Author Archives: Neil Gader

Q&A with Jack Sharkey of KEF

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side? 

I come from a musical family, so that was the spark, but as I got more involved in music, I became more and more fascinated with sound and eventually the physics of sound. Sound has always been a means to enjoy the art of music, but I do admit that it’s the noise music makes that really interests me.

What do you consider to be your first high-end system?

After college I saved for a little JVC receiver and a turntable from JC Penney, but the crowning jewel was my pair of Acoustic Research AR-18 bookshelves. I went to the shop down the street once a week for three months to listen to them. It was a great start to the journey. There was something very satisfying about putting together the best system I could afford at the time, and I’ve never forgotten the feeling I had the first time I listened to my humble little system.

What kind of education did you receive?

I started school doing audio engineering, and finished my schooling on the 10-year night-school plan in electronics engineering and computer-hardware design.

What differentiates high-end audio from other forms of audio?

The experience. You have to be looking for the emotion and passion only music can provide in order to really “get” high-end audio, whether you approach it from a passion for the art or the science. Music is not a passive experience—you have to be engaged with it even if you’re simply sitting in your living room—so the greater the detail in the performance or the playback, the greater the passion and emotion in your heart and soul.

KEF is placing increasing emphasis on wireless/active loudspeakers. Is this where the industry is going?

Because streaming is the future of music and because the available technology makes super-high-performing active systems affordable, there is a definite trend in that direction. But systems made of separates are always going to have a place in the market.

What interesting fact, philosophy, or aspect about KEF might surprise audiophiles?

The level of engineering we do to make our speakers. We attack our design process from the physics level, with a ground-up approach for every product line. It’s the principle the company was founded on, and we’re privileged to still be able to work that way today.

Looking in your crystal ball, where do you see the high end in the next 10 years?

I think we’re entering a new audio renaissance, so I believe more people will come to appreciate high end. The first 15 years of this century were kind of a low point in music appreciation because we were all so fascinated with convenience over quality, but I think we’re beginning to see that was all just a fad. Whether its food, wine, or music, people crave the best possible sensory experience they can get their hands on, and technology has made it possible for music lovers and audiophiles to get amazing audio reproduction that is also convenient beyond anything we thought possible even ten years ago.

What challenges are the high-end industry facing?

Technology is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s hard to know what will be expected of a product in even three or four years’ time. Couple this with the fact that the digital infrastructure on the consumer and provider’s ends are stressed to saturation, and you’ve got challenges that were unheard of until recently. Right now, bandwidth is the biggest tech hurdle, and re-introducing consumers to music that sounds great is the biggest market challenge.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?

I ride motorcycles (I’m currently on an Indian), and I’m trying my hand at gentleman farming, but I never really find myself very far from music or audio in some fashion. That’s what’s fun about riding (or cutting hay)—I go without a radio or sound system and just connect with the machine and the surroundings. It’s very liberating and relaxing.

What inspires you about your work?

Sound. Followed by music. I’m extremely privileged to work in an industry and for a company that shares my same passion. It makes it very easy to get up and go to work in the morning. I started fooling around with speakers when I was 14, and after a few career detours here and there it’s amazing to be right back where my passion has always been. 

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Q&A with Max Townshend of Townshend Audio.

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? 

At the age of ten, I was serendipitously introduced to Guglielmo Marconi’s assistant, Ernest Wishshaw. His inability to read resistor color codes meant I became a fixture in his workshop, which manufactured ultra-high-quality tube amplifiers. That’s where I first heard high-quality reproduced sound, and that pursuit has been my goal ever since. My grandmother played the piano in the cinema for silent movies. When vinyl arrived, she commissioned me to make an LP player. Music was part of our lives—jazz, pop, and classical. When American rock and roll discs landed in Australia, I converted Garrard record decks to play 33s. I’ve been building record players ever since.

 

What differentiates high-end audio from other forms of audio? 

I’m fascinated by the sound that emanates from any instrument, whether a bass drum or a violin. I was driven to find a way to replicate those subtle and complex sounds exactly. It’s not easy and has taken a lifetime, as there is so much audio housekeeping to get it just right. Audiophiles are perfectionists and are never satisfied until the music is truly convincing. Mechanically isolating all equipment is so important to getting the attack and decay correct for each and every note. To create a truly convincing sound I’ve had to revisit every component in the chain. 

 

What was your first high-end system? What year was this?

In the early seventies, I made a version of the HQD speaker system, which comprised two KEF B139 bass drivers, a pair of stacked Quad ESL-57s, and a pair of Decca Ribbon tweeters. 

 

How did Townshend Audio come about?

In 1975 I set up Townshend Audio in Sydney to market long-contact parabolic diamond styli for record players. The market was wide open, so I moved to the UK in 1978. A chance encounter with Professor Jack Dinsdale, inventor of the transformerless transistor power amplifier, led me to head up the production of his invention of the front-end damping trough, which was incorporated in the Rock Turntable and Excalibur tonearm. We made very successful amplifiers, preamplifiers, the plaster-lined Glastonbury II speakers, interconnects, and impedance-matched speaker cables. We made the first Seismic Sink isolation platform in 1989. But it was our Allegri autotransformer preamplifier that spearheaded our greatest musical playback advance. The volume control is the weakest link in the audio system, and it has taken a further ten years of development to arrive at our latest, the Allegri Reference preamplifier.

Manufacturing the entire system has been my life’s work, and I have nearly finished! There is a DAC, a universal disc player, a hybrid power amplifier, and an 18-driver focused-line-array speaker imminent. The synergy of these audio components together is a dream to hear.

 

How would you contrast the Townshend philosophy of isolation versus traditional mass-loading?

I spent the first half of my life with spikes and mass loading everywhere except the turntable. Then we tried the Seismic Sink under a CD player, and it won an award in 1991. My Italian importer tried it under his speakers and was shocked. We have now been manufacturing high-quality, very low frequency cutoff isolation. Once you have heard it you can never go back.

 

What interesting fact or aspect about Townshend might surprise audiophiles?

We were early adopters of cryogenically treated cables, which evolved into our fractal treatment of copper. We also made the first practical ribbon super- tweeters and the most effective turntable tonearm design with both isolation and active tonearm damping, plus the first 0.5dB-step, remote-controlled, fully isolated, passive autotransformer preamp (no power cord, no tubes, no transistors, and no noise). 

 

Are you surprised at the strength of analog two-channel playback?

Two-channel will always be king, offering the best playback if the mastering is well executed. It’s the audiophile’s preference for listening to classical and acoustic music. Surround sound can be great fun for movies and TV, and the mastering process is less likely to matter in the overall delivery of the performance.

