Doug Sax is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and outspoken figures in audio. As co-founder, with Lincoln Mayorga, of Sheffield Lab, Doug pioneered the first modern direct-to-disc recording. His perfectionist methods may be controversial, but the results certainly are not: Sheffield Lab recordings are nearly universally praised by the audiophile community, while the Billboard Hot 100 always features at least one Sax-cut disc.
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?
As fascinating as the design of high-end hardware can be, it goes without question that without musical software (or firmware, as our more computer-minded readers would have it) of an appropriately high standard, the whole business would be pointless. Stereophile's interviews have therefore often featured engineers and producers whose recorded work reveals sound quality to be a major concern. I interviewed Performance Recordings' James Boyk back in Vol.9 No.6; J. Gordon Holt spoke in Vol.10 No.3 with Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga, of Sheffield Lab, and with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, about their history-making Moscow sessions; JGH also discussed Brad Miller's and Lou Dorren's Colossus digital project in Vol.10 No.1 and Vol.11 No.4; while last month Dick Olsher interviewed Peter McGrath, responsible for some superb-sounding recordings for Harmonia Mundi USA as well as for his own Audiofon label.
One of the things that fascinates me about the field of box loudspeaker design is how few original talents there are capable of designing a model from first principles. Yes, armed with the Thiele-Small papers on bass alignment, an understanding of filter theory, and a working knowledge of the OEM drive-unit field, almost anyone can, and has, come up with one commercially and sonically successful design—given a fair degree of luck. And the teams of well-trained engineers at companies like KEF, B&W, and Celestion have shown that they can produce a steady stream of affordable boxes with a high ratio of performance for the dollar. But for an individual to create more than just one good box speaker requires a modicum of genius, and genius is thin on the ground.
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.
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.
Editor's Introduction: One of the big industry stories of 1985 was the split, both personal and commercial, between the British Linn and Naim companies. Led by Ivor Tiefenbrun and Julian Vereker (footnote 1) respectively, both companies had started up in the early 1970s. Both men held similar views, both about the fat-cat complacency of British designers (which had led to a grievous sound-quality slump in the mid '70s), and about the system rethinking necessary for what some writers, unaware of the rigors of thought required by followers of that spiritual descendant of Fowler, William Safire, would term a "quantum leap" forward in sound reproduction.
Elsewhere in this issue, I review the new Spica Angelus loudspeaker, only the fourth product to appear from this Santa Fe-based manufacturer since it started operations at the end of the 1970s. You will have to read the review to learn what I thought of the speaker, a distinctively styled floor-standing two-way, but I also thought it would be beneficial to talk with Spica's founder and chief engineer John Bau. I therefore made arrangements to meet with him in their facility just a couple of blocks from Stereophile's old Early Street HQ. I had been told that John was tall, but until he unfolded himself from his stool in his laboratory, surrounded by computers and computerized test equipment, I had not realized how tall! Undaunted, I settled into a conventional chair, pointed the microphone in a vaguely upward direction, and asked John how he had gotten into loudspeaker design.—John Atkinson
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).
In its first three years, UK hi-fi manufacturer Mission Electronics employed a number of engineers to reinforce the creative talents of founder and hi-fi enthusiast Farad Azima. The lineup included John Bicht, now with Versa Dynamics, and Stan Curtis, now heading up Cambridge Audio. But when Farad's brother Henry"Henry" is actually a nickname and I am sure you can see the derivationjoined the company in 1979, he brought both a much-needed stability, and initiated a considerable degree of commercial success for the company's products. Now resident in Canada, he spends his time commuting between his laboratory in Toronto and the company's headquarters near Cambridge, England (footnote 1). Prior to joining Mission, however, Henry had served in the Iranian Navy for 15 years, an unusual training for an audio engineer. I asked him if this had been an appropriate preparation for the world of hi-fi.
Henry Azima: I had actually been a student in the UK, studying electronic engineering at the University of Surrey in Guildford. When I left the Navy in 1979 after the revolution in Iran, I moved to the UK and got a job with my previous University as an Assistant Lecturer and Researcher. However, Farad then asked me out of the blue to join Mission. I said, "Well, I have no idea about hi-fi, and stuff like that." He said, "You will learn, there's no problem!"
Bill Firebaugh's first product, the outrageous-looking Well-Tempered (tone) Arm, established him as one of audio's most innovative designers. At the 1985 Winter CES, he showed a prototype companion product—the Well-Tempered Turntable—and was producing production units by January 1987. He discusses here the WTT's unusual design features. (Readers should note that, since we have not yet tested the new turntable, this interview is not to be interpreted as an endorsement of the product.)
It was eight years ago that I first met Aalt Jouk van den Hul. I was visiting Ortofon in Denmark, and, with a group of hi-fi journalists from all over Europe, was traveling by bus to visit the cartridge-production facility in the far south of that country. Bus journeys are not my ideal way of passing time; naturally I gravitated to the rear of the bus, where bottles of Tuborg were making their presence felt. One journalist, however—a pixieish fellow hailing from The Low Countries—resisted the blandishments of the opened bottles. Producing a sheath of black-and-white glossies from his briefcase, he announced that he had just developed the ultimate stylus profile!
It is a widely held belief that musicians do not assess hi-fi equipment in the same way as "audiophiles." I remember the British conductor Norman Del Maran underrated conductor if ever there was onestill being perfectly satisfied in 1981 with his 78 player, never having felt the need to go to LP, let alone to stereo. And some musicians do seem oblivious to the worst that modern technology can do. I was present at the infamous Salzburg CD conference in 1982, for example, where Herbert von Karajan, following one of the most unpleasant sound demonstrations in recorded history, announced that "All else is gaslight!" compared with what we had just heard. J. Gordon Holt proposed a couple of years back ("As We See It," Vol.8 No.1) that sound is not one of the things in reproduced music to which musicians listen. I have also heard it said that even the highest fidelity is so far removed from live music that a musician, immersed in the real thing, regards the difference between the best and the worst reproduced sound as irrelevant to the musical message: both are off the scale of his or her personal quality meter.
"Turntable Wars" was the phrase used by Anthony H. Cordesman to head his review of the Oracle, SOTA, and VPI turntables in Vol.9 No.4. To judge from the reaction of the manufacturers at CES to this innocent phraseology, you would have thought that Stereophile had been warmongering, rather than publishing what were actually pretty positive opinions of the products concerned. So enraged was Jacques Riendeau of Oracle, and concerned that the record be put straight, that he insisted on a "right to reply" to AHC's review; as it happened, Ivor Tiefenbrun and Charlie Brennan of Linn (right in photograph, footnote 1), and SOTA's Rodney Herman (center in photo, footnote 2), also wanted to contribute to the debate, so a small crowd of illuminati gathered in Room 417 of the Americana Congress to commit opinions to tape. I held the microphone and clicked the shutter; Larry Archibald (left in photo) was there to lend the proceedings a businesslike air.
Stereophile: You are president of Esoteric Audio Research, a British manufacturer of tube amplifiers, and a world-renowned designer of tube equipment and output transformers. I thought we'd begin with a little background. Where were you born? What kind of education did you get to prepare you for a career in audio?