There’s something happening and I like it. More pro sound companies are making consumer and even high end products. When it comes to cables it’s easy to see the appeal. The pro stuff is lots cheaper. But what if it turns out the pro cables are better, too?
I can see the word Mogami forming on your lips, but no. No matter how many people talk about it, Mogami is simply not all that. But, there’s a new cable on the block and their stuff is excellent. The company is Coluber Cable.
Coluber came to my attention while I was evaluating the superb new EL DAC II+ from JDS Labs. As you can see, JDS does their DAC’s balanced-out via 1/4 inch TRS plugs. My guess is they do this because it takes up less real estate on the relatively small rear panel of the DAC.
So, I needed a pair of very short cables with a TRS connector on one end and a male XLR on the other. No problem, says Coluber! They made the cables for me, custom, for a price that was little more than the cost of the rather dreary WJSTN cables from Amazon. Hey WJSTN, might be time to head back to the marketing squad and come up with a better name! The simple fact is Coluber offers a cable (and connectors) of fantastic quality yet with customization options that extend all the way to color (yes, I like to being able to identify my cables easily).
How does each cable sound? The WJSTN, while arguably passable in a pinch, was possessed of a slightly threadbare midrange and a tizzy top end that spoiled things. Worst of all, the XLRs on the WJSTN are poorly dimensioned and fit overly tight. Unlike many connectors there are actual dimensional specifications for XLRs. Sadly, WJSTN isn’t following the spec. By comparison, the Coluber sounds silky smooth and is very quiet, just like a balanced cable should be, and they fit perfectly on both the TRS and XLR end.
I’m already preparing my next order with Coluber. My only wish is that Coluber would make a speaker cable of similar quality. But, even if they never do, I’ll keep coming back. Coluber’s products are simply too good to ignore.
For the last year or so I’ve been reconfiguring the way I listen to music. It’s been a gradual process but like a number of other things in my life it’s accelerated toward the end of this year. I’m doing what I can to make my collection portable. The Great LP Rip of 2022 has been a big part of that. While I have no intention of selling or giving up my LPs I also don’t have a great interest in significantly increasing the size of my collection. Those days are gone and even though I do buy an occasional LP my purchase of digital music either in CD or iTunes or Bandcamp exceeds those by at a ratio of at least 10 to 1.
Of course I own a record cleaning machine! I mean, who doesn’t? Very few people keep their records as they should and since nearly all of my newly-acquired LPs are used, proper cleaning is a necessity. I’ve owned my humble black Nitty Gritty Model 1.0 for a long time. It’s the very essence of simplicity, which I like. NG makes much larger and more elaborate models but all of them share the same vacuum. Am I really so lazy that I need something to spin the LP while I clean it? Almost, but not quite.
I was cleaning a record yesterday when I realized that I was missing my genuine NG cleaning brushes. They’ve been MIA for a minute now and I’ve been using folded microfiber cloths as a cleaning applicator. But, the LP I was cleaning was actually dirty, as in I could see dirt on it when I was at the record store. If I had not also seen the alluring sheen of what I call Inky Black vinyl underneath I would never have taken the chance on it. Come on, this is David Lindley…the only David Lindley LP I don’t own! The only question involved what to use to actually clean the grooves? I’d been reading about various new and old products, all of which promise to safely plumb the depths of the fragile grooves while removing harmful detritus. One had a crowd-funding effort that caught my eye. I’m not going to plug it here since the guy who developed it isn’t smart enough to set up a website to sell it or even to reply to an Instagram message. But, he made a good point about the diameter of bristles on most wet-cleaning brushes. He pointed out that the most popular material, goat hair (go figure) has a typical diameter that exceeds the diameter of a typical groove. Now that got my attention. He also made points of the facts that typical velvet cleaning pads lack the necessary groove-reaching length and that velvet inevitably compresses over time. Points taken. Too bad the guy won’t sell me one.