 

What are the greatest challenges facing the high-end industry? 

Pushing the boundaries of audio playback requires more understanding of our art form objectively—not just hearing, but understanding through measurements. My research exposes the correlation between cable geometry and hence characteristic impedance. 

 

What do you do for fun?

Family time is precious and luckily my wonderful family shares my love and passion for music. Oh, and I love to sail.

 

What (still) inspires you about your work?

Musical truthfulness inspires me. I judge a system by the time it takes me to enter that metaphysical moment when the left and right hemispheres work together slipping you into alpha waves. It’s the nirvana we all seek. I like to share these moments with my friends. I’m happy that I have spent my life doing this.

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GoldenEar BRX

The BRX sits at the top rung of the ladder in GoldenEar’s Bookshelf Series—a lineup that includes the well-regarded Aon Models 2 and 3. This two-way compact employs a driver complement similar to that of the Aons, but the similarities stop there. The BRX goes a step further by tapping into the high-end technologies of the Triton Series Reference tower speakers. Barely topping a foot in height and finished in a deep, hand-rubbed black lacquer, the BRX cabinets look elegant. Edges are softly rounded, side panels flare outward slightly from front-to-back, where discrete grilles cover the passive planar radiators beneath. 

Taking a look under the hood, there’s a lot going on inside the BRX’s well-braced enclosure. There are four drivers in total—two active ones, including a ribbon tweeter, otherwise known as Golden- Ear’s Reference High-Gauss High-Velocity Folded Ribbon (this is the same Air-Motion Transformer [AMT] type used in both the Triton Reference and Triton One.R.), and a 6″ polypropylene-cone mid/bass transducer, cradled in a cast-basket with GoldenEar’s focused-field magnet structure. The mid/bass cone has a proprietary curve for superior internal damping and speed. It’s also the same basic driver used in GoldenEar’s Triton Reference tower.  

Positioned at either side of the cabinet are a pair of inertially balanced, 6.5″ passive planar radiators. They acoustically load the active mid/bass driver, as well as couple bass energy to the room. While passive radiators are less commonly used than ports, they tend to achieve the same goals, while avoiding the turbulence and resonances often found in some (not all) ported bass-reflex configuration. GE’s “balanced crossover” uses a floating configuration and sports high-quality film capacitors. Even the internal speaker wire has been sourced from the Triton Reference. The BRX’s sensitivity is rated at 90dB, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, which makes for an easy drive. But don’t scrimp on amp quality since the mid/bass driver likes power, and you’ll want to get the most sugar you can out of the sweet ribbon tweeter.

In sonic performance, the BRX is a natural, in the sense that it just seems born to play chamber and jazz classics. It reproduces the timbral and harmonic complexities and spatial qualities of real acoustic settings as if they are etched into its DNA. Tonally, the BRX has a neutral-to-warmish signature. Midrange octaves are rich and textured, with a more romantic timbral character that reproduces music in a mellower light, as if it has a softer rose complexion. There are no discernable audio suckouts in response. In this regard, the BRX has an especially deft touch with winds and layered strings, which it transmits with a buoyancy that lifts them within the orchestra. The BRX even stands up to the challenge of reproducing the blat of a trombone or the thick reedy airflow of a tenor sax, recreating both with recognizable heft and impact and only minor compression.

The BRX floats a compellingly dimensional soundstage in the listening room—a feature consistent with a speaker that seems to avoid the more confrontational, forward-leaning (okay, aggressive) signature of many small monitors. Imaging is very good and well-focused, but always rooted within the musical whole of the performance rather than standing outside it. In painterly terms, the BRX is more of a landscape artist than a portraitist. Rather than zeroing in on a closeup to the exclusion of the overall atmosphere of the performance, the BRX creates a canvas that takes in the larger picture. I’d describe its perspective as slightly relaxed, as if you were seated just a row or two farther back from the stage. BRX successfully walks the fine line between parts and wholes like few compacts I’ve heard in my listening room.

Its treble range is well-nigh effortless—agile, airily transparent, and non-fatiguing in the way ribbon tweeters tend to be. The critical sibilance range is smooth and natural. An excellent voice speaker, the BRX expertly registers a singer’s subtle shifts of emotion by means of dynamic and timbral modulations. 

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Elac Uni-Fi 2.0 UB5.2

Elac’s Uni-Fi UB5  compact monitor, which I reviewed in Issue 266, remains one of the best friends an audiophile on a budget can have. In a price range mostly reserved for traditional two-ways—like Elac’s entry-level Debut Series—the UB5 was the rare three-way design that was also equipped with a concentric tweeter/midrange. At $499/pair, the original UB5 represented remarkable value and performance that made it the small monitor to beat in its class. But, as they say, there’s always room for improvement. Thus, the Elac team, led by the indefatigable Andrew Jones, decided to push the envelope just a little more. Hence, the Uni-Fi UB5.2. 

As the price has been bumped up to $599 for a pair, you might ask–what’s a hundred-buck difference going to buy you at this or any level? Turns out, a lot. Elac didn’t just pretty up the UB5, adding a chamfer here and an accent there. Nope, the changes go significantly deeper. Physically, the UB5.2 has different dimensions. It’s a little taller, narrower, and deeper, which to my eye gives it a more contemporary silhouette. The relocated bass-reflex port now resides upfront beneath the woofer, rather than out back. It’s a move that Elac states reduces back wall interaction and creates more stable direct output. The concentric midrange/tweeter transducer has received attention, as well. Thanks to a wider surround, the inset tweeter extends treble response, and transitions more smoothly with the midrange. The 4″ aluminum-cone midrange has a modified profile, an improved neodymium magnet assembly, and a larger voice coil. Bass duties are handled by a 5.25″ aluminum-cone woofer. 

The enclosures are engineered with thick MDF outer walls, plus internal bracing for added stiffness to reduce vibrations and coloration. The Uni-Fi’s crossover now boasts greater linearity and better driver integration. Crossover points are 200Hz and 2kHz (lowered from 2.7kHz). Sensitivity is a slightly challenging 85dB, while nominal impedance is 6 ohms, up from 4 ohms. While efficiency has improved overall, don’t scrimp on amplification. The UB5.2 likes quality power. Finished in “black ash” vinyl (pricier wood veneers and deep lacquers are reserved for Elac’s upscale models), the UB5 has a nicely executed utilitarian look. 

