Issue 209 January 20011
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
Many of the founding companies of the high end as we know it today were established in the 1970s by a single designer/visionary/entrepreneur. That means the companies are about 30-to-40 years old, and their founders are now in their late 50s to 70s. This math has profound implications for the future of these iconic companies and for high-end audio in general; the company founders are approaching the age at which they are unable to continue leading the firms they started, or must sell the companies to fund their retirements. As these founders retire (or pass on, as happened last year with the tragic loss of Jim Thiel), the future of these foundational companies becomes uncertain.
Or so the conventional wisdom held. This gloomy scenario, discussed in quiet tones among industry insiders, is simply not coming to pass. Not only are the great high-end companies surviving without their founders; they are creating products that reach new levels of achievement.
Two products reviewed in this very issue exemplify this trend: the Audio Research Anniversary Edition Reference preamplifier and the MartinLogan Summit X loudspeaker. Audio Research was founded in 1970 by William Zane Johnson, who single-handedly designed nearly every ARC product during the company's first two decades. Once while touring Audio Research in the mid-1990s, my guide and I stopped unannounced in Johnson's office. On his computer screen I saw not spreadsheets, financial data, sales projections, or business plans, but a tubed amplifier schematic. Audio Research was William Zane Johnson. But the company gradually brought in other engineers who, mentored by Johnson, learned the hard-won lessons of creating great-sounding circuits while bringing fresh new ideas to the mix. As Johnson became less involved with the company these younger engineers assumed a greater role in product design. After Johnson sold the company (he's now 85 years old), the products were designed entirely by the newer generation of engineers. Throughout all this, astonishingly, the "sound" of Audio Research products never wavered from Johnson's vision; there's a distinct family resemblance stretching all the way from the SP-3 to today's Anniversary Edition Reference preamplifier. Moreover, the Anniversary Edition Reference is by far the best-sounding product the company has ever built. Not only was the legacy handed down successfully, but the new corporate owner maintained the culture that brought the Anniversary Edition Reference to market. You could have listened to every tubed preamplifier model made by ARC over the past 35 years (as Jonathan Valin has, by the way) and be unable to identify the point at which the baton was passed.
The second example from this issue is the MartinLogan Summit X loudspeaker. Established by Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland in 1982, MartinLogan was another founding member of the great American high-end audio movement. Although Sanders left the company when he sold it to a holding corporation (Sutherland had left earlier), MartinLogan has continued to refined the basic electrostatic-driver technology Sanders and Sutherland pioneered in the late 1970s and early 80s. With greater resources for research and development, MartinLogan turned out better implementations of the original innovations. The new MartinLogan electrostatic panel is significantly improved over its predecessor (compare the CLS to the CLX, for example). In addition, the Summit X's woofer and enclosure designs are light-years beyond those of previous MartinLogan hybrid products, and the Summit X's crossover uses a clever technique to create a seamless blend between the electrostatic panel and dynamic woofer. Despite the innovations brought to the technology by the new design team, the Summit X wouldn't exist without the seminal efforts of Sanders and Sutherland.
A third inspirational example of a foundational high-end company that successfully made the transition to new leadership is Magnepan. Founder Jim Winey pioneered ribbon and quasi-ribbon loudspeakers in the early 1970s, and today his son Mark has not just kept the company on course, but has introduced designs that outperform their predecessors. A case in point is the stunning Magnepan 1.7, a loudspeaker that is in every way a huge leap forward over the 1.6.
It is too soon to tell if these examples point toward a trend, but they nonetheless provide hope that decades from now the great legacy created by the founding fathers of high-end audio will live on to be enjoyed by future generations of music lovers.
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