A.J. van den Hul: Going Dutch Page 6

van den Hul: My experience with the European press has been that there was a certain skepticism about the carbon-fiber cables because it's a new material. After reviewers listened to the product, however, they were extremely happy with the quality. There is more openness there toward products using a different approach, a different idea.

You will find very few journalists declaring that there is no difference. We're all human beings—we all have two ears, two eyes, one nose, one mouth, and two arms. But are we all the same? No. We are all blessed with creativity, but everyone uses his creativity in a different way. Why cannot a creative designer create equipment that is different from another piece of equipment that has been created by another creative designer with a different style, feeling, mood, taste, education, family tradition? Or in amplifiers, for instance: different components, different printed circuit board layouts, circuitry, ground system design, wiring, looping, a feedback system, a feedforward system? As long as different people work on different things, the results will be different. How can it be that the results will be the same?

The Second balanced carbon cable has been used by several recording companies. They are strongly committed to the sound-quality improvement this cable makes over metal cables. If all cables are the same, why do they hear a significant difference? Why are microphones all different, technicians using specific microphones for specific purposes? If all microphones are the same, all recordings should be the same. (footnote 1)

Norton: Is your preference for balanced operation?

van den Hul: Yes. With the carbon interconnects, there is the possibility of hum loops in the unbalanced mode; but in the balanced mode, there isn't.

Norton: Building cartridges seems to be your favorite audio occupation. How did you get into the arcane business of retipping, modifying, and building phono cartridges?

van den Hul: It was a challenge. Being a journalist, I once visited a tip manufacturer who was supposedly producing round tips [spherical styli]. But he got elliptical tips from his machine, and didn't understand why. At that time, I was not particularly interested in tips, but more in cartridges in general, so I tried to explain to him how a tip worked in a groove. By explaining it to him, I simply got the idea that what we were all doing was wrong. We had a round tip tracing a groove.

By reducing the radius [of the tip front to back] and enlarging the vertical dimension, I made, at that time, the sharpest edge available. It would track all the minor movements cut in the groove by the cutter. Reverberation in the recording, especially, is smeared out by the round tip—all kinds of minor movements are not traced by it. So you have to reduce the [front-to-back radius] and enlarge the vertical dimension of the tip to maintain groove contact and improve resolution. That was the main idea.

The biggest problem was to find a manufacturer who could do that. My first manufacturer couldn't. The second did it after two years of research in grinding, polishing, and so on. That was in 1976. To the present, 1.3 million tips worldwide have been sold and used. So it has been a success. Not too many nice ideas in audio have ever reached that number.

Norton: Do you also get involved with cantilevers?

van den Hul: Yes. We start with the tip, the next step is the cantilever, the next step is the coil and the armature, and the next step is the magnet system.

Norton: And you have a whole new cartridge.

van den Hul: You have a whole new cartridge. So it worked out. At the moment, I have a very nice cartridge called the Grasshopper. It's the result of the many years' experience I've had in collecting, building, testing, and repairing cartridges.

Norton: The Grasshopper is built from the ground up by you?

van den Hul: Yes. No other manufacturer produces any specific part. It's all built up from the basic parts.

Norton: Do you still find that you have a significant business in retipping other cartridges?

van den Hul: Yes. In a year I retip about 1000 to 1200 cartridges, worldwide. And I work on about 400 to 500 new units a year. So it's not that big. That's all lines together—the cheapest and the most expensive. And the Grasshopper is, I think, up to about 400 units a year total, worldwide.

Norton: I would think that, as the new-cartridge market gets smaller, with fewer new cartridges available, more and more collectors will ask you to retip and refurbish their older cartridges. Are the retippings you do today just that, or do you also replace the cantilevers?

van den Hul: Oh, many, many more things. Cartridges are getting older and older—with no replacements available from the manufacturers. This means that, every time a cartridge comes to me, a little bit more rework, replacement, adjustment, refining, cleaning, and tuning are needed before the cartridge is again in proper working condition. So it takes more time and effort now to do a specific cartridge than it did, say, five, six, seven years ago, because the cartridge has aged another five, six, or seven years.

It's a pity the Garrott brothers passed away, because they did a lot of work (footnote 2). I received more business because of their passing than I expected. We've refurbished cartridges done by them before.

Norton: There are many people who feel that the first thing to actually go in a cartridge is not the stylus, but the damping materials.

van den Hul: Damping materials do age faster than tips, but not when the latter is an artificial diamond. Artificial diamonds, with a lot of impurities, have a very short lifetime of about 400 to 500 hours. A very good, natural, crystal-oriented diamond—the type I use—has a life of around 2500 to 3000 hours. So it's worthwhile to replace a cheap tip with a better one, because your cartridge will last longer. If the damping material is an artificial rubber, or a good blend of artificial rubbers, yes, it will also last 2500 to 3000 hours.

But there's one thing I would like to bring up here, and stress with all the power and force I can. Never use a cable enhancer on a cartridge, because you will really burn the cartridge's coils. I've had in many cartridges in which people had used a cable enhancer to break-in the tonearm wires—forgetting that the cartridge was still attached at the other end of the arm. The coils were completely burned out—the enhancer even heated them up so much that the rubber and everything was melted together into a sticky paste.

I'm not referring to cartridge demagnetizers—I'm referring just to the regular cable burners, to warn everyone...

Norton: The ones people use to break-in their cables.

van den Hul: Yes. The current is too high. The 20µm wire used for cartridge coil winding is more or less a fuse. It gets really hot, you come close to the melting point of the copper or silver wire, you really stick and burn everything together.

