People are always telling me that I should blog about things everyone wants to read about.
So, I thought about it and I came up with the subject of microphonics, so-called cable microphonics specifically. Those of you who read (over and over, I’m sure) Wires, Baby! know I’ve recently slipped the bounds of the 21st century and gone back to wired earbuds because for the most part they simply sound better.
Now, oddly, inexplicably I’ve found that a good number of wired earbuds suffer from what’s been called in many corners microphonics.
When people say this they referring to hearing extraneous bass coming through their earbuds, such as the sound of their own footsteps, as they walk.
It can be damned annoying and some decent buds are let down by this. The problem is that it’s not actually microphonics. As pretty much all of you know, microphonics are when a mechanical/acoustic object generates an unintended electrical signal that’s amplified and heard during playback.
The oldest example of this is in relatively high gain small signal phono tubes. The 12AU7/ECC82 was notorious for this, but any small-signal tube that is part of a circuit with enough gain could suffer from this effect. And, as an aside to you tube guys, the 12AU7 is really not appropriate for use in a phono circuit when there are so many dandy 12X7 and 6922s laying around.
A more recent example is the stylus/cartridge assembly of a turntable being excited by in-room low frequencies that looped those frequencies right back through the system with predictable non-musical results.
In contemporary parlance the word microphonics has been applied to the cables of IEMs and earbuds but that’s not truly what’s going on.
The thud effect is induced by at least these factors:
1 The profile of the cable, with so-called tangle-free cables (often those with a roughly rectangular cross sections) being especially likely to exacerbate the problem.
2) The durometer of the cable’s exterior jacket and to a lesser degree its dielectric (if it’s separate from the jacket, which it usually isn’t). Harder and stiffer make it worse where usually they make things better.
3) The degree of the acoustic seal that the earbud tips create within the ear and/or ear canal.
What this means is that what is heard is a simple drum effect, not actual microphonics. This can be proven quite easily. Simply tap on your earbud’s cables with your device on mute, or even turned off.
Yup, thud, thud, thud.
What’s interesting is that some brands (Apple) figured this out years ago. The cables on their modestly priced buds don’t suffer this kind of annoying drum effect at all. Other brands like Beats (one wonders why didn’t they just ring up their cousins over at Apple for help with this) and Skullcandy can’t be bothered to eliminate such a simple mechanical problem.
I also understand that Etymotic Research is plagued with this in their $300 ER4SR IEMs.
Come on, folks. You have the word research right in your name so go do some!
Look, personal audio has come very far very fast and we’re all loving it. But let’s not be so focused on making the world a better place that we miss fixing easy problems that ruin the music.
I know, it’s been a good long while. The good news is that Cottonwood, the sequel to my first novel now tips the scales at over 150,000 words. The pandemic initially quickened my productivity but in the end slowed it down significantly. Oh well, it’s only time and we all have plenty of that (he writes sardonically).
Even less interesting is the fact that I managed to lose my Apple AirPod Pros. Actually, they weren’t exactly lost. After all, the Find My app showed their last position (laying helpless and pitifull in a parking planter) but they were unable to find their way home. So, I tried other Bluetooth buds from Skullcandy, Sennheiser and Jabra but was disappointed badly each time. The AirPods were disappointing, too, I never did like the way they sounded though their feature set was impressive.
So, I’ve gone wired. I’ve decided that it’s better to battle a wire than it is to have marginal sound. I use a pair of now-discontinued Beats urbeats3 and a pair of Flares Jet2. The Beat’s rather enthusiastic bass is tamed nicely and easily via my iPhone’s EQ while their native midband and treble is surprisingly good out of the box. The Flares are more balanced overall if a little less musical (and less fun) than the Beats. Both of them whip the pants off of any of the expensive Bluetooth buds I’ve tried. I also keep a couple pair of old-school Apple buds for emergencies. Someday I may go wireless but not today. Why switch when you can fight?
I wrestled with myself about writing this, I really did. I have known and worked and fought with Roger Modjeski since the 1990s. He has been an immense influence on my life as I know I was on his.
He was brilliant.
He was generous.
He was greedy.
He was visionary.
He was shortsighted.
He was my friend & I’m truly sorry he left this world so soon.
This is not an attempt to tell Roger’s life story. It’s more of stream of consciousness obituary. If any dates or the timeline of events are incorrect, I’m not really bothered. And, I’m not telling anything that I wouldn’t have said in Roger’s presence. We had an occasionally difficult relationship but an honest one and we were always civil toward one another during our battles.
Roger grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of the dean of the dental school at UVA, Peter Modjeski. I mention Roger’s father because it was he who got Roger interested in electronics, tubes and circuit design when Roger was little more than five years old. When Audio Advisor wanted a photo of Roger to include in their catalog, Roger wanted to use the photo of him at six, sitting in his pajamas with the first tube amplifier he ever designed, a single-ended triode, of course. He was a surprisingly outdoorsy kid, loving to fish the local rivers and streams. Roger spoke many times of grilling fresh fish and making hush puppies out in the woods near his family’s home.
Roger experienced a very strong push & pull toward the last of the 1970s that ended with him in California, first working at IBM and later at his then dream job with Harold Beveridge. Bev used Roger’s abilities wisely (for the most part) and Roger developed the RM-1/2 preamp and power supply while he was at the company but soon thereafter Roger felt the push and pull, again that only going into business for oneself can satisfy.
RAM Labs came first, followed by RAM Tube works and finally Music Reference. I heard my first Music Reference product at Brooks Berdans’ store in Monrovia way back when. A few years later I was publishing The Audio Observatory. Being an admirer of his designs, I always sent an issue to Roger. At some point, he wrote me a letter, inviting me to meet with him in Santa Barbara.
Really, though, the real Roger came through in the bit of verse he included on a separate page.
I say the real Roger, but I really meant that this was Roger as he could be, and as I know he strove to be. But, it was hard for him to sustain this kind of sensitivity and reflectiveness, especially when it came to his business.
RAM Labs was born at the perfect time. Had it started a decade later few would have valued his properly tested tubes and engineering rigor. But, in the early 80s folks were just beginning to yearn for it and the attraction to his tubes, once established, continues to this day. Music Reference was founded on Roger’s personal investment of $4,000. That cash built the first run of RM-4 pre-pres and the rest is history.
One of the reasons I sold The Audio Observatory was to go to work for Roger. I’m not sorry I did it though nothing turned out like I expected (does it ever?). Roger detested the processes of building gear as much as he loved designing and prototyping it. The RM-10 was born of his desire to build both an eco-friendly amp and one that got way more power out of a humble pair of EL84 output tubes. Given the right speakers, it sounded (and sounds) spectacular. Its small size kept it from being as respected as it should have been but to those who know there’s no amp anything like it designed or built anywhere.
The RM-200 was my idea. I waxed lyrical to Roger about my Audio Research D-70 MkII and what I regarded (and still regard) as the magic of two 6550s in a hard-driven circuit. Roger listened to me, and he listened to the D-70 MkII. Still, the ARC offended his sensibilities. The driver and input stage were overly complex and the 6550s were simply driven too hard. One day, Roger asked me if a reverse hybrid, one with a balanced solid-state input driving (you guessed it…a pair of 6550s) would have any appeal. I asked him how much it would cost and he said we could sell it for $1850. That number fit nicely with the RM-9 MkII so I loved the idea. Well, by the time the RM-200 hit the market it cost nearly $3000.
Why? Because Roger hated the process so much that he kept raising the price, even before the amp was available and even though out best dealers and distributors had placed cash deposits based on the old price. The truth was that building the RM-200 was fairly easy (especially compared to the RM-9 MkII). Still, it nearly killed Roger and I do not exaggerate. His doctor advised him no fewer than twice to abandon the project and sell the company if he wanted to preserve his health. The RM-200 was everything it was designed to be though a lot of people just didn’t get it. It broke too many rules, spoiled too many assumptions about hybrids, and feeding tubes with transistors. Though we knew selling it would be an uphill battle, the reception (save for Stereophile’s Class A Recommendation) was hurtful to both of us. The price increase simply killed that amp and prevented it from being the unusual classic it could have easily been.
By the time I moved on from RAM Labs we were basically out of the equipment game. There was nothing being built. We had RM-9 SEs on hand and a smattering of RM-4 but that was it. The RM-5, the RM-10 and the RM-200 were all in suspended animation at that point. I had grown tired of making promises to dealers and especially our distributor in Singapore who had made a sizable investment in our gear and tubes. As Roger admitted to me one day, “It’s hard not having anything in your cart to sell.”
