GRAHAM AUDIO: Howard Popeck speaks at length to people with interesting things to say: Paul Graham of Graham Audio

Graham Audio

Howard Popeck interviews Mr. Paul Graham

Q: Paul …. let’s hit the ground running right now; in your direct personal experience, what distinguishes music from noise?

A: Well, a Graham Audio loudspeaker, of course!

Q: Hmm. Okay. Thank you. Now then, how did you first become interested in music?

A: I grew up during the '60s; it was pretty hard to escape the music scene – especially rock. And yes, like so many kids back then, I started to play in bands. Nothing spectacular, and no recordings exist today – I hope! – but I still find time to mess about in my home studio...

Q: How did those experiences drive you, if indeed ‘drive’ is the appropriate word towards speaker design?

A: At first, it was all about being loud! But that became boring pretty quickly. As we got the opportunity to practice in half-decent recording studios, I quickly realised the difference that loudspeakers can make to sound quality, and started asking why.

Q: Can you tell me about the very first speaker you designed and what happened to it?

A: No!  Well, let's just say that it was not exactly refined... I did have some luck on my side, and the bass end was pretty OK, but with no access to measurement equipment, a flat frequency response was just a pipe dream. Still, I used them for a couple of years, then my brother had them... He left them in the attic when moving house many years back. Probably for the best!

Q: When your career in audio began, what speakers were your reference standards? Not only BBC designs, surely?

A: No, not just BBC. At the time, large Tannoy coaxial drivers were in many recording studios, and JBL were starting to become popular. Compared to the BBC designs at the time, these were outrageously loud, and for many applications that's fine, but they all lacked something, on vocals especially. The LS5/8 was a lot louder than previous BBC designs, but still couldn't get to the levels demanded by heavy metal engineers and producers.

Q: Is it the case, in your view, that there’s been little concern by recording engineers about sonic quality?

A: It depends. Recording engineers are like any other engineer – they have to make a product that people want to own. Their reputation, and hence their ability to earn a living in a cut-throat industry, depends on this. Therefore, the target audience is something they have to carefully consider.

If you are making a mainstream recording, you might anticipate that it will be heard on transistor radios or mobile phones, and then naturally you will make sure it sounds good on a tiny loudspeakers with a limited frequency response and dynamic range. Or perhaps it needs to work well in a night club? A very different scenario, perhaps, but again, the mix needs to sound good in a specific context and it's your job to come up with the goods.

Such recordings don't necessarily work so well on a high-end hi-fi setup. But there are plenty of recordings that are made with the more discerning listener in mind. A lot of classical recordings, for instance. SACD is still with us, and is largely catering for the classical audience – just listen to “Building a Library” on Radio 3! A lot of jazz and alternative music is also superbly recorded.

Also, what has become known as the 'Loudness wars' has meant that commercial pressures have often overtaken sonic quality as the chief driving force, but there are many, especially in the classical music world, using top quality equipment to produce excellent recordings. With the equipment and techniques available today there is no excuse for poor quality, although over use of the myriad of processing tools available does more harm than good.

Q: Why is there such diversity between audiophile values and the audio engineering establishment's values?

A: Mostly because of differing objectives. An audio professional needs a tool to do a job, whereas an audiophile wants a system that moves them. But I feel that the divide is not as broad as some report – plenty of audiophiles use professional equipment. If you've been used to nothing but hi-fi loudspeakers, monitors can be a bit of a culture shock, but once acclimatised, it's hard to go back.

Q: So …. If I understand this correctly, in the factory there’s no production line which means that one person is responsible for the whole testing. Is that correct?

A: That's almost correct. Yes, one person is responsible for the complete build process and initial testing. But final testing is done by a second person.

And by “testing”, I include auditioning along with measurements – that's really important. Even though space is always a problem, we have a dedicated room given over to just this. We use a system of trolleys to move completed speakers between assembly, test, and packaging areas to minimise the risk of accidents – each trolley is built specifically for the loudspeaker, and places the unit at the correct height for the measurement microphone – the position of which is fixed within the room for consistency.

The auditioning is done as a stereo pair – even though that takes even more space – so that problems can be picked up that don't show on the measurements.

Q: What suggested this approach to you?

A: Good question. It's partly just a product of being a small company, but actually, we believe that having one person doing almost everything makes the job more interesting. That person feels closer to the product and the end customer as a result – it's about ownership.

