History in Hi-Fi: Hope Organization Sharing the Paul Klipsch Legacy
For a few miles north of Hope, meadows of yellow wildflowers ferry Arkansas Highway 32 into a dramatic dogleg at the old Southwest Proving Grounds, a major U.S. Army munitions-testing center during World War II. And it’s here, in 1946, where a transplanted Arkansan — who would come to be known by his initials — invented a revolutionary cornerhorn loudspeaker that launched a global enterprise, and for audiophiles, the age of high fidelity.
“Any speaker works better in a corner.”
PWK died in Hope in 2002 at the age of 98, having sold his company to a second cousin in 1989. But more than 75 years later, the company he founded remains among the most well-respected in the industry, and its name carries a global cachet still.
Reference that name, from Texarkana to Timbuktu, even among those who don’t count themselves among the legion of global audiophiles, and there can be no misunderstanding:
The nonprofit Klipsch Heritage Museum Association (KHMA) was created to make sure the PWK legacy reverberates on, in the birthplace of hi-fi and beyond.
Ironically, Paul W. Klipsch wasn’t fond of the term, “hi-fi,” even though his speakers would come to define it. For Klipsch and the colleagues he gathered to Hope in the early days to help change the way people listened to music, hi-fi simply represented “audio realism.”
“There is no such thing as high fidelity. Either you’ve got fidelity, or you’ve got infidelity.”
The Klipsch plant in Hope continues to crank out high-end speakers, even if the corporate headquarters now resides in Indiana. It sits right across the road from the Klipsch Museum of Audio History, an old Army telephone exchange building that served as the original company factory.
After spending two years honing his speakers in a tin shed behind a local laundry, Klipsch & Associates took over the old exchange. From 1948 to 1952, it housed an acoustic lab, an office and a basement bunker outfitted for production. There, many of the first Klipsch speakers to hit the market were made.
Today, Klipsch Group Inc. employs 62 workers in Hope, who build 1,300 to 1,600 speakers per month, including the iconic Klipschorn®, the company’s foundation product — sent to customers across the globe.
PWK’s first wife, Belle, wrote of the 1928 events behind the brainstorm that led to his determination to reproduce an orchestra performance in his living room:
“Finally, I urged that we get a radio, as I had to visit a neighbor to hear ‘all about Wallis Warfield Simpson’ and her love affair with the King of England. So, we purchased one. Then, we listened to it. Paul was unhappy with the reproduction of music. We just were not getting all that we should hear. He picked out a speaker that he believed was a good, wide range reproducer (words new to me at that time), but ‘it was too expensive!’
At about this time, we heard Dr. Perrine of Bell Labs give a talk and demonstration of music reproduction. He had a whole stage of equipment — turntables, speakers in baffles, boxes, etc. It was quite an ‘ear-opener’ to me. I told Paul he could have the backroom to work in, if he could build us something that we could use in the living room that would be near to what we had heard. So, the first woofer, bass reproducer, by Klipsch was conceived in his mind shortly thereafter.
He soon moved out of the backroom, which was also the guest room, into the living room, using a card table to make cardboard horns. Much math study, reading on acoustics, drawing of plans went on. Finally, a carpenter put it together and then we went into the testing stage.”
PWK achieved his objective by making the Klipschorn a fully horn-loaded design, according to Jim Hunter, KMAH curator, longtime PWK friend and colleague. Hunter worked for the company from 1978 until PWK’s death 24 years later, serving in several roles, including vice president of design engineering.
The Klipschorn established technology that set industry standards that live on today, Hunter said. Klipsch products range from speakers for home theater, home audio, wireless and outdoor use to high-end headphones, sound bars and even installation services, continue to set the bar for high sensitivity, wide dynamic range, low distortion, smooth frequency response and powerful bass. Klipsch consistently is included among industry “best of” lists.
“Klipsch’s Klipschorn speaker has been so good for so long that it now looks retro.”
— The Verge, 2016
That Klipsch speakers were founded in Hope, and are made there still, is common knowledge to most Arkansans, at least those of a certain age. Many might even know a little about their brilliant, eccentric inventor.
PWK became known throughout the area as the eccentric tinkerer who built speakers out north of town — the “madman from Hope.” He was one of those rare cuts of cloth, whose mind seemed to operate on a different wavelength — part Nicola Tesla, a dash of Howard Hughes. His passions included music, science, engineering, flying and trains, but his foremost obsession always remained the job set out before him.
“My first great love was railroads. But then in 1911, I saw Lincoln Beechy flying in and out of Purdue stadium, and I fell in love with airplanes. I didn’t forsake my first love; I just became polygamous.”
