Our meeting was propitious and totally unexpected. The locus was Los Angeles' Sheraton Gateway Hotel last May, on which we had all descended for Home Entertainment 2006. As a contributor to Stereophile's Show blog, my assignment was as liberal as they come: Go where you are drawn, listen as you will, and record your impressions.
They say that time flies on faster wings once you pass 40, something that I have found to be more true than I care to think about. Yet even considering the unfortunately subjective nature of time, it hardly seems possible that it was 10 years ago, in those golden days of the first Conrad-Johnson preamplifier, Infinity RS4.5 and Hill Plasmatronic loudspeakers, Infinity class-A and Audio Research D110B power amplifiers, that a small San Francisco company, led by a drummer and mechanical engineer who had previously worked on laser-fusion target design at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, virtually invented the high-end cable industry. I say "virtually," because Jean Hiraga in France, Robert Fulton in the US, and Saboru Egawa in Japan had laid down considerable experimental work in the mid-'70s showing that interconnects and speaker cables were hardly the passive devices conventional engineering considered them, and the highly capacitative Cobra Cable, distributed in the US by Polk and in the UK by Monitor Audio, was already destroying marginally stable power amplifiers in 1977.
The French have a phrase for it: plus ça change, plus la même chose, which can be roughly translated as "the more things change, the more they stay the same." I was reminded of this when recently reading through the December 1980 issue of The Absolute Sound. There on p.368 was the statement that "Dave Wilson (Virgo) has joined the staff...to construct a testing program that will allow us to determine if some of the peculiarities and anomalies we hear in evaluating equipment can indeed be numerically measured."
Iván Fischer, founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, has performed with many major orchestras and recorded for a number of major labels, most significantly with Philips, from 1995 to 2004. Fischer/BFO made the first multichannel orchestral recording for SACD, which Philips used as a demonstration disc for their first SACD players. I still treasure that disc—it demonstrates many of the advantages of the medium with a wide and varied program—but it has never been commercially released.
"This won't be a short job," says Arcam's president, John Dawson (footnote 1). He's talking about the challenge of engineering the next generation of Arcam home-theater products to embrace the new high-resolution video formats. It's possibly the biggest technical challenge English company Arcam has faced since, almost exactly 30 years ago, Dawson and his original business partner, Chris Evans, launched their first product—an unpretentious, 35W hi-fi amplifier called the A&R Cambridge A60.
Bill Firebaugh's first product, the outrageous-looking Well-Tempered (tone) Arm, established him as one of audio's most innovative designers. At the 1985 Winter CES, he showed a prototype companion product—the Well-Tempered Turntable—and was producing production units by January 1987. He discusses here the WTT's unusual design features. (Readers should note that, since we have not yet tested the new turntable, this interview is not to be interpreted as an endorsement of the product.)
There are many colorful characters, many high-profile movers and shakers, in high-end audio, but there are only a few whose influence extends far beyond the promotion of their own brands. One of this exalted and mighty handful is Robert Stuart, chairman and technical director of the UK's Meridian Audio.
Richard Vandersteen doesn't look like a typical loudspeaker designer. True, he wears glasses, but his presence suggests a longshoreman or somebody who'd be played by Gene Hackman. And sure enough, he tells you in a quasi-Dukes of Hazzard drawl that he's been a construction worker, plumber, truckdriver, and electrician. Electronics had always been a hobby, but Vandersteen formalized his understanding by working in electronics during his stint in the Air Force. Back in civilian life, Vandersteen entered into speaker manufacture, producing the "baffleless" range, at least regarding the midrange driver and tweeter, which bears his name. The speakers, particualrly the Model 2 and its variants, have become, in a decade, one of America's most respected brands, despite RV's low-profile marketing techniques. I met with Richard at the Las Vegas CES in January and asked him what had got him started in loudspeaker design.
David Chesky, whose company has been making superior recordings for nearly 20 years now, isn't from the engineering side of the business. He's talent—a pianist who sometimes performs on his label, a composer of classical and jazz selections integral to its catalog, and an arranger as well.
Firms that specialize in architectural acoustics usually concentrate on the big jobs—churches, schools, and auditoriums. Rives Audio is unusual in that they specialize in "small-room" acoustics, for residential listening rooms and home theaters. Rives is unusual in another way: they consult on a nationwide and even international basis.
The first thing you notice about Walter Sear's legendary Manhattan studio is that it feels so darn comfortable. Sear Sound doesn't have a wall of gold records, gleaming million-dollar consoles, or the latest high-resolution digital workstations, but a quick stroll around the three studios reveals a treasure trove of tube and analog professional gear: a pair of Sgt. Pepper–era Studer recorders plucked from EMI's Abbey Road studios; an early Modular Moog synthesizer Sear built with Bob Moog; and a collection of 250 new and classic microphones.
Although the term "professional" is often used as part of model designations in consumer electronics, the actual overlap between the audiophile consumer market and the real pro market is quite small. There are speakers in common use as studio monitors that no self-respecting audiophile would want to be caught dead listening to, and the typical audiophile loudspeaker would go up in smoke if asked to pump out the kind of volume that pro application routinely demands. To a lesser extent, the same applies to amplifiers: pro is pro and consumer is consumer, and ne'er the twain shall meet.
Editor's Note: In 1954, a New York writer and teacher reinvented the world of audio with the modest-looking Acoustic Research AR-1 loudspeaker. A small fraction of the size of the behemoths that were then de rigeur for the reproduction of bass frequencies, Edgar Villchur's loudspeaker went as low with less distortion. Perhaps more importantly, the AR-1 pioneered both the science of speaker design and the idea that a low-frequency drive-unit could not be successfully engineered without the properties of the enclosure being taken into account.
Jim Fosgate fits the category of Classic American Inventor to a T. This softspoken, quietly intense man has earned 18 patents and founded three successful electronics companies. In the late 1970s, he pulled out of the car audio business to follow his quadraphonic bliss, and designed the Fosgate Tate 101, arguably the finest quad decoder of the era. He also created the best-selling matrix surround processor of all time, Dolby's Pro Logic II, and in 2003 won an Emmy for the Development of Surround Sound for Television. He now serves as a senior executive consultant for Fosgate Audionics, a division of the Rockford Corporation.
Kathleen (K-10) and I first met Jack Renner—Telarc's Chairman, CEO, and Chief Recording Engineer—at Iridium, a tony jazz club here in New York. He was recording Benny Golson and the Jazz Messengers doing a rousing a tribute to Art Blakey. Now what would you think a guy who's won 31 Grammys over 21 years would be doing, exactly? Maybe feet up, a cigar languidly tracing curlicues in the air while directing his minions?