Tech Talk

TechTalk: Quality, No Matter Where It Is

I remember the first audiophile playback system I ever heard. It was in a high-end Los Angeles home in the ’70s, long before I was a recording engineer. I could tell I was hearing something special 8/01/2011 5:00 AM

I remember the first audiophile playback system I ever heard. It was in a high-end Los Angeles home in the ’70s, long before I was a recording engineer. I could tell I was hearing something special: A great system transcends simple physics and engages the listener on a visceral level. Since then, whenever I’ve heard other such systems, that feeling returns. It’s like a familiar taste in a great meal or a spectacular wine—you may not know exactly what flavors are spiraling your senses to new heights; you just love it.

Listening to great audio made me want to know more about what made it sound that way. Luckily, I was surrounded by knowledgeable friends who were recording engineers and studio owners so I could start figuring things out. Right away I learned it was about money. High-end cable, speakers not often found in studios, preamps, amps, and then the “extra” things that improve your sound, some of it feeling a bit snake-oily. The Tice Clock for example: A stock, price-inflated Radio Shack alarm clock imbued with a proprietary blessing that aligned your electrons by simply plugging it into a wall socket on the same circuit as your gear. What it lacked in science it made up for in entertainment value.

Once I started working in studios in the ’80s, I forgot about high-priced audiophile gear because I was surrounded by excellent “pro” gear used by top engineers: mastering engineer Doug Sax’s crossover added to Tannoy Gold speakers; George Duke’s digital love affair (he recorded to a 32-track Mitsubishi machine with Apogee converters and mixed down to a Mitsubishi X-80); George Massenburg’s 8900 Dynamic Range Controller; and Eduardo Fayad’s custom preamp. There was the Tice equivalent: toilet tissue over your NS-10 tweeters. (It really works, but it has to be Charmin.)

Later, when I started writing, I was invited to some press events showcasing super-high-end gear. SSL installed a custom 9096 J Series console at the Todd-AO Radford Stages in L.A. And I spent the night at Skywalker Ranch to write about its new Neve 88R console. But most interestingly, it was here that I also started seeing more audiophile gear: Scoring stages and mastering houses seemed to embrace the audiophile model more readily than most studios. Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus speakers, Pacific Microsonics HDCD converters, Chord amps, MIT cables and more were commonplace among the high-end brands found in some of these studios.

Which brings us back to the present, where the distance between pro and audiophile gear is closer than ever. I’ve been talking to Essential Sound Products’ Michael Griffin, a former GM engineer who is passionate about clean AC power. He manufactures the MusicCord Power Chord that boasts improved audio quality, backed up with science. Benchmark Media makes a 2-channel converter—the DAC-1—that Stereophile editor John Atkinson calls “an audiophile bargain.” I own one, and he’s right. Black Lion Audio offers impressive upgrades of Avid/Digidesign, MOTU and Alesis desktop I/O boxes. The upgrades are scalable and affordable. Focal’s CMS line of speakers see benefits that trickle down from the company’s higher-end products. And now you can buy or create a console in a modular fashion. Millennia, Shadow Hills, Grace Design, Inward Connections, SSL and API, among many others, have products aimed at high-end desktop production in 500 Series or rackmount formats.

It’s gear like this that is drawing pro audio and audiophiles closer together. I was recently watching a cooking show and they were talking about the state of food now and in the past. One of the chefs said something that I believe applies to audio. To paraphrase: “Some of the worst meals you can get today are light years ahead of the best food you’d get 25 years ago.” It’s true, more people are eating out, there are more restaurants catering to more customers—to stay in business, the bar has been raised. In audio production, there are more potential customers, and while the prices have come down, the quality per dollar spent is getting better. If you had spent $600 on a mic or speaker in the ’70s or before, your options were limited. Now there are many options and some excellent choices at those price points. While the psychology of high pricing at the audiophile-end will never change, there are many passionate manufacturers trying to keep competitive, offering an excellent product that can make your audio sound better. It’s our job as audio lovers to find those products and dive in headfirst. Embracing audiophile gear in the studio setting is putting yourself hot on the trail of quality—and that doesn’t suck.