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?’

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.

RM9
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

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Last week, my dear friend and fellow jazz-lover, Eric, told me about the movie, I Called Him Morgan. It’s a fascinating film about the short, brilliant life and tragic end of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan. It’s an amazing movie full of fantastic music, and interviews along with lovely black & white photographs. Many of the photos clearly showed the trumpets Morgan played at various stages in his career. I recognized a Conn 8B, a French Besson Brevete and what I’m almost positive was a lowly Olds Ambassador. My guess is that the Olds was the lone survivor during Morgan’s hard times when his more valuable instruments likely found their way into the local pawnshop.

It’s always a sad day, especially for such a great musician, to give up a special instrument.

Me? When I was in junior high school I got really lucky when it came to trumpets. When I was in 7th grade our junior high school got a new music director. The outgoing teacher was a local legend and the 8th and 9th graders had come to love and respect him. The 24-year-old newcomer inspired great skepticism from the older kids but I liked him right from the start. It was easy for me to like him because he liked me so much. We had a kind of simpatico especially about music. He taught me a lot about jazz, different recording techniques and the acoustical qualities of concert halls. He had been a successful musician before he decided to become a teacher and he taught as if his students all felt the same as he did, and all had the same ambition to play professionally. But, though his attitude was contagious to me, not everyone caught the passion.

He thought I had talent and told me as much. I can recall his note on my first report card. Talented! Should have private lessons now! Kind of heady stuff for a 13 year old just learning to play the trumpet. I’d been struggling with a school loaner trumpet up until then. Even though I was a beginner I had a sense that the humble Buescher was making things harder than they needed to be. The new music director was horrified by the dismal condition of the school’s instruments. There was no money (has there ever been?) for new instruments so he encouraged students who he thought had talent to coax their parents into buying them a quality instrument. He knew that money was going to be an issue with the average parent so he cultivated a relationship with a local music store called, Zep’s.

Zep was a somewhat grizzled old reed player who owned a tiny store in Burbank that was stuffed, floor to ceiling, with some of the finest woodwinds and brass instruments available anywhere. One day, the new director drove me to Zep’s after school he had me try a number of different trumpets. Every trumpet I tried was freer-blowing than the old Buescher and every one sounded and felt different. It was quite a revelation. They also cost a lot of money. I didn’t know much, but I knew that a $750 dollar instrument was totally unrealistic for me.

So, I struggled along with the Buescher. Still, I loved to go to Zep’s. I was there when Amy, who would go on to play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, got her Armstrong flute and when Patricia picked up her beautiful Buffet Crampon clarinet. Both girls were genuinely talented and driven musicians. I loved hearing them try different instruments and hearing the way they described the differences between different brands and models. Sometimes the differences were subtle and other times they were obvious. Our new music director was endlessly patient. We’d often be at Zep’s for hours and he never, ever seemed to be in a hurry.

I was hanging around the music room one Friday when the director asked me what I was doing on Saturday. I told him I had a baseball game at 3 in the afternoon but I wasn’t doing anything until then. He told me he wanted me to go with him to Zep’s; there was a trumpet there he wanted me to try. By then I had played a bunch of professional instruments. There was the ubiquitous Bach Strad which I always found to be a tad stodgy sounding and feeling. Then there was the flashy King Flair with its clever (or so I thought at the time) first-valve trigger. My early favorite was the Benge. It was sleek and smooth both in sound and action. But, it cost even more than the other totally out of reach trumpets. Still, I was very intrigued by what he wanted me to play.

