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The State of the High End

By Harry Pearson

(Reproduced with permission from Harry Pearson)
Originally appeared in FI Magazine - November 1997 Volume 2 Issue 9

If there is any one thing you're likely to get consensus on among the high-end cognoscenti, it's that the industry is sailing in turbulent and difficult waters, between the dangerous shoals of Home Theater and an unHeavenly host of new technologies that threaten to make the art of listening to music obsolete.

And yet, the High End is going through the greatest creative explosion it has seen since its inception a quarter of a century ago.

After a decade of either stagnation (different colorations for different folks) or refinement (in resonance reduction, say, or the dawning realization that everything "sounds" in a system, from the power out of the wall to the suspension of the components), there are, out of nowhere, sonic breakthroughs that are advancing the realism with which music can be reproduced.

Some of these "breakthroughs" are nothing more than a return to promising lines of technology abandoned in the past--say, the resurrection of triode amplification--though incorporating modern-day materials and components of a quality unknown then. This is especially true in the design of dynamic speaker systems, in which the basics are little changed, but the implementation of those basics have changed and strikingly so, especially in regard to the raw materials speaker designers have at their disposal. (Ironically, it is those exotic speaker technologies that once were declared harbingers of the future--say electrostatics or ribbons--that now seem to reached a plateau in their development from which further ascension would seem to be difficult.)

Other sonic "breakthroughs" are based on the cumulative knowledge about audio that designers picked up during the past quarter of a century, some inspired by the arrival of digital encoding, some by those new space-age materials or the application of computing power to long-standing design problems, not the least of which is the speaker-to-room interface, which some see as the last frontier to be conquered before they begin to capture a life-like illusion of the real thing.

We have, with the arrival of the (mostly) low-wattage triode amplifiers, seen a renewed interest in the high-efficiency loudspeaker, but, this time, with an emphasis on flat response and low coloration. The research into digital encoding, particularly with today's 16-bit 44 kHz sampling system, has provoked the development of better filters, even a better knowledge about the deleterious effects that ordinary filters have on the music. Oddly, the "clarity" of digital sound has convinced many an engineer that too many mikes spoil the broth--the best sounding digital recordings, at least of unamplified music, are almost always those recorded in the simplest fashion.

And, to the surprise of many, the analog disc has refused to roll over and die. Even the major media outlets now report that analog LPs sound "warmer" or that they have more soul than the "crisp" or "cool" or "antiseptic" sound from the ordinary CD. With the resurgence of the LP, we see an increase in turntable sales and an improvement in the sound of these tables, most strikingly evident at the less than stratospheric cost strata.

To illustrate, let us take a closer look at what is happening.

LP Playback
The arrival of the isolation platform that floats on a cushion of air has provided a degree of resonance control undreamed of a decade ago. As long as this kind of isolation was confined to state-of-the-art priced-and-designed components, its impact was limited. But with the arrival of the Townshend "seismic sinks," the Bright Star, and the more sophisticated Vibraplane (originally designed for use with electron microscopes, and designed to isolate in two planes), we've been able to remove more than a few veils of coloration, nowhere more dramatically heard than in the midbass and bottom octaves. Freed from interactive system resonances and acoustic break-through, such suspensions have eliminated much of the midbass thickness, confused transient response, and bottom octave "warble" (that slow frequency-modulated-like sound that muted both the attack and decay waves of a musical signal) that make LP playback sound so artificial. The characteristic sonic signature of the LP begins to disappear with devices like the Vibraplane.

When a component like the Vibraplane is mated with a turntable designed to reduce the resonances of the turntable itself--the Clearaudio being the supreme example of this--then suddenly there is none of the LP's groove "rush" (the sound we are so accustomed to that it comes as a shock when it isn't there). Quite remarkably, a clean LP sounds as quiet as the fabled CD. The "downside" of reducing, to such a striking degree, turntable resonances and colorations, has been, for some, the loss of a euphonic midbass warmth they had come to think of as part and parcel of the sound of music. This has led, in some quarters, to a predictable and ensuing howling and yapping about a sound "too lean."

