Ken Kessler takes us on a wholly biased, subjective and prejudiced wander down Memory Lane
‘High-end’ has always been with us. A generic term that means anything more expensive than the norm, it has been applied to restaurants, watches, luggage and myriad other consumer goods and services, but hi-fi seems to have used it the most. And from the outset, it spelled trouble.
Was high-end status determined solely by quality or simply by price? Sounds like a stupid question, but there are plenty of products with sublime performance that aren’t considered ‘high-end’ because the prices are too low. Conversely, a huge number of components with obscene price-tags offer performance that barely merits ‘risible’. This curse has been with us for decades and isn’t about to change. But it does bear remembering when one enters the world of extreme audio.
Naturally, the worst offenders, those who misuse the term ‘high-end’, are the manufacturers themselves, for no purveyor of expensive crap wants to be identified as anything other than the source for state-of-the-art hardware. I could name a few hundred of said miscreants but do not want to put another Porsche in the garage of Hi-Fi Choice’s corporate lawyer. But such is human nature that we automatically assume that we get what we pay for, and that a £20,000 amplifier just has to be better than a £2000 amplifier.
Once you get past this never-ending pub debate, and the opposing audiophiles take their hands form each other’s neck, there is a commonly-accepted ‘norm’ for what roughly constitutes high-end audio. What few wish to recognise is that it’s been around ever since specialty or separates audio began, right after World War II, when huge consoles containing record players and radios were split into their constituent parts. More importantly, the arrival of the LP and of FM radio provided sources that demanded more than the bandwidth of then-available hardware.
Thus, the late 1940s rather than the more commonly accepted 1970s heralded the birth of the high-end. And, yes, both quality and price created the market sector, with early, pioneering brands like Marantz, harman-kardon and McIntosh in the USA and Quad and Radford in the UK exhibiting superior performance that one paid for commensurately. While not as extreme as the top-priced models of today, such brands were still not aimed at middle income groups.
If you do the conversions using GDP or inflation, you find, for example, that, for example, the Quad ESL of 1957 costs less than the current 2805 in 1957 real terms, the true cost of high-end hardware has gone up while budget gear has gone down. But even ignoring the industry’s elimination of a price ‘ceiling’ since the 1970s, still you had to be a well-paid professional in the 1950s to afford Quad or McIntosh. They didn’t call it ‘doctors’ and lawyers’ hi-fi’ for nothing.
But this is an overview of what current audiophiles consider to be ‘high-end’, and for that we do have to look to the early 1970s, when the sector was both identified and separated from the mass-market, or what we still call (hopefully not disparagingly) ‘mid-fi’. Every barrier was removed. No more self-inflicted limitations, as Peter Walker limited the size he would design up to, as well as the prices he’d charge. Power output, speaker dimensions – there were no more boundaries.
Credit for applying the term ‘high-end’ to extreme audio equipment usually goes by common consensus to the American journalist Harry Pearson, a music lover who founded The Absolute Sound when he grew tired of waiting for J. Gordon Holt to produce another copy of his revered title, Stereophile. The latter was the unofficial mouthpiece of an ever-increasing audiophile underground, and Holt was prescient in recognising the need to present an alternative voice to that of the mainstream magazines.
It’s worth noting here that the USA had a clear division between the underground titles and those found on newsstands. American mainstream magazines were utterly non-critical and in the thrall of advertisers; magazines like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound offered genuine criticism, showing no fear of the multinationals. Conversely, the UK didn’t have to spawn an underground press, because the newsstand titles were never controlled by the advertisers and were as gutsy – from the early 1970s onward – as the American guerrilla press. This may sound naïve and unlikely, but it’s true: the British audio press always had teeth.
By the 1970s, US newsstand magazines were obsessing over tenth-of-a-point distortion figures in accordance with the goals of the undistinguished Japanese brands that could afford their huge advertising rates. What was being ignored were the ‘cult’ specialty brands that eschewed features and chased the sort of power outputs we’re still re-discovering with products like Musical Fidelity’s Supercharger. Among them were makes like Phase Linear, SAE and Dunlap-Clarke, edgy brands that thought 250W/ch should be the norm in an era when a 60W/ch amp was considered high-powered.
