Alon Wolf: To Move Out of the Way

Alon Wolf can be mesmerizing. When the founder of Magico gets going on one of his favorite subjects, loudspeaker design, the strength of his convictions, depth of technical knowledge, and sureness of response are enough to hush many a skeptic into silence.

Not that what Wolf says invites skepticism. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense. Take, for example, two of his favorite pet peeves: the medium-density fiberboard (MDF) used in a vast number of speaker enclosures, and loudspeaker design that is behind the times.

"Look around you," he explained during one of our many extended conversations. "Every carpenter decides he wants to be a speaker manufacturer, and before you know it, there's another MDF box with a nice veneer and off-the-shelf or modified ScanSpeak or Accuton ceramic drivers on the market.

"I built my first aluminum speaker 10 years ago. Aluminum is a far more appropriate material for a box than MDF, which is the worst thing you can use. A box should be both well damped and stiff; MDF is very damped, but it is not very stiff. The box should also have mass. But since MDF is structured of resin and glue, it's not really hard. When you attach a driver to an MDF box, because it's a damped material, the MDF swallows up a lot of the energy the driver is putting out. It stores the energy, which builds up until you hear the box flexing. When you hear a driver in a well-damped aluminum enclosure, you hear things you never heard before, because all the energy is free to come out into the room."

Magico speaker cabinets are either all-aluminum—as in the huge Ultimate horns ($329,000/pair) and the Model 6 six-driver floorstander ($146,000/pair)—or constructed of an aluminum skeleton: the groundbreaking Mini II two-way monitor ($29,600/pair) and V3 three-way floorstander ($25,000/pair, reviewed by John Atkinson in this issue). In the Mini II, for example, both the front and rear plates are made of aluminum. The speaker's wooden parts—made of extremely stiff, 17-ply Baltic birch plywood that tends not to store energy—are sandwiched between the aluminum plates without the use of wood screws. The drivers are attached directly to the front aluminum plate, which in turn is attached to the rear plate with rods. Thus, Magico avoids one of Wolf's absolute no-nos: screwing drivers into wood or MDF.

"After a month," he asserts, "the vibration loosens the screws. You tighten them back up, but you can only tighten them so much before the inserts you use start turning. In less than a year, you no longer have a good coupling. No matter what kind of inserts you use, no matter what kind of a process you do, in one year, it's gone. Once you don't have perfect coupling, all bets are off as to what you're really hearing. Are you hearing the driver, the box, the flopping around? Your resolution is gone."

To investigate Wolf's claim, I checked out a pair of MDF-cabineted loudspeakers that had gone through several rounds of manufacturer upgrades. Sure enough, not only were some screws loose, but others had been tightened so many times that they kept rotating in place. My concern over how much longer the larger-diameter screws I replaced those useless bolts with would themselves remain tight led me to listen closely to Wolf's spiel.

"The truth is that there has been a lot of advancement in the science of acoustics and material that you do not see migrating into loudspeakers. You see it in electronics, but not in any electromagnetic product that the industry has been putting out. The degree of technological advance and execution in the loudspeaker industry is very low. It's been the same old same old for the last five years."

How's that for a blanket condemnation? But lest any speaker manufacturer feel singled out, Wolf's critique also extends to audiophile reviewers.

"There is a whole review industry making a living off discussing subtle differences between what are basically variations on the same speaker," he says, "and there is a lot of crap out there. If cars were made the same way, when you took them for a spin on the freeway and went faster than 35mph, the car would fall apart, you'd die, and the car manufacturer would be put out of business. With the High End, you can do whatever you want, say whatever you want. You can get away with everything if you've got a good advertising package, a good line, and a good budget. I have been frustrated about this for so many years. It's part of the reason why I'm in the business. I couldn't find anything out there that satisfied me."

Wolf is far from alone. Who can count the number of manufacturers who got into high-end design because they couldn't find a single product on the market that made them happy?

Music and Audio: Lifelong Passions
As technically sound as Wolf's design philosophy may be, his passion for accurate sound reproduction is rooted in a deep love of music. He treasures a photo of himself playing the accordion at age two. Wolf first began to study the violin when he was six. Soon, recorder and classical guitar were part of his life. The photo of Wolf playing the guitar on the Magico website isn't just window dressing; he won several scholarships to a conservatory in Israel, and, after coming to the US, continued studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Wolf's other childhood interests included sound reproduction and industrial design.

"I was interested in sound reproduction from the time when I first remember myself," he reveals. "But a decent system was not easily available in Israel when I grew up in the 1960s and '70s. The first time I heard Quad 57 electrostatics, when I was 14 or 15, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. That experience, which initiated my craze to build a system that could re-create the feeling I had back then, has screwed (footnote 1) my mind ever since."

After completing obligatory military service in Israel, which included 18 months of advanced study in physics and math at the Israeli Air Force Academy, Wolf came to the US. With his first American paycheck, he bought a turntable and preamp. He also bought a pair of headphones, because he couldn't yet afford an amp or speakers. In addition to studying music, he continued studies in industrial design. He stopped pursuing a career in music only when he realized that he could never make it financially as a classical guitarist without embracing a teaching career, which he wished to avoid.

Wolf's new goal was "to make money fast so I could do my art. I'd heard lots of stories of people getting rich real fast somehow, and thought if I did, it would give me time to do my thing." His first foray into the fast buck began with home-security products. In 1989, as the company's top salesperson, the 25-year-old was sent to open branches in Santa Barbara and his future home, the Bay Area (footnote 2). Less than a year later, he started his own security company. By the time he was 30, he'd made enough money to stop working and pursue his interests in design.

He began doing commercial computer-animated design just about the time Jurassic Park was released, in 1993. Freelancing on movies, TV series, and commercials, he worked for Sony, Disney, LucasArts, and other companies, and worked on the movies Antz and Shrek. He also worked on video games for Electronic Arts and project design for Sony. For 10 years, he did high-end design work on very sophisticated software in a virtual environment—experience he soon applied to the audio realm.

Magico's Beginnings
Wolf also continued his audio pursuits. A self-described autodidact who works 20 hours a day and needs only four hours of sleep, he began researching speaker technology, and absorbed the physics at the core of industrial design. About 16 years ago, he started to come up with ideas for building better loudspeakers.

Footnote 1: Thankfully, Wolf's brain does not contain MDF.

Footnote 2: The beautiful Oakland hills, to be exact. If, from the roof of his house, Wolf looks down toward Oakland's barrio, as far below him as the eye can see, he can probably spot our own humble casa.