Noel Lee: The Monster is 10!

They say that time flies on faster wings once you pass 40, something that I have found to be more true than I care to think about. Yet even considering the unfortunately subjective nature of time, it hardly seems possible that it was 10 years ago, in those golden days of the first Conrad-Johnson preamplifier, Infinity RS4.5 and Hill Plasmatronic loudspeakers, Infinity class-A and Audio Research D110B power amplifiers, that a small San Francisco company, led by a drummer and mechanical engineer who had previously worked on laser-fusion target design at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, virtually invented the high-end cable industry. I say "virtually," because Jean Hiraga in France, Robert Fulton in the US, and Saboru Egawa in Japan had laid down considerable experimental work in the mid-'70s showing that interconnects and speaker cables were hardly the passive devices conventional engineering considered them, and the highly capacitative Cobra Cable, distributed in the US by Polk and in the UK by Monitor Audio, was already destroying marginally stable power amplifiers in 1977.

But it took Monster Cable to put specialist cable on the audiophile map with its original cable, priced at a monstrous 65 cents/foot. In addition to expanding its product catalog to now some 300 items, Monster has spent considerable effort in promoting the virtues of audiophile cables to the pro-audio industry, with the result that 130 feature films have had their sound recorded using Monster's Prolink cables, as have more than 500 music albums.

The day after a live blues concert celebrating the Monsters' 10 years in the business, I met with company founder Noel Lee at the 1989 Chicago CES. (Another Bay Area personality and one of the designers of the SOTA turntable, Rodney Herman, who has been Monster's head of engineering since mid-1988, also joined in the conversation.) I asked the Head Monster why he had gotten into specialist cable manufacture:

Noel Lee: I'd tweak my stereo whenever I could and one of the things that I discovered was that when I hooked up 12-gauge Romex, I got better sound than from 16-gauge. But when I hooked up a different 12-gauge stranded wire, I got a different sound. And then when I tried yet another one with a different kind of winding, I'd get a different sound still. This was baffling to me as an engineer because Ohm's Law indicated that this shouldn't be. A circular mil area is a circular mil area: you should have a certain damping and that should be it. So the first Monster Cable was designed by ear. We'd fine-tune the different windings, and it's only been changed twice in its lifetime during the whole ten years. It does very well. It had a good beginning, and when audiophiles plugged it in, not only did they notice more bass, which they can get from just a solid 12-gauge wire, they heard things like improvements in imaging and soundstage and definition, qualities they didn't expect to hear out of a cable.

John Atkinson: There were others at that time who were saying that cables could sound different...

Lee: There was Fulton; Polk was out there with a wire; and Monitor was out there with a cable. These were low-inductance types—in engineering terms, if you lower the inductance of the wire you extend the bandwidth, and that's what a lot of people did. They later found out that that was completely wrong. The cables sounded bright and caused amps to oscillate. Our current line of cables do exactly the opposite. We actually increase the impedance and inductance at certain frequencies.

Atkinson: Did you have an uphill struggle persuading dealers and audiophiles that cables should be taken more seriously?

Lee: I think that was the one thing that Monster had to its advantage. There are a lot of good products that come and go, but not only do you need to have a product that is well-engineered, it must also be well-marketed. In fact, initially the marketing has to be 80% and the product 20%. Of course, if the product is no good, it won't be validated in the marketplace and you can't expect a long lifetime out of it. But if the product is good, and the marketing is good, you can sustain a position.

So we set out to do a marketing program that was educational. It went, "Listen to this!" "I don't believe there's a difference." "Well, listen to one wire vs another." When we first started out, every Monster dealer had a little switcher and they switched back and forth between 18-gauge wire and Monster Cable. Of course everyone heard a big difference. Nowadays we don't need that. Everybody knows there's a difference in cables so it doesn't take that kind of convincing. But it was a real rigorous education program and we spent a lot of time at it with the intent of bringing audiophile cables to a broader audience. Monster Cable wasn't just for audiophiles, it was also for people who bought receivers and low-powered amplifiers, and you didn't have to have $10,000 invested in your system to appreciate the qualities of wire. We were very successful and carved out our own market niche in the cable business. People really recognized the sound quality of the products.

Atkinson: The first Monster Cable was a relatively conventional, low-resistance twin-axial stranded design. It was some years before you introduced the first Bruce Brisson–designed cables.

