The amplifier designer hall of fame
I was interviewed in 2010. It doesn’t matter who by. You probably know of them and anyway they want to remain anonymous. Fair enough I feel. All in all I enjoyed the experience. It brought back memories. Mostly good ones. Can’t reasonably ask for more than that now can I?
These are the exact transcripts from the original tape. No edits – except pauses for tea, toilet breaks and the occasional breaking of wind. Enjoy!
Hi Howard. I’ll start if I may with I hope an inoffensive comment that you’ve been around the audiophile ‘block’ a few times. You are I guess a survivor from the old school. Would you care to comment?
Okay, that’s true. I started in the business in October 1976 and I’m still in it. But I did leave from time to time.
And then returned?
And then ...... returned.
So you’ve bought and sold a lot of gear. Listened to loads. Met interesting designers and no doubt a few odd personalities. Am I right?
So can we focus today on your views on gifted amplifier designers? Would that be okay?
Certainly. But only from the sound quality standpoint. I really don’t want to get into stuff about cosmetics, ergonomics nor reliability perspectives. You don't mind do you?
That's fine. So where should we start?
Hmm. (Howard scratches his chin) Well – perhaps the best way to start is to give you a few background thoughts. Okay with that?
Okay. Fine. Shoot!
First, I’ve met quite a few designers and some were gifted where it really mattered. Others though were gifted at self promotion and bullshit and had no real substance as sleeves-rolled-up or hands-on amp designers. Well ...... not as far as I could see anyway.
Care to name names?
Not really, no. But it’s worth pointing out I feel that the buying public are not necessarily aware that some but not all so-called designers usually are the figure-heads of their companies with giant egos. People who may well be happy to bask in the glory of 'their' designs – whereas countless, nameless and anonymous back-room designers did all the hard work. Or most of it anyway.
Which means what?
At first glance, deceit. But then again that’s pretty harmless – right? After all, the buyer’s buying the finished design and possibly buying into a brand culture too – but little more than that. When I bought for example a Makita power drill recently I had no interest in who did the design work at the makers. I wanted to buy the drill in order to drill a hole. (Slight sense of irritation from HP followed by a longish pause)
That was, and for me remains, the beginning and end of it. That’s my own personal view ...... well most of the time anyway to justify buying hi-fi equipment. It’s to play music. Everything else ...... in my view ...... is subservient to that.
Sorry to have hosed you down there. Anyway, where were we? Or should it are we?
Okay. I’ll come back to the Makita topic a bit later if there’s time.
Sure they’ll be time! (HP laughs. Interviewer not sure if its genuine, or a threat or both)
So there are more figureheads than gifted designers. Is that what you’re saying?
Not quite like that. In my direct personal experience I’ve met more figureheads than gifted designers.
But that’s not to say that my experiences are representative of the entire industry.
Okay then; shall we use the term designer-heroes. You okay with that?
Yup. I’ll go with that.
So, lets get down to work; a few of your design heroes please?
Okay. Will do. But I want to introduce another facet first; lest you and the readers get the wrong idea. These bullshitting figureheads I mentioned earlier on are not without value. In my view they are inappropriately valued. That’s a different matter entirely. Understand?
They may indeed claim that it was their design brilliance that led to the terrific sound or whatever. However their true value, and this must not be underestimated, is that in the main and in my direct experience they are visionaries. They were the ones that saw the market niches, borrowed initially at least from friends and families, took the risks and conceptualized the products. Is that okay?
Yes. But can you expand on this a bit?
Okay. In my direct personal experience many of the finest amplifier designers are first and foremost gifted in their field and are not entrepreneurs through choice. They become entrepreneurs through force of circumstance i.e. no other sensible option.
They're visionaries when it comes to circuit design, component selection, PSU design and so on. But they aren’t axiomatically visionaries when it comes to sales and marketing. And that’s where the true industry visionary comes in. Thus in many but not all instances, the visionary designer needs a visionary sales and marketing person. Every now and then though, those combined skills do reside in one skull.
Err. Well ...... Bob Stuart immediately springs to mind. He’s demonstrated his design prowess and entrepreneur spirit with Lecson, Orpheus and of course Meridian. Dr Bews of LFD is another. (Long pause) Antony Michaelson too, but in a slightly different way.
Not that I know personally, no. But from a distance I guess you’d include the late Mr. Verreker of NAIM, Bill Johnson of ARC, Dan D'Agostino formerly of Krell. Roger Modeski (ex Beveridge) and a few others. Must be more out there that I’m unaware of or have forgotten.
You didn’t mention Mark Levinson.
Nope. I didn’t did I? (long pause)
Mark’s in a category all of his own. A rather rare and special category. He’s both a visionary in sales and marketing and I believe to some extent a design engineer too but with sufficient nous to get truly brilliant people to do the tough stuff. Some years ago that was John Curl – legendry in some circles.
