We’re passionate about the tonewoods we use in the construction of our award-winning Site:1 speakers. Mahogany has long been my favorite but, very recently, that has changed. My new favorite is found only one place in all the world, high in the mountains of a Pacific Island: the royal wood of Hawaiian royalty: Koa wood.
Each of our current primary tonewoods – mahogany, maple, black walnut, and cherry – resonates slightly differently. That subtle difference, faint but still discernable to the attentive ear, makes each Site:1 speaker as unique as a fingerprint. Mahogany has a warm, sonorous intonation, whereas maple lends a brightness to music that makes it the cheerful extrovert of our tonewoods. Black walnut, our biggest seller, has what many have called an “earthy” sound, with full-bodied bass and crisp midtones, while cherry wood is noted for its balanced sound quality, with lush bass response and crystalline highs.
Koa wood, however, is something else again.
King of the Tonewoods
We chose our four tonewoods after much trial and error. We continue to play around with other varieties and combinations of tonewoods, always searching for that special resonance, that elusive human quality that most vividly reproduces the music we love. Some of the tonewoods we’ve experimented with eventually failed to meet our exalted standards in one way or another; some reproduced music beautifully but proved too finicky to work with; others were easy to craft and looked gorgeous but unaccountably fell short in the quality of their sound. Every once in a great while, however, one of our experiments is an unqualified success, and sorely tempts us to add it to our primary line of tonewoods. But we’ve never before been so excited about a tonewood, or so certain that it deserved to be made into a Princeton Audio Site:1 speaker, as we are with koa. By unanimous agreement, we will soon be adding this rare and beautiful species to our selection of premium tonewoods.
The Royal Warrior
In the late 16th century, King Kamehameha, guardian of the Hawaiian God of War, led his warriors to begin a campaign to unite all of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago under his rule. The word “Koa” means “Warrior” in the Hawaiian language, and was considered sacred. For many years, King Kamehameha declared that the koa wood was considered off-limits for anyone but himself and other members of the royalty. After Kamehameha’s death, ordinary citizens were finally allowed to own koa, as well, and the wood once again found its way into everything from serving bowls to canoes to weapons and, eventually, to musical instruments, most notably in the native Hawaiian instrument, the ukulele.
Many people associate the ukulele with cheesy old memories of Don Ho, mediocre entertainment for tourists visiting the islands, or souvenir children’s toys made of cheap plastics. If that’s what you think of when you hear the word “ukulele”, then you’ve never really heard one before. These four-stringed Hawaiian instruments are traditionally made of the native koa wood, and they are stunningly beautiful in appearance as well as sound. The koa ukulele has made dramatic inroads into popular music in the past several decades, popping up in a huge variety of music and championed by musicians such as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Eddie Vedder, Taimane Gardner, and Jake Shimabukuro. If there is one signature quality that attracts these musicians to the ukulele, it is the transcendent tone produced by the rare, beautiful koa wood from which they are created.
An Expression of the Islands
Every wood has a particular terroir. Much as wine grapes are an expression of the soil from which they grow and the weather conditions of their environment, wood is also influenced by the climate and the composition of the earth that nurtures them. The rich, volcanic soil of the Hawaiian Islands gives the koa wood a stunningly beautiful dark-red character with a wave-like grain pattern that virtually glows when properly finished.
As for the remarkable sound of koa wood, if pressed, I’d say it straddles the divide between mahogany and black walnut, possessing the best attributes of each, but that still doesn’t quite do justice to it. There is a pure, powerful, singing quality to the koa wood that is difficult to describe. While each of our tonewood speakers is special in its own way, I can say with absolute conviction that, for my tastes, koa is the ultimate tonewood for creating our Site:1 speaker.
A New Category for a New Tonewood
While the decision to adopt koa was unanimous, it was by no means an easy decision to make, primarily due to its rarity and very high cost. The price of koa wood is dramatically higher than any of the other woods we use in speaker construction. The only way we could add koa to our product offerings would be to create an entirely new category for it. That idea quickly snowballed. Tonewood selection is only one of the many factors we consider when building our Site:1 speakers. What other super-premium components could we add to this new koa speaker to make it stand even further apart from our standard offerings? A more muscular transducer? A larger size? Nothing is set in stone as yet, we’re still exploring ideas, so watch this space for further details. At this point, all we know is that we’re totally committed to adding this gorgeous tonewood, this royal warrior, to our distinguished lineup of premium tonewoods. I can’t wait to share it with you. The Hawaiian word, “Aloha”, is now popularly interpreted as a way to say “hello” and “goodbye”, but that is not the original meaning of the word, which is “what is mine is yours”. Very soon, we’ll have a koa Site:1, and I look forward to telling the world, “Aloha”.