Thus wrote Shakespeare as his opening line of Twelfth Night... More than simply a line from a play, it’s a reflection of my life. I come from a musical family – my Grandfather sang opera and operetta in the 1930’s and my second son is a blindingly good guitarist.
As for me, I’m just an occasional, modest, singer of ancient masses and one who joined the world of audio engineering not so much as a career choice but simply as an acceptance of the inevitable...I’d been pulling apart and redesigning audio systems from a very young age and decided there was little point in fighting what nature had decreed should my destiny.
On returning from Australia to England I quickly came to realise that the British audio industry was a mix of three fundamentally different types of personality.
The prime genus carried the qualification of ‘professional engineer’ but there existed two sub-phyla I came to call the gurus and the mystics.
Where the former is made up of those who believe they are born with golden ears that can distinguish the faintest nuances in musical reproduction, the latter can provide hours of endless amusement – albeit for all the wrong reasons.
A good example fell on my desk many years ago, a package that contained a clear plastic pyramid and a note asking if £135 RRP was too much to ask. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this device.
A few days later a gentleman phoned, keen to know if I’d tried it.
Surprised that its purpose had eluded a mind as astute as mine, he proceeded to explain that it would draw upon cosmic energy to sharpen the expensive diamond stylus in my cartridge if I placed it inside his pyramid overnight.
“How did it do this?” I asked, employing an unjustifiable degree of curiosity in my tone.
“It draws on cosmic energy?” He repeated, this time adding the questioning inflections that suggested he may have mistaken my interest in astronomy, for astrology.
I asked if his pyramid would sharpen my stylus by growing additional diamond on its working edges, or by grinding away material much like one sharpens a knife – I knew of no other way a diamond could be ‘sharpened’.
Following a period of painful silence, he worked out that if the sharpening action was achieved by removing material then, after a couple of weeks, there would be no diamond left – so his little plastic pyramid had to work through a process of deposition.
“Where does this additional diamond material come from?” I asked, genuinely ‘all ears’.
“From carbon around us, like…from the air.” he retorted as though the answer was obvious – silly me.
“The only source I can think of for atmospheric carbon,” I replied, “was carbon dioxide.” (I was quite busy at the time and thus permitted just the faintest undertones of scepticism to creep into my responses.)
He confirmed this was indeed the case, and added that he was so grateful I had taken him seriously. Others, apparently, had proven less willing to entertain his invention.
He asked if I had any suggestions on how to commercialise his ‘stylus sharpener’.
I told him that if he could extract pure diamond from the air, forget the hi-fi applications and just grow diamonds.
“How should I go about doing that?” he asked with child-like enthusiasm.
“To start with,” I said, “I suspect you need to build a much bigger pyramid,” and left it at that.
Such anecdotes are hardly rare, I’m sure that if you asked any manufacturer you’d hear similar stories. What is rare, is for these novelties to surface at a commercial level.
One example that did enjoy limited success was the cedar-wood egg. The hypothesis being that you would hear an improvement to the sound by placing a wooden egg on top of audio transformers, as long as you carefully aligned the wood grain with the electric fields.
After listening to his diatribe for a few minutes, I argued with the designer that he had mistaken the direction of flow of current in a wire for its associated electric field, but to no avail, by the time we got on to the difficulties of aligning wood grain with the electric fields of a toroidal transformer, you might say we both came to realise we were never destined to become bosom buddies.
Whilst it’s easy to dismiss the perpetrators of such ideas as fakirs, most are good natured and every bit as keen audiophiles as the rest of us – they just see life through a kaleidoscope rather than a set of aspheric lenses…but let’s face it, we’d love it if just one or two of these devices inexplicably worked.
We entertain such people because deep down, we want to believe that Hamlet was right when he said to Horatio; ‘there are more things in heaven and Earth than ‘ere you dreamed of’. For those readers not into Shakespeare, there’s always X-Files Fox Mulder’s modern equivalent – ‘I want to believe’.
Until such time as one of these ideas persists for long enough to warrant a deeper analysis, I’m staying with James Clerk Maxwell.
Anecdotes aside this industry shares a notable trait with other specialist sectors; they are often founded by individuals who have imagination and a flare for enterprise. Watchmaking, the great fashion houses and ( to a large extent ) Formula 1 are other examples of industries in which a singular individual with the confidence, can create and manufacture something new and exciting.
Names like Tim de Paravicini, Peter Walker and Bob Stuart will be familiar to most audiophiles in the UK and are far from unique; the list of industry gods is as long as it is international. You have the likes of James Lansing and Paul Klipsch in the States, or Kondo and Sugano in Japan ( also Tim de P. could be said to have represented Japan as many of the early LUX Corporation products were designed by Tim when he lived there. )
Qualifying as an industry god is about more than just manufacturing a product that dominates a season, it’s about contributing ideas that move the industry forward in a way that stands the test of time – I refer to the real classics....the Linn LP12, Quad electrostatic speakers, EAR 509 valve amps, Koetsu cartridges to name but a few.
I think I’m right in saying the record for product longevity goes to the Klipschorn speaker which has been in continuous production since 1946.
Alas, like any industry, audio can’t survive by live off the glories of its past, it must evolve and look to the future lest it should sink into the quagmire of stagnation. Many amongst you will point me towards the digital revolution, but I personally question whether the 1 bit
MP3/download route constitutes a forward step in the pursuit for ever higher degrees of fidelity.
Whilst I hear you pointing out I just used the crappiest of digital format as my example, I think you must agree that it is also, by far, the most popular – and therefore what most people regard as an acceptable rendition of music.
