakthrough,' lampooned over twenty so-called breakthroughs in speaker design (including one by Klipsch). All are now defunct. A few years ago, a 'learned paper' appeared in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society announcing the invention of the Ultimate LSH Loudspeaker (Loudspeaker Space Heater). The by-line read 0. Gadfly Hurtz, Lost Hope, Nevada. The design poked fun at proponents of low efficiency speakers which require high levels of power. (Klipsch speakers are among the most efficient on the market.) Of that article, Klipsch mused, "1 got more fan mail than from other papers. A doctor in Cincinnati called me and told me he rolled on the floor laughing."

When a consumer listens to a speaker, Klipsch "would like to have them hear not the loudspeaker, but the sound that comes out of it and I'd like to have that sound as much like what happened in front of the microphone as is possible to achieve. I go to concerts. I like to go to the symphony because I like music and I like to keep my ears calibrated so that I know what the doggone stuff ought to sound like when it comes out of the speakers." An ardent supporter of the Arkansas Symphony, two hours away in Little Rock, Klipsch bought a pair of mics for the orchestra because "I didn't like the kind of mics they were using."

In May of 1978, Paul Klipsch was awarded the Silver Medal of the prestigious Audio Engineering Society. In addition to numerous other accolades, he is a prolific writer whose technical papers have been translated into many foreign languages. In addition, "Dope from Rope," a spasmodic publication of Klipsch and Assoc., is a communications link to dealers and keeps them informed on the latest developments. Of his career and of the industry in general, Paul Klipsch reflects, "We've come a long way and we still have a long way to go. I'm looking more to the future even if I am 75 years old.

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