From our archives: The amplifier designer hall of fame (part #1) – “… gifted at self promotion and bullshit and …”

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Editor McCauley in conversation with Howard Popeck:

Hi Howard. I’ll start if I may with I hope an inoffensive comment that you’ve been around the audiophile ‘block’ a few times. You are I guess a survivor from the old school. Would you care to comment?

Okay, that’s true. I started in the business in October 1976 and I’m still in it. But I did leave from time to time.

And then returned?

And then returned.

So you’ve bought and sold a lot of gear. Listened to loads. Met interesting designers and no doubt a few odd personalities. Am I right?

Yup.

So can we focus today on your views on gifted amplifier designers? Would that be okay?

Certainly. But from the sound quality standpoint. I don’t want to get into stuff about cosmetics, ergonomics nor reliability perspectives.

Where should we start?

Hmm. (Howard scratches his chin) Well – perhaps the best way to start is to give you a few background thoughts. Okay with that?

Okay. Fine. Shoot!

First, I’ve met quite a few foreign designers and some were gifted where it really mattered. Others though were gifted at self promotion and bullshit and had no real substance as sleeves rolled up hands-on amp designers. Not as far as I could see anyway.

Care to name names?

Not really, no. Americans though, never with the French, German and Japanese designers; all very modest people it seemed to me but then again you never really get to know a person do you? Anyway ...  it’s worth pointing out I feel that the buying public are not necessarily aware that some but not all so-called designers usually are the figure-heads of their companies with giant egos. People who may well be happy to bask in the glory of "their" designs whereas countless, nameless and anonymous back-room designers did all the hard work. Or most of it anyway.

Which means what?

Superficially (long pause, strokes beard) ...... deceit. But then again that’s pretty harmless – right? After all, the buyer’s buying the finished design and possibly buying into a brand culture too – but little more than that.

When I bought for example a Makita power drill recently I had no interest in who did the design work at the makers. I wanted to buy the drill in order to drill a hole. (Slight sense of irritation from HP followed by a longish pause)

That was and for me remains the beginning and end of it. That’s my own personal view ….. well most of the time anyway to justify buying hi-fi equipment. It’s to play music. Everything else …. in my view … is subservient to that.

You didn't mention any UK designers that fall into the above category ....

No I didn't did I?

Pass, next, let's move on.

Phew!

Sorry to have hosed you down there. Anyway, where were we? Or should it be ..... are we?

Okay. I’ll come back to the Makita topic a bit later if there’s time.

Sure they’ll be time! (HP laughs. Neil not sure if it's genuine, or a threat or both)

To be continued .....

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  • Harold Pelham

    To me, the fact that amplifier designers are still re-arranging (and repeating) permutations of transistors and valves all these years later means that they have either failed, or are just keeping themselves busy – I favour the latter. If they really haven’t come up with ‘the ultimate’ amplifier after 50 or 100 years (whichever technology you fetishise) then isn’t it about time they tried something radically new?

    I reserve similar scepticism for speaker designers. Having heard DSP-based active speakers, it seems to me that all conventional audio maestros and virtuosos are doomed. The only reason an amplifier needs to be designed by a ‘genius’ is to drive the hideous load that a passive speaker presents. And the only reason a speaker needs to be designed by a ‘guru’ is to overcome the difficulties of blending an unnecessarily-small selection of halfway-compatible drivers with differing sensitivities using a passive crossover and trying to make it efficient enough to avoid over-taxing the amp.

    Break the problem down into smaller units and almost all of the difficulties evaporate. It’s then just a question of setting the basic requirements and manufacturing the thing. It doesn’t mean it has to be boring: instead of picking from a small number of comically-expensive systems that, against the odds, have come out reasonably from the design lottery using materials like diamond, it becomes a question of just how big and powerful you want the system to be. Four way, five way? No problem. What shape would you like? In other words, the designer only has to be creative rather than 90% electrical engineer and technician. The user will have endless options for tuning it to his room, and it will automatically sound superb with all types of music and not hurt his ears.

    I realise that hardly anyone reading this will give it any credence, but it’s true. Astounding Meridian-like speakers could be put together like Lego from off-the-shelf DSP & amplifier modules, drivers needing nothing but suitably-sized chambers, and software-based processing that is good to start with, but finely trimmed to perfection using measurements. They could be styled as ‘high end’ as you like and use any permutation of drivers that the designer fancies using. The only hurdle is psychological.