Something was definitely in the air, and it was clear that the mass-market brands were failing to serve the more discerning, more ‘well-heeled’ music lovers. With hindsight we see that concurrent with the arrival of such massive amplifiers were new speaker brands, including Magneplanar, Dayton-Wright, Acoustat, Dahlquist, Beveridge and others. Some employed conventional drivers; many looked to radical alternatives, including electrostatics inspired by Quad and other dipoles or panels. Box-type speakers were being relegated to the middle and lower sectors.
Pockets of rebellion were found everywhere. In Minnesota, William Z. Johnson was (almost single-handedly) reviving valve amplifiers. Well, at least outside of Japan, where they always marched to the beat of a different active device. In the UK, Ivor Tiefenbrun was pitching a single-speed turntable called the Linn LP12, while Naim was producing minimalist amplifiers – part of a UK-led movement that deemed tone controls as detrimental to the sound. But the seminal, defining product was being made in the USA by one Mark Levinson.
THE “UR” PRODUCT
Designed by the genius John Curl, Levinson’s JC-1 phono pre-amplifier of 1972 evolved into the ML-1 pre-amplifier, and then into an entire system, including the legendary HQD system based on Quad ESLs. Levinson issued a series of outstanding monoblock amplifiers at a time when two-channel amps were the norm, stressing the need for the isolation of the two channels for less cross-talk and better dynamics. More importantly, he demonstrated that sheer power, while important, was not everything: Levinson revived Class-A amplification with a low-power amp which, while less efficient than Class-B, sounded ‘better’ by virtue of the removal of crossover distortion. (Sugden, it should be pointed out, had long been carrying the torch for Class-A in the UK.)
And people certainly noticed the superior performance – audibly superior performance. By 1979, Levinson was ready to unleash the ML-3, a 200W/ch dual-mono design to satisfy those using low sensitivity speakers. Thus the race for both sonic purity and vast reserves of power commenced. In its wake would follow dozens of brands which, to this day, constitute the high-end of the post-Levinson era, rather than that of the earlier SAE/Phase Linear decade. Where the latter boasted vast amounts of power, the post-Levinson amps could actually deliver the current into real-world loads rather than just into test equipment.
Legion are those that either followed in Levinson’s footsteps or benefited from Levinson’s upping of the ante. Suddenly, prices were escalating with a force yet to be arrested nearly 40 years later, while power outputs reached as high as a kilowatt. Among the makers of ‘super amps’, mainly American or Canadian, were notables including Krell, which arguably surpassed Levinson’s achievements, Classé, Threshold, GAS, Ayre, Boulder, Bryston, Sumo and countless others.
While every country could boast makers of super-amps, from Japan to Denmark, the UK was notably slow in joining the fray. Today, it can boast Musical Fidelity, Chord Electronics and a handful of others prepared to lock horns with the Yanks, but in the 1970s, a weak, malleable, jingoistic UK audio press defended the home-grown manufacturers’ inability to deliver the goods by pooh-pooh’ing Americans’ ‘lust for power’. This vile xenophobia resulted in UK manufacturers forever being ‘also-rans’ in the high-end amplifier game. Instead, they remain content with the middle market, with precious few exceptions.
THINGS THAT GLOW IN THE DARK
While Levinson and other manufacturers of that ilk were wresting as much power as possible from solid-state devices, a retailer in the American mid-west was quietly reviving the valve. The valve, or ‘tube’ to Americans, had never gone away entirely, and among those who kept up production of valve products well past the early 1960s were Marantz, McIntosh, Radford and Quad. By 1970, though, the vacuum tube was regarded generally as an antiquated device superseded in every parameter by transistors. Except, that is, for a certain breed of audiophile, and especially in Japan.
As cited earlier, William Zane Johnson began designing custom audio tube electronics in the 1950s, and had garnered a reputation for ‘hot-rodding’ affordable amplifiers such as Dynacos. His tweaked amps eventually metamorphosed into his own circuits and his own amps, which he marketed under the Audio Research banner, and which quickly found favour with what was becoming known as the audiophile ‘underground’. Early successes, which he demo’d on the road with Magnepan speakers, included the SP3 pre-amplifier and, by 1975, the still-breath-taking D-150 power amplifier.
