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Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Chapter 1 Part 3

A Tiny History of
High-End, & Ultra-Fi

by Lynn Olson


The Yuppies Invent Boutique Audio 

After the flurry of advanced theory faded out in the mid-Eighties, the leading manufacturers turned instead to a heavy-metal approach, led by the cost-no-object full-time Class A transistor amps made by Krell, Threshold, and Mark Levinson. By general agreement, the heavy-bucks, heavy-weight, ultra-high-current amps were considered “state of the art,” to use the hip phrase of the day. Actually, we could have built these monsters at Audionics in the mid-Seventies, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to cross the psychological barrier of building a hundred-pound amplifier with a steady-state power dissipation of more than 400 watts. Maybe it was because we all worried about energy shortages in the 1970’s ... remember when people turned thermostats down to 68 degrees and the White House turned off the Christmas lights to save energy? Oh well, you didn’t miss much.

 As the decade moved on, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound magazines tightened their grip on the industry, with dealers and customers becoming slaves to the fashion magazines. With each new issue, the ads got slicker, prices went further and further into the stratosphere, and the sound became more spectacular, more impressive, and less enjoyable. Conspicuous consumption as-a-fashion-statement had finally arrived. Listening Pleasure? Satisfaction? What’s that?

 By the end of the 1980’s, there wasn’t much room left for breakthroughs in solid-state amps and preamps. No new MOSFETs (which have major problems with nonlinear gate capacitance, still unsolved after 20 years), and very few new bipolar power devices. Motorola, the pre-eminent supplier of military-grade semiconductors, has made it clear to the remaining builders of high-quality transistor amps that the company intends to gradually withdraw from analog semiconductors and concentrate on more profitable digital gizmos like cellular telephones. There are plenty of analog semiconductor vendors in Asia, but nearly all of their output is concentrated on mass-fi components designed for use in car stereos and TV sets. There’s just no way you can modify a modular “brick” intended for the dashboard of a Toyota pickup into a high-fidelity component.

 The arc-welder approach to building transistor amps came to the end of the road, with the high-prestige amps becoming absurdly large and expensive, and sonic gains reaching the point of diminishing returns. The late 1980’s high-end market settled down into a steady state. Entry-level now meant designed-to-a-price Class AB transistor amps, and compact little speakers on expensive stands. The “true” high-end was populated with 200 to 500 watt amps (tube and Class A transistor), and large, complex, and inefficient planar, hybrid, and dynamic speakers. 

Many reviewers, audiophiles, and dealers still believe in this trinity of price, power, and prestige. But not all. At the end of the decade, a new esthetic began to change the industry once more.


The Thermionic Revival Meeting

 Thousands of engineers, designers, and hi-fi fans were ready for a return to good sound after a decade of more and more “accurate” speakers, power amps, and CD players. The crusade for accuracy had reached a point where reproduced sound was spectacular beyond all expectation, but unsatisfying as a musical experience. In the most important sense, the search for truth had undermined the beauty of the musical experience.

 In 1989, Ed Dell, publisher of Audio Amateur magazine, took a chance on a new magazine devoted strictly to vacuum tube amplifiers. Glass Audio had three strikes against it: vacuum tube manufacturers were disappearing, most hi-fi retailers refused to carry tube equipment, and the magazine catered to the hobbyist market, which was also fading away. Yet a year later the magazine grew to twice its original size, and the readership kept growing with each new issue. What was going on here?

 A little anecdote might illustrate what was happening on a larger scale. At the time I glanced at the first promotional issue of Glass Audio, I was working on an advanced 200 watt transistor amplifier with two friends from Tektronix. This amp represented the pinnacle of the high-end art: fully complementary-differential, all-cascode, all-Class-A, zero-TIM, 200V/microsecond, and fully regulated. The same month, I went to the second Oregon Triode Society meeting, and one of the members showed us a Dynaco Stereo 70 that first saw the light of day when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. The sum total of his tweaks was to convert the EL34’s to triode (cut two wires), and replace a few coupling caps. About 2 hours with a soldering iron.

 The OTS guy turned it on, and we compared the little Stereo 70 to everything in the dealer’s showroom. Say hello to humble, and good-bye to price, power, and prestige. (The dealer did not invite the OTS back.)

