Sandy Gross: True Confessions

This tale might have been scripted by Barry Levinson, the Baltimore-bred filmmaker who has set four pictures in his hometown, where much of the Sandy Gross story has also taken place. The young Sanford Gross moved there to attend Johns Hopkins University, and subsequently, in one of the city's Civil War–era houses, got Polk Audio rolling with fellow alumni Matthew Polk and George Klopfer. The company flourished, but Gross, who had minored in film at Hopkins, had an itch for Hollywood. He moved to Los Angeles, only to find the movie business tinged with illusion—much as Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett had portrayed it in Sunset Boulevard, their merciless 1950 film noir. So Gross plotted a new scenario, returned to Baltimore, and re-entered an industry committed to low distortion.

David Lander: You were a teenage entrepreneur. In high school, you were involved with slot cars—miniature electric race cars that run on slotted tracks.

Sandy Gross: Actually, very sophisticated miniature electric race cars. I was considered one of the top builders and racers. My friend Howie Ursaner and I were hired by American Russkit. We helped them develop products and, as Team Russkit East, represented them in major races, as well as visiting local raceways. We were known as the Gold Dust Twins, and we're still remembered in the slot-car world. Howie was an early investor in Polk.

Lander: At Johns Hopkins, you started out in engineering.

Gross: That choice was influenced by my slot-car experience, but engineering at Hopkins was more like theoretical physics, with a tremendous amount of math. I was more interested in creating concepts and products. I switched majors, to social and behavioral science, with a focus on creative writing.

Lander: When did you get interested in music, and what did you listen to?

Gross: I was in school bands and orchestras in elementary, junior high, and high school, and grew up with the music we played. When I was 10 or 12, I got my first little transistor radio, a Spica—I still have it, though it doesn't work—and I listened to the New York Top 40 stations every night. I gradually moved into folk music, rock, and jazz. I was at Woodstock, and I saw most of the signature acts over the years. Now I listen mainly to jazz.

Lander: When did you get interested in audio gear?

Gross: By the time I graduated from Hopkins, in 1972, I was a fanatical audiophile. All through my college years, I bought and sold used audio gear. It was a tremendous time for that, with people getting rid of classic tube gear they considered outdated: Marantz 9s, 7Cs, 8Bs; McIntosh 30s, 60s, 275s. I got together with Matt [Polk] and George [Klopfer] after graduation, and we originally did sound reinforcement. I was the mixer, and once had the pleasure of mixing the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with Duke on piano.

Lander: Polk started with one model, the 9, in 1972, when wannabe speaker manufacturers were everywhere. How did you get the attention of dealers?

Gross: The proliferation of speaker companies was a running joke, but I suppose dealers appreciated my enthusiasm. Initially, we took on a rep firm for the New York metro area, but I visited dealers with them. We soon parted company with the reps in favor of dealing directly with dealers, something I've continued to this day. I believe direct contact is important.

Lander: How were Polk's products conceived?

Gross: Most of the product concepts were mine—as at Definitive [Technology] and GoldenEar [Technology]. Basically, I provide an elaborate napkin sketch, pretty detailed in terms of drivers, technologies, dimensions, and so forth. This then goes to engineering—at Polk, originally Matt. There was, and is, a lot of back-and-forth.

Lander: The Monitor 7, a bookshelf speaker designed to compete with the Large Advent, really got Polk going. Tell us how.

Gross: I loaded a pair into my 1967 Volvo station wagon, and drove around the country for four summers opening up dealers. I used the Audio Research dealer list as a target, and went from town to town. Dealers along the way were receptive, and would suggest other dealers. Fairly early on at Polk we hired a national sales manager, but I still ran sales and marketing, and did all Polk's advertising in conjunction with a graphic artist—as at Definitive and GoldenEar. Part of the success, I feel, at all three companies, was a head of marketing and sales who had pretty good product knowledge and defined the products to engineering.

Lander: You owned KLH Model Nines, which you've said influenced your designs.

Gross: What I liked best about the KLH Nine was [its] very low coloration, super imaging that makes the loudspeakers seem to disappear, and the ability to make it seem like the musicians are in the room—or that you are where the musicians were performing.

Lander: The Polk Monitor 10 was popular with audiophiles.

Gross: Matt came up with the 10, a larger version of the 7, one summer when I was out on the road. There's an interesting story about it. We were quite friendly with Jon Dahlquist and his partner, Saul Marantz. In fact, Saul was something of a mentor to me. One day, I got a phone call from Saul. They had taken a two-room suite at the upcoming Washington Hi-Fi Show, and had planned to show the [Dahlquist] DQ-6 in the second room. It never materialized, so Saul was wondering if we would like to show with them. They were quite a prestigious entity, and this was an incredible opportunity, which we graciously accepted. You could say the Monitor 10 became what Dahlquist had hoped the DQ-6 would be.

