The Source-erer's Apprentice

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that stuff like wires, vertical tracking angles, and amplifier topologies have profound influence on what you hear out of your hi-fi system.

They don’t. Sure, some of these (and countless other) factors have effects ranging from subtle to imaginary, and audiophiles will spend hours, days, lifetimes chasing them. But what really matters is out of our control, because it happened on the other side of the input jacks. Here’s a case in point.

More years ago than I’m prepared to discuss -- let’s just say it was before the Internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye -- I helped to bootstrap a company that produced a stereo preamplifer, its debut product. (This really was an outstanding and highly innovative design, by two very smart guys; you can read all about it today here on this excellent page.) Well, after a considerable period of sketching, prototyping, arguing, and etching our own PC boards for the preproduction run of 50 (trichlorethylene’s a carcinogen? Who knew?), the time came to venture out to our first Consumer Electronics Show and loose our creation upon a world that was not exactly panting with anticipation.

We needed a demo system, and demo material, that would command attention and make a statement. But we had no money: the firm had been founded on small family loans and three American Express Gold cards obtained mostly by providing each other references, from different phone lines; and these had been redlined long since. One of the founders already owned a pair of Snell Acoustics Type A’s (he’d done some design consulting for Peter Snell), which though still little-known was one of the very best full-range loudspeakers of the day. Another of us had a pair of pro amps; I don’t remember what these were but they might’ve been QSC’s. Our debutante, the Apt/Holman preamplifier, obviously took center stage, which left the matter of source component and demo material.

Sure, we had a high-zoot turntable (my Thorens TD-125/SME-III arm, if memory serves), and all the usual “audiophile-mastered” records. But since Tom Holman had connections in the recording world, we also had a secret weapon. Through cloak-and-dagger deals, pre-dawn dead-drops, and a death-defying chase through the sewers of Stuttgart, we had a fistful of first-generation, 30-inches-per-second dubs of 2-track master tapes: recordings from a couple of sources, one of them a large, well-known German firm with a two-word name. With a borrowed Stüder A-80 that must’ve weighed 250 pounds -- I humped the damned thing through Logan and O’Hare, both ways -- we were off to Chicago.

Oh, you didn’t know the Consumer Electronics Show used to be in Chicago? Well, it did: Vegas was the “winter show,” a cozy, car-stereo-centric affair that mostly served to get the industry to the desert for a little off-season R&R. God, I miss those days.

One of these masters was Handel’s Messiah, another was some jazz. Both sounded superb, but neither had a big, loose, symphonic bass drum, robust contrabass section, or dramatic brass and heavy-stage-depth recitative voice entrances; so the one we overwhelmingly played and the best or at least most impressive-sounding of the lot was selections from Bizet’s Carmen. (I think we also had “rear channels” via an early AudioPulse driving a pair of AR LSTs at near-subliminal level, although that might have been at the preamp’s sophomore appearance in Vegas six months later. Hey, it was a long time ago.) This playback was a stone knockout: I can still remember the richly echoed voice of Don José calling, “Allons-y! Depechez-vous!” followed by the off-stage trumpet-call and then the full orchestra entering with Carmen’s theme.

It was goose-bumping stuff, and visitor after visitor, including recognizable names from every facet of the “audiophile community,” among them big-name retailers, fellow-manufacturers, and well-known journalists, told us that ours was the best-sounding demo at the show. We thanked them humbly and emphasized the virtues of our preamp: We were launched.

Boy, that was one great-sounding preamp! I believe Apt ultimately sold about 10,000 units, which has to be up there in all-time numbers for any American preamplifier -- and that initial demo deserves much of the credit. Was it the preamp? The speakers? The amplifiers? The cables?

Of course not; it was those tapes. Virtually every other demo at the show from Mark Levinson on down was playing records. Our source material, however, had not been derived from a second-generation EQ master, copied to a cutting master, transferred to a metal master, printed to a stamper, and finally pressed into a blob of vinyl. And the differences were dramatic: dynamic range, extension at both ends, and noise and distortion performance were all vastly superior, and the resultant sound was one that most listeners, including more than one experienced audio buff, had never heard.

Yes, those were the days, but I’m not sure you could reproduce that sort of revelatory impact today. The best hi-rez downloads are orders of magnitude closer, not because they’re “high resolution” -- insofar as some at least actually are -- but because the generations of replication and EQ involved in mass production, even CD mass production, have presumably been skipped. So the ability to approach studio control-room playback, at least in terms of source quality, is now available to all and sundry for $9.98 and up.

That’s progress, to be sure. But I confess that I kind of miss the magic and mystery.

WMAMAN's picture

I remember using and old Sony Reel-to-Real (with Tubes) to make binaural recordings and marveled at how much better it sounded when I switched from 3.75 to 7.5 ips. I loved that thing until Dolby-C came out. Then the CD... MusicCraft, Playback and Radio Shack got a lot of money out of me back then.

I too used to go to CES. I owned a speaker-building company back then and went to about 1/2 dozen shows at McCormick Place/ The high-end stuff was always offsite at the Hilton and such...

Thanks for taking me back. There were a LOT of high-end audio stores in Chicago back then and I remember the Apt. I took the leap from a PS-Audio Elite+ to a Sony TAE-1000ESD (or whatever it was called) for the surround sound. Had to buy a three-channel Adcom to drive everything.

Thanks again

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