MANA ACOUSTICS / JOHN WATSON: Howard Popeck speaks at length to people with interesting things to say: Mana Acoustics’ John Watson – the complete interview

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How did your interest in music reproduction start John?

I guess I was always into music from a very early age. My Father was an electrical and mechanical engineer and used to build his own Hi-Fi back in the Fifties, so music played a big part in my formative years.

You’re probably best known, even today, for the Reference Table. What litmus test of success in sound quality did you set yourself in those early days?

Live music. I wanted to hear music as close to the live sound as was possible. I hate it when music sounds nice. Okay if that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. then fair enough – but I hate Hi-fi systems that make everything sound nice. Let’s face it, a brass band should not sound nice. It should, if reproduced properly and if you happen to be to close to a brass instrument, take your head off.

And today, what’s your litmus test?

Again the live sound, warts ‘n all.

Some experts claim that the ultimate test of the quality of an audio system is how close it approaches the original sound – while some argue that because of recording technology distortions, no one, not even the recording artists know what the original sound was really like. What are your thoughts on this apparent paradox?

I believe that we as human beings know instinctively when something is right or, in this case, sounds right.

I’d say that most musicians who play real instruments know what said instrument should sound like. They’ll also be familiar with how their chosen instrument will sound in a variety of different locations. When it comes to electronic instruments and sounds then this is not quite so clear cut and I guess a lot of it could be down to the individuals as well as engineers and the producer’s interpretation.

An alternative approach is that the ultimate test is to see how close the audio system reproduces what was on the original master tape – or master digital file. What’s your view?

I suppose it’s a good reference and starting point. Saying that though, I’ve heard turntables where it’s claimed that their sound reproduction is closest to the master tape – whereas in reality it comes across as sterile or worse still boring.

What are the current limitations re approaching 100% accurate voice and music reproduction in the home?

Probably the home environment itself. We will never achieve anything close to accurate voice or music reproduction even in a dedicated listening room in the home.

Mana say they're not scientists and don't want to speculate on theory. Why is that?

Every time I think I have an answer to how Mana works, then something comes along to knock holes in that theory. These days I tend to stand back and let others explain how or why they think it works. Makes for fun and interesting reading at times! It also adds a bit of mystic to the whole thing!

The best in hi-fi has always belonged to the tinkerer, the experimenter. True or false – or a bit of both?

I’d say that there’s probably a lot of truth in that.

You’ve been quoted as saying that “the limit to performance gained from the number of levels is the height of your ceiling”. True or false?

I have seen that quote, but I never actually said it – or not in those words but yes, looking at the way things have progressed with my own system, there’s probably a lot of truth in that.

I kid you not – I even looked at buying a house with a cellar so I could build my supports down in the cellar and bring them up through the floor of the listening room. Didn’t happen – which I have to say my wife is more than thankful for!

What’s the Pink Floyd connection and how did it come about?

I’ve been a fan of their music since the early days. Around the time of their Pulse tour, I contacted the band’s management and explained what we did and they told me to speak to the guys who ran Astoria, David Gilmour’s studio.

I spoke to Phil Taylor who ran the studio and who was also David Gilmour’s guitar technician and right hand man. He thought it was all totally bizarre, well that’s the polite definition, but he invited me over to the studio and told me he’d allow me fifteen minutes to convince him.

For the demonstration we placed an ordinary Sony CD player on one of our supports and played a track on and off the support through the studio rig.

Everyone there was suitably impressed and we were then asked to build custom supports for their valve Studer analogue tape machines as well as all their amplification. They also had an array of our supports to use under mike stands, energisers, power-supplies etc in the studio itself.

Their producer. James Guthrie, heard what our kit could do and asked us to build custom supports for his studio out in California as well as for Doug Sax’s Mastering Labs.

You’ve got a comprehensive range of isolation products. How does the audiophile on a budget know where to start?

I guess if a person has never seen or experienced any of our range it can be bewildering. The best thing is to contact us and once we know what sort of system they have and how many components they have to support we can advise and guide them as to the most cost effective way to get the maximum benefit from our range.

Why do you say that?

Because each product in our range serves a different purpose and although most will work in a modular fashion there are ways of getting the optimum out of each support for maximum effect.

If what you say is correct, then an interesting demo might be a good system badly supported – compared to an inferior system on your isolation systems. Is that sense or is it stupid?

That makes perfect sense and we have demonstrated that on many occasion – to good effect.

Most readers can appreciate that air-borne vibration must impact on audio equipment. But how can you explain the Mana effect when someone is using, say, a STAX Earspeaker energiser on one of your smaller units with no loudspeakers playing in the room?

A long time ago I used to think that air-borne vibration, acoustic feedback was the main culprit, but I found that even when I used a system on our supports in a different room with only the speakers in the listening room the effect was still the same. In fact there was little or no difference to the effect – it was just as pronounced.

Later I discovered that even without a pair of speakers connected and just using a pair of headphones again the effect was just as pronounced. This led me to believe that although I’m not totally ruling out the air-borne issue, it was of less importance than I’d previously believed.

I have my own ideas as to what’s going on, but as I said before, I let others explain what they believe to be the answer. I also don’t want to help the competition out there ( Big smile! )

Okay, lets take this a bit further. If what you believe to be correct is correct, then the rationale behind active speakers where the amplification is within the speaker cabinet (Meridian and ATC being the two most generally known) is suspect. So is it?

Yes. It’s a compromise, like so many other compromises that we have to make for domestic harmony as well as restraints. I always have to smile when people tell me that they don’t want their speaker stands too high because they want their tweeters at ear level because that’s how the speaker manufacturer had designed them and meant them to be used! Obviously domestic restrictions played no part in this!

