Howard Popeck writes:
This is, as far as I know, the final interview with the late Colin Howard, former production director of BS Meridian, founder of London HiFi Services, innovator, designer and the co-founder of Burton Somervell speakers. I conducted this interview some years ago and only discovered it yesterday. It has never previously been published.
I was for a short while a consultant to the company but the personality clashes were fierce and I resigned. This is for me, both ironic and poignant because there was, in the main, unanimity regarding the intended and deliberately elevated sonic performance which, astonishingly given the circumstances, were achieved in the prototypes and the handful of production units which, as far as I know are collectors items and never appear on the used market.
The company had enormous potential, very clever designs mainly driven by Paul Burton (Sumo Aria, Podium planar speakers, Rountree OmniMon speakers and quite probably a whole lot more) and latterly Chris Bryant and funded by Colin Howard and others. Please see the epilogue.
For various reason the company never got off the ground. They built two variants of a classic floorstander design using a forward-facing ribbon and sideways-facing bass/mid drivers; the finest money could buy. I still have a pair of the smaller of the two and they are magnificent. There is a very special pair in daily use in London with eighteen small sideways-facing drivers per cabinet. Transient response to die for and much, much more.
Additionally they designed a fine bookshelf / stand mount speaker inspired by the JR-149, the BS RoundOne plus a prototype active inspired by the Meridian M20 but far, far more capable using electronics developed by the iconoclastic Chris Bryant who applied superb electronic design innovation. This was the XTC-4C. My understanding is that for reasons unknown to me, all prototypes of these were deliberately destroyed. Hubris perhaps? Research? Anyway ... a great pity.
Coin – in the context of audio in the home, what do you think are the hallmarks of a good sound. By this I mean what guidelines could you offer to an experienced listener?
The first thing I think I would say is you have to be gripped by the music and preferably you are being submissive to music that you think you know, but possibly not as much as you'd like to think.
Musical self-delusion perhaps?
Possibly. If it’s unfamiliar music then I think the experience is complicated by too many other things ……… so I would advise any perspective person interested in acquiring equipment to make sure that what they are going to listen to is something they think they know.
And if the experience is run of the mill, then the equipment in a sense has failed, because really good equipment in my experience always awakens a renewed interest in very much loved things that you think you know well.
Musical taste must be an influence surely?
Yes inasmuch as I’m talking mainly about classical music, which is my main interest. So, yes it has to surprise you and give you some delight that you hadn't noticed before in order to be taken seriously.
How might that advice differ when guiding a novice listener?
Gosh, I'm not sure I distinguished there between a novice and an experienced listener. I was giving advice to somebody who wants some music at home and hasn't yet really gone into it. With the experienced listener … I suppose the difference is that he or she will have listened to a whole lot of things and unless he gets truly arrested and taken up with the music itself then the equipment has failed.
So in other words, the listener must be taken over by the music in the demo?
If the equipment is to be judged solely on its merits then yes, absolutely.
Is the market for audiophile quality is diminishing, or static or expanding?
If I believe the reports I read then yes it's been diminishing under the onslaught of alternative ways of spending money on home entertainment like home cinema and video games etc. I think there is a very serious core of people who are not going to be deflected by those interests though … fortunately. They may have a wide screen TV, but it's of secondary importance to them. And really I think we address ourselves to the people to whom music is the primary interest. There are a large number of people like this.
Is that situation age-related do you think?
I'm not sure because I don't know enough about market segmentation, marketing and so on. That said, what I see in the young around me, because I should add that I’m 75, have quite a lively interest in music, but not very much of an interest in what it sounds like.
This is puzzling to me, because when I was that age I cared desperately about what it sounded like. Many are quite happy with iPods and ephemera which don't excite me at all. Portables arouse my interest but … I’m rather jaded and old now. I need something better to get me excited but I think that the older people who are very interested in music, for them this market is not going to do anything much. There is a small core of people for whom it all matters.
But our age band is dying, literally so ... ?
Well for a start there's precious little fresh blood; music loving audiophile to replace them.
I thought you hated the word 'Audiophile'
I do but in this context it's a useful shorthand. Next!
Is it jingoistic to believe that the English really are the natural leaders when it comes to sound quality?
That’s a tough one Howard because as a manufacturer I can think of countries all over the world who give anyone a run for their money. I mean the Danes, the Americans, the Japanese of course, the Germans, possibly even the French. I think we did start it; I believe that we were one of the first countries to take reproduction of music very seriously …… a long long time ago when I was very young.
Do I sniff a bit of nostalgia?
(Long pause) My life in this industry goes back a very long time now, to a point by the way where there were only three shops selling hifi equipment in the whole of London.
What’s more important to you when designing bespoke loudspeakers and latterly, the Somervell range. The final subjective sound or the measurements?
Oh, I'm afraid very much the sound. I don't despise or ignore measurements which are essential in the course of designing the thing. They give you wonderful pointers when you're not happy with something. But ultimately I have modified things from what seemed to be measurements that were perfectly good and very acceptable to something perhaps less acceptable but more musical.
