The Audio Interview: Godehard Guenther--The man who made the Mini-Speaker (Audio, Nov. 1982)

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The unwavering blue eyes are set deeply in his skull. His strong nose arches over a cleft chin, and there's something so extraordinarily intense about his gaze that the eyes impale you. Except that the corners are crinkled from laughter, being stared at by this pair of eyes would probably be a disconcerting experience.

But it isn't, because Godehard Guenther, Ph.D. and President of Analog and Digital Systems, has a strong sense of humor, one very near the surface. Part of him is still the mischievous boy who illegally broadcast tape-recorded programs over a home-built radio transmitter in his native town of Bochum, West Germany. Part is the gifted physicist, diverted from the Skylab space projects to sound and largely responsible for such audio innovations as the mini-speaker. Yet another part is the entrepreneur whose company's enviable success says all that need be said. It seems some benevolent schizophrenia works for this man who, on his 39th birthday, described himself as three 13-years-olds.

Today, at 43, Guenther is no less whimsical, in spite of responsibilities which span the Atlantic and keep him from his home outside Boston, his wife and two daughters most of each month. While interviews must be scheduled further in advance now, they are still informal. Yet Godehard Guenther still responds to questions in a soft and warmly accented voice as his blue eyes fix on the questioner and, flashing, seem near laughter.

When did you first get interested in hifi and music? Oh, when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. I was more interested in music than I was in hi-fi, but I was also interested in electromechanical things with music. It was natural that since I wanted to store music and play music, I got interested in electronics, which wasn't hi-fi in those days.

Did you have a record player at home? A funny one with a steel needle, when I was little. When I turned 14 I had a little better one. It already had a real stylus.

I built my own amplifiers. I built my own tape recorder, and I built an FM station-but that was a little later, more like when I was 16.

Tape recording was very new in those days.

Yes, and, of course, as a teenager didn't have money, so I earned money doing odd jobs and bought a motor. I talked a fellow in a machine shop into drilling holes in a chassis, found a head-and in the end I had a real recorder that was working.

What did you record? I recorded AFN, the Armed Forces Network, which I played back to my pals in school who couldn't listen to it because the radio station was off during the evenings. I recorded by remote turn-on during the day, and played it back over AFN's own frequency during the night.

How powerful was your transmitter? It was very small, something like three or four watts, and it was limited by the mountains in the area; so in one direction it went seven or 10 miles and in another direction it went only a few miles.

Wasn't all this illegal?

Oh, it sure was. I tried to speak English as fluently as I could, but of course, they tracked me down and I got caught in the end. But it took almost a year. I shouldn't have used my English. I should just have replayed AFN without saying anything-on their own frequency.

How did they identify you? Well, the German government is very efficient, and they have the Post Office in charge of all communications. As you know, there's a monopoly in Germany for anything that has to do with audio, video, telephone or telex. They had these search cars out with all kinds of direction-finding equipment looking for the source.

This would have been in the '50s. Did you like American rock and roll? Well, actually I was not a rock and roll freak. I was a Bach freak. My favorite composer was and still is today Johann Sebastian Bach.

Did you listen to classical music as a boy?

Almost exclusively.

What did you think of becoming when you grew up? Oh, you know, anything from a train conductor to a truck driver-all those wonderful children's dreams. As I got older I developed an interest in music, architecture and general engineering.

I opted to study physics because that seemed like the only field where you could get an overview of all the engineering disciplines and where you could still do your studies at a university rather than at a technical school like MIT. A technical school in Germany is a much different operation, much more regimented, whereas universities are more liberal, more free and offer a greater amount of material.

You came to the U.S. in 1967 to work on Skylab.

Right. I was assistant professor (as you would probably call it here) at the University of Heidelberg then, and I was invited by the National Academy of Sciences for a two-year program to work with Werner von Braun's staff in Huntsville [ Alabama] at Marshall Space Flight Center. I ended up on a Skylab project, which of course took much longer than two years. In the end I stayed.

How did the transition from space scientist to hi-fi entrepreneur occur? It was very natural. I had always been interested in good design and music, and there was one company in Germany whose products appealed particularly to me, a company by the name of Braun. They were famous for their industrial design, but they also happened to make very fine loudspeakers and good electronic equipment. I tried to import their equipment as a hobbyist, mostly because of the looks and the loudspeaker performance. That's how I got into this at the start.

