August 23, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• I'll Take Mine Unleaded, by John Atkinson
• Bé Is Back, by Ken Kessler
• So Tell Us Something We Don't Know, by Ken Kessler

I'll Take Mine Unleaded, by John Atkinson

"It's not just it doesn't work as well, it doesn't sound as good!"

Veteran audio reviewer Martin Colloms and I were taking a preprandial walk across London's Hampstead Heath, following Cream's reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall last May. Martin was getting animated:

"And don't ask about the whiskers!"

Of course, I had to ask about the whiskers.

Martin was telling me about some listening tests he had performed on two identical samples of an amplifier—identical, that is, except that one had its components attached to its printed circuit board with conventional solder and the other with lead-free solder.

Normal solder is an alloy of tin and lead (silver is sometimes added), which has the unusual property of melting at a lower temperature than either metal on its own. The commonly used SN63 (63% tin, 37% lead) melts at 183°C (361°F) compared with 327°C (621°F) for lead and 232°C (450°F) for tin. This temperature is low enough and the soldering time short enough that there is not much in the way of potential damage to the components being joined, which is one reason why tin-lead solders are ubiquitous in the manufacturer of consumer electronics products.

However, the metal lead is extremely toxic, which is why its use in domestic water pipes, plumbing solders, gasoline, paint, fishing weights, gun shot, etc., has increasingly been abandoned. Now it is time for manufacturers of electronic products to give up using it, at least in Europe, where the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Waste Electrical and the Electronic Equipment Directive (RoHS for short) mandates the exclusive use of lead-free solders in products on sale to European consumers after July 1, 2006. The related Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), set to take full effect in Europe in 2008, will require manufacturers to take back products for free and to recycle 65% percent of their average weight. (For a guide to this subject, see

To give some context, the 6 million metric tons (6 billion kilograms) of electrical and electronic waste disposed of in Europe in 1998 included 27,000 metric tons of lead and 8 metric tons of mercury (AEA Technology figures). The lead used to shield the CRTs in computer monitors is of particular concern because it is in a soluble oxide form that is readily leached from landfills. Which is presumably why, according to Collapse, Jared Diamond's recent book on why human societies disappear, such computer waste is now a major export from the US to China.

I don't think anyone would argue with the need to eliminate lead from the environment, both from newly manufactured products and waste electronics. But achieving the desired goals in either field will not be easy. A 2002 article in Spectrum, the IEEE's excellent monthly magazine, examines the difficulty of eliminating lead from electronics waste. Changing to the use of lead-free solders also presents manufacturers with problems, not the least of which is the higher temperatures required to form a connection than with lead-tin solder. For example, solder alloyed from tin, silver, and copper melts at between 206°C and 227°C, depending on the ratios of the metals and the presence of other elements such as antimony and bismuth. These higher temperatures will stress the electronic components being soldered significantly more than lead-tin's melting point does, and possibly affect long-term reliability.

And, as Martin said, there are the "whiskers" to contend with. Apparently, not only are solder joints made with lead-free solders more brittle, they are prone to sprout single-crystal tin whiskers. Given the very high component density typical of modern surface-mount construction, these whiskers can make unwanted electrical connections, again with an adverse effect on long-term reliability.

At the time of writing it remained unclear, despite much Googling, what the US intends to do in these areas, though California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 (SB20), which came into effect this summer, establishes standards and fees for the collection and recycling of certain electronic wastes. But given that: a) Japan appears to be moving faster toward eliminating lead from their products than is Europe; b) Europe's RoHS directive appears to affect products designed and manufactured before the July 2006 implementation date; and c) the WEEE directive places the responsibility for the costs of recycling and disposal of products on manufacturers, it would appear that the American high-end audio industry is facing a sea change in how it does business.

Unless it stops doing business outside the US. Which would be a tragedy, not the least because the American high-end audio industry has addressed a global market from the outset.

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Bé Is Back, by Ken Kessler

For a variety of seemingly unrelated reasons, I found myself in Japan a few weeks ago for an achingly short 72 hours. In that time I crammed in a visit to a six-story high-end store called Dynamic Audio in the Akihabara district, had lunch with the president and deputy general manager of TEAC's Esoteric Division, heard their astounding five-chassis SACD player, was recorded in conversation with the legendary Japanese audio journalist Okihiko Sugano, and spent time with a company called Acrosound. Kanno-san, the company's boss, chauffeured me around in a vehicle that had netted him four speeding tickets in the previous month. I told you it was a whirlwind visit.

But the key to all of this, linking every party, was Bé Yamamura. A century from now, when some industrious soul writes the history of high-end audio, Bé will feature in the chapter with Harvey Rosenberg, Jean Hiraga, Tim De Paravicini, and other edgy visionaries. He is the consummate high-end "mad professor" without looking like a geek. In fact, he looks normal.

Fluent in English and Italian, with a hit record and motor racing in his background, Bé is best known in our circles for having developed, in the early 1990s, a range of outlandish graphite accessories and cables for Italy's late, lamented A.R.T. Additionally, he was one of the first proponents in the West of the use of silver wiring, horns, and single-ended triodes, and had his own range of tube and transistor amps, a turntable, a cartridge, horn speakers, and more. After he'd spent extended periods in the UK, Italy, and Florida, personal reasons dictated a return to Japan.

