Few people in the audio business would deny that John Curl is an audio design genius—arguably the greatest one of our generation. He designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. (The other is Keith Johnson's home-brew unit.) He designed the JC-1 head amp and JC-2 preamplifier sold under the Mark Levinson name some years ago. He designed head amps for SOTA, Michaelson & Austin (TVA), and has done consulting work for more high-end companies than you can shake a stick at.
There is something vaguely disturbing about the idea of an $8000 turntable and arm combination. That's more money than a lot of audiophiles have invested in records through the years. Total overkill! Or so it might seem. But the entire history of analog disc reproduction, from the first LP to the present, has been one of seemingly open-ended discoveries—of subtleties nobody ever imagined were frozen in those tiny grooves, of levels of quality no one ever guessed the medium was capable of. Yes, newer LPs are a lot better than the first ones, but that is only to be expected in any technologically advancing field. What is amazing about the LP is that, 40 years after its introduction, we are still finding out that all of them, from the first to the latest, are better than anyone could have imagined. An improved phono unit doesn't just make the latest release from Wilson Audio or Reference Recordings sound better, it does the same for every LP you own!
One of the nicest features of the High End is its diversity. Regardless of whatever trend is fashionable, there will always be manufacturers to buck it, and sell alternative concepts and sounds. VMPS is just such a case. With few exceptions, the recent trend in speaker systems has been toward small-to-medium-sized "monitors" with good imaging and high resolution, but limited bass and dynamics (footnote 1). The VMPS SuperTowers provide the former, but buck the trend by adding reproduction of the deepest bass and outstanding full-range dynamics.
There is something refreshingly no-nonsense about the design and construction of this turntable. It looks as if someone just said, Okay, this, that, and the other thing need to be done. Let's do it. And then they did it. In appearance at least, it is about as simple a design as you're likely to find. What sets it apart from other simple designs is that this one is built like a battleship! Everything is heavy-duty (notto mention heavy), from the 10-lb, lead-laminated aluminum platter to the ¼"steel-reinforced subchassis.
Not only does the venerable vacuum tube refuse to lie down and die, as everyone predicted when audio went solid-state; it continues to deliver better performance than anyone had imagined it could. Only a few years ago, we could characterize "the tube sound" as being sweet but soft at the high end, rich but loose in the midbass, deficient in deep bass, and bright and forward, usually with excellent reproduction of depth. Since then, we've seen the introduction of what might almost be called a new generation of tube amplifiers, which rival solid-state units in those areas where tubes used to have weaknesses, but have given up little of the tube's sonic strengths.
First I should clear up what may be an ambiguity in the driver-lineup spec for these speakers. In each system, three 8" cone units serve as woofers. Two of these crossover from the midrange drivers at 100Hz. Crossover to the third 8-incher, the subwoofer, is at 40Hz. Thus, two woofers are active from 100Hz down to 40Hz, and all three are active below 40. In other words, the third woofer does not come into play until the frequency drops to the point where the radiating area of two 8-inchers starts to become inadequate for moving air, at which point the additional area of the third speaker is thrown in. Below 40Hz, all three are working together.
In 1960 the high-fidelity field was in a period of stasis. The hi-fi boom was starting to crest out, and there were three magazines for audiophiles: High Fidelity, Stereo Review and Audio. The first two were (and still are) little more than vehicles for their advertising, more dedicated to promoting their advertisers' wares than in advancing the state of the art. Audio was more into equipment testing than either of the mass-hi-fi magazines, but it too was contributing to the stagnation by listening to its test results rather than to the components.
Editor's Introduction: Thirty years ago this month, in September 1962, J. Gordon Holt, lately Technical Editor of High Fidelity magazine, was working on the contents of the first issue of his brainchild The Stereophile, a magazine that would judge components on how they actually sounded. We thought it appropriate, therefore, to use the occasion of the 1992 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, held in late May in Chicago, to invite some 200 members of the international high-end industry to a dinner to celebrate the occasion. Larry Archibald dug deep into the magazine's coffers; Ralph Johnson took time off from organizing the 1993 High End Hi-Fi Show to burn up the long-distance telephone lines faxing invitations; the conversation was excellent, the food superb, and the wine even better. Which is probably why the venerable JGH took the opportunity to remind the assembled luminaries what this whole business is supposed to be about. Here follows the text of his speech. I hope you find it as stimulating reproduced in these pages as did those who heard it live.—John Atkinson
1987 will mark Stereophile's 25th year of continuous (if initially sometimes sporadic) publication. And while we haven't yet decided what we're going to do in celebration, the first issue of 1987 does seem to be as good a time as any to contrast the state of the audio art when we began publication with what is routinely possible today.
As another Consumer Electronics Show rolls around, we are seeing some interesting and not-entirely encouraging things taking place in the audio field. The people for whom high fidelity was originally intendedso-called serious music listeners have abandoned audio almost completely, leaving the pursuit of perfect music reproduction to a group of hobbyists who have more interest in hardware than in music. This, plus the recession, has almost killed middle-fi, which is now flailing out in all directions looking for a new market. Here's how it all came to pass:
Dateline: late August 1989. The scene: my palatial office in the Stereophile Tower. Present were the magazine's official technowizard Robert Harley, Circulation Kahuna Michael Harvey, and myself. The subject under discussion was the program for the Stereophile Test CD, launched in this issue, and Bob had been dazzling Michael and myself with a description of the sophisticated signal-processing power offered by the Digidesign Sound Tools music editing system with which he had outfitted his Macintosh IIX computer. (He had to fit it with a 600-megabyte hard-disk drive!) "It'll even do edits as crossfades as well as butt joins," enthused Bob. "Let me tell you about the crossfade I once did when editing a drum solo for a CD master that lasted ten seconds..."
A very popular myth among the audio unwashedand one still perpetuated by the pop hi-fi writersis that nothing is to be gained by paying more than $1000 for a stereo system (footnote 1). Members of the general public, including masses of people who enjoy live, unamplified music, have the impression that more money simply buys one wider and wider frequency range, and defend their $500 "compact" systems with the lame excuse that their ears aren't all that good, and who needs to hear what bats hear anyway? This is no doubt a soothing emollient for one's disinclination to invest more money in audio gear, but it is a supreme self-deception.
Most audiophiles know Mobile Fidelity as the record company with the philosophy of resurrecting old, important, recorded performances and re-releasing them with (hopefully) the kind of sound they should have had in the first place. Few audiophiles are aware that Mobile Fidelity is also the name of a (different) recording company which collects sound effects in four channels for motion picture and television post-production.
Every engineer has known for years that, while beryllium has excellent physical qualities for use as a speaker radiatorlight weight, rigidity, and a remarkable degree of internal dampingit is not usable as such because it cannot be stamped out like most other materials. It will not stretch, and any attempt to shape it simply causes it to split.