William Z. Johnson of Audio Research: High Definition Page 3

Both: Why is that? [laughter]

Johnson: Well, I guess there are two reasons: One is the availability of some premium-quality vacuum tubes that have both the performance and reasonable life expectancy; the other is that, frankly, whether we like it or not, the tube is simply a better device for audio.

I don't really believe that solid-state will ever be as good as vacuum tubes can be. I think that, with the same attention to design sophistication, vacuum tubes would always win. Unfortunately, the complexity can get out of hand.

But your question was about being perceived as this vacuum-tube company that went into solid-state two or three times over the years. Back in 1974, we made a determination that vacuum tubes would probably become prehistoric at some point, and we would be faced with the necessity of having solid-state products. So we developed a solid-state amp and a preamp, bringing them to the marketplace in 1976. For the first several months we sold hundreds and hundreds of those amps and preamps. They were extremely well-received in the marketplace.

But I think both Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound felt betrayed by our sojourn into solid-state from vacuum tubes, and we didn't get favorable reviews from anybody. Everybody kind of cut us to ribbons on that, and almost overnight our incredibly good initial sales of those products just started dwindling.

After fighting that for a couple of years, we finally decided we simply couldn't win the battle, and in 1978 I brought out the SP-6 preamp, which was very, very successful. The following year I brought out the D-79 amplifier, which was also very successful. Then, in 1980, we brought out some new solid-state products: the D120, the D60, and the SP-7. These products were not breakthrough products, but they were significantly better than the original offerings. But again, we were not considered a solid-state company, and we never achieved great market success with those products, even though they were good products.

Then we decided that we could combine the attributes of the then-available FETs and vacuum tubes in hybrid designs, and we did that with such products as the SP-11. We still have some of those models today.

The problem with hybrid products is that neither the vacuum-tube lovers nor the solid-state lovers like it [laughs]—it's a kind of no-man's land. About three years ago we made the decision that we should offer products in all three categories—which we've done. We currently have a line of solid-state products which we think are of sufficient quality that they can be considered seriously by people who want solid-state amplifiers. We still have our hybrid models, and of course now, thanks to the availability of these fine Russian tubes, we once again have some vacuum-tube products. And that's the only reason. We would simply not have been able to do that had we not had a supply of truly premium tubes available.

We are not married to any one technology. Unfortunately for those who don't like vacuum tubes, they still are the best device when the chips are down.

Harley: It shouldn't matter what technology is in a product as long as it sounds good.

Johnson: It shouldn't matter. But I think there's a perception out there by both camps that you have the unreliability of vacuum tubes together with perhaps the lack of performance of the solid-state devices. [laughs] And that isn't totally unjustified.

There have been a number of hybrid products over the years by various manufacturers that have been, frankly, unserviceable. So that reputation isn't totally without some foundation. On the other hand, I think that, with the exception of Chinese power-output tubes, our hybrid products are reasonably reliable. Today, if they're re-equipped with the Russian tubes, they're totally reliable.

Harley: Tell me about the product-development cycle of designing on paper, listening, and measuring.

Johnson: Product design usually starts with the marketing department telling us they need a product in this arena—breaking new ground with things we haven't done before. The other category of product development is the ongoing development of a basic design. Witness the evolution of things like the D70, D115, and D250 series, through the VT series now. That's one type of design work.

I still design the vacuum-tube products and contribute heavily to the hybrid products. I start with a computer. I have several CAD/CAM programs, and I rustle out a design on paper. Sometimes I'll give the design to our engineering team, just as a schematic. Other times I'll do a complete design—give them metalwork drawings and everything—which they'll still turn around and re-do before it ends up being an actual product.

In the case of things like this new CDT-1, the CD transport we're about to release, that starts out a little differently. It starts out with a review of what we think might be wrong with some of the existing designs, and then we empirically try different approaches.

But I think if I were to give you a typical procedure, we'd start out with a computer, have a design on paper, and that would be turned over to one of the engineers as a project. He would convert that into a breadboard, at least. We'd listen to it, criticize it, and consider various ramifications of its design. Probably re-do it a time or two, and then we'd do a true prototype—something that would actually resemble a finished product. And from that a pre-production unit, which would hopefully be identical to the unit that actually was produced. And then, finally, production. Not really too different, I suppose, from any other manufacturer.

Harley: I understand that all the critical evaluations during product development are done with analog source.