Carver Challenge Responses

Responses to the 1985 "Carver Challenge" (from February 1986, Vol.9 No.1):

Publisher's note: We anticipated a far stronger response to Bob Carver's duplication of the sound of our chosen reference amplifier (Vol.8 No.6), but the two comments below were the only official replies we received. On the other hand, many people in the industry spoke to us off the record, some in admiration, some in envy, some with a kind of disgust. I'm sure other amplifiers will come along that seem to defy duplication; perhaps Bob will be up to another challenge in a year or so.—Larry Archibald

From Charles J. Gaton, Bay Port, NYB
Bob Carver's feat was stunning, but foolish. Why give away ideas worth vast amounts of money? Moreover, it seems to me that he could have gone on to make his unit sound better than the reference. Man, what an opportunity squandered for ego's sake.

No moral or ethical issues are involved—only those of legality. No one invents out of thin air; everyone advances from previous knowledge. (Ask Tom Edison when you see him. His phonograph evolved from A. G. Bell's work on the telephone.) By the by, was Carver's amp 1.0 or 1.5? You give both designations. [Larry Archibald made a grievous error in changing the 1.0s in the original text to 1.5s; not all were changed back. The amp was the Carver 1.0.—Ed.]

Thanks for the article.—Charles J. Gaton

From Harvey Rosenberg (New York Audio Labs)
The ego-secure among us will admit that Bob Carver (BC) is an innovative designer, a red-blooded American hero, a paradoxical showman, and deserving of every bit of the great success he has achieved in the mid-fi market. I have even inquired about licensing his patented power supply design.

As we all know, it is a cruel world; if BC can replicate the sound of a state-of-the-art transformer-coupled tube amplifier (which seems to be the model in this experiment), or a Futterman OTL amplifier, at a fraction of their cost, then tough darts on Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and New York Audio Labs. The savage laws of competition rule the world. On the other hand, is there any substance to these periodic Carver amplifier challenges?

After finishing the Stereophile article it struck me that I had read a technically more sophisticated version of it three years ago—except that it was written by Peter Aczel, editor of the defunct (even at that time) Audio Critic magazine. For new members of the high-end audio community, it should be noted that during its operation, Audio Critic was considered a serious underground publication. Two Mark Levinson ML-2 amplifiers were used in the 1982 Carver Amplifier Challenge. I also found a 1981 article about BC's replication of a Bedini, and demonstrating it at audio clubs. In other words, the Carver Amplifier Challenge seems to have begun five years ago. Sherlock Holmes (disguised as a manufacturer of tube gear) put on his snooping cap; something seemed manky with the Stereophile article.

Slinking down to a local high-end hi-fi emporium that sells both Levinson and Carver, I picked up a batch of Carver literature, including the Audio Critic review (copy enclosed), and took the time to listen to the Carver 1.5t—which, according to Carver/Audio Critic literature, is an exact replica of the $7000 ML-2s. The Audio Critic article says, "According to Bob, the production version is identical to the prototype he took back to Seattle from our laboratory, and nulls perfectly against it in the bridging test. He has also acquired a pair of the latest ML-2s, and is using them as his quality control standard against which every M1.5t is nulled. This means that you can now buy the ML-2 kind of sound at less than one-eighth the price, and with ten times the power."

This is where I need Stereophile's help. What I heard didn't resemble ML-2s. Perhaps my golden ears are tarnished. Gordon Holt, can you lend me your ears? I am curious. Your readers must be curious. The thousands of owners of Carver M1.5ts must be curious. Are M1.5ts replicas of the ML-2s like BC claims?

The Audio Critic article, entitled "The Deprogramming and Reformation of Bob Carver" (Winter 1982–83) ends, "It should be added in conclusion that Bob is a changed man as a result of the t-mod project. His reformation is so complete that he simply cannot understand why he had not come to the same conclusion years ago, and acted accordingly. [Here Peter Aczel is talking about BC's concern for sound quality.] It takes courage to admit past mistakes and omissions freely, without excuses, and to allow one's present work to stand as the severest critic of previous efforts. For this, as much as for the quality of his engineering mind, BC has earned our sincerest admiration."

