Better Right Than Happy: A Cautionary High End Audio Tale

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.

TAO Masthead
The TAO masthead, original artwork in ink, by Mimi Sheean

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.

The original brochure photo for the classic RM-9

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.

Graham's Amp
Graham Hardy’s cosmetic prototypes

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










Better Right Than Happy: A Cautionary High End Audio Tale

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings

From time to time I get emails asking which recordings I have used when I write reviews and why. I usually keep this type of information to myself for my own odd reasons.

But in this case, I will relent: 

In the early 70s, before the term audiophile had come into common use, a recording was made that unknowingly adhered to every audiophile convention that are now the subject of so much of the hype that infects today’s audiophile labels. The record is Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise RS 6376). First of all, this LP is among the last of the big label LPs that were lovingly pressed on only the finest vinyl. My pressing is pushing 30 years old, is free of pops and ticks, and tracks just as it did lo those many years ago. Here we have the most challenging registers of the female voice, trading focus with cello, clarinet, piano and more. Can you hear the shadings that make the clarinet stand clear from the voice? Do you hear the floor boards resonate beneath the cello? The truth is in the details, and this LP has a wealth of them. The recording is beyond reproach, and the compositions are sublime and timeless. The bad news? This baby will be very hard to find in decent condition.

Sorry for follow up one needle in a haystack LP with another, but this one is another LP that will become an essential part of your collection, if you can get a hold of a copy. It is the 1984 release by guitarist George Cromarty, Wind in the Heather (Dancing Cat Records {a division of Windham Hill} DC3001). This is an amazing collection of short solo guitar pieces. Each of the 13 original compositions are melodic masterpieces in their own right, and the recording is simply lucious…easily the finest recording of acoustic guitar that I have ever heard. The mastering was done by Bernie Grundman and you will never hear a cleaner pressing. Like the Mitchell LP, this LP is invaluable for listening to a system’s critical ability, or sometime unfortunate inability, to render both a natural sound space and retrieve the essence of the acoustical truth of the music. Does the guitar emanate from clear space, or does it seem bound to the speakers? Do the overtones of each note connect to the fundamental pitch of the note, or does one come from here and the other from a over there? Acoustic instruments demand coherence, and this is always a challenge for a multi-driver loudspeaker.

But what, you may ask, about the non-acoustical truth? Find yourself (this will be much easier) a copy of the 1975 classic from Steely Dan, Katy Lied (ABC Records ABCD-846). Again, here we have audiophile sensibilities before audiophile pretensions. The back cover of the album notes not only the use of a Neumann VMS 70 lathe, but also advises strict adherence to the RIAA curve. Who says the ‘70s were an empty decade? This is great stuff, rock with wit and intelligence played by some of the hardcore studio guys of the era (including Rick Derringer, the late Jeffery Porcaro, and a pre sellout Larry Carlton). My friends, these guys could play. If your system is unable to play “Chain Lightning” with Derringer’s sharp & wicked guitar riffs and Porcaro’s thundering drum fills both loudly and with ease please resign as an audiophile and take up bowling.

Here’s something you can buy new that represents the state of the art in vinyl today. The artist is Sonny Landreth, bayou slide guitarist extraordinaire. The LP is called Outward Bound and you can buy a new pressing of this from none other than Classic Records (RTH1032-1), and while you can also get it on CD, why would you? For a modern rock recording, Outward Bound is dynamically challenging for a system. The players showcased here don’t spend much time tacking it easy. Mastering, once again is by Grundman, and while the pressing is good, it doesn’t measure up to the oldies that have discussed previously in this section. Again, this material needs to be recreated at full volume, yet always in complete control and with all of its original tonality and timbre intact.

The language of audio (and now video) is critical if we are to make ourselves understood. The bad news is that most of our vocabulary is borrowed from photography and other visual arts. Terms like imaging and focus really have no place in a audio, but they have become terms of art that we all use without thinking about them. Even the oft used term bright refers to brilliance of light rather than anything even remotely related to sound. Still, it’s just too late to buck the semantical system, so here are some notable CDs that I use. Please note that some of these will be easy to find, while some a bit rare.

