A great American speaker company is no more

Snell Acoustics made some pretty amazing speakers in the U.S.A. for more than three decades. Now it's gone.

This $6,000,000 home theater uses Snell speakers and subwoofers. Robert Wright

Snell Acoustics never strayed from its core principles. The company, founded by Peter Snell in 1976, continued to manufacture high-end loudspeakers in Massachusetts until this year. I first met Peter in 1978 while working at a NYC high-end audio dealer, and soon bought one of his original speakers, a Snell Type A. I had it for eight years.

Peter was a perfectionist about the sound and the build quality of his speakers. The cabinets were exquisitely finished, but the amount of handiwork invested in the parts the customer never saw was even more impressive.

Though most of the better speaker manufacturers demand a minimum measurement variation for their suppliers' tweeters and woofers, Snell went the extra mile and hand-tuned each crossover network to compensate for the drivers' response irregularities. Then a computer measured the speaker's response, and a technician noted the difference between the desired flat curve and the speaker's actual frequency response.

The hand-tweaking process continued until the speaker measured within Snell's unusually tight tolerances. The painstaking effort ensured all completed speakers measured within exceedingly tight tolerances (+/-0.5 decibels) of the original design prototype. Every Snell buyer heard exactly what the designer intended.

All Snells, including the most affordable models, were built this way, and all cabinets were assembled and finished by hand. Few American speaker companies continue to maintain that approach; most outsourced manufacturing long ago.

If a Snell customer ever needed a replacement tweeter, midrange, or woofer, that part was supplied with its associated crossover parts, again matched to the original spec; and this was done for speakers 10, 20, and even 30 years after they were sold. That remarkable commitment to customer service is rare in today's market, but Snell was a very special company.

Peter dropped by my store on a regular basis, usually to discuss music or future plans. When I moved to a new apartment with unfriendly room acoustics, he offered to help. He spent three or four hours experimenting with different placement scenarios before coming up with a rather unusual strategy that worked. He really was a great guy, totally committed to designing speakers that advanced the state of the art.

In 1983 Peter designed two new models to round out the Snell line, the Type C and the Type K. These would be the last speakers designed by Peter Snell. On September 20, 1984, Peter died in the factory from a heart attack. We had talked on the phone a few weeks before that, and discussed building a new pair of Type As in a custom wood finish for me. The K model, in its seventh incarnation (K7--$1,500 a pair), continued until now.

In 1990 the company teamed up with Lucasfilm to design the first line of THX loudspeakers, the 500 series and first In-Wall THX system. Snell speakers were used in Lucas Skywalker Ranch's screening rooms.

In 2003, Joe D'Appolito joined Snell as chief engineer. Best known for the D'Appolito Array, Joe designed commercial loudspeakers for over 20 years, including many designs for some of the industry's best driver manufacturers.

In 2005, Snell and Boston Acoustics were purchased by D&M Holdings, which also owns Denon, Marantz, and McIntosh. D&M claims the advanced loudspeaker technologies developed at Snell will be leveraged by other D&M brands.

I've heard many Snells over the years, and I'll never forget their sound in a $6,000,000 home theater . My last Snell review was in 2005, for Home Theater magazine.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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