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A Kiss and a Carrot

By Herbert Reichert, Audio Note NYC

I have been most unsilently engaged, for over ten years, in discovering the importance of "the first watt". If I had done this in a safely clever fashion I would be considered a scientist. If I had pursued a safely dangerous path, I would be considered a revolutionary. As I have no real qualifications in either of those areas I chose to study the design of audio amplifiers under the guise of religion or mysticism or art. I hoped, perhaps foolishly, that new engineering precepts, guided by insights from other disciplines, might in time achieve a new pleasure for the audio enthusiast.

Please don't laugh, but I really did study the design of audio amplifiers to learn for myself how science, art and religion might, in concert, allow me to grasp the Laws of Nature. If I could design an audio amplifier that would slip, almost unnoticed, into the continuous electromagnetic-slipstream of a music signal, then I might be able to finally grasp how I and my hopelessly bohemian soul fit into a universe of sidewalks, bums, criminals and planetary motion.

I will never understand the "raw engineering" of audio as well as my brother J.C. Morrison. I will never be a scientist or inventor at the level of Dick Sequerra or John Iversen. However, something inside me says clearly that I empathize with the creative impulse that informs the work of artists like Cezanne and Beethoven. This, I believe makes me and my ilk something of the "missing link" in the audio design equation.

Issues of power and sound quality should be handled with no less measure of human soul than Christ or Kafka or Elvis. We would not even be discussing the contrasts of low and high power performance if the spectre of a high end revolution in the guise of single-ended triodes had not begun to pinch the economic fat of the "high power - low speaker efficiency" midsection. Well? Seven watt amps are here and horn loudspeakers are casting their shadow across the horizon, and everyone wants to know, "How is it possible that these things can be as good as their zealots say they are?"

The answer is simple: energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form, be diverted or ignored. The first real question I asked myself when I began to try to picture the audio amp-speaker interface is, Where does all that extra frequency dependent energy, all the stuff that is lost while trying to pump some music out of the speakers, really go? Does it just vaporize? Does it become invisible? If I "roll-off " an amplifier, where do all the lost frequencies go? J.C. says that where they go and what they are doing while they are gone, is the most important thing to consider when designing audio components. I believe him.

They say some energy turns to heat and some is reflected or stored but they always forget to mention, which part of the energy is lost in these strange places? Does the "inefficient" part of Nature steal equally from all parts of the power and frequency spectrum? I don't think so! So what does this do to the scale and proportion of the music?

We all know that Nature does not hide its stolen energy very well. The booty keeps popping up in really nasty places, putting a gun to our heads and taking all the fun out of our artistic adventure. Every engineer worth his solder tries to make the stolen energy go away and stay away, but the reality is; we have not been very effective telling Nature what to do with the energy we have lost or tried to hide. The single-ended triode amplifier and the very high efficiency speaker both directly address the problem of taming forfeited energy. They simply use more of this energy and hide less.

My feeling is, let us cooperate with Nature and see if we can negotiate a "win-win" solution. Nature says, "be kind, gentle and compassionate, treat the music signal and all of its energy field as if it were a precious bird."

This kind of talk just pisses the audio designer off. Don't Grandpa Nature and Father Time know that building amps and speakers that retain the dynamism and excitement of the original musical event is like trying to build a mountain out of water and sand?

I say, audio should set more modest goals. Please Nature, make the amp designers stop with the "universal amp" concept. For the last thirty years, speaker designers have been making big, shamefully inefficient loudspeakers with pathological impedance curves, all along, assuming the amp designers were designing amps that were universal. The speaker designers were sure that somewhere, somebody was designing an amp that would drive their speaker to play beautiful music. This definitely suggests that maybe the speaker engineers couldn't afford a great amp and were not really listening to what they were making. They also read the ads for high power amplifiers which claim that they can, "drive any load - even an arc welder". When I see this shit, I want to reach for my Browning automatic.

This is like me saying I have designed a new automobile engine that will work perfect in any car. Every auto engine makes torque (twisting power) and horsepower (pulling power) that can be described by a curve plotted on a Cartesian graph. These curves are not dissimilar to those we may plot for the voltage or current output of an audio amplifier. Big, heavy Cadillacs need engines with long strokes (for torque) to get them up the hills. But this torque must fall at low RPMs because the car also needs to cruise efficiently at highway speeds. The torque curve (torque plotted against RPMs) for a luxury car has a very high peek at low engine speeds. In this same luxury auto, the horsepower curve is almost as high and peaks, ideally, just above the torque curve. This combination lets the old Cadillacs pull, cruise and pass with style.

The above big car weighs over two tons. If I put an Indy race car engine, with about the same horsepower, but at much higher RPM, in the Cadillac I would be screaming along but going nowhere very slowly...until I quickly ran out of gas or broke the crankshaft!

Despite the fact that nearly all loudspeakers are designed using the same "cookbook" principles, every one of them seems to require an engine with a very specific set of torque and horsepower curves. Obviously no single amplifier will "pull" or "drive" every speaker. If you, the home music listener, have found a pair of handsome loudspeakers that you and your family are happy to live with, then God speed in your search for an amplifier that will drive them to some level of charm and listenability because all the "big gun" amp designers are gonna tell you that their amp can drive anything! That is, except for the guys that make puny little triode amps that will not pull the Cadillac and the Airstream trailer up the mountain.