Zep had been expecting us and as we walked toward the counter he went into the back room and emerged with an unmarked, black case. He opened it, exposing the luxurious dark blue drape of the velvet lining. The trumpet beneath was unlike any I had ever seen. It was a silver Schilke B5. I could see that it was used, but it was in perfect condition. At the time, I had never heard of Schilke, but Zep knew all about it. “Schilke’s back in Chicago. He makes pretty much all of Herseth’s trumpets,” Zep said as he took the trumpet out of the case. I took my mouthpiece out of my pocket and vanished into the practice room with the Schilke. It felt light in my hands and the trumpet looked beautiful. The main tuning slide was staggered and the only engraved markings were the words, “Schilke, Chicago USA” on the second valve and the “B5” mark on the lead pipe. Years later I adopted the look of the Schilke’s classic engravings for a putter design I was involved with, but that’s a story for another day. A lot of trumpets had garish engravings on their bells. I never liked the way that looked. The Schilke was sleek and clean from every perspective and it played amazingly well and sounded even better. Still, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was there. Even used, an instrument like that would be far more expensive than anything my family could afford.

The funny thing was that the music director didn’t seem concerned and he never spoke to me about how much it cost. He just watched and listened to me play, finally asking me if I liked it. Who wouldn’t? He then asked me if I wanted to borrow it for a couple weeks. I was so enthralled with the instrument that I said yes without really thinking about it. While we were driving back to North Hollywood in the director’s cool Audi 100LS he told me the story: The Schilke had been owned by a local session player who had just landed a gig that included a Holton contract for the entire trumpet section. So, one day while the player was at Zep’s trying out mouthpieces he asked Zep if he knew of a promising student who might enjoy the Schilke. Zep called our director and there I was riding home with the Schilke. The truth was that my family still had to come up with $150 to buy the case. Believe it or not, even with the amazing value of the trumpet explained, it still wasn’t easy to get my mom and dad to pony up the $150, but they finally did.

Even when I was a kid I had a tendency to write letters to people I didn’t know so a few weeks later I wrote a letter to Schilke at their old address on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Little more than a week later I got a handwritten letter back from Renold Schilke, the founder of the company. He confirmed the year my trumpet had been made and its exact specifications. He also wrote some advice about the preferred valve oil needed for an instrument that was built to such tight tolerances. In fact, I had already learned this having tried some standard valve oil only to find the action of the Schilke slowed badly. Having that letter from Schilke bonded me to that trumpet for a long, long time.

Schilke
Renold Schilke

I wasn’t the only kid who got lucky when it came to trumpets. One of my close friends was a nice little guy with a sharp crew cut named, Harris. We started out together in kindergarten and we soon learned that we lived right next door to each other. He and his family had come to the US from Israel a couple years after he was born. His father was an electrician who loved exploring California’s great deserts and searching for what Harris liked to call Thunder-Eggs. All through elementary school Harris would bring in beautiful geodes for Show & Tell. He and his father would search out the rough looking stones in the desert and bring them home before cutting them in half to reveal the hard, colorful crystals within. All these years later I’ve come to enjoy the desert in many of the same ways Harris and his father did nearly 50 years ago.

Like me, Harris had been saddled with a nearly unplayable school trumpet. His father had a different solution; pawn shops. He and Harris scoured the many pawn shops on Van Nuys Boulevard until one day he showed up at school with a beautiful instrument made by Calicchio in Hollywood. It was a beautiful trumpet, heavier than my Schilke, and with a slightly darker sound and a smaller bell. The Calicchio was older than my Schilke and the valves were a touch slow and the third slide was sticky. Harris wanted to take the bus down to have his trumpet looked at by the folks at Calicchio in Hollywood.