So ……. so I think the musical thing has to take precedence in the final analysis. Although one has to be very careful not to violate too many measurement criteria.
Are you of the opinion that a ruler-flat response is the one dependable litmus test of a good loudspeakers design?
No. Silly idea!
Would that imply that a poorly measuring speaker system can sound great and a ruler-flat response one might not?
Oh yes, I think so. The fact that it’s ruler-flat means that it has one thing right within a whole number of other things, many of which we're not quite sure how to measure yet. This does not make sense to me.
Care to expand on this?
This industry is fraught with complications. The ear/brain is challenging all sorts of things so that you can have a loudspeaker that has so many other things that are good about it and yet it's response is a bit wavy – but it might be infinitely preferable to listen to than one with a ruler-flat response.
I've see ruler-flat response loudspeakers with engineers people telling me it’s right because they have measured it and they know it's right. The implication being that I don't think it’s right then there is something wrong with my ears. Well we all know what to do with that attitude!
How important, in your view, is it for one of your speaker designs to sound full bodied and detailed at low sound pressure levels?
Well ……. I think it is rather important that, because so many people live in our overcrowded island in restrictive circumstances where if they are at all socially conscious at the sort of time that they might want to listen, they can't really open it up. So to be able to achieve very good results at low intensity levels is actually very important.
Do you suspect that some speaker designs are optimised to sound particularly impressive in a comparative demonstrator at a specific volume and less impressive either side of that optimum volume.
I don't know whether people design speakers with that in mind or not, so I can't answer that question meaningfully.
If during a demonstration, an uncompressed live recording, which was not available to the general public were used, is that reasonable, or unfair and what are your reasons please?
Well I would say it is a matter of disclosure. If the sales person who we must assume is an enthusiast is himself rather knocked out by the results of the equipment that he has been demonstrating with uncompressed and unavailable studio sort of material and he wants to show this off to the perspective buyer, well I think that is fine provided he explains this. What would not be acceptable would be to put it on as if it was just another CD that anybody could get if they went to a shop and bought it. That is deception.
At heart, are you an active speaker man or a passive speaker man?
Well, in my career I have been responsible for the manufacture of active loudspeakers of varying quality. One model I particularly admired (Colin confirmed later that this was the Meridian M1) and two rather less and lately I have started to be very interested in active loudspeakers again, and I think that in the right hands the active can score hand over fist against the passive system. The problem is that most people who are making active speakers ……. or some of them at least …….. are not getting enough things right to generally persuade people.
Would you care to expand on that?
Not really, no.
Any thoughts as to why actives speakers are comparatively rare in domestic situations?
Well I think one thing is that they are quite difficult to make work properly. Well ... they are very difficult to make work really well and secondly, in our industry there is a large contingent of people but, I won't say who, who believe that the equipment is more important than the music.
Would you care to expand on that?
Hmm. I will say that they have a lively interest in equipment and this takes away one degree of freedom from them. So you do have to overcome that, either by demonstrating the superiority of that particular active speaker or as I say … it’s sometimes quite difficult if people have a beloved power amplifier for instance or a beloved speaker, to get them to part with that in order to have an active speaker. It's a portmanteau thing.
I think he is going to lose out because ultimately the best sounds will come from an active loudspeaker. However, I wouldn't blame him if the people who have offered him active loudspeakers haven't bowled him over with them, then it is completely fair enough for him to stick to what he prefers
And yet active speakers are so popular in the recording studios where so music is recorded. Any thoughts re this?
Nothing comes to mind right now.
At heart, are you a vinyl man, or a digital replay man?
Well I'm afraid I am a digital replay man. I don't deny the beauty that can be obtained from vinyl with enough bucks behind it. I suppose with classical music I have to say that a terrible mistake was made at the beginning where you start your music at the outside of the 12” where the maximum potential for clarity exists and when most things end with crashing symbols and things at the end you are at the worst quality end of the LP. This was a tactical error. I have to say I am also influenced by the enormous convenience of a CD, so I'm really a CD person.
What are your thoughts re the anticipated demise of FM radio?
If it happens then … it will be a tragedy.
I'm very distressed by it because I've never heard a digital tuner that came close to the Sansui tuner that I have and I'm not saying that it’s the last word, because I know you have better tuner (Trio KT917) but nevertheless, the Sansui still wipes out any digital tuner I've heard.
So I'm sad about that and in my rather depressed state I feel it is a further descent to not going back to something that is clearly better towards something that is worse merely because it is cheaper or easier to have a million channels …… it’s not very becoming and not in what I would like to think is a British tradition at all. It reminds me of our membership of the European Union
Have you been surprised by the effects of different types of mains cable and IEC termination on the sound that comes from Somervell electronics driving Somervell speakers?
I have been rather surprised because I don't reckon I have anything like the acuity of some of my friends have for acoustic things. I will usually arrive at conclusions, but it takes me some time to do it and I'm always very impressed by the people who can almost at once tell you that something is not quite right and what it is. It absolutely surprises me, and I can't explain it at all.
