Noel Lee: The Monster is 10! Page 2

Atkinson: I understand that the Star Trek V movie was made with Monster Cable?

Lee: We worked with Ralph Winter, the movie's executive producer, on Star Trek IV with such stunning results, he insisted that Star Trek V be completely wired with Monster—dialog, sound effects, and music. So we worked with them on that project and they gave us acknowledgement on the film. So if anybody stays for the credits, they'll see one for Monster Cable. For a major film studio like Paramount to acknowledge the kind of wire they used to make their movie, you know there's something important going on, that we've been able to make strides. As far as making money—not yet.

Atkinson: Will people hear a difference in a normal movie theater with its ancient equipment?

Lee: You'll still hear, believe it or not, a stunning difference. Particularly in the naturalness of the sound effects. Maybe a lot of your readers don't know that every sound that you hear on a film is dubbed in afterward. But shuffling paper and footsteps, notice how natural those sound. The new Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters movies were also done completely with Monster Cable.

Atkinson: I understand that you're also supplying cable for bands like David Bowie's and Carlos Santana's. It couldn't harm matters: in my opinion, live rock sound in the late '80s is the pits.

Lee: The big news from Monster for sound reinforcement is what Rodney is working on: a digital multiplexing distribution system. We go for a very short run of cable from the microphone to a distribution box onstage where it gets digitally multiplexed at a very high resolution. A single fiber-optic link then goes back to the sound console. That enables us to get away from a lot of the noise and things you get, for example, from the lights onstage. It will also reduce the cost significantly for long cable runs. If you look at what 1000' of Interlink Reference might cost times 50 for 50 microphones, that could get to be quite a bill.

Rodney Herman: It's a phenomenal system. And also what's nice is that if we develop it as we intend to for the recording industry, we will set a new digitization standard that can be read by the existing standard. We're digitizing at 3.2MHz. That's our sampling rate. We're running at 1-bit resolution so that we can control the glitch error much more closely. And then we can basically mathematically create any word length we want to out of that. The thing we're really excited about is that all the work that's been done on the tail end of the system with D/As is now being followed by work on the A/Ds. And with the A/D stuff that we're doing, to all intents and purposes as far as the audio band is concerned, it's filterless. Because we're filtering third-order, gentle slopes, very, very high up. There are none of the brickwall filtering problems. The glitch error is minimized, and then you've got immunity from the environmental problems. It's really buying a tremendous amount of advantages.

Atkinson: You get rid of those dreadful multicore, multiway snakes going out a thousand feet to a console.

Herman: You can transmit a mile, two miles, with this technology.

Atkinson: When will this "Lightspeed" system be offered to the pro-sound industry?

Herman: It's in production now. We're going out on the road with Pat Metheny in July, and we'll be having some of the major speciality record labels running it as of July. Some well-known names and faces. It's out there already.

Atkinson: It's quite a departure for Monster.

Lee: It is. It's the future.

Atkinson: As we've moved on to digital, I'd like to bring up the subject of CD SoundRings. There's been some skepticism about SoundRings in the pages of Stereophile, as well as in Consumer Reports. The question is begged that if a SoundRing doesn't improve the integrity of the data coming off the disc apart from improving the jitter performance, why should that produce better sound? Because doesn't every CD player have a first-in/first-out buffer so that jitter in the data off the disc won't effect the bits presented to the DAC?

Herman: We just produced a technical paper to explain that (footnote 1). I think the point we're trying to make more than anything else is that while the digital theory is perfect, as soon as you start correcting errors, that perfection slips to an approximation of perfection. Consequently, we're more concerned with the quality of error correction than the quantity of error correction. One error can involve one wrong bit. On the other hand, it can be a serial event involving maybe 3000 bits that are being misread. If we can minimize the number of misread bits by various mechanisms, by controlling vertical flutter so that there's not so much focusing bounce, for example, then the correction circuitry and correction algorithms are not going to have to do as much work. And what we believe is that probably the reality of why we like one CD player over another CD player, or one sound over another sound, is largely because the quality of the error is better. In other words, we're not having to do as much interpretive work with our perceptive abilities.

Atkinson: But experiments show that whatever the effect of the SoundRing is, it seems not to involve the quality of the error correction. It seems to be some kind of second-order effect occurring in the CD player, such as focus and tracking-servo current demands affecting the DAC performance. For example, when Stereophile's Technical Editor Robert Harley took two identical CDs from the same production run, ringed one but not the other, and read the data blocks off both discs after error correction into a computer's RAM, a bit-by-bit comparison of the data showed that after correction, the SoundRing didn't appear to have an effect. So even if there are more data errors coming off the disc without the SoundRing, once they've been corrected the digital data are identical to what they were with the ring.

