From sickbed to hi-fi innovator: Garth Murray's path to Theophany

A mystery illness left Garth Murray’s memory shattered, his focus lost, his working days over. Help came from an unexpected quarter: his own dreams. Sally Blundell tacks Murray’s strange trip from sickbed to hi-fi innovator

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Photographs by Dean MacKenzie

A mystery illness left Garth Murray’s memory shattered, his focus lost, his working days over. Help came from an unexpected quarter: his own dreams. Sally Blundell tracks Murray’s strange trip from sickbed to hi-fi innovator

A lone trumpet cuts through the silence above the waiting crowd. The sound is achingly clear, the notes haunting in their precision. It is the Eagles’ 2004 Farewell Tour concert in Melbourne and we could well be part of the 15,000-strong crowd waiting for the dusted-off rockers to crash into the opening bars of ‘Hotel California’.

But no. We’re 2,400 kilometres away in the flatlands of Canterbury and Garth Murray is putting his sound system through its paces—DVDs of the Eagles, Pink Floyd and U2, and then on to the blockbuster movies: Jurassic Park, The Island, Master and Commander.

Over the sound and fury of the high-seas action Murray, director and founder of Theophany Loudspeakers, describes the unorthodox evolution of his stereo and home theatre speaker systems.

“Most speakers are designed primarily for frequency response and efficiency, but we come from a different tack. My primary concern is to get listeners to engage emotionally with the sound they hear. To do this there must be no harmonic distortion and the sound must reach the ear as fast as possible. So right from the start we focused on reducing harmonic distortion and aerodynamic airflow.”

Murray was sleeping up to 22 hours a day and feeling his memory trickle like sand through his fingers. He mixed up his children’s names, couldn’t remember their births or even his own wedding. But at night he began to experience vivid, dreamlike visions

Murray is 45 years old. He lives on a five-acre rural property with his wife and seven—yes, seven—children just south of Christchurch. He is, he tells me, a Christian. He is, I think, a most unlikely speaker cabinet manufacturer, but his crusade against harmonic distortion appears to have had some extraordinary results. Over 90 percent of people who have come to this remote showroom for a demonstration have purchased either a stereo set or a complete home theatre system.

About 30 percent, he claims, have cried.

“Usually the brain is quick to detect any harmonic distortion. When it does it thinks, this isn’t real and closes off the emotional gates. By eliminating distortion the brain thinks it is real and that’s what this is about—making that emotional connection, making people feel they’re really there.”

This kind of science is not new. Over 150 years ago German physicist and philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz published his findings on the impact of ‘overtones’, or harmonics, on the emotional qualities of music.

But while Helmholtz thrashed out his theories on the psychology of sound within the halls of academia, and while the world’s top hi-fi systems have emerged out of million-dollar R&D budgets, Garth Murray has walked a different path altogether—a path signposted by septicaemia, near-death and dreams that are, by anybody’s reckoning, prophetic.

In 2002 Murray was working in Christchurch as an air traffic controller when he had surgery for a particularly stubborn kidney stone. On returning home his health began to deteriorate. His head ached, he vomited. The hospital told him to stay in bed, that it was “probably flu”.

Had it not been for the advice of a visiting midwife attending the Murrays’ latest arrival, he would, he says, probably have died.

Back in hospital, Murray was treated for a serious case of septicaemia, but once home he continued to feel wretchedly tired, sleeping up to 22 hours a day and feeling his memory trickle like sand through his fingers. Once a prolific reader, he was suddenly incapable of holding a plot from one chapter to the next. He mixed up his children’s names, couldn’t remember their births or even his own wedding. Repeated medical tests eventually showed that his brain had been impaired by a series of small strokes, resulting in a memory similar to that “of a 92-year-old man with the onset of Alzheimer’s”.

‘I was lying in bed and i actually saw myself making a speaker. I saw the ruler, I saw the dimensions. I woke up and then I spent six months learning how to build them’

Murray’s days as an air traffic controller were clearly over—his doctor told him that he was unlikely ever to work again—but his nights took on a new dimension as he began to experience vivid, dreamlike visions. They came with a message.

“It was in October [still in 2002]. I was lying in bed and I saw myself, I actually saw myself, making a speaker. I saw the ruler, I saw the dimensions. When I woke up I put all these on the computer, and then I spent six months learning how to build them.”

A result of the injuries to Murray’s brain is a condition called hyperacusis, a collapsed tolerance to everyday sounds. Where most of us can turn off certain noises—as those who live near a railway line soon stop hearing the freight trains thundering past—people with hyperacusis do not have this selective mechanism. Instead, the volume of the world seems stuck on high. “I can’t shut out the sounds of aeroplanes,” says Murray, “and I can’t go to malls.”

But the upside of this condition is that when listening to music he can pick up the slightest variations or distortions that most of us are aware of only on the most subliminal level.

Such aural sensitivity, however, didn’t give Garth Murray an automatic understanding of the intricacies of speaker cabinetry. Music had never been far from his life—at 13 he was playing the guitar, the piano and drums; at 21 he made his own, now rather battered acoustic guitar—but when it came to speakers, “I’d never made them before. I didn’t even have a good stereo!”