In performance, the key strengths that lifted Uni-Fi to critical prominence remain securely in place. Namely, the UB5.2’s midrange weight, forward-leaning energy, and focused imaging continue to make for highly satisfying vocal reproduction. Its tonal character retains the immediacy, transient attack, rhythmic jump, and midbass oomph that preserve its rock ’n’ roll bona fides. 

However, Elac has taken Uni-Fi to finishing school in a big way. It has matured in virtually every area. The few rough edges I noted with the original have been largely buffed out in the UB5.2. Compared with its forebear, it has a smoother, less pushy, less edgy sound. Tonally, and for the better, it’s a hint warmer in the mids. Treble frequencies from the revised concentric are slightly more rounded with a bit more air. For example, during the Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” the speakers seemed to breathe more easily, and the venue appeared to expand in volume. Tellingly, the UB5.2 eliminates the hint of glare on solo piano that I noted with the UB5. (Helpfully, I had a pair of original UB5s on hand for comparison.) Image precision and focus, always strong points with concentric transducers, continue to shine, but the UB5.2 has added a more realistic sense of ambient space to balance its inherent pinpoint focus—a small but significant difference that improves dimensionality and reduces localization of the loudspeaker.

An upswing in transparency is also obvious. Elac has removed a soft veiling, revealing greater low-level detail, microdynamics, and soundstage realism. During Harry Connick’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” for example, it was as if the UB5.2 blew the dust off the recording—the sax solo was just a hint silkier and more immediate, without any sacrifice in reedy grit, bloom, and weight. 

For reference, I’ve added a few additional examples of the Uni-Fi’s evolution– during “Who Will Comfort Me,” Melody Gardot’s bluesy vocal was more settled and relaxed, but still imbued with stand-your-ground presence. The accompanying trumpet in this cut had the requisite spark and snap. Stage width improved somewhat, but in this one area I would rate the UB5.2 as average (in its segment). Jennifer Warnes’ wistful cover of Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe” from Another Time, Another Place was reproduced with a slightly drier timbre than what I hear through my reference system, but still substantially improved over the UB5’s presentation. A nice touch within this song was the lovely timbre of the French horn and the soft cymbal accents, which the UB5.2 sensitively reproduced. On occasion, I perceived a small drop in intensity on vocals—a slight suppression of the presence range that lightened Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s resonant contralto during “Bells Are Ringing” from MCC’s Christmas album Come Darkness, Come Light. But this was only a slight wobble from the Elac in an otherwise delightful performance.

The UB5.2 produced lower frequencies well into the 50Hz range, where they began rolling off fairly swiftly. Bass response was impressive as pitches descended, with little evidence of bumps or dips. There was formidable weight and foundation from cello and bass violin sections, and impressively full-bodied upper-bass dynamics. The UB5.2’s low frequencies were a little on the free and bloomy side, rather than the overtightened one. To my ear, this was not so much a loss of control and grip, but a looser, more sophisticated musicality. The work on the newly reconfigured cabinet has obviously paid dividends, because at least part of the UB5.2’s bass clarity is owed to the absence of vent colorations and the low windage effects of its relocated port. 

The UB5.2 does have bass limits, of course. Drums and heavy percussion don’t have the widest dynamic range nor the transient snap-and-crackle they might have. Melodic lines off a bass guitar were a little rounded and subdued. Unlike a truly full-range speaker, the UB5.2 can’t always follow and define every midbass cue or rhythm. Thus, the deepest low-end excursions were only partly suggested or approximated at times, enough to permit the listener to contentedly fill in the rest. 

The art of loudspeaker design is producing a product with a Uni-Fied and refined voice that sounds like music, not a patchwork of sonic criteria. I think Elac’s success in this regard is, in part, the reason for the sonic leap I hear in this next generation of Uni-Fi. Elac’s UB5.2 has taken the well-deserved success of its immediate predecessor, ratcheted up the sonic positives, and, where they merited attention, minimized the shortcomings. In my book, there’s nothing better than witnessing a maturation process that improves the breed—and all for an extra hundred bucks. A terrific speaker that I can recommend without reservation. 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Three-way bass-reflex
Drivers: Concentric 1″ soft-dome tweeter/4″ aluminum midrange; 5.25″ aluminum woofer
Crossover: 200Hz, 2kHz
Frequency response: 46Hz–35kHz
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Sensitivity: 85dB
Dimensions: 7.28″ x 13.62″ x 10.83″
Weight: 18.26 lbs.
Price: $599/pr.


ELAC AMERICA
11145 Knott Avenue, Suite E & F
Cypress, CA 90630
elac.com

Associated Equipment

Front End, Sota Cosmos Series IV turntable; SME V tonearm; Cartridges, Clearaudio Charisma, Sumiko Palo Santos; Phono Stage, Parasound JC 3+, Pass Labs XP-17; Media Player/DAC, dCS Bartok DAC; dCS Puccini (SACD); Lumin S1 Music Player; Synology NAS; MacBook Pro/Pure Music; Integrated Amplifiers, Aesthetix Mimas, MBL Corona C51; Preamplifier, Pass Labs XP-12; Loudspeakers, ATC SCM50T, SCM20SL; Cables & Power Cords, Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 interconnect & speaker, Audience Au24SX cables and power cords, Synergistic Atmosphere Level Four; Shunyata Venom NR power cords. Audience USB, AudioQuest Carbon firewire; Wireworld Starlight Cat 8 Ethernet; Power Conditioners, Audience aR6-T4, Shunyata Hydra conditioners; Accessories, VooDoo Cable Iso-Pod

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Further Thoughts: Aesthetix Mimas Integrated Amplifier

The Aesthetix Mimas is one of the finest integrated amps on the market today. It’s an absurdly good value, to boot, and one of my recent Golden Ear Award recipients. At the time of the original review’s publication, however, the development of an optional, inboard, modular phono card was still ongoing. Knowing I am an avid analog guy, Aesthetix’s Jim White pledged that as soon as the $1250 phono card was in production he’d slip it into the assigned open bay on the back panel of my Mimas review sample, and I’d get a listen. True to his word, the installation was completed a few months ago. 

Analog LP playback has been a specialty of Aesthetix from its earliest days. The company knows the territory like few others, as owners of its widely respected dual-chassis Io tube phonostage will attest. By contrast, inboard phonostages have a checkered history. Typically built to a modest price point, they rarely enjoyed or deserved the kind of deference vinyl enthusiasts lavished on stand-alone models. Further, as analog faded to a “legacy” format with the rise of digital audio, most inboard phonostages—often noisy and hum-prone—got bundled into budget AVRs or amps as promotional afterthoughts. The resurgence of analog playback changed that equation, and performance expectations have risen commensurately.