Dearest Editors, how does this reconcile with Stereophile, Vol.8 No.6, p.44: "Secondly, Bob had never before had a chance to listen critically to a 'world class' amplifier like the one we chose as our reference, and ended up admitting that there were several things about its sound he preferred to his own amp. He might 'do some things differently in future designs.'"?

Arrggh . . . Some would say that consistency is a trait of mediocre minds, but I must ask the following questions:

1. Is there more than one Bob Carver?

2. Are the ML-2s world class amplifiers?

3. What happened to Bob's 1982 reformation, something he has been promoting to the public?

4. Did BC give the Stereophile editors copies of the Audio Critic article and describe previous amplifier challenges?

Many serious practitioners in high-end refused to take the "Carver reformation" article seriously, especially since the Audio Critic ceased operating about a year before Carver printed and distributed an estimated 100,000 copies of this article. I understand from Peter that this issue of the Audio Critic was typeset and ready to print, but he could not afford the publishing costs. Bob was able to convince Peter (one of the world's most interesting audio cynics) that he was dedicated to state-of-the-art sound now that Peter had shown him the light. Peter felt that the production of the 1.5t was a very significant event, and gave Bob permission to reprint the article. Curiously enough, it appears that as soon as BC started to distribute these articles, Carver products ceased being available for review by the underground press. (I need confirmation from Harry Pearson, Peter Moncrieff, and Gordon Holt on this.) Current Carver advertising still shows the ML-2s, and quotes from the nonexistent Audio Critic. Many of us in the high-end community feel that this isn't kosher.

While I never doubted the validity of the null test in experimental environments, I always doubted that the procedure would be applied to production amplifiers. Yet this is what BC claims. The current amplifier challenge in Stereophile still makes the same error as the Audio Critic's. You did not rigorously examine your own implication: Can an experimental amplifier be duplicated in production? You have three years of Carver 1.5t production to test your implication.

Dearest Editors: Can you understand my confusion when BC admits to Stereophile that he makes mid-fi products, having already stated, in the Carver/Audio Critic article, that he knows, understands, and is committed to replicating exactly the same high-end sound standards of the ML crowd? Even tube devotees recognize that the boys at ML are no slouches. Am I in the audio twilight zone, or is something rotten in Denmark?

Oddly enough, I hope this replication process has succeeded. I would love for BC to produce some genuine red-blooded tube amplifier replicas. It will accelerate the growth of NYAL because it would increase the public's awareness of the unique virtues of tubes. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. If BC helps us bring this awareness to a larger music-loving public, I will personally give him a big hug and a juicy kiss (just like our midrange).

State of the Art Audio Coconuts Challenge
It seems that everyone has missed the greatest potential public benefit from the null test. As most engineers know, the beauty of the null test is that it quickly demonstrates real-world audible differences in electronics, differences almost impossible to ascertain by conventional measuring techniques. For example, the differences between any two amplifiers can be demonstrated by using the null procedure (see the Audio Critic article). It's not important what the difference sounds like, but rather that every amplifier design sounds different. Why doesn't BC demonstrate his concern for naive music lovers, and take this test to High Fidelity and Stereo Review? BC certainly can use his economic power to end, once and for all, the sham promoted by the world's mealy-minded musical mid-fiers.

Here is a simple, elegant demonstration that will make it impossible to claim that "electronics that measure the same are the same." What a fine way for BC to justify Peter's pampered pearls of praise. Of course, this would require very, very large, state-of-the-art, audio coconuts (footnote 1).

The BC, Give Us Your State-of-the-Art Stuff If You've Got It, Challenge
It is hard for the high-end audio community to reconcile BC's contradictory behavior. Here is a man of formidable design talents who makes some of the most extraordinary claims for his products, uses a defunct audio publication to validate his claims, won't submit his products to the underground press for review, and makes periodic amplifier challenges. We are still waiting for the Carver Amplifier Challenge to begin.