Everyone has heard of and some even do the unthinkable. They clean LPs with a combination of diluted Dawn and a toothbrush. Beyond the fact that Dawn is a detergent the surfactants of which can easily break down the PVC of an LP. Bad idea. And, a typical toothbrush would probably bring all of the disadvantages of a goat hair along with enough stiffness to create its own scratches. But, what about those super-soft, ultra-fine toothbrushes I’ve been using for the past decade or so, the ones people think are for little kids? I say sheer perfection if used carefully. The results on the LP at hand were amazing. Do I recommend their use? No way. Like I said, very few people take proper care of their records and I’m not going to be the guy to tell the careless to use something that could damage their LPs when employed by the careless. I’m still researching brands. In the end, I may buy 5 toothbrushes, cut off the heads and glue them onto a piece of wood. It’s yet another work in progress. By the way, I only use NG Pure 2 cleaning fluid. Accept no substitutes.
While I was researching brushes I came across a really entertaining blog. The guy’s in the UK and he reviewed not only a goat hair cleaning brush but also his Moth MkII cleaning machine. Even if I don’t agree with the ethos of his overly complex cleaning machine the guy wrote some great stuff about the joys of buying used records in the UK. It’s too bad that he hasn’t posted since 2017. Maybe the muse will strike him again someday.
I’d like to share an email I sent him the other day:
I’ve been enjoying your blog for the last few days now. Some great stuff there. I’ve only returned my limited attention span to my vinyl of late. I’ve been wanting to rip them for a while but I kept stumbling on the method I would use. I finally decided on one over the summer and it’s coming along Ok. I’ve no intention of selling or disposing of my vinyl, I enjoy playing it too much. But, it’s very cool to be at my girlfriend’s house, and mention some obscure LP, and be able to play it for her using pCloud (which I highly recommend, aside from the annoying name). I don’t anticipate growing my collection much anymore. A few have survived, enough to fill my beloved Per Madsen rack. About 1,500 were lost in a flood (read: plumbing debacle) a decade and a half ago. They didn’t just get wet. I could have dealt with that. No, the flood was caused by a burst hot water line from old galvanized plumbing. So, rusty water climbed onto the records and then particles dried into the grooves. While it was possible to remove individual specks of rust it always left a scratch. Truly, each affected LP was a total loss. The idiot from the insurance company tried to offer $500 which was quickly increased to a dollar a record. I finally settled for $4.50 a record which in those days (LPs were not worth then what they are now) was not a terrible deal. Still, what a mess. Pisses me off to this day.
The first piece of yours that caught my eye was about the Tonar Goat Wet Cleaner brush. I have a beloved Nitty Gritty record cleaner but somehow all of my NG brushes have gone missing. In their absence, I have used very good quality microfiber cloths as cleaners and the NG to dry. I thought to myself that surely someone has come up with a better brush by now. The goat hair deal does not get me going, however. I had an intuitive sense that the diameter of the goat hairs themselves were unlikely to plumb the depths of the LP’s grooves, and I think I am correct about that.
I woke up with an idea. I’ve used these super soft toothbrushes for years. I mean they are SOFT. Most people who see them assume they’re for little kids but au contraire. Best of all, the actual bristles are exceptionally small, around .08mm in diameter, that’s what makes them so soft. Anyway, I bought a fairly old LP today that was genuinely dirty (as opposed to typically dusty). Even though it was dirty it had a really nice inky blackness that I always associate with good pressings (this example was from New Zealand) and then used the NG fluid and a new super-fine, super-soft toothbrush.
The results were really good. I mean, I’ve always gotten good results from the NG but this was significantly better and this record was dirty.
So, not so much a recommendation as a thought. It’s amazing that there are still Parastat brushes floating around on Ebay…used, no less. No thanks. I have uncontrollable images of someone using them on their toilet or dentures. I’m not sure which possibility is more distasteful. So, I’m a toothbrush man from here on in. My plan is to buy a 5-pack, cut the heads off, and glue them to a piece of wood or plastic and voila!
