Manufactured during the mid 1980s supposedly as a means to “transcend” the limitations of hi-fi speakers at that time, does the BBE Sonic Maximizer qualifies back then – and now – as hi-fi?
By: Ringo Bones
Now (as in 2009) derided by hardcore audiophiles and “soulful” electric guitar players, I did remember during my high-school days – i.e. the mid 1980s – that a black box with the letters BBE was both revered and coveted in domestic hi-fi circles in my neck of the woods. To the uninitiated – and those who have already forgotten – here’s a refresher of that used to be wonderful black-box known as the BBE Sonic Maximizer.
The letters BBE stands for Barcus-Berry Entertainment Incorporated – later called BBE Sound Inc. when they’re “iconic” black-box / audio processor that became widely used and endorsed by Heavy Metal musicians during the “Hair Metal” era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The company is located at Huntington Beach, California. Around the middle of the 1980s, BBE Sonic Maximizers began to be widely used for audio recording, motion picture sound tracks, TV and radio broadcasting, and motion picture theatre sound systems. According to the audio processor’s creators, BBE Sonic Maximizers were primarily designed to improve the sonic clarity of virtually any reproduced sound by correcting / compensating for phase and amplitude distortions produced as your typical power amplifier drives a typical loudspeaker system.
My first hand experience of this device was back in 1987 when a rich high-school classmate with similar musical tastes as me got one from his dad while working in the US. It was the Barcus-Berry BBE Model 2002 signal processor, which sold around 500 US dollars at the time. The BBE signal processor was meant to be installed between the signal source(s) – we only had a cassette tape deck and a Technics Quartz Synth tuner at the time – and the power amplifier.
Though my memories of that particular BBE Sonic Maximizer was now somewhat hazy, I can still vividly remember that we often played a track called Digital Bitch by W.A.S.P. (We Are Sexual Perverts?) at the time - Unforgettable because Chris Holmes, Blackie Lawless and the rest of the band probably foresaw the rise of Paris Hilton and her famous antics on the Internet. And as one of the few Heavy Metal bands who gained a strong following in the Punk community – my high-school classmate was actually into Punk / New Wave at the time – W.A.S.P. gained fame (or is it notoriety?) in both camps. Rumor has it that W.A.S.P. were “discovered” by Ed McMahon during the first season of Star Search.
From my present perspective – being my present hi-fi set-up is composed mainly of Electro-Harmonix vacuum tube-equipped and high-speed wide-band solid state exotica. All I can say is that the BBE Sonic Maximizer is nothing more than a “lazy-EQ”. I mean it is just an adjustable Loudness controller on steroids – though I am not denying that it is not useful. Given that at the time, we can rarely crank up our hi-fi sets to “unamplified / no PA system” garage band sound levels. Those rare occations when we can play as loud as possible during my high-school days is usually reserved for band practice.
When you can only play your hi-fi below the actual sound pressure level the music was originally recorded, Loudness and other EQ / tone controls to compensate the Fletcher-Munson Equal Loudness Contour Curves inherent to how our ears perceive airborne sound. To my ears – back then as it is now (2009) – BBE Sonic Maximizers boosts the bass and treble frequencies of the audio signal, depending on how much it’s “process” knob is being cranked.
First impressions on using the BBE Sonic Maximizer usually results in “clarity” – i.e. the boosting of the high-frequency signals usually around 2-KHz to 3-KHz upwards. And this is why many novice hi-fi enthusiasts during the early 1990s who can only afford mass market mini component boom boxes to listen to their copies of Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana became concerned over “tweeter failure”. Especially when the tweeters of their BBE-equipped boom boxes (which became commonly widespread around 1992) heats up when playing the iconic “Seattle Grunge” album that features very distorted electric guitar sound with boosted high-frequencies.
Due to its endorsement and use by top musicians, like Megadeth and Skid Row – guitarists Dave “The Snake” Sabo and Scotti Hill were known to use one - during the early 1990s. The folks at BBE Sound Inc. created a BBE Sonic Maximizer plug-in for PC-based recording, which started to gain popularity during the late 1990s. For domestic hi-fi use, the BBE Sonic Maximizer works very well with budget cassette tape decks that don’t carry the Nakamichi badge to make them sound more “natural”. BBE Sonic Maximizers also works very well to "improve" (...or is that to flatter?) the “sound quality” of FM stations that are seriously addicted to those OPTIMOD compressors. And data reduced digital music downloads like MP3s. But if it is up to me, I would rather use the vacuum tube-based Pultec Model EQP-1R studio equalizer. This vintage studio equalizer - probably dating back to The Beatles era Abbey Road Studios - has 12RX7 and 12RU7 preamplifier vacuum tubes that can put to shame the BBE in sound quality terms.
Unfortunately, BBE Sonic Maximizers are an anathema to vacuum tube hi-fi aficionados and “soulful” electric guitar players because they tend to make their gear sound like cheap solid state. Like a brand new 10,000-watt audio power amplifier with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of 200 US dollars. Surprisingly, BBE Sonic Maximizers can often be found in pawnshops or other establishments that sell pre-owned music gear somewhere between 50 to 100 US dollars. So it is somewhat a cost-effective way for the curious and uninitiated to experiment – or experience first-hand - what this BBE audio processing brouhaha is all about.