TOWNSHEND ENGINEERING: Howard Popeck speaks at length to people with interesting things to say: Max Townshend

From our archives :

Howard Popeck: Not many people know you’re a qualified engineer. What engineering discipline was your first degree?

Max: Bachelor of Engineering, Electrical, specialising in communications.

Where did you study?

University of Western Australia

So what happened after that?

I accepted a commission in the Royal Australian Air Force where I was in charge of the technical aspects of the instrumentation on anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft. I was fortunate to become experienced in submarine detection by magnetic anomaly, diesel smoke particle detection and sonar detection as well as multi-piston aircraft engine ignition electronic real time analysis.

I was then employed at Sydney based engineering companies where I worked on the remote control of hydro-electric power stations, the electronic indicators on the totalisator at the Sydney race courses, mains step-down transformers for slide projectors and the radar landing system now installed at Heathrow airport.

How did your interest in music reproduction start?

My Interest in music started at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both played the piano. I never learned to play the piano, but I did learn to play my grandmother’s gramophone! Hence my love of music. As a hobby whilst a schoolboy I busied myself making 35mm movie projectors out of Meccano. Once I had the moving picture, the next step was to reproduce the optically recorded sound. That was the start!

You moved to Texas for a while. Was there a hi-fi connection or was it something else?

When the oil job ended, my colleagues in Texas figured that it would be a good idea to manufacture Townshend Audio products in Houston. Hence the existence of Townshend Audio Inc. USA.

Is it true that when evaluating your original Rock in the 1980s, your then German distributor said there was too much bass?

No – the real story is that he was really keen on the little black Elite Rock, but when we introduced the stunning Rock Reference (which had been developed using master tapes to guarantee accuracy) it overloaded his inadequate speakers in the bottom end, so he rejected it as there was too much bass! The few lucky owners, about 180 in all, would no doubt disagree.

What’s the story on the Cranfield MSc Thesis?

John F R Bugge, a mature age student at the Department for the Design of Machine Systems, Cranfield Institute of Technology, chose for his MSc Dissertation, the Design and Evaluation of a Production Prototype High Performance Gramophone Record Player.

Tell us about your 555 cartridge in the 1980s?

As a natural progression from the parabolic stylus we introduced a radically new moving coil cartridge, the MCP 555. It was the first to incorporate a long contact diamond in this country and maybe the world. It was a resounding success!

Garrott brothers. Great engineering but a tragic story. What happened, as far as you know?

A tragedy! The two brothers and their lovely twin wives committed ritual suicide as they believed that vinyl was dead and that the future was compact disk and that there would be no more demand for their products.

What’s the story about you and Tim de Paravachini?

Tim and I met very early after my arrival in the UK and as we both had similar backgrounds (he had lived in Australia) we had a lot in common. Also, he is a bit mad and a really innovative inventor.

What made you shift production to Malta for a while?

The Malta Development Corporation was offering a rent-free factory, a tax holiday and government help for any company wishing to relocate to Malta.

Rumour had it that for a while you were a contracted engineer working on ecological solutions on Norwegian oil rigs – up to your armpits in toxic mud. Is that right?

Yes indeed, after the terrible recession of the late eighties, I was forced to earn big cash, so I took a contract for two years in Norway working on the clean-up of toxic oil mud with a Texas based company.

What’s the story on the giant original multi-driver speaker?

Using an array of point sources to make a line, in the Sir Galahad speaker case six bass/mid and nine tweeters, a number of very useful benefits are realised. The sound pressure level falls off at the reciprocal of the distance from the line, whereas with a point source, it falls off as the reciprocal of the square of the distance. Also, the efficiency of the array is 6dB higher than for a single unit. The combined effect of the six driver array is to have an efficiency equivalent to a point source with an efficiency of 105dB for one watt at 1m when measured at five metres, whereas a single driver only has an efficiency of 85dB. This all adds up to one having a very efficient speaker with each driver just cruising. Awesome sound!

Who ended up with it?