The new wave triode designers say, "let's make horses for courses!" If we don't try to make a universal amp that drives all speakers equally poorly maybe, we can make a genteel, modest amp that is really exceptional at powering efficient speakers with benign impedance characteristics. Maybe if we don't try to ignore the laws of Nature and pretend we can throw away the first hundred watts just "kick starting" the system and then hope that the next hundred watts is of good enough quality to drive the current and voltage hungry, "audiophile approved" panel speakers to their 300 watt power handling we can raise the existing quality of reproduction to a higher level.

You see, the various amp-speaker combinations we have been choosing do not reproduce music with equal quality at every power/loudness level. I am sure you have all noticed how unsatisfying most audio systems sound at very low and very high listening levels. Most have a 3 - 6 dB range of quality listening and typically this falls above fifty watts average program. A recorded symphony has a dynamic range of 24 - 36 dB. Is it a wonder that few people can find a satisfying symphonic recording?

The William Blake, "Dark Lantern" school of single-digit wattage believes that a speaker with low energy loss and a smooth, resistive impedance curve will not only let the designer design a better amp but will give you a broader dynamic range of quality reproduction. This same school believes that a hundred watts to "prime the pump" is ludicrous. I personally have never heard a hundred plus watts that I could live with, and Mother Nature knows; a million guys have tried to design a hundred watter that will satisfy everybody.

I believe that insanity is repeating the same experiment and expecting a different result. I believe that the best amps and speakers I had used before 1986 were vintage tube, low power and efficient. I have become certain that to move the sonic goalpost forward and make amplifiers and loudspeakers that provide ever greater levels of satisfaction one must continue to expand on the successes of the past, not the failures. This means designing ever more specific (and efficient) amp-speaker-cable systems.

As we design an amplifier we create each stage with very efficient source-load relationships. Why not apply this simple strategy to the amp-speaker interface? The most sensitive speakers today let five, quality triode watts, which are relatively easy to make, play with greater dynamic range than five hundred conventional watts into speakers of modest to low efficiency. Big is not beautiful. Big and ugly is not awe inspiring and I still want to know what the first hundred lousy sounding watts are doing besides hitting the mule in the head? We cannot travel to the promised land on a dead mule and if we don't stop beating the critter, that's what we will have. Instead, let's give him a kiss and a carrot and get moving.

A Kiss and a Carrot

By Herbert Reichert, Audio Note NYC

I have been most unsilently engaged, for over ten years, in discovering the importance of "the first watt". If I had done this in a safely clever fashion I would be considered a scientist. If I had pursued a safely dangerous path, I would be considered a revolutionary. As I have no real qualifications in either of those areas I chose to study the design of audio amplifiers under the guise of religion or mysticism or art. I hoped, perhaps foolishly, that new engineering precepts, guided by insights from other disciplines, might in time achieve a new pleasure for the audio enthusiast.

Please don't laugh, but I really did study the design of audio amplifiers to learn for myself how science, art and religion might, in concert, allow me to grasp the Laws of Nature. If I could design an audio amplifier that would slip, almost unnoticed, into the continuous electromagnetic-slipstream of a music signal, then I might be able to finally grasp how I and my hopelessly bohemian soul fit into a universe of sidewalks, bums, criminals and planetary motion.

I will never understand the "raw engineering" of audio as well as my brother J.C. Morrison. I will never be a scientist or inventor at the level of Dick Sequerra or John Iversen. However, something inside me says clearly that I empathize with the creative impulse that informs the work of artists like Cezanne and Beethoven. This, I believe makes me and my ilk something of the "missing link" in the audio design equation.

Issues of power and sound quality should be handled with no less measure of human soul than Christ or Kafka or Elvis. We would not even be discussing the contrasts of low and high power performance if the spectre of a high end revolution in the guise of single-ended triodes had not begun to pinch the economic fat of the "high power - low speaker efficiency" midsection. Well? Seven watt amps are here and horn loudspeakers are casting their shadow across the horizon, and everyone wants to know, "How is it possible that these things can be as good as their zealots say they are?"

The answer is simple: energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form, be diverted or ignored. The first real question I asked myself when I began to try to picture the audio amp-speaker interface is, Where does all that extra frequency dependent energy, all the stuff that is lost while trying to pump some music out of the speakers, really go? Does it just vaporize? Does it become invisible? If I "roll-off " an amplifier, where do all the lost frequencies go? J.C. says that where they go and what they are doing while they are gone, is the most important thing to consider when designing audio components. I believe him.

They say some energy turns to heat and some is reflected or stored but they always forget to mention, which part of the energy is lost in these strange places? Does the "inefficient" part of Nature steal equally from all parts of the power and frequency spectrum? I don't think so! So what does this do to the scale and proportion of the music?

