Sheffield Steel? Doug Sax Page 4

And immediately he said "that's because you've been used to hearing the soft transformers of tubes." I said, "Forget about that malarkey. I play in an orchestra. I stand next to a violinist warming up every day. And that is atrocious. Get your McIntosh 60 out. I can't believe you're buying this terrible sound." He said "That's history. That's yesterday's technology." And in a period of three or four years, everything was solid-state. McIntosh couldn't sell an amplifier. They had the best amplifier and didn't think the new stuff was any good, but they couldn't get dealers to even stock them. I was the only guy who thought this was the worst thing he'd ever heard.

Time has shown that all of these designs had nonlinear distortion, crossover notch, high distortion products, and are now reviled by the whole world. The whole world is now in total agreement that these amplifiers, at least for certainly the first five years, were unusable for playing music. No one uses them in their homes today. They are unlistenable. I was right. But it took 15, 20 years to prove it.

Harley: There is a big market today for those old McIntosh tube amps.

Sax: For those tube amps. No one is trying to find an early solid-state amp whose distortion rose as you went down in level. The violin became a buzz saw. The thing that shocked me is that Jack bought it. He had this totally ugly sound coming out of a gorgeous KLH 9 and thought it was terrific. Now that he had something to show whether he had ears or not, it turned out he had no ears. Actually, these early digital recordings can be considered a hearing test. If you think they sound good, you fail. And that's how time will prove it.

It is interesting that Stereophile has a real divergence of opinion here. I talked last January at CES to Larry Archibald, who went down to Peter McGrath's place and heard some master tapes, the digital copies and the whole thing, and he summed it up so well when he said, "It wasn't that I heard a change so much when it went from the analog to digital, it's what wasn't there. Just the type of things that make it interesting to listen to." It's all those subtle things that make it worthwhile; they're there on analog but they're not there on digital.

The biggest error is, when Jack sold his McIntosh, he lost the ability to go back to what had been a reference for 20 years and re-educate his ears. When I record, my digital machines are rolling, but so are my analog machines. I'm not making a judgment of any kind as to which is going to do it. I can listen to it a month later and relax and pick which contains the most music, which conveys the music, which represents what I and the musicians heard. Once you make your decision, then you lose. You improve your microphones, get a better preamp, learn better mike techniques. It's how people go astray. Like the guy who sold his tube amp: he's got nothing to go back to and say, "Gosh, I can sit in the room with this for hours, I don't get tired." Then he wonders what these guys are writing about because they all have tube amps for references. Where's the world now on amplifiers? All the magazines have a couple of good tube amps for reference, for musicality. The total entity of music, whether it's one lute or a rock'n'roll record or a symphony orchestra or a Dixieland band, tubes handle the whole spectrum better.

Harley: There are more companies making tube amplifiers today than there were two years ago.

Sax: How about 10 years ago? It was Audio Research all by itself. The interesting thing is that the speaker/amp combination is the most vital thing. Once you get that right you shouldn't change. You can play with everything else, but you shouldn't change that. It's your microscope. It's how you evaluate everything. If you change the amp at the same time you're evaluating a new CD player, you're chopped liver. Have you heard these VTLs? I've only heard them once and I was very impressed. Effortless, musical, great body, great bottom end. I think that's great, this English guy, David Manley, coming out of nowhere. Has Gordon Holt reviewed them?

Harley: He said they're the best amps he's ever heard.

Sax: Good for him. He should keep them. Then he can better evaluate his CDs. You should get them and use them as a tool for evaluation. I feel very strongly that you have to have a very high-resolution amp so you can know what you're evaluating. Especially if you're going to evaluate CD and DAT and stuff that reeks of solid-state. Maybe some will reek less than others, but you don't want any solid-state in order to audition it. If you hear a solid-state sound suddenly come out of your speakers, well, the only thing solid-state is the CD player, not my amp. This amp, on its own, will never produce that sound. A lot of the solid-state amps have strong colorations. Maybe the same kinds of colorations you don't want to hear in your CD player. And maybe if you're evaluating two CD players and one has it and one doesn't and if your amp has it, how are you going to know the one that doesn't have it?

What is the state of the art in solid-state amps now?

Harley: Krell, Threshold, and Mark Levinson are all highly regarded.

Sax: Describe them: their size, power, cost.

Harley: Class-A, very large, and expensive.

Sax: Isn't it funny though, in 1989 the hot setup in solid-state amps is larger, more expensive, and produces more heat than tube amps. Think about that. Where's the progress? That was solid-state's thing: it's small, runs cool. Now if you want solid-state that sounds good, you turn it on and the lights dim. Look at that next to the VTLs. The thing that's so funny is that in 1989 you have a lot of agreement that the best amps are tube, but you couldn't give one away in 1960. And the solid-state amps then were wretched. Not only that, but they were unreliable. They had no virtues except that they would put out more power into an 8 ohm load. I know audiophile guys who buy this amp, then that amp, sell that, and 10 years later they've got that system just wonderful. Then they go in their closet and get their McIntosh 60, dust it off and say "I wonder if it still works?" They fire it up, plug it into the system, and they're stunned that it sounds better than their improvement upon improvement upon improvement.

Harley: What is the future of LPs?

Sax: If there's a future in this? [points to his cutting lathe] If digital gets itself together, it will never come back. There will never be any reason. But let's say digital doesn't get any better than it is today—then this will be sort of like tube amps where you have more people wanting to buy them in five years, critical listeners, than want to buy them now. This lathe—made by Scully in 1948, the first lathe made in this country that had the ability to vary the spacing between the grooves on command from the program—made my first record. If you get a piece of equipment that you use professionally for 20 years, generate income from, you've got a good investment. There is a visual value for machinery that looks like machinery instead of like kiddy toy stuff. And the black disc itself, I've always enjoyed the whole look of it. When you get a perfect disc, a master lacquer that you cut just right, there is a look to it, a shine. You have a finished product that you can look at without even listening to it and say, "I made that good." And you never get that feeling when you ship out a CD master tape. This lathe will go home with me when it retires.

Harley: You must be attached to it after all this time.

Sax: In one sense yes, in another no. I don't want to be wedded to the past, but I don't want to forget its virtues.