Bruce Pea’s moment was perhaps a little louder than what the rest of us experience. It came back in high school, when he turned the corner at his best friend’s house to find a set of monstrous homemade speaker cabinets filled with 15” woofers on the back porch: “He had everything set up. And as soon as I came around the corner, he dropped the needle on a record, and it was like, ‘BOOM!’ I was just blown away!” Pea and his friends couldn’t afford the high-end stereo speakers of the day, so they decided to try making their own.
They knew little more than the facts: if you put a signal to a speaker, it’ll play, and then if you put it into a box, it’ll even play better. They didn’t know anything about field small speaker characteristics, cabinet volume, porting, etc. They just had fun scrounging for speakers, wood, and experimenting — something that Pea continues to do in his Champaign garage to this day. “I’ve built a lot of speakers out of MDF [Medium-density fibreboard] and it just sucks the soul right out of the sound,” Pea said. “But every time you build a pair, you think, ‘Ah, well if I tweak it this way,’ or, ‘Can I make it a little bit better?’”
Pea ran his own technology company for a number of years, sold it, found that he suddenly had a lot of extra time on his hands, and decided to start a new business: ars harmonia. Calling it a labor of love is too dismissive. The slow, but purposeful process of melding one’s knowledge of art and science into a tangible, sharable product takes patience, courage, know-how, and a lifetime of dedication.
Having a supportive spouse doesn’t hurt, either. Thankfully, Pea has a wife who wanted to see him “make something,” and who, coincidentally, had just bought new furniture. “I’ve always been a ‘big speaker’ guy — the bigger the better,” Pea said. “I had these big boxes in our living room. She came home and she goes, ‘OK, all this old stuff is going, including that. I don’t care what you replace them with, but they’re going to be small and they’re going to look good.’”
Pea found himself back in the garage — the head of his own one-man company — doing exactly that. It took a lot of graphs, spreadsheets, sawdust, and elbow grease — and a waist-high stack of unfinished “test” or “proof of concept” boxes — but Pea’s challenge was to build a small speaker that would sound good enough that he, and others, would want to listen to it.
The Desmond is the result.
Desmond is the perfect speaker, built around a full-range driver — the heavy magnet that acts as its “motor” — and a suspended paper cone. Both were designed by Mark Audio and both meet the criteria in Pea’s specifications. The driver covers frequency response from 70–20k hz. The magic is in Pea’s design, which draws another 10,000hz from the bottom end:
I’ve been in love with a full-range driver for a long, long time. It’s simplicity! Plus, it’s a point source of sound, so that when you’ve got it set up in your listening room, it images better than anything else in the world. [Oftentimes,] … a speaker that’s not designed or built so well … may sound good until you really start listening to it, and you’ll hear on certain frequencies or sounds, it’ll smear. It won’t be crisp and clear like it should be.
Images is not a mystical term. Sit in front of a pair of Pea’s speakers, close your eyes, and lay down your favorite vinyl. This is old school “surround-sound.” This is a set of two speakers that moves the sound around the room in a way that you have never experienced.
They’re also gorgeous, and each speaker takes eleven days to finish, from start to finish. “One of my big goals, when I started this, was to build a speaker that looked as beautiful as it sounded,” Pea said. “I tried to make the best joints and use the best finish.” Pea buys curly maple for the sides of each cabinet and takes the time to split a 2” slab on the band saw to obtain mirror images of the grain. He uses linseed oil and beeswax stain for his finish, which is easy on the environment.
The interior of each Desmond is treated with his own unique process to help alleviate the standing waves created by the back of the cone — it actually diffuses or redirects standing waves. This is “the secret sauce” of his creation. “A square box is not anywhere close to the ideal geometry in which to build a speaker; it’s just the most convenient,” Pea explained. “When you play music on a speaker, the cone bounces in and out and that’s what generates a sound wave. So it’s also making a wave on the backside of the speaker.”
With other speaker systems, you either hear the “smear” of the waves trapped in the back of the speaker, forcing their way back through the cone, or they’ve been muffled by some type of insulation — not so with Desmond: “One of the things I told my wife when I started this business was that, this time, I want to make something I’m really passionate about and interested in. This is not a business where I’m looking to make a million dollars; I wanted to make something as well as I can possibly make it … and make it beautiful.”
Glenn Poor’s Audio Video carries Pea’s speakers in his store, and has ordered a special a set of Desmonds with ebony sides, a maple front, and top. We listened to a set of Desmonds at the shop. Our Smile Politely photographer sat in “the chair,” in front of some high-quality gear, and listened (with her eyes closed) to some jazz through a set of Pea’s wonderspeakers, while owner, Geoff Poor, explained that, though there are several different schools of thought when it comes to manufacturing loudspeakers, the goal is to make time- and phase-coherent loudspeakers that are also accurate in terms of frequency response. Due to diffraction effects, this is apparently very difficult to do.
Whatever that means. All I know is that our photographer began moving her arms behind and around her head, saying, “It sounds like … it sounds like … THAT!” Her description makes more sense to me than Poor’s: “With this speaker, you can actually hear things go around your head, even though there are only two speakers. It’s like looking outside instead of looking at a painting.”
Then Poor put Brian Wilson on the system. I took “the chair” and immediately started to justify the $1,495 price tag. Poor has a speaker — just one — in his shop that retails for $18k, so I figure I’d be gettin’ outta there cheap.
Then he put on a forty-year-old live recording of some Dixieland from Stockholm. From Pea’s handmade design came an indescribable sound: the clink of a glass, the spar of silverware, low murmured voices, and shuffling seats. I could almost smell the smoke and spirits, the brine from Riddarfjärden, and closeness of bodies in the small club as the band played on.
Now that’s a set of speakers.
- 4 ohm, multi-form 3 1/2″ driver using advanced ultra-light mixed paper cone, coupled with an oversized magnetic circuit designed to deliver accurate musical reproduction with detail and neutrality
- Frequency response: 70–20k Hz
- Sensitivity: 86db
- Cabinet: Premium 3/4″ solid cherry/maple or oak timber
- Driver carefully flush-mounted and locally isolated at each attachment point
- Unique 1 1/4″ beveled bass reflex port made entirely out of wood produces powerful, dynamic, well-balanced bass and lower mid-range sonics
- Heavy-duty brass binding posts are 24kt gold plated to ensure optimal signal transfer and long-term corrosion resistance
- 10-gauge internal wiring
- Finished with multiple applications of a non-toxic, food-grade combination of linseed oil and beeswax, hand-rubbed to produce an antique sheen resembling the patina found on well-cared-for antique furniture
- Dimensions: 7″ wide | 7 1/4″ deep | 12″ high
All photos courtsey of Chelsea Fisher.