I used to own a pair of active ATC100 speakers with their onboard amplification. I used this combination as I had run out of floor space when I lived in Pinner, due to my ever increasing record collection and as such the ATC speakers and their onboard amplifiers seemed like an attractive proposition.

I always knew that they would have sounded a lot better if the amp packs were not bolted to the speakers. I knew this to be the case because of how well amplifiers solid state or valve responded when placed on our supports.

So taking this further still, then theoretically, a passive speaker would sound better if its crossover were taken out of the cabinet and isolated on a Mana table. Does that make sense?

Yes. I have in the past used passive speakers with external crossovers and again, they’ve responded favourably when placed on our supports. I’m not saying it’s a night and day difference – but the improvement is there.

As it turns out, reports that vinyl was dead and buried were premature, right?

I never believed that for one minute. A good vinyl playback system will still leave the best CD player sounding anaemic and sterile.

Okay, so let’s accept you are highly experienced with audio isolation techniques, then logically your next product should be a turntable – assuming of course that you believe that suspended decks are inherently more accurate than unsuspended ones. So ……..?

That’s a whole new can of worms that I don’t wish to open.

Why?

The way I see it is that arguably, the best deck is already out there – albeit with a bit of tweaking by yours truly. It’s the Linn LP12 and my tweaked up version was/is nicknamed the Ninja.

How difficult, as a manufacturer is it to deal with magazine reviewers?

Difficult to say. From my own personal experience I would hope that I got on reasonably well with most of them.

Do you believe you’ve been a victim of hi-fi ‘politics’?

That’s an even more difficult question to answer truthfully ( big smile ). I suppose when you don’t conform and instead produce a product so radical as the Mana support then I guess a few feathers will get ruffled along the way.

Let’s face it Howard, most manufacturers out there, the dealers they supply and the magazines that support this industry are trying to get the enthusiast to buy the latest piece of equipment. They don’t want the Hi-fi enthusiast to be satisfied with what they’ve got. They can’t afford to, the industry will collapse if everyone stopped buying new kit.

Here we are advising the enthusiast that rather than junk their kit for the latest Mk2 or next years Mk3 model, to instead place it on one of our supports and squeeze the last bit of latent performance out of it and only then if they still feel inclined to buy the latest model.

In terms of car makers, which marque would Mana Audio be today?

Oh Morgan, certainly! I’d would like to think of us a Morgan. We’re for the music lover.

And in 10 years time?

I think Woody Allen said it “ If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans”. I think that sums up how I feel. I like to watch this moment pass.

Your prediction re the quality of home reproduction in 5 and 10 years John?

I don’t like making predictions.

When you’re developing a product, what amps, speakers and sources do you use?

  • My own LP12/Ninja
  • Naim Aro tonearm
  • Sumiko Sho MC cartridge
  • Epona Power-supply
  • Norton power-supply
  • Naim CDS CD player,
  • Stealth power-amps
  • Naim power-amps
  • Naim Nac 52 pre-amp
  • Linn Isobariks
  • ATC100Asl active speakers
  • Neat loudspeakers.

What’s the most musically enjoyable audio system you’ve ever heard?

My own ( Big smile ).

Does you attend live music performances?

Yes, I recently saw the Beach Boys play in the grounds of a stately home just down the road outside Bangor, North Wales.

Looking back on it. do you think the Linn/Naim flat-earth evangelists turned off more potential entrants into the upmarket audio world than they ever converted?

No, definitely not!

Some industry watchers now claim, I'm told, that the ‘Hi-Fi Answers’ team did more to drive away buyers of quality audio systems than they did to entice them into our world. True, or unnecessarily harsh?

That’s pretty harsh. It’s always easy to want to point the finger of blame at someone or something. Although I believe that all the magazines these days have played a part in the lack of interest in music and Hi-Fi. You can see the gradual decline in sales of magazines as well as how many magazine titles there are these days.

So what’s the solution?

Well of course I'm not in possession of all the facts, so I’ll make a stab in the dark here. They need to work out a new format and move with the times. They don’t have it their own way anymore. Their word isn’t gospel. The internet with active music and Hi-Fi forums can give the enthusiast their daily fix now without waiting each month for the edited versions of what a reviewer might actually have or want to say.

So, is the writing on the wall now?

Yes, in my view, the writing is on the wall. Will they see it time or will they just bury their heads in the sand hoping it will all go away and by the time they resurface their publishers have pulled the plug?

What's your business philosophy John?

Looking after your customers and an honest product,

And your personal philosophy?

Always try to see the bigger picture.

Okay John – it’s Desert Island Vinyl time. Given you can choose just eight recordings, what would they be?

  • John Martyn – Inside Out.
  • Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon.
  • Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline.
  • David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.
  • Beatles – Sgt.Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
  • Santana – Abraxas.
  • Supertramp – Live Paris.
  • Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.

And for digital, which eight?

  • The Best Of Jimi Hendrix.
  • John Martyn – Sweet Little Mysteries.
  • Brian Wilson – Presents Pet Sounds.
  • Everything But The Girl – Eden.
  • Steely Dan –Gaucho.
  • Nitin Sawhney – Migration.
  • Saffi Brothers – Mystic Cigarettes.
  • Emiliana Torrini – Love In The Time Of Science.

And your one luxury on that desert island?

A Swiss Army Knife.

Was Hendrix really the greatest rock guitarist of all time?

Probably.

Rumour has it you were once a Biker. True or false?

Yes, you could say that ( Big smile )

Finally, any message you’d like to give the readers?

Keep the music alive.

Thank you John.

END

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Epilogue

This interview, originally published in many parts and now reassembled in its original running order proved to be one of the most popular posts ever published here.

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