 If you stay in audio long enough, that kind of experience can make you do some deep thinking about cherished assumptions. I set aside the transistor project, stopped laughing at the “tube nuts,” and subscribed to Glass Audio (Vol. 1, Issue 0).

 Two years later, the direct-heated triode furor hit Portland with that provocative first issue of Sound Practices. My gracious! Everybody building odd-looking amps, and nobody had efficient speakers, except for one adventurous fellow with Altec A-7’s. By now, the word had gotten out about my MLSSA system and the speaker I was designing. “Take a little time out for us and build an efficient speaker!” After several months of this, I realized that this mysterious triode-fever wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. Hmmm. By the time my good friend Mike Spurlock asked for the same thing, I was ready to give it a try.

 So began the Ariel. This provided the opening for me to review some well-known triode amps ... starting with the Herb Reichert Silver 300B’s and the Audio Note Ongaku. Since the Ariels sounded really wonderful on these new/old amplifiers, I made friends with Michael LeFevre and other East Coast advocates of the triode way of doing things. This has provided an interesting vantage point to observe the CES mainstream as well as the activity on the ultra-fi fringe of the industry. It’s surprising how a few noisy enthusiasts, really no more than twenty or so, have altered the direction of a multi-billion dollar industry in only a few years.

 The audio market is running off in several directions all at once ... mass-fi home-theatre marketed as hi-fi, old-guard HP and Stereophile acolytes, LP revivalists, high definition 96/20 digital research, the vacuum tube renaissance, a growing Asian market with its own sensibilities, and the hardy band of horn/triode enthusiasts in Japan, Italy, France, and the USA. The barriers to communication have fallen with the Internet and new magazines like Positive Feedback, Sound Practices, and Vacuum Tube Valley.

 Looking back, it is interesting how the 1930’s, the 50’s, the 70’s, and the 90’s have proven to be periods of rapid innovation and change, while the “out” decades have been times of backsliding, mass-fi, and technical regression. In the 90’s, the insular Anglo-American hi-fi community is finally looking outward to enthusiasts in Japan, Italy, France, and the rest of Europe, and is opening up to insights drawn from all three previous “Golden Ages” of high fidelity.


Audio Markets

The first illustration shows the primary market areas of the audio endeavor over the years. The distinctions may seem a little arbitrary, and reflect differences in attitudes as much as anything else. The sound-reinforcement sector is not shown since historically there has been only minor interaction between this part of the industry and the consumer sector. This is because the technical demands of large-scale sound amplification are quite different than improving fidelity in the much smaller environment of the home.


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Movie Sound

 Starting at the bottom of the chart, the movie industry is shown by itself. This sector has cross-pollinated the audio business for half a century. At first blush it might seem that movie-sound is similar to the requirements of sound-reinforcement, but this is not actually true. Musical and emotional values are paramount for movie sound, and this has been so right from the very beginning of the industry.

 By contrast, the sound-reinforcement business is driven by the much simpler criteria of intelligibility and coverage. In other words, successful movie-sound requires combining the best features of sound-reinforcement and music playback in the home.

 The most famous contribution of the movie industry to ultra-fi circles is the Western Electric 300B triode, which was specifically designed for movie-theatre audio amplification and never sold directly to the public. The decades-long Japanese love affair with this tube has spread around the world and it is being manufactured by Shuguang (China), Sovtek (Russia), VAIC Valve (Czech), and least but certainly not least, Western Electric, using original tooling and even some of same staff. All this 63 years after its first debut in the projection room!



 The next bar on the chart represents the mass-market sector, which is driven by price, looks, and features, not sound quality. Very few innovations come from this sector, since most of the R&D money is spent on marketing and flash-in-the-pan gimmicks, not research. Occasionally mid-fi innovations like Dolby B Compact Cassettes gradually work their upward in performance, displacing higher-performance media like reel-to-reel tape with lower costs and greater convenience.

 The role of digital is more controversial; on the basis of static THD measurements, it is superior to the LP’s and open-reel tapes it displaced. However, the CD was designed from the outset by a consortium of mass-market companies that have never shown an interest in expanding the horizons of fidelity, and this is reflected in the physical size of the CD itself.

 The Compact Disc is “compact” because it has to play 74 minutes and fit into a IEC car-radio dashboard, and this resulted in the rock-bottom minimum 44.1kHz sampling rate. By forcing this standard, Philips and Sony turned their back on the pre-existing 50kHz rate pioneered by Tom Stockham and Telarc in the early 1970’s. Although the optical design of the CD is quite advanced, the same cannot be said for the choice of sampling rate and bit depth, which permanently limit the maximum performance of the existing CD format.

