Allen Perkins: From Bicycles to Belt Drives Page 3

"I know of no other cables that are made this way," Perkins told me. "For about eight years after the design came out, there weren't any machines that could make it. I never considered it a viable product because it had to be handmade in small quantities, and I only want to distribute products that I can deliver upon demand. I hate disappointing people. Now we can finally make cables in whatever quantities we need."

Perkins praised Roberding's unique, single-gauge, multistranded design, which is patented. The cable's geometry is claimed to dramatically lower skin-effect and time-variation delays while addressing issues of impedance and capacitance.

"When we were at CES these past two years," he said, "the system sounded really, really good for a show system. Nobody even knew we were using the cable because it doesn't jump out at you. It's very thin and flexible, and can hide on the floor. It makes the most holographic, low-distortion, and neutral-sounding presentation I've ever heard."

Perkins then added one of the characteristic verbal footnotes that display the straight-talking approach that has earned him respect. "Let's be honest. Everybody talks about neutral, but it's their neutral. I have my own idea of neutral. For me, these [cables] are very neutral."

Spiral Groove Turntables Mirror Their Maker
When asked what is special about his Spiral Groove turntables, Perkins replied, "What I am is in the design. It is an extension of my personality. My sense of reasoning and decision-making lead me to certain choices that manifest in the turntables, just as they manifest in everything else in my life.

"The meditation process is at the foundation of how I approach things. It's an effort to throw out emotional responses by recognizing them for what they are, and not let them drive me. When I get angry, I examine what stirred up the anger. I learn much, much more that way. If I look at a turntable, for example, I ignore all the hype. Instead, I ask what are the basic underlying requirements of getting the record to spin steady without introducing extra noise, and play it back in a pure form. I try to look at it from the perspective of the source, rather than getting caught up in surface concerns.

"I'm not much of a follower of trends or fashions. I don't look at other people's arms or turntables, although I do remember what I've seen so that I don't waste time reinventing the wheel. I don't take other designs apart to find out how they're doing what they're doing. I don't know what materials they're using, or what they cost, for the most part. I don't do marketing research to make designs.

"Designs are rarely perfect," he acknowledges. "Maybe a perfect sphere is perfect. A turntable is supposed to play back a record at a constant speed without inducing any of its own noise or sonic signature. That's the fundamental goal. It's very basic. After identifying the goal, I investigate the sources of problems that prevent me from achieving it. Of course, the most basic sources are the motor and the bearing. Then there are other influences, including the cartridge. I look at all the different variables, which in the case of turntables include the length, shape, and smoothness of the bearing, whether it's oil, whether the motor is DC or AC, etc. Then I do visualization exercises to address problems in the most efficient way possible."

In focusing on his fundamental goal and paying special attention to basic design problems that remain unsolved, Perkins finds himself especially critical of the constant readdressing and repackaging of old, deeply flawed designs from as much as 20 years ago. For example, he suggests that makers of tonearms often refuse to acknowledge longstanding design problems, because to do so would mean that they would have to cease manufacturing their product and start over from scratch.

Sometimes, of course, Perkins ends up doing exactly what earlier designers have done—but many of his designs, even those that appear more or less conventional, are quite different inside. For examples, he believes that his platter bearing is very different from those used in other turntables in that the spindle and platter bearing are decoupled yet precisely aligned. He also claims to have solved a fundamental problem with tonearm counterweights, though he was characteristically reticent when I asked about the details.

"I looked back half a century or so, and virtually nobody had done what I've now done. I don't understand why. Every time someone looks at the arm and I explain what I've done, they're kinda quiet. Then they ask why no one ever did it before. Maybe everybody has copied everybody else for the last 50 years."

Although Perkins has long been able to visualize solutions, only recently has he gained access to computer-modeling techniques that allow him to achieve his vision. Thanks to CAD, he is now able to make far fewer and only slightly differing prototypes of his tonearm before settling on the design that works best.

"I have great appreciation for modern technology. Even though I'm making turntables, I'm not at all a Luddite when it comes to how things get done."

Sex Appeal
As any veteran of audio shows can attest, a favorite attendee sport is ogling turntables that are visually stupefying and outrageously expensive. Though I'm sure there are serious design rationales behind the apparent madness of a turntable that looks like something from Magical Mystery Tour crossed with something from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, such a product undoubtedly owes its appearance to something more than the quest for optimal functionality.

Spiral Groove's two belt-driven turntable models have an elegant, understated simplicity of appearance. In comparison to much flashier five-figure babies, the SG1 ($25,000) and SG2 ($15,000) have little sex appeal. Despite Perkins's protestations—"Don't be that mean to them; they have curves!"—to dazzle was not his desire. His goal has always been to create a turntable that neither injects its own sound nor passes along outside influences.

Although Perkins was loath to be seen as setting himself apart from other manufacturers, I did finally get him to discuss the fundamental design differences between the Spiral Grooves and other turntables. Perkins's 'tables achieve extra strength and rigidity because their intentionally compact designs resist bending. "Mass is an easy marketing ploy," he said. "To make something big and heavy isn't clever, even though people see it as more impressive. You can make it shiny, or use clear acrylic for the same reason. I don't use those materials because I've listened to them. They don't do the things I want them to do. No matter how many people will jump at the chance to have a clear turntable, I'm not going to make one for them, because I don't think it sounds good."