Herman: Mathematically or qualitatively?

Atkinson: Mathematically.

Herman: That's precisely what I'm saying. Say a player failed before it misread the first bit so that it didn't make any sound. It would have carried on not making any sound for 55 minutes or an hour. But this would still have only been counted as one error. The whole point from a mathematical point of view is that it's nice and tight, you can say with absolute knowledge that there have been "this many" error corrections. But what we're saying is that you're not dealing with the aural perception of the errors when you talk about the mathematics of the event. You can only judge the qualitative elements of that by what you hear (footnote 2). And as much as some people out there dislike the notion that you can't mathematically explain differences in hearing or perception of the sound, the fact remains that we do perceive differences in the sound of a disc with a ring on and not with a ring, under certain circumstances. We've had enough statistical data from surveys done on follow-ups of magazine articles to know that we have got a body of positive opinion that I think is significant.

Atkinson: Noel, you wanted to do an experiment with Consumer Reports where you would supply a selection of their four million readers with CD SoundRings, provided CR would publish the results of a survey of their readers' findings?

Lee: They haven't accepted our offer, which is to do a listening test. We've done this with Hi-Fi Answers in the UK, and in Italy. We've had lots of good feedback from audiophiles...The CD SoundRing is just what the name says. It's for sound. We say on the front of our package that it's going to improve the bass response, soundstaging, and transient response, all of which it does. If it didn't, we couldn't sell one. Not to mention the people who come back and buy hundreds. Consumer Reports' article said "The premise upon which [Monster Cable] bases the design of this product is false...An error-reading machine was not able to detect any decrease in the amount of errors." But we never claimed the SoundRing would decrease the amount of errors. Instead, we're looking for an increase in the quality of the data acquisition and the lessening of the severity of the error correction. Which is audible.

Atkinson: It seems to me that when people hear a difference, being audiophiles the next thing they do is ask themselves why there is a difference. And with SoundRings at the moment, there is no real answer to that question.

Herman: The big question is, "Can we be happy that there's a difference just because we perceive it?"

Lee: When we first initiated this project, we already had the Discus on the market, and we had gained a lot of experience with the sound of different CD-damper materials. I asked many engineers to come and give their explanation of what was going on because digital phenomena were pretty new to me. I got a lot of different explanations. But it wasn't up to us to sort that out, because I knew when I did the listening what sounded right to me. And I knew there was an improvement, otherwise we wouldn't put our name on it. But looking for the explanation, I took the safest route, which was not to give an explanation that we couldn't prove. So if you look at our package, it talks about vertical flutter, which you can measure, it talks about the sound improvements, which you can hear, but that's all it says. We don't claim lower data-error rates, we're going to leave that for other engineers to figure out...It's not a surprise to me that we don't have all the measurements that we need to measure what we hear in the digital path.

We knew that when we started to market the SoundRing, people would be skeptical. It's a highly engineered product, in terms of the damping compound, the thickness of the ring, the width of the ring, how we load the plasticizers, and the adhesives. Rod's spent a lot of time with this, as a matter of fact, he's responsible for all the delays on the project...

Herman: I will say one thing: the actual objective measurements we took as we were evaluating the materials correlated absolutely with what we heard. What read better sounded better. And the optimum weight of the ring that we are using was derived by that mechanism.

Atkinson: What measurements did you find meaningful?

Lee: We measured the vertical excursion of the disc. We did a series of tests using B&K test equipment where we modified the B&K microphone to become a capacitance sensor suspended over the disc. And the discs were then tested with a series of different-weight rings; you could then measure a low-frequency voltage generated by the vertical excursion of the ring.

Herman: We found that the ring which measured the best on this test also sounded the best, and we ended up with a weight of just over 3.2gm for the ring. We did another test which was a facsimile of that in light, where we shone a laser on to the disc while it was turning and looked at the laser patterns projected onto a screen with different rings. And again, the tightest dispersion pattern that we had was with a ring of about 3.2gm.

Atkinson: In effect, you are optimizing the ring's mechanical parameters to give the lowest level of vibrations in the rotating disc.

Herman: Right. And it was easy to postulate from there that somehow the vertical flutter has a significant impact on the way we hear what's coming off the disc.

