Making It Good, Getting It Great
When I bought my first pair of Acoustat Model 1+1 electrostatic speakers (I now have three pairs ) they sounded so bad that I called their designer, Jim Strickland, told him that I must have gotten a defective pair, and demanded that he either replace them or give me my money back.
The sound was so awful – no bass, no treble, no volume – that my first thought was to compare them to a shirt-pocket transistor radio, but even that was too generous: They sounded just plain bad, and that came as a total surprise to me. I mean, it wasn't as if I had bought them completely unheard: The truth was exactly the opposite.
About a month before I bought them, I had been to Christopher Hansen's hi-fi shop in Beverly Hills and auditioned the then-newly-released, Apogee ribbon speakers (which, if I recall correctly, didn't yet even have a model name). When I heard them, they were, as I remember, just the "Apogees", and I liked them well enough that – even at $15,000 a pair -- I was prepared to buy them on the spot.
What stopped me was the hi-fi salesman who, when I said, "I'll take them", undoubtedly pushing for a bigger sale, asked me what kind of amplifier I planned to drive them with and, when I said "a Hafler 500", told me that that wasn't good enough and said that, unless I bought a better new amplifier, he wasn't going to sell me the speakers. That did it. When he said that, I was sufficiently offended that I thanked him for his time, and simply walked out of the store.
I still wanted the speakers, though, and decided to buy them somewhere else. That wasn't easy, however. There wasn't another Apogee dealer around, so where was I going to get them?
Aha! It was late November of 1985, and the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show was only about a month away. That was a Trade Show and I wasn't in the industry yet but I knew people who were. if I could just manage to wangle a pass to get in....
And that's exactly what happened. A friend of mine got us passes and I and my wife went to Las Vegas with a budget of fifteen grand for speakers and the intention of buying whatever was the absolute best pair we could find up to that price point.
Surprisingly, that didn't turn out to be the Apogees, although they remained – along with a pair from Thiel – near the top of our list. Instead, after listening to just about everything at the Show, we both agreed that the Acoustats were the best thing that we had heard. No, not the highest-priced 4+4s, which "beamed" like crazy at higher frequencies, but the under $2,000 1+1s which, because of their tall, very narrow stance, allows for not only broad, flat, detailed frequency response, but a wide and thoroughly usable "sweet spot".
That was why, when I bought them and they sounded actively bad, I was so completely surprised and called their designer. When he told me, though, that there was nothing wrong with my speakers – that electrostatic speakers are essentially just big capacitors and, like any other capacitor, need to be 'burned in' to achieve full performance – I believed him, gave the speakers a few days to "cook", and, well, as I've told you, I now own and am thoroughly pleased with three sets of them.
When that happened, though, it got me thinking: When Jim Strickland came up with his first electrostatic speaker design, did he already know that it wasn't going to sound good until the speakers had a few days of playing time on them? And, if he didn't know that, what was his response when his brand-new design turned out – at least apparently – to be a "dud"?
What Did He Do?
But that brings up the same question again: If you design a product and it doesn't immediately sound the way you expected, how do you know what to do next? Do you start swapping components as was done with the different preamp tubes (it's called "tube rolling") or do you just let it burn in some more? Or, as is becoming almost as common as rolling tubes, according to my designer friend, John Curl, do you start "rolling" capacitors? Or resistors? Or something else?
How do you know when to stop? Or, for that matter, if it sounds wonderful as you've initially built it, how do you know that it won't sound even better if you diddle with it some more, trying different components or even a different circuit?
When I was in the aerospace business, there was a thing we called the "Engineer's Syndrome", which was that, if left to do it, the engineers would never finish a design, but would keep on diddling with it forever, always in hope of finding one last improvement, innovation, or production economy.
The fact that we have finished products today, as good as they are, and in the profusion and diversity that is available to us is because of the skills, wisdom, and creative genius of the people who not only designed them and stuck with them until they were finished and good enough to compete – and even get awards – in today world of High-End audio, but who knew when it was time to stop and...