I visited Roger a few times while he was still in Santa Barbara and we always had fun hanging out and chatting, never about business. By then, he was building his custom SE stuff. That had been a kind of dream for him for a long time; build one, sell one. You see for Roger, the joy was in The Study as he called it. That was his process of going from inspiration to finished circuit. That was the part he loved and it had nothing whatever to do with business. Most high end companies are the opposite. The designs fly together, be they good or not so good, and then move on to production. It’s time to sell the damn thing is the collective battle cry of the high end.
Roger was caught between those two desires. He believed his real value was as a designer and, of course, it was. He used to say, “Why can’t I just design it and someone else build it?” That made sense, but in the end it was always his company and the idea of prototyping something let alone moving it on toward manufacture without him was unsound. Still, the glory of his designs do and will endure. The RM-10, the RM-9, the RM-5 and the Counterpoint SA-4 are among the most enduring high end products ever; and for good reason.
This Christmas card from way back when will always be how I remember Roger Modjeski. Working alongside him was many things, including fun. I will always wish that we could have accomplished more, with Music Reference especially. But, in the end, we did what we could and we did it our way. I know all of the owners of Music Reference gear will treasure their gear all the more now that he has slipped away from us. For myself, I wish only for one more sunny day in Santa Barbara with him, sitting outside one of our favorite restaurants, talking about the high end and music and life.
No, you won’t be replacing your real system, assuming you still have one, with a HomePod.
Yes, you will be impressed by how fundamentally musical it is.
The Apple HomePod is the first mass-market product, designed by a company with real engineering wallop, that was actually designed by people who wanted it to sound good and that fact should put existential fear into every high end company that’s still on the right side of the grass.
Let’s talk about setup. It’s OK, but like all new Apple products it entails a few more steps than it should and Apple’s Home app is kludgy. Bummer, that, but once you’re done with it you’re done with it, or so it seems so far.
On the operational front I’ve observed that Pandora skips momentarily about every ten to fifteen minutes. The funny thing is that it never skips on my iPhone or when I’m using my Air Pods.
That problem gave me the chance to test Spotify.
Odd, no skipping whatsoever.
Who knows what’s up there but I’m willing to blame Pandora until and unless it starts to happen with other sources. Not surprisingly, playback from iTunes / Music is just dandy.
What the folks at Apple have done here is to swing a big, heavy hammer at what should be an easy target, and for them it was. The HomePod is a technically and acoustically complex product. They’ve crammed a bunch of drivers into that little pod. If a high end company, or a lesser tech company, tried to do what Apple has done the result would have been a sonic or functional mess and probably both.
The HomePod sounds remarkable coherent from top to bottom. Even though I’m using it as what would be regarded as a monophonic speaker the result is quite natural from a spatial perspective. Remember, stereo is a trick. This kind of mono is simply another kind of trick, and it works because Apple figured out how to make it work.
But wait, let me talk about why I felt I needed a better speaker in my office than my beloved Soundfreaq Sound Spot Wood + White. There are two reasons, really. The first is that I need a speaker in my bedroom, and the Sound Spot is perfect for that. The second and more important reason flows from the damn book I’m writing. This whole book-writing thing entails seemingly endless hours of ass sitting, which I already hate. I’m actually thinking of hiring a personal trainer so that all this extra time sitting doesn’t knock too much time off my life expectancy.
The HomePod’s fundamental listenability and (comparatively) full range presentation brings just enough music into my office that I’m not constantly driven to get up and change the record or put in another CD or whatever. I can turn it up to annoyingly high levels when the music or mood calls for it or turn it down to the edge of silence when I’m trying desperately to think and it stays musically convincing.
The Pod simply sounds good. Yes, it takes some liberties and creates a sould-warming upper-bass hump so you won’t notice the lack of mid and lower bass. And, yes, all those drivers lead to an occasional if surprisingly minor megaphone effect that’s especially noticeable on female vocals.
But then, something will come on that will catch your attention. Right now that’s Telegraph Road from Dire Straits. The cut has a lot of electronically generated space and a fairly high dynamic range for a rock recording. But, the Pod pulls it off. Somehow, especially at rational volumes, the musical presentation holds together is the exact way you need to draw your attention into the music.
I cannot think of a $500 pair of stereo speakers from any high end manufacturer of any era that can match the Apple HomePod’s essential musicality.