From that standpoint then, is Antony Michaelson a UK version of Mark Levinson?
Yes, possibly. Antony is a very unusual man and again is the sole occupant of a rare and special ‘box’. He’s very gifted in many ways and yes he’s an audio designer as well as being a powerhouse sales and marketing man. And he knows what live music should sound like when reproduced in the home. I only know Mr. Levinson a bit and Antony a lot better.
Antony has his feet very firmly planted in commercial reality and Mark, err Mark ...... well somewhat less so it seems to me (HP gazes off into the distance). ML and Antony both know what live music should sound like. They're both musicians. Both of them understand both vintage analogue and modern digital recording techniques.
Any other similarities?
Oh probably yes, but that’s not really the point of this interview I guess. (HP yawns) What I will say though is that neither of these two industry giants suffer fools gladly and neither of them feel they're in a popularity contest. Does that contribute to their success? As for me, I don't know.
Okay. Got it. But can we return to the mercurial Mr. Michaelson at some point today?
Possibly. Possibly not. Depends on what your questions are. Some matters are strictly of limits. He's h a bit of a hero for me frankly. (HP makes direct eye contact as if expecting a challenge to his statement)
Because I knew him in the very early days. He really did start from nothing. He had nothing. Well ...... I say that but of course I’m talking about financial resources. What he did have was burning ambition, drive, vision, focus and a deep love of both music and money – and a few people like me that had faith in him. And a very supportive wife.
But not now?
Wrong inference! And anyway ...... that’s an irrelevant question. Let’s move on shall we? (HP slightly irritable, but keeps it under control) He and I haven't been in contact for some while. Through the 25 years or so our paths have crossed and no doubt will again.
But can we come back to him. There’s a fascinating story there isn’t there?
Yes okay. I’ll discuss more if there’s time and I’m not going to break any confidences.
Only one of the designers we’ve discussed so far, and only superficially at that, were valve-men.
Why is that?
Partly ‘cos I’m intolerant of the hassles associated with valves. Bear in mind I’m talking about this from a retail perspective. However ...... I’d entirely forgotten about Mr. Tim de Paravachini of EAR. A truly gifted designer and clearly an entrepreneur. A bit of an oversight on my part. I don’t know him personally. I know what I’ve read, what I’ve been told and what I’ve heard whispered. I’m not interested in any of that!
What I will tell you though is this. I was a very successful ARC dealer in the 1980s but I never, and I emphasise the word never was able to demonstrate the alleged superiority of ARC to an EAR owner. Not when musical credibility was compared at identical sound pressure levels was taken into account. Those vintage EAR power amps won hands down, every time.
You’re talking about the early 1980s, right?
Right. Might be different today. I don’t know. Of course when monster valve power was concerned in the mid 1980s those wonderful EARs couldn’t offer the heft and grunt of the ARC M-300s for example. But when it came to just sitting and listening, the EARs had it all the time. So anyway ...... if during conversation with a prospect before a home demo I discovered that they had EAR and they wanted to stick with valves then I looked elsewhere to help them upgrade. There’s always a weak point in a system. Always.
Yup. (long pause) Err ...... nearly always!
So EARs were the best valve amps in the world and by implication their designer was a designer-hero, right?
Possibly. They were the most musically credible valve amps I’d ever heard at that point. And that’s the point. At Subjective Audio, I didn’t have anything to beat them, not valve-wise anyway. Which means what I wonder? You tell me.
So Tim DP is the first of your valve amp designer heroes in this interview?
Precisely. But ......
EAR wasn’t the only decent valves in those days. I was Bill Beard’s most successful retailer. I have no idea if Bill really was the designer or as discussed earlier ‘merely’ a visionary with one or more gifted designers toiling away in the background. The problem was ......
They made hopeless valve preamps. But from time to time something emerged from his organisation that was breathtaking and the uber-rare P100 twin monoblocs was precisely that. They were truly magical. The stereo P100 was a very fine design but those twin monoblocs were something else. They really were.
Which makes Bill Beard the next hero-designer on the list?
No, not really. But only because I have no idea for sure that he designed these things. Nice man though. So where do we go from here?
Can we stick with potential valve amp hero-designers for a moment?
Certainly. If only I could think of any. (Long pause). Well ...... Hmm. I very much love the sound of Manley amps. Their preamps and their power amps and the magnificent Stingray. Their idiosyncratic site alludes to a design team which I guess she (Eva-Ann Manley) leads. Certainly the figurehead is Eva-Anne Manley. A rather unusual lady. So from a gender perspective, yes I guess she fits into the hero-designer template. Let’s add her to our short list. You okay with that?
Your call H. Good. She’s in. Now what?