My dear friend John Bamford

Just a tinge of nostalgia on that one Max?

Yes indeed, but I can still make more sets and I can hear them at John’s.

In terms of car makers, which marquee would Townshend Audio be today?


And in ten years time?

Probably the same but crystal ball gazing in motor cars is not my forte.

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

"Right. There are probably six billion LPs out there with amazing music trapped in those little grooves, the majority of which may never appear in hi-resolution digital format. And as these records don’t deteriorate if looked after, they are now passing down to new listeners."

Who's driving the industry today Max, the music publishers or the hardware makers?

In a lot of ways it does not look like the industry is driven at all. Just look at the popularity of the iPod and home Cinema and fidelity is simply NEVER an issue in the popular press.

You’re known to have firm views on balanced inputs and outputs. What’s led you to those conclusions?

Use unbalanced for short runs and balanced for long runs. It’s as simple as that!

In your experience, do mains leads really make a difference, and are the expensive ones really capable of offering value?

We have tried a number of mains leads and they do make a difference, however, if great care is taken with RF filtering within the equipment their effect is less pronounced. But if the mains leads have exceptional RF rejection an improvement will be noted because, as mentioned before, one can’t get enough RF rejection!

How reliable are multi-format transports mechanisms compared to CD-only drives?

Modern CD and multi format drives, in my experience, are all incredibly reliable. It is only with damaged discs problems may occur with high resolution format compared with CD.

Why do transports sound different?

We really don’t know the exact answer but we seriously suspect that it is down to jitter performance. One thing we do know for sure is that vibration isolation in all three plains down to (ideally) 2Hz makes a profound improvement to the sound of all digital transports.

As far as I'm aware you don’t use any form of mains filtering/cleaning. Is it you’ve got something like than inside the equipment, or do you think it’s all hype?

Yes we do. We are fervent believers in mains filtering and incorporate RF isolation wherever possible and yes, extra mains filtering is always desirable. The instruction of RF is insidious and you can never get enough filtering.

What is wrong with planar speakers and electrostatics in your view – bearing in mind you had stacked Quad 57’s for some years?

Yes, I did have stacked Quads with Decca Ribbons and a big sub woofer. However, I could never get the impact of the sound of a big band or full orchestra. This is due to the flimsy nature of the thin metal perforated sheets that are mechanical ground in the electrostatic design. These plates are the launch pad for the music must be extremely stiff and heavy if you are to reproduce an accurate analogue of the electrical signal. I have yet to see an electrostatic speaker that gets anywhere near as massy and stiff as 80 to 200 kilos of steel and plaster!

How do you overcome the problem of dealers being reluctant to make a substantial capital investment in a full Townshend demo system?

We are quite open to the dealers to approach us and welcome their interest and we welcome those who wish to join our club. The problem is that most dealers will only take in a product if the demonstration gear is free. They are then free to switch-sell other (usually inferior) products that they have been forced, by what ever means, to pay for, for example, a free holiday.

As far as I know, only you and Pink Triangle ever evangelised the importance and rationale of comparing the sound of the arm/deck/cartridge combination to the original master tapes for comparison. Why do you think that is?

It depends on what your goal is. If you wish the turntable to be musical instrument in its own right where master tape scant resemblance to the sound of the real thing then fine. But Arthur’s and my goal is accuracy!

You never abandoned the idea of the front-end damping trough. But no one else copied it as far as I know. Is it patented or did no one else know how to engineer it?

It would be a no-brainer to abandon the trough as only the deaf and the politically biased can’t hear and appreciate the profound effect of the device. Yes, it was patented, now expired, however nobody approached me for a licence. The Maplenol company in the USA did a front end damping trough for a parallel tracking arm which infringed nine out of our 13 claims.

What’s the story on your range of turntables?

Our original Rock turntables have a remarkably strong following and there are many more people who wish to join in the experience, but the turntables are cherished and rarely appear on the second-hand market, so it is a natural to come back into the turntable market with an updated product. And further, we are developing a complete integrated system, both aesthetically and sonically that is able to reproduce all formats including LP, CD, DVD Audio, SACD and DVD Video at the highest possible fidelity.

