The Fifth Element #46 Page 2
I am acutely aware that the chronological center of gravity of my list is 1974. I hope that at least a few readers will make fervent cases for songs written in the past 20 years—my radar might be mis-aimed. Or it could be that the 1970s indeed were a high-water mark for song craftsmanship. Please share your passion. Surprise me!
Systemology (it's not a religion)
I think it's time for another thwack at the always-challenging piñata of putting together an audio system, which I will explore in future columns. My October 2005 and December 2005 columns were based on the idea of putting together a relatively affordable music-lover's system for a hypothetical high school music teacher.
However, the term relatively affordable is itself relative. (The story goes that Albert Einstein once played the violin for Gregor Piatigorsky, then asked Piatigorsky his opinion. Piatigorsky deadpanned, "You play relatively well.") That Pareto-optimal music teacher's system ended up costing somewhere around $7500: $3000 each for the Spendor S8e speakers and the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver, with $1500 (or more) left over for a digital source and wire products and acoustical treatments. But $7500 is still a lot of money, especially for people just getting started with serious equipment.
This time out, my goal was to see what can be done for about half that amount—or less—by basing the systems on one-box CD receivers.
A little perspective, to begin with. My first audio system with high-end aspirations was set up around Irving M. ("Bud") Fried's Q/2 loudspeakers. (Fried pronounced his name Freed.) The rest of the system was an Onkyo receiver (I should have bought a Marantz, and kept it), and a Marantz turntable with first a Pickering, then an Audio-Technica phono cartridge. That was more than 30 years ago. LPs sounded quite good on this starter/budget system; David Oistrakh's Brahms Violin Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and nearly anything by Radu Lupu, captivated me. Lots of Gordon Lightfoot, too.
The Fried Mystique
Bud Fried (who passed away in 2005) was a blatherskite and a gadfly, much more of an impresario than a designer, and a huge self-promoter. Lots of fun to talk to, though, despite his almost nonstop snobbery about having graduated from Harvard Law School (footnote 2). It was Bud Fried who educated me about the evils of multimiked, "mix-down mono" recordings and the benefits of purist stereo miking. Thanks, guy. Fried's newsletters were really something—I wish I'd saved them. In fact, I did, but I purged them in a well-intentioned but self-defeating file cleanout years ago. (Someone else saved his; they're online here.)
Anyway, Fried claimed to have been the first US importer of the original Quad ESL, and Quad remained just about the only loudspeaker he did not take potshots at. His oft-heard dismissal of other dynamic designs was "It's just a piece of paper [by which he meant a paper-cone driver] in a box."
Early on, Fried imported Decca phono cartridges. He also became involved with an English partnership that had produced a prototype transmission-line–loaded professional monitor speaker. According to former company director John Hayes, Fried showed the prototype speaker, as yet unnamed by its designers (who included the late John Wright), at an early 1970s New York Audio Show under his own name. Fried took orders, then presented the Brits with a good-news/bad-news fait accompli. Therefore, the speakers were marketed in the US and elsewhere under the name IMF (Fried's own initials), despite the fact that Fried had no part in their design or development. He had only borrowed the speakers to demonstrate Decca phono cartridges.
IMF, as some of Fried's ventures seemed to, ended in acrimony and litigation. Litigation that Fried lost. (Lawyers are often the worst clients.) The result was that IMF became Transducer Developments Ltd. (TDL), while Fried marketed his new speakers under the trademark Fried, with the company name of Fried Products Company.
I have been told that Fried employed designers under nondisclosure agreements, and that the completed loudspeakers were made by outside contractors—which is why Fried, almost alone of US companies selling completed speakers through dealers, continued also to offer kits of parts and plans for cabinets into the 1980s.
The British company IMF/TDL had an excellent international reputation among professional users. A-List classical engineer Jerry Bruck still has a pair of the onetime top of the line, branded IMF. However, under neither moniker did the British speakers ever really get off the ground in the US consumer market.
Fried Products Company had somewhat more luck here under the Fried brand. Compared to the British originals, Fried speakers were cost-compromised. However, they offered great value for money, with the Q ($280/pair) and its successors developing quite a following in the mid-1970s. I bought mine from a chap in Atlanta who claimed to be a Roman Catholic priest at loose ends. I didn't buy the system out of a car trunk; he was running an audio business. He also claimed to have taught the Haydn-Mozart course at Yale. Hmmm...
The Q used an 8" mid-woofer and a ¾" soft-dome tweeter. Bass loading was by a slot with a piece of foam across it. The slot was not just an aperture in the front panel, it continued back for several inches. This was accomplished by running an internal shelf the width of the speaker, a couple of inches from the bottom of the cabinet. The shelf was the full width but not quite the entire depth of the speaker, so the backwave off the bass driver had to navigate a U-turn, then hit a layer of foam. Fried promoted this loading as the "line tunnel." But a transmission line it was not.