A good starting place is as their search system allows you to find CDs by a number of different criteria from performer, piece of music, ensemble, label and catalog number. Tone, timbre and ambiance: Three tests, one CD One Minute and thirty-four seconds! The Cowboy Junkies / The Trinity Sessions (RCA 8568-2-R) Track 1: “Mining for Gold.” This classic traditional tune, sung a cappella by Margo Timmons will tell you more about what your system can and can’t do than any other minute and a half of recorded music can. It was recorded using the famed (notorious?) Calrec Ambisonic microphone in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. What you should hear, what you must hear, is the sense of the church’s physical size and space even before Timmons starts to sing. In the center of the space you should hear Timmons’ earthy, smoldering yet sweet voice at once anchored and yet floating in the center of the soundstage. Can you hear it? If you can you’re already most of the way there. If you can’t, well, “Houston. we have a problem.” Until you can get this most basic test right, your system will be stuck in neutral.

Midrange pitch precision and speed of attack and decay: Laurel Zucker & Susan Jolles / Images for Flute & Harp / Sonatine for flute & harp Victor Frost (1952-) (Cantilena Records 66016-2) Track 14 Moderato e deciso. Lots of luck finding this gem…it took me weeks to find it. The flute and harp cast their notes squarely on pitch and the interplay between the distinct voices create quite a challenge. Listen for any tendency for the flute to sound wispy or tonally dispersed. It is not a function of the recording. The harp’s strings start and stop quickly so any sense of slowness or muddying tells you that something bad is happening. As an aside, this is a truly fine piece of modern classical music in a sea of amusical junk. This CD is worth the trouble of finding it, and trouble you will have.

Small scale ambiance & image placement: Gabriel Fauré The Two Piano Quartets / The Ames Piano Quartet (Dorian DOR-90144). The entire CD is the very pinnacle of the genre in both performance and recording. A good system has to place each of the three string instruments in their own sound field with the piano well focused, yet expansive. A weak system will have the notes of the piano jumping (seeming to come from different positions as the pitch changes) and the strings may become crowded together or unnaturally spread out. Again, not the easiest CD to find, but it’s out there and in print.

Large scale ambiance & image placement: Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet in G minor / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude MCD 10018). Again, not an easy one to find but a treasure. To my knowledge, the only current release featuring Schoenberg’s orchestral transcription of this seminal piano work by Brahms at the height of his creative powers. The job of recreating the sense of a full orchestra in one’s listening room is at once irresistible and impossible. The scope and sweep of the dynamics are just too much, not to mention the sheer space and complexity that the music presents. Still, we must try: What we want here is a sense of size and majesty without strain. A great system will be able to approach this ideal and lower volume levels and the poor system won’t be able to get it right at any level. Listen also for a natural portrayal of shifts between the loud and the soft and everything in between. Any tendency to draw the presentation of the music toward the speakers, like light from a flashlight, is bad and is illustrative of a system that has reached its limits.

Dynamic shifts, tonal consistency & complexity: Beethoven-Liszt Piano Transcriptions Symphony No.6 / Glenn Gould (Sony SMK 52639). Want to hear Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony as if for the very first time? That’s what it’s like to hear this wonderful Lizst transcription of this sadly overplayed, yet marvelous piece. By giving a solo piano virtually all of the symphony’s themes, Liszt strips the melodies and harmonies of this piece bare. One can hear much further into the piece without all of the timbre and voices of the full orchestra. A system will also reveal if it has any problems recreating a sense of tonal complexity without a feeling or tendency toward confusion. Gould’s playing and the recording are beyond reproach. A superb system will keep the tonal nature of the piano consistent whether the notes are played fast or slow, loud or soft. How does your system capture these essentials?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling of recordings I trust to ask and answer basic questions of essential system musicality.

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings