Paul Barton: It Doesn't Get Much Better Than That

Canadian loudspeaker company PSB International celebrated both its 25th anniversary in July and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of its Stratus series. (I review the latest version of the flagship Stratus speaker, the Gold i, elsewhere in this issue.) Started by Paul Barton and two friends in the summer of 1972, PSB Speakers was named after Paul and his high-school sweetheart Sue (now his wife). Paul & Sue Barton Speakers is now part of Lenbrook Industries, which distributes NAD, Marantz, and Bang & Olufsen in Canada, and which in turn is part of the Canadian conglomerate Lenbrook Inc.

I sat down to talk with Paul during a visit to Stereophile's Santa Fe headquarters a few weeks before HI-FI '97. My first question: Was it true that he actually designed his first loudspeaker in high school, instead of paying attention in class?

Paul Barton: I designed the first PSB logo in a grade 11 geography class. I wasn't too enthusiastic about geography. [laughs] But it was one of my favorite classes because it was the only class my wife and I shared when we were in high school.

John Atkinson: You were initially trained as a musician?

Barton: I started taking private violin lessons when I was seven years old. When I was nine, my father anticipated that I would need a full-size instrument and began building me a violin. He spent a year studying the building of violins. He focused on the Stradivarius designs, which have been well documented. In that first year, he built the tools, all the unique clamps and gouges and scrapes. He was in the steel business, so he'd get hardened steel from his customers and make his own cutting edges and knives. In the second year, he imported wood from Europe. The only Canadian content in the violin is the neck and the scroll, which he got out of the Kitchener Waterloo City Hall when they tore it down. It was a beautiful piece of seasoned wood.

When I was 11 years old, the violin was completed. The local Kiwanis music festival was the first time I played it in public—I think I received the highest mark ever awarded in the history of the festival, on a violin made by my father. So that hit the papers, even the Toronto papers. And I still have the violin. It's become a family heirloom.

But I was also interested in making recordings. My father had a Bell & Howell mono 7" reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I would take every opportunity I could to make recordings. Music playback really intrigued me, so I made a conscious decision when I was in my mid-teens to go into music reproduction as opposed to music production . . . I can remember, when I was 16 years old, bringing my speakers—using Heathkit drive-units—to parties in Toronto.

Atkinson: You must have had a good ear—25 years ago, there wasn't much science when it came to loudspeaker system design.

Barton: I did a lot of reading...but you had to count on your judgment of sound in those early days. There wasn't much else to hang your hat on.

Atkinson: Then, in 1972, you formally started PSB Speakers.

Barton: That was the summer I finished high school and started university. The University of Waterloo has an audio lab made famous by Stanley Lipshitz and John Vanderkooy, so I entered the University. I worked four months at school and four months at PSB in a co-op program. My two high-school friends worked full-time out at the plant. Actually, I also kind of worked full-time because I'd go to school all day, then go out to the plant at night.

I went into engineering. But as the terms alternated between work and university, I knew I would eventually have to make a decision. After maybe two-and-a-half years of alternating between university and PSB, I decided not to finish school.