Lee: I came across Bruce quite by accident. Somebody told me about this fellow out in Fremont, who had some very nice cables, was winding wires of different design. I followed up on it and we got together and Bruce says "Yeah, I've got this idea about winding cables." I listened to his handwound prototypes and I said, "Boy, there's something very interesting going on here. I'm hearing things that I never heard before in our previous designs. Or anybody else's cables." I told Bruce what I liked and didn't like, and he says "You know, I can change that." I said, "Oh yeah?" And he came back and changed them. I said, "Well, there is some validity here." He filed a patent, and we were granted a license on this bandwidth-balanced technology, which Bruce and I share, between MIT and Monster.

Atkinson: What was the first bandwidth-balanced cable?

Lee: That was Interlink Reference. It's now in its third generation as Interlink Reference II. That product is eight years old now. It's a refined 911, if you will. It still serves a very good purpose, it's still an excellent-sounding wire, and it's not so expensive anymore.

Atkinson: You had a clear idea of what you wanted cables to do, Bruce had a clear idea of how he wanted to make cables do that. There's been an explosion in the market since then, with every cable having a different story or white paper explaining how and why it works. When so many people say so many different things about why their cable is better, how is an audiophile to know which really does sound better (rather than just sounding different)?

Lee: Well, the market is an indication. The fact that MIT and Monster Cable are the leaders in the high-end part of the market tells you something about the common technology that we share being the correct one. We've seen linear crystal come and go, we've seen long-crystal silver, you name it, come and go. If a product is truly good, the marketplace will sustain it.

But no matter what you do to a cable, unless you time-compensate it in some fashion, you can only get so much out of it. I don't care what you do to the material. You can tune a cable to do all sorts of things by fooling with all the various gauges of wire, certain dielectrics, you can get it to sound a whole bunch of different ways. Some may be pleasing, some may not be. But one of the things that is typical of the bandwidth-balanced designs is that you have a very even, balanced sound. As with other high-end products, if everything sounded great but you had one thing that stuck out, that's eventually the reason why you get rid of that piece. We try to have a good balance between phase response, amplitude response, depth, imaging, soundstage. And the cable does nothing wrong. If you look back through the years, the good high-end products were the ones that didn't do anything wrong. I think ours and Bruce's products are like that. Although we've gone off in different directions since the initial Interlink Reference days. He has his ideas and we have added our own technologies.

Atkinson: When you say "didn't do anything wrong," a product does have to do something right.

Lee: Doing a lot of things right is of course what we all strive for. So, if you can get the imaging and the naturalness, the tonal reproduction, the harmonic structure, without doing something wrong—that is the most difficult thing. All these other designs, they will do some things right. But then they will do other things wrong. If you remember when linear crystal first came out, everybody embraced it. I mean, it was almost embarrassing to us.

Atkinson: Hitachi took some potshots at Monster Cable in their promotional material. (I remember Ken Kessler mentioning that the initials "LC-OFC" must have stood for "Linear Crystal Offends Friendly Chinaman.")

Lee: It actually bothered me a little bit. There are some good things that linear crystal does. But then when you listen to it, you say, "Well gee, it doesn't do this, and it does sound a little tizzy on the top end, and maybe I'm not getting the low end that I thought I was getting." And then it fails in the marketplace. This is what I mean, that there are some things that some cables can do well, but if they don't do everything well, they won't sustain themselves. Not with as critically as your readers listen. As good as we have to be, we have to make sure that we've got it before we can release it.

Atkinson: Three years ago, you launched M1 and M1000. This year you've introduced Sigma series cables. What is the difference in the technology between the two, and what have you tried to improve in the new Sigma cable?

Lee: We came out with the M series as our top flagship cables, in sound and in winding technology, manufacturing technology. They incorporated everything we then knew how to do and we felt they had the best sound out there. But we also priced it to be as little as we could charge and still give the consumer a good value. I think it suffered a little bit of an image problem because the cables that came out subsequent to it were a lot more expensive—a lot of audiophiles equate price with quality, which is a trap that some people get into. We still think it's a very good cable, especially the M1000 Mk.II; it's a very difficult cable to beat.

Our dealers and customers then said, "Look, we want something that is a superior cable in performance to the high-price cables." We said, "Okay, we can't compromise our standards. We need to design something that is at least as good as M1000 and M1 in every parameter, then improve it." That was a two-year effort. In addition to bandwidth-balanced, microfiber-insulated, multigauge conductors, we came up with some very complex stranding on the inside, an additional balanced impedance network. The two cables have extraordinary natural sound.

