A Wee Dram of Scotch: Linn Products' Ivor Tiefenbrun Page 2
Tiefenbrun: People felt I was some kind of charlatan. The funny thing is that most marginal, or even nonexistent, improvements were welcomed, and yet here was a very large one that was easily demonstrable. But people actually didn't even want to listen. When they did, of course, they were flabbergasted.
It seemed obvious to me that the quality of the input signal was crucial in the performance of the total system, and that getting information off the record was substantially the task of the turntable; it was a platform for both the record and the arm and cartridge combination. But the view then was that turntables would just go 'round and 'round and not add any noise. And that is, of course, true. But it wasn't that that view was wrong, it was just that it was narrowly interpreted. Sometimes knowledge is used to shut out other ideas.
People have said to me that turntables can't alter the sound because all they do is go 'round and 'round. I would say, "Well, my speakers just go in and out."
It was seen that what I was doing with the turntable was a kind of assault on the loudspeaker. When we got into speakers, we made the beginning and the end of the chain. I felt that by doing so I could show people that I wasn't somehow prejudiced against loudspeakers.
But going back to your question about the turntable: I took it to shops, knocked on the door, and asked if they wanted to listen to it. Most people told me it made no difference and so they didn't listen. Some said they would. Most heard a difference. Some thought it important, some didn't. And some said, "That's real exciting—how can we sell a thing like this?" And I said, "The same way I'm selling it to you. Play it for the people and let them hear for themselves what it does, and let them decide if it's worth it to them. Let them decide whether we deliver the performance."
So one thing led to the other. It was a series of accidents.
Atkinson: Was the resistance to the idea of turntables having an influence on sound quality greater in the US than in the UK?
Tiefenbrun: I don't think it was much different. I fought all these early credibility factors mainly in the United Kingdom. In America, there were people who discovered it for themselves—the people who were interested.
I also learned that there was no point in trying to teach them—they had to listen for themselves. They would either notice, or they wouldn't. That was a much more effective way of handling it than telling people this is going to change the science because it's going to get more information off the record. It's going to be virtually immune to transient feedback—which makes the amplifier's task easier.
Atkinson: With hindsight, if you look at those days—the late '70s—you were accused of almost forming a cult, particularly in combination with [Naim Audio founder] Julian Vereker. Such was the power of the idea you were selling.
Tiefenbrun: It was a good three years after I'd been in business before I met people like Julian. I think other people made Linn a cult. I never did anything that would make it a cult. My behavior—which was much misreported, I must tell you—was always very straightforward, but contrasted with what people expected from a hi-fi manufacturer. To me, hi-fi is about engineering, and that's about making things work and about the application of measurement.
Atkinson: You had an idea back then that you wanted to do more than build turntables?
Tiefenbrun: I wanted to build a hi-fi company. I wanted to make things. I believe that people in countries like Britain should make things. I'm part of the culture that says you are what you do. The thing goes back to Socrates.
Atkinson: Both Bob and I have been around your factory, and you've obviously applied a lot of thought to how to make things. You make things rather differently than other consumer-electronics companies.
Tiefenbrun: When we first started the idea of single-station build (footnote 2), people thought we were completely ga-ga. But it's now been widely adopted.
The original production-line concept employed scarce skilled resources at each stage in the line. But then the process became less and less skilled, and the cycle time became shorter and shorter.
Because the process is completely de-skilled, it has no merit whatsoever. The logic of that whole process is to make the people do almost nothing. What we do is the complete opposite of that. Instead of using the people as machines, or using people to feed the machines, we use machines to serve the people. We use the people at the highest possible level. And rather than trying to take skill out of the job, we are always looking for ways to put skill into it. We want to build more value into the product rather than strip out cost. You can't do that on a production line.
If you have a product that one person can build, it means that another person can service it. A product designed for the production line is not necessarily a product that can be easily serviced in the field. We can support our existing customers, upgrade the products, and keep on improving their systems—if and when they want to—because of the way we design and build our products.
There's nothing, no matter how complex, that can't be improved by a few minutes' care and attention to detail. If one person builds a product from start to finish and they listen to it, test it, and put their name on the back— and if it goes back to them to be repaired or serviced or upgraded if anything goes wrong with it—then they can see a connection between what they do and how the product performs. Occasionally, that process will result in us discovering something we would never have learned by any other method. No design engineer would have found it. No salesman or service or production engineer could have discovered it.
Harley: Linn has a strong emphasis on making products that are fully upgradeable.
Tiefenbrun: Well, I had two basic views when I started in the business. The first one was that I didn't want to do anything remotely like anything I'd experienced elsewhere. I wanted it be a company where I could be happy working for it in any capacity. Secondly, I wanted to treat the customers the way I would like to be treated myself. I felt that every component in the product should be screw-replaceable so that it could be serviced in the field, and so that we could improve it over time as our expertise increased. That meant a customer could benefit, if he wished, from improvements we had made. That was considered pretty way-out then. But of course nowadays, more and more companies are beginning to think in that way. To me, it's bad engineering to waste things.
Atkinson: I can't think of many 21-year-old products that, if you it took to the dealer, could be brought up to current production standards the way the LP12 can.
Tiefenbrun: That's true. And I must say that sometimes it's fucking hard to do. I mean, there were times when a supplier would change something, which meant that we couldn't make the product unless we compromised performance. And a few times, because we refused to do that, we jeopardized the whole company.
There was one point where we didn't make anything for two and a half months because we couldn't solve a problem with motors. Eventually, I managed to persuade the supplier—I think I bought a couple thousand motors a year from them at that time—that they should change their motors to accommodate us.
Nevertheless, it takes a big overhead to maintain that backwards compatibility. And sometimes it nearly killed us. But being Scotsmen, we "die in perfect squares." We never take a step backward. We never wavered from that ideal of making the products upgradeable in the field.
Footnote 2: See "Industry Update," February '94 (Vol.17 No.2, pp.42-43) for a description of how each Linn product is assembled from start to finish by one person, rather than on an assembly line. The article also includes a description of Linn's highly advanced factory in Scotland.—RH