A Lifelong Quest for Audio Perfection
There are a handful of hi-fi pioneers whose names are familiar to the general public, helped in large part by branding in new car audio systems. James B. Lansing’s initials JBL, Bose, Harmon Kardon, and Mark Levinson are examples. And while these now-famous engineers were engaged in creating hi-fidelity sound reproduction gear, a young boy in Taiwan was busy rehearsing his violin lessons.
Young Robert Lee was urged by his parents to curtail his music pursuits to study electrical engineering, a vocation they felt held far more promise. While Lee excelled in his engineering studies he never lost his love of live music and was frustrated with the inability of 1970s-era equipment to reproduce sound close to the original performance.
The frustration led Lee to design his own amplifier using a leading-edge solid-state design that was quickly embraced by a handful of Taiwan’s well-healed audiophiles. In fact, Lee worked his way through college building custom amps while establishing an enviable reputation.
In a perfect world, a successful startup company would have sprung from Lee’s efforts, but in the late 1970’s Taiwan had a culture of producing inexpensive electronics in large volumes. In fact, during that era, all of Asian consumer products were considered sub par to American and European goods. So Lee was urged to move to the United States where he was told his efforts would gain instant stature.
No Easy Street
Lee made his way to Southern California where he faced the enormous challenges of a new country with its own unique culture along with his modest command of the English language. But he still retained his passion for music and the ability to craft custom amplifiers, although sales were hard to come by in this new environment.
The few audiophiles who auditioned Leess remarkable gear were smitten. At the 1985 Custom Electronic Design (CEDIA) show, an editor at Stereophile magazine compared Lee’s amplifier with the best from Mark Levinson and Macintosh, but Lee had no capital or infrastructure to ramp up production. So to simply earn a living, he took a job at a hi-fi store.
Lee attended a hi-fi show in San Diego where he learned that his cousin was producing hi-fi interconnect cables with a unique single crystal copper method that had remarkable properties. Soon a successful new venture was created, just in time for the rapid growth of the hi-fi cable business.
Now Lee had the wherewithal to tackle the last electro mechanical device between his ears and a live performance – stereo speaker systems. The first product was Adagio, a floor standing speaker that received critical acclaim for its near-perfect, distortion-free performance.
When I visited with Lee at his Acoustic Zen headquarters, we auditioned his flagship Crescendo speakers with a wide range of source material. The experience was stunning, with a stage presence that placed musicians perfectly in the room and a dynamic range that captured every musical nuance. One reviewer has compared Lee’s speakers to systems retailing for $100,000, a figure that makes his $16,000 Crescendo pair a remarkable value. 858.487.1988, www.acousticzen.com Brian Douglas
Robert Lee: Photo by Brian Douglas, Flagship Crescendo Speakers: Picture by Tomaz