Cary Christie: from Infinity to Artison

95christie.250.jpgWhen Cary Christie, Arnie Nudell, and John Ulrick founded Infinity Systems more than 25 years ago, high-end audio as we know it today didn't exist. Hi-fi was audio, though the reverse wasn't necessarily true.

Through the growth years, Infinity became a major force in the High End. Cary Christie is the only one of the original players still associated with Infinity in 1995, now part of Harman International. His relationship, however, is now as an independent designer and consultant with Christie Designs, Inc. (footnote 1). I corralled him by phone on a clear fall day in Santa Fe, and a snowy one at his home near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. I asked him how Infinity had started.

Cary Christie: Infinity was really the result of a hobby—Arnie's hobby, John's hobby, and my hobby. All three of us were making hi-fis in one form or another. We met at a hi-fi store, and it turned out that I was doing some things that were complementary to what John and Arnie were doing. In 1967, the three of us started building our first product, the Servo Statik I, under the name of NuTech Enterprises.

The product was being sold at a hi-fi store when some funding people came along and said that they would like to finance the start of a hi-fi company. When we went to incorporate the company, [the name] NuTech was already taken, so we had to take our second choice [laughs].

Thomas J. Norton: I remember the first time I heard of the Servo Statik: $2000 for a pair of loudspeakers! Unheard of!

Christie: A ton of money! I think in those days I bought my original, one-year-old Porsche 912—and this was back when I was super poor—for about $3000. You kind of lose perspective on those things. I guess it's a good thing to look forward to: "Gee, what's my money really worth today? What's it going to be worth in 20 years?"

Norton: Infinity championed the electrostatic through most of the '70s. What prompted you to go on to other designs like the "ice-cream cone" tweeter, then the EMIT [the ElectroMagnetic Induction Tweeter]? Was it price, complexity, reliability, or were you just convinced that you'd gone about as far as you could with electrostatics?

Christie: It was a little bit of all of the above. For example, the matching transformers that are used to step up the voltage from the amplifiers in electrostatics had inconsistencies in them. When you listened to one transformer, then put another transformer in, it would sound different. [Electrostatics] were expensive; you had to buy supplies for the high voltage, the matching transformers, and the electrostatics themselves. You could only afford to bring the technology down to a certain price point.

One of the things we discovered early on was that there aren't tons of people who have tons of money to spend on hi-fi. We had to make it somewhat more affordable. What we wanted to do was take the technological education that we had received from our more expensive products and bring it down to the less-expensive stuff so that people could afford to buy it. Electrostatics obviously had a limitation there. There were also technical, dynamic problems with the product in terms of breakdown—how far, theoretically, you could go in terms of dynamic range before the product just wouldn't work anymore. Those were just limitations to the technology, no matter what we did to it.

We started fooling around with other ways, to try and see if we could eliminate some of those objections without removing the things that electrostatics do very well—low distortion, high transient speeds. We wanted to get the best of both worlds, so we were always on the lookout for something new.

Norton: There was a flurry of design activity at Infinity in the late 1970s and early '80s. In addition to loudspeakers, you came out with the Black Widow tonearm, a preamp, a class-A hybrid power amplifier using tubes and transistors that J. Gordon Holt felt combined the best aspects of both types of device (footnote 2). You were even working on an air-bearing turntable, as I recall. That must have been a time.

Christie: It was a fun time, actually. There were needs in a lot of areas in hi-fi. If you looked at the tonearms in those days, for example, they were all the big old SME 3009 kind of thing. The higher-compliance cartridges had come out, and nobody had done anything to improve on the tonearm itself so that it would work better with a cartridge like that. There were problems everywhere—perhaps "opportunities" would be a better word—in need of solutions. The solutions were very obvious because of the nature of the problems. We still do it today—not to as great an extent, and the solutions aren't as obvious, but we still do it.

Norton: One product that you spent a great deal of energy on but never actually released was a switch-mode amplifier. What was the promise about it that intrigued you, and why did you abandon it?

Christie: We left the digital for a couple of reasons. First, there were some technical problems with it—it was drawing on a lot of our resources. Also, the company itself was growing so quickly in the speaker area that we really couldn't continue to spread ourselves out as thin as we were. We concentrated on speakers because that was what the company was founded on, and that's where we had the biggest opportunities.

Norton: The IRS, introduced in the early '80s, is definitely one of the classic loudspeaker designs. How was it developed?

Christie: The IRS was really a Servo Statik I in more contemporary terms. By that I mean not the product itself, but the idea, which was: Let's look at everything that can be done with the technology that's available. Forget the associated costs, charge what we have to in order to break even on the product, and make the best loudspeaker we know how to make. [The IRS] incorporated things that we already had in our "developmental warehouse," if you will, in the areas of Electromagnetic Induction drivers, servo-control mechanisms, polypropylene cones, etc. So the Servo Statik I and the IRS have more in common than it at first may appear.

Norton: Over the years, where have your primary responsibilities and interests been concentrated in Infinity's operations?

Christie: Mostly in product development and internal operations—taking care of manufacturing and the internal affairs of the company. Arnie focused mainly on the outside activities. John, of course, left very early in the company's history, in 1978. Arnie and I basically ran the company through divided efforts. I particularly enjoyed the product-development area; Arnie was more of an outside kind of guy. He really liked people and doing the interviews and interfacing with the magazines. After Arnie left the company, of course, I had to assume more of the marketing and P&L responsibilities.

Norton: Except for the continued production of the IRS and one or two other designs, Infinity has been perceived as being less active recently in high-end development. How did this new burst of high-end activity, beginning with the IRS Epsilon, come about?

Christie: The Epsilon is a much more complicated device than it may appear to be. If you take the Epsilon apart, you'll notice there's an awful lot of new ideas inside. All the Electromagnetic Induction drivers have been improved.

This work actually began a number of years ago. Before we could do something like the Epsilon, we actually had to develop the fundamental driver parts. Even though, on the surface, there wasn't a lot of high-tech activity going on, there was a lot of that activity going on in the basic development of parts, in order to make something like the Epsilon.

Footnote 1: 20 years after this interview was published, Cary Christie now heads up Artison, a company specializing in soundbars and subwoofers to provide high-quality sound for flat-screen TVs.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: In Gordon's words, " the amplifier for other designers to emulate, with the hope that someone may be able to equal its performance at a rather more affordable price." Vol.4 No.5, p.20. (The Infinity HCA amplifier cost a massive $4000 back in 1979.)—John Atkinson


JRT's picture

One interesting excerpt from Cary Christie's comments was his observation that, "I think that some of the best pure-audio experiences I've had have been with a good stereo system in the front, and left-minus-right ambience recovery for the rear channels—just enough so that it's barely there. It becomes a more involving experience."