One Saturday we planned out our trip and headed south. I think it took three RTD buses to get from North Hollywood down to Calicchio’s near Hollywood & Highland. Calicchio’s shop looked like an old house. The only evidence we had actually found the right place was one of those old black signs you might see in a deli that showed the hours. The sign on the door said simply, Calicchio. We walked into a dimly lit room with a wooden counter on one side. In the corner was a simple glass case with a trumpet inside. A few minutes later an old man walked up to the counter. Harris put his case on the counter and started to explain about the valves and the third slide. The old man put his hands out, indicating that Harris should hand him his trumpet, which he did. The old man held the trumpet up, checking a couple of the braces. Then, he took a cigarette out from under the counter. He looked at both of us gravely and said, “Not for smoke…” We didn’t get what he meant right away but then we did. He didn’t want us to think that he was going to smoke. Instead, he took a quick drag and blew the smoke into the trumpet and then he depressed the troublesome third valve. He vanished for a few minutes and came back out with a brazing rod, a small torch, a tiny leather mallet and a small hammer. For the next 15 minutes we watched as he repaired a brace and tapped a tiny indentation out of the third slide. He showed Harris the evidence of the braze. It was almost unnoticeable. Anyway, Harris had intended to have the trumpet re-plated so the repair would be invisible once it was done. Harris tried the third valve slide that then happily held any position yet moved freely and he smiled at the old man. Then Harris pulled out his wallet and unfolded a check signed by his father made out to Calicchio. The old man bowed his head slightly and turned it slowly from side to side. Then, he shook hands with each of us as he smiled for the first time. As he shook our hands he said, “I am Calicchio.”

pic_manwithtrumpet (1)
Domenick Calicchio

“I thought he was only the repair guy, ” Harris said once we got outside. “So did I!” All the way home we wondered out loud how old Calicchio was and whether there was anyone back there to help him build the trumpets (there wasn’t) and whether he lived in that little house (he didn’t). No matter our petty questions, I believe we both had a sense of how special our brief encounter had been. We were only 13 going on 14 but we knew without really knowing why that we had been around someone who possessed an enduring connection to the instruments he created and that somehow that had connected him to my friend in a precious and unique way.

I lost track off Harris after high school. I think about him from time to time and I miss his smile and good nature. Neither of us ever got any good at playing trumpet, but we kept trying right on through high school and, in my case, college. Of course, Renold Schilke and Domenick Calicchio are now long dead. Trumpets emblazoned with the names Calicchio & Schilke are still made today, and I’m certain they are fine instruments. But, none of those trumpets have ever been held in the hands of anyone who shares their name. I find it sad that the Calicchio website doesn’t even have a biography of the great and humble man behind the name. The website has a section called tradition but virtually nothing about the man who made the Calicchio name relevant to musicians while he lived and the continuance of his name, as a brand, viable now that he’s gone.

Still, I’m grateful that in 1974 my friend Harris and I owned and played instruments that were true extensions of the men who had designed and built them. That kind of connection seems all too rare these days. I don’t know where Harris is, or whether he still plays his Calicchio. But, I’m certain he would recall that day as clearly as I do and likely still revels in the bond created by a simple handshake and his own connection to a master trumpet builder.

 

 

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Role Audio Sampan Music Box Review

In the beginning, there were speakers, big speakers in the corners of a living room, and the sound was good. The problem was that having a pair of Altec Voice of the Theater speakers meant for a severe intrusion into the typical living space found in an American home. But, for the next forty or so years, we coexisted with big speakers and big amplifiers and managed to enjoy our music despite the fact that our speakers weighed as much as a golf cart.

Thank goodness for the internet.

The internet has brought us a great deal of convenience along with everything else, both wanted and unwanted. For someone who works at home as I have for most of the last thirty years the ability to get proper music off of the internet proved to be elusive until very recently.

Bluetooth audio was OK but the sound quality of even the best bluetooth speakers is still marginal. Think of the the sound of AM radio when you think of bluetooth audio. Still, Americans want it all even as their living spaces get smaller. Fortunately, WiFi gives us the potential to get a little closer to the sound we want and the Role Audio Sampan Music Box takes full advantage of WiFi’s promise. The Music Box is a 42 by 5 by 4.5 inch box that sits happily behind my Mac on my faithful (though plain) 62 and 31.5 inch Ikea work table. Its slender, stealthy black enclosure looks sharp against the light red faux veneer that Ikea does so well.

For most of my review period, I’ve used the Music Box with my new Chromecast Audio which is very cool indeed. If you’ve yet to buy one you owe it to yourself to try one. It’s a little miniature hockey-puck-shaped device that sets up in a breeze and has proven very reliable. It’s the opposite of obtrusive.

