TONE CONTROLS: Howard Popeck in conversation with Neil McCauley about his SAE 2800, Cello Palette, Yamaha C1, Carver 4000 and the Daniel Hertz


This is the next in an occasional series of recorded brief conversations between Howard and myself during snatched time between deadlines and other time issues.

Neil: Howard?

Howard: Yes! (faking irritability)

N: it’s that time again! (faking sarcasm)

H: Oh …... good (faking sarcasm)

N: So, whatever happened to tone controls? You know, the bass and treble boost/cut controls that used to adorn just about every 1950 and 1960’s era preamplifier?

H: Yes Neil …. I know what they are! (faking irritability)

N: So …..?

H: They fell out of fashion in the 1970’s because purists didn’t want them. The analog audio path must be absolutely pure. They said.

N: They?

H: Flat-earthers. The Linn/NAIM axis with their acolytes.

N: Then what?

H: They fell back into fashion in the 90’s when Mark Levinson’s Cello introduced the Audio Palette (designed by Dick Burwen), a multi-thousand dollar tone control with separate power supply. It was deemed high-end and desirable, but too expensive for most of us even then.

N: And today?

H: About $20k today

N: And you missed the opportunity to buy a UK spec one at £3k?

H: Yup (tone of voice indicates a sense of regret)

N: Then what?

H: I bought an SAE 2800 and a few preamps with tone controls.

N: Such as?

H: SAE Model One, SAE 101, Yamaha C1, Harman Kardon Citation 17, Phase Linear 4000

N: Good?

H: Not sure. Most of these were bought during a mad period of vintage nostalgia. Most remain boxed. But that said, despite the beautiful build quality, the Yamaha C1 had to go; muddy sound. The SAE Model One was when I last plugged it in, astonishing, magnificent and one of the most engaging I’ve ever heard.

N: The one with the rotary control, not the sliders. Am I correct?

H: Yes. Serial number 00002, believed to be the first fully hand built model after the prototypes. Apparently designed to equal if not exceed the apparently exceptional Marantz Model 7 These fetch silly, silly prices in the Far East.

N: The SAE 2800?

H: I've an ultra rare 230v version. Had it a few years but not plugged it in so far.

N: Maybe we’ll return to this when time permits. Meanwhile, how do you perceive the utility of tone controls?

H: Utility? (faking sarcasm)

N: It’s a new word I've discovered; appropriate too! (faking sarcasm)

H: Utility. Hmm. 25 years later, they’ve reappeared in almost every home theater processor and receiver on the market – but not in two-channel. What’s interesting here is two things: the apparent 25 year on again, off again cycle and that the cycle hasn’t yet repeated itself in two-channel.

N: Anything else?

H: Yes. With the vast majority of high-end audio now digital, the old concerns of mucking up the analog signal with an EQ circuit are gone; while the value of tone controls, making up for poor recordings and deficiencies in the room and loudspeaker chain, never went away.

N: Which means what?

H: Now that we can add them without any worry of compromise to the audio chain, it has me wondering when they will become the rage once again

N: Any plans re tone controls in your system, assuming you aren’t using any of your vintage preamps?

H: I'm intrigued by the Mark Levinson (Daniel Hertz SA) Master Class. He says “Daniel Hertz now introduces Master Class, the digital version of the Audio Palette, with even higher performance and many cool features like the ability to store and load playlists and presets, and to print new AIFF files with all changes embedded. Master Class also offers A+, an algorithm that fills in the spaces of the PCM step function waveform to obtain a more analog-like listening experience from all PCM digital audio formats.

N: Gonna get one?

H: Probably.

N: Can I borrow it?

H: No ….. not while you persist in using a non-Mac storage system! His precision tool is, apparently, not designed to work with MS Windows!

H: Oh.

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