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Audio Biography

1970 saw the explosion of the music and recording industry and the companies that made the hi-fis to play the music. 1970 also marked the creation of Advent Corporation, the largest New England audio manufacturer to join the list of AR, KLH and EPI.

As a group these four composed a major manufacturing segment of the New England economy. 1970 found Lewis Athanas within the staid ivy-covered walls of a Boston area prep school, in the physics lab turning a dozen Bunsen burners into plasma loudspeakers, pulsing high-voltage blue in the night.

A near-catastrophic accident earned him a reprimand, not for the first time, from his head master about his experiments. His dorm room, filled with musical instruments, amplifiers, tape recorders, echo devices, microphones, headphones and raw hand built electronic circuits had become his first real lab. Five years later Lewis was using a bank of DEC PDP-11 computers at Harvard's Aiken Computation Lab researching new concepts in acoustics. "It was a very independent study," says Athanas, "I was allowed to use the facility without actually being enrolled in the school."

Sound has been a life long obsession for Athanas. He built his first sound system at the age of nine, when he designed and built a working Edison Tin Foil Cylinder Gramophone. "No one told me I couldn't do it, so I did," says Athanas and that statement could describe his professional career as well. At the time of his self-designed computer studies he was working at Boston radio station WBCN, doing commercials, sound production and writing and performing radio plays and comedy with three friends. "It was sort of like Monty Python meets Bob and Ray. We had a lot of fun and so did the audience. I also learned a ton about how to manipulate sound and what good taste in production is... even though the program material wasn't always in good taste!"

His first commercial project from those early studies was the development of a multi-amp high end home stereo system. "I probably bit off more than I could chew, but it was a great learning experiment. I designed with my good friend Geoff Steckel, who got me into the work at Harvard, a six amplifier and speaker combination, where each woofer, tweeter and mid range had its own amplifier. The crux of the project was to seamlessly join the audio spectrum reproduced by each of those drivers electronically. It's still cutting edge today. We did everything. We designed and built the Amps and the housing. I designed the speakers and cut the wood and built them and hand veneered them. It was a tour de force. We built and sold about 20 these things before we had to quit from sheer exhaustion."

Athanas became store manager at a major hi-fi chain in the Boston area, after trying to sell them his speakers. "Retail was a great experience. It's the front lines where you really see what works. Sometimes that's not what theory dictates. Sometimes the customer knows more than all the engineers in the world. I learned a lot from my customers. These were people who would rather have music than eat. I often revisit the retail floor just to keep myself educated."

From there he was hired by Apt Corp., a spin-off from Advent started by Tom Holman, who went on to develop the THX sound system for Lucasfilm. "I was hired as an engineer, but Tom said, 'gee, not only are you an engineer, but you can talk!' so they put me out front with George Hand in the marketing department." Lewis became product manager for the company and eventually its product developer. "I was actually paid to borrow or buy and listen to every high end stereo product available. It was a dream job”.

I worked closely with Frank Kampmann, who did much of the actual circuit development. Apt's products were the epitome of belt and suspenders AND safety pin engineering. Most of the stuff is still working today, a lot of it in professional settings. My set is."

Lewis's continued interest in the electro-mechanical side of sound reproduction pulled him into his own endeavors. He began importing drive units from France and England, modifying them and re-selling them. "These were cutting edge products, but not as good as I wanted them to be. I knew I had to build my own units eventually".

He soon got that chance at Genesis Physics Corp., a spin off of EPI. He totally revamped the products with an industrial design that had sonic as well as visual benefits. He also developed an inverted metal dome tweeter that became the mainstay of this and the next company he was involved with, NEAR.

NEAR was essentially the remains of Bozak, an early and respected High end speaker company. When Athanas came across them, they were making replicas of huge 1950's era Bozak speakers. "The systems were quite behind the times, but that was their allure, I guess. But they were making their own massive metal cone drivers. The design wasn’t really working, but the basics were there to do something great."

Athanas' total redesign of the drivers and his unique systems propelled NEAR to prominence in the mid 90's. Some of the most reviewed high end speakers during their years of production and at the core was Athanas' patented Liquid Magnetic Suspension Drivers. "Not only were these metal cone speakers, which have recently become a mainstay of high end audio, but I eliminated the distortion-prone fabric rear suspension, essentially unchanged since the 1930's, in virtually all other dynamic speakers to this day. These are the only drivers available that can use ferrofluid within the bass drivers, with all the performance advantages that promises: four times the power handling and an incredibly dynamic sound that everyone can hear (a lot of 'jump factor'). These are among the best dynamic drivers ever made." These speakers are amazingly rugged as well and are in use in Disney, other theme parks and many commercial applications because they are almost impervious to the elements. The combination of metal cones and ferrofluid immersion of the critical moving electrical parts make this possible.

Andy Katsatos, president of speaker giant Boston Acoustics, asked Athanas to work for him. Eventually Athanas agreed. "This was quite a return for me. Andy had been chief designer for KLH and Advent. I had been personally invited at the age of 17 to Advent's operation to see their prototype work in projection TV and multi-channel sound. It was very exciting for me and helped fuel my desire to do my own thing."

At Boston Acoustics Athanas designed both the great and small. He developed two different series of top-line floor standing speakers, the last of which was Boston's self-amplified 'Powered Tower'. At the other end of the spectrum, he designed a range of desk-top multi-media speakers for computer giant Gateway.

Athanas' work on the BA 635 became the platform for the majority of Boston's computer speakers and was one of the largest money makers the company had ever seen. Says Athanas, "of all the products I designed at Boston, I'm probably most proud of that speaker. It's dirt cheap and it sounds great, it really performs. Most of the stuff sold as computer speakers is acoustic trash... I think it's cynical of manufacturers to purposely sell low fidelity products. The 635 and its' siblings fit right in the Boston Acoustics tradition of the most bang for the buck... the new flat panel I developed for them should do very well."

So what now?

Athanas has amassed a stable of innovative patents and is working on several new projects. "Very new", says Athanas. "I have wanted to get out of the box, both literally and figuratively, for quite a while. Most of the stuff I'm working on doesn't even look like speakers, or does things with sound you might not have known you'd want sound to do: Invisible speakers for video screens, magnet-less picture frame speakers about as thick as a magazine, if you remember what that is, noise cancellation devices, sound producing wall treatments…these are tomorrow's sound applications, but they are not far off."

What really matters to Athanas?

"It's not sound, it's love of music" says Athanas, who describes himself as "a bad musician on several instruments”. “Music is very hard to reproduce well. The better the reproduction, the more it drives the creation of music in the studio to be better.. .hopefully... You want the sound system to be essentially invisible, to be as neutral and plain vanilla as possible... this is very hard to achieve... It's the exact opposite of designing a musical instrument where you purposely put in various colorations and effects as a painter would. However, the same skills are used."