 I’ll grant the proposed ARA high-resolution DVD/CD could be much better, but waiting 15 to 20 years to replace a medium that was severely compromised to begin with is hardly a demonstration of commitment to high fidelity! After all, the 33rpm mono LP was upgraded to stereo, with no loss in quality, less than 10 years after its introduction. Not only that, the Mercury and RCA stereo LP’s are still considered models of sonic excellence 40 years after they were first recorded. Any bets that the first Berlin Philharmonic CD’s will be equally treasured in 2020? (Come to think of it, it’s possible after all ... grunge classical, anyone?)



 The “high-fidelity” sector has undergone a unique growth path in the North America. It had a lively beginning in the early Forties, a rapid growth in the 1950’s, even faster growth with the introduction of stereo in the late Fifties, a difficult transition to transistor technology in the mid-to-late Sixties, and complete annihilation at the hands of the Japanese by the early 1970’s

 Of the scores of “high-fidelity” manufacturers, none made the transition to the emerging “high-end” market. Only the speaker manufacturers survived, since Japanese speakers, with their idiosyncratic sound balance, have had very limited success in the North American market.

 The decline was accelerated by dishonesty and outright corruption in the slick-magazine audio publishing industry, which resulted in the practice of good product reviews being sold to the highest bidder. This had the inevitable result that the well-heeled multinationals outbidded the small specialist producers. You might think this is an outrageous claim, but I was personally present at the Consumer Electronics Show when a good review was openly offered to our company for a pretty reasonable price ... about $5000, even cheaper than a full-page 4-color ad. We didn’t take advantage of it (partly because the magazine making the offer had a terrible reputation in high-end circles), but we were pretty certain that the big multinationals down the hall were taking full advantage of the situation. 

This process of dissolution did not occur in Great Britain, the Continent, and Japan. There, the domestic manufacturers survived the onslaught of mass-fi receivers and cheap cassette decks, and the integrity of the English, Continental, and Japanese hi-fi press gets much of the credit for this outcome. I was very surprised to read in a large-circulation British magazine of the common sales practice of “spiffing,” where a vendor temporarily boosts the sales of a selected product by awarding an under-the-counter cash payment to the salesperson. Spiffing (Special Promotional Retail Fund) is standard retail practice in the mass-fi business; what’s unusual is when the national trade press has the courage to blow the whistle on these clowns!


The “High End"

 After the destruction of the US consumer electronics industry, a small domestic cottage industry arose. In other parts of the world, this sharp break didn’t occur, due to the survival of the traditional high-fidelity manufacturers. In the US, though, an entirely new market with new magazines, new dealers, and new manufacturers arose, creating a separate market called “high end.”

 Over time, the market grew larger and larger, and the two little magazines that were originally considered the  “underground press” became more and more powerful over the decades, eventually exercising life-and-death power over the smaller companies. Why? Very few dealers dare question the wisdom of the slick magazines; if a new product doesn’t get a glowing review, most customers don’t even want to listen. Of course, new products from the “big ten” go to the head of the review list; newcomers get to wait, sometimes for many years, and with no assurance of a favorable review. In essence, there is an inner circle (who always get favorable reviews), and there’s everybody else (who take their chances).

 Not to toot our horn too much, but Positive Feedback and Sound Practices have begun to crack this monolith by reviewing and discussing products far off the beaten path of “approved” audio. The whole idea of diversity co-existing with quality is slowly changing the manufacturers, the magazines, the dealers, the consumers, and most importantly, the enthusiasts.


Home Theatre

 The increasing conservatism and cash-flow problems of many American hi-fi dealers is leading them to the easy and profitable solution of selling pre-packaged home theatre systems that bear the magic logo. The marketing logic is rock-simple; if it's good enough for world-famous Hollywood movies, it’s good enough for a consumer like you! The saturation of the traditional high-end market in the US is leading many dealers to take the path of least resistance and get out of specialist audio entirely, carrying only equipment blessed by the logo and designated as “home theatre.” 

The home theatre-only dealers may get an unpleasant surprise when they find themselves competing with discount warehouses and mail-order. If all the consumer wants is a shiny little sticker that says “Windows,” “Intel Inside,” “Dolby,” or “THX,” why not buy the commodity from the cheapest source possible, since it’s all the same anyway?