In Clearaudio's case, its designer, Peter Suchy, found that it wasn't just the materials that were important in reducing turntable colorations, lessons well illustrated by the designs of Harry Weisfeld (VPI), Allen Perkins (Immedia), and A.J. Conti (Basis), but the way those materials were physically shaped. There were other advantages to this combination of floating platforms and the use of low resonance materials, not the least of which came in the delineation of a much wider sense of dynamic range. This because the soft subtle transients at the bottom of the loudness scale, in the ppp to pppp range, now stand out as clearly as their louder brethren. You hear much deeper into a sonic area unresolved before.

These happenings confirmed, if confirmation were needed, that the analog LP, taken from a good source and properly mastered, is still the medium capable of storing the most information.

Why, you might ask, is this so important? Because the things that convince us of the musical truth of an audio signal are those things most like what we hear in unamplified music played in a good hall: subtle voicings and details, the freedom from the usual distortions, and an ease and "air"--breathing room if you will--that is inherent with live music. These we cannot yet extract from even the best CDs. The argument here: that a good analog source shows off to the best advantage what a good high-end music system can do when strutting its stuff. (I don't mean to downplay the CD's freedom from pitch variations or its ability to re produce, realistically, bass transients beyond the capability of the 45/45 stereo grooves. Or the CD's ease in handling fortes and more from the human voice or the piano keyboard.)

The best pickup arms these days--count the VPI JMW Memorial, the Graham 2.0, and the Clearaudio/Souther among them--are designed to reduce resonances, through the use of sophisticated materials and through techniques that terminate (or ground, in a sense) resonant colorations. Given that, it is odd how unlike these three designs "sound." (And you thought it was just state-of-the-art amplifiers that sounded different?)

Pickup design has reached a level that could not be achieved during the heyday of the LP, one best exemplified, at the moment, by the Clearaudio designs, which, you guessed it, seek to eliminate the usual cartridge resonances. Why that art should have continued to evolve in the face of declining LP sales might not be so mysterious if you take the highly philosophic viewpoint that it is often dying flowers that bloom most brightly, or that the hottest days occur after the sun has started moving away from us.

For my part, I think not. We can thank the advent of digital for many of the improvements in LP playback. Only when we got a different frame of reference or perspective--the compact disc--could we hear, more objectively, the colorations associated with playing a record. With state-of-the-art equipment, a good LP can now ape some of the CD's strengths, its quietness, and its freedom from bottom octave and midbass coloration (assuming the CD is properly isolated with an air suspension device, to be sure). The quality standards for the manufacture of LPs these days, especially those that are re-issues of classic recordings, have steadily advanced. There are almost no off-center pressings. The vinyl is consistently thick, normally 180 grams (much research has gone into the sound of different vinyl formulations to see which are the least colored), and of a quality that usually makes for sturdy surfaces (although we still need something like the VPI cleaning machine to guarantee a disc's preservation). Wonder of wonders we can hear recordings from the Golden Age of American recording (circa 1956 to 1964) that sound closer to their work parts than permitted by the disc cutting technology of those early stereo days. Even if some of those work parts, on magnetic tape, are beginning to lose ambient information and subtle detail, a tradeoff between (at best) greater overall fidelity to the "master" and the sad fact that tapes age and none have the pristine freshness they did when the early stereo LPs were cut.

Electronics
This is, just maybe the most exciting frontier of all in today's high end. We can, once again, thank the arrival of digital players, with their very high output levels, for causing a split in the personality of the older full-feature preamplifiers of a decade or so ago.

Now we have line stages and separate phono stages for those still interested in LP playback. The result? Both the high-level stages of a preamp and the low-level phono stages have achieved a purity in playback that neither had before.