Getting right back to the beginning of this interview, how about solid-state hero-designers. Both ones you’ve met and others you ‘know’ through osmosis?
Osmosis. Commercial osmosis! Through affection, admiration and direct personal experience, top of my list is Bob Stuart. The thing is that the word genius is overused in our industry. Geniuses are as rare here as they are in other walks of life. But Bob really is. Just look at the pedigree – or as much of it as I’m prepared to discuss, or can discuss.
For a start, he was a columnist on technical matters for Practical Wireless magazine when he was just 14 years old. He developed a passive noise reduction system for tape recording long before Dolby was out of the cradle but he never put it into production. He designed one of the greatest active speakers of all time, the M1. The Lecson amps. The way ahead of its time Orpheus pre and power amps. The 101/103 and 105 amplifiers. The short-lived Meridian 107 power amp that was a re-badged Orpheus power amp. The 104 tuner. The M2s. All this in the 1970s.
Is that all? (Slight incredulity)
Nope. No way. On a whim I asked him to build me an amplification system that at a stroke would sonically blow the NAIM 250 amp system for active Linn Isobarics right out of the water. And he did. Didn’t break into a sweat. It was magic. 3 mono 105 power amps per side and no crossovers. Each power amp’s range was customised precisely to match the requirements of the driver it was driving. No crossover. No crossover. (long pause) Imagine that. (Another pause) Given the inherent nastiness’s of the Linn sound as enshrined then in that horrible speaker, what he did worked wonders. I sold 6 systems built by him. Never has one appeared on the used market. Believe me, I looked. Bloody brilliant.
Lots. But not now.
Go one, just one please?
(Long pause) He and I were on a trip to the USA to help launch the Meridian Pro CD. The then head of Mark Levinson systems – ML having been ousted – was Mr. Sandy Berlin who talent-spotted Bob at the show. Mr. Berlin was not an easy man. Not easy at all.
You gotta read the John Atkinson obituary in Stereophile to get just a glimpse. Anyway Berlin’s team of talented designers has a hitherto intractable mechanical hum problem with one of their monster mono power amps. No way, in their then current condition could these be sold into Europe. Anyway, we didn’t know this.
Berlin made Bob an offer than being reminiscent to me of that scene in The Godfather was one that he could not refuse. And so instead of going back home we got diverted to New Haven. Without any preamble we got bundled off the plane and straight to the production plant. I was just along for the ride. Fearing for my physical well being I kept quite and observed.
You jest of course?
Nope. I don’t. My safety. Well, I felt it under threat.
In our industry?
Yup, in our industry
Did Bob feel this?
My lips are sealed on that bit. You ask him!
And what did you observe?
You gotta bear in mind that the Bob I knew back them was a bit of a showman. Not a show-off but a showman, a bit, when the time was right. Here’s what he did, and I love him today because of it. We were in the reception area and Berlin explained the problem. Talked to us like we were vaguely idiots.
So Bob, bless him, pulled out of his battered brown attaché case an envelope. A conveniently empty envelope. I swear to God he kept these handy, just for a time like that. Off the top of his head he wrote out a circuit with the values and gave it to Berlin there and then on the back of the envelope. Somewhere around 5 minutes – start to finish. Just ....... like ...... that. Bear in mind that we hadn’t even seen the amp let alone heard the hum. It was sight unseen.
Berlin was capable of the most mobile facial expressions. The look he gave at that point was a combination of contempt, disbelief and stunned admiration. All at the same time. Bob was on the outside at least totally non-plussed and suggest that some of the ‘chaps’ built it and test it while we had a much needed coffee.
Yes. Spoken in an impeccable Eton-like tone. The irony was lost on the Levinson team. Either that or Berlin was a damn fine actor . . . which is entirely possible. (Long pause) I didn't like the situation. Not all. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. We both felt it. Bob and I. I truly felt that my physical well-being was in question.
You're kidding - of course?
Not at all. Not one iota. You had to be there. Then you'd know. Berlin’s presence was everywhere. All pervading. Menacing I thought. Still do ...... even after all these years. I kept feeling that I was on a film set ...... except that it was for real. I believed it and couldn’t believe it all at the same time. I kept telling myself that it was only bloody hi-fi after all. But back then, up market hi-fi meant big money. As Dylan said ...... "Money doesn’t talk, it swears."
Did Mr Stuart feel the same way?
Nice try ...... again. Pass. Let's move on shall we?
That's it for now dear readers. Come back next month for the second half of this interview.
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Recordings to consider and music info of interest:
Elmore James - 'The Broomdusters Box' (3LP box set + 2 bonus CDs of the vinyl albums)
King of the electric slide guitar and one of the most influential blues guitarists/vocalists of all time, Elmore had his first hit in 1951, with "Dust My Broom", the opening riff of which is perhaps the single most recognizable in the history of blues. Featuring some early sides with Ike Turner on piano, and "classic" Broomdusters line-up with Johnny Jones on piano and JT Brown on sax, 54 tracks recorded from 1952-1960!