That fact, all by itself, is why I regard the HomePod and all of the amazing stuff that will surely come after it such a threat to what’s left of the high end.
In closing, I’m trying to imagine what would be involved in streaming to the HomePod from an analog turntable. Obviously, a really good phono preamp (got one) and a really good DAC (ditto). Then, all I have to do is trick AirPlay2 into streaming the resulting data at full resolution to the HomePod.
Who knows? Maybe this will be possible by the time I’m working on the sequel to the sequel.
All you high end audio folks should have heard this kind of product coming and from this kind of company because it’s already too late for you to get out of the way.
I’m grateful to Fred Greene, head honcho of the GolfSmarter podcast, for a number of things. One that I hadn’t anticipated was how much I enjoyed being interviewed by him for his podcast. Though it was a little out of my experiential-comfort zone, I really enjoyed it. I’m a born talker (as I think most writers are) but speaking formally over the course of 30 minutes is a different kind of talking than most of us are used to doing.
Though I’m not bowled over by the quality of my narration so far the results seem workable and I’m hoping to get better as I gain experience and learn from my inevitable mistakes.
It didn’t take long to figure out I needed a microphone that was better than the built-in mics in any of my Macs or my iPhone. I asked around and did (very) little research.
A trusted podcaster I know recommended the Blue Yeti but I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about dropping $125 on something that could soon end up collecting dust on a shelf.
So, I decided on the Fifine K669B. I’m mean, it’s only $29 at Amazon and it’s Prime-eligible so there’s very little to lose.
Some of you may know I worked in high end audio for decades and have reviewed well over a hundred high end products. I’ve also been formally and informally involved of scores of recording sessions from pop to classical.
But, I’ve never actually reviewed a microphone. The more I thought about it the more I realized that something really critical to proper audio reviewing was missing.
There’s no reference.
Nearly all of the web and youtube reviews of mics compare one mic to another. I understand this temptation but the better or worse game that’s pretty much useless in evaluating playback gear is even more useless in evaluating source gear.
Let’s say it again…there’s no reference.
A given reviewer may like the way his voice sounds on Mic A instead of Mic B but that is no predictor of whether anyone else will like the sound of their voice when captured by Mic A.
A significant part of mic performance can be evaluated objectively but most reviewers confine their objective comments to describing features which is fine as far as that goes, but features do not relate directly to quality when you’re talking about audio fidelity.
So, what can I say about the Fifine? I can say it’s fine…for me. It has a fixed cardioid pattern that’s well suited to my simple needs and is truly plug & play (at least on a Mac).
Also, the little fellow is nicely put together, seemingly solid, yet not overly heavy. Some will surely complain about the captive USB cable but at least you know that if you remembered to bring the mic you also remembered the cable!
The only adjustment on the mic is for volume and I found the sensitivity to be plenty wide for my needs and is quite smooth. The volume knob has a reassuringly heavy feel and is easy to position precisely and consistently.
I found set up to be as simple as plugging the mic in and hitting record and I designate the sound quality as just dandy (I know; far too many technical terms).
For $29 there’s just nothing for me to complain about.
Lastly, the Fifine Folks appear to be very responsive at least related to their Amazon sales. This is especially impressive for such an inexpensive product and shows the company understands that early efforts related to customer service will help them build their brand over time.
Well done, Fifine. You’ve done a fantastic job with K669B.
The high end will continue to shrink. There will soon come a day when every surviving high end guy will come together in a room, shake hands with one another, and then all fall over dead. – Kevin Halverson, co-founder of Muse Electronics.
After all these years, this final meeting still hasn’t happened…yet. I started The Audio Observatory way back when, even before Kevin laid this hard bit of prophecy on me. I didn’t really have much of a vision for TAO, which is the one big reason that it never became much of anything. It existed to serve my own purpose and my purpose was to do what I could to undermine the then-existing attitudes toward the relevance and influence of reviews. I simply wanted people to have the confidence to listen to what they liked and to enjoy what they listened to.
A mother-fucker can either listen to what he likes, or he can listen to what some other mother-fucker likes. – Joe Roberts, Editor of Sound Practices.
TAO started out and ended up modestly. At its peak, I was sending out a few thousand issues at a time. But, when I started out I was only mailing a few hundred. Most were sent to my high end heroes. I sent issues of TAO to guys like Nelson Pass, Ray Kimber, Yves-Bernard André, Jim Winey, Bruce Thigpen and Roger Modjeski. After a few dozen issues I got a hand-written letter from Roger Modjeski and a poem. It turns out that he liked the line I used to close each issue.