STREET OF SHAME
In those days before the internet, it took the audio magazines to spread the word about small brands such as Mark Levinson and Audio Research. Coverage in the mainstream audio titles was so banal, based so much on measurement, and therefore prone to rate a mediocre Japanese receiver over an amp with – shock! horror! – 0.2% distortion, that reviews of specialty products in the likes of Stereo Review or High Fidelity were at best back-handed compliments and at worst insulting or suspect.
Instead, titles like the aforementioned Stereophile, IAR and The Absolute Sound, along with dozens of other, smaller titles championed this new wave of product. With these magazines came the realisation that specifications have no useful function whatsoever in describing how an amplifier or speaker or source component actually sounds. The new wave of critics demonstrated with their ears that specifications were by and large useless for anything other than determining parts selection and defining the values in a circuit design. For end users, specs were useful only in matching amplifiers’ outputs to the needs of the speakers, or cartridges’ outputs to phono stages.
It caused a revolution that affected every single audio equipment manufacturer, however measurements-led, right down to entry-level hardware manufacturers, as aspirational audiophiles, who couldn’t afford Levinson or Krell, demanded more from the entry-level. Here the British played a singular role, unmatched anywhere on earth, in redefining what budget gear could do. Given that few UK manufacturers had the balls to produce cost-no-object products because the home market was composed of penny-pinching whingers (often justifiably) who would drive 75 miles to save a fiver, the British specialists honed their products to extract the maximum from the minimum.
It’s a reputation still held globally by British brands. Due to a sick state of affairs where the British consumer is ripped off to a degree virtually unknown elsewhere, ‘value for money’ became the rallying call for British brands. And although it’s not a British make per se, it’s no fluke that the NAD 3020, which started countless audiophiles on their quest for sonic perfection, earned its reputation first in the UK. So, too, with the revived Rotel, with Marantz’s ‘Ken Ishiwata’ models and other affordable gems. Thus, in the late 1970s, while the majority of us were only dreaming about the likes of Quad or Linn, let alone then-unobtainable American or Japanese kit, we were actually listening to Dual turntables through NAD 3020s, into KEFs or Celestions.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
But back to the expensive stuff. By the mid- to late-1970s, the high-end – or ‘specialty audio’ as it’s now referred to at CES – was well-established and the UK was opening up to imported exotica from all over the world. Along the way, assorted tributaries helped to increase the flood, with various cults and forces creating camps within the audio community. We still see it today, in analogue-vs-digital, stereo-vs-multi-channel, solid-state-vs-valve and so many others. Back then, there were interesting manufacturer pairings that helped shape the high-end genre.
In the UK, the obvious one was a duo like the aforementioned Audio Research-plus-Magnepan collaboration. Just as Audio Research and Magnepan shared rooms at shows, realising that their products were complementary, so did the late Julian Vereker of Naim appreciate that his amplifiers were well-served by Ivor Tiefenbrun’s Linn LP12 front-end, and vice versa.
History shows that in the early days, Linn was the more flamboyant partner, Naim the steadier; today, both are slick, professional companies far removed from the geekiness of audio. But there’s always a precedent, as nothing emerges out of thin air. Linn and Naim didn’t just ‘happen’. A weird series of events led up to the point where Linn could arrive from Scotland, hardly a hotbed of high-end audio design, with a single-speed deck and take over a large part of the market.
[Note to Scottish readers before you throw petrified haggises at me: Tannoy and Kerr-McCosh and the phalanx of defunct Scottish turntable makers are not enough to deem Scotland as a major player in high-end audio. There are parts of Boston, Massachusetts, with more manufacturers than Scotland ever could muster, even with all the Linn-wannabees that flourished in the 1970s.]
COILED TO STRIKE
While Ivor Tiefenbrun was still working on a kibbutz, and Julian Vereker was thrashing Minis, the moving-coil cartridge was enjoying a resurgence in Japan. Jean Hiraga in France would do more than anyone to popularise Japanese audio practices in the west, but a group of Californian audiophiles, including the great Dave Fletcher of SOTA fame, were importing Graces and Fidelity Researches and Supexes into the USA. Via Fletcher, a brilliant, Gandalfian physicist, a Grace/Supex combo made its way to Ivor, who found it to be a perfect match for his LP12, itself derived from the earlier Ariston RD11, which was inspired by the Thorens TD-150, which in turns owes its existence to the AR turntable of 1961. But that’s another story.
Also, by this time, the SME 3009/Shure cartridge combination – which had been the tonearm/cartridge choice of connoisseurs for over a decade-and-a-half – was being challenged by this influx of moving-coils. And it took one Mark Levinson – yes, him again – to get the ball rolling beyond Fletcher’s groundwork. Levinson’s MLC-1 cartridge of the early 1980s, though never a massive seller, cost more than $500 at a time when $75 was a lot for a cartridge. If nothing else, it opened the doors for expensive moving coils, and it was soon followed by Koetsu and other Japanese artisan m-cs – Miyabi, Mr Brier, Kiseki, AudioNote – the list is endless. Equally, the trend was strong enough to inspire Denon to ramp up its m-c production, and Ortofon in Denmark looked to its past to become one of the most successful purveyors of m-cs in history.
Add all this together – a new take on the front-end, the return of the moving-coil, the need for step-up devices, the recognition of the source component as more important than the rest of the chain, the increases in amplifier power – and you can see that the time was ripe for high-end audio to explode onto the market. More importantly, and this is often overlooked, all of those students in the USA responsible for the growth of the separates market in the mid-to-late 1960s, with their AR or KLH systems purchased from companies such as Tech Hi-Fi, had graduated from university by the early- or mid-1970s and were now earning serious money. And they were ready to trade in their KLH music centres and Advent speakers for something more substantial.
In the UK, it was still a struggle, as if the austerity of the 1950s would never end. But the glorious Margaret Thatcher brought prosperity to the country, and the UK growth in upscale audio coincided precisely with her years as PM. (Guardian-reading audiophiles can deny this all they like, but UK audio’s golden years correspond exactly with the Thatcher era. And its decline commenced with the arrival of one Tony Blair.)
Considering the diminutive size of Linn and Naim and the relative global insignificance of their products, Vereker and Tiefenbrun, by virtue of sheer Steve Jobs-like evangelism, personality and persistence, parlayed their products into the UK standard. Along the way, they bullied and cajoled the press into submission, such that for more than a decade, audiophiles in this country aspired to nothing else: you either owned a Linn-Naim system or you were dirt. Along the way, a cult of fellow-travellers emerged, by accident or design, according to the benedictions of the UK press. Among them, what we now see as stepping stones to full-on Linn-Naim paradise, were a Rega turntable if you couldn’t afford an LP12, and brands like Nytech and Arcam supplied the sub-Naim amplification.
Across the Pond, only the readers of UK magazines were aware of this cult, so the US was free to develop its own factions. And the Atlantic is a pretty big divide: both countries had hugely successful brands at home that made hardly any impact on the other side of the water, such as Spica speakers Stateside. SOTA and VPI turntables were an American alternative to Linn, while Canada’s Oracle – more than any brand up to that point – demonstrated that high-end audio needn’t look like something fashioned in a basement by drug-addled ex-hippies.
Anyone over 50 will tell you that the build quality and form of the Oracle turntable combined to create an elegance that many feel remains unsurpassed to this day. Yes, even those who realise that it was a pain in the arse to set up. Oracle’s achievement would later be matched not by other turntables but by loudspeakers: Martin-Logan with its ‘see-through’ electrostatics and Sonus faber speakers with woodwork worthy of the violins from which they take their names did more to sell specialty audio to house-proud non-enthusiasts than anything else.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO
One pairing that’s all but forgotten today had a more fundamental impact on the high-end than the Linn-Naim axis because it actually re-wrote the way we perceive amplifiers, as much as did Mark Levinson in the early 1970s. Linn and Naim taught the world about system building and synergy, but it was always masked by unutterable bullshit about digital clocks and single-speaker demos. What the team of Krell and Apogee exposed us to was sheer majesty.
It was never going to filter down to the masses: Apogee’s first speaker was a full-range ribbon over 6ft tall, and the Class-A Krells ran hot enough to singe flesh. And both were expensive. But it was Apogee’s second product, the smaller Scintilla, that created another requirement of high-end amplifiers, which – while we later realised was a dead end – resulted in raising the bar for all amplifiers. For the better.