We all know that Nature does not hide its stolen energy very well. The booty keeps popping up in really nasty places, putting a gun to our heads and taking all the fun out of our artistic adventure. Every engineer worth his solder tries to make the stolen energy go away and stay away, but the reality is; we have not been very effective telling Nature what to do with the energy we have lost or tried to hide. The single-ended triode amplifier and the very high efficiency speaker both directly address the problem of taming forfeited energy. They simply use more of this energy and hide less.

My feeling is, let us cooperate with Nature and see if we can negotiate a "win-win" solution. Nature says, "be kind, gentle and compassionate, treat the music signal and all of its energy field as if it were a precious bird."

This kind of talk just pisses the audio designer off. Don't Grandpa Nature and Father Time know that building amps and speakers that retain the dynamism and excitement of the original musical event is like trying to build a mountain out of water and sand?

I say, audio should set more modest goals. Please Nature, make the amp designers stop with the "universal amp" concept. For the last thirty years, speaker designers have been making big, shamefully inefficient loudspeakers with pathological impedance curves, all along, assuming the amp designers were designing amps that were universal. The speaker designers were sure that somewhere, somebody was designing an amp that would drive their speaker to play beautiful music. This definitely suggests that maybe the speaker engineers couldn't afford a great amp and were not really listening to what they were making. They also read the ads for high power amplifiers which claim that they can, "drive any load - even an arc welder". When I see this shit, I want to reach for my Browning automatic.

This is like me saying I have designed a new automobile engine that will work perfect in any car. Every auto engine makes torque (twisting power) and horsepower (pulling power) that can be described by a curve plotted on a Cartesian graph. These curves are not dissimilar to those we may plot for the voltage or current output of an audio amplifier. Big, heavy Cadillacs need engines with long strokes (for torque) to get them up the hills. But this torque must fall at low RPMs because the car also needs to cruise efficiently at highway speeds. The torque curve (torque plotted against RPMs) for a luxury car has a very high peek at low engine speeds. In this same luxury auto, the horsepower curve is almost as high and peaks, ideally, just above the torque curve. This combination lets the old Cadillacs pull, cruise and pass with style.

The above big car weighs over two tons. If I put an Indy race car engine, with about the same horsepower, but at much higher RPM, in the Cadillac I would be screaming along but going nowhere very slowly...until I quickly ran out of gas or broke the crankshaft!

Despite the fact that nearly all loudspeakers are designed using the same "cookbook" principles, every one of them seems to require an engine with a very specific set of torque and horsepower curves. Obviously no single amplifier will "pull" or "drive" every speaker. If you, the home music listener, have found a pair of handsome loudspeakers that you and your family are happy to live with, then God speed in your search for an amplifier that will drive them to some level of charm and listenability because all the "big gun" amp designers are gonna tell you that their amp can drive anything! That is, except for the guys that make puny little triode amps that will not pull the Cadillac and the Airstream trailer up the mountain.

The new wave triode designers say, "let's make horses for courses!" If we don't try to make a universal amp that drives all speakers equally poorly maybe, we can make a genteel, modest amp that is really exceptional at powering efficient speakers with benign impedance characteristics. Maybe if we don't try to ignore the laws of Nature and pretend we can throw away the first hundred watts just "kick starting" the system and then hope that the next hundred watts is of good enough quality to drive the current and voltage hungry, "audiophile approved" panel speakers to their 300 watt power handling we can raise the existing quality of reproduction to a higher level.

You see, the various amp-speaker combinations we have been choosing do not reproduce music with equal quality at every power/loudness level. I am sure you have all noticed how unsatisfying most audio systems sound at very low and very high listening levels. Most have a 3 - 6 dB range of quality listening and typically this falls above fifty watts average program. A recorded symphony has a dynamic range of 24 - 36 dB. Is it a wonder that few people can find a satisfying symphonic recording?

The William Blake, "Dark Lantern" school of single-digit wattage believes that a speaker with low energy loss and a smooth, resistive impedance curve will not only let the designer design a better amp but will give you a broader dynamic range of quality reproduction. This same school believes that a hundred watts to "prime the pump" is ludicrous. I personally have never heard a hundred plus watts that I could live with, and Mother Nature knows; a million guys have tried to design a hundred watter that will satisfy everybody.

I believe that insanity is repeating the same experiment and expecting a different result. I believe that the best amps and speakers I had used before 1986 were vintage tube, low power and efficient. I have become certain that to move the sonic goalpost forward and make amplifiers and loudspeakers that provide ever greater levels of satisfaction one must continue to expand on the successes of the past, not the failures. This means designing ever more specific (and efficient) amp-speaker-cable systems.

As we design an amplifier we create each stage with very efficient source-load relationships. Why not apply this simple strategy to the amp-speaker interface? The most sensitive speakers today let five, quality triode watts, which are relatively easy to make, play with greater dynamic range than five hundred conventional watts into speakers of modest to low efficiency. Big is not beautiful. Big and ugly is not awe inspiring and I still want to know what the first hundred lousy sounding watts are doing besides hitting the mule in the head? We cannot travel to the promised land on a dead mule and if we don't stop beating the critter, that's what we will have. Instead, let's give him a kiss and a carrot and get moving.

Herbert E. Reichert