Oswalds Mill Audio's products espouse a sort of steam-punk-meets-modern visual style, but the company's philosophies are straight from hi-fi's '50s and '60s glory days, an era when idler-drive turntables, low-power tube amps, and horn-loaded loudspeakers were the norm. That history and hi-fi's future fascinate and inspire Jonathan Weiss, OMA's proprietor.
"The DNA of OMA is in fact 'Old School,'" Weiss wrote in a post on the OMA blog called "Audio Heirloom?" "There is no reason our loudspeakers, amplifiers, or even turntables won't be running and playing music in a hundred years, just as the RCA equipment in our reference collection, most of which is 80 years old, still works just fine. That equipment, made for professional cinema use before WW2, ... [before] planned obsolescence became the norm in US industry, was built so well that it too could easily be running a hundred years from now, and that is exactly how we approach our own products."
Fleetwood Sound, a branch of OMA, has so far released just one product; a second is on the way. Forthcoming is the all-in-one Excelsior system. Here now is the Fleetwood DeVille loudspeaker, which comes in both a standard version and the "Superior Quality" DeVille SQ ($18,600/pair), the version under review. The base Fleetwood DeVille costs $12,600/pair. Both versions are hand-built from locally sourced hardwoods and Italian-made pro-audio drivers at OMA's Pennsylvania factory. Twenty-four-inch, natural-finish "torrefied" stands add $1550/pair; black-painted, reclaimed hickory stands add $750/pair. The DeVilles are available from OMA dealers and the Fleetwood Sound Company website. A two-week in-home audition is available.
"We wanted to leverage everything we had learnt and accomplished with OMA over more than a decade into something reasonably affordable in the DeVille," Weiss told me in an emailed response to questions. "We wanted to make an ultra-high quality, solid wood speaker using professional transducers, with conical hornsthat is unique to us. We also made these so that non-audiophiles who care about design would consider putting them in their homes. They are not an ugly box but a good-looking piece of real furniture."
Guests to Weiss's Brooklyn showroom are often surprised by its sprawling interior and its 1950s-era Fresnel theater lighting. Talismans of America's industrial past line Weiss's walls. Positioned all around the expansive space, OMA products seem at once surprising and at home. OMA's K3 turntable, the Black Knight PP807 amplifier, and Monarch, Ironic, and the colossal four-way Imperia loudspeakers look like nothing else in high-end audio.
Hi-fi Children of the Corn
An evening spent at Weiss's showroom, looking and listening, piqued my curiosity so intensely that a week later I hopped into my old Toyota and drove two hours to OMA's Pennsylvania factory (with a side trip to nearby Allentown's Double Decker Records and BEK Hi Fi).
Weiss showed me around his 42,000-square-foot manufacturing space, which is adjacent to Fleetwood Metal Body, one of the world's premier coach builders, which made custom coaches for American presidents, Rolls Royce, and Mercedes before GM bought the space to use in building Cadillacs.
This was no ordinary factory tour but a time-traveling gearporn-fest, a geek's paradise of tubes and turntables, solder and speakers. Weiss's workshop hummed with designers, woodworkers, and machines as well as current and prototype OMA products. Primeval tube amps, diverse horns, and myriad classic turntables (including a stunning EMT broadcast model) filled nearby OMA buildings. An immense, three-section, 1950s RCA horn system occupied a corner of one floor, powered by a 5'-tall, multitiered German Klangfilm cinema amplifier. I drooled. It was like ripping back Oz's curtain and beholding Valhalla.
The handsome, bass-reflex Fleetwood DeVille SQ is rated at 94dB/W/m. Its nominal impedance is 8 ohms. Its cabinet stands 24" high, 18" wide, and 10" deep. The front-baffle edges are beveled. The compression-driven, polymer-diaphragm tweeter is loaded with a natural-woodfinished conical horn. A high-efficiency, 8" paper-cone woofer with a phenolic grille (footnote 1) handles the mids and low frequencies.
The heart of the Fleetwood DeVille is that conical horn. Designed by the late pro audio veteran Bill Woods, the 6"-long-and-deep horn is miles away from curved-horn designs.
Crazy for conicals
"Conicals don't behave or sound like any other horns," Weiss explained. "They work differently. They have no constriction at the throat like curved-wall horns, which produce that honky, nasal coloration. They have a continuous expansion of the flare. Curved-horn walls change the wavefront as they expand. Conicals don't, so, you get a perfect spherical or hemicylindrical wavefront and constant directivity. So ... you don't have beaming. That also means reflections from room boundaries are coherent with the direct soundwave at the listening position (footnote 2). Wood is far better damped [than plastic], producing much more natural sound."