To begin with, there are just a few full-feature preamps now available. I can't, off the top of my hand, think of more than a headful. (Just joking.) And one of the best, for students of the art of irony, is a forty-year-old design from Marantz and engineer Sid Smith, now lovingly restored, part for part, to its original specifications by a team headed up by Kevin Hayes, the resident genius at the Valve Amplification Company, whose work in triode amplifier design has gained him a respected name in high-end circles. That is the Classic Marantz Model 7. Its strength lies in its phono stage which, even though designed in the days before moving coil cartridges, can accommodate, with headroom to spare, one of low output and with vanishingly low distortion and no tube rush. It is not the equal, in terms of a lower and different coloration, of Kevin Hayes' CPA-1 Series II, because its sonic signature--one common among the best components of its time--is different from today's best. Whether that be because of the capacitors used, or, as some suggest, because of its hard-wired circuits, I certainly don't know. But how to describe that sonic signature? Let's try it this way: the overall sound is, somehow, softer, although the midrange transients are fast enough. And there is a consistent, though slight, character to its sound, off the light near-white of perfectly neutral and towards the beige.

Both the Marantz and the VAC are, in terms of sonic neutrality, removed from the best work that has emerged in the past two years. (Somehow the Marantz sounds more neutral when its phono and line stages are working in tandem--the line stage listened to alone is far from the neutrality we have come to expect in this, our Digital Era.)

I imagine that those accustomed to fully integrated preamplifiers--and a line stage is not a preamplifier, but a phone stage is--will have to learn , and have learned, how to listen to a line stage. It's not as easy as it sounds. The best line stages have an effect of their own on the sound, one that is most audible when the music gets loud--as the sound goes down in volume, so does the identifying signature of the line stage. (It is, e.g., difficult to ascertain any character in the latest generation of Audio Research's Ref One at the lowest levels.) We can also say something of the same thing about dynamics. When the music gets into the fff to ffff range, you can "hear" the sound of the line stage, and whether it can and how it does handle wide dynamic swings at the upper end of the loudness spectrum. And while I suppose a line stage could, if sufficiently noisy, obscure low-level information, this is not an effect I've yet heard with the best of them, although I've heard considerable smearing of inner detail with some, which is, I am beginning to think, characteristic of how a line stage handles intertransient silences or perhaps how the capacitors in a line stage handle silences. One think a line stage can do is affect the sense of the relative "height" or size-scaling of instruments, and it can do this by reducing the contrasting image sizes of orchestral instruments, an effect particularly obvious in the rear of the sonic soundstage.

It is at this point that I should take note of the resurgence, at least on the microcosmic level, of the passive line stage which, in theory, ought have no effect on the sound at all, although gifted listeners who have reported findings to me uniformly note a reduction in overall dynamic contrasts. The reason I've not been much tempted to assess a passive line stage is because it is so singularly difficult to get one set up to best advantage in most listening situations. You cannot use most cables with these things, and you have to watch, hawk-eyed, for impedance, inductance, and capacitance mismatches that can roll the frequency extremes and worsen the dynamics, and even reduce the signal's level. In other words, the range of equipment with which you can use one of these thing-a-ma-bobs is limited and for the professional reviewer, who must interchange components all the time, impractical. But, if you're going this far, it would seem sensible to seek out an amplifier with level controls and bypass a preamp in the altogether. The catch here lies in finding am amplifier with level controls, no easy proposition in today's high-end best.

Somehow, in the splitting of line stage from phono preamp, we find that solid-state designs at the state-of-the-art are proving the equal of their tubed counterparts. A point to which I shall return in a subsequent review.

If, however, it is the vintage of storage mediums that you must have--the analog long playing record--then it will be a phono stage (i.e., preamplifier) you must have. The great, grand good news is that that there are more than a few heavyweight contenders to grab your ear, and without any "bite." At the outset, let me say I haven't heard, yet, the two FM Acoustics models, both solid-state, that have caused such a stir. But, I have had considerable experience with three I know well and hope to fully assess on t heir own terms. Each is remarkable in its own way, and each is far, far better than any phono stage, separate or integrated, or the past two decades.