Listen well, but listen happy.
The line captured what I wanted readers to get, that their happiness with their own beloved music was all that mattered. When I got that letter from Roger I knew I had gotten at least one thing right and lots of folks can’t even do that. He invited me to give him a call and to come up to Santa Barbara for lunch…just to talk. A few weeks later I did and so began an association that, to this day, informs a good deal of how I think and how I see the world, especially the world of high end audio.
Right away, Roger and I enjoyed each other’s company. I think we each sensed that we saw the other as an odd yet accurate reflection of our other self. If that doesn’t make of sense rest easy; t doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. In some ways, we didn’t have much in common. Roger was an engineer’s-engineer and I was a mere layman, though one possessed of a strong appreciation for formal reasoning and a quick facility for the occasionally clarifying analogy. Sometimes Roger’s engineering rigor created an angst-inducing forest-for-the-trees situation that needed that ability on my part.
We both loved music and thought that vacuum tubes were the best path to achieve its reproduction in the home. That’s not really true. Roger thought that but I believed that the very best transistor gear was in fact superior to the best tube gear. But, I also thought that better designed vacuum gear outperformed most solid-state gear that was even remotely similarly priced. And, there was and there is no vacuum tube gear that’s as well designed as the gear Roger Modjeski designs. He simply has no equal.
Roger’s brilliance came from, well, brilliance. He had made the mistakes (in his mind) that lesser engineers had often made in their products and he never forgot a lesson once learned. After we got to know each other, he began to share his thoughts on his own designs and the designs of others. Some were old and some were new but he always looked to examine what had been achieved, or what had not, and how the failure of knowledge or experience or both had led to the result.
After a few of our lunch meetings, Roger offered me a job. I would handle Music Reference and RAM Labs sales and marketing. Me being me, I knew I could handle the task. I am not prone to delusion. I knew that Music Reference and RAM Labs were small companies in a small market. The job would not be a path to anything other than the chance to do something I’d never done before and to work along side someone for whom I held a genuine respect and fondness. I took the job and instantly The Audio Observatory was transformed. It was impossible for me to review tube gear in my own journal. My readers objected, but from then on I confined myself to reviews of solid-state gear. It was an unsatisfying turn for my association with The Audio Observatory but I knew it was the right move for me at the time.
Working with Roger was never dull, never easy, often frustrating yet frequently entertaining in a way that’s hard to describe. We met two Mondays a month, always for lunch. The day went like this. I’d hit the road from Valencia around 10 a.m. and look to arrive at Roger’s house in Santa Barbara around Noon. His mood upon meeting me at the door determined a lot. Sometimes I could tell that he’d been waiting for me in a kind of intellectually anxious way. Perhaps he’d read something that annoyed him but didn’t quite grasp in a way that satisfied his reasoning. Other times, I would be met with an air of frustration that he tried to hide behind a futile mask of cordiality. I could sense his dissatisfaction simmering. Sometimes I could find a kind of voice for whatever was gnawing at him and sometimes it persisted right on through our initial meeting, our lunch out, and our after-lunch meeting. Those could be some long-ass afternoons.
Still, I treasured our meetings. Roger Modjeski was a consistently fascinating person to hang around with and our customers loved his gear and the tubes he tested. And, I learned a lot. No, I didn’t learn many of the kinds of things that were very likely to improve my financial fortunes but I didn’t care. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was learning to do things I wanted to learn how to do. Roger wasn’t what anyone was likely to call a traditionally good teacher. Still, I learned a great deal from him and also from myself. Roger liked to say that pretty much every success he ever had at Music Reference and RAM Labs came from doing something for the first time, and learning from the mistakes that first effort had brought to light. Mistakes never pleased him, but he knew they were an unavoidable part of learning in the same way he had learned.
The greatest challenge for Music Reference was production. As much as Roger loved design and engineering he hated manufacturing. I’m not sure if he always hated it or whether the years of coordinating everything it took from a taking a product from concept to final testing fell on him. Either way, manufacturing was a constant topic. Roger wanted a production manager who could take over the most onerous duties. That would free Roger to develop new designs and also to do the kind of extended travel he believed the ongoing day-to-day demands of the business prevented.
