Arnie Nudell: From Here to Infinity
Imagine a speaker firm with an introductory product that pushes the outside of the performance envelope while tearing the pricing envelope to shreds. A reviewer in an audio journal that tilts toward the high end deems this speaker "appallingly expensive," notes he would have bought the test sample if he'd had the money, and confesses that being without it makes him feel "rather as though a member of the family has passed away." Now envision a speaker company at the peak of the industry sales curve, one so successful that a mainstream hi-fi magazine ranks it No.1 in market share for two separate years. Very different companies, right?
Wrong. Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, made the comments quoted above about the ServoStatik I (footnote 1), the loudspeaker that launched Infinity Systemsthe same Infinity Systems that Stereo Review later determined, in two annual surveys, was the industry segment's market leader. Much of the creditfor Infinity's high-end products and high sales volume alikebelongs to Arnie Nudell, who grew up in Los Angeles, and cofounded the company there in 1968. I recently called him in Colorado, where he now lives, and where he's at work on a speaker with advanced versions of technologies he pioneered. Here's what Nudell had to say about his route to Infinity, and about some of the firm's achievements during his two-decade tenure as president and head of product development (footnote 2).
David Lander: You were exposed to some serious classical music while growing up in Los Angeles, and you displayed a clear affinity for it.
Arnie Nudell: When I was seven or eight, I was taken to see the San Francisco Opera production of [Verdi's] Il Trovatore, and I fell in love with opera that moment. Every year from then on, when the San Francisco Opera came down to L.A. for two weeks, I begged and cajoled, and I got somebody to take me to all the operas every season. At 12 or 13, I was in a large youth orchestra, where I was first-chair clarinetist. We were doing the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and were asked to raise our hands if we wanted to conduct a movement. Of course, my hand went up immediately. I got to conduct the third and fourth movements. I had the score, and I just memorized it. To this day, I know every note.
Lander: Your first career was in science, unrelated to music, and you worked around some scientific equipment that was every bit as compelling as the music you favor. Tell us about that.
Nudell: While I was getting my bachelor's degree in nuclear physics at UC Berkeley, I worked in the Bevatron lab [at the on-campus Berkeley National Laboratory]. Bevatron was the largest particle accelerator in the world at the time. Then I went to UCLA for graduate work and got my master's degree in physics. I was studying for a PhD, and had satisfied all the course requirements, but I was getting tired and bored, frankly, so I got a summer job at Hughes Research Laboratory, and right at that time Ted Maiman, who worked there, discovered the laser. It was the first time anybody had seen coherent light, and I was at Hughes Research Lab when it happened. I was called by no fewer than 10 different companies saying, "If you want to work for us, we'll pay you a lot of money." So I immediately took a job at Aerospace Corporation, a new company funded by the Air Force, in El Segundo. I set up a laser lab and made it all work.
Lander: When did you begin working with speakers?
Nudell: I had been working with speakers since I was, oh, 10 to 12 years old, going to electronics stores, putting together parts. I took my parents' console apart and put new speakers in it. At Aerospace Corporation, I was so absorbed in trying to get that lab set up, and doing some basic research with some of the scientists there, I had no time for speakers. I got back to them after I started a job with Litton Industries, in the San Fernando Valley. At Litton, we developed a way to make a laser range-finder to measure distance within a couple of feet. They were already making the inertial navigation systems for the F4D aircraft that was flying then in Vietnam, and when pilots making bombing runs missed their targets and came around again, the potential for getting shot down was very high. What we proposedI went to the Pentagon to give a couple of talks about thiswas a system whereby you could ultimately have the laser range-finder connected to the inertial navigation system so, as a plane came in, the laser would pulse a number of times and give the computer in the inertial navigation system updates of the exact distance to the target.
I was at Litton Industries for a four- or five-year period, and during that time I met John Ulrick. He was one of the electronics guys in that laser group, and he was very interested in music and audio. We decided that we could put some of the new technologies we were using in aerospace into loudspeakers.
Lander: You're referring to servo technologies.
Nudell: Yes. These technologies that were used in the inertial navigation system were called servo technologies, and they use feedback to correct various moving mechanisms for accuracy. A bass speaker is a moving mechanism, and we felt that, if we could put feedback around a bass speaker, we could give it flat frequency response down to 16Hz. And much lower distortion, since adding feedback to a system lowers the distortion. We worked on that for a very long time, at least two and a half yearsthis was after hoursand when we came up with the servo bass system, the first thing we did was to A/B it with a four-thirds Klipsch I had made in my garage: one that was one-and-a-third times the size of a normal Klipschorn, with a 15" woofer instead of a 12" woofer. The bass system in the four-thirds Klipschorn, at the time, was state of the art. And the servo bass system destroyed it.
Lander: Your servo bass system used its own amplifier.
Nudell: It needed its own servo amplifier, and there was no such thing on the market, so we had to design one. And we needed some device to sense the motion of the speaker. What happens is, as the speaker moves, the sensor puts out a small voltage that is fed back to the audio input of the amplifier. That voltage is compared to the audio input voltage, and if there's a difference between those two signals, that difference is fed back into the audio amplifier, which instantaneously corrects the woofer's performance. It flattens the frequency response and dramatically decreases the woofer's distortion. We then needed a midrange and a tweeter with the same low distortion and wide bandwidth characteristics as the woofer. The only such technology at the time was electrostatic.
Lander: A lot of people back then were great fans of the KLH Nines. How did you and John feel about them?
Nudell: We loved the KLH Nines, but they had problems. They couldn't play loudly enough. They beamed too much high-frequency energy, so if you were standing in front of the tweeters they would kill your ears; standing off axis was the only way you could listen. And they couldn't really reproduce low bass. They were very clean speakers, and we liked the electrostatic sound, but we did not like the inefficiency and beaming.
Footnote 1: JGH's Stereophile review of the Servo-Statik 1, as well as several follow-up reviews, can be found here.Ed.
Footnote 2: An earlier Stereophile interview with Arnie Nudell, along with interviews with his colleagues at Infinity, John Ulrick and Cary Christie, was published in January 1995, Vol.18 No1.Ed.