What's your business philosophy Max?

Make the customers happy.

And your personal philosophy?

Do what you have to do.

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

I'm working on it!

And for digital, which eight?

See above!

And your one luxury on that desert island?

A good hi-fi system to play my recordings on. I call it my Desert Island Disco. Still, that goes without saying. My luxury would be a fresh water shower every day.

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?


Some industry watchers now claim, I'm told, that the ‘Hi-Fi Answers’ team did more to steer potential audiophiles toward budget mini-systems than would have been thought possible. True, or unnecessarily harsh?

Hi-Fi Answers was really good especially when Keith Howard and John Bamford were doing it. Some other magazines have a lot to answer for though!

Do you attend live music performances?

Whenever I can. However, I avoid musical performances where any sort of PA is involved. Mikes are fine for singers because of necessity but I do prefer truly live performances. If it is rock and roll, I prefer to listen to my HiFi as opposed to a crummy PA, but of course you are not there for the live atmosphere.

Your speakers have a unique seismic sink speaker platform. It flies in the face of ‘spikes everywhere’ wisdom. What’s your thinking here?

Spiking speakers is armchair theorists naïve concept of draining unwanted energy to ground. This, however, does not make sense in mechanical terms as energy (rate of work) does not apply here in quite the way people think . . . it is assumed in this theory that the speaker stand and ground are infinitely stiff and unmoving. This unfortunately is not the case. The stand and the floor inevitably bend causing distorting resonances and the ground is far from stationary, even concrete!

Removing the constraint from a speaker by freely suspending it allows it to move ever so slightly more, but the constraining force is that of the cabinet mass alone. The acceleration of cone and cabinet are defined by Newton. f=ma which is perfectly linear. A far cry from the sound transmitted up from a speaker coupled on a floor. Have you ever heard the distorted noise in the room below a speaker? Well, this unwanted sound is superimposed on the music!

No doubt you’re not on Linn’s Christmas card list because of this?

Ivor and I are the best of friends but he is not on my very short Christmas card list either.

How did you discover cryogenic treatment could benefit interconnects and speaker cables?

Keith Howard was the one who put me on to the use of cryogenic treatment in audio and kindly asked us to participate in a very interesting experiment which involved comparing treated and un-treated copper in interconnect and speaker leads. This has been reported in the pages of Hi-Fi News.

What’s the UK audio market going to look like in five years?

Finished if high resolution is not seriously embraced.

And in ten years time?

The same.

Your prediction re the quality of home reproduction in five and ten years Max?

If we and other like-minded souls keep pushing the boundaries it must keep improving. At the moment, a lot of modern recordings are much better than most people realise. That also goes for a lot of old recordings for that matter. It is human nature to push the boundaries. I know it will keep improving.

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

Once again, fine attention to detail. And a frequency response from 1Hz to at least 100kHz with loads of power! (1-2kW)

Digital Room Correction is a hot topic in some quarters. Any thoughts on the viability of the technique?

All the big demonstrations I have heard have been nothing short of appalling! The last one gave me a headache and I had to leave the demonstration after ten minutes. This does not mean that it is a non starter and I would love to be convinced. I really believe, however, that is much better to pay proper attention to the room acoustics in the first place because no amount of electronic processing will get rid of multi path and flutter echo. Bass performance can be significantly improved in a lousy room and that I do believe in.

In terms of sonic performance, have transport mechanisms gone about as far as they can?

One thing I have learned in engineering and life is never say never. I don’t know how but I can guess, yes they are sure to improve but not massively due to cost inevitable constraints.

Surely improvements in DAC technology is at a plateau now and will remain there for the foreseeable future?

We are at the limit of loudness at the top end of the volume scale and can resolve deep into the noise at the bottom end so the only thing that will improve will be the distortion and noise performance of the DACs. We can only hope. Higher sampling rates are a real option though, say double or quadruple 192kHz.