How could you do this from Huntsville? Well, if you're in Huntsville, Alabama, and you work on Skylab, you need communication with schools like MIT and UCLA that are involved in state-of-the-art technologies, as well as with manufacturers of hardware like Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas, General Dynamics and those people. Therefore I had a lot of travel to do. You couldn't just sit in your laboratory. A satellite project of that magnitude requires a team approach.

So you played hi-fi sales manager on those trips.

Yes. I scheduled the weekend to be part of my assignment.

And you visited stores on the weekends. How much business could you do that way? Oh, I ended up doing about a million dollars a year.

That made you about as big as some pretty well-known small speaker companies of that era. How did the Braun people feel about it? The Braun people liked what I was doing, because it was a life study of a market that had been described to them as very difficult-probably unachievable-because of what I liked about their product, the stark looks.

People compared Braun speakers to refrigerators, for example, which is exactly what I liked about them.

Apparently, though, you found buyers out there. At least some of the American people must have responded the way you did.

The American people didn't like the looks of the speakers at all, but they did like the sound. At the time these speakers were much more linear than the competition, and therefore they seemed to have a greater level of clarity and definition. That overcame the obstacle of the funny looks.

When did you decide to make hi-fi your full-time occupation? That happened in 1972, after Braun's parent company, the Gillette Corp., decided to appoint an official distributor, Malcolm Low, the "L" of KLH. I had the choice of either staying with my space research projects or teaming up with Malcolm Low and moving to Boston, and I opted for the latter. Malcolm ran the company for a couple of years and then went on to another venture.

And I took it over.

Your first speakers were Braun. Then they carried the name ADS/Braun.

Then the Braun was dropped altogether. Why? The only way the Braun speaker business could grow in the United States was to come down to a reasonable cost and to offer an appearance that was appealing to a greater audience.

Therefore, these speakers had to be manufactured in the United States.

Braun and Gillette were nice enough to give me access to their engineering department, and I in turn reciprocated by helping my people design things that they wanted to have for Germany-electronic products. So we entered into a licensing arrangement, which I eventually outgrew because my needs for the U.S. became so different that we had to manufacture from scratch. During the transition from Braun to ADS we also changed the manufacturing depth in the product itself. Initially we used Braun drivers and networks with U.S.-made boxes and shipping cartons, wheareas in the end we had to manufacture all our drivers from scratch, as we're doing today.

Your company has been built on a series of innovations, and one of the first was the mini-speaker. Why did you set out to design a speaker with a one-liter enclosure? If you are from Europe, you have a different outlook on goods, on things.

In this country, which is a big, wide-open country, bigger tends to be better. In Europe, smaller tends to be better. I was conditioned to that way of thinking, and I never liked the idea that speakers had to be very big. This idea was shared by Franz Petrik, Braun's chief loudspeaker designer; the two of us and Gary Streeter, chief engineer for ADS, got together to design something that sounded big but was physically small, just to prove a point. The original engineering took almost two years. We introduced it as an automotive product, because I didn't think anybody in this country would accept such a little loudspeaker for home use.

So we had to apply it to an environment where the small size was indeed a virtue. Only one year later did we introduce it as a home product.

Didn't that product employ digital technology? Yes, it did. In the car, where you have only a 12-volt d.c. supply and you need to overcome the engine noise, you need a lot of electric power to drive the loudspeakers. Also, the laws of physics tell you that the smaller a loudspeaker is for a given bass response, the less efficient it will be.

Therefore, we needed an extra-great amount of power for this fellow in the car, and we had to use a digital switching power supply to power our amplifiers.

Was it your Skylab experience that taught you how to do this? Certainly so, yes. In those days these types of converters were only used in space applications because the switching devices were quite expensive. But Gary [Streeter] found a device on the marketplace that looked reasonable.

This was back in the mid-'70s when companies like Jensen were only just discovering they could sell a pair of car speakers for as much as $100and those were designed for flush mounting. Here you had this curious component that looked like a shrunken home speaker, a box that mounted on the rear deck of a car with brackets.

Whatever made you think you could sell it? Actually, our first model was wedge-shaped.