Please, don't do it.

Norton: So if someone were inclined to use one of these devices to break-in their tonearm cable, they should short the cable out.

van den Hul: Yes. Take out the cartridge [from the loop], leaving only the tonearm wires (footnote 3).

Norton: And breaking-in the tonearm wires themselves is a good idea?

van den Hul: The normal soft-pulse demagnetizing units are good things, but I've found that it's a kind of drug—once you do it, you have to do it often. You can never stop.

Cable burn-in is very positive, because you fundamentally weld parts together with "microbridges" not present before the burn-in. But as soon as you bend the cable by lifting it, you break them open again. So once you've burned-in the cable, don't touch it—leave it as it is, because as soon as you move it, you break it open and must start again.

Norton: That makes it a rather impossible situation for reviewers, who can't leave things alone. We have to constantly move things around.

van den Hul: You don't need to burn it in again for long. A lot of people do it for 24 hours—they don't need to. Once it's "microbridged," it's not necessary. But temperature variations make cables move. Sound on a wooden floor makes the floor move, so you break it again (footnote 4).

Norton: In your work on designing and modifying, and on retipping and building cartridges, have you developed feelings on how much of it is art or craft and how much is science?

van den Hul: It is not a wet-finger process. It's really science how a magnetic modulator works, it's really science how a wire works, it's really science how a damper works, and it's really science how long a suspension wire should be. It can all be calculated and optimized. You can learn things by a lot of trial and error, by practice. But the best way is to calculate things—you have to do it that way. A cartridge is not a happy [accident]. It's really physics.

Norton: What do you see as the future of analog, since that has been a subject of keen interest to you over the years?

van den Hul: At the moment I do not see a further drop-off in interest in analog. I even sense a growing interest. Of the most recent shows I've seen, the one that astonished me most was the high-end show in Frankfurt, where there was a huge interest in analog. So I think analog will be revitalized. People will further improve analog reproduction systems to maintain, specifically, the musical value of recordings not available on CD. [Digital] has been pushed strongly in the market. It was [promoted as] the solution. And I'm sure a lot of things will be digitized in the future. But I also respect people who think that analog is the better solution. You shouldn't have to eat white bread when you think brown bread is better. Give everyone the freedom to buy brown bread, whether you like brown bread or white bread.

I'm not a hard nut when someone likes digital. Let him think digital. When he likes analog, I think he should have the right to choose analog. My personal love is more analog than digital.

A lot of money has been invested to upgrade the image of digital. It was a very bad system when it was introduced—the technology was very limited. So it was just marketing. Analog was pushed into the corner. It took several years before analog people realized we had a good thing—why should we stop? So analog came back, and now there's a healthy battle between digital and analog.

I completely agree with digital people that analog has a lot of defects. But from the same point of view, analog people can also argue with digital people that there are defects in digital. So rather than point out the defects, why not share our love of good sound reproduction, using both technologies to help everyone who really loves music?

Norton: Do you have any advice to give our readers in choosing the right hi-fi system?

van den Hul: The most important thing is to first choose the right hi-fi dealer. The right system comes later, automatically. A good dealer demonstrates in a normal living situation; he is a regular concert-goer; he uses both CD and vinyl; his loudspeakers are not set up in a massive soundwall, but in individual pairs, on good stands, at a client's request. Don't go in on a Saturday. Make an appointment and arrange for what you want to hear in advance. Once you have found a good dealer, listen to his advice. He is the expert, and you learn from him.

Norton: Have you dabbled in other areas of audio—amplifiers, loudspeakers?

van den Hul: Yes. We have produced a 1250W, 8 ohm power amplifier for a big recording studio in South Africa. It has opened the door for electronics to us. I'm also working on a very good D/A converter.

So, as long as audio is a way in which people can communicate, I think that anything you can do to improve the quality, the better. What you see here in Las Vegas is lack of communication. You see all the slot machines, people sitting there putting in coins, spending what I've calculated on some machines to be $100 a minute. They just feed in $100, only communicating with machines. There are better things in life than to communicate with machines.

We have created a lot of machines around us—the telephone, television, radio—all artificial things. So we lose the ability to communicate with each other, or we communicate with other people through machines. I think that takes away a lot of the value of communication. In the past, people could communicate together without all those things. The sooner we learn to communicate again, the better.

Footnote 1: AJ's remarks here were a bit unclear, and in adjusting the wording to read smoothly—his English is excellent, but his syntax somewhat unidiomatic—the final version here may overstate his intent. With his expertise in transducers—primarily phono cartridges—I'm certain that he's aware that experts will not dispute the fact that important differences still exist in cartridges, loudspeakers, and microphones. And for clearly measurable reasons.—TJN

Footnote 2: The Garrott brothers of Australia, who passed away in 1991, performed similar retipping and modification work on phono cartridges. Their work was better known in Europe—particularly the UK—than in the US.—TJN

Footnote 3: Disconnect the pins from the cartridge, short them out (left ground tied to left hot, right ground to right hot, but left and right still isolated) so that the cartridge is completely out of the circuit; do your break-in, then reconnect the cartridge. Be sure you know the color coding of the leads on your tonearm (check your manual) before you start. If you need more of an explanation than this to perform the operation, you shouldn't attempt it at all.—TJN

Footnote 4: It later occurred to me that if these easily broken "microbridges" are, as van den Hul suggests, the operative mechanism, then you can never effectively break-in your tonearm wires, subject as they are to both vibration from inevitable tonearm resonances, and flexing at the arm pivot.—TJN