the oma story
Oswalds Mill Audio is an odd name for an audio company. Who is Oswald? What does a mill have to do with audio? It does suggest some kind of story…
A good place to start is with Oswald’s Mill itself. It is the only known example of an integrally built “house-mill” left in North America. Only 8 or 9 are left in the world today, in Southern Bavaria and Northern Switzerland, where the people who settled in Eastern Pennsylvania came from. Mills were made to grind grain, but in Germanic Europe, where large building materials were already scarce by the 16th Century, it made sense to build a house and mill into one structure to save on material and labor. That did not make much sense in the new world, where the colonists were greeted by enormous trees to be felled, and rock to be cleared from fields, but old habits evidently die hard. Sometime about 1800, the Oswald family built an enormous stone mill and a house together, 4 stories and 10,000 square feet, with water rushing through the middle to power the wheel and grinding stones. Mill’s don’t have walk in fireplaces, bedrooms, chair rail, and the other accouterments of domestic living, but this one did.
The Oswalds made a lot of money, and must have discovered that living in a grist mill, which is noisy and full of flour dust, was not to their liking, so they built a new house up the road and moved out of the part of the Mill which was their domestic quarters. The mill itself shut down around 1900, a casualty of the industrial revolution, which had finally made its way into agriculture and food production. With no one living there, and no milling to be done, the Mill sat empty for almost another hundred years. Until the day I saw it.
I was not in the market to buy a mill. In fact, I was completely broke. I was a filmmaker, and had just directed my first feature film (The Atrocity Exhibition, from the book by J.G. Ballard). I was living in New York City, where I had a huge loft which was also my film studio. The sound engineer on my film was from Pennsylvania, and had bought a run down but beautiful old farm there, and I often visited him to help with the renovation. One day another character helping out on the farm suggested we take a drive to a very special old building he thought I should see. That was Oswald’s Mill.
I think I might be strange in that every major decision I have made in my life never felt like a decision at all. When people talk about decisions, I assume a process that involves careful consideration, weighing different factors and outcomes, and so forth. I’ve never done that. It always just seemed obvious what I should do. Sometimes the “decision” did not lead to the outcome I thought it would, like with my education (I studied International Relations and Political Philosophy at Princeton, and Public International Law at London School of Economics, but ended up a filmmaker, for which I had no education). But that never bothered me, because life is not composed of straight lines. When I found my loft in NYC, I knew it was the right place instantly, as I knew my wife was the right person to spend the rest of my life within the first 10 seconds of meeting her. I just knew those things in my bones.
When I got out of the car and looked at this huge, incredible stone building, partly hidden by trees and weeds which threatened to swallow even such an enormous structure, I already knew it was trouble. My friend led us around the back to a loose piece of plywood where a door should have been. As soon as I was inside for five minutes, I was done. I figured out a way to buy the mill, and began a process of restoration that is still not finished, 16 years later.
It was a very, very big job, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The mill had no electricity, no windows, no plumbing, no heating, no kitchen, no bathrooms (obviously) no well, and no septic system. On the positive side, it was the only one of its kind outside of Europe, and because no one had lived there for a hundred years, it was completely original- no linoleum, formica, plywood cabinets, and other signs of life in the 20th Century.
A few years later, with the utilities and other necessities installed and the mill now a livable space, I realized that I had 10,000 square feet of empty space on my hands, surrounded by 2 foot thick stone walls and no neighbors. The same fellow who had taken me to the Mill in the first place had been involved in sound twenty years earlier. He DJ’ed at places like Studio 54, with big Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater cinema loudspeakers, McIntosh tube amps and broadcast idler drive turntables. We talked about that a lot. I had worked in a movie theater when I was 14 years old in Westwood, California- the Bruin Theater. It was really an art deco movie palace from the 1930’s, and was used for world premiers, like Apocalypse Now (I just missed that one) and American Gigolo. It had a fantastic sound system, with the biggest Altec speakers (A2’s, over 2 meters tall) and tube amplifiers. If the projectionist liked the soundtrack, I’d be hearing it at 105db when I got to work in the morning before opening, to clean up the popcorn and soda left by the late show the night before. To hear Blondie singing Call Me at simply astonishing loudness levels with no strain, distortion or other artifacts turned out to be a life changing experience. Because I never forgot that deep, physical pleasure in sound, and I always wanted, in the back of my mind, to replicate the experience.
My friend remarked that with all that space, and no neighbors, why not try and recreate the cinema sound experience? With the internet in its infancy, this turned out to be more difficult than expected, but eventually I found movie theaters in New York City and elsewhere being demolished or renovated, and that yielded excellent results. Soon I had a pile of very large horn loaded speakers, and very little idea of what to do with them. There is simply no manual for this kind of thing.
RCA, located in Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philadelphia, an hour from the Mill) created some of the first and best theater sound systems from the 1920’s, and continued its Cinema Products Division until closing 50 years later. I found retired RCA engineers and began a long process of understanding how these kinds of sound systems were designed and operated, all the way back to the beginning of sound in movies. These engineers were quick to explain that some of the earliest speakers and amplifiers made by RCA were also their very best. That knowledge and their help pointed me in the direction of assembling very rare, early equipment that literally no one in the world (at the time) was using. One reason is that no one had the space to do so, even if they would have wanted to.
Word began to get out about this guy in a big mill in the middle of nowhere with speakers so efficient that they could blow you away with a couple of watts of power. Other essays in this About section explain this aspect of horns, but the tremendous sensitivity and efficiency of big horn systems like the mill’s meant that you could use any amplifier, even ones using rare, vintage triode tubes which people had started building themselves. Such amps were the domain of a tiny group of insanely devoted audiophiles with highly developed skills, who communicated with each other largely via the internet. These low powered, usually single ended triode amplifiers (known as SETs) were almost impossible to buy in the US at the time, so it was very much a DIY field.
For a SET amp to sound its best, a really big and efficient speaker is needed. Very few people had anything like that, but when this crowd discovered Oswald’s Mill, an annual event crystallized, and became known as the Oswaldsmill Tube and Speaker Tasting. It soon took on a rather mythical stature, and people were coming from all over the US and Europe to attend.
Even at this point, it did not occur to me that the audio business was in my future.
Two of the people who attended the Tastings decided to go professional, and build a new version of a very special, legendary field coil loudspeaker driver which we all loved- the RCA MI-1428B, which ceased production around 1939. This was a unique driver, with nothing like it before or after in the history of sound. Of that duo, one was an aerospace master machinist, the other a master piano technician who tuned concert grands, and neither had any experience running a room at an audio show. So they asked me if I was interested in that job.
When I got to my first audio show, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2005, I had never read an audio magazine, never shopped in an audio store, never owned any consumer equipment, and had no idea whatsoever what the mainstream hifi high end market was like. It was a real shock. I walked into room after room, hearing the same kind of awful sound coming out of ugly equipment with price tags that belonged on vintage sports cars, not MDF boxes.
I began to realize that there was something terribly wrong with this commercial audio world, akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes. The years of experimentation and the Tastings had taught me what great sound could be like. Restoring Oswald’s Mill had introduced me to the enormous potential of the surrounding area of Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the US. With companies like Bethlehem Steel, a 200 year history of machining, wood working, and high tech small manufacturing, anything could be fabricated within a short distance. The local forests provide hardwood of such high quality, like black walnut, cherry, and ash, that most is exported across the globe. And I became friendly with the owners of the last functioning slate quarries in Pennsylvania, a priceless material for the construction of audio products.
In short, it was another decision which just happened, it didn’t even need to be made.
OMA continues to be the joint effort of an incredibly talented group of world class experts in their field. Bill Woods is one of the world’s top horn designers and is responsible for all acoustical engineering of OMA speakers, while industrial designer David D’Imperio translates those designs into the compelling forms for which OMA has become known. Our circuit designers include Paul den Hollander in the Netherlands, and Jonathan Knight in Japan. Cynthia van Elk is our photographer and graphics designer, and Justin Wagner our web designer.