It turns out that, on his return, Bé's services were snapped up by the Acrojapan Corporation. The company has relationships with Mitsubishi, who use Acrojapan's MEXCEL digital cables in their state-of-the-art digital space telescope. Said cables also serve in the Japanese Air Force's jet fighter planes for various digital connections such as engine management, and Acrojapan is intimately involved with the Nikko Mining Corporation. Of last connection Bé said, "When someone says they're using 'four-nines' or 'five-nines' copper, be very skeptical. We've measured them all. But ours is. Our copper comes from Nikko Mining."

So, although I hate cables and absolutely refuse ever again to review any, I was curious. Bé and Kanno showed me their interconnects and speaker wire, and I was immediately impressed with a build quality and finish that appear to be without equal. No kidding. The stuff had more in common with Aeroquip hoses; I could smell the milspec approval. And as one who avoids "locking" phono plugs, I was taken by their unique carbon-fiber connectors, made exclusively for them by Oyaide Elec. Gorgeous . . . and secure without breaking off your phono sockets.

Now this isn't even the range Bé has worked on, but he told me he'd be proud to have designed it. It turns out that it's available only in Japan, branded as TEAC Esoteric and exclusive to Esoteric. (See how this fits together?) And when Bé told me how much business they do solely with TEAC, and only in Japan, I realized that they were bigger than just about every other specialist cable manufacturer on earth south of Monster Cable.

Their stuff ain't cheap, but you're paying for genuine metallurgical credibility at the very least. Sonically? Well, I heard their wires in systems consisting of their own electronics—not for sale, alas—with TEAC Esoteric sources, with Krell Evolution amplification, with DartZeel and other high-end champs, through Krell LAT1000 speakers. Suffice it to say I was dazzled. I came home with a few pieces, which are burning in at this very moment. Initial impressions? With prices below those of the usual suspects, this range could be a winner Stateside.

Acrojapan's products are now distributed in the US by The Lotus Group. Tel: (415) 897-8884. If the name "Acrolink" starts appearing in your favorite magazines, remember that you read about it here first. And take a tip from ol' KK: the 75 ohm digital cables will spin your head.

ACROJAPAN CORPORATION, 21-9, Ichigayadaimachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162-0066, Japan. Web.

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So Tell Us Something We Don't Know, by Ken Kessler

"Music buyers 'are growing older,'" according to statistics from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). Not too shocking if you recall that, a couple of years ago, a British music journalist identified a new species he dubbed "Fifty Quid Man." That appellation applied to a type of consumer—typically male, 25–50-year-old Mojo and Uncut readers—with enough disposable income to wander into HMV or Virgin once a week to drop £50 (just under $100) on a couple of CDs or DVDs without hesitation. I know this stereotype exists: It applies to me, to all of my friends, and to everyone I know in the audio industry. A glance at fellow shoppers in my local HMV store, many with their kids in tow, confirms it with embarrassing accuracy. You have never seen so many slightly balding, Levis- and Timberland-wearing Ry Cooder fans in one place outside of a gig.

It was realized that these were the people, not the tattooed Beavises and Butt-heads to whom they'd been catering, who were keeping record stores and labels alive. You might note that the US equivalent would be a guy of similar age and income, dropping with similar aplomb $50–$100 in Strawberry's, Best Buy, Circuit City, or wherever. And I'll bet the albums and movies these Spin or Rolling Stone readers buy are the same their UK opposites buy: Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Tarantino flicks, Eric Clapton, The Sopranos DVD boxed sets, et al. So much for the X, Y, and Z generations' disposable income. That ends up spent on beer, piercings, Ecstasy, and baggy-ass jeans.

This latest research forms part of IFPI's 12th annual Recording Industry in Numbers report, which analyzes retail patterns, per capita sales, and music-player penetration, among other factors. Here are some of IFPI's numbers, with my imagined "reasons" appended:

• In 1999, music buyers over 30 accounted for less than half of all music sales. As of 2004–2005, 55% of music is bought by over-30s. Reason: Kids don't buy software.

• With an average of 2.9 albums bought by every man, woman, and child, per capita album sales are higher in the UK than in any other country in the world. Reason: British radio sucks.

• Universal is still the world's biggest recording company, with a 25.5% share of the global market. Sony BMG is next with 21.5%, followed by EMI with 13.4%. Reason: Look at the scale of Universal's catalog and their aggressive repackaging.

• Not surprisingly, 2004 was a landmark year for digital services, with more than 180 legitimate music-download services launched. Reason: This is due in no small part to the increased sales of digital music players; more than 1 million tracks are now available from major services.

• It's not all vaporware, though, on the Net: Sales of physical products over the Internet also grew rapidly in Europe, representing 15% of all sales in Germany and 10% in the UK. (Remember, the US had a head start with Internet sales.) Reason: Specialist retail outlets are going out of business at an alarming rate, and the major stores don't stock much beyond the obvious, so music lovers are driven to online sources for selection, price, and service.

• More than 100,000 albums, including new albums and reissues, were released in 2004. Reason: The music industry still practices that formula about the ratio of fecal matter that sticks to a wall.

• Interestingly, the world's oldest music consumers are in Hungary and the Netherlands. Reason: The young in Hungary have no money at all, and the young in the Netherlands are too stoned to care.

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