One of my first bits of inexperience was exposed by my belief that finding the right candidate for the job would be doable if not easy. Music Reference and RAM Labs were located in Santa Barbara and I figured that between UCSB and Santa Barbara City College there would be a good number of qualified applicants in the area. I was wrong. Roger and I interviewed a number of candidates and one seemed less likely to be able to do the job or even to truly understand the substance of the job than the next. It was a sobering experience.
I met Graham Hardy back in my early days as a reviewer. He partnered with Kevin Halverson in the design of the legendary Muse Model Two Digital to Analog Converter. The Model Two was a ground-breaking product. It was the first DAC to show (to me, anyway) that digital could someday rival, and possibly exceed, the fundamental fidelity and musicality of the finest analog systems. Kevin might dispute this, but I believe it was the Model Two that really put Muse Electronics on the map back in the early 1990s.
Here’s where things start to evolve and worlds began to clash. Graham was an avid reader of The Audio Observatory and liked to question me about what I regarded as the essential musicality of a vacuum tube system. His curiosity got him thinking about designing a tube amplifier of his own. Graham had a particular design goal for his amp. He wanted it to be able to automatically bias its output tubes.
It will be as if there are eight little audio nerds living in each amplifier chassis, constantly turning tiny screwdrivers keeping the output tubes in a state of perfect bias. -Graham J. Hardy
That sounded cool to me though I had always enjoyed biasing tubes for myself, in very much the same way I liked checking my car’s oil level and tire pressure. Still, Graham was passionate about the idea. His enthusiasm brought an idea to mind; could Graham be the production manager for Music Reference?
I thought about it for weeks before I brought the idea to Graham. It turned out he had been independently hoping I would set up a meeting with Roger. In hindsight that motive, on Graham’s part, should have been a warning. Graham was looking for affirmation that his concept was impressive to a respected, even legendary, designer of tube gear. He also wanted to prove to himself that he could slip from the digital world to the analog world and still do valuable work.
Roger didn’t have a problem with the meeting. All of the failed interviews with would-be production managers had worn him out and put him close to giving up on the idea that finding a decent candidate was even possible. We picked a date and Graham and I headed north to Santa Barbara. I knew that it would be a waste of time to make any attempt at coaching Graham about how best to present his ideas to Roger. I also knew that Roger could be a little bit like a roulette wheel when it came to how he would receive someone new. Roger was always cordial. He’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia and I always felt that a certain kind of southern gentility influenced his behavior. He was never loud or contradictory and he could be an excellent listener. But, once he knew that the person he was speaking to lacked a full understanding of what was being discussed he would begin the dissection just to make sure. He did this by asking one seemingly simple question after another. I regarded those questions as if they were the coils of a python; at first it felt OK but then it would get a little hard to breathe. Just when the person being questioned started to figure out what was happening, that answers to important questions had been fumbled, the end of the interview would come mercifully.
The interview went terribly. Roger started questions with phrases like, “You do understand…” -and- “Certainly you’re aware that…” When Roger asked, “Do you realize that capacitors in this kind of circuit will each discharge at different rates while music is playing?” I knew full well the interview was over. The Oxford PhD in physics, the genuine honest-to-God, card-carrying rocket scientist from JPL, had been laid-low by the soft-spoken electrical engineer from the University of Virginia.
Graham seethed all the way back to his house and about an hour later when I finally got home to my house I had a message from Roger on my machine. When I called him back, he thanked me for bringing Graham to Santa Barbara to meet with is. But, then he said, “You do understand that there’s no way I can work with him, right?’
So then back to the inexorable passage of time. The 1990s ended and then my marriage ended and finally my friendship with Graham came to a coda brought about by his poor behavior when he drank and finally by his subsequent move to Washington. I missed him, but being around Graham was like being close to a moving fire. It was only a matter of time before it became uncomfortable and a painful burn was sure to follow. All that said, I still miss him to this day. He always was, in his way, a great and dedicated friend.
Even more time passes. It’s New Year’s Eve 2017 and I was sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi having a late-night cocktail when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman who answered told me she was calling about Graham and the water in the tub suddenly felt as cold as the desert’s winter air as it swirled around me. I knew before hearing the words exactly what she was going to say; Graham had finally killed himself.
Without being told, I knew that he had shot himself.