The DeVille SQ is made from locally sourced Pennsylvania ash. Cabinet top plates and walls are inch-thick ash, and the conical horns are made from 6"-thick ash. These wood parts are finished in an attractive hand-rubbed lacquer. The SQ is one of the prettiest speakers to grace my rugged bachelor flat. The cabinet's back panel is a slab of phenolic resin. A single pair of sturdy binding posts stand ready for duty.
The SQ version's crossover network includes upgraded components compared to the base DeVille model including 4oz copper traces with heavy gold plating. The woofer connects directly from the crossover's PC board to the loudspeaker terminals: no wire. The other internal wiring is 18ga silver alloyed with 1% gold.
Recycled wool felt is used for damping. Noting the "bass-reflex" description, I sought out the ports and eventually found them on the SQ's bottom. A wooden stabilizer base, which attaches to the cabinet's lower plate, is included in case you want to put the DeVilles on a shelf or console. The extra-cost tripod stands snap tightly to the bottom of the SQs.
"The base model was designed to a price point," OMA Chief Technical Officer Vytas Viesulas wrote to me in an email. "We realized that there was a market for an upgraded version for those whose budget allows it. We went all out in finding the finest internal wire, auditioning over a dozen competitors, and going up in range with existing suppliers of caps, PCBs, binding posts, and inductors." The drivers remain the same as in the standard model.
I asked Weiss why he prefers hardwoods over MDF and other materials when constructing loudspeakers.
"MDF is compressed sawdust in glue. It is a horrible, cheap material for a speaker, sounds dead, has poor structural integrity, and is something we never use for cabinetry," Weiss said.
"Loudspeaker manufacturers in general have moved in the wrong direction over the past decades, in a race to the bottom, trying to make the deadest, heaviest, most nonresonant enclosures," Weiss replied. "This is a foolish exercise. The rear-wave energy produced by speakers has to go someplace, and with extremely dense, heavy enclosures, this energy is first absorbed by the enclosure, stored, then released in a delayed fashion which results in heavy, sluggish sound that characterizes so many speakers today. Wood in general has a very natural sound, which is precisely why it's still used to make musical instruments despite all of our technological innovations."
Many wood parts in the SQ are torrefied, like tonewoods in fine guitars from Yamaha, Martin, Gibson, and Dana Bourgeois. Why is torrefied wood better, I asked? Is it denser? Less resonant?
"Old wood is acknowledged as producing the finest instruments, and that's exactly what we like about torrefaction. On a cellular level, the wood is stabilized, residual sugars and sap are eliminated, and internal moisture is reduced. Sonically, [torrefied wood] can release energy even more quickly," Weiss explained.
Situated in the throat of the DeVille's conical horn is a small phase plug (see photo), which is "cast from a 3D-printed sand mold in solid bronze then patinated, polished, and lacquered," according to the Fleetwood website. The phase plug is said to prevent early reflections and aid dispersion. To me, it looks like a Mercedes hood ornament. In the standard, non-SQ DeVille, it's made from iron instead of bronze. According to the designers, the sonics are the same.
The DeVille SQ's 8" paper-cone midwoofer surround is pleated, not rolled. "Pleating is standard practice in the professional/live sound world, where high efficiency and durability are more highly prized than raw excursion," Viesulas explained. "A tight, well-controlled compliance produces a concomitantly tight, well-controlled bass response and more precise, natural sound with none of the boominess found in rubber-compliance woofers."
I found the SQ's cabinet to be unusually shallow, statuesque, and shapely, its wide front baffle offset by beveled edges that vary in width from top to bottom. I asked about the cabinet shape.
"The inspiration for the cabinet's shape came from Harry Olson, author of Elements of Acoustical Engineering and head of engineering at RCA for over 50 years," Weiss told me. "Olson's DuoCone Monitor cabinet featured similarly beveled corners to reduce edge diffraction and had a wide front baffle, as is correct for optimal performance for a high-efficiency speaker. We tapered the front edges to further reduce internal parallelism and internal reflections."
"Today's speakers have trended towards narrow front profiles," Weiss added. "This [hinders] the wave launch and [introduces] baffle-step response issues in the lower midrange." On the inside, the cabinet is "ingeniously" braced.
Footnote 1: Grilles are optional, at $350 or $450/pair depending on type.
Footnote 2: With loudspeakers with even dispersion, the wall-bounce signal more closely resembles the direct sound.Jim Austin