I also love your stuff on used records. It seems there is little difference from the UK to the US in this regard. However, there are even more of what I disparagingly refer to as tweak shops here in the US. Shops that put on those silly outer sleeves and charge triple what an LP is worth.
I divide my LP buying among a triad of local shops. One (Deadly Wax) is very local to me and owned by a really nice fellow. Aside from his reticence to create a Folk section his store is hard to complain about until you see his prices. They usually make me wince a little but occasionally I’ll find something and I’m glad to part with my dough since he’s such a good guy.
The second place (Canterbury Records) is in Pasadena, where my girlfriend lives. It has scads of potential but is really a disaster when it comes to browsing. The owner has literally tons of records. But, many are hidden away on mysterious shelves below the shelves.
No, you may not look through those records.
And, no, you may not buy those records under any circumstances.
You see, the genius owner has yet to evaluate those records, nor will he ever, most likely. The available stock is still huge but I seldom find anything there and usually leave muttering about pretty much every aspect of the store.
My favorite is CD Trader (unfortunate name, I know) in nearby Tarzana. Yes, that part of Los Angeles is really named after Tarzan. Hey, it was Hollywood! Anyway, it’s big but well organized and has a nice blend of the costly and the not-quite-so-costly. Plus, the guys at the counter are always kind and know their shit. When one of them saw the LP I had he called out, “Cool! Only pressed in New Zealand, right?” “Right,” said I, impressed with the latest example of the legend of record store clerk wisdom.
They do, also, have a lot of new vinyl and I’m sad the young little dipshits who buy them think the prices are acceptable. On the other hand, perhaps they are. The first LPs I bought back in the 1970s cost $3.99 and I was making a little less than $3.00 an hour at the time. Now, I see new LPs starting at around $18.99 with some inexplicably priced at $24.99 and above. Minimum wage in California is right around $15-16 today so I guess the inflation is not totally insane, but it seems like it is.
Finally and most importantly I am wondering what caused you to stop posting, if in fact you have? This vinyl resurgence can’t (or at least I don’t think it can) last forever. It’s a great time for guys like you to shepherd the clueless to happiness or at least away from the kind of confused foolishness they will suffer in other corners or the internet, especially as regards vinyl. None of my business. I’m just asking blogger to blogger. While I still blog I know the self-imposed pressure to post and I, like perhaps you do, chafe against it.
Anyway, I think you bring a wise and entertaining voice to something near and dear to my heart. Thanks for making the effort!
The internet is an endlessly fascinating place. It has made finding new wonderful musicians easy and immensely satisfying. I could not begin to name all of the musicians who have crossed my path, quite by accident, over the last decade or so.
The odd thing is that occasionally one of them (or two in this case) will go missing, leaving only the music that led me to them in the first place.
The first is Brendan Campbell. He may have had another record at some point, but the only one I know of is Burgers & Murders. I’m listening to Pleiades right now. This guy is so gone that he doesn’t even have a licensing deal with iTunes anymore. I found that out when I realized that none of his songs were on my iPhone. Had they not been downloaded to my MacMini years back that music would have been gone, maybe forever.
The other musician is even more obscure. All John Danley left behind are a handful of videos. He was (is?) a wonderful finger-style player. From what I’ve been able to find he’s totally done with the whole music deal. The last reference I saw about him mentioned that he’d turned to a career in psychotherapy.
A handful of years ago, he had a working website. What must have happened for him to let both his website’s eponymous domain and the site itself slip below the electrons of the internet? I just don’t get it. It’s just too easy and inexpensive to keep a website online to let one slip away. I actually mentioned Danley’s name to Will Ackerman a couple years back, along with a link to one of his videos. I had a kind of fantasy that Will might have recognized Danley’s talent and would want to set about using his industry connections to get him discovered, but Danley’s anonymity remains frustratingly intact.
How many more wonderful musicians am I doomed to find and lose? To put a tiny spin of optimism I could say I’m fortunate to have found Danley & Campbell at all, and that’s true. It’s always hard to keep from wanting more, I suppose.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. Had I been willing to let this post wait until tomorrow I would have done a better job. For some reason tonight the WordPress desktop app will let me do everything but write a post.