Without being told I knew the gun he pulled the trigger on was very likely one he had bought from me in the months after I was divorced.
Without being told I knew that this was by no means the end of the story.
Another reason the woman had called me was to enlist my help in getting one of Graham’s unfinished designs through final engineering and manufacture. I was astonished but I was also intrigued. I thought to myself, what were the odds that this design would ever surface again, especially after Graham’s death, and that I, of all people, could be the point of nexus required to get it to market or see it consigned to the ash heap of never-produced high end design??
Still, still; it was a very odd thing to consider. Graham’s amplifier, and especially the work he’d done on it after the time when he’d vanished from my radar, comprised a kind of vendetta against Roger Modjeski. There was no way for me to know if Graham had, against all odds, overcome his limitations as a designer of tube gear and created a viable circuit for today’s market. Then and now I say that the odds were against him but that doesn’t make such a design an impossibility.
Graham’s amplifier was made to look like a Music Reference amplifier. Roger liked to say that he had designed Music Reference amplifiers, especially the RM-9, to look as if they had been built by someone in his garage, but by someone who had access to certain elements of construction that would never be attainable to someone building something by himself. It was one of the first products to use a 6061 T6 aluminum top plate. The nomenclature was done in a technique called Anofax that would never wear out the way conventionally silk-screened lettering would. Each of the three transformers were hand-wound by either Roger or a technician who made guitar pickups for Seymour Duncan who Roger had trained in the exacting art and science of transformer winding. Once wound, the transformers were vacuum potted into enameled transformer cans. It was a tricky, laborious and time-consuming process from start to finish.
Graham’s amplifier had double the number of output tubes (per channel) of an RM-9. It also had a T6 top plate and a wooden frame. The power and output transformers were made by a company called Plitron which has a somewhat mixed reputation. A written description of Graham’s amp and the RM-9 could lead one to believe that they looked similar to each other, but they didn’t. Still, it was clear that Graham’s design was directed at what Roger Modjeski had created all those years before.
No one will ever know why Graham didn’t finish the design himself or build the production amplifiers. For a time, even before he moved to Washington, he had a created company of sorts and a website, but there was never a product available to buy. When I learned that the prototypes had survived him I considered making the effort to hear them for myself, but I didn’t really want to. In the end, I believed it was very unlikely Graham had achieved a working version of his auto-bias function and, even if he had, I was even more doubtful he had achieved a musically viable product in what was his first attempt at designing a tube amplifier. It just ain’t that easy.
Still, I feel an odd and somewhat uncomfortable connection to Graham’s design. It had been so long since I had spoken to him it was as if the amplifiers were all that were left of him, and even they were incomplete. Somehow the amplifier’s design didn’t feel genuine. It didn’t feel like something that had been created to bring better sounding music to people’s homes. Somehow it felt hard and hollow and empty. I admit that I may be missing something about Graham’s amplifier. Perhaps he achieved far more than I’m giving him credit for, but I’m actually quite comfortable never knowing the answer.
There’s another irony to all of this. A while back I called Roger Modjeski to let him know about Graham’s passing and the amplifier he designed and built. But, Roger didn’t remember the fateful meeting. Even after I reminded him about the specifics, he simply didn’t remember. In the end, the meeting simply hadn’t meant anything to him. And, for Graham, even though he acted as if the meeting had meant a lot, he wasn’t able to find a way to directly benefit from it, or even to see it as a light that showed him a way forward. Graham could only find a way to feel dismissed and minimized even though no one had sought to make him feel that way. Without trying to win, or even knowing there was any kind of competition, Roger had won. In his effort to prove himself as the equal of his own education and professional stature as a physicist and engineer Graham had lost and, even worse, he had undermined himself and his mission in the process. What an terrible waste of intelligence, energy and potential.
Today, after all these years, there’s an effort underway to get Graham’s amplifier built. But, I still wish the whole thing just felt better to me. I wish Graham had been able to create out of a heartfelt desire to build something better rather than a pitiable need to be proven correct. More than that, I wish he had been able to live his life to its full measure. Who knows what he could have achieved had he simply given himself the occasional luxury of being wrong and the right we all have to learn from our mistakes and move on.
With that, I’ll give Graham the last words one final time.