Remarkably, given the small proportions of this phono card, its feature-set still approximates many formidable stand-alone phono preamps. It sports both mm and mc capability with adjustable gain and loading. In addition, a dual set of individually adjustable inputs gives die-hard analog enthusiasts the option of preserving gain/load settings for two cartridges or, as the turntable budget allows, of supporting dual tonearms. Its fully discrete, FET-based, high-gain differential circuit utilizes Wima film capacitors for RIAA compensation. 

Installation of the phono card (a dealer is recommended) instantly activates phono/cartridge configuration software that’s driven from the Mimas’ front panel or remote control. Setup is as easy as selecting the “TT” input and following the menu prompts—no dealing with those annoying back-panel DIP switches. For evaluation, my cartridge selection included three designs of varying output voltage—a Clearaudio Charisma V2 (mm, 3.6mV), a Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration (mc, 0.5mV), and an over-performer of a budget cartridge, the new Grado Opus3 (mi, 1mV). My longstanding LP rig is an SME V tonearm mounted on a Sota Cosmos Eclipse turntable.

The truth is that phono- stages—be they onboard or outboard—live or die based on delivering the lowest possible noise. The noise issue is particularly acute with lower-output cartridges, which require greater phonostage gain to boost their miniscule voltages. The challenge for phonostage designers is that the higher the gain, the greater the potential for added background hum and hash. There are no free rides. 

That said, for current Mimas owners who’ve been pining for the full-on, ultra-low-noise vinyl experience, the wait is over. Sonically, the Mimas phonostage’s character dovetailed with the sonic signature of the Mimas amp, with gentle hints of midrange warmth and rosy, extended sweetness in the treble. The waft of harmonic air and treble extension that vinyl aficionados crave was realized in abundance, as was a sense of the tactile and the intimate—peculiarities of LP playback—that seem to enhance female vocalists, such as the timeless Jennifer Warnes singing Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe” [Another Time, Another Place, BMG]. Even at the highest gain setting with the lowest-output mc in my collections (the Palo Santos), the Mimas phonostage was astonishingly quiet—comparable to outboard standouts like the Pass Labs XP-17 and Parasound JC 3+ phonostages that I had on hand.

The Mimas’ rendering of soundstage dimensionality and immersion were exactly what I’ve come to expect from excellent analog. This was nothing like the collapsing constrictive soundstages that characterized inboard phonostages from the past. Images were reproduced with substance and transparency. Clusters of players—choirs, chamber groups, or jazz quartets, for example—were conveyed with superior separation and were also integrated easily within the auditorium environment. Orchestral layering and focus extended to near the back of the hall. 

Beyond the pastoral calm and quiet this phonostage conveyed, the Mimas also had another, more assertive side to its personality. And, frankly, during the “Olympic Fanfare” from Winds of War and Peace [Wilson Audio], I was a little stunned by the resolution, fearsome bass reproduction, and transient fireworks springing from this classic piece of vinyl. Set against its noise- and grain-free silences was this phonostage’s most noteworthy feature—the ability to reproduce and resolve the widest dynamic contrasts, from the softest keyboard pianissimo to the most explosive orchestral tuttis. The track that comes to mind is the cratering darkness of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” [The Planets, LSO, Previn, EMI]. Through the Mimas phonostage, the full weight of brass and winds, screaming strings, and relentless percussion was brought to bear in the nightmarish soundscape of horror, loss, confusion, and grinding despair of armed conflict. Or, take Norah Jones’ quirky track “Sinkin’ Soon” [Not Too Late, Blue Note], with its pots-and-pans percussion, its burbling trombone accents, and gossamer backing vocals—low-level voicings that swing in and out at unpredictable moments and occupy oddball stage positions. Through the Mimas, the energy jumped from this playfully idiosyncratic track at all levels. While I haven’t heard every phonostage out there, it’s hard to believe that this unit left much, if any, resolution on the table.

Is the Mimas phonostage the end of the line in resolving power and musicality? A fair question. The answer is, first, no competitor I know of will embarrass it, and second, you’ll have to dig a lot deeper into the mid-four-figure phono preamp range to equal it. The Aesthetix modular phono card completes an already premium package in the integrated amplifier segment. I originally dubbed Mimas “the very definition of what I am seeking today in an integrated amplifier,” but now I’m happy to amend that characterization. Now, it’s also among the most versatile. 

AESTHETIX AUDIO CORPORATION
5220 Gabbert Road, Suite A
Moorpark, CA 93021
(805) 529-9901

Base Price: Mimas $7000 (add $1250 phono option)

Jim White on the Mimas Phonostage

What are the chief challenges and pitfalls of building a phono- stage into an integrated amplifier?

There are two major challenges of building a phonostage into an integrated amplifier: power supplies and magnetic fields. Power supplies become an issue because, typically, you are drawing current from supplies that perform other key functions, such as powering the main gain stage or, in extreme cases, the high-current output supplies. Mimas was designed from the ground up to have a special power supply, with its own transformer winding, that would be used for optional cards such as the phono, and be minimally used for other functions. It is a very stiff, high-current power supply. Further, we double-regulate that power supply on the phono card itself, to fully isolate it from any noise or fluctuations.

Magnetic fields are a problem because of the large power transformers that are required for power amplifiers. These fields can leak into the phono section and cause big problems. For a phono section only intended for moving-magnet cartridges (with about 40–60dB of gain), it is not a big problem. But for a phono section intended for low- and medium-output moving-coil cartridges (with 60–75dB of gain), it is a much bigger issue. We wanted this module to be something very special, so we went to great lengths to be able to easily handle medium- and low-output mc cartridges as well as mm’s. The input section uses a six-layer board, using the outer four layers almost exclusively for shielding. All of the circuitry is fully discrete, using Toshiba FETs, which we hand-match. This matching allows for greatest CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio, a measure of a circuit’s ability to reject outside sources of hum and noise). The fully discrete design allows us to optimize the PCB layout, among many other advantages. Further, the entire input section is encased in mu-metal to shield it from stray fields. 

What are the limitations of an inboard phonostage?

Typically, you do not find a truly high-performance phono section in an integrated amplifier, especially a fully discrete one capable of handling low-output mc’s. They are mostly limited to lower gains (for the above-mentioned reasons) and do not offer the flexibility to interface with a wide variety of cartridges. They are often meant to provide basic phono amplification, but not performance that is competitive with stand-alone phonostages. From the outset, our design team planned for Mimas to incorporate a state-of-the-art phonostage, so many of the pitfalls were avoided upfront. Nevertheless, it proved to be massively challenging, requiring over two years of work and no fewer than five full prototypes. 