Lander: What was the point of Polk's Stereo Dimensional Array?

Gross: The SDA concept was an attempt to minimize interaural crosstalk by means of a cancellation signal from a separate driver dedicated to this. The result was vastly improved imaging—bigger, more three-dimensional. SDA was included in a range of models quite different from any other speakers on the market.

Lander: There was also an RTA 12.

Gross: The RTA 12, with its open-mounted tweeter, was perhaps the best pure audiophile product in the line. RTA stood for Real Time Array.


Venere's picture

Are you able to reveal which speakers Sandy uses in his system other than his own? I think most readers would find that to be interesting info coming from a man with Sandy's background.

vikkysingh's picture

I registered only to ask what the rest of his system looks like! Nice article.

goodfellas27's picture

knowing what 50k speaker the man have would be one!

otaku's picture

I want to ask him about Hurricane Raceway and Mini-Wheels.

GoldenEar's picture

Oh, Slot car stuff. I don't remember Hurricane, but I remember Mini Wheel. As I remember, Tag Powell was the gentleman that ran it. We had many pro races there, and as I recall, there was a sports car (?) race there towards the end of my Car Model Series Championship that I won at Mini Wheels. I don't know what happened to Tag, raceway long gone obviously, and many racers from there scattered all around doing many different things. Wayne Williams (now Wayne Lumpkin) became quite the entrepreneur and inventor in the trail bike arena: Avid Brakes and recently patented belt, instead of chain drive, for bikes. Bob Emott is no longer with us and Howie is Howie. He is still racing quite competitively (yes it still goes on) and recently he and I visited a track together and I took a few laps (I haven't raced slot cars in years) and came within .03 seconds of his best time.

Allen Fant's picture

Me as well, I want to read more about the personal system (including cables/power cords) !

GoldenEar's picture

Hi, As I live in two places, I have two main systems. The system pictured in the review, which is driving my Triton Ones is: Line Magnetics 219A SET amp (because of the built-in powered subs, the speakers are very easy to drive, so you can enjoy the benefits of SETs without having to compromise with very high-efficiency speakers which often exhibit significant coloration), PS Audio DirectStream DAC and currently using an OPPO 105 as transport (awaiting the new PS Audio transport),lots of Stillpoints, Currently Transparent cables and an AudioQuest Niagara 1000 power conditioner. Power cords are Shunyata and Wireworld. Please note cables move around and include Cardas, AudioQuest, WireWorld,Straight Wire, Kimber etc.
The other system is my reference system. My feeling is that a loudspeaker designer needs a reference system that reaches beyond their own loudspeakers, so that they can have a goal to shoot for. My current reference speakers are a custom pair of SoundLabs, utilizing their 845 panels inside the Ultimate steel frames. Thank goodness for the steel frames, as ABF mangled the crates pretty badly when they delivered them. I drive them with either Atma-Sphere MA1 Mk2 OTL amps or the new PS Audio BMK mono blocs, depending on my mood. Turntable is the Acoustic Signature Ascona with a Kuzma 4 Point 14" Arm. Cartridge is up in the air, currently a Shelter 90X as I decide on my next move there, probably an Atlas Etna. Aesthetix IO with volume control, MSB Analog DAC and Transport with the big power supplies. AudioQuest Niagara 7000 power conditioner, lots of Stillpoints, AudioQuest cables, but as in NY, always playing with a variety including Straight Wire, Cardas, Wire World, Kimber etc.I hope this satisfies the inquisitive. All the Best, Sandy

Venere's picture

Thanks for the detailed and candid response Mr. Gross. It is of course very interesting for readers like me to learn what equipment choices someone with your experience in the industry might make for their own reference system. It was also nice to get a description of the art you enjoy so much. I think I speak for all the readers in wishing you much success with GoldenEar and any other future projects. Our hobby needs more down to earth designers like yourself. Cheers !!!

michaelavorgna's picture

I'd love to know more about those paintings.

GoldenEar's picture

Glad someone noticed, as they are quite a passion of mine, along with music and audio. Let's see, going counterclockwise from the upper right: Giorgio Cavallon 1959/60, James Brooks 1959, Theodoros Stamos 1960, and in the center, Roberto Matta, 1983. Roberto Matta was a surrealist painter, viewed as the bridge between the European Surrealists and the American Abstract Expressionists. The other three are New York School Abstract Expressionists; Brooks and Stamos are considered first generation and appear in the famous Life Magazine 1950 photo entitled "The Irascibles". Cavallon was really first generation as well, and they all partied together and frequented the Cedar Tavern along with Rothko, DeKooning, Pollock etc. BTW, Mark Rothko's son Christopher is an audiophile! Sandy

michaelavorgna's picture

...I'd like to buy you your beverage of choice and talk about this. RMAF?


Corsentino's picture

I couldn't be happier with my Triton Reference! Wishing you and yours a very happy new year!!