What the Q had going for it were bass that was faster, tighter, and cleaner than many competing acoustical-suspension designs; above-average midrange fidelity for the time and the price; and fatigue-free treble. It was also sensitive, could play quite loudly, and had dynamic linearity that was good for the time.
Cons? The Q was ugly, and pretty much just thrown together: shoe-polish brown woodgrain vinyl on MDF, with a dull black foam grille. This was not a product that gave you a buzz of "pride of ownership" just to look at it. Also, despite its size (20" H by 12" W by 10" D) and that 8" woofer, the Q did not have deep bass (the bottom octave), just good midbass. The factory claimed a "usable" frequency extension to 40Hz.
Bud Fried had a theory that if a loudspeaker could not be full-range, its frequency response should be symmetrical about Middle C. That is, to the extent a speaker rolled off in the bottom octave (20–40Hz) or octaves, it should roll off at the top in similar fashion. Fried's view was that a speaker whose tonal center was not at Middle C, owing to much more frequency extension at the top rather than the bottom, would become fatiguing; the ear would recognize it as having a less natural sound than a speaker with a "contoured" frequency response.
Fried's counterintuitive dogma went even further: the level-control switch on the Q's rear panel didn't control the treble, as would be the case with most speakers. Rather, the level switch controlled the midrange. Hmmm. Food for thought.
Où Sont les Fried Qs d'Aujourd'hui?
This isn't just a history lesson. I think that Fried's Q is a great example of a loudspeaker in which all the design decisions were made from the standpoint of what is best for music lovers, not what is best for the manufacturer or the dealers. Let's face it: Hi-fi has become so dysfunctional in the last 30 years that finding propositions of exceptional value is an awful lot more difficult than finding examples of conspicuous production in hopes of conspicuous consumption.
Throwing a big press event for a $140,000/pair loudspeaker is business as usual. Half the fuss made over a $100,000 turntable package is simply because it costs that much; otherwise, would the "lad" magazines give it ink? I can't recall any lad-mag coverage of Linn's LP12, though I must admit I see lad magazines only while waiting at the barbershop.
It's easier to get a buzz going about a "statement" product. Putting out a "budget" product that delivers many or most of the benefits of your flagship product at a fraction of its cost requires moral courage, contrariness, or both. There is a real risk that the budget product will cannibalize the sales of your own more expensive models.
My usual definition of a great budget product is Pareto-esque: it delivers 80% of the performance of the expensive stuff at 20% of the cost—or thereabouts. (It's a fuzzy equation.) Using $3000 as a target price point makes the arithmetic easy: the goal is to snag a $3000 pair of speakers or amplifier that can deliver 80% of what $15,000 products can.
Turning to loudspeakers in particular, I think it's easier for manufacturers to build, warehouse, promote, box, and ship bread-loaf–sized loudspeakers that can't deliver real bass, and I think it's easier for dealers to store and sell them. Whether this is the best use of the money of a music lover on a budget is a different issue.
I suspect that it is an unanswerable chicken-and-egg problem, but I can easily imagine any number of speaker designers replying that people no longer want "big-box" speakers. They would say you can't sell a speaker the size of a Larger Advent or AR3 in today's market; that Bose has conditioned people to think that all that's needed for great sound are 3" cubes and a woofer under the couch.
My response to that would be that it is the industry's job to educate music lovers about the laws of physics and the physics of music reproduction. It is obvious that this happens rarely, if at all. My view is that much of the industry expects the two major US-published audio magazines to do all the educating and half the selling for them. That might have worked in the fat years. It isn't working in the lean years.
I think that many loudspeaker manufacturers have taken the path of least resistance. The result is that, these days, 6.5" is a "big" mid-woofer, and most affordable speakers are thin if not anemic in the bass. There is no shortage of musically balanced speakers in the $2000–$3500/pair range. What I'm looking for are musically balanced speakers for $750–$1500/pair. (The Fried Q's $280/pair is about $1050 in 2008 dollars.)
Part of what launched me on my quest for the Fried Q of the New Millennium was my frustration at the Pioneer Pure Malt speakers I wrote about in the December issue: lovely, bread-loaf–sized speakers with little real bass at all. I'm sure that Pioneer's marketing research was on target. But I think the industry might be healthier if, from time to time, we tried to save customers from their impulses and druthers.
My search for today's speakers that represent the same kind of value as the Fried Q has so far yielded two promising candidates: Usher's V-601 ($700/pair) and DALI's Ikon 2 ($1150/pair). Next time, I'll pair them with Music Hall's Trio CD receiver ($999), Arcam's Solo Music ($1999), and any other likely suspects I can collar in the meantime.
Until then, I've done the calculating for you. Until you look at the numbers in the sidebar, I think it's easy to underestimate the difference even an inch in woofer diameter makes in woofer area.
Footnote 2: The last time I chatted with Bud Fried, at the Summer 1994 CES, he ejected me from his dem room when he learned I had graduated from London University rather than from an Ivy League American school. —John Atkinson