Sibelius - A hostage to history: by Jessica Duchen
"Sibelius was once the world's favourite composer but, thanks to German fascist admirers, his star waned after his death. Fifty years later, it's time to rediscover his genius, says Jessica Duchen Published: 09 April 2007 Jean Sibelius, Finland's finest export, along with cranberry vodka and the Moomins, died in 1957 at the age of 91. In 1935 he was identified as the most popular classical composer of all, ahead of Beethoven, in a poll by the New York Philharmonic Society. But, on the 50th anniversary of his death, he is receiving scant attention in British concert halls, even though he was as fine a composer as the more popular likes of Shostakovich and Mahler."
Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan - 'In Session 'In Session' (CD/DVD & DVD)
"On December 6, 1983, legendary blues guitarist Albert King joined his disciple Stevie Ray Vaughan on a Canadian sound stage for the live music television series In Session. The highly sought after video footage from that one-time renowned summit is available for the first time ever with the release of Stax Records DVD In Session. The DVD contains three classic performances unavailable on the previously issued audio disc..."
Mustafa Kandirali: master of the Turkish clarinet
Legendary Turkish clarinetist Mustafa Kandirali is one of those artists who, at least here in North America, has a reputation that has always preceded him. Finally, we get the real deal, in a beautiful book and CD set that finally brings this master musician to our shores.
Miles Davis - 'The Genius of Miles Davis' (43 Discs)
The Genius of Miles Davis' collects all eight boxed sets originally released between 1996 and 2007 in the 'Metal Spine' series. These deluxe packages, totaling 43 discs, are now gorgeously repackaged in a custom-made, individually numbered limited edition trumpet case that includes symbolic memorabilia, with only 1955 (representing the year Davis signed to Columbia Records) box sets available worldwide" Includes the following releases: 1. Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (6 CDs) 2. Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 (6 CDs) 3. The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (4 CDs) 4. Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961 (6 CDs) 5. The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (3 CDs) 6. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (5 CDs) 7. Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Miles Davis, 1963-1964 (7 CDs) 8. The Complete On The Corner Sessions (6 CDs) Also included within the case: A mouthpiece replica of exactly the 'Gustat' Heim 2 model used by Davis especially created by Kanstul. A previously unseen and unavailable fine art lithograph by Miles Davis. A T-shirt manufactured exclusively for this package by Trunk Ltd. showcasing the image of Davis playing his horn.
Interviews with top opera stars
Blast from the past
Sony Esprit amplification system
"MORE than a few GRAMOPHONE readers must have noted that there are now quite a number of high-fidelity amplifying systems on the market at prices exceeding £2,000. Naturally they ponder what possible advantage or benefit this costly equipment might confer on even the keenest listener who already owns one of today's well accepted designs. Equally, the presence and availability of these tasty confections has not passed us by, though we recognize that there is a considerable challenge in providing a sensible evaluation of their merits and that relatively few of our readers would be seriously interested in buying them.
Most, we think, would do a swift mental calculation along the lines of how many new LPs might find their way on to their shelves for this expenditure. However, there is another compelling reason why these things do have to be investigated: the history of high fidelity is well documented with examples of valuable spin-offs now in general use which were culled from such singular sources."
The view from here / Tweaks, differences, improvements and wishful (self-delusory?) thinking.
A frequent question I receive is “Will I hear the difference?” My answer is simple. “How should I know?“
A bit curt you might think. At face value, it is. But if you look beneath the superficiality, my answer is both objective and rational, to say nothing of truthful. This is because I am not you and you are not me.
A more considered approach might be for you to consider this truism.
“For something to be better, it HAS to be different. However if something is different, that’s no guarantee it WILL be better!”
So here’s what I do when I’m evaluating a new accessory:
For myself, rather than as a retailer – such as a power cord – or in fact any change to any of my systems. I say to myself …
I KNOW this change is going to make a difference – and so the questions I must ask myself are these:
- Can I hear that difference?
- Is it merely different, or better?
- If better, in what way? For example, is the bass tauter, or the vocals clearer, or the dynamics more credible? It’s no good being vague about this.
- Can I repeat this experiment at some other time and get a similar result? Probably the most important question.
- If yes to the above 2 questions, is it really worth the money?
At Stereonow, my approach is pretty similar to the above, but with a change of emphasis because now I’m looking at it through the eyes of a potential customer.
- Is the extent and nature of this improvement related directly to the combination of items in the system at that time, or might it have a more general application in other systems?
- At the retail price, does it offer reasonable value for the end-user?
- Can I afford to offer a buy-without-risk / Sale-or-Return facility to the end user?
Err – that’s it.
That's all folks. More next month