I also used the Music Box directly from my CD player as a kind of resolution reference point. Lastly, I used the Music Box directly from my trusty 64 GB iPhone 5 and an ancient iPod I have laying around. In any case, a wired connection to the Music Box is simple. You can also use a stereo mini plug on the front or traditional left and right RCAs on the back.

musicbox-chrome-sht
Chromecast Audio atop the Music Box…Photo courtesy of Role Audio

I wasn’t really thinking about testing the dynamic capabilities of the Music Box when I first hooked it up, but the music playing seemed to demand it so I figured I’d crank the little guy up just for fun. Wow. The Music Box can play quite loudly and without a hint of strain. The benefit of matching a speaker’s design to the 100 watt amp is clear.

Still, I ramped things down for a few hours. The Music Box had just bumped its way across the country all the way from North Carolina and it seemed wise to let it settle in before doing any careful listening.

First up was Jim Steinke’s Finland Road Song from his Playing by Heart CD (Blind Guava Music OWR 0077). This is an amazingly well recorded HDCD of some superb solo guitar music played by a little-known virtuoso. The tracks are unique for their ability to capture transient attacked without a trace of electronic artifact. Through the Music Box the sound is clear with a great sense of presence to the plucking of the guitar strings.

The Sampan Music box should not be thought of as just another desk-top speaker. Its voicing is far more sophisticated and resolving than that and on this point I think mentioning a little set up care is in order. First, even though it sounded good when I sat closer to it, I try to stay at least 3 feet away from the speaker when I am putting forth an effort to listen carefully. Second, I find that the vertical listening axis is somewhat important. A little rearward tilt makes the upper mids sound more integrated with the lower treble making voices more natural.

Speaking of vocals, one of my critical tests for the Music Box came on Call it a Loan from Jackson Browne and David Lindley’s Love is Strange record (Inside Recordings INR5111-0). A couple minutes into this track there is a brief but exceptional bit of harmony between Browne and Lindley. David Lindley is singing in full voice, which he does rarely but always to great effect. A good speaker like the Music Box can at once separate and define each voice, letting the tones and timbres stand apart, yet blend sweetly in harmony. The voices need to sound at once as one and separate and the Sampan Music Box pulls this trick off nicely.

More of the this rare brand of musical integration is heard when I play Iris DeMent’s Broad Gold from her record The Trackless Woods (Flariella Records CD-FER-1006). The first part of the track blends DeMent’s voice in its lower range and piano. With the Music Box, her voice never seems pushed forward or pulled back. The presentation is solid, stable and musical. It’s easy to forget the gear and lean back and enjoy.

The Sampan Music Box remind me of my B&W P7 headphones except that my head doesn’t get tired when I listen the music box. It has the same crisp, clear ease to its sound and superb integration. Everything is there and easily discerned. I regard both devices at once as a reviewer’s tools and wonderfully musical components anyone can enjoy.

The simple fact is that you could easily build a main system around the Sampan Music Box. In any configuration it has the capacity to come very close to the dynamic ease you’re used to hearing from traditional two-speaker stereo systems that are far larger and cost far more. There’s very little from a musical standpoint it can’t handle, and handle with ease.

If you simply want better sound in your office or den, or if you finally want to get rid of those huge Altec Voice of the Theaters your wife has been threatening you about, do yourself a favor and give the Music Box serious consideration.

No matter how you use the Sampan Music Box you will be amazed by the quality and quantity of music it can bring into a room and your life.

Role Audio Sampan Music Box Review

1994 High End Amp Designers Round Table Discussion

Back in 1994, I moderated a discussion of high end amplifier designers:

Amplifiers have always been the products that have made icons of audio designers and engineers. Companies like Krell, Threshold, Audio Research, and VTL have, in a way, helped to define this industry. For a number of reasons, amplifiers are easy to view as being the most significant link in the electronic aspect of the audio chain. The Linnies tell us that the source, be it LP or CD, is the most significant qualitative link of the audio chain. Many meter-dulled objectivists would have you save money on electronics while spending freely on speakers.