The optimist would say how lucky I am to be able write what I have on my phone.
My favorite watercolorist is also my friend, Alba Escayo. She and I go way back. I think we found each other on Elance which is now Upwork. Yup, a classic internet mogul move; change a good name to a lousy one. Alba lives and works in Spain. She created the cover on my first novel and I wanted her to create the cover on Cottonwood as well. I’m always grateful she’s younger than I am because it means she’ll be around to create the cover artwork for every book I write, if she’s willing and I am able.
I had an idea that involved a Cottonwood tree and a figure carrying a golf bag and walking away from the viewer. From underneath the tree, the figure reaches up and touches the low-hanging leaves. The idea of the walking away is that the figure is walking into the future, like all of us. The figure is faceless. It could be anyone. It could be one of the characters in the book but then again maybe not. No matter who it is, he reaches up to touch the tree, to touch a growing life.
I sent Alba an example of my idea but I did a bad job of explaining my vision to her. Probably I was in a hurry or maybe I thought we had discussed it more completely last time we emailed about it, over a year ago. She sent me this a couple days ago:
Now I have a problem, not a bad problem mind you, more like a decision. This is not at all what I had in mind, but I love it. It’s not a golf book so I had no intention of having an image of someone swinging a golf club on the cover, but there it is. And, now that it’s there, it has me doubting my concept. I’ve been reminding myself of some of my best non-advice advice:
It doesn’t really matter.
Of course it does, but maybe not. I wanted Alba to create the cover because I love her work, and this is her work. Now I find myself hesitant to continue to foist my vision on her, especially after she’s blessed me with this beautiful creation. My concept is not the idea of a visual artist but rather of a lowly writer. Part of me is screaming at myself to leave the artwork to the artist, and that is definitely Alba and definitely not me.
But we are talking about me. So, in the end I couldn’t help myself and I emailed Alba with my thoughts. As I said, I love the cover she’s done, and I want it, and I’ll pay her for it gladly. It will hang proudly over my desk and I will smile each time I see it. It may not end up being the artwork I use on the cover and then again it might be.
The decisions made in writing a book, especially a self-published book, go on and on. I’m very happy that no matter what decision I make about the cover art, the work will be Alba’s and it will be fantastic because it is hers.
Today’s writing soundtrack is an elegant 1974 record by Bills Evans called, Symbiosis. It is some of the best of jazz and classical (read: orchestral) music I have ever heard. It is melodically and rhythmically evocative of both times and places I’d like to be. I know a pianist who doesn’t think much of Bill Evans’ work from this era, but I think it is wonderful. Maybe you will, too, so take a listen.
I know I’ve mentioned this before but I want to get into it again, at least briefly. The purpose of this journal is to keep my writing brain sharp while this eventful year makes it way toward the next. Behind this is a belief, really a profound optimism. It is the optimism that says that I have more books to write, better books at that. I suppose there’s no reason to believe it. After all, most writers are winding down by the time they’re 60. There are exceptions of course, but as is always the case the exceptions involve the work of exceptional writers and that ain’t me.
Still, the optimism persists. I can’t identify its source but I can feel it.
So this journal, even though it costs me a few hundred words a day worth of time and effort, is intended to help be stimulate my tiny writer’s brain toward finding what’s next for me. For the most part, the journal is for me. It’s about what I’m thinking or imagining or worrying about. Today was a typical Saturday. A weekend day of awakening late and listening to the oral arguments in the Supreme Courts cases involving the federal vaccine mandates, especially Biden v. Missouri. Eventually, I did drag myself out of bed and started my day but it was quite late. I looked ahead to a Zoom meeting I had with one of my clients in Japan, the maker of a high end putter. The meeting was scheduled for 4pm my time so I kind of set my whole day up so I could deal with the meeting and the fifteen minutes that I estimated it would take.
