Whenever an audio high-ender thinks about tubes, he usually thinks about Audio Research. This is only natural, because Audio Research Corporation was almost single-handedly responsible for saving tubes from oblivion in the early '70s when everyone else switched to solid-state. But ARC was soon joined in its heroic endeavor by an upstart company called Conrad-Johnson, which entered the fray in 1977 with its PV-1 preamp, priced at an affordable (even then) $500.
From time to time in this column, I have alluded to what appears to be a loss of direction in high-end audio. It's not that the state of the audio art has stopped advancing; the technology is improving in many ways, as is obvious every time we listen to a new preamplifier or cartridge or loudspeaker that has better this, that, or the other thing than anything which has come before. The problem is that these improvements don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. And I believe the reason for this is that the audio community no longer agrees about where audio is supposed to be going in the first place.
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.
In 1966, two avid audiophile/music lovers—a nuclear physicist named Arnold Nudell and an airline pilot named Cary Christie—labored over weekends and evenings for 18 months in Nudell's garage to put together the world's first hybrid electrostatic/dynamic loudspeaker system. It cost them $5000 for materials, launched a company (New Technology Enterprises), and helped contribute to the popular myth that all of the really important audiophile manufacturers got started in somebody's basement or garage (footnote 1). The system was marketed as the Servo-Statik I, for the princely sum of $1795. (At the time, the most expensive loudspeaker listed in Stereo Review's "Stereo/Hi-Fi Directory" was JBL's "Metregon," at $1230.)
For a subjective equipment reviewer, whose writings are based as much on impressions as on observations, it is very important to approach a product without personal bias. Of course, all of us lay claim to this ideal, and some of us even manage to maintain the appearance of impartiality most of the time. But just under the reviewer's veneer of urbane professionalism and deliberative restraint lies a darker force—a leering hobgoblin of anarchy and mischief which scoops usually forbidden adjectives from a well of calumny and offers them for the writer's consideration as the perfect word to describe what he is trying to express. It's an ever-present temptation to accept the suggestion, because every critic harbors a secret urge to be another Dorothy Parker, trashing mankind's most earnest endeavors with devastating bon mots that will endure long after the writer has ceased to. Most of the time, the reviewer is able to resist the temptation to broadside a product, but some products, and the people they represent, make this very difficult. In fact, sometimes it is impossible.
Although most audio perfectionists look down with scorn on equalizers, there are times when the benefits of such devices can outweigh their disadvantages. I discussed the pros and cons in my review of the Accuphase G-18 in Vol.11 No.4, but a brief recap here won't be amiss.
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.
A letter in the April 1988 issue (Vol.11 No.4) from reader Harold Goldman, MD, decried the seemingly appalling failure rate of high-end products, citing a $10,000/pair power amplifier, an $11,000 turntable, and a $1500 CD player which had all been reported in recent issues as having failed during or shortly after testing by Stereophile. And Dr. Goldman's list was far from complete. We have also experienced during the past couple of years the failure, or inoperation upon delivery, of two $2500 solid-state power amplifiers, a $1700 subwoofer, a $5000 hybrid amplifier, two pairs of $1200 loudspeakers, several pairs of under-$1000 loudspeakers, and many CD players costing over $1000 each, mainly those based on Philips transports.
During the late 1950s, when high fidelity exploded into a multimillion-dollar industry, product advertisements bragged about bringing the orchestra into your living room. Apparently, no one realized what an absurd concept it was, but there are still many people today who believe that's what audio is all about. It isn't. There is no way a real orchestra could fit into the average living room, and if it could, we would not want to be around when it played. Sound levels of 115dB are just too loud for most sane people, and that's what a full orchestral fortissimo can produce in a small room.
PSB is a small, Toronto-based manufacturer that has been collaborating with Canada's National Research Council to try and take some of the guesswork, some would say magic, out of loudspeaker design.
The NRC, financed by the Canadian government, does basic research in many technological areas and makes its findings available to any firm wishing to use them. (Most other countries provide or encourage this kind of government/business cooperation. It is against the law in the US, to our great disadvantage.) The NRC's audio division, headed by physicist Dr. Floyd E. Toole, has devoted the last several years to the rather formidable task of defining, and assigning numbers to, the various aspects of loudspeaker performance that affect listeners' subjective assessments of their sound.