Acoustic Research AR-3 Speakers

Edgar Villchur didn’t set out to start a speaker company; he just wanted to license his acoustic suspension designs to other speaker companies. In the early ’50s, he shopped the concept to the biggest names in the business, but not a single one was interested. So Villchur started Acoustic Research in 1952, and his very first speaker, the AR-1, was an immediate hit. Villchur’s design strategy used the elasticity of air within a sealed cabinet to provide the restoring force for the driver, which allowed his relatively small speakers to produce deep, low-distortion bass.

 Villchur’s AR-3 was an even greater departure. The look was pure and clean, just a plain, wood-veneered box, but lurking behind the knit-cloth grille was the world’s first production dome tweeter and dome midrange drivers, and a 12-inch cone woofer. By today’s standards, the AR-3 wasn’t all that small—it came in at 25 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 11.5 inches deep, and weighed 47 pounds. In 1958, it sold for $216 a pair, making it a very expensive speaker for its time.

The plywood cabinets, crossover networks, and drivers were all made at the company’s factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Build quality far exceeded industry standards, and AR was the first speaker company to provide a five-year warranty!

What made the AR-3 a sensation was the sound. In the early ’60s, Villchur conducted a series of live-versus-recorded demonstrations in which the sound of a live string quartet was compared with the recorded quartet played through a pair of AR-3s. Most listeners couldn’t tell the difference between the speakers and the musicians, a testament to the AR-3’s quality. Eventually, the AR-3 was replaced by the AR-3a, a modified version that used the same woofer but offered improved dome midrange and tweeter drivers that created even wider dispersion. Like the AR-3, it was regarded as the best speaker of its day and was wildly popular.

Villchur had a hand in designing AR’s ads, which were understated and clean, with minimal copy and just an unadorned shot of the speakers. There was no hype or pizazz, just the facts—and the speakers sold themselves. By 1966, the company claimed 32 percent of the U.S. market, the largest market share ever held by a speaker manufacturer. Today, a pair resides in the Smithsonian, and original AR-3s in good condition can fetch in excess of $1,000 on the used market. An exceptionally pristine pair in Mahogany auctioned on eBay in February sold for $3,710.

Author’s Note: Harry Munz, Villchur’s old friend, provided background information for this report.

[Editor’s Note: Special thanks to hobbyist Rick Kurtz and Frank de Jong of the archival Website for supplying images of vintage AR 3 and AR 3a speakers for this article.]

n2hifi's picture

Strange pulling up this site and seeing something I have instead of something I want. My pair didn't fare as well though as they were my college speakers. I still use them in the basement but in no way would they fetch a price. I actually used them as main speakers until I bought some Def. Tech BP-30's

Funny story about them though. When I was about 10 I wanted one of those one piece stereos with built in record player, tape deck etc. The cheap ones that looked cool. My dad wouldn't have it though since he appreciated good sound. I soon found myself with a Fisher 500 and a pair of AR-3a's. Boy did I complain (I know, I know, but I was 10!). It worked though and now I'm the one talking him into buying high end gear. Now my kids are the ones who have to 'suffer' because I do the same thing to them.

DaleC's picture

I had a pair of these (AR3a's if I recall) in the 80's... seeing the current value makes me wonder if they are still in my parents house somewhere????

George's picture

I still have an AR-1 with a separate crossover network and a Radio Shack electrostatic tweeter that I use with a Pioneer receiver in my shop,and it still sounds great! The set up was recommended by Consumer Reports back in 1953.

msardo's picture

Very cool article!

Makes me remember my old Luxman "duo-b circuit" amplifier that did not have many bells and whistles, but sure sounded great. I wish I could remember the model number so that I could look up a picture.

I loved it, but it fell victim to 5.1 surround sound, etc. If I had known better then, versus now, I might have held on to it for use as a nice 2 channel system.