Ikonoklast: Linn's Ivor Tiefenbrun

In July 1877, Thomas Edison wrote that he was sure he would "be able to store up & reproduce at any future time the human voice perfectly," and the word phonograph soon began showing up in his lab notes. By the time Ivor Tiefenbrun stepped onto the audio industry soundstage, nearly a century had passed, and even discriminating listeners took the record player for granted. But Tiefenbrun had discerned sonic differences among players, and he knew that his LP12—he had built a prototype for personal use—was a superior performer. When people told him that turntables do no more than go 'round and 'round, he would rebut them by pointing out that speakers merely go in and out.

Ivor Tiefenbrun is known for his sharp tongue, and an afternoon with him proves that the intellect behind that tongue is every bit as keen. Probe and you'll find he's very much his father's son. Jan Tiefenbrun, called Jack after he narrowly escaped the Nazis and arrived in Scotland from Austria in 1939, was a mechanical engineer, and Ivor followed him into that profession. His native Glasgow, which he still calls home, also helped forge Ivor's character. It can be a brutal place, and the tough-minded Tiefenbrun grew up in its meanest neighborhood, the Gorbals, often called Europe's worst slum. It was, he relates, a place where "you had to hold your own ground."

The tenement lifestyle notwithstanding, Ivor, the oldest of three children, was brought up "surrounded by loving people" and by music: his mother sang, and his father played the violin. Tiefenbrun is also quick to point out that the Glasgow coin has two faces. Despite its tarnished underside, it did so much to fuel the industrial revolution that it became known as the Second City of the British Empire. At one time, Glasgow girdled major shipyards and the world's largest cluster of locomotive works.

Things had changed by the time Ivor was born in March 1946, but he's been around long enough to remember a steelworks in the Gorbals. "In the middle of the city, in the middle of the most densely packed area of housing on earth, there was a full-blown steelworks," he says with a laugh.

It's a pertinent point. When Tiefenbrun began his own manufacturing company in the city's Linn district in 1972, he was simply continuing a muscular, intensely proud tradition.

David Lander: We haven't met since the mid-1980s, when I interviewed you about the then-brand-new Compact Disc medium. You talked about its dark side.

Ivor Tiefenbrun: I felt the standard was inadequate. I think events have proven me wrong, that the standard was just adequate enough, but it took an awful lot of expertise—given the limited headroom and the limitations of technology—to actually do justice to the 16-bit standard in the first place. I think people who argued that the standard was adequate were proven right, and I was wrong. On the other hand, it took Linn 15 or 20 years to produce a CD player that I believe is equal to our top-performing record player, and many of our customers still don't agree with me on that.

Lander: What, specifically, took all that time?

Tiefenbrun: First of all, developing our understanding and our skills, and also, in the Sondek CD12 we did things that weren't possible a year or two previously. The semiconductor technology wasn't there; there wasn't a platform that allowed us to implement our algorithms, so it took us a long time to come up with a solution that did for CDs what the LP12 did for LPs. When you think about it, the LP12 came to the market 15 or 20 years or so after the introduction of stereo recordings, so perhaps it just takes 15 or 20 years to master a new technology and exploit its potential, to discover its limits and explore the opportunities it creates.

Lander: One of the less conventional aspects of your company is that, in an industry obsessed with racing toward the horizon and the next, even-more-fabulous format, you've expended a lot of energy trying to squeeze more sound out of older, existing formats—most recently, the CD.

Tiefenbrun: With the CD12, people said to us, "Why are you doing this when CD is going to be replaced by a new format?"

Lander: And why were you?

Tiefenbrun: Because we know that the CD12, for the next 10 or 20 years, is going to give people more music from their existing CD collections than anything else will, and that the music captured on these collections has the potential to sound much, much better than anyone could imagine. That's a rerun of our issue with the LP12, because with the LP12 they all said, "The LP's finished; it's cassette."

Lander: You once took a crack at coming up with the ultimate cassette player.

Tiefenbrun: It costs to learn, so we investigate, and we might go all the way to develop a product. We built a four-head, four-motor cassette machine and, at the end of the day, we decided that, no matter how brilliant we were, it wasn't at an acceptable standard, so we gave up. It wasn't good enough for us to do it, and that was because we didn't think it would be good enough to excite our customers.

Lander: What does it take to get Linn involved in an investigation of a new format, as opposed to established ones?

Tiefenbrun: A new format isn't automatically of interest, because until there's a sufficient body of software supporting the new format, it's unlikely that it will add very much. And furthermore, it will probably take 10 or 15 years to exploit the potential of a new format. There's nothing to stop you from accessing your original material and enjoying it. I still enjoy my LPs. And I listen to my CD12. If SACD offers the opportunity to reach an even higher standard, then I will embrace that with some enthusiasm. If something excites us, if it's above the minimum standard we require and it offers an opportunity to do a better job, if there's going to be software available that's interesting in that format, then, if we can do better—and the only way we can find out is to try—we will investigate it.

Lander: Linn Records has several SACDs in its catalog, which certainly indicates some interest in that format.

Tiefenbrun: Although it's a radical departure from the original digital model for music, SACD offers a lot more scope for future development and freedom from constraint than people appreciate. Multichannel recording offers a lot of possibilities. I don't think it's something to be opposed. I don't think it's something to be frightened of. What the audiophile is always worried about is that, somehow, the new format will set a lower standard, but there's no danger of that. The starting point is way above the starting point of formats in the past.

Lander: You've talked about the virtues of equipment that integrates video with audio. Where do you stand on hardware dedicated to music reproduction?

Tiefenbrun: While we're committed to good-quality sound on multimedia formats, for cinema and concerts and all the rest of it, we also believe that there's a place for music only. I think we've crossed a very significant boundary at Linn in the last six months or so, because we now have systems where, the longer you listen, the more you hear and the more involving the system becomes. I'm not talking about on a monthly or annual basis, which is true of any good system. Even when you listen over the space of the first half hour, your ear and mind open and you start to get involved. 99.9% of the systems out there in the world, if you play them at a relatively high volume for any length of time, it's a relief to switch off.

A good system shouldn't be like that, and a great system should break your heart when you turn it off. So, far from believing that the days of significant improvement in this business are over, I think we're just scratching the surface. Now I know I said that 30 years ago, and we've come a long way over those 30 years, but it's just unbelievable what's happening now and what's possible now.

Lander: With what specific technologies?

Tiefenbrun: Everything. It's integration. Linn is about integration; it's about doing everything. You have to understand systems engineering, not just component engineering.