One is a solid-state unit, The American Hybrid Technology Non-Signature and it has no audible solid-state artifacts, nor does it have the dynamic constrictions, soundspace retrieval difficulties, and electronic "glaze" that have proved so troublesome over the years for solid-state designers. It's not inexpensive: AHT is a small company and the units are hand-built, so you cannot expect economies of cost and scale. The two tubed contenders, which do not sonically resemble each other but which are impressive taken on their own merits, are from Conrad-Johnson, the Premier Fifteen (perhaps the most neutral of all), and the new Herron VTPH-1 which is to phono stages in terms of a Living Presence what Mercury was to its competitors of yesteryore.

In amplification, we have seen progress at both ends of the wattage rainbow. The behemoth tubed amplifiers, most ably represented by Audio Research's Reference 600, have a purity and transparency far surpassing previous monolithic designs, tubed or solid-state. In between these and the baby single-ended triodes somewhere are those push-pull designs that many listeners have found great favor with, Conrad-Johnson's Premier Eight XS, and the VAC's 140/140 and, wonder of wonder, Nelson Pass's single-ended (well, mostly single-ended) solid-state amps. Then, at lower power ratings, there are the single-ended designs which have found such favor in Japan and of late among those at the cutting edge in this country. One might argue that the single-ended designs, with their sweetening of the second harmonic, offset some of the antisepticism of digital, and indeed they do. But, if you can listen around the euphony and the "fat" midbass of most, you'll hear an immediacy that is most beguiling. In terms of musical accuracy, these three categories present a new level of realism in musical playback, with the Audio Research's effortlessness, a result of its own reserves, most closely simulating the ease of an orchestra going full blast. And this with virtually any speaker you care to name.

I'm not sure I am, in writing this essay as opposed to a more fully detailed review, doing these electronics justice. But if any of the three is carefully integrated into a home music system, one chosen for optimum synergy using today's best gear, you can get a closer sense of the real thing than was possible with any combination a quarter of a century ago. In the early Seventies, there were numerous components that got some aspect of the musical elephant right. (Vide, the early Maggies with their stunning midbass reproduction, the Ionovac tweeter for the highs, the Quad electrostatic in the midrange--to cite a few illustrative examples.) But now, we can do much better than that. We have begun to get the gestalt of the musical elephant right.

It's probably an odd way to end this tour of the joyous explosion in high-end design and in the number of new manufacturers appearing, it would seem almost daily on the scene, without much discussing the developments in digital. The truth is that the action in digital at the moment, at least as far as the marketplace is concerned, arises from the moderately priced digital gear. The esoteric cutting edge market isn't exactly jumping, thanks to those suffering from DvD hypnosis, who see an imminent Second coming in a new digital audio standard with the DvD, something that probably won't occur before the millennium, and maybe not in the way predicted, even then. A much more likely prospect, and one compatible with present day CD technology (which the proposed 96 kHz 20-bit sampling proposed for DvD wouldn't be), is the Sony/Philips system, with its far, far higher sampling rate.

Nor am I much inclined to discuss the present state of speaker design, since, with a few exceptions, most of what's going on in loudspeakers (outside of some innovative work in the design of dynamic drivers and systems) is mostly a refinement of existing technologies.

We have not, for example, had any new innovations in ribbon design since Jim Winey patented his ribbon tweeter; there has been nothing startlingly new out of the electrostatic camp; and those hybrids (sometimes consisting of planar "ribbons" and cone woofers, with or without servos) that are among the best of the current art again strike me as the end result of a long evolutionary process.

All of which might suggest that the next wave of excitement in design will come from advances in both digital encoding technology and speaker system design. Some believe the real breakthrough will lie in multi-channel sound, thanks to the proliferation of home theater surround systems, and maybe that will be so, if it proves feasible to get great "effects" sounds and state-of-the-art refinement in the reproduction of music out of the same system. That moment is not at hand and, as a consequence, two-channel listening, just for the closed-eye joys of it, is not yet an endangered experience, even if it is, as some say so derogatorily, a "niche" one.


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