What do I think?

To be truthful, I don’t know. My basic belief is that amplifiers are the most critical (note avoidance of the word important) device in the audio chain. The amplifier is literally and figuratively caught in the middle. It cannot reproduce more than the upstream components pass on to it, nor can it control or drive the loudspeaker to a level that is beyond the latter’s electromechanical potential. Further, it is the only device in the chain that has to deal with a potentially wild and varying electrical load, in other words, the typical audiophile speaker.

So, there, in the dark, sits the lonely amplifier designer. All the while asking himself, “What kind of load will my baby have to drive?,” “What if bipolars really were the way to go?,” “Will this single-ended craze last?” TAO is all about observations. The observations in my reviews and articles are purposefully limited to descriptions of the musical potential of the audio gear I evaluate. And while my technical competence may actually be somewhat greater in reality than I let on in print, I still believe that mine should be largely a non-technical presence.

Still, technical issues are of great interest to me particularly as they concern amplifier design and philosophy. So, I sat down and did some pondering. What questions can I come up with that will tend to reveal the thought process that goes into a successful amplifier design? What’s more, who will answer them?

The respondents to my questions are some of the best audio minds I know. Some of their names will be well known to you. Others may be new to you.

They are:

Kevin Halverson / Muse Electronics

John Kovacich / Pointsource Audio 

Eric Lauchli / Coda Technologies

Paul McGowan / Genesis Technologies 

Nelson Pass / Pass Laboratories

At the outset, I’d like to thank all of these guys for their willingness to take part in this humble survey, and for simply taking the time to respond to my questions.

The Round Table will be divided over three issues with each designer answering the same two questions in each installment.

Here are the questions for this issue:

Question 1: In amplifier design, science never really separates itself from art. To what degree are your design decisions based upon what you can hear versus what you can measure?

Question 2: As a follow-up to the first question, if you could only make three measurements of a design’s electrical performance what would they be and why?

QUESTION 1

Kevin Halverson As for the question about which skill (art or science) is most important in the design of hi-fi amplifiers, I would have to answer science. This is not to say that art does not play a strong role in my designs. If, for example, I find during listening that an aspect of what I’m hearing is either better or worse, no amount of artistic knowledge would do anything to assist me in understanding the phenomenon. Similarly, no amount of science will do anything to enhance my listening skills. If, by your question, you are suggesting that there is a fundamental conflict between what one hears and what one measures, I would reply that there is not, provided that one knows where and most importantly how to look (measure).

John Kovacich Since it’s quite easy to create audio equipment that has good specifications, there is no reason not to at least try and design amps and other products that look good on paper. Unfortunately, specifications and what you hear don’t always go together. In other words, a product can spec-out very well and still sound poor. Of course, we have to ask ourselves, does the product truly sound bad or is it simply revealing problems in the rest of the system that a lesser amp would obscure? For instance, some people believe that tube amplifiers sound superior to solid state because they are better in design, and their poor specs don’t mean anything. Other people feel that tube amps sound better because they create a pleasant sound. The key word being, create. Mainstream designers generally design for specs and then assume that their products will sound good.

Audiophile designers generally design, then listen to the product with little concern for specs. Now, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Can they really hear any difference? Since none of these listening sessions are done in a double blind fashion, they are, from a purely scientific point of view, invalid. I have heard many differences between designs but could never reliably and consistently pick the superior design when denied the right to know which circuit I am listening to. Secondly, should the amp be transparent? Or, should it rather reflect the designer’s personal opinion of what the sound should be like? And, if the amp reflects the designer’s point of view, that point of view may or may not be consistent with your own.

Eric Lauchli Without a good technical understanding and adherence to reasonable measurement standards, a truly fine amplifier is unlikely to result. Having said this, number chasing can be and often is sonically disastrous. I must admit to using a considerable degree of intuition while designing, though this mental process is difficult to fully explain. An elusive but important concept seems to be design elegance. This is a characteristic of designs solutions which are both simple and powerful, while yielding overall circuits that can be said to be much more than the sum of their individual parts.