His investment in a collection of DIY speaker books didn’t help; he still has them, unopened, shiny new. Instead, he contacted Matthew Simmons from Arvus Loudspeakers in Christchurch. Arvus had established a reputation for its high-quality neodymium drivers (neodymium magnets are the strongest permanent magnets known, said to outperform traditional ceramic magnets in sound fidelity and driver efficiency). Together they worked on developing a sound that Simmons says “squeezes the last 15–20 percent of performance from the existing technology”.

But more dreams were to come. The company name (a theophany is the sudden appearance of a god or a divine disclosure), the scale of the large free-standing speakers and the idea for a new component which proved instrumental in reducing harmonic distortion all came to Murray through similar type visions.

Were there no doubts about the validity of these dreams?

“I didn’t try to rationalise it. I still don’t.”

Outside the raw technology, the curved, streamlined design of the Theophany cabinets has played an integral role in the direct delivery of sound. Inside the speakers there are no parallel surfaces, virtually eliminating standing waves that can cause distortion. The exterior too is bent to an unprecedented arch in order to reduce any wobbling bow and flex (“the Rolf Harris effect,” says Murray) and to ensure a completely smooth airflow around the speaker. This reduction in turbulent air on the outside ensures that the sound waves are not slowed down or overtaken by following sounds. As such the sound is defined, clear and separate.

“We realised that airflow is more significant than we thought, for interiors and exteriors. So we’ve moved from focusing on efficiency and frequency to airflow and harmonic distortion. From there, the efficiency went through the roof.”

Bending the MDF exterior to such a degree was, however, a challenge. “Everyone said you can’t bend the wood that much, that there was no glue strong enough to hold it.” After much experimentation Murray designed a clamping system that holds the plywood throughout the process, resulting in a smooth taut sound shell with virtually no vibration.

With the sound sorted and the traditional finish finalised, there was, says Murray, one element missing. “To sell things you really need to appeal to three senses. With the speakers we had the sight and the sound, but we needed a third.”

The third was touch. By incorporating thicker than usual veneers with smooth, rounded edges, the final sensory requirement was ticked off and Theophany was ready to be unleashed on to an unforgiving, demanding audiophile audience.

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Early reviews have been positive. “All up,” wrote Allan Swann in a recent issue of local hi-fi magazine Tone, “this kit is an absolute ripper”. Overseas testing by a European distributor gave Theophany the thumbs up and Murray now has orders from Dubai, Australia, Belgium and the USA, with interest also from Japan and Singapore.

The current production capacity of 20 home theatre systems a month (around 120 to 150 speakers) is set to triple. Of these, 20 to 30 sets a month have already been earmarked for export, with nearly half for the US market. Two new showrooms and an extended factory are being built to cope with the demand and Theophany International has been established to deal with overseas interest.

Murray has already turned down some orders. Investment offers have also been received but the response is the same: thanks, but no thanks. “I want Theophany to grow slowly, organically. If this business starts to control my life, I’m quitting it.”

He’s no businessman anyway, he says—his memory is no better, and although he hasn’t dreamed about speaker design and construction for a while he still has his vivid dreams.

Since January last year Murray and his son Josiah, a recent marketing and business management graduate, have been promoting the speakers directly to purchasers—advertising in magazines, embarking on a successful bout of home shows and setting up home theatre systems in big barn furniture outlets. Their sales technique is singularly uncomplicated and inexpensive: get people to sit down in front of his speakers and let the speakers sell themselves.

And the hi-fi specialist stores?

“There’s a lot of hi-fi snobbery in the market and that really annoys me. Only five to eight percent of the market goes into hi-fi shops—and most of them want exclusivity. If I just focused on that crowd we’d sell to only a very small part of the market.”

This approach has its drawbacks. Top-shelf hi-fi specialists don’t know or recommend his product and going straight to the buyer or selling through home shows or large furniture shops smacks of low quality. While the speakers sound good in Murray’s showroom, without the reputable reviews that track each new product in the hi-fi retail circuit (and without the advantage of hyperacusis-tuned ears), it’s hard for amateur listeners to tell how Murray’s product stacks up against the best that the established hi-fi world has to offer.

The upside is that Murray is often talking directly to the customers. They welcome his conviction and he is learning first hand the expectations of his customer base and their buying habits.

“Traditionally, if a couple are out looking for speakers the man will go in to a hi-fi shop and talk about the options while the wife sits in the car waiting to beep the horn. So how do you get around this? By going into furniture shops. While the wife is looking at furniture the husband hears the sound, sits down on the sofa and within ten minutes he has to have it.”

In most cases, he says, Theophany buyers are couples between 35 and 65 “who really want to experience something nice. Their kids are leaving home. They might have their first new car. Now they’re thinking, what can we do to improve our lives? When we get them in front of a speaker system, they think they just have to have it.”

And have it many can. From the bookshelf Epiphany to the large floor-standing M5, the big, clear sound that comes from these speakers costs nowhere near the top-end speaker price range. Murray says if perfect sound is 100 percent, then for around $5,000 to $6,000 you can get a 90 percent rating. Refinements after that, he says, cost more (and the larger speakers currently under construction are more refined and more expensive).

And the audiophiles are catching on—in December, Tone gave Theophany speakers its Hi-fi Product of the Year award.

Of course, ask any music buff what is the most important part of a sound system and the responses will vary. It’s the amp, some will say. Others will swear by quality of cable, or the player itself.

As the crowd in Melbourne breaks into wild applause, Garth Murray is unperturbed.

“It’s the speakers,” says Murray. “I’m still convinced the speakers are the critical thing.”