How does modular design make for a better phono card?

The modular design allowed us the opportunity to fully focus on the phono module as a product of its own. We can then optimize every aspect of performance and functionality, without the time and financial constraints that would be imposed by a non-modular approach. Most importantly, a modular approach allows for future upgrades and new features to be implemented without the need for an overall product redesign.

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Q&A with Joel Sietsema of Marantz and Classé Audio

What spurred your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side? 

I’ve always been interested in consumer technology. Growing up, I developed a reputation in our neighborhood as the “techy-kid” who could fix VCRs, TVs, etc. I often found myself dropping by a Best Buy to shop for CDs, check out car-audio systems, or test the latest speakers. My initial interest in better audio came from the music side in my first job out of college in Minnesota. As a local MN company, Best Buy was an attractive employer, and I decided to take my first post-college job selling speakers in a Magnolia store inside Best Buy. This is where I got my first formal exposure to premium audio, and was struck by how much better music could sound on upgraded equipment and in a treated room. 

My role as Buyer of Audio at Magnolia Audio Video fueled a deeper level interest in high-end audio, combining two of my passions: technology and music. I was exposed to the very best equipment and ideas on Earth from some of the most influential people in our industry—leaders like John Hunter at Sumiko/REL, Doug Henderson of B&W and JL Audio, Charlie Randall of McIntosh Labs, David Solomon of Peachtree and Qobuz, Kevin Zarow at Marantz, Paul Grove of Martin Logan and Paradigm, and many more. 

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Grado Timbre Series, Opus3

The Opus3 cartridge is the entry-level offering in Grado’s new Timbre Series. Timbre, which replaces Statement and Reference models in one fell swoop, represents a broad reshuffling of Grado cartridges in an effort to close the gap between its entry-level and mid-range lines—in Grado’s words, to create “an even tighter ecosystem of cartridges.” Since the Opus3 debuted, the Timbre family has expanded and now includes the Platinum3 at $400 and the Master3 at $1000.

With a list price of $275, Opus3 incorporates techniques and engineering from Grado’s higher-end models and, in a first for Grado, features a maple wood housing in a newly formulated shape. The decision to use maple was a direct outgrowth of Grado’s experience working with this wood in its Heritage and Statement Series headphones. Maple is known to be a fine tone wood for musical instruments, and Grado says that “through a variation of thermal aging processes, the [maple] housing gains the ability to better dampen and control resonant frequencies.”

The Opus3 is a moving-iron design—a close cousin to the moving magnet. It sports newly developed coil-winding techniques and a new two-step shielding process—innovations that make for a cleaner signal path and reduced mechanical noise. The Opus3 uses an aluminum cantilever, hand-tipped with a diamond stylus. It comes in both high- and low-output versions, 4mV and 1mV respectively, and also in a mono iteration. John Grado says “the high-output cartridges have 6000 turns of wire on the bobbins while the low outputs have 380 turns. The length of wire in the high outputs is 125 feet compared to 7 feet in the low outputs. Because we have fewer turns on the low outputs, we can use a much larger size wire, close to 16 times the diameter. So, the signal has a shorter distance to travel (7 feet from 125 feet), and the signal can flow more easily due to the larger wire. We feel this adds some speed to the signal and gives tighter detail at the extremities of the frequency range.” For this evaluation I opted for the low-output version. Recommended tracking force is between 1.6 and 1.9 grams. 

Don’t be put off by the wide, boxy dimensions of the Opus3’s maple housing. Though it seems to dwarf the entire cartridge assembly, the Opus3 still only weighs in at 8 grams, consistent with the weight of the Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration at 8.3 grams and the Clearaudio Charisma V2 at 9 grams, both of which I had on hand.

In performance, dropping the Opus3 in the groove was a little like going home again to a pre-digital age. I could hear its sonic kinship, its comfort-food continuity, with past Grado cartridges (and headphones) that have come my way over the years. The Opus3 produced a level of midrange tonal realism and unvarnished musicality that should assure long-standing Grado enthusiasts that they haven’t been left out in the cold. In fact, “cold” was the last thing that came to mind during this evaluation. In its warmer overall signature and rich midrange, this was classic Grado. There were still notes of dark chocolate in its voicing, a complex, bittersweetness that favors highly resonant wooden instruments like cello and acoustic bass and winds like clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. 

Clearly, Grado has stayed on message with the Opus3. But this cartridge isn’t living in the past, either. In my view Opus3 represents a “next-gen” Grado, imparting greater transient attack, low-level detail, speed, and extension at the frequency extremes. Solo piano was a prime beneficiary, exhibiting rich weighty overtones and excellent note-to-note articulation on Debussy’s Claire Du Lune [Catena]. The cartridge was very well balanced tonally, with the midrange carrying the load, as it should. But no particular octave sounded lifted or subdued. The Opus3’s character remained neutral, without leaning in a passively recessive or overly forward direction. Observed trackability was also excellent. The cartridge glided through the most challenging grooves like a slot car, with little suggestion of dynamic compression or transient distortion. 

The primary strengths of the Opus3 were its timbral “rightness” and verdant naturalism. For example, during Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of “I Won’t Grow Up” on Pop Pop—a simple track with guitar, bass, and male vocal backup—there’s was a near-holographic presence that defined images-in-space with unsettling realism. The acoustic bassline was particularly compelling in its complex mix of pitch, resonance, and decay. Turning to Diana Krall’s superb Live In Paris album [Verve/ORG], the Opus3 seized the goose-bump electricity of the moment in a way no sub-$300 cartridge has a right to. Krall’s cover of the classic “Fly Me to the Moon” was enthralling in the way it captured the weight and clarity of the piano’s heavy chords and single note lines. Image separation between musicians left plenty of elbow room for me to take in the atmosphere and ambience of the Parisian venue. During “A Case of You,” individual images were nicely outlined but not laser-etched. In particular, the Opus3 didn’t portray vocals with the fragility of cut-crystal, as some upward-tilting moving coils do. Other listeners may differ, but for me this interpretation was more convincing and musically involving. I’m suspicious of hearing what I perceive as minute details given marquee status, when they should emerge more appropriately as a part of a homogenous, organic whole, rather than separated out from the rest of the music. 