What concerns me about digital audio is the pace with which it reinvents itself. Audiophiles want a consistent platform on which better things can be built whereas the digital generation seems to thrive on the competition to excel in miniaturisation – ‘let’s see how many tens of thousands of musical tracks we be stored on a silicon wafer barely a few millimetres across.’
Interconnect cables and plugs are often incompatible between brands and fragile connectors have a habit of either breaking or becoming obsolete the moment you walk out the shop. The same can be said for other industries that have gone digital - how many new variants of television have you seen in the last 5 years? Curved screens – 4K OLED screens – 3D screens – Ultra HD monster screens - UBS compatible - fibre optic compatible… etc.
Compare this to the analogue position – we prefer to work like formula 1, building on proven concepts; adopting small but positive steps forward in our pursuit of perfection. I’d like out point out that we can still play 78rpm records from the 1930’s. Indeed I recently worked on a 1934 recording of my Grandfather singing an old Irish folk song. More importantly, we have an invaluable record of the 1940’s founders of the jazz era – we have recordings of the operatic greats from the 50’s, and from the ‘60’s we have the American founders of rock’n’roll.
The salient point is that we can still play these LP’s using modern versions of the original technology...the recording quality might not be as good that possible today but the fact is that, thank to our progressive approach to musical reproduction, historical records have survived and are still playable.
So, what of the future? – Well, I for one think that new materials and processes will influence future designs. The advent of 3D metal printing, for instance, will advance the complexity of manufacturable parts. Helius, for instance, is playing with a range of new materials for its next generation of super-arm. Expect everything from silicon nitride, sapphire and graphine, to neodymium and carbon fibre as well as the usual array of common-or-garden materials like magnesium, aluminium and nickel – in fact, let’s just say you can expect half the periodic table of elements ( in obscure molecular configurations ).
This brings me neatly to difference between the engineering audiophile and professional audio engineer. Where the former might be inclined to build a turntable of pair of speakers to the highest quality possible, they often try to perfect their designs using known and proven technology. The internet is now replete with fine example of software that will help you achieve a good workable ( if traditional ) design.
This link is a perfect example. http://www.mh-audio.nl/index.asp
Though a useful and very well written website intended to help with the design of speakers, it does rather limit its credentials by promoting the well established and very classical theory. The program gives you instant solutions to standard Butterworth and Bessel configurations, but let’s be honest, these have been around since the Norman Conquest. In terms of modern engineering, this is like trying to promote the carburettor as being the ultimate fuel delivery technology.
Our job as professionals to dream-up completely new ideas and to play with materials the enthusiast can’t easily access – we have the budgets to prototype one-offs that most enthusiasts couldn’t justify given they are probably weighed down by the yokes of children and mortgages... To literally ‘play’ with a new material just to see what it sounds like is a professional luxury ( baring in mind that 85% of all experiments are discarded. )
The real problem in being a knowledgeable enthusiast is that a little knowledge can be very dangerous. Have you ever wondered why it that you can look at the spec sheets from 6 different speaker manufacturers, marvelling at the similarity of specification, only to find the products all sound dramatically different.
If specifications don’t give you some idea one the sound you might expect, you may well ask what’s the point of them; well, the explanation lies in what’s not specified – not because it can’t be done, it’s just that you hit engineering jargon as soon as you scratch the surface and this often serves to confuse more than clarify. If I began to discuss carbon fibre by reference to its modulus of elasticity, damping co-efficient or the relative velocity of sound, your eyes would soon glaze over and you’d be no wiser at the end of the article.
The commercial reality is that you tend to get what you pay for. If you enjoy a ‘big sound’ but don’t have much money, you may well be persuaded to buy something impressive rather than technically/musically accurate.
It may surprise you to know, I don’t mind this....the idea is that you the enjoy music. There’s a line from Much Ado that I love, ( Act II Sc III ) Benedick says “I have railed so long against marriage: but doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.” Forgetting the reference to marriage, the statement says that our tastes evolve with age. We’re all entitled to accept that the subtleties in any art form are more likely to be appreciated as we mature.
To me, what defines a good hi-fi is the range of music you can play through it. My objective as an audio engineer is to expand your musical horizons. Personally, I listen to everything from Russian Orthodox music and Gregorian chant , through to Led Zep and Pink Floyd. My tastes extend from Australian didgeridoo to Greek bouzouki.
The important point being that I expect a brilliant performance from every genre of music using the same hi-fi equipment.
The beauty of good hi-fi is that it can be a boom-box for reproducing Kraftwerk to max effect and then, when your ears are burning and the melancholy sets in, you need Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei.
Achieving such a musically tolerant hi-fi is where this journey begins. I hope that in the course of the following articles you will the confidence to express an opinion that reflects what you personally can and cannot hear. Learn to trust your ears and accept that the views of the pundits are an opinion only.
As a starting point, it is important to arm yourself with an understanding of some basic principles. I want to de-mystify some audio engineering terms, not by describing the mathematics but by inviting you to look at the logic behind various industry claims and helping you decide for yourself what is really likely to enhance the music and where a perceptible improvement is being attributed to the wrong criteria.
A classic example is the choice of a 12” tonearm over a 9” based on the notion you can hear the reduction a half-degree error in tracking angle...we’ll come to that one in a couple of articles time, though my pet hate is that function mistakenly described as vertical tracking angle (VTA) – what people really mean is Stylus Rake Angle (SRA).
To hear or not to hear, this geometric error is the question; whether ‘tis nobler for the mind to suffer the ear-strain and insecurities of outrageous manufacturing claims, or to take arms against the tides popular opinion.
Until next time…..