How Garth Murray came to create his Theophany loudspeaker brand is as fascinating as his speakers are exceptional, writes NATHAN HAINES.
If it wasn’t for a near-death experience Garth Murray would never have started designing speakers. It sounds unlikely but for those who are faced with a life-threatening illness, strange yet wonderful things can happen when you face your maker.
Garth started out as an aeronautical engineer, but his life was to change forever when he was admitted to hospital in 2002 with a very serious infection which led to a series of strokes which then caused a brain injury.
“I was very sick,” says Garth. “I didn’t drive for two or three years. I was really tired and struggling to get by. I was told I wouldn’t work again”.
However, it was a message from a much-liked neurologist involved in Garth’s
recovery that helped him accept his situation and see it not as an end but rather a new beginning. “He said don’t ever believe you can’t get better. He said if you keep exercising your brain it will improve.”
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A side effect of Garth’s illness is a condition called Hyperacusis. This is the brain’s inability to tune out extraneous noise, and Garth spoke of now having hypersensitive hearing with the added bonus of being able to pick out certain frequencies which can hinder the enjoyment of music. As a musician and mixdown engineer, this piqued my interest immensely.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, because I’d learnt all about airflow, electronics and engineering it put me in a position to understand how speakers work,” says Garth.
And so the seed of an idea was born. Another side effect of the brain injury was that Garth experienced vivid dreams which would often wake him at night. In one dream he saw himself making a speaker, and instead of turning over and falling back asleep Garth jumped out of bed and scribbled down the dimensions and overall design of the speaker.
After six months and with the help of Garth’s sons, his first design was a reality. It was sent for testing and the results showed it was remarkably good, though with room for improvement. This was the first Theophany design and a modernised, refined relative of this speaker is still in manufacture today.
So what exactly is in the name Theophany? The name came to Garth in a dream and most appropriately refers to a visible manifestation of a deity or God. Each Theophany speaker is named after a Greek God and if (like me) you find some of the names difficult to pronounce, then too bad
– it’s part of the Theophany package and ethos.
So after reading this you may ask yourself: ‘What’s all this got to do with speaker design?’ Well, after spending a very pleasant few hours with Garth at his factory and home it became obvious that the man, the myth, the speaker and how they sound is all very much entwined.
“What we’ve tried to do is make a combination of lots of little improvements to make the overall product better than others. I think it’s in the little details that we excel”, says Garth.
He’s incredibly passionate about these details and without going into a lengthy and overly technical breakdown of every aspect of these speakers, it’s apparent these details form a unified whole that is unique.
The shape of the speakers themselves is because a curved panel can resist flex which interferes with high frequencies. Also according to Garth, stationary waves form at the front edge of a square speaker which results in turbulent areas that the sound has to travel through. And with Garth’s former calling as an aeronautical engineer, the similarities between aircraft and speaker design begin to look more and more likely.
Anyone with an interest in room correction will know standing waves are the
enemy. This has been addressed by Garth in the interior design of the cabinet. Curved surfaces help eliminate standing waves, making for a cleaner and tighter bass response.
All of the Theophany cabinets tilt on a slight backward lean from the ground up and are accurately aligned and phased for the listener’s ear – bass frequencies travel more slowly so are positioned physically slightly ahead of the rest of the frequency spectrum.
There are nine speaker designs in the Theophany range, from soundbars to full home theatre options, right up to their flagship Rhapsody models, which incidentally are their biggest international sellers.
When I visited the Theophany factory Garth had given the staff the day off but it was an involving, fascinating place with the emphasis very much on hand assembly and finish. I love to see anything being assembled lovingly by hand.
Build quality is something sadly lacking in many of today’s designs, with our everyday gadgets becoming obsolete and falling apart after only a few years.
Garth says the company offer buy-back upgrade schemes as well as replacing parts which can wear or become defective over time.
A stack of veneers sourced from around the world was stacked high in one corner, while in another were hundreds of crossovers ready to be fitted. Garth spoke for several minutes about the crossovers and the amount of copper wiring needed for the various design aspects. He describes in super detail all the design aspects of the speaker range and there’s never any doubt that Garth is at the epicentre of this business and it’s his own designs and innovations that are the heart and soul of Theophany.
It’s one thing to read or even see first-hand the specifications and design of a loudspeaker and another thing altogether to hear them in real-time right in front of you.
The treated soundproofed demo room with massive bass traps is the peaceful inner sanctum where the full range of Theophany speakers is ready to listen to.
Garth said he wanted to demonstrate the speakers with a very standard domestic amplifier, so he left the valve amps turned off for the demo and ran a fairly basic Onkyo integrated rated at 180 watts.
We started with the Paizo bookshelf speaker which sounded surprisingly big for its diminutive size, with excellent imaging and a natural tone. Bass was well defined and taut though only measuring down to 40hz. At home, I run a modded pair of Spendor SP2’s which I love, so the small dimensions of the bookshelf speaker didn’t fulfil my own personal preference for bass. But as a smaller speaker, they do what they are intended to do very nicely indeed.
I could see Garth was itching to try a larger pair and he warned me that I would fall in love with the Pneuma. And fall in love I did – it was love at first sound. The Pneuma measure from 34hz to 35khz with two bass woofers, one mid-woofer and a single tweeter. Garth mentioned the tightness of the bass which to my ears was one of the best aspects of this speaker, with the aerodynamic cabinet design no doubt contributing to this. I was also gripped by the soundstage which seemed to emanate outside of the speakers. It was similar to an electrostatic in that the sound field was all-enveloping, but with definition between the instruments.
And then there was the tone – or more accurately, the definition and reproduction of the actual recording. I’m used to working on high-end studio monitors (which is why I have the Spendors in the lounge when I want to just listen and enjoy music). But the Pneuma had all of the clarity, poise and accuracy of my studio monitors mixed with an indefinable magic that drew me in. I literally sat there open-mouthed, they were that good.
Garth then plugged in the top-of-the-range Rhapsody. And that was when I ran out of superlatives. Once again there was a wall of sound – not in a Phil Spector way but a detailed, delicate yet full-bodied wall of music. It was almost three dimensional with that outside-the-speaker sound even more prevalent than on the Pneuma. With the Rhapsodies utilising three new design glass cone low-frequency 6-inch woofers, two compound paper 5-inch midrange woofers and a silk tweeter, the whole range from 28Hz to an astounding 40kHz was there to enjoy.
There is no doubt Garth is passionate about music. He plays guitar in a band for fun and has a dedicated music room in the factory. He’s even designed his own band PA, which I’m definitely curious to hear!
“My happy place is listening to music outside in the courtyard”, he says, pointing out a pair of bookshelf speakers deftly placed for outdoor listening enjoyment.
Along with Garth’s remarkable recovery from illness and the dreams and ideas which mysteriously formed his design ethos even down to the naming of the company, you get the feeling that he’s doing all of this just to get closer to the music – and he’s certainly achieved that with Theophany.
For those who want to hear the music how the engineer and artist intended, and for those who value accurate reproduction of well mixed and mastered music, then you may well find audio Nirvana in the Theophany designs.
Me? Well, I’ve ordered a pair of Pneumas. I have had my own private audio epiphany as the enjoyment of recorded music has and always will be one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Paizo bookshelf $2799
Pneuma floorstanders $5799
Rhapsody floorstanders $15,999