Mr. William Zane Johnson, the founder of Audio Research,
passed away on Saturday, December 10th, at the age of 85. Although
he was no longer the owner of Audio Research, which was purchased by Fine
Sounds, SpA, in 2008, he retained the title of “Chairman Emeritus” and
continued his design duties.
I met Mr. Johnson a number of times during CES, and I was
always impressed by his focus, technical skill, and lack of pretense. He was
always willing to explain his newest innovations, even when it was obvious that
the newbie audio journalist was lost after the first phase inverter…
I will always remember William Zane Johnson for his courage.
When almost every other audio company was rushing to embrace solid-state
designs, Johnson dedicated his company to vacuum tube-based electronics. While
it would be an oversimplification to state that Audio Research started the
trend back towards tube-based components, without Johnson’s pioneering designs,
tube electronics would not have remained as vibrant as they are today.
With 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy for us to see that Audio
Research’s many tube designs have been vitally important to the current state of
high-end audio. But during the mid-70’s, when Audio Research and their primary
competitor, Conrad Johnson, were among the small minority bucking the onslaught
of seemingly lower distortion transistor designs, many audiophiles assumed that
tubes were an old and outmoded technology. Even J. Gordon Holt applauded the
arrival of big SS power amps, such as the Dyna 400.
But William Johnson’s faith in vacuum tube technology coupled
with his own unique design talents kept vacuum tube-based designs at the
forefront of audio in a way that few others could. For that, he will be long be
remembered as a pioneer, innovator, and among those few who have left an
indelible mark on the past and future of high-end audio.