Q: How do you maintain sonic consistency?

A: The careful testing outlined earlier is certainly part of this, but in practice, the testing is mostly about reassurance – it's incredibly rare that we need to alter anything after the tests. Consistency has be built in from the design stage, right from the specification of materials and components to the topology of the crossover. We're lucky to work with Derek Hughes, who has spent a lifetime building loudspeakers that were basically sold on their consistency. He's taught us a thing or two, that's for sure!

As well as sample-to-sample consistency, we're lucky that our BBC-licensed designs are naturally very consistent from product to product because that's what the BBC required originally. We also have 'reference' speakers of each model with which production is compared. The BBC has the right to take any production speaker to check it's compliance with the license conditions.

Q: I know that you’ve always favoured the "BBC sound". That said, how did you convince the BBC that your organisation was up to the task?

A: There's obviously a limit on how much I can say here, but suffice to say, we have a good working relationship with the BBC, and we are producing speakers that meet their design criteria. They were keen to have their designs revived, and we have the engineering experience and expertise to achieve that

Q: Our industry can at times be petty. Am I correct in believing that another UK maker – who shall remain nameless and who see themselves as both the logical and intelligent custodian of the BBC heritage was, well …. less than pleased?

A: Pass,

Q: I see. Well .... it didn’t stop you building a reference monitor system for The Royal Opera House!

A: It was interesting to see if the design principles behind the BBC approach to speakers would translate to a high power system. It seems to have been a successful transformation and has brought very positive comments from all who have heard it. We are working on a derivation of the design for the domestic market which was demonstrated recently to a group of audio professionals with equally favorable results.

Q: The competition you faced from others – given the prestige of the opportunity – must have been fierce. Can you provide an insight, or is this all confidential?

A: That's a good question. Yes, precise details are sensitive, but suffice to say, the quality of the LS5/9 was a factor.

Q: Your LS5/9; what’s the profile of a typical buyer?

Very discerning & appreciative of the finer things in life. I'm not sure we can stereotype. There is definitely a strong awareness of the BBC loudspeaker heritage amongst audiophiles, and that extends to virtually all parts of world, and across a wide age profile.

Q: Do these owners have a particular preference for brands of amplification; Sugden perhaps … Quad, LFD Audio and so on i.e. classic UK designs to complement the classic BBC speaker designs?

A: Again, I wouldn't like to second-guess that. We're fortunate that the BBC designs are easy to drive, so are relatively undemanding of the amplifier, providing it has enough voltage swing. Even the first-generation Quad 405 – with its conservative current limiting – gives excellent results. But that said, we've had some great feedback from people using them with lower powered amplifiers as well – yes, including Sugden. The key thing is to choose something that gets you the listening level you want in your space, without clipping.

Q: What is your response to the statement "There was an intimacy about the early days of audio that I find sadly lacking in today's audio world"?

A: Hmm – I wonder what you're getting at? Different production techniques? Technology in the recording studio can be a mixed blessing. Or perhaps the perception comes from the way we consume audio these days? The move away from LPs which you played in their entirety...  Personally, a loudspeaker that delivers vocals like an LS5/9 is as intimate as it gets!

Q: What is your response to the statement ‘one of the most persistent problems in the audio industry is "the lack of a basic standard for tonal accuracy"?

A: I know where you're coming from. I don't spent a lot of time listening to hi-fi loudspeakers, but I'm always surprised at the diversity of sound quality that you hear at hi-fi shows and at dealers. But choice is important – especially as taste and listening rooms vary so much.

Having said that, this could become a real problem if the recording industry were to follow a similar trend. A flat response is essential when mixing – not least because hi-fi loudspeakers intentionally deviate from neutrality on the assumption that commercially available recordings will continue to fit the “average” tonal balance that has been observed over many decades. If the spectral content of recordings was to gradually shift because of trends in the recording industry, bright loudspeakers made today might – for example – become harsh or tiring in the future.

Q: What is wrong with planar speakers and electrostatics in your view?

A: Nothing in principle. But you usually need a large room with plenty of space behind the panels – not always easy in the UK!

Aside from that, there are undoubtedly practical issues with these, including the high voltages and delicate diaphragms. The performance of a good moving-coil loudspeaker is so very close these days that you have to ask a lot of hard questions before considering going down that path. But having said that, I have been fascinated by ribbon tweeters for many years...

Thanks Paul

That’s it until next month.