As Rodney Herman will testify—he came in on the tail end of this project—a lot of what we tried to do was to design a wire that did everything right but nothing wrong. And to improve things. For instance, we wanted lower bass but we didn't want it loose and flabby. But when you take the M1, which has extraordinary bass, and try to extend its low-frequency response, everything we first did made it looser. If we tried to extend its high end, we started to get high-frequency dispersions and some nasty-sounding things only on certain kinds of music. Not all kinds of music showed it. But we had to get that out. So we worked to make it very natural and linear, to get this even balance of all the sonic parameters. I would say it would be very difficult for us to outdo the Sigma.

Atkinson: One of the criticisms of your "balanced-bandwidth" concept has been "How do the high frequencies know that they must go down the thin wire and the bass frequencies down the large wire?" Could you take this opportunity to once and for all describe how this works?

Lee: Our answer is that the signals will go down the path of least electromagnetic resistance. If you force high and low frequencies all down one-size conductor, the low frequencies take up the inside and the high frequencies get squeezed to the outside. We can all calculate the skin effect, the depth of penetration depending on frequency, and so on. But if the high frequencies had another path, allowing the low frequencies, with their high current and "Get out of my way, I've got a lot of energy," to go down the big wire, the high frequencies, being of a much lower level, will go down the higher-frequency wire

Atkinson: You're saying that it's a matter of the complex impedance of all the various conducting paths?

Lee: Right. And once we've got the different conducting paths divided out, so to speak, then we wind those different paths to different impedances. We can then look at the impedances that the various frequencies face and we can time-correct the cable. That's how we do it.

Atkinson: There's also been some criticism along the lines of that, "Yes, time dispersion in cables is a factor, but it's actually negligible at audio frequencies."

Lee: Well, it's a dynamic property. And it's very difficult to measure—don't say we can't measure it and we haven't done measurements, but the ones that correlate sonic results are difficult but not impossible to achieve. Bruce is doing a lot of work in that area. The dispersions that we talk about will get nasty only with certain kinds of music. When I test and listen to a cable, I put on a cartridge, a bright one, and I put on a record, a bright one. Because I want to excite those frequencies that I don't normally hear. But if your cable is under control with mistracking or very bright records, then it will be under control with other musical conditions. Those dispersions are a real problem, and are a source of irritation for a lot of audiophiles.

Atkinson: One of the things Monster has devoted a lot of effort to is promoting the idea of using good cables in professional environments, in recording studios, for example, where traditionally the signal has travelled down miles of nondescript coax. Has that been rewarding?

Lee: No, we've lost a lot of money! [laughs] Because while there are a lot of audiophiles to sell wire to, you have only so many recording studios that you can sell to. But now that audiophiles have got good reproducing equipment, with good cables connecting the speakers, CD players, turntables, and so forth, what about the stuff that's recorded? If you buy a CD or a record right off the shelf from a major label, you want to know that it would have been properly recorded. At least with good cables. So we set out to educate major studios. I'm not just talking about audiophile labels, I'm talking about Warner Brothers and Epic—we worked with Michael Jackson on the Bad album.

It's been very well accepted. We've had big recording studios completely tear apart their facilities to put in our cable. Now a professional, unlike an audiophile, uses his equipment as a tool. It's like a carpenter might use a hammer. He doesn't want to know that hammer is not right, or broken—he has to go buy another one. So they do it very reluctantly, but the sonic results are so overwhelming that they take apart a whole recording studio, deal with the downtime and the loss of revenue, to put in proper cable. That's happened with many, many recording studios now.

Atkinson: I got the impression from the workshops at the 1988 Los Angeles AES convention, however, that some recording engineers are very conservative when it comes to cable.

Lee: Not the engineers in the recording industry who are the movers and shakers. These are the people who rewire their studios. When they're doing the mixdown, a lot of engineers will even carry their own sets of Monster Cable with them. I had an interview with a bunch of mad recording engineers and recording-studio owners in Nashville. They got to me and said, "Noel, what are you doing to these guys? Why are you making them drag their cables around? I've got perfectly good X-brand cable in my studio." I said, "I'm sorry, I don't pay these guys. They buy their own cable. You have lousy cable in your recording studio. I'm sorry. It makes lousy sound. These recording engineers don't want to carry around anvil cases of Monster Cable. They would rather you have it in your studios."

These are the guys who care about the quality of their work. They're still not in our camp all the way in terms of naturalness of sound, they still use too much EQ and so on, but the dynamics are there, the clarity is there, an additional presence is there. If you listen to what is there compared to earlier recordings—big improvement. Big improvement.