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Superseded during the 1990s owing to the increasing popularity of vintage low-powered tube amps and very sensitive loudspeakers, is the Flat Earth ideology a vital part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


Ariel said...

I have an uncle who was sold into this "Flat Earth" hi-fi ideology back in the 1980s. More or less I've inherited "most" of his audio gear given that he now seldom uses it after being hired as a session guitarist for an Internet-based advertising firm.
His primary music collection circles around Kraftwerk's "Die Mensch-Maschine" a German pressing of Kraftwerk's Man-Machine album. Magnitudes better than the vinyl versions sporting English-language cover notes. And post-punk ancients Killing Joke. Rhythmically, the system - Roksan Xerxes, Naim NAIT 3, and the original Linn Kans - is spot on, but still lacks the musical soul manifested by 1990s era single ended triode tube / valve amps with appropriate matching speaker combo.
P.S. Is there a "The Flat Response" hi-fi magazine fanbase that you know of?

VaneSSa said...

Didn't Thomas Dolby say on the iconic song Flat Earth that "The Earth can be any shape you want it"? Has the now-defunct hi-fi periodical called The Flat Response ever set up a "nostalgia" website for those of us too young to experience the Flat Earth hi-fi ideology first hand?
The Flat Earth hi-fi ideology did spurn up iconic rhythm-oriented audio set-ups during the 1980s. Like Linn, Naim, and Exposure topping the lists.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit a very sympathetic hi-fi dealer in Hong Kong where the shopkeeper allowed me to test my The Gathering's How to Measure a Planet? album on his almost broken in all Naim audio system. Unfortunately, I wasn't impressed by this all Naim set-up because it made The Gathering's drums sound like they were made entirely of polypropylene plastic - like the entry-level Naim Credo speaker's cone material. Especially on the track Great Ocean Road. Looks like the extent of greatness of an all Naim set up is the way it plays rhythms. They are utterly lacking in the timbral accuracy department when it comes to playing recorded musical instruments - especially animal-skin snare drums.

Mark said...

I do agree, somebody should set up a The Flat Response memorial website. Does it violate copyright laws to published defunct articles?

Je M'Apelle Ja'Nelle said...

Speaking of The Gathering's Great Ocean Road, I was also fortunate to test this track on one of my hi-fi acquaintances entry-level (but too expensive for me) all Naim rig. The entry-level Naim (Credo?) loudspeakers tend to make the drums on the Great Ocean Road sound as if they are made of polypropylene ice cream containers - as opposed to real drums. Which made me forget that this particular The Gathering track from their How To Measure A Planet? album has such a gorgeous guitar solo at the end of the song.
Please check out my blog at http://stereo-asylum.blogspot.com

VaneSSa said...

Dear Ja'Nelle,
I do agree that given the very gorgeous guitar solo during the outro of Great Ocean Road - the didgeridoo sounding guitar - becomes lost when the drums are not timbrally reproduced properly like in entry-level Naim rigs.

Kaitlyn said...

Famed audio equipment / hi-fi reviewer Malcolm Steward used to contribute to The Flat Response back in the early 1980s. Steward also contributed to Hi-Fi World and other famous British Hi-fi magazines.

Angel said...

I think entry-level Naim systems are geared towards pace, rhythm, and timig - typical British Sound features - at the expense of timbral accuracy as evident in THe Gathering's Great Ocean Road from their How To Measure A Planet? 2-CD album of 1998.

Timur said...

In hi-fi nowadays, nobody seems to use the term flat earth anymore. From my experience, turntables that gained respect from Flat Earth hi-fi advocates usually doesn't need tone controls / equalizers to sound good.