Q+A: Jonathan Weiss, Oswalds Mill Audio

The candy-colored building on the corner of York and Bridge is a DUMBO landmarked gem. Commissioned by John Thomson, the inventor of the water meter, the building was designed by architect Louis Jallade, and was one of the first American structures made using the innovative new poured-concrete method. It was completed in 1909, the same year the Manhattan Bridge opened, and served as the Thomas Co headquarters until 1927, when it was sold to the Eskimo Pie Corp. (yes!), who then churned out billions of tasty cold treats on that corner for forty years.

It’s only fitting that this building, innovative in its design and home to innovative companies, houses the New York showroom of equally innovative Oswalds Mill Audio.

Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA) is an audio lifestyle company making some of the world’s finest high fidelity equipment. The company was founded in 2007 by Jonathan Weiss. A former filmmaker, Weiss is passionate about returning audio to a pride of place in people’s homes— and is on a mission to help you hear music as it was originally intended to be heard.

OMA products are made by hand in a 1911 factory in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Oswald’s Mill— the company’s namesake, and the only known example of an integrally built “house-mill” left in North America— is the laboratory, studio, and HQ of the company. (How Weiss came to own this mill, and how he brought it up to 21st century living standards, is a great story for another day.) Weiss has lived in DUMBO since 1992, and his gorgeously designed space, on the top floor of 110 Bridge, doubles as a showroom for OMA in New York. We had the privilege of getting to listen to OMA speakers in action, and chatted with Jonathan about the creation of his company, the history of DUMBO, and the past and future of audio.

Read on for the fascinating backstory— and get in touch with Jonathan if you want to find out more.

In the past, you have worked with some very interesting and historical audio equipment. How did this inspire the creation of your Oswalds Mill Audio?

It all began with the experience I had as a kid working at a 1930’s movie theater in LA. I would go to work before the matinee to clear the garbage from the late show the night before, and I would hear the movie soundtrack really loud on the big horn speakers behind the screen. I never forgot how amazing that sounded. When I moved back to NYC, I lived in lofts with no neighbors in what were then called bad neighborhoods. I would find theaters being demolished and bought their sound equipment and dragged it home to figure out what to do with it. That was hard, because there wasn’t the internet back then, and I wasn’t an electrical engineer. But, I’m good at finding the right people, and I found one of the last engineers who worked for RCA [Radio Corporation of America] Cinema Products Division. He introduced me to more people, one thing led to another, and we ended up creating OMA.

What was the first product you developed?

The speaker that started the whole thing ten years ago was commissioned by Anton Corbijn, the famous photographer who did every U2 album cover. Anton is now a filmmaker, and when he moved back to Holland 10 years ago, he asked me to make him a sound system for his new home. We came up with the AC1, and we’ve been in production with it ever since. It’s called the AC1, for Anton Corbijn, 1st speaker. Real creative, right?

We’ve never seen a commercially available speaker in conical form. Usually, there’s some encasing.

Horns have a lot of important advantages over conventional speakers. The usual loudspeakers such as direct radiator speakers, or even worse, electrostatic or planar speakers, are incredibly inefficient in terms of their use of power. A typical speaker (85dB) is only 1% efficient!  These types of speakers need a lot of power to produce reasonable volume, which generates a lot of heat and distortion. Horn speakers are typically 50-100 times more efficient than a regular speaker— so not only does it use less power, it never creates the kind of distortion you’re used to.

In a room, a conventional box speaker produces sound which travels in all directions. If the room is very reverberant, you have echoes and a complete loss of intelligibility. People with normal speakers often go to great lengths and expense to acoustically treat their rooms with absorption to combat all these reflections. With horns, this problem is greatly reduced. One thing that horns do so well is direct the sound to where you want it. If you aim the horns where you sit, the vast majority of sound gets to you, not the rest of the room. This gives horns a much larger “near field” and that improves imaging and lets your brain relax because it doesn’t have to figure out what to do with reflections.

Of course, not all horns are created equal. If you blow into a megaphone, which is a conical horn and has straight sides and a very open throat, the sound is loud and clear. When you blow into a trumpet, with a tiny, constricted throat, the sound is much louder, but also sounds like a trumpet. Most horns out there today are designed a bit like a trumpet— sure they’re louder, but they also sound “shouty,” colored, or nasal. OMA horns are conical and have an open, natural sound. In fact, we’re the only hifi company in the world making conical horn loudspeakers. Every other company uses curved horns.

If conical is so much better than curved, why aren’t there more conical horns out there?

One reason why conicals have been overlooked is size. A conical horn is much larger for the same bandpass (the frequency that the horn covers) than a curved horn. In an industry obsessed with reducing size, conicals have never even been on the map. But only conicals can have a completely natural presentation of music, and also “constant directivity.” That means the sound is the same everywhere in the room.

The conical horns are so beautiful, too. They’re really works of art.  Tell me about the team behind these handmade products.

Let me give you a glimpse into the process, because it’s so unlike how any company that I know of works. We have one of the world’s best loudspeaker designers, Bill Woods, who has created horns for PA use and cinemas for 40 years.  I also have a brilliant industrial designer, David D’Imperio, but David knows nothing about audio. We start from this point: “What are we trying to achieve in this speaker in terms of sound?” Then David and I work on how to make it look like something you want in your living room.

How long does it take to make a set of speakers?

Most of the speakers take about four to six months, so we keep a substantial inventory so people don’t have to wait that long.

You have speakers made in both wood and polished aluminum. Does the difference in materials change the sound?

The size and shape of the horn is what makes the most difference, not the material. The size of the horn changes the frequency the horn is producing. If the horn is well damped, the material doesn’t make much of a difference. The reason that we go to wood on the larger ones is that metal at that size would be unwieldy and heavy, and at those frequencies, wood is better damped.

We listened to some records on OMA’s audio equipment, and I found the sound quality to be so good, that it felt almost like a visual experience.

Yes, I’ve heard that before. The way your brain works with audio and visual stimuli— the visual often overrides what you actually are hearing. It’s called the McGurk Effect.

Musicians don’t make albums as a distraction or as wallpaper. Listening was supposed to be an event.

Jonathan Weiss, founder of Oswalds Mill Audio

We don’t get that kind of experience with our daily use equipment. How’d you crack that nut?

It’s really too bad what’s happened to audio in the last seventy years: there’s been no progress in terms of sound quality, in fact, the opposite has happened. All of the “progress” of the past decades has been about convenience: making things smaller and cheaper, but at the expense of sound quality.

Human hearing is very good; it’s much better than our sense of sight. When you listen to music as MP3’s, it’s the equivalent of watching a TV with 95% of the pixels gone. How long would you watch that? But your brain has the incredible ability to fix bad sound— it actually fills in the information lost in the digital compression which makes an MP3 possible in the first place. The problem is your brain doesn’t particularly enjoy doing this— technically its called Listener Fatigue. And your brain has no way to tell you this through conscious pathways. So you start listening to an MP3, and then you think, “Where’s my computer, I think I want to check my email or do something else now,” because your brain doesn’t want to listen to that kind of [low quality] sound in an active way. Musicians don’t make albums as a distraction or as wallpaper. Listening was supposed to be an event. And we’ve turned the most profound art form into something terrible from that perspective.

With OMA, we went back to a period when sound quality was paramount and asked, “What was different then? Why is this better? How can we do that?” In audio reproduction, the micro-details and dynamics make the music really come alive, and the equipment has to be able to communicate that.

So what happens if we play an MP3 on an OMA system?

You can play anything on an OMA system. It’s set up to connect to anything— it could be a turntable or your iPhone, whatever you want. And it’s still going to sound great, because they’re great speakers. But it’s going to sound transcendental if you put on a really high quality recording, like vinyl records from the 1960s, 1970s, because this equipment has the capability to communicate what’s actually happening in the record.

Not to totally change tracks here, but what is your favorite place in DUMBO?

Oh, Shibui, absolutely! That’s my favorite store in all of New York, not just DUMBO. That place is a treasure. Dane Owen, the owner, knows everything about everything Japanese. He’s so modest, he once showed me a book on Japanese craftsmanship, and I realized that he was the author! But I had to ask him about that, he’d never announce it himself.

All photos courtesy of Cynthia Van Elk.