Wrong. It took nearly an hour and left me contemplating an explanatory email to make all of my verbal meanderings more comprehensible to my client. Sure, his English is about a million times better than my Japanese but my ongoing estimate of the instances wherein what I say is wholly understood by him seldom exceeds 30%, and I am not being unduly pessimistic.
See? My optimism extends beyond my creative writing and into my day job. What can you say about someone who thinks as I do?
Tomorrow I will meet the morning with breakfast followed by the crafting of my email to my client, who is meeting with his investor on Tuesday morning, which of course means Monday to me also meaning I cannot put it on ice over the weekend. But, even though winter get’s me sleeping more I feel good about my overall energy level. Things seem possible, if challenging, and everything seems designed to push me forward to destinations unknown and I certainly like that.
By the way, I know I have already blown my promise to myself from yesterday. Rather than finishing today’s post before the sun went down I started this right before 11pm…again. Well, there’s always tomorrow. But I will tell you this; there’s nothing like the last night flow when it comes to writing, at least mine.
Speaking of flow, today’s writing soundtrack flows from last night’s. It’s Bill Evans Interplay Sessions from 1962. Come on; it’s Bill Evans at his peak. Plus, it includes some of the only playing from Freddie Hubbard I actually enjoy. If you like jazz but have never heard it, buy in now. If you’ve never really listened to jazz but want to try it to see if you like it, this is some of the best you’ll ever hear and it’s as accessible as it gets. It’s just beautiful stuff from the first track until the end. Is it better than Evan’s 1976 Quintessence? We can argue about that another time.
In my life I’ve stored music on LP, CDs and cassettes. 8-track? Nope, I never went down that rabbit hole, not even in the bad old days of Madman Muntz. Cassettes are miserable. They suffer from nasty compression (though some like a more compressed sound) but, worse, even commercial cassettes were prone to stretching and print-through. I did have an early fondness for making my own cassettes from radio broadcasts of classical and jazz back in the 70s. Some of them sounded Ok, especially when they were new. I found a cache of them in the basement of my parents house when they died back in 2008. I thought, for a brief moment, about trying to play one of them but quickly thought better of it…another rabbit hole avoided.
Me? I choose bigger and better rabbits holes like LP, CD and now digital music. LPs used to rule my world like dinosaurs. It was very difficult to listen to CDs when you have easy access to a quality LP playback system and good LPs. But, CDs got better and at a fairly rapid rate. Digital music is hurtling forward in quality. Even everyday bluetooth (especially later versions). Technologies like Qualcomm’s aptX will just keep on coming. Now, just as a brief reality check even aptX taps out at the limits of commercial CD (16 bit / 44.1 kHz) which is good but even better is sure to follow. This reality causes my enthusiasm for LPs to hold steady if not lose a little steam. Hey, as luscious as LPs are to hold, play and listen to I don’t like the feeling of emphasizing the medium over the music.
Good LPs, those pressed from virgin vinyl are extremely durable. I have records from the 70s that have been played thousands of times that still sound fantastic. The records themselves will certainly last well over a century (absent another flood). Until recently I’m not sure the same could be said of CD. Some early CDs suffered from fatal de-lamination. I have no doubt that the materials will be stable for the same century plus. The encouraging recent development I referred to earlier was the sudden increase in the availability of new one-box CD players. For a while it was looking like buyers would have to settle for a DVD player (until those went the way of the dinosaur) or a more elaborate and expensive two-box (transport/DAC) solution. I haven’t heard any of the new CD players but I’m sure they’re all good to excellent. Everyone has access to superb chips today and that’s a win for everyone. My suspicion is that most two-box solutions from smaller companies use chip sets that are inferior to those used by the big boys. That’s just how it is when it is comes to digital. If you can’t buy in quantity you have to get by on less.
So, both CDs and LPs are archive quality. But both formats take up space and it’s starting to annoy me. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about where that annoyance is taking me.
By the way, it hit 64 today with 70 on tap for tomorrow. I like the sound (and feel) of that!
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
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.