Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Flat Earth Ideology

Superseded during the 1990s owing to the increasing popularity of vintage low-powered tube amps and very sensitive loudspeakers, is the Flat Earth ideology a vital part of audiophile history?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in the middle of the 1980s, a prominent audiophile sect staunchly believes that the only boxes – i.e. loudspeakers – to have at the end of a righteous audio system should have the word "Linn" written at the back. This somewhat “extremist” hi-fi ideology was aided by enthusiastic hi-fi dealers of the period who are also audiophiles. Not to mention a certain since-defunct periodical / hi-fi magazine called The Flat Response. Thus allowing the hi-fi maker Linn to harbor the ideology that the first priority of a loudspeaker should be the way it played rhythms and the current long-standing global audiophile community’s perception of what is the British Sound was born. Though a Thomas Dolby song from the period titled “Flat Earth” is often played through these systems, reinforcing the need of spot-on rhythm and timing when playing eighties-era synthesizer-based music, but countless others probably use theirs to unravel the rhythmic complexity of Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast album.

The most uncompromising embodiment of this hi-fi ideology was the Kan, a tiny box manufactured by Linn. Equipped with treble and mid drivers similar to that used in Linn’s flagship brand the behemoth-sized Isobarik loudspeakers. Back around the middle of the 1980s, the Linn Kans was capable very captivating performance. These loudspeakers sounded extremely fast and extremely tight, with an “uncanny” ability to disappear into their own soundstage. Linn’s bigger – and more efficient – loudspeaker models never convincingly displayed the ability of the smaller Kan’s hi-fi slight-of-hand.

The Kan also has a profoundly fussy approach to matching ancillary components, ironically the little speaker’s “soul-mate” is an equally fussy solid-state power amplifier made by Naim called the NAIT that produced only 30 watts into an eight-ohm load. But during that era in the 1980s, the little Kan – if you wanted more than a squeak from these relatively inefficient speakers - was often paired up to a large muscular solid-state full complementary direct coupled amplifier with a power output of around 80 to 100 watts into an eight-ohm load. The hi-fi community’s renewed obsession with flea-powered tube / valve amps and Maytag washing machine-sized horn loudspeakers were still a decade away.

On the front-end side of things, Flat Earth systems didn’t like inferior source components. CD players circa 1983 was excruciatingly painful-sounding when played through the Kans, plus the early CD’s still suboptimally designed output filters produced so much rhythmic and timing anomalies that it negates the idea of having a Flat Earth system in the first place. Meaning in those days, it was Linn’s pre-braced plinth Valhalla LP12 with LVX+ and Basik cartridge, a Roksan Xerxes, or nothing.

The “dark side” of the Flat Earth ideology is that it made every audiophile – especially in merry old England – harbor the belief that tube / valve amps (especially low-powered ones) from the Golden Age of Stereo were deemed obsolete during the go-go eighties. The Flat Response hi-fi magazine didn’t helped matters either because reviewers of the Flat Earth disposition showed scant knowledge and interest when it comes to the science – and art – of loudspeaker matching. Using quintessentially 1980s era hard to drive loudspeakers with which most tube amplifiers played through them had to struggle. Maybe it was the sound of Leak Stereo 20s wheezing and groaning under the load of a pair of Linn Saras that many Flat Earth-leaning audiophiles conclude that tube amplifiers are now – in the mid 1980s – obsolete. Thus benefiting hordes of East Asian vintage audio enthusiasts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vintage Audio Gear: More Hype Than Hi-Fi?

Given that the laws of progress dictates that the latest technology is surely better than yesterday’s, are some audiophile’s obsession with old / vintage audio gear beyond common sense?

By: Ringo Bones

Since the 1970s, people who buy aggressively marketed 500 dollar audio gear then listen to them with 10,000 dollar audio analyzers had been ridiculing us audiophiles who buy reasonably-priced audio gear of several years vintage then listen to it with our own two ears. Sadly, this vulgar act of “bullying” resulted in a minor – albeit tragic – disaster of vintage audio gear being diverted into the Far Eastern markets. This “disaster” affected mostly American and West European audiophiles and it took twenty years – more or less – to mitigate.