Here is what happened: the Scintilla dipped down to 1 ohm and ate amplifiers for breakfast. This became the litmus test for ballsy amplifiers in the 1980s. The only amps (or so it appeared) that could tickle the Scintilla without exploding were the Krells. So, like Linn and Naim, and before them Audio Research and Magnepan, Krell and Apogee shared rooms at shows and collaborated on systems that, for a goodly chunk of the decade, saw off every rival. To this day, manufacturers boast about the vicious loads their amplifiers will drive, however rare are the speakers that actually present the 1 ohm challenge.
All of which would be meaningless if the equipment didn’t achieve new standards of sound reproduction. As one who still owns Scintillas, I’ve yet to hear them bettered by anything … provided the amps are up to it. And that’s what the high-end should be all about: peerless sound quality simply not available from compromised equipment.
AND THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMIN’
In a brief overview like this, it’s impossible even to name-check all the key players. But other stand-outs and survivors from the golden decade of the high-end – 1975-1985, or around the time CD arrived – include Wilson Audio, Meridian, Conrad-Johnson, VTL and so many others that their ‘why’d you leave us out?’ e-mails will clog a server. But some deserve special mention for their clear focus on the ultimate goal: faultless sound, regardless of price.
Dave Wilson, with admirable single-mindedness, used his uncompromising studio reference standards to create a line of speakers that deliver all the power and detail and clarity one could hope for, in systems that seem unbreakable. Meridian has spent over two decades teaching us that digital technology needn’t suck; it’s inevitable anyway, so why not make the most of it?
McIntosh evolved from ‘establishment’ to ‘high-end reviewers’ darling’, with a range of delightful valve products. And engineer-turned-president Charlie Randall’s cost-no-object ‘2K’ system showed that even large companies can deliver the kind of systems that must have had the accountants in a cold sweat. Nagra? Best-known for professional recording equipment and satellite TV receptors, it has for a decade produced some of the most desirable valve and solid-state equipment on the market, though it waited over 20 years before relenting by giving us a CD player. SME embraced the need for arms to handle moving-coils, launching their own spectacular turntable in the early 1990s.
And Mark Levinson? The company that bears his name still makes exceptional products, while I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Mark – the man, that is – who had other ventures, including Cello and Red Rose, after leaving his eponymous brand. [Note: As of 2014, Mark has a Swiss-based brand called Daniel Hertz.]
Which leads us to the future. The brands which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s that are still with us clearly understand survival. Those that managed either to embrace or successfully ignore CD and other digitalia now enjoy their own niches, be it single-ended triode amps or phono stages or radical loudspeaker design. Some managed to include both phono stages and CD players in their catalogues, and even to address custom installation without losing their audiophile credibility.
What’s clear is that there’s still room for everybody, however freaky the equipment. But what manufacturers soon learn is that audiophiles do eventually reach that moment of satori, when they understand what ‘high end audio’ really means. And that’s what separates the great from the merely expensive.
A HIGHLY-SELECTIVE TIMELINE
Scale Model Equipment Ltd founded; will later be known as SME, manufacturer of the world’s most successful tonearm
Columbia Records announces the 12-inch LP with 33 1/3 playing speed
RCA introduces the microgroove 45rpm, large-hole, 7-in record and a dedicated record changer/adaptor
Ampex introduces its Model 300 professional studio recorder
Magnecord produces the first U.S.-made stereo tape recorder
McIntosh Laboratory is incorporated; its first product is the Unity Coupled 50W1 Power Amplifier
Bell Laboratories develops the germanium transistor
Emory Cook releases experimental two-channel ‘binaural’ discs
Ken Kessler born
Ampex provides a 4-track, 35mm magnetic film system for the feature film The Robe, shown in CinemaScope with surround sound
Harman-Kardon introduces its first product, an FM tuner
G. A. Briggs stages the first in a series of live-vs.-recorded demos in London’s Royal Festival Hall
The first commercial 2-track stereo tapes are released
