William Z. Johnson of Audio Research: High Definition Page 4

Johnson: Actually, that isn't quite true. The final decisions are made with an analog source because, at this state of the art, analog is still better—just like the vacuum tube is still better.

I should also add that decisions about sound quality are not made by any one man—me, for example. They are made by a team of people. We are very fortunate in that our salespeople and our customer-service manager are all audiophiles and reasonably critical listeners. All those on our engineering team fall into that category as well. So we have about six to eight people who will make a final judgment on how things sound.

Harley: It's a rare combination of someone who's technically talented and musically sensitive. You have to love music, first of all.

Johnson: Absolutely. You have to relate what you hear to the technical side. You know, as we've talked, there's one thing I would like to add to all this—to be really sure that the public doesn't misunderstand the situation. I'm not an indispensable key here. There was a day when I was the only engineer Audio Research had. That isn't true today. I've had very little, if anything, to do with products like the CDT-1 [transport], the DAC, and most of our solid-state designs. Occasionally I'll maybe nitpick or second-guess a little bit, but I do have a great team of engineers.

I don't want to give the impression that this is a one-man show. It's anything but. If I were to disappear from the scene tomorrow, Audio Research should have no trouble going right on from here.

Harley: But you do the tube designs.

Johnson: I do the tube designs, yes.

Harley: Modern tube products have less of an identifiable "tube" character. Why is that?

Johnson: Thankfully, over the years of improved power-supply technology and improved output transformer designs, we've got them sounding more transparent. Incidentally, we do our own transformer designs—Rich Larsen's responsible for that.

Harley: That's an art in itself.

Johnson: It certainly is. It's a very sophisticated problem. Anyway, today the bandwidths are essentially as wide as the solid-state devices, and the old euphonic colorations that we think of with vacuum tubes are just simply gone—they're not there. What we have remaining is the wonderful musicality, depth, and correctness of timbre of tubed designs.

Harley: When the SP-11 came out in 1985, it was unanimous that this was a great product, and the pinnacle of preamplifier design. It was almost to the point of questioning whether further improvements were possible or even necessary. Yet the moderately priced LS2...

Johnson: Is a far better product.

Harley: Exactly—never mind the LS5.

Johnson: There's really no comparison. I believe that the reason that many of us thought "Why go any further?," so to speak, relates to the associated components that we had to use for sonic evaluations. Today we have tonearms and cartridges and turntables that are far, far better than anything we had just a decade ago. I would say that that, alone, is the biggest single reason that has allowed things like the LS-2 and the LS5 to exist today.

When we get to the point where we can hear that the sound isn't what it ought to be, then we can think about doing something about it. But when we don't know what the problem is—in other words, if a system sounds essentially transparent for this moment at the state of the art—then that's about all we can do.

Harley: Do you see that trend continuing?

Johnson: Yes, I do. Until the day comes that we really can't distinguish between reproduced sound and live music, concert music, it should continue. Absolutely. I hope it will.

It is interesting to note, though, that at any time in history it's possible to synergistically put together a system which is reasonably musically satisfying. For example, the SP-11 with the right amplifier, the right speakers, and the best source material of its day was reasonably musically satisfying. We might be able to criticize the sound in some ways, and certainly point out that it didn't sound like the real event. But it was reasonably satisfying. Today I feel we've come a couple of orders of magnitude from that day, and the sound is a great deal more transparent. There are a lot fewer flaws, and we're able to discuss intelligently a lot more things about the sound—particularly the soundstage—than we were a decade ago.

Harley: So improvements in one category drive improvements in others?

Johnson: Absolutely. It opens the door, or the window, as it were, a little bit further, and allows us to have a little better look and thereby improve another portion of the chain.

Harley: What kind of audio products do you see in the future?

Johnson: It's clear that Home Theater is taking a larger and larger percentage of consumers' discretionary dollars, and it's also probable that many of those systems are not necessarily state-of-the-art audio. But I think the high-end industry will have to offer products in that realm in order to stay healthy.

I also would like to believe that, if the source materials are good enough, there will always be that 3% of consumers who really love music and will buy good equipment if it's available. And if that's so, then there's still a future for high-end audio.

Harley: Tell me about the reference products you've been working on. They seem to be the culmination of your life's work.

Johnson: The reference products were supposed to be introduced last February [1993], but the reason they weren't was simply because we didn't have a quality vacuum tube. I felt it would be an economic and marketing disaster to bring out a product that wouldn't stand up at its price points with bad vacuum tubes, so we put that on hold. Then, by the time the Russians came through with the good 6550, I had done some further work and felt that I could build a better amplifier for less cost, so we have the VT-150 instead.

Now, will the reference series ever happen? It can. The only thing that holds it back is the obvious cost factor. To build a better amplifier than the VT-150 or a better preamp than the LS5 will mean a substantial investment. Instead of paying $12,000 for a pair of mono amps, it'll mean $20,000 for a pair of mono amps. And the amount of improvement that that will offer I think might be inappropriate today. In other words, I don't think that the total chain is quite good enough to justify that product. We'll look at that again in another year or two.

Harley: Was the idea behind the reference products to do all-out designs so that some of the design techniques could trickle down into the more affordable products?

Johnson: I don't think that the reference products really lent themselves to a trickle-down design. The VT-150 does, however. In fact, we already have a trickle-down design from that—the VT-130, which is a stereo unit on one chassis retailing for less than one-half the price of a pair of VT-150s.

It's dangerous to try to quantify these things by number, but I'll say that the VT-130 is 80–90% of the performance of the VT-150s—and would be musically satisfying in most systems. But the reference series really is a different kettle of fish. I really don't think there's much trickle-down there.

Harley: What drives you to keep looking for better and better circuits after 45 years at it?

Johnson: I really do enjoy designing products. I enjoy that more than I do running a company. And fortunately, I have a good management team back in Minnesota, so I really don't have to wrestle with the day-in, day-out affairs of running the company—which is a great thing.

Someone once said that people stay in their own business until it isn't fun anymore. I guess I haven't reached that point. It's still fun. [laughs] And I suppose that being a critical listener is part of it—not having been satisfied over the years with the sound quality we had available. Part of the God-given gift of designing amplifiers is to be dissatisfied with the status quo.