Atkinson: As I said, this is where I get hung up. Because while jitter in the datastream going to the DAC is subjectively disastrous, jitter in the FM data stream coming off the disc, which will be improved by a SoundRing, does not result in jitter in the datastream going to the DAC...

Lee: If what you say is true, then we wouldn't hear a difference in CD players either.

Herman: I'd be less than honest if I said I knew why. We're being pushed a lot for explanations for what we're hearing, which is always difficult. That we hear differences has been the backbone of our industry. That we can explain them is the enigma of our industry. And we now have a new enigma. Monster doesn't know the answers that we're being asked questions to. But at the same time, we have a default situation, which is that when we listen to the things, we hear differences. And if we're misguided in some of our answers, it's because we're still searching for the answers. Slowly, we're getting some correlations between what we can hear and what we can measure, but that still doesn't mean that we can explain it any better.

Atkinson: So the ear is the final arbiter.

Herman: It has to be.

Lee: Right.

Herman: Recently we've been working with a specialist in aural perception. He's astounded at the arrogance of our industry, trying to explain what we can hear by measurements of equipment. He says until we start doing measurements of aural perception there's no way we can determine what we're hearing.

Talking to someone who specializes in the physiology of hearing gives you completely different insights into what's going on because you have then to start taking into account the fact that hearing is an ancient sense. It was developed with differential abilities for survival purposes. When you realize that in the history of evolution, your life depended on your hearing a difference, a change, in the soundfield, you realize what you're capable of differentiating.

Atkinson: The results of our listening tests in San Francisco last April suggested that people are very good at hearing when things are different, but not so good at hearing things that remain the same. Noel, you're a musician. Do you think it important for people involved in high-end hi-fi to have contact with the real thing? With live music?

Lee: They have to experience the live thing because otherwise they get conditioned to a facsimile, especially when they're listening to digital, which is a facsimile of a facsimile. It can never be the real signal. But when we listen to live music we listen to the tonal structure, the harmonic balance, the depth...Everybody at the blues concert last night, with the trumpet blaring and the saxes and the drums and everything going, was saying "That's what we need to reproduce. We can't get it close to that yet."

Atkinson: One final question. At the end of Monster's first decade of existence, would you like to look into your crystal ball and say where you think Monster will be in 10 years' time?

Lee: We have two goals. One is that we bring audiophile cables to some kind of sensibility in the industry—to stabilize, to sort out, so to speak, all the different stories and things that you've been hearing. To encourage people to listen, to use their ears, and then be the judge. Despite what my story is or what another manufacturer's story is or what our story is with CD SoundRings, it really doesn't matter. Because in the end it has to sound right. And that's the message we want to promote, as far as what is better. Don't get jaded by the price or the story or the packaging—listen to what the product actually does.

We're looking to expand the availability of audio cables to a broader audience. You will see our product show up in more and more places: we want your daughter or your son, if you have kids, to have good audiophile cables. We want to see that no audio system is sold without good-quality audio cable. And on the high end, our goal is to keep pushing, to be at the forefront of technology and music. At CE shows we have had music for the last two to three years now, we've always had a concert because we don't want people to forget what it's all about. We're here to do business, but our roots are that it's music reproduction that's important. We'll continue to bring that message to people, that despite the hardware and the glitzy-looking products, sit down, hook everything up, plug it in, and sit back and listen. We want to enjoy the music. Not necessarily the equipment.

Atkinson: The Sigma Genesis 2000 cartridge is new at this show. Will there be an Omega Genesis in 1999?

Lee: We hope that audiophiles will continue to support analog and support cartridges so that we can continue making them. Because the records played back with the cartridges that we've got now sound better than they've ever been reproduced; had we had cartridges of this caliber five years ago, maybe we wouldn't have gone so far with digital.

Footnote 1: "The Nature of Errors in Digital Music Playback," available from Monster Cable Products Inc.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Following the interview, I sat down to study the Monster Cable paper mentioned by Rodney, which explains in great detail how nominally the same number of error events can produce a difference in the eventual waveform, hence the sound, of the analog signal produced by the DAC. However, reflection indicates that this paper is talking about the quite rare interpolation errors where the combination of redundant data on the disc and the Reed-Solomon algorithm in the player's correction circuitry fail to reconstitute the missing data exactly. It still doesn't explain why a SoundRing should produce a consistent improvement in sound quality. The verdict remains open, I guess.—John Atkinson