Why are you such an advocate of multi-channel, given how unsubtle most of the public demonstrations have been up till now?

I agree they have been most unsubtle, but this is led by the home cinema brigade who swamp the poor quality of reproduction with multiple sound sources to impress the naïve listener. Thoughtful recording of natural instruments in multi channel can bring a far more convincing recreation of the original musical event than with two-channel stereo. Please don’t get me wrong, I love good two-channel stereo.

How do you envisage multi-channel evolving?

As we are doing with our very high fidelity surround system where we integrate home cinema with two-channel stereo and LP, the acceptance of multi-channel audio reproduction will one day become the norm. And our children will wonder why we stuck with stereo so long. It’s just the same when mono went to stereo all those years ago.

What is/was your view on the SACD versus DVD-A debate?

When reproduced with great care paid to the implementation, both formats sound fantastic and way in front of CD. In many instances, modern recordings of classical music on DVD A or SACD beat vinyl!

What should have been the winner and why?

I suppose it should have been DVD Audio because it offered content within the disc other than just the music. For example photographs, video clips, text and in-depth information on the performers and performances. Also, all DVD audio discs play on all DVD Video players with higher than CD resolution.

How did you select the mechanism for your TA 565 universal player?

It was the first complete machine with all the necessary features at the right price and has one of the best transports around. Further the on-board Burr Brown D to A converter is perfect for ultra high fidelity.

So Max - air suspension but not an air bearing. Why is that?

Air suspension is very good when used for isolation because it is springy and, when supporting a mass, it forms a low-pass filter. This is exactly the requirement for an isolating suspension. In the case of a turntable bearing, though, compliance is the last thing you want. You need the highest stiffness possible – and that’s only achieved using a liquid interface, definitely not gas.

Why copper rather than silver for the Isolda range?

We have tried silver many times and have always found it bright and slightly grainy in our high resolution systems. Silver does work well with dull sounding valve based designs, hence its popularity.

Max - on the face of it, nanotechnology is the best prospect for frictionless main bearings. What’s your view?

With the fluid lift off bearing, pure vicious friction is a desirable attribute as speed variations due to varying modulation levels of the music are swamped by the steady load on the drive due to the purely viscous friction of the fluid bearing. Our logo is the clue to the principle of concept.

What’s your most successful export market?

USA and then, surprisingly, Japan with the Maximum Super Tweeters! A bit like coals-to-Newcastle eh?

How in your experience, how do American magazines respond to UK audio products?

Exceptionally well. Most countries in the world believe that UK Hi-Fi products are state of the art and have great respect.

Okay – so how do American dealers and their customers react to UK products in general?

Again, extremely well. However, UK products are a bit over priced because of the power of the pound.

Why aluminium drivers in the Glastonbury 111s?

Pure aluminium is very light weight and remarkably stiff. It also exhibits remarkable self damping and with the correct choice of roll-surround, virtually complete absorption of the travelling wave at frequencies above the pistonic region is ensured.

You supplied as part of the package, spare drivers for the Glastonbury 111s. Why?

The cones on the drivers are very fragile and have been known for accidents to occur. So if the worst happens my customers will not be without sound whilst the cone is repaired.

You used stainless steel cladding – was there an acoustic benefit or is it merely cosmetic?

The cabinets of the speakers are manufactured utilising the stainless steel shell as a mould for the very high strength Plaster of Paris lining. Also stainless steel does not rust or corrode and looks most attractive as the near-perfect mirror reflects the colour of the room and appears much smaller and less instructive than it could have.

Was Hendrix really the greatest rock guitarist of all time? If not, then who was/is?

At the time, I definitely thought he was. But now, Zappa? Beck? Satriani? I really can’t say.

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

Nope, not at the moment

Thank you Max




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

The interview prompted quite a few questions from readers here but we held back because we felt that the ever-patent Mr. Townshend had probably had enough of answering questions for the time being. A couple of years have passed and we’re seeking his permission and his patience to undergo another interview. We’ll see.