Les Paul makes the first 8-track recordings using the ‘Sel-Sync’ method
Westrex demonstrates the first commercial ‘45/45’ stereo cutter head
Quad releases its first full-range electrostatic speaker
The first commercial stereo discs appear
EMI fails to renew the Blumlein stereo patent, possibly the single stupidest move in the history of music or audio next to Decca failing to sign the Beatles
SME produces its first tonearm, the 3009
Japanese microphone specialist Stax introduces its first ‘Earspeaker’, an electrostatic headphone
The FCC settles on an FM stereo broadcast format
McIntosh issues the MC275 75W/ch power amplifier – the company’s most beloved and enduring design – and the C22 preamplifier
Philips introduces the Compact Cassette tape format and offers licenses worldwide
The Beatles conquer the USA; Ken Kessler buys his first LP
The Dolby Type A noise reduction system is introduced
SAE founded by Morris Kessler and Ted Winchester
Ken Kessler purchases first hi-fi system: Dual 1019 turntable, Scott 344C receiver, Scott speakers. Life changes forever. Audio world unaware of the pending threat
Dr. Thomas Stockham begins to experiment with digital tape recording
William Z. Johnson starts Audio Research
Denon demonstrates 18-bit PCM stereo recording using a helical-scan video recorder
Electro-Voice and CBS are licensed by Peter Scheiber to produce quadraphonic decoders using his patented matrixes
Linn founded with launch of LP-12 turntable
Introduction of Mark Levinson’s JC-1 preamplifier
DuPont introduces chromium dioxide (CrO2) cassette tape
Digital tape recording begins to take hold in professional audio studios
Dr. Thomas Stockham of Soundstream makes the first 16-bit digital recording in the United States at the Santa Fe Opera
Tim de Paravicini returns to England from Japan, to set up his own company, E.A.R. (now EAR-Yoshino)
Meridian founded by Allen Boothroyd and Bob Stuart
David A. Wilson and his wife, Sheryl Lee, launch Wilson Audio; it begins life as a record label
3M introduces metal-particle cassette tape
Oracle turntable introduced
Ricardo Franassovici launches Absolute Sounds, to make real high-end equipment available to the British music lover
Noel Lee founds Monster Cable, the most successful cable manufacturer ever; brings cable insanity to the masses
3M, Mitsubishi, Sony and Studer introduce multi-track digital recorders
EMT introduces its Model 450 hard-disk digital recorder (yes, 27 years ago!)
Sony’s pocket-sized Walkman stereo cassette player revolutionises listening habits forever
Krell founded; first product is the KSA-100 stereo power amp
Philips demonstrates the Compact Disc (CD)
IBM introduces a 16-bit personal computer
Wilson Audio introduces the WAMM loudspeaker
Sony introduces the PCM-F1 Betamax digital audio recorder, intended for the consumer market; it is the first 14- and 16-bit digital adaptor for VCRs. Professionals love it
Sony releases the first CD player, the Model CDP-101
Apogee launches the Full-Range Ribbon loudspeaker
Krell releases KSA-50 amp
Martin-Logan exhibits for first time at CES in Chicago, with a full-range electrostatic speaker
Goldmund Reference turntable launched
Jadis launched by André Calmettes
Ken Kessler joins Hi-Fi News
The Apple Corporation markets the Macintosh computer
Meridian launches what many regard as the world’s first audiophile CD player
Dolby introduces the “SR” Spectral Recording system
Apogee introduces the Scintilla
Wilson Audio introduces the WATT speaker; the Puppy subwoofer will follow two years later – will go on to be one of the best-selling high-end speakers of all time
Chord Electronics Ltd established
Dolby proposes a 5-channel surround-sound scheme for home theatre systems
The write-once CD-R becomes a commercial reality
Philips DCC and Sony’s MiniDisc, which uses digital audio data reduction, are offered to consumers as record/play hardware and software
Sonus faber releases the Guarneri
Record labels begin to add multimedia files to new releases, calling them ‘enhanced CDs’
Experimental digital recordings are made at 24bits and 96kHz
DVD videodiscs and players are launched
MP3 players for audio downloaded from the internet first appear. And not from Apple
Audio DVD Standard 10 agreed upon by manufacturers
Leak shows signs of a possible revival with a prototype valve amp; it never materialises
Sonus faber Stradivari launched, completing the Homage series
Nagra launches its Pyramid amplifiers
Sony demonstrates Blu-ray at the London hi-fi show
SME’s Alastair Robertson-Aikman passes away
Goldmund announces a limited run of the Reference turntable II: 25 only for the same money as a Ferrari
KEF releases the Ross Lovegrove-designed £80,000 Muon loudspeaker