Peter Snell

Peter Snell

The first thing that caught my attention about Peter, shortly after he joined us, three years before our graduation, were his blue eyes that radiated a quiet but steady intelligence together with a sense of self that did not rely on the standard adolescent requirements that held many of us in thrall. He was his own man, from the very beginning. With hindsight, I would say that he was a protogeek or better an Ubergeek. That expression carries for me a very strong favorable connotation since I work (and have worked) with people who fit that notional description for over 20 years and I mean it as high praise. But there were no pocket protectors here, more of a transcendent certainty that what was interesting to him was just fine, but didn't need to be communicated to anyone else who wasn't interested. He kept to himself but was never distant. He spoke with just a trace of the Down East speech rhythm he brought with him from Bar Harbor and the way he spoke, when he did, was again gentle and straightforward. I can personally attest to his prowess at math since more than once he elucidated what to me was hopelessly complex and undecipherable. I remember in some cases that he intuited solutions without knowing, he confessed, how or why they worked. Mystical and heady stuff.

It's my impression that he headed to Swarthmore after graduation, an institution I got to know during my academic days and one which I could imagine to be ideally suited for his temperament. But the record shows that he graduated from Marlboro College in Vermont, just west of Brattleboro, and that is also a place where student individuality is both nourished and expected within a rigorous curriculum. My guess is that he thrived there. Thanks to Clint's research, we know that Peter headed to Brown where he completed graduate work before launching his remarkable career in acoustic research. Like many physics students, he was also a natural engineer and it's easy to understand how he found his place in the technical realm.

He worked for a while for EPI, maker of Epicure speakers, in Newburyport before founding his own company, Snell Acoustics where he created the Type A loudspeaker, renowned among and revered by stereophiles for their natural sound. These speakers were individually crafted and tuned by Peter himself, who cross checked their fidelity with computer modeling before he'd let any customer take one home. All speaker cabinets were exquisitely hand finished, the work of a true perfectionist. At this point in time, competitors were already outsourcing production to Elsewhere but Peter's company kept things local, going the extra mile to meet customer requirements. Try entering "Snell speakers" in Google and you'll see immediately how valuable his contribution was.

We knew at Nobles that Peter suffered from a heart condition and, as I recall, was exempted from sports. His passing in 1984 from a heart attack at the age of 38 may not have come as a complete surprise but it was devastating news for the special community of acoustic experts who revered his work. The speaker technology he developed was adopted by Lucasfilms for the in­wall THX speaker systems we hear in movie theaters. Peter's legacy, and that of his company continue today at Boston Acoustics, in Peabody, which acquired the Snell assets in 2005. Those who knew Peter during his years at Snell Acoustics remember him also as a kind and gentle presence, but also fiercely determined and unstoppable on the topic of analog recordings and natural sounding loudspeakers. Rumor has it that he sported a pony tail and remained tall and thin, just as we knew him. I for one am extremely proud to say that I knew this guy way back when and I think his accomplishments are extraordinary and a credit to our class. I liked Peter tremendously, and I am very sad that he is no longer with us. I'm sure I'm not alone in that sentiment.

- Alexander Caskey

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