At a time when the heads of most record labels barely know how to play a record, let alone make one, Manfred Eicherowner, founder, and inspiration of ECM Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010has been intimately involved in the making of nearly 1200 of them. How many, though, can he actually remember working on?
"When I listen back to them, I know the story of every record," he says without a smile or a moment's hesitation. "There is never an easy record. Every record needs a lot of input and concentration and dedication and passion to be made, that's clear. Create an atmosphere that is a productive search for music, and when this is the case, you have very memorable records."
Mark Levinson, born December 11, 1946, celebrates an important anniversary in 2002. Exactly 30 years ago he jogged onto the playing field of high-end audio, so early in the game that fans, then few and far between, could count the players on their fingers.
The high-fidelity industry seems a logical home for a jazz musician like Levinson, who once envisioned a career playing flugelhorn and double bass, but his voyage into audio was a detour that could be said to have begun at age 22, when he took a job working on a film about Joan Baez. "It was a joy to find people willing to pay me to do something," quips the trim, youthful 55-year-old, who is quick to recall his "nonexistent income as a musician."
If high-end audio were to carve its own Mt. Rushmore, whose faces would appear therebesides that of Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt, of course? It's likely that no two audiophiles would ever come up with identical lists of subjects, but I wouldn't be surprised if they could agree on at least one name: Nelson Pass.
As one of the founders of Threshold Corporation, its present chairman, and its longtime technical head, Nelson Pass has had a hand in the design and implementation of the products to come out of that company since its inception. His SA-1 power amplifier and FET 10 preamplifier have been long-term favorites of Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt and I reviewed the Threshold SA-12/e power amplifier a year ago (Vol.13 No.12). I cornered him on a visit to Santa Fe...
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.
Canadian loudspeaker company PSB International celebrated both its 25th anniversary in July and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of its Stratus series. (I review the latest version of the flagship Stratus speaker, the Gold i, elsewhere in this issue.) Started by Paul Barton and two friends in the summer of 1972, PSB Speakers was named after Paul and his high-school sweetheart Sue (now his wife). Paul & Sue Barton Speakers is now part of Lenbrook Industries, which distributes NAD, Marantz, and Bang & Olufsen in Canada, and which in turn is part of the Canadian conglomerate Lenbrook Inc.
Audio designers may differ in their specific design approaches, but the best of them have in common a real passion for their craft. I certainly found this when I visited the Hales Design Group factory in Huntington Beach, California. Although still in his early 30s, Paul Hales has been involved in the design and manufacture of high-quality loudspeakers for almost a decade—first with the Hales Audio partnership, then with his own company, Hales Design Group. When he was just 23, an age when most people are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Paul had a speaker company and a speaker, the System Two Signature, that got a rave review in Stereophile (Vol.13 No.9, September 1990). Naturally, my first question was about beginnings...
Madrigal's chief executive officer is known for working well into the night, but that's been a goal of his since boyhood. For many years he dreamed of becoming a professional guitarist, and even dropped out of Yale to satisfy a ravenous musical appetite. "Enough of trying to be a Renaissance man," Phil Muzio recalls thinking at the time. His aim was to be out there on the bandstand making music.
Someone, I forget who it was, once wrote a perceptive essay on how in any field of human endeavor, apparent perfection is attained only when that field is in the process of being superseded. The Palace at Versailles was built when the power of the French monarchy was well into decline; Wagner's "music of the future" was in fact the end of a particular line of development; the nuvistor was developed almost simultaneously with the silicon transistor which would render tubes almost obsolete; and six years after the commercial introduction of Compact Disc, with record shops increasingly filling up with silver discs, to the detriment of black, turntables exist which render LP playback pretty much on a level with CD technically (many audiophiles, of course, feel that the LP has always been musically ahead).
Why had a high-end hi-fi magazine felt the need to produce a classical LP when the thrust of real record companies in 1989 is almost exclusively toward CD and cassette? Why did the magazine's editors think they had a better chance than most experienced professional engineers in making a record with audiophile sound quality? Were they guilty of hubris in thinking that the many years between them spent practicing the profession of critic would qualify them as record producers?
Determined to find out more about Revel's Ultima Salon2, I tracked down designer Kevin Voecks late on the second day of the 2008 Consumer Electronic Show. I persuaded him to step outside the demonstration suite of Harman International Industries, Revel's owner, high atop the Las Vegas Hilton. We spent an hour chatting about Voecks's design goals for Revel's new flagship. I asked Kevin what had led his team at Revel to develop a new Ultima Salon loudspeaker after 10 years?
Way back in the mists of time, around 1980 to be exact, the Marantz company in Europe introduces a range of ostensibly cost-no-object solid-state electronics under the "Esotec" banner. Manufactured in Japan, but apparently designed in the USA, these ruggedly constructed components are noteworthy in that the power amplifiers are capable of being operated with the output stages running under class-A bias as well as class-B. The relatively expensive Esotec amplifiers sell in small numbers in the UKremember that this is before the rebirth of the British high endand pass into the history books. I am reminded of them, however, when I visit my friend Ivor Humphreys of Gramophone magazine at Christmas 1987; he is using a pair of the 30W mono class-A Marantz amplifiers to drive KEF R107sand making very nice sounds.
Richard Sequerra was born in 1929 and raised in various parts of the US by his mother, who worked for the Department of State. By the time he was 20, he had launched a freelance career that has since spanned a wide range of technologies. During a stint at Marantz in the 1960s, he worked with Sidney Smith on that firm's famed Marantz 10B tuner, which was sold from 1964 through 1970. Subsequent products have included the Sequerra 1 tuner and the Metronome 7 loudspeaker, originally produced by Sequerra's firm Pyramid and now hand-assembled by its creator, who offers the most recent version via his website, for less than half what it cost through retail channels when Sam Tellig praised it in the July 2007 Stereophile. Sequerra's newest transducersa self-amplified nearfield speaker and matching subwoofer designed for Internet music listeningremain in prototype form; he hopes to sell or license the designs rather than manufacture and market them himself.
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.