Listening #37

There was once an Englishman named H.A. Hartley, who was a contemporary of H.G. Baerwald, P.G. Voigt, P.K. Turner, and other men whose first two names are lost to us. Hartley was a capable designer and audio theorist, not to mention a gifted lecturer and writer—his literary achievements include a book on astrology (footnote 1), of all things—and he's often credited with coining the expression high fidelity. Most important of all, in 1928 H.A. Hartley teamed up with the aforementioned P.K. Turner to create an audio manufacturing company known as Hartley Products, Ltd. The Hartley company made electronics and loudspeakers, the latter of which included full-range coaxial drivers using energized field coils and, later on, quite powerful permanent magnets—just like their countrymen at Lowther Loudspeakers, Ltd.

Hartley's loudspeakers met with success over the years, and distribution arrangements were made with specialist companies around the globe—including a contract with a New Yorker named Robert Schmetterer, who became Hartley's US distributor in 1949. Not long after that, in 1953, Schmetterer mentioned to Hartley his interest in becoming more than just a distributor, and Hartley mentioned to Schmetterer his own interest in selling the company and retiring to someplace warm. Thus Hartley Products Ltd. became Hartley Products Inc., and control of one of the most interesting domestic audio companies in history passed not into the hands of a multinational corporation, but from one family to another.


That's when things got interesting: In 1956, just a few years after moving his company from England to New York, Robert Schmetterer hired an engineer named Harold Luth, who came to Hartley after spending a number of years developing naval weapons for the RAND Corporation. Luth would be to the Hartley company what Donald Chave was to Lowther, Gordon Gow was to McIntosh, and Bill Miller is to Linn: a hired gun who contributed even more ingenuity to a company than its founder. The list of developments wrought by Luth, who had PhDs in physics and chemistry, is considerable: He created the first plastic driver cones (using a polymer he developed himself), and contributed so many key refinements to the design of coaxial (as contrasted with dual-concentric) loudspeakers that Hartley Products, Inc. would become one of only two companies in the world to hold patents on the concept.

Then came one of Luth's finest inventions of all: a magnetic driver suspension that may have been an outgrowth of the work he did with underwater mines during World War II. Magnetic suspension transformed the driver's voice-coil into a sort of a part-time electromagnet: In the presence of an AC signal, the coil and cone could move quite freely; in the absence of a signal, a strong restorative force pulled the coil back to its starting position—and in doing so created a damping effect that was almost five times faster than the best that could be achieved mechanically (footnote 2).

By the late 1960s, Hartley was a well-known name in the audio industry. Their electronics were mostly forgotten by then, and the company's own loudspeaker system (drive-units plus a cabinet) designs didn't made a lasting impression on much of anyone. But Hartley's drivers were a hit with audio tinkerers and sound-reinforcement specialists alike, and their promotional materials from that era leave little doubt that Hartley had a younger audience in their sights than their competitors did. AR had Miles Davis and Bose had Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but Hartley had the hippest ads and brochures of all: high-contrast black-and-white photos with lots of text, written with technical authority and dry wit in fairly equal measures. Volkswagen made history with ads like that—and so, in a smaller way, did Hartley.

106listen.2.jpgBut as the years wore on, and as magazines such as Stereo Review and High Fidelity began sucking the life out of our hobby by promoting the quest for good sound as little more than a numbers game—one in which a new breed of mass-market manufacturers had a built-in advantage—it became clear that the hi-fi industry could no longer continue as it was, and that most American companies would have to choose between shrinking and selling out. Hartley chose the former path, and, under the direction of Richard Schmetterer, who took over from his father in 1978, the company began to trim its product line, and even moved away from the New York metropolitan area in 1986.

Today, Hartley operates from a smaller manufacturing and sales facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Richard Schmetterer is still at the helm. "My dad was from the old school," he told me recently. "He didn't want to make things just for the sake of making a lot of them: He wanted to do something worthwhile." So Richard and his staff continue to make Hartley drivers completely by hand. More than that: "We still make our own polymer for the cones, in house. We make our own mold-release waxes. We even make our own glues." Seeing a brand-new Hartley driver is like riding in a new Morgan, or finding out that absinthe—the real stuff—is still available to any tormented poet who can afford to search it out. Hartley is the audio company that time forgot.

Designated driver
But even as the Hartley company faded somewhat from the US scene, their products continued to draw a loyal following from the same group that kept the flames burning for Western Electric 300B tubes and Thorens TD 124 turntables: hardcore Japanese audiophiles. God love them.

One of them is a well-respected amplifier designer in Tokyo, named Kore-eda. A few years ago, Kore-eda asked Yoshi Segoshi, who owns and operates the distribution company Sakura Systems, to find him some Hartley drivers on eBay. Segoshi wound up buying a vintage pair of Hartley 220 MSG drivers for about $1000—but when they arrived, he decided to try the Hartleys himself before shipping them on to Japan. "I was very impressed," Segoshi said, "so I called Mr. Kore-eda and told him that I was sorry, but I wanted to keep the drivers myself. Kore-eda was a little bit angry, but we continued to speak, and eventually he told me the news that Hartley might still be in business.

Footnote 1: But H.A. Hartley was conspicuously silent on the subject of the relationship between the astrological signs of commercial audio designers and the sounds of their products. We would have to wait nearly half a century for another Great Man to wrestle that topic into the daylight.

Footnote 2: It's interesting to compare the magnetic suspension Luth invented for Hartley with Lowther's own Hi-Ferric technology: Both seem to involve coating the voice-coil and/or former with a magnetically permeable substance.