 Shucks, why not cut out the middleman and just sell the stickers by themselves? That way folks can stick ‘em on their K-Mart VCR’s, TV sets, and microwave ovens, and show off their new “home theatre” system to the neighbors!



 This isn’t a name I like, but the triode amp/high efficiency speaker phenomenon hasn't yet received a good name yet. It taps into an enthusiasm that has been carried forward by dedicated Japanese, Italian, and French experimenters for 4 decades, and is now beginning to change the character of the US market. Although some may think all the noise is about archaic technology, it’s actually about re-thinking the entire esthetic of the high-end. These folks are turning away from the sound-effects orientation of the high-end (audiophile literally means “sound-lover” after all) and turning towards the emotional quality of the music and how it influences the listener. The retro technology is only a means to an end; modern ingredients can get you there as well.


Distortion Over The Decades

 This chart marks the path that amplifier THD has taken over the decades, with dots indicating the presence of a “landmark” designs that others followed, like the Williamson or the fully-complementary transistor amplifier. It shows that for a few designers, the THD figure has lost the powerful grip it once held on the industry, while for others, they continue to do all they can to drive it lower and lower.


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The shaded bar on the right side of the chart indicates the most THD an amplifier can have and still gain THX certification. It’s interesting to note that a Western Electric 91A amplifier (with 20 years of theatre service) selling for $20,000 in Akihibara would fail THX certification, while a rack-stereo receiver selling for $299 would pass. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

 The problem with using THD as a yardstick of quality is the order of the distortion term has a far more audible effect than its absolute magnitude. When you have 3 or more fundamental tones, the number of IM sum-and-difference terms are much worse when you have to contend with a large number of harmonics past the third. This was first discussed by Norman Crowhurst and D.E.L. Shorter of the BBC in the mid-Fifties, so it’s hardly a new or radical concept.

 Regrettably, the single-tone additive THD and the SMPTE or CCIF IM tests in common use today do not take this into account, thus ignoring the far more deleterious effects of the upper harmonics with real musical sources, which invariably have more than 3 fundamental tones. With real music, the large number of sum-and-difference terms modulate the noise floor of the musical program, covering up the low-level room reflections the listener uses to analyze the spatial qualities of the performing space.

 The market-driven pursuit of the ever-lower THD number is why the audio industry progressively abandoned of linear amplifying devices in favor of less linear devices with more gain, and turned to circuits that used greater and greater amounts of feedback. With each step the THD figure moved downward, while the harmonic structure became less predictable and more chaotic. Back when all audio equipment produced several per cent distortion, the THD figure told you something about how it might sound. Today, with low-fi car stereos producing less than 0.01% distortion, the specification no longer has any meaning.

 This long-term trend was a direct result of Norman Crowhurst and D.E.L. Shorter losing the distortion-weighting debate of the 1950’s. Back in the days of the slip-stick, who wanted to calculate all of those terms out to 9th or higher? Worse, their proposals cast question on the wisdom of choosing high-feedback pentode circuits over low-feedback triode circuits. When the 2A3-powered Brook went out of production, the triumph of the Williamson was complete. No triode amps were made anywhere. The debate was over.

 With nobody minding the store, the industry was to free to take the next big step downward: transistor sound, in an ugly quasi-complementary debut. It took 10 to 15 years of very challenging work to get transistor amps to approach the quality of the pentode amps they obsoleted. By the time transistor amps had reached a rough sonic parity with their direct predecessors, the much older triode technology, along with the weighted-harmonic debate, had been forgotten.

 Now that amplifiers had been perfected (in the thinking of the AES mainstream), it was time to extend the same philosophy to recording media – digital sound replacing analog tape and records. And once again it has took another 10 to 15 years of difficult work to approach a rough sonic parity with the systems it obsoleted. 

This is why listening to a 30ips mastertape (the speed used by Ampex in 1948) or a good LP (also introduced in 1948) on a 2A3 or 300B amplifier is a profoundly disturbing experience for an audiophile with a sense of history.

 What do we have to show for a half-century of two-steps-forward, one-step-back? What direction would audio have taken if distortion-weighting had been taken seriously when it was first proposed?


Copyright© 1996 by Lynn Olson



































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