PWK inherited a scholastic mindset from his mother, Minna, a teacher, and his scientific aptitude from his father of German heritage, Oscar, a mechanical engineering professor at Purdue, who died when PWK was 12. Following Oscar’s death, the only child and his mom moved to New Mexico so she could take a teaching job in El Paso, where PWK graduated high school.
Driven by his love of music and a bent toward science, PWK built his first speaker at age 15, a year before the first public radio broadcast.
From his own description of early experimentations into what would become the Klipsch sound:
“…Attached the cardboard tube cores of toilet tissue to a pair of Brandes Superior earphones (Sears-Roebuck, $7.00), little knowing that a year earlier (1919) Dr. Webster had published his paper on exponential horns. When the greats and near greats like Hanna and Slepian had missed this epic paper, may the Saints forgive me, a high school sophomore, for not being aware of the same. But I did find that a ‘tube’ connected to the diaphragm, added something to ‘intelligibility’ or loudness — or what might now be called reduced distortion.
There was a time a little later when I tried to measure ‘acoustic resistance’ by timing the fall of a cone through measured space. Much more recently was the measurement of ‘sound’ pressure by water manometer (where it seems one inch of hydrostatic pressure is about 2490 microbars).”
He would go on to earn an electrical engineering degree from what is now New Mexico State University, where the School of Engineering now bears the Klipsch name, and later, an advanced engineering degree from Stanford. And before Uncle Sam delivered him to Hope to test ballistics for the war effort (he retired a lieutenant colonel), PWK worked as a radio designer, a geophysicist and, in Chile, on electric locomotives.
He married Belle, for whom an iconic Klipsch speaker would be named, aboard the ship that delivered the bride to Paul and at his new job in South America. And he was a licensed pilot, an enthusiastic one, who would fly himself across the country to meetings and events, landing in empty cornfields, if necessary.
Nan Taylor, long time secretary, told this story shortly after he had bought the first airplane, the Stinson Voyager.
Apparently, Belle was expecting to spend that money on a nicer house. Nan came to work one morning and was surprised to find Paul already there, as he didn’t usually come to work early. He looked more scruffy than usual. She remarked, “You look like you have been here all night,” to which he replied, “I have.”
— Jim Haynes
He is named on 21 patents, issued over 43 years from 1940 to 1983, and is a member of the Audio, Science & Engineering and Consumer Electronics halls of fame. On his final patent, the anechoic chamber arrangement, issued in 1983, he partnered with Hunter.
One of the more notable “Klispschisms,” which came to be associated with PWK’s general outlook and way of communicating, was a single word — crude slang for cattle manure. Profane, but effective. PWK first unveiled it when responding to a rival company’s ad claiming alleged breakthroughs. His one-word response became a rallying cry and the unofficial company motto. It even was printed up on T-shirts and buttons.
“He wore two large yellow BS buttons under his coat like hidden police badges. When someone would ‘exceed their intelligence,’ he would open his coat for them to see the yellow BS button.
One time, because of a particularly egregious statement, he opened both sides of his coat to reveal two yellow buttons, and said to the victim, ‘in stereo.’”
— Don Davis, former employee
Earlier this year, KHMA opened the Paul W. Klipsch Visitors Center in the historic Feild House in downtown Hope, next door to the Clinton Birthplace Welcome Center and Visitors Center. Nonprofit veteran Beckie Moore, a Hope native who had served on the association board, was named its first executive director and CEO. The inaugural PWK Birthday Bash fundraiser was held at the center March 9-12 (PWK’s birthday was March 9), and it served to officially cut the ribbon.
Moore said the visitors center was created to provide a physical place for folks to visit — among Hope’s pilgrims, most of the Clinton variety, are a few pure audiophiles — and establish a presence in historic downtown Hope to showcase the organization’s commitment to the community. The town currently is undergoing downtown revitalization and working towards official Main Street Arkansas status.
“The history of PWK and his company are a vital part of this community, so the desire of KHMA is to join them in service to our community,” she said. “And we want the visitors center experience to provide a glimpse of Klipsch through the decades and an opportunity to listen to music through Klipsch speakers.”
The center, which remains a work in progress, serves as a complement to the museum. It includes two “period” rooms, in which visitors can view the century-old house as it appeared in different eras of Klipsch production. And while they’re doing so, they can listen to a set of era-specific Klipsch speakers. In the 1950s room, for example, a ’54 Klipschorn holds court.
Paul subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. He brought all his discarded papers to the shop to use for packing material. Portus Gilley and I made a point to use some Wall Street Journal in every package, and to make it fairly visible.