For the serious practitioner of our art, this is how the high end audio community works: Any designer who thinks he's got the right stuff, technically and musically, submits his products for review, taking a risk with the underground press. It can be observed that, in spite of disagreements, drama, and a great deal of imperfections, the underground press has a unique integrity, and is very consistent in its judgments. Why doesn't BC stop copying others, and create his own assault on the state of the art?

A Leadership Challenge to BC
Our industry needs exciting new products. We need to stimulate the music lover by provoking his imagination to higher levels of musical expectation. BC should create exciting new audio gizmos that challenge us—this is how every industry grows. We invite your challenge. Your charisma has been misused. I do not believe that your gifts are intended to make you an audio copier. Act like a leader. Let your deeds and work set a new high standard. Join the club, pay your dues, stop hiding behind amplifier challenges, and show us your musical stuff. Go ahead, make my day!

I root for your success because you have the power to convert thousands of mid-fiers to high-enders. I'm getting so excited I can smell the green stuff already. As a reward for this, I will cover your head with a flowered garland, and carry you on my shoulders through the cheering CES proclaiming "Long live Bob Carver, our fearless leader, long live Bob Carver, our fearless leader . . ." ARS gratias artis.—Harvey Rosenberg, NYAL

Stereophile is grateful that Harvey Rosenberg has taken the time to address this issue so fully. In fact, we could have been better informed, but plead ignorance of the original Audio Critic article. Apparently we should spend more time reading Carver Corporation literature! Bob did not provide us with a copy of the article, though we had read the excerpts he used in his advertising. I would have put it more strongly than Harvey re. the use of an unpublished article in advertising: I think it's unethical, but it's Peter Aczel's bone to pick, not ours.

Reading over the Audio Critic test, which didn't in any way seem "technically more sophisticated" than ours, I was struck by a number of differences. Most important, the purpose of the Audio Critic article seemed to be to enshrine the Carver 1.5t as a "Levinson for the masses;" Stereophile was not testing a production, or proto-production, amplifier at all, nor were we endorsing the possibility that such an amplifier-matching feat could be pulled off on a production basis. Harvey's finding that the stock 1.5t doesn't sound like a pair of Levinson ML-2s is not surprising. And, in fact, Mark Levinson Audio Systems has had no objection to the publicity they've received at the hands of the Carver advertising budget; their sales have not been affected negatively.

Next in importance was the fact that Peter Aczel did not primarily use listening tests to evaluate the amplifier; he accepted the null test as a proof of amplifier identity. Sticking to our conviction that in-use application is the only way to effectively evaluate audio components, we insisted on listening tests. It turned out to be a good thing: the null test using imitation loudspeaker loads was not good enough when it came to listening, and the results of the null test were not transportable from Bob's hotel-room "laboratory" to our listening room.

In other respects I agree with Harvey. I'm somewhat chagrined to find Audio Critic quoting Bob's "reformation" statements several years before we heard him say more or less the same things—with no apparent reformation having taken place in the interim. We were unaware of the earlier statements, and can't testify as to their veracity; nor are we, of course, responsible for Bob's behavior at any time.

I'd love to see High Fidelity or Stereo Review deal with the sounds they get on a null test from any of the amplifiers they test! Rosenberg's right. (By the way, the Audio Critic article contained an error in describing a "musical" result from the null test as an indication that amplifier differences are innocuous, and an "amusical" result as an indication that the differences are important. In fact, the null test will always yield an "amusical" result, even when both amplifiers sound terrific.)

Most of all, I agree with Harvey's statement that Bob Carver should not be imitating amplifiers. Though our reference amplifier was, I think, better than a pair of Levinson ML-2s, it hardly matters: neither reference came about through conscious imitation of another product. In fact, all manufacturers of great amplifiers are in a constant state of ferment as they strive to make their products better at achieving the sound of live music, and not the sound of rival electronics. They are creators.

Perhaps we'll see the day when Bob Carver takes his obvious technical genius and turns it to creating his vision of a great amplifier. We at Stereophile will then join the cheering CES procession . . .Larry Archibald

Footnote 1: In case you're wondering, dear reader, I think he means money.—Larry Archibald