Charlie Hansen, Ayre Acoustics

While I was working on my review of the K-1 preamplifier, I telephonically corralled Ayre's Research Director Charlie Hansen for a midwinter afternoon's gabfest. I started by asking Charlie how he became an audiophile.

Hansen: My dad wasn't fanatical about hi-fi, but he built Dynaco gear and had a Rec-O-Cut turntable. He had AR2s with 10" woofers—and for the tweeters, they actually had 4" cones! Two of them, mounted in a V so that they cross-fired—because their dispersion was so bad...[chuckles]. That was when I was teeny-tiny. He wanted to get Jantzen electrostatic tweeters to add on, but never could afford them, so he bought some Lafayette tweeters instead.

So I just grew up around this stuff. When I was older he gave me an Eico mono amplifier—tube, of course—and other stuff. My father loved music and he played it all the time. Like him, I love music, although I've had more experience playing music. I grew up playing guitar in rock bands, and then, later, got a chance to perform in an African percussion ensemble; most recently I've been playing in a Gamelan. If I were a better musician, I'd probably be making music rather than the equipment that plays it.

Phillips: How'd you make the transition from listener to builder?

Hansen: Oh, I always built stuff. I always wanted stuff I couldn't afford, so I read books and experimented on what I could get my hands on. I was always mechanically inclined. My dad knew someone who had a stereo repair shop, so I got a job with him when I was 15. I couldn't have been any older because I had to hitch a ride to work. He carried high-end stuff—he was the first guy in my area to carry Linn, Magneplanar, Audio Research, and all that. Not that I could afford any of that stuff, but I was around it and I appreciated it.

Audio magazine used to run construction articles. I worked on those and I built tube amps for guitars. I built a little FM transmitter and we started an underground radio station when I was in high school. We were always doing crazy stuff like that. So, I was always building stuff—the big transition was deciding to build stuff to sell.

Phillips: How'd that happen?

Hansen: [laughs sheepishly] Well, we built these huge speakers—they were five-ways with ribbon tweeters and 12" woofers and all kinds of stuff. They were the size of refrigerators—they weighed 250 lbs—and I was moving and didn't want to move 'em, so I sold 'em to a friend. A week later, he had a party at his house and somebody heard them and had the money, so he had me build a second pair. Then the guy that did the woodworking wanted some, and I wanted a pair as well. So we decided to build three pairs, figuring that the customer was really paying for our extra sets. Once we started, we realized that "Hey, this is a lot of work—we might as well build ten pairs so we can sell a few and make some money." The next step was to make a hundred pairs, and by then, we were in business.

If I had known what I was doing, I never would have attempted it. The only thing that kept us going was that we didn't know any better—we didn't even know that you needed money to start a company. We didn't know anything.

Phillips: This fledgling business eventually became Avalon?

Hansen: Yeah, well, it took a few years. The only reason Avalon survived those first few years was because of Jeff Rowland. He took us to trade shows and gave us a lot of valuable technical advice on improving the speaker. In fact, Rowland owned Avalon for about a year or so. That probably wasn't the wisest idea for them, because speaker companies that had formerly been supportive of Rowland stopped recommending them once they saw Rowland as competition.

But you know, time has a way of sorting things out. I believe that the Avalon will be one of a handful of products from its time that will stand up in the years to come. Look at the 1950s—as far as we've come, there are still a select few loudspeakers that could make you happy today: the Klipschorns, Altec A7s, KLH 9s, original Quads... Think about it—if I told you that you could only have one system for the rest of your life and it consisted of a Marantz 7, a Marantz 8B, and a pair of Quads, could you be happy? I could. That stuff sounds good, looks good—there's integrity to the design. I'd like to think the Avalon will be remembered like those products.

Phillips: So let's fast-forward to your founding Ayre.

Hansen: I took a year off after leaving Avalon. I met the woman who is now my wife, went to Europe, rafted down the Grand Canyon—just generally decompressed after a fairly frantic five years. I had a noncompete clause with Avalon, so I knew I couldn't design speakers. I looked at a lot of products before settling on an amplifier.

If it weren't for Peter Bohacek [with Wadia at the time of this interview—Ed.], there probably wouldn't be an Ayre today—or it would certainly be quite different. Peter managed to sell retailers their worst nightmare—an amplifier that was the only product in the line. Nobody needs another amplifier, they need a line. We had originally intended to market the amp and the preamp together, but it just didn't work out that way. But Peter managed to get us in to key retailers in spite of all the good reasons for not taking us on.