It is safe to point the blame at mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers who probably discovered during the 1970s that audio gear that measures perfectly on the test bench is far cheaper to manufacture than a really good sounding one that measures slightly worse. Thus, the mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers began aggressively marketing their latest audio gear – especially audio amplifiers – based on specs like total harmonic distortion, power output, etc. instead of ultimate sound quality and / or musicality.

During the 1980s vintage audio gear – especially vacuum tube-based audio amplifiers – began to skyrocket in price, especially in America where vintage audio gear manufactured during the Golden Age of Stereo began to appear in garage sales and weekend swap meets. It is not just trusty tube-based receivers, like the venerable Fisher 500-C that gained sacred cow status. Not to mention McIntosh tube-based audio gear. Even vacuum tubes, especially new old stock (NOS) versions of 12AX7 pre-amp tubes, Western Electric 300B tubes, KT-66, KT-88, EL-34 output tubes. And even the 7591A output tubes used in the Fisher 500-C receiver began to skyrocket in price soon after because American electronic manufacturers find that it is not economically viable - during the Reagan Administration - to manufacture vacuum tubes in quantities that would only cater audiophiles and electric guitar players. Exotic capacitors, like Sprague Vitamin Q paper-in-oil capacitors, also followed suit into cult status. Add to that the inherent unreliability of tubes manufactured in t People's Republic of China during the 1980s when compared to NOS American types - thus producing the Perfect Storm of "criminal pricing" of vintage audio gear from the Golden Age of Stereo.

Sadly, your typical Far Eastern vintage audio enthusiast had been busy swallowing up these under-appreciated aspects of Americana – if you’re willing to believe the hype in the hi-fi press anyway. Not just American-made vintage audio gear, even tube-based ham radios and electronic test equipment had already become hot collector items in Japan and other affluent parts of the Orient. Maybe there are plans in Japan for a musical based on the movie Frequency. You know, that move where James Caviezel’s character managed to contact his father played by Dennis Quaid using a tube-based ham radio 30 years in the past due to a freak solar storm.

But in reality, not everyone in Japan is a vintage audio enthusiast. Only those who have the time, money, and living space to indulge – and enjoy – choose vintage audio gear as their hobby. Because a typical pre-global credit crunch salaried employee in Japan who earns a middling income usually lives in a cramped 425 square-foot apartment. Thus very unlikely to invest – and indulge – in a vintage stereo system that costs more that a third of his annual salary and takes up most – if not all – of the space in his living quarters. So PX25 tube amps and 1950s-era Tannoy horn loaded speakers are out of the question.

The good news is that from a financial perspective, indulgence in vintage audio gear is no longer comparable in cost to a two-week working vacation in the International Space Station like it did during the 1980s – it is much, much cheaper now. Not to mention the availability of solid-state amps that sound just as good as tube-based amps since the mid 1990s – well, good enough if you consider the retail price anyway. But the primary reason why vintage audio gear had become a way less expensive hobby during the 21st Century is that some well-meaning folks and manufacturing firms have restarted making vintage audio gear and their associated parts – not to mention better-sounding audiophile-grade compatible replacement equivalent parts – at very reasonable prices. Like the Electro-Harmonix version of the 7591A output tubes by Sovtek of Russia so that everyone can restore their Fisher 500-C receiver without having to spend family car prices.

Looks like 2009 is going to be a very good time for the vintage audio enthusiasts. Unless some speculative swine starts to create hype over discontinued and rare solid-state components, like the AN214 IC amplifier, or the XR2206 Monolithic Function Generator IC and its related kit. And the bad news is that it has already begun because since 2001, the AN214 IC – if you can still manage to find one – was being sold at prices above what a Telefunken 12AX7 pre-amp tube used to sell. Maybe you should hold on to that Sansui AU-a707DR integrated amplifier before selling it to this Sunday’s garage sale.