We were rewarded when sometime later, a customer wrote in, “Of course, the Klipschorn is expensive. It comes wrapped in the Wall Street Journal.”
— Jim Haynes, former employee
The center also includes Moore’s office and a gift shop. When complete, it will function as a full companion to the museum. The Klipsch tourism “campus” includes the Feild House, the museum, the Klipsch Education Center and the must-see Paul W. Klipsch Auditorium.
The education center, located at the Hope airport on the old proving grounds, houses the PWK engineering library and hosts educational events such as workshops and seminars. It sits across from the hangar where PWK first publicly demonstrated his Klipschorn to a large group gathered there to celebrate the end of the war in 1945.
And Klipsch Auditorium, a postcard image from the past, may be the pièce de resistance. Built in 1926 and dedicated to PWK in 1995, the 400-seat venue still has its vintage seating and lighting. Maintained by KHMA, it takes up the entire second floor and balcony of Hope’s grand City Hall. Moore said plans for the auditorium include restoration of certain features and some necessary light repair and maintenance, all in preparation for a day when the facility once again can host concerts, lectures and other community-based events.
The museum, meanwhile, hosts an impressive array of artifacts and collections, including many items that predate PWK. It houses correspondence from early industry giants and some of the products and processes they created. Early sketches, prototypes and experiments from PWK’s personal collection are included as well. The museum, the land on which it sits and all archives and artifacts related to PWK and Klipsch & Associates were donated by Klipsch Group Inc.
Hope Mayor Don Still sits on the museum board, but he has more than a civic connection to Klipsch. His dad owned the shop behind which PWK started it all. Today, he owns Still’s Automotive Service, just a few blocks from the Feild House.
“He really was a genius,” Still said of PWK. “We were lucky to have him and not just as a longtime employer. He and the company have been so important to us in many ways.”
A physicist is someone who knows what’s wrong with a doorbell, but can’t fix it.
I had a photographic memory, but it didn’t develop.
Still said he visited California about a decade ago and shared with a group of natives that he was from Hope, Arkansas.
“I just knew they were gonna say, ‘Bill Clinton….’ But they said, ‘That’s where they make Klipsch speakers.’ And that’s when I realized how broad the Klipsch name and brand really are. It’s amazing how far the reach is. We have people all over the world who contact us and want to know more about Klipsch, the speakers, the quality of sound. And I tell em, ‘You gotta hear em. You gotta hear em and feel em.’”
Still said Klipsch has always been a good partner for Hope, providing stable, long-term, high-paying jobs for local workers. He believes the KHMA Visitors Center will help attract more audio tourism to Hope and called its location next door to the Clinton birthplace museum a perfect pairing.
“We’re so excited about having all this downtown,” he said. “It’s been a really good ride for us, and we’re looking forward to expanding the museum and visitors center. If anybody’s going to visit Hope, they have plenty of things to visit.”
Hunter hopes the visitors center can help those in the local community fully appreciate the impact PWK and his company have had on the industry.
I’m going fifth. It’s too late to go forth.
I’ll try. That’s all a steer can do.
“The name is known worldwide,” he said. “What we don’t see, and this is where KHMA comes in, is those in the community really understanding the depth of his legacy. They don’t understand the depth of what Paul Klipsch did throughout his life. Now, there are true audiophiles who have followed PWK forever. They get it, and they still come back here. But it’s the local community — they know the plant’s out there, but they don’t know understand the history behind it.”
Hunter, a walking Klipsch historian, is available to share those stories, as he did with two visitors from Santa Fe on a recent Wednesday. The museum, visitors center and education center each are available for the public to tour, for free, by appointment.
For Moore, the Klipsch legacy entails more than manufacturing speakers. PWK was eager to share his knowledge; he once loaned out an engineer to the local school district when it needed a high school physics teacher. Moore wants to see the Klipsch “campus” function in a similar way, as a vessel that fosters discovery and learning. That, after all, is the PWK way.
The challenge, Moore believes, is enticing the local population to discover it.
“It’s not that they don’t know we’re here,” she said. “It’s just that many folks don’t realize what exactly we have here. We have an opportunity to open doors in this community. How can we link arms with the public school districts and other community groups? What a wonderful opportunity that is for us. Paul Klipsch was education-driven. So, when you think about STEM education, we now can work with local schools and incorporate our story into their curriculum.”
“My theories on audio and audio reproduction will be proven wrong only when the laws of physics change.”
For more information about the museum or any of the Klipsch-related sites in Hope, visit KlipschMuseum.org. Photographs, PWK quotations and “Klipschisms” are used with the kind permission of KHMA. “Klipsch” and “Klipschorn” are registered trademarks of Klipsch Group Inc.