Paul McGowan This is awfully tough for an old goat like me to answer because so many of my decisions, both technical and sonic, are based on my years of experience in both realms. Where the specific knowledge comes from (for a given situation), meters or sonic experience, is not always clear.

As an example, my sonic experience tells me not to use a lot of global feedback because I know that it will typically make the amps sound bright and hard. There are also very good technical arguments against excessive feedback as well (TIM, SID). However, it would be the sonic experience that would lead me to pursue a low feedback approach.

Still, measuring is a tool that I use in virtually every design that I undertake. I measure so that I am sure not to stray too far in any one direction. I make sure that the THD hasn’t strayed too far under load. I look for ringing on the square wave under different conditions. I keep an eye on the damping factor (to make sure that there’s enough). I measure frequency response to make sure that there are no anomalies. I look to be sure that the noise floor is low enough, etc. Still, I rarely use my instruments as part of my basic design decisions.

For me, designing an amplifier starts out as a philosophical exercise and develops into a product when I can come up with enough simple and elegant solutions to the problems inherent in the chosen philosophy. Philosophically, most of my designs come out of a desire to correct a fundamental question or problem. The things that interest me are the most basic problems of amps that may entail a bit of new thinking. I get excited when I attack fundamental problems.

Nelson Pass I care so little about subjective versus objective arguments that this is all I offer: Listening is a measurement, and in high end audio is the most important measurement. Not all the art is in what you hear, and not all the science is in what you measure.

QUESTION 2

Kevin Halverson As for simply picking three measurements, I must admit that I would not allow a product to go to market if I were allowed only three measurements. Each and every product should be evaluated based upon several factors including: intended application, design expectations, and most importantly a typically elusive path whereby prior measurements lead to new discoveries. No two products will ever undergo the exact same regiment of tests. Rather, each product, having an individual character, will require a different approach in order for the designer to feel confident that all aspects of the product’s performance meet the intent. I might also add that I strongly endorse the use of blind listening tests. While these can be very humbling experiences, I always come away with a greater sense of understanding and validation.

John Kovacich I would make all the standard measurements, then I would make some special ones that I feel reflect the real world a little better. First, I would use a square wave, not a sine wave, at the input and I would use an actual loudspeaker or an equivalent circuit for the load. I would measure the level of each harmonic at the input and then at the output (their amplitude as well as their phase). This test would show how the amp does under complex signal as well as complex load conditions. Then I would use an actual piece of music as the source and a loudspeaker for the load. The test would consist of measuring the input and the output using a simple null test. This test would show how the amp is doing under the most realistic of conditions.

Eric Lauchli The direct, simple and inherently linear nature of our designs make ordinary THD measurements surprisingly useful, particularly at high frequencies and with a distortion waveform displayed for careful examination. High frequency square wave testing, especially into reactive loads, can reveal much about an amplifier’s stability and composure under transient conditions. A plot of output impedance against frequency and power level can help predict if an amp will remain stable and linear into any load.

Paul McGowan Frequency response, square wave performance, distortion. Frequency response: It has been my experience that as long as there are little to no restrictions in frequency response between 2Hz and 50kHz that the ear will not detect any anomalies. Square wave performance: This, to me, has proven to be extremely valuable. I can tell all kinds of things from an amplifier’s square wave performance. Ringing of the square wave is a key to a number of mistakes that an amp can make especially when a capacitive load is added to the output. A spike on the square wave’s leading edge can also spell big sonic trouble if not addressed. Typically, this relates to some feedback type problems. Also, the actual quality of the square wave is important in how gently it maintains its shape when the frequency rises, etc. Distortion: I use a spectrum analyzer to view distortion products. If the distortion rises over 0.1%, I get concerned. Another factor is the harmonic structure of the components. Odd order harmonics do sound worse than even order products.

1994 High End Amp Designers Round Table Discussion

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 Amazon.com 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