Acoustic Research AR-3 Speakers
Edgar Villchur didn’t set out to start a speaker company; he just wanted to license his acoustic suspension designs to other speaker companies. In the early ’50s, he shopped the concept to the biggest names in the business, but not a single one was interested. So Villchur started Acoustic Research in 1952, and his very first speaker, the AR-1, was an immediate hit. Villchur’s design strategy used the elasticity of air within a sealed cabinet to provide the restoring force for the driver, which allowed his relatively small speakers to produce deep, low-distortion bass.
Villchur’s AR-3 was an even greater departure. The look was pure and clean, just a plain, wood-veneered box, but lurking behind the knit-cloth grille was the world’s first production dome tweeter and dome midrange drivers, and a 12-inch cone woofer. By today’s standards, the AR-3 wasn’t all that small—it came in at 25 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 11.5 inches deep, and weighed 47 pounds. In 1958, it sold for $216 a pair, making it a very expensive speaker for its time.
The plywood cabinets, crossover networks, and drivers were all made at the company’s factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Build quality far exceeded industry standards, and AR was the first speaker company to provide a five-year warranty!
What made the AR-3 a sensation was the sound. In the early ’60s, Villchur conducted a series of live-versus-recorded demonstrations in which the sound of a live string quartet was compared with the recorded quartet played through a pair of AR-3s. Most listeners couldn’t tell the difference between the speakers and the musicians, a testament to the AR-3’s quality. Eventually, the AR-3 was replaced by the AR-3a, a modified version that used the same woofer but offered improved dome midrange and tweeter drivers that created even wider dispersion. Like the AR-3, it was regarded as the best speaker of its day and was wildly popular.
Villchur had a hand in designing AR’s ads, which were understated and clean, with minimal copy and just an unadorned shot of the speakers. There was no hype or pizazz, just the facts—and the speakers sold themselves. By 1966, the company claimed 32 percent of the U.S. market, the largest market share ever held by a speaker manufacturer. Today, a pair resides in the Smithsonian, and original AR-3s in good condition can fetch in excess of $1,000 on the used market. An exceptionally pristine pair in Mahogany auctioned on eBay in February sold for $3,710.
Author’s Note: Harry Munz, Villchur’s old friend, provided background information for this report.
[Editor’s Note: Special thanks to hobbyist Rick Kurtz and Frank de Jong of the archival Website vintageaudioonline.com for supplying images of vintage AR 3 and AR 3a speakers for this article.]