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Dec / Jan 2011
Blast from the Past

Writer: Nadine Khalil / Photographer: Cynthia van Elk

Jonathan Weiss makes some of the world's most sought-after audio equipment. The founder of Oswalds Mill, is able to do with only 10 or 15 watts, what most other manufacturers require 1,000 watts to achieve.

 

Occupying a rare 1,000 square-metre, 18th century four-storey house mill in Pennsylvania, Oswald’s Mill is every audiophile’s dream. You see the mill’s owner, Jonathan Weiss, not only restored the place to perfection a decade ago, he also organises yearly ‘tastings’ during which visitors are invited to experience Oswald’s Mill’s outstanding audio equipment. 

The tastings are by invitation only and guests have the opportunity not only to find out what Oswald’s Mill is up to but also to browse Weiss’ own exquisite collection of vintage loudspeakers, drivers, amplifiers and turntables. As not even the most ardent audiophile lives by their ears alone, guests are treated to Weiss’ sumptuous cooking, food being one of his greatest pleasures. Like the speakers Weiss produces, the event is the kind of experience that is anything but ordinary.

This mill is also home to Oswald Mill Audio (OMA), Weiss’ sound equipment firm, and this is where the cherry, ash and Pennsylvania walnut hardwood that go into OMA’s equipment is handcrafted to furniture-standard finish. 

Building upon the marque’s ‘Back to the Future’ credo, which holds that the finest things in life “are not necessarily the newest,” everything OMA produces, whether it’s loudspeakers, turntables, plinths, tube amplifiers or audio equipment racks, relies on the same methods and technologies that would have been used by the very best artisans of the past, whether the violin makers of Cremona 300 years ago or the cinema engineers of the 1930s. 

OMA’s argument is that recent innovations in sound, such as digital reproduction or file sharing, has lowered audio quality. Weiss says that today’s generation of music lovers have never heard the kind of sonic resolution that used to be achieved in the past. As their website declares, OMA takes pride in being able to restore lost levels of quality, not by “using technology that guides the space shuttle, but by going back to the technology that was never surpassed”. Here, analogue is king.

“We take our senses for granted, but they are all conditioned,” Weiss explained in an exclusive interview with Bespoke. “I much prefer having clients who are mastering engineers making vinyl records, or even professional musicians, for they get what we are doing. Then again, ordinary people who love music would be the group I would most like to appeal to, because they have no idea how wonderful music can be if it is properly reproduced.” 

If the OMA sound is different, that’s because their speakers use long, horn-shaped cones, rather than the flatter, dish-shaped cones of most modern speakers. The advantage is that the horn shape transmits sound waves with the least amount of alteration, the disadvantage is that this system occupies a lot more space. 

This is why, acoustic excellence aside, OMA’s speakers are also conceived as objects, strikingly sculptural additions to the house, shaped by the aesthetic vision of industrial designer, David D’Imperio.

The not-so-mini Mini, for example, which is 1.5 metres in height, looks rather like a cross between an old-fashioned camera and a Calder mobile. Cubic, compact and set on a tripod stand, with its prominent top of the box horn, the Mini makes no bones about what it does and gets its name because, though large by contemporary standards, it is the smallest in OMA’s range. 

Then there’s the Monarch speaker. With its wooden, butterfly-like baffles that allow for enhanced bass reproduction. Weiss describes the Monarch as “something that can make you feel that a kick drum is in the same room as you are”. He continues, “To do that, we actually referenced movie theatre speaker from the 1920s and 30s, which often used large baffles to extend and integrate the bass with upper frequencies. No one has made anything like that for 70 years.” 

At the top of the range there’s the Imperia, which looks rather like a series of wooden megaphones arranged in a stack. The design makes a virtue of its prominent horns, some of which are also cast in aluminium alloy. Even more impressively, the Imperia can handle the entire sonic range from 100Hz all the way up to 20kHz.

“The Imperia was the first speaker we designed and the last to be finished and frankly, I’m amazed we even got it done in four years,” says Weiss explaining that OMA turned to Klangfilm, a theatre speaker maker that operated in Germany before World War II for inspiration. “Every company has its ultimate, reference product, and the Imperia is ours.”

If it’s beginning to seem that OMA’s entire sound concept is derived from old cinema sound systems, you’re not far wrong. When Weiss was 14 years old, he worked at the Bruin, a late Deco cinema in Westwood, California. It had immense horn speakers behind the screen and big tube amplifiers to power them.

“In the morning, before the public arrived, I would clean the aisles while the projectionist played the soundtrack of the current film very, very loud. It was an incredible experience. The music became physical, it was loud but there was no distortion because of those big horns,” Weiss recalls. “Many years later, when I bought Oswald’s Mill, I was able to recreate that experience using vintage theatre speakers and tube amplifiers. With OMA, I wanted to share that unique pleasure of sound and music with others.”

These are not products for the faint-hearted much less for those who prefer their speakers hidden or miniaturised to the point of disappearing. But OMA is not building fetish objects. The company’s products are all made in respond to specific sound reproduction questions, the chief of which is the creation of the most natural sound possible. 

"The point is not to play loud, but to sound real. To make something small like a solo flute sound like a flute, but also to transport a full symphony orchestra into your home, if you wish. It’s a magical thing and if you want to hear a full symphony orchestra playing Mahler or Beethoven properly, that just won’t happen without a large horn system,” he concludes. “People have an expectation that they will be ‘blown away’ when they experience the Imperia but when you listen to a solo female vocalist, it’s like listening to a sonic hologram, as if there’s a real woman standing in between the speakers.”

 
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