For the most part, the Opus3 rarely struck a wrong note. However, over extended listening and measured against my own pricier references, a couple of very minor quibbles emerged. With the Grado there could, at times, be a hint of treble dryness and peakiness. The soundstage could have been a smidge more immersive and dimensional. Dynamic energy seemed tamped down ever so slightly, and the leading edges of percussion, a brushed snare or rimshot for examples, didn’t leap from the grooves with the same transient alacrity and sparkling enthusiasm that they have with the Clearaudio Charisma. These cues just seemed a bit more relaxed, which, I’ll admit, would be considered a reasonable trade-off in many circles. 

During the course of this review I lost track of the number of times I mumbled, “Are you kidding me? $275?” But there it is. When the Opus3 settles in the groove and a rush of music pours forth, there’s an overriding sense that everything is right with the analog world. From a company known for exceptional performance and value, the Grado Opus3 resets the bar. Pure and simple, a celebration of LP playback. 

Specs & Pricing

Body: Maple wood
Cantilever: Aluminum with elliptical diamond stylus
Output: High, [email protected]/sec (45); low, [email protected]/sec (45)
Input load: 10k–47k ohms
Weight: 8 grams
Tracking Force: 1.6–1.9 grams
Price: $275


GRADO LABS
4614 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220
(718) 435-5340
gradolabs.com

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Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature Loudspeaker

I will say this for B&W’s 705 Signature: This loudspeaker sure knows how to make an entrance. This $3999 two-way compact which bears the British firm’s famously eye-catching top-mounted tweeter cuts a striking figure with its crisp seamless lines, mirror-like veneers, six-sided finish, and gleaming appointments. This bass-reflex monitor just looks like money, fresh from London’s Regent Street. At least part of that impression is owed to the fact that the 705 Signature (and its floorstanding cousin, the 702 Signature) have a lot in common with B&W’s bespoke flagship 800 Series. This cross-platform sharing actually originated in the more modestly priced 700 Series, which debuted in 2017. But the Signature edition takes it a step further in refinement. Most prominent is the pricier solid-body assembly of the “tweeter-on-top,” and the distinctive gleam of its Continuum cone driver. Plus various upgrades and refinements to the crossover and heatsinking, including specially treated bypass capacitors sourced from Mundorf. 

The newly devised 25mm carbon dome tweeter is composed of two sections, a thirty-micron aluminum dome front section stiffened by a PVD (physical vapor deposition) coating of carbon. Paraphrasing B&W, “the second section is a 300-micron carbon ring that matches the form of the main dome, then is bonded to the inner face of the structure.” The outcome is stiffness and resistance to distortion without undue mass, and a first breakup point of 47kHz. B&W also substituted aluminum instead of zinc for the bullet-shaped housing of the Signature tweeter. The milled aluminum (over 1kg) makes for a stiffer and less resonant structure than zinc, and benefits from the same decoupling mechanism and acoustically transparent grille design of the 800 Series Diamond. A side benefit is that it also allows the use of the mass of the tweeter body as a heatsink for the dome.

In the 6.5″ Continuum cone mid/bass, B&W enthusiasts will identify another component that originally was exclusive to the 800 Series Diamond. Continuum is a woven composite design, which B&W states avoids the abrupt transition from pure pistonic movement to breakup-mode behavior. Ultimately, every driver will break up, but when distortion can be as highly controlled as it is in the Continuum transducer, there’s greater potential for a more open, transparent, and detailed midrange.

I could say more than a few words about the fit and finish of the 705 Signature, but let me sum it up in one word—sumptuous. My flawless review sample was crafted in Datuk Gloss ebony-colored veneer and bore a striking, exotic, tiger-stripe grain pattern. The wood originates from a sustainably sourced supply, in this case from specialist Italian wood company Alpi. Bowers & Wilkins adds to Alpi’s painstaking workmanship by applying nine coats of finish, including primer, base coat, and lacquer.

705 Signature front

As for the sonics of the 705, my first impressions held true throughout the evaluation; from the start the speaker was high-spirited and balanced. Like a thoroughbred at the Derby, the 705 seemed to burst from the gate, surging with pent-up energy. Its dynamism was evident at pretty much every level across the frequency spectrum. It delivered well-rounded midrange tonality, shaded slightly to the warmer, romantic side of neutral—a sonic signature that seems built into the genetic code of B&W loudspeakers (and into many British monitors, for that matter). Its midbass to lower midrange was well controlled and defined—exceptionally so in light of its modest 13-inch height. The rear port—in B&W’s characteristic, turbulence-reducing dimpled design—was mostly inaudible, though there was, at moments, an excess weightiness in the upper bass that hinted at some port augmentation. 

The overall voice of the 705 Signature was forthright rather than tonally recessive. It was punchy and aggressive when it needed to be and soothing where appropriate. It was a compact that summoned buckets full of colorful timbral details and contrasts, and possessed a full-blooded physicality that sustained and supported musical images. Soundstage information was straightforward, imparting good dimensional information, though this was not its strongest suit. (Any number of competitive two-way compacts will challenge it in that regard.)

A prime example of the 705 Signature’s all-around skillset was Alison Krauss’ country-tinged cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Will.” The track, with its guitar and banjo images snapping from the studio mix, exhibited an electric immediacy. In that vein, the closing drum fill during “When You Say Nothing At All” was heroic in its weight and scale. Parenthetically, the scale of this particular cue is curiously out of proportion with the rest of the song, suggesting that someone in the control room was having a little too much fun dialing up the percussion in the final mix. 

The vivacious character of the 705 Sig’s sonics is no accident, in my view. To a large degree it reflects elements of the professional-recording “studio monitor” culture in which B&W is still quite prominent. Thus, there is no wimp factor. The 705 Sig heads in the other direction, muscling in on the recording to bring to light every last detail: an errant baton striking the podium, a gasp from an audience member, the shift of a pianist on the bench, the rustle of pages of a score being turned on a musician’s music stand. And like a true monitor, the 705 Sig isn’t shy about being driven hard. When propelled by top-quality amplification with sufficient headroom, it is capable of a level of sheer unconstrained output that caused me to bail out before it did. 

Bass quality was outstanding, especially for a loudspeaker of this humble size. During Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe,” bassist Dan Schwartz’s cavernous and enveloping artistry was reproduced with impressive pitch and extension. The Police’s “Tea In The Sahara” was also reproduced with the impressive rhythmic interplay of kickdrum and electric bass fully intact. The bass drum sounded grounded in reality, not just a random set of rhythmic pulses. No, the 705 Sig couldn’t uncover the deepest notes on this track, but where it played it was honest and open. Compared with a much larger floorstander or a subwoofer-augmented system, of course, the deepest bass and dynamics were throttled down, but the “essentials” were there and the brain tended to fill in the gaps. I rarely felt short-shrifted by the 705.

