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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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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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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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Q&A with Martijn Mensink of Dutch & Dutch

Did your interest in the high end come from the music side or the electronics side? 

Definitely the music side. As a kid I went through my parents’ collection and I fell in love with bands such as Queen, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. My interest in audio really kicked off in my early teens when I listened to my next-door neighbor’s high-end system. Experiencing your favorite music on a system like that for the first time…just wow! I then knew I wanted this for myself.


What was your first high-end system?

After a couple of years of gradually upgrading my system, I realized that speakers make the biggest difference. When I started building my own, both the quality of my system and my understanding of audio skyrocketed. As a teenager and during university I really nerded out and developed lots of different types of speakers, experimenting with everything. All this experimentation at some point culminated in an active system in a dedicated, acoustically optimized room. It was enormous and hideous, but it definitely sounded high end!


What education did you receive?

Besides all the hours spent on building speakers and learning about audio, I studied physics, and I somehow managed to attain degrees in business administration and strategy. 


When did audio develop from a hobby to a career? 

While at university I had a part time job at a high-end hi-fi store. Besides the stuff I built myself, I got to try lots of different factory-made gear. Around that time I started my first audio company with two friends. We were inexperienced and underfunded, but we managed to develop an incredible, highly innovative prototype system. When we were ready to start production, the production company we’d partnered with took all our savings, right before going bankrupt.

In the middle of all that, my girlfriend and I moved in together and I had to give up my high-end system and dedicated room. In the new home I tried several good speakers and added some discrete acoustic treatments, but it seemed impossible to get great sound in my not so great room. But then it hit me: What if instead of fighting the room, you embraced it? This led me to develop a prototype of what was to become the 8c. And then a great opportunity presented itself. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of guys who wanted to start an audio company. They had funding and a wide range of expertise, and they were looking for somebody with fresh ideas and business acumen to complete their team. My first company had just failed, so obviously it was me they were looking for!


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

For some people high-end is about gear that’s really well-made. For others it’s about expensive stuff for the elite. For me high-end audio is about pushing the boundaries to bring about the best musical experience possible. High-end audio will never be cheap, but I believe in making it attainable. 


How would you describe the Dutch & Dutch company philosophy? 

Dutch & Dutch is not like traditional hi-fi companies. We originated from the Delft University of Technology and almost half of the team are software developers. We value openness and a free exchange of ideas, and we like to stick with science. In the office there’s a laid-back, optimistic atmosphere, but when push comes to shove everybody’s ready to do his or her part. We want to disrupt the high-end industry by doing things differently and developing landmark products that our customers love. A dream this big means that along the way you’ll make mistakes. We’ve taken on challenges that took more time than we anticipated, experienced all sorts of growth pains, and come to accept that mistakes are par for the course. What you do is learn from them and keep trying to become better. I’m really proud of how much Dutch & Dutch has grown as a team and of what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve laid the groundwork, and we’re now ready for the big leagues. 

Audiophiles have been reluctant to embrace active/DSP loudspeakers. Is that  changing? And if so, why? 

With the maturation of DSP technology and modern features such as streaming, active has become a no-brainer. In mainstream audio active/DSP is already the de facto standard, and in recent years it’s been replacing traditional high-end systems and attracting new customers. 


What are the challenges confronting the high end in the next few years? 

More music is consumed today than ever before. What is high-end doing to stay relevant? Dutch & Dutch is founded upon that change. The gap between high-end and mainstream audio has widened and we’re bridging that gap with relevant innovations.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?

Music plays a large part in my life, both listening and making. Besides that, I like to stay in shape, sharpen my wits, and spend time with friends and family.

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Q&A with Bill Schnee

Bill Schnee is a producer, Grammy Award-winning engineer, and author of Chairman at the Board—Recording the Soundtrack of A Generation.

 

What inspired you to write the book?
I’ve always loved telling stories, and had considered writing a book, but thought it was too self-serving. The tipping point came when a client encouraging me to write a book said that the music business was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, and peaked in the 70s going into the 80s. He said it was a very short time, a very iconic time—never to be repeated again—and you were there! Hearing that made me realize a book didn’t have to be, “I did this, then I did that.” Rather, I could tell stories about other fun things I had nothing to do with, like the cute story about Miles Davis. Read that in the book!

To be clear, this is not a “how-to” manual.
No, and I’m afraid some engineer types might be disappointed about that. I’ve written the book for anyone like me who loves music and records but hasn’t been as fortunate as I have to go behind the curtain. Early on I came to the conclusion that producing and engineering are servant’s roles…you’re there to serve the artist and his music. Beginning my career as an artist on the “other side of the glass” helped me realize that. I started recording by being thrown in the deep end of the pool with Three Dog Night and managed to swim.

Is your primary aim as an engineer to be mostly invisible at a session, or are there times when you need to step in more forcefully?
I definitely try to stay out of the way unless I see there’s a need that I can fill. It may be a sonic or even a musical suggestion. I think most people know that the musician in me is there waiting to contribute, and so I’m most often encouraged to do so.

What artist(s) surprised you most by the sheer breadth of his musical talent?
That’s an easy one…Barry Manilow. I was actually not a fan back in the day, but found quickly what an immense talent he really is.

The industry has changed. What do you miss most about the golden age in which you worked?
Before computers, an artist had to work in a recording studio with very expensive equipment where a group of musicians would all play together making the record. Today, “professional recording equipment” is within everyone’s reach, so most records are recorded in pieces in different people’s home studios. There’s something very special about the synergy of a group of musicians playing with and off each other.

In a career filled with so many achievements, what do you think was one of your greatest moments personally and artistically?
One that I would hope speaks to your audience is the Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker direct-to-disc album (I’ve Got The Music In Me, 1975). That’s the album that brought direct-to-disc back in the modern era. Shortly before he died, I was proud when Doug Sax told me it was the most exciting record Sheffield ever made.

On Ringo’s self-titled album you ended up working with all of the Beatles on different tracks. How often did you pinch yourself during those sessions?
Those sessions were all fantastic, so I’m sure there were little black and blue marks all over me. For that record, Ringo’s mates had decided to pitch in and give him a leg up. When John came in to record his song, for the first and, I believe, only time after the group’s breakup, I had three of The Beatles recording in the same room. That was a magical night to be sure. Paul was not allowed in the country because of some little problem about drugs. If he could have come, I’m pretty sure there would have been a Beatle reunion. So we went to London to record the song Paul and Linda wrote for Ringo (“Six O’Clock”). I guess you could say he got by with more than a little help from his friends!

Using a word or phrase, how would you describe your encounters with each former Beatle at that time?
Ringo—very jovial and a real sweetheart. John—a bit dark but absolutely brilliant. Paul—warmest, sweetest, and most melodic of the four. George very warm and studied as a musician.

What is the most important skill required to succeed as a mastering or session engineer?
The art of critical listening.

What is the key to longevity in the recording industry?
Staying current. When hard-disk recording was coming in, I had to learn a whole new way of capturing sound. I knew when I started that if I was going to have a long career, I had to take extreme care of my ears, and I have. I didn’t realize back then that eyes would become more important than ears!

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