A.J. van den Hul: Going Dutch

It was eight years ago that I first met Aalt Jouk van den Hul. I was visiting Ortofon in Denmark, and, with a group of hi-fi journalists from all over Europe, was traveling by bus to visit the cartridge-production facility in the far south of that country. Bus journeys are not my ideal way of passing time; naturally I gravitated to the rear of the bus, where bottles of Tuborg were making their presence felt. One journalist, however—a pixieish fellow hailing from The Low Countries—resisted the blandishments of the opened bottles. Producing a sheath of black-and-white glossies from his briefcase, he announced that he had just developed the ultimate stylus profile!

Naturally, beer and the boredom of the Danish countryside were forgotten as we clustered around to get our first sight of the elegant van den Hul stylus.

The rest is history. A.J. van den Hul's stylus, the result of an extended computer analysis at the University of Delft in Holland (where he taught physics), is shaped to imitate the profile of the cutter stylus. Manufactured in two versions—#1 with 4µm x 85µm radii for best tracing, #2 for cartridges with less accurate cantilever control, where accurate alignment is less possible—it was first adopted by the English company Goldring. It then appeared on a plethora of cartridges, from Adcom to Ortofon, gaining a reputation for extraordinary recovery of recorded detail and, because of its extended "footprint" on the groove wall, a finicky intolerance of poor setting-up. van den Hul also rebuilds and modifies cartridges, focusing on the German EMT, and this activity naturally led to the appearance of a van den Hul-designed moving-coil cartridge, the MC1000, manufactured by the Swiss company Empire.

Empire, however, was concerned to keep the MC1000 affordable, so vdH established his own brand of pickup cartridges, based on the '1000 but hand-assembled in Holland. The MC10, reviewed favorably by Anthony H. Cordesman in Vol.9 No.6, was the first vdH model to appear, followed in the summer of 1986 by the MC One (reviewed by Christopher Breunig elsewhere in this issue). And it is rumored that an "ultimate" model, the Grasshopper, will one day make its debut. (At the time of writing, vdH cartridges are distributed in the US by Transparent Audio Marketing.)

I met with A.J. at the English Hi-Fi Show in September '86 and asked him why he had worked on the development of a new stylus profile when the Compact Disc had already been announced as the playback medium of the future? (As much as possible, I have left alone his Dutch/English usage to convey the true flavor of our conversation.)—John Atkinson

A.J. van den Hul: Yes, it was nonsense so close to the CD era to develop another tip. But, on the other hand, the tip works. I'm not afraid of CD because sonically I'm still very convinced by LP, even in areas where I know the LP has defects which do not exist any more in CD. But if you count up the positive effects of CD—the easy handling and resistance to scratches (if you handle the discs with care)—and you count up the positive facts of LP—very spacious reproduction, something that I am always missing from CD—then I think I enjoy more LP than CD.

If you live in a town like London or New York, everyone is watching you and using you and pushing you and forcing you—you need mental space to be free. With music, people can close their eyes and imagine a new world of space, something like a concert hall. The main thing to concentrate on in the future is this spacious reproduction, giving people the mental space to feel themselves free. You can see this in Japan with the introduction of all kinds of surround-sound systems. I think this demand for spacious reproduction is much more relevant to reproduction than a very flat frequency response, or very low distortion.

There is a greater tendency to have depth of image with the LP than I've ever heard, even with the best recording techniques, from CD. One of the reasons why, I think, is that the resolution of CD is much lower than the resolution of LP. There are just 2 to the power 16 steps if all bits work nicely without any recalculation. Let us say they all work nice—I'm very forgiving—and 2 to the power 16 (65,356) is a limited number. If we see what is available on LP, it's a much higher number. When you want to take a photograph of a very nice place with a lot of gray shades, CD is like Tri-X film, a high grain film which reproduces the gray shades with big steps between each one. But take a very low-sensitivity film: as with analog, it needs more attention to get everything out, but now you get a wonderful gray scale with many, many, many steps. Analog gives you much better resolution of the picture than CD can give you, ever.

But many pictures today are taken with Tri-X, as our eyes are very forgiving. I am afraid that in the future we will be forced to live in a world where we should be also very forgiving with our ears, forced by commercial companies who want to do things different because they think the duplicating process is much easier (although I tend not to believe this because the reject rate is still rather high). But in a world dominated by photography, there's still painting, so I believe that, while it may not be a big commercial success, there will still be the LP, because there will still be people in the world discriminating enough to like what the LP brings despite its lack of easy handling.

I accept, by the way, CD as a medium. I am not against it at all. It is another sound source, and there will be other sound sources in the future. Every sound source generated tries to convince everyone that it is better than all other sound sources before. But this is the same with all governments: Every government is better than all governments before, even when the same people sit in the government. The same mixing consoles are used for CD as were used for analog; the same engineers are used; the same directors in charge of recording companies are there; the staff is not changed that much; it's only the storage of information that has changed somewhat.

However, I would find it a pity if everything were to be digitized, because then we get away from the possibility of free choice. Some records are now only produced in CD, and I think that this is not an honest approach. It may be for commercial reasons, but if only the money counts and not the musical quality, then we are misusing cultural things for commercial purposes. And that's another remark I would like to make. At all these hi-fi shows, there's such a low level of musical enjoyment in the reproduction that I'm afraid that we all misuse music to sell equipment instead of selling equipment to enjoy music. The main concern I have at the moment, the main motive behind all my work, is that I like to bring some thrill on my back, get, what do you call it, the goosebumps on my arms, when I listen to my own records at home. Nothing I've heard at this show gave me this feeling. Even with the best sound reproduction systems, something is missing. Maybe we are not in the correct mood, maybe it's other things, but we are all here nevertheless, and that's the main concern I have—that we misuse music to sell equipment instead of just the opposite: use equipment to enjoy music.

Atkinson: You say we should have freedom of choice, but it's already too late with classical orchestral or operatic recording, which is 99% recorded digitally whether it appears on LP or CD. You only have small companies like Reference Recordings, Performance Recordings, Opus 3, and Wilson Audio who are committed to recording in analog. Even though Sheffield Lab have just recorded the Moscow Philharmonic with Professor Johnson's analog recorder, these companies haven't the money or resources to record the orchestral repertoire to any major extent.