Review by Blackie Pagano
Ahhh, marketing. She never seems to sleep, our constant companion, she teases, comforts, threatens, cajoles, disgusts, inspires us. We have become culturally dependent on her - she dominates our popular entertainments, we sneak her into the movies, regurgitate her favorite phrases in conversation, wear her sly face on our clothes. We are her Pygmalion and she our bitchy muse, the hip chick who can not get enough of our attention, ingenuity, or cash. In cahoots with her we have spawned an entire culture of delights and snares.
Nowhere is this culture more evident than the high-buck world of audio. An industry of billions, audio is a wild amusement park of exotic and beautiful products, chicanery, technical innovation, snobbery and creativity. Carnival barkers vie for our wandering gaze by any means necessary, borrowing tricks from each other, spawning new ad fads and techniques in constant progression. Got Milk? Got (your product here)?
The Self-Published Authoritative Tome genre is a perfect example of this copycat commerce-cum-culture. Would-be author/engineer/sellers mix sales and science with widely varying degrees of success and appeal. Rosenberg’s fruity hedonism, Manley’s lab-coated product brochure, Pittman and Weber’s folksy medicine show, O’Connor’s open-minded wealth of ideas, Wright’s musical enthusiasm... and now Rosenblit’s cranky propaganda. In a stark departure from his previous book, the solid, well organized, informative and respectful A Beginners Guide to Tube Audio Design (Old Colony Press 1997) author Rosenblit strikes a style that is an ugly blend of Infomercial and UnaBomber Manifesto. From the first page to the last, this amphetamine spider web of a book is a jumble of breathless egomania, joyless condemnation, rambles into previously explored, tired and rudimentary aspects of audio science, and cynical and artless promotion. Rosenblit’s creative engine appears to be a quest for immortality and a disdain for all things audio - designers, builders, engineers, audiophiles, sellers, all of which he happens to be. At the heart of this writing lies a massive delusion. He’s Lex Luthor convinced that he is Leonardo.
Rosenblit’s myopia is evident from page one. In the intro we meet the author as a teen Lusting after groovy gear he can not afford. Lashing together cheapo kits for lack of jack, the seeds of his resentment planted and germinating. He moans that “Sadly, due to changing times and people’s interests… the kit powerhouses of the past have disappeared, eliminating the traditional low-cost entry into the hobby." (did Rosenblit forget about the Audio Notes, the Electric Tonalities' and Carys of the world? --ed)
The cluelessness of this comment is staggering. Kits are currently in a Renaissance. Old school ultralinears, by-now-familiar single-endeds, experimental parafeeds at multiplicity of prices and topologies are originating all over the world and are easily available. Dennis Had of Cary Audio, in the current Stereophile, claims sales of “over 5000” of his US made dual-single-ended 300B kit. Likewise, the state of purely home-brew DIY has never been more robust with a vast literature and an explosion of resources - Internet dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, schemata and parts for sale. Rosenblit ignores a leviathan in his haste to paint himself our last good hope, and - soften us up for the pitch.
And what a weary freakin’ pitch it is. I’ll boil it down for you - it’s the old “truth” ploy, used to give fun and frivolous items the appearance of solidity and essentiality since advertising began, at this moment enjoying renewed popularity in print. Cigarettes that are “No Bull”, beer that is “What’s True”, vodka with “No Pretenses”, vitamins that are “True To Life”, myths debunked, truths revealed, yada yada yada. Yep, the old “this is the truth” line. Perhaps the grandest and most obvious lie ever attempted by the huckster designed to give the impression that the hype isn’t. In this particular book we catch this old whore out behind the barn with it’s cousin, the “cheaper is better” line. You know the one - the NADcom nexus has successfully plied it for years, churning out proudly mediocre products that have all the charm of a bar code.
In the opening pages we learn that “…most of the economic woes that high-end audio is currently experiencing are… caused by a severe lack of innovation resulting in no new product for consumers to get excited about.” Wha..? This, at a time of burgeoning digital technologies, Internet music formats, recent exploration of the excellence of the past (triodes, etc.) combined into fresh topology approaches with the cutting edge components of the present (new advances in electrolytics, low noise diodes, current sources, chips and transistors), transformer technologies developed to a fine art, and the overall hyper-speed pace of development?
The text next plods through a discussion of Audio Science 101, stopping frequently to advance dubious and generic opinions that overlook nuance. Quaint, difficult to handle screw terminals are labeled “superb for speaker connections", while audiophile grade lugs are chided for “cause[ing] more problems than they solve”. Common coaxial cable is favored across the board over “the many interconnects sold in today’s market that have no shielding” because “If eliminating the shield improves performance, this indicates that the signal source is not properly designed to drive a reasonable amount of cable capacitance”. Differences in the capacitive effects of cable insulation are termed “negligible at audio frequencies”. These (and other) fast-and-loose value judgments are presented after we are told “The information… here is scientific fact, all drawn from standard textbooks and professional references.” (i just wish the high-end would eliminate the RCA for something like the CAMAC or BNC. The RCA is a crappy interface if there ever was one! --ed).
Part Two of this book, entitled “Projects”, begins with a gutshot overview of the construction process. Drilling, driving a screw, filing, soldering, the most mundane basics of metalwork and wiring are exhaustively covered - except for a few things a novice builder would absolutely need to know. Conspicuously absent is the key concept of layout, something no constructor can successfully ignore. Also MIA is the question of chassis thickness - aluminum is strongly suggested, not for its superior electrical properties but because “steel is hard and leaves sharp little slivers… I don’t enjoy bleeding”. Unmentioned is the fact that most commercially available aluminum chassis (Hammond, Spire) are not nearly thick enough for the mounting of heavy transformers. First time hobbyists are left to discover these biggies for themselves.
The “Projects” section of this book continues with five schemata and design commentary preceding each. First the author shows us his flagship OTL, which, in contrast to his previously stated philosophy that “simplicity is the keynote of design”, is far too complex for a novice builder. Couched in crude flackery (“This is it! It doesn’t get any better than this”) this OTL is based on a bizarre misconception - that Class A operation, repeatedly proven to provide the most linear operation in audio tubes, is a capitalist hoax:
Other designs include two variations of a high bandwidth preamp adapted from instrumentation (a line stage and a phono stage), a conventional high powered push-pull pentode power amp with tube-regulated screens, and a cathode-drive parallel-single-ended that, though novel, has some suspicious features. Noteably, an output trannie with “the lowest retail price on the market, which has as much to do with my choice as anything else”, “several damping networks needed to stabilize the circuit… [which] suffered from parasitic oscillations”, “compensation to minimize ringing at the expense of bandwidth”. It is difficult to reconcile these things with the claim “I’ve fixed the problems inherent in single ended amps”, the best of which never require such kludges.
After a superfluous printing of the Transcendent Sound Inc. OTL patent in its entirety we arrive at the concluding comments. They feature an obvious discussion of the failings of mass marketing, more promotional rhetoric, and the weirdest passages yet - a heartfelt sharing of some “unforgettable moments” in which the author breaks down audio preferences by race.
Finally, the inevitable Transcendent Sound product offering. The presentation of these, the subjects of many paragraphs of hyperbole, is decidedly underwhelming. Senior Science projects with an immodestly proportioned logo, photographed in miserly lo-res black and white they fail to excite in spite of the heading "Now that you've read about it... Understand and appreciate it... Want it more than anything... Go ahead - Buy it!".
I don't buy it at all, and you probably won't either. Any truths that are revealed within this slim, typo-ridden, 30 dollar tract are slumming - rendered guilty by association with the whacked-out ideas they are hanging out with.