Solo piano reproduction, a potential deal-breaker for this reviewer, was some of the best I’ve heard from a compact. As I listened to Constentino Catena’s reading of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the dynamic touch he teased out of the concert grand conveyed all kinds of keyboard character, mood swings, and temperament, from the gentlest pianissimos to the heavier fortes. The 705 even captured a semblance of soundboard action, air, and weight. It also hung onto the sustain pedal to the end of the track. 

This gentle piano track was also illustrative of the 705 Signature’s resolving power, a trait that cropped up time and again during my evaluation. The speaker had an ability to bring to life the smallest cues, clinging to a decaying note, a waft of ambience. It had a level of resolution that rewarded the astute listener, and caused me to listen ever deeper into the most delicate moments. Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of the Billie Holiday classic “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a terrific track to enjoy this specific brand of transparency. The sonics of this LP ring true. The quirky Jones vocal and classical guitar accompaniment sang with a full array of transient delicacies and intricate voicings, immersing me in the atmosphere of the mix

Most significant to my own listening biases, the B&W proved to be a very good and flexible voice speaker. The 705 Signature reveled in reproducing the signature details that define a singer’s instrument. On a track like CS&N’s “Southern Cross,” for example, the 705 caught the leading edge of Stills’ vocal and nailed his characteristic gravelly throatiness down pat. Then there was the 705’s sensitivity in capturing the breathy vibrato of Jennifer Warnes’ “Song for Bernadette,” or the husky alto of Lauren Daigle’s “Rescue” from the 45rpm Bernie Grundman LP remaster of her 2018 hit Look Up Child. My one minor reservation was a hint of presence dip with these female vocalists that softened and rounded the leading edges of their voices. On the one hand, the effect was coddling to the ear, but on the other, it also subtracted slightly from attack and emotion.

The Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature is the product of a mature and experienced company that understands the musical imperatives of overall balance and listenability. A compact loudspeaker that can shrug off the bonds of its modest proportions and become something much grander is a rarity, but the B&W most assuredly does these things. In sum, the 705 Signature is what I’d describe as a true musical sophisticate—a natty dresser and a formidable addition to any listening room. Sign me up!

Specs & Pricing

Type: Stand-mount, two-way, vented box
Drivers: 1″ dome tweeter; 6.5″ mid/bass
Frequency response: 58Hz–28kHz
Sensitivity: 88dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms (3.7 ohms minimum)
Dimensions: 13.4″ x 7.8″ x 11.9″
Weight: 20.5 lbs.
Price: $3999

BOWERS & WILKINS
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
(978) 664-2870
bowerswilkins.com

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VooDoo Stradivarius Amati Edition Interconnects

VooDoo Cable is an Oakland, California, cable and accessories manufacturer. VooDoo’s work is largely custom-made from raw materials in its factory to client specification for length and termination—in contrast with a number of wire companies that prepackage many of their cable offerings Underscoring that personal commitment, VooDoo points out that its finished products are “not made from bulk wire that has been extruded, spooled, and printed by a cable fabricator somewhere in Asia.” In recent years, I’ve reviewed an assortment of VooDoo’s power cords and accessories (like the highly effective Iso-Pods), and have always come away impressed with their build-quality, finish, and sonic refinement. 

However, this is the first time I’ve weighed in on VooDoo audio cables—more specifically, its interconnects. Why interconnects? Very simply, my own reference system took a distinct turn when I opted for ATC SCM50 active loudspeakers, essentially eliminating the need for wires to link the traditional amp to the speaker. With this set of cabling out of the picture, interconnects (from a preamp) have assumed an even more critical role. When I received word of VooDoo’s latest Stradivarius series cables, and specifically its Amati Edition interconnects, I was intrigued by how they might perform in my setup—the aforementioned ATCs driven by a Pass Labs XP12 preamp with a dCS Bartók streaming DAC as the source component.

Amati uses conductors made of continuous-cast, pure-silver Litz wire and of solid-core, single-crystal silver and copper. These conductors are encapsulated in oil-impregnated silk with an air-core Teflon dielectric that is balanced for inductance and capacitance. A concentric shield of silver-plated copper-braid blocks EMI and RFI. The balanced version is terminated with rhodium-over-silver-plated tellurium-copper XLR connectors. All cables are also treated to VooDoo’s computer-calibrated liquid-nitrogen cryogenic process at –315 degrees Fahrenheit, which is said to “re-align and fuse the molecular structure of the conductive metals and alloys”—a process that minimizes break-in time. A tony hard-shell case is included, as is the certification of authenticity and serial number. Construction quality is top rate, as I’ve come to expect from VooDoo products. 

To paraphrase an old television commercial, “with a name like Stradivarius Amati it has to be good.” Putting it mildly, it is, indeed. From top to bottom, Amati delivers a full-bodied, ripe, and colorfully detailed bounty of musicality. Tonally, it plays it straight down the middle with no obvious frequency hiccups. It had a forward-leaning character that lends soloists and vocals energy and presence. Nothing is recessive or laid back here. On a scale of warm-to-cool, Amati tilts ever so slightly to the cooler range—a subtle trait perceivable during high-drive wind or brass passages or upper-octave violin solos. 

In passages from Nickel Creek’s This Side, and Alison Krauss’ A Hundred Miles or More, the interconnects demonstrated a low-level resolution that brought forth a shower of details from acoustic string instruments—the snap of a five-string banjo, the ring of octave strings from a 12-string guitar, the buzzy drone of a dulcimer, the hummingbird-like resonances of bluegrass mandolin. Vocals were smooth, with a sibilance range that was clean and quick, filled with natural expressiveness rather than overly etched attacks. Vocal harmonies were resolved with stunning clarity, as in Ricki Lee Jones and Lyle Lovett’s gentle duet “North Dakota” from Joshua Judges Ruth. Her accompaniment is so quietly sung as to be almost subliminal, but these cables clung to her every breath and phrase. In its combination of broad micro and macrodynamics and timbral and tactile detail Amati was an absolute standout.

Of particular note was its midrange and lower midrange eloquence—a quality that brought to life the deep voices and trailing resonances of cello, bass viol, and bassoon, or the throaty bloom of tenor sax. Bass response was equally outstanding. I relished listening to Leonard Cohen’s dark tremulous vocals on Old Ideas, or the bouncy acoustic bass intro to Harry Connick, Jr’s rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” from We Are in Love. Generally speaking, bass response not only seemed to extend a bit deeper than my previous reference, but pitch also remained rock-steady and focused, well into a sustained decay. And I had to pick my jaw up off the floor as I listened to the thunderous bass drum from the Wilson Audio recording of “Liberty Fanfare” from Winds of War and Peace. From the instant the mallet struck the drum skin to the final flare and flutter and resonance of decay, I sat immobilized by the power and grandeur of the sound.