But what gave you the idea that a car speaker should look like a wedge? Were there such things then? No. There certainly were not. But I believe that form should follow function, and that was a very functional form. It was also reasonable in tooling, and therefore we chose that form. Whether it would sell, we certainly didn't know.

It was a gamble. It was not so much meant to be a marketable product as to show the technology we were capable of. And it served both purposes. It helped us sell our loudspeaker, and the ADS brand was instantly established. And interestingly enough, there was a very small but very, very open market for these devices.

When did you team up with Nakamichi to market your speakers and their tape recorder as a car system? Well, Mr. Nakamichi was so impressed with our first [mini-speaker] system that one day he came to my office and said, look, Dr. Guenther, you can make these great little loudspeakers. If you could somehow find a way to eliminate this external amplifier you need, we could maybe match it up to a cassette deck and we would have a gorgeous, marketable package. I said, well, yes, that sounds great. If only I had such a cassette deck I would be all set. And he opened his briefcase, and out came this tiny little Nakamichi 250, and I opened my desk, and out came my 2002, which had the amplifiers inside the little speaker without being any bigger, and all we had to do was design a connecting cable (which actually was quite a problem). You later designed a digital preamp for the car.

Yes. That was one of the projects we did for Braun. But Braun's interest wasn't strong enough to financially support it, and ADS was too small a company to manufacture it for our own use.

And now you've come full circle. You split with Braun, as did Franz Petrik, who went to work for you. And suddenly we find you're now heavily involved with Braun again. What, precisely, is your relationship with them? We've started a joint venture with Braun's parent company, the goal of which is to take over Braun's hi-fi operation altogether and integrate it into ADS. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! The child grows up and swallows Daddy. Doesn't this strike you as somewhat Freudian [laughter]? No. I rather think of Braun as my mother that taught me all these things, and when my mother got a bit ill I tried to save her and took her with me to a nicer place.

What specifically happened to Braun? Braun has been very successful as a manufacturer of small appliances. It's now a billion-deutsche mark corporation in Germany-that's about a half billion dollars-and its tremendous success in the appliance field has shifted the emphasis of management a bit away from hi-fi; and they need to concentrate on their main business.

This provided me with the opportunity to acquire the hi-fi part from them.

How big is that? Oh, it's only 10% of their total.

Only? Ten % of a half billion dollars is hardly small by audio industry standards. How much of your time do you spend in Germany now? At the moment, the major part. I have to untangle the Braun hi-fi portion out of the large parent company. It's all integrated under the so-called matrix system.

And how many trips back and forth have you made in the last year? Fourteen.

Do you enjoy having one foot in Germany and the other in America? Yes, I enjoy that, too. I used to tell people that I left Germany because I couldn't stand the sauerkraut and the bratwurst, but it's not that bad. And they make good beer.

But seriously, how long do you hope to keep up this kind of pace? You're 42 now, about to turn 43? That's right. That's a bad number. Forty-two isn't bad-it's two 21-year-olds, and that's the way I feel. I can have one guy over there work his tail off and another guy over here work his tail off.

Seriously, I think it's going to be a real interesting company. Some of my products can be used over there, and some of their products can be used over here, so both companies together are bigger than the sum of their parts.

And that provides my team here-and the German team as well-with new opportunities for innovation that we could not afford if we did not have both markets.

Since Braun's hi-fi operation is several times the size of ADS, shouldn't they be acquiring you and not the other way around? If Braun wanted to be in the hi-fi business and they wanted to expand their business into the United States, that would be the logical thing to do. But they want to make shavers and appliances, and I want to make hi-fi. And I'd like to expand into Europe. I have maybe reached the limits of my distribution and the limits of my product manufacturing capability without adding talent and market. And here I have an opportunity to add a large market--Europe--and to acquire additional talent and manufacturing capability. It seems very logical, since I want to be in the hi-fi business. It's only a matter of how you structure a deal like that.

You started out as a scientist. Business came second. At this point do you feel you're better at science or business? I wonder about that. I may have become a better businessman than a scientist.

Yet for years you ran all aspects of the company, from A to Z, yourself. You were-and probably are by nature-a line officer rather than a staff officer.

Have you finally learned to delegate authority? Though you're still heavily involved in product, you don't seem to be the marketing, sales and advertising managers anymore.

You see, I'm making headway.

(Source: Audio magazine, Nov. 1982)



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