I am in no doubt at all that not only mains cable – and I've sat in on testing five or six different mains cable before we chose our one – and I was almost bewildered by the fact that I could tell any difference, and I wasn't expecting to be able to tell any difference.
How far have Somervell progressed re releasing a loudspeaker cable?
Well we have produced a prototype loudspeaker cable and the provisional results from it are extremely promising. I think it's possibly fair to say that we don't believe that there is anything on the market under a £1000 per stereo pair that can beat ours. We hope to be able to sell it for rather less than half that.
OK can you give us any technical details on this or is that a bit hush, hush at the moment?
Our cables are rather labour intensive actually - that's one of the things I can say about them. We don't simply ring up the cable manufacturer and give him a specification and wait for the reels to arrive. Our cables are constructed and so we have done a good deal of work, and I don't really want to talk about the details.
is it possible that the lack of congruency between measurement and sound quality in speaker systems is merely because there are parameters that have yet to be measured?
Oh yes, I believe that absolutely. I mean there was a time when harmonic distortion in amplifiers was all you considered with its power output and in speakers a flat response was considered the be all and end all. And subsequently, to give you an example, the decay characteristics became very significant and were measured by loudspeaker driver manufacturers, and that helped a lot, that was a very important additional piece of information that we got.
But I have no doubt at all that there lurks undiscovered all sorts of other things that – at least as far as this kind of thing is concerned and I am an optimist about this, though a pessimist in everything else – I would say we will discover many small things about what to measure which, in combination, will be significant.
Regarding digital room equalisation, is it a gimmick or does it have some application in domestic situations.
I have heard these things in operation and I suppose that if you are prepared to spend any time experimenting and moving loudspeakers then it's a good shortcut to a sort of middling performance. But by and large, in the same way that I am not really a fan of loudness controls or tone controls, twiddling with the frequency response to try and move a room mode …… well, I don't think it’s the right way to do it.
Have you experienced your designs sounding different, in the same room, at different times of the day and indeed at weekends and week days?
Oh very much so, yes. One of the crushing things that you feel that you need to calm you and encourage you in life for music and you go in and turn your system on and it sounds like hell, whatever it is. I believe there are two things that work here.
One is that the mains affects the performance quite significantly and there are times of the day when I would not probably expect the sound to be very good.
The other thing of course is something to do with oneself. In an agitated state, and there are certain types of agitated states - and I have no idea whether it is alpha rhythms or anything else - but I am quite sure that one's own mood and condition affects the whole effect and it is quite difficult to determine what the deciding factor is.
Whether it’s that the equipment is not great or you yourself are not receptive in the right way. So I think it does alter very much. One of those unfortunate things. It can be helped of course by trying to neutralise some of the distortions that come down the mains.
Some makers are extolling the virtue of seemingly unlimited amplifier power as a requirement for un-restricted system dynamics. Logical or merely smart marketing?
Well I suppose it must depend on a number of things. Let's take the things that it depends on. Sound pressure level - that you hear in your head - is governed by the size of the room that you are in, the efficiency of the loudspeakers and the power of the amplifiers. I daresay there are other things, but those are the obvious things which affect the impact that you are going to get.
Now, if you want a very large room, then I think you probably need a very large amplifier. Again the efficiency of loudspeakers varies between perhaps 84db and 95db; might be the best for a hifi speaker as opposed to a public address thing.
Now that is an enormous difference in relative power and I can't offhand give you the answer but I could work it out for you. So just to say you need unlimited power doesn't really make sense. If you have a hugely efficient loudspeaker you can get overwhelming sound with very little power, so these things have to be taken in conjunction.
Are we likely to see Somerville offering user-education re amplifier RMS and speaker efficiency?
I think it is a good idea if you are selling a passive loudspeaker to suggest the minimum power as well as the maximum power. The difficulty with the maximum power - I know you didn't ask me that question, but the difficulty with maximum power is that if you put the loudspeakers on the floor in the room where they are having a party with fifty people and they will not listen to what is going on and they will turn up the 100 watt amplifier, that they've been told the speakers can take, to the point where the whole thing is in ghastly overload and it will destroy it.
If on the other hand you don't have an amplifier that would be capable of destroying your loudspeakers then I don't think you can expect to have a transient performance that you'd get if you had a seriously powerful amplifier. I suppose it may be a bit like a car where it's jolly nice to have a 400bhp, but it doesn't mean you use it all the time.
I guess that’s it for now Colin. Thank you. Any message you’d like to share with the readers?
Thank you Howard and … nothing currently thank you
As of August 10th 2016 all attempts to find Paul Burton have failed. I very much hope he’s out there, safe, well and happy. Paul, if you are reading this, please contact us.
Colin had a commercial partner / collaborator, Chris Bryant. Chris has been for years, in addition to being an incisive and respected hifi reviewer writing for HiFi Critic (amongst others I believe) is a go-to audio ‘hire-gun’ for some of the world’s most respected makers. He was either the founder or joint founder of Orelle and subsequent to that, the main man at XTC; both brands having justifiably (i.e no hype, no marketing) achieved near cult status.