When Bill Low created AudioQuest in 1980 it was really just a small variation of the audio activities he had started in 1972. During high school and early college, Bill had struggled to have the best audio system he could. He had built dozens of Heathkit and Dynakit amplifiers, preamps and tuners for classmates. Each US$10 or $15 he earned building kits went to buy records or to upgrade to a better piece of used equipment.
While at college in Oregon, Bill realized that instead of simply offering audio component recommendations to other students, he should sell the equipment. His small appointment-only business evolved from selling BSR turntables and Hitachi receivers in 1972, to Linn Sondek, Radford, Celestion and Yamaha (first dealer in the Northwest) in 1974. In 1975 his little shop was the largest Linn Sondek dealer in the US.
By 1976, with college long over, the urge to move to California was irresistible. The retail business was passed on to a friend and Bill set himself up as a manufacturers’ representative in northern California, an especially conservative market. Dealers were fond of saying: “If I don’t already carry it, I obviously don’t need it.” It was difficult to even get a chance to demonstrate the superb equipment was representing, which included Decca, Audionics, Koss Electrostatic, AEA, Dunlap Clarke, and Celestion among others.
During visits to southern California, Bill learned that the two markets were very different. The standard answer from the southern dealers was: “Sure, bring it in and let’s listen.” So, in 1977 Bill moved south. Unfortunately, the combination of open-minded dealers and excellent equipment (Cizek, Decca, RAM, Koss Electrostatic, RH Labs, PSE, Ariston, Armstrong, Rogers, Chartwell) still didn’t work. The truth was (and is) that Bill was just plain not good at selling! He never became a professional salesperson, he never learned how to sell other peoples’ products.
After six years inside the audio business, both as a retail proprietor and a manufacturers’ representative, Bill once more started a by-appointment-only store out of his living room in Santa Monica. This time Bill made one small but very important decision … he decided to make custom audio cable for his store.
Audio cable became a visible subject in the US in 1976 when Polk Audio introduced a Japanese sourced cable under the name Cobra Cable. This high capacitance/low inductance Litz cable encouraged some amplifiers into self-destruction, but it usually made systems sound better. By 1978, Polk, Bob Fulton, and Jonas Miller Sound had made audio cable an important subject for those at the leading edge of audio.
Since the 1960s, Bill had appreciated the advantages of using better than average cable. In 1977 Bill bought a spool of the 12 awg lamp cord that Noel Lee (future “Head Monster”) was selling to his dealers in northern California (Bill and Noel used to sub-rep each other’s lines in the two California territories). In 1978, Bill and another small retailer cooperated in ordering a custom-made twisted pair litz speaker cable. In some ways Bill is embarrassed to remember this cable which he refers to as “original recipe” … it had 435 strands per conductor and didn’t use very good copper. However, as a starting point it was really very good. It clearly outperformed the Fulton Gold cable that was considered top-of-the-hill at that time. It was spiraled and it did not have any electrical contact between bare strands.
Over the next two years, Bill manufactured this cable, and a second smaller model, simply with the intention to sell them in his small store. However, other dealers in the Los Angeles area began to buy this cable from Bill. It was also distributed in Japan. In 1980, Bill realized that it was time to make cable for the purpose of selling to other dealers. He started AudioQuest.
The evolution of AudioQuest cables has taken place over the entire life of the company, however several of the most important basic design criteria were established very near the beginning. These basic priorities were established as a result of empirical experience and not by abstract theorizing.
For example, the significance of the relationship between multiple conductors, one of the foundations of AudioQuest design, was learned thanks to an accidental experiment. In 1980 a sub-woofer manufacturer asked Bill to make a heavier cable for use with his woofer. He suggested spiraling four conductors together instead of the normal two as a way to increase the cross sectional area. Bill made this cable … and he listened. The performance was much better than he expected and Bill learned that this four-conductor geometry significantly outperformed the same four conductors run as two twisted pairs. Further experimentation revealed the benefits of other variations. By the fall of 1980, Bill was setting new standards with a six conductor cable known as LiveWire Litz Green. Today, almost every AQ speaker cable uses four or more conductors in an optimized arrangement.
Around the same time Bill had an awkward but educational experience when a speaker manufacturer invited him to do a demonstration. The manufacturer was using ten feet of a brand-name audio cable. Bill hooked-up a twenty-five foot pair of his “original recipe” cable, everyone was very impressed with the much better sound. Wanting to make an even bigger impression, Bill went out to his car and came back with a ten-foot pair of his cable. Knowing that with speaker cables “shorter is better,” Bill justifiably expected even better performance.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the ten foot pair did not sound as good as the twenty-five foot pair (though still much better than the other brand). The two AudioQuest cables had exactly the same internal construction and both had the same thickness of clear PVC jacket. The only difference in construction was the hardness of the PVC jacket. The newer ten-foot pair used a softer jacket in order to be more “consumer friendly.” This unintended experiment proved the significance of mechanical stability … an important priority in every AudioQuest cable that followed.
By the end of 1980, AudioQuest was selling to forty-two outlets in southern California and one dealer in Denver. In January of 1981, AudioQuest exhibited for the first time at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. A month later, AudioQuest was selling in Europe, Asia and most of the US.
Over the following twenty years Bill has continued to refine his understanding of the mechanisms that cause distortion in cable. There has been a logical and rational progression leading up to today’s extremely coherent line of audio, video and digital cables. In 1987 Bill first published a paper he titled “Cable Design; Theory versus Empirical Reality.” Even though every cable in the AQ line has improved since that time, the basic priorities Bill laid down in 1987 have not changed. His ability to implement those priorities has evolved and surely will continue to evolve.
In 1987 Bill also started to design and manufacture 75Ω video and digital cables. These were not warmed-over audio cables. They were dedicated designs based on the same fundamental low distortion principles as the audio cables, but which took into account the different priorities required for wide bandwidth applications. Over the years the video and digital range grew to include a full line of “S,” “component,” and RGB video cables, and cables optimized for long runs of very delicate signals such as from a satellite dish or for HDTV. In 1999 this whole family of cables was grouped under the CinemaQuest sub-brand. While a picture alone does not stimulate an emotional response as effectively as audio, the ability to use an emotionless video test pattern to objectively prove superior video performance has helped make AudioQuest/CinemaQuest’s home theater business a lot of fun, and very successful.
AudioQuest has been the largest cable supplier to the high-end specialist market for many years. AudioQuest is sold in several hundred outlets in the US and in over sixty countries. Bill is especially pleased that this success has been possible despite his insistence that the foundation of the company, and the foundation of AudioQuest marketing, must be the performance of the product. In the audio world, many professionals have learned that it is not always convenient to listen to the products they sell … they might learn something they don’t want to know! Bill has always understood the challenge of basing the existence of AudioQuest on the performance of the product. However, to Bill, this is the only reasonable way to do business and the only acceptable way to combine his passion for music (and all things high performance), with his need to make a living.