During Mary Stallings’ “Sunday Kind Of Love” from her performance Live At The Village Vanguard, images were accorded a natural sense of spaciousness that conjured up the energy and immersive ambience of the cabaret, of artist and audience intimacy, of tables and chairs, of clinking cocktail glasses and stemware, of individual images given ample room on the soundstage. Whether it was the space between musicians in a symphony hall or a lack of smearing of individual notes on a piano or violin, Amati vividly portrayed the aura of air between the notes and during pauses. The orchestral soundstage from Vaughn-Williams’ The Wasps Overture was expansively wide, and the well-lit soundstage revealed enough low-level reverberation to suggest the volume of the hall. String section layering was indicated although not fully defined in terms of row-by-row precision—a front-to-back foreshortening perhaps attributable to the hint of forward character in the Amati.

 Sonically, very little slips past Amati, but even in its excellence there’s always some room for modest improvement. To my ear it doesn’t always have the treble air and lift that flesh out instrumental images, disentangle instrumental layers, or fully unspool spatial landscapes. My listening bias leans toward greater warmth and bloom, and wider contrasts of tonal color—qualities that my reference interconnect, Analysis Plus Golden Micro, provides in abundance. But the Analysis Plus wires are also much pricier.

No component in a high-end system exists in isolation. System synergy is what we seek—like links in a chain, each individual component fuses with the next to form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. When it comes to purchases, there is also proportionality—understanding where to allocate resources to derive the most musical bang for the buck. In my mind cables play a unique part, not as leading players but as supporting ones. They don’t define the character or voice of a high-performance system; rather, they refine and underscore its presentation. 

I think it’s fair to say that VooDoo’s latest cast a spell on me. I won’t opine on how much you should spend on cables (that’s your call), but I will suggest that at $1650 per meter VooDoo Stradivarius Amati buys you an awful lot in today’s interconnect market. It hit high marks in nearly every criteria with no glaring weaknesses, knocking on the door of some of the best cabling out there.

Specs & Pricing

VOODOO CABLE LLC
(510) 535-9464
voodoocable.net
Price: $1650/1m pr.

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Q&A with Andy Kerr of Bowers & Wilkins

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side?

Music! I’m fortunate that I can trace my family tree back a long way—to Scotland in the 12th century, in fact. It seems that most of my ancestors tended to either serve in the military or become engineers. I, however, chose the “other” route; I set my heart on pursuing a military career in my youth and joined the cadet corps as soon as I was able. However, it didn’t quite work out in the end, which forced me to reassess and reset my ambitions. As my passion was music, which I had been obsessed with since childhood, it seemed the obvious choice for a career. Music compelled me to buy hi-fi; hi-fi compelled me to buy more music. It became an uroboros ring of enthusiasm and expenditure!

What components made up your first high-end system? 

I had a Linn LP12 from 1982, although I wouldn’t say the amplifier or speakers it was connected to were particularly high end (those were the “source-first” days, and I was still young and on a budget!). By the mid-90s I was working in audio, but in the end I settled on a couple of systems: the primary TV-watching and music-listening room had a Pioneer LD player linked into a Meridian Digital Theatre with 500 CD transport, 565 processor, and DSP5500 speakers (with the matching center and DSP5000s as rears). In another room, I had a “purist” stereo system with my Linn connected to a Musical Fidelity F22 tube preamp with F18 power amp, driving a pair of Bowers & Wilkins (then B&W) CDM1. 

What kind of education did you receive?

I went to Nottingham High School, a very traditional private school that can trace its origins back to the year 1513. Despite its traditional approach I really value the time I had there: the school was as much about teaching pupils to think as it was teaching them to learn.

What differentiates high-end audio from other segments of audio? 

The customer expectation is different, because buyers in this category are to a degree both more tolerant and more dedicated than typical buyers. Ask a mainstream customer to accept a speaker that takes up as much space or which weighs as much as an 800 D3, and you might have a difficult task on your hands, but to enthusiasts in the high-end audio space it’s less of an issue. The same applies to price, of course: The high-end audio consumer is definitely more tolerant of cost than a mainstream buyer, where every small increment in price has potentially massive implications for sales. 

How would you describe the B&W philosophy?

We are founded on and driven by the need to make a better loudspeaker. John Bowers famously said that the best loudspeaker “isn’t the one that gives the most; it’s the one that loses the least.” We want you to hear what the artist intended with no coloration or distortion. That sounds simple to achieve; in practice it’s anything but. In addition, we want you to hear sound levels close to those of a live performance with no apparent sense of stress or strain from the loudspeaker. Our approach is this: We are compelled to do better in everything we do. With every loudspeaker generation, especially with a model as advanced as the 800 Series Diamond, we all learn a lot, and that helps us to make our other, more affordable loudspeakers better, too. 

Audiophiles have been reluctant to embrace active/DSP and wireless loudspeakers in the past. Has there been a shift? 

I’m not sure. I think many enthusiasts have so much invested (on both a financial and an emotional level) in amplifiers, cables, and so on that it’s hard for them to turn their backs on them. I think some of the smarter amplifier brands have made good strides in offering DSP-driven platforms that can complement and potentially improve the performance of passive speakers. Today’s young consumer is growing up in a world where sound comes from one device and is stored or streamed from one device (the phone). As those customers age they may want to scale their audio systems to meet their needs, but asking them to adopt amps, cables, and so on when they have zero track record or experience of that is a tall order. I want to be clear: We absolutely will not stop making passive speakers for so long as there are customers out there who want them. But it’s just as important that we remain relevant. 

What are the greatest challenges facing B&W and the high end?

I see more young people wearing headphones and listening to music every day now than I did 20 years ago. So the potential target market is there, but we need to give those people a reason to believe in what we offer. Now that’s not easy, because, like it or not, the hi-fi industry is not cool. We have somehow, as an industry, created an environment where more people are put off by what we do than are drawn to it. We need to not only come up with better products, but better ways to communicate the value of those products to new consumers. Make no mistake, our industry should be way larger and way more relevant to today’s consumer than it actually is.

What (still) inspires you about your work?

The passion of the people I work with, the collective enthusiasm we all share, and the knowledge that there’s always more to learn. 

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Original Resource is Articles – The Absolute Sound