Any good Englishman would rather be right than happy. – Graham J. Hardy
Shinola is a fascinating company with a name that is, for me anyway, a little odd. I mean, come on; we all know what rhymes with Shinola. They make all sorts of interesting things from watches to wallets, from turntables to speakers, all assembled in their factory in Detroit, Michigan. The Canfield Over-Ear headphones are Shingle’s circumaural headphones. From a design standpoint the Canfield Over-Ears straddle a modern look with classic headphone shapes, contours and lines from the days of old. They are very solidly constructed. The lambskin ear cups are especially luxurious. The Canfield Over-Ear’s contemporary lineage is confirmed by the presence of an inline volume control and the fact that the (rather shortish) cable is terminated with a 3.5mm plug, though a good quality .25″ phone plug adapter is included.
Before I get into what it’s like to use and listen to the Shinolas I want to comment on its connectors. Disclaimer: I am a unreasonably obsessed by connectors and signal path issues. I accept the fact that the 3.5mm plug has become a kind of de facto standard when it come to the majority of headphones we use today. From this, I exempt really high end headphones which may operate in a fully-balanced mode and so may use XLR or other connectors that accommodate that topology. When it comes to the Shinola Canfield Over-Ears there are female connector jacks on each earpiece. So, there are soldered connections on each earpiece and another soldered connection on the other end. On one hand, this affords the user with an interesting opportunity; this configuration makes it easy to use another cable (that’s similarly terminated). Just pick your brand or make your own cables. The Shinola’s make swapping cables easy, if potentially costly.
Under the best of circumstances you’ll be dealing with a significant number of extra solder points and plug-in connectors. That is not a recipe for a typical high end implementation. If Shinola is using what they consider to be good quality wire I would rather they ditch the female jacks on the earpieces and solder those wires directly to their drivers or crossovers. It’s a tough situation. I can see the advantage of what they’re doing but the downside, especially for a pair of $450 headphones, is significant.
The Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones are excellent. They are truly full-range and offer exceptional dynamic capabilities. But, maybe unfortunately and maybe not unfortunately, they do require some significant care and feeding. When driven by purpose-built headphone amps of commensurate quality the Canfields can dazzle. But, when driven by a phone or computer the Shinolas can sound a touch heavy. This problem results from a contemporary belief that’s poorly founded. The belief is that even the finest headphones can be happily driven by even the most modest of amplifiers. Quite simply, they can’t. A $450 pair of headphones deserve proper amplification.
When properly driven, the Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones sound marvelous. They are detailed, yet unfatiguing. They handle large dynamic swings with ease yet always preserve a deft portrayal of acoustic delicacy. The midband is slightly shelved back but vocals, both female and male, are always rendered clearly and with great articulation. The bottom end extension and impact are superb, easily besting my other reference headphones that are similarly priced. The Shinola’s even challenge significantly more expensive headphones, and they do so with a sense of ease and a lack of strain. The top end is smooth and extended if a tad soft. Every product is voiced and Shinola clearly voiced the Canfields to be kind to recordings that are not exactly what most would call high fidelity. All in all, though, the Canfields are superbly musical headphones, especially considering their price.
These Shinola headphones are beautiful and obviously lovingly assembled and finished. And, they look as if they would be quite comfortable to wear. The earpieces rotate freely and the length of the headband adjusts readily as well. I found it easy to adjust the Canfield Over-Ears to the point where they fit me just right. The texture of the lambskin ear pads is decadently smooth. My guess is that they’ll feel even better once they’re broken-in; rather like a fine baseball glove. The headband’s padding could be a little wider and more compliant. Since these are heavyish headphones their mass is concentrated on a relatively narrow area of the head. Could they be even more comfortable? For sure. Perhaps Shinola will reevaluate this as they evolve their headphones down the road.
As they are, the Shinolas are amazingly good headphones even in what is a very competitive section of the market, price wise. For a new company, they are a nearly miraculous product. I have every confidence that Shinola will better the Canfield Over-Ear headphones if they decide to stay in the headphone game. In this case, more than in other headphones at this price, the rewards you reap with the Canfields will have a direct relationship to the quality of the device that drives them. I, for one, do not see this as any kind of shortcoming or disadvantage. Think of it as a part of the price you’ll pay for enjoying the musical refinement that Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones can attain.
The Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones are very much worth the effort.
Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013
I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.
Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.
Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.
Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.
Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”
Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.
“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”
Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”
For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.
Brooks always took his work very seriously.
When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”
“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”
Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”
I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.
The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.
Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…
It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.