Yuppies Invent Boutique Audio
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Thermionic Revival Meeting
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.
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?
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
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click here for a larger image.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?)
“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
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.
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.
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 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
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).
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
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.”
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?
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!
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.
Over The Decades
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.
Click here for a larger image.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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