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Hand-Cooked Audio

Remember the old-fashioned burger? Patty thick and slightly charred, dripping with juice and the whole hard-to-hold bundle bursting with flavor. There was artistry and human expression in that food, evidencing a concern for quality; it was obvious there was a talented human being in the kitchen-the wizard behind the curtain. But today, most of the billions of burgers consumed in this country are mass-produced by anonymous drones-glitzy burgers oozing with mediocrity and sameness.

What does this have to do with sound equipment? Well, analogous to the resurgence of chef-run restaurants featuring what many are calling “slow food,” the hi-fi world has, for the last 30 years or so, been increasingly populated by creative entrepreneurial designers cooking up some ground-breaking, mean-sounding, juicy equipment, bursting with subtle nuances and plenty of human expression.

Actually, the history of dynamic individuals breaking new ground in audio (corporate design driven by the marketing department is a fairly recent development) stretches back decades to include the likes of Avery Fisher, Paul Klipsch, Saul Marantz and Frank McIntosh, among other names that should still resonate among the equipment-savvy jazz listener.

But most credit the beginning of today’s modern high-end movement, at least in large part, to William Z. Johnson, whose Audio Research amplifiers and preamplifiers led the flock-then wandering through fields of cheap, reliable transistors-back to the trough of vacuum tubes in April of 1970 when he founded his then-revolutionary company in Minneapolis.

“I don’t want to offend anyone,” Johnson, now 75, says, “but transistors just don’t reproduce the dynamics of music very accurately. I always joke that there is a reason they are called semiconductors. The sound always reminds me of a good hi-fi system rather than a live event,” Johnson preaches. “On the other hand, vacuum tubes, when done right, can transport you to the concert hall.”

Johnson’s pedigree stretches back to the days when tubes were his only choice. He began building custom amps and mixing consoles in 1951 for his own company, Electronic Industries, which he ran until selling it in 1968. When the resulting merger went south, he bought back his patents and lab equipment, and in 1970 introduced his first product, the SP-1 preamplifier. Later that year, the SP-3 was unveiled and this preamp “put Audio Research on the map,” recounts Johnson. “It was reasonably affordable, $595 as I recall, and is now a much-sought after piece of equipment. Like everything we have ever produced, we still support the SP-3 and even offer a major upgrade to bring it into the 21st century.”

It was Johnson’s belief in the product and his dedication to his design, not to mention the sound of the equipment, that stirred the pot in those early days. “Whatever marketing was done by me. I threw an SP-3 into my Piper Comanche and flew around the country demonstrating it to dealers. I had them substitute the SP-3 into their best systems to hear the difference and that really worked. We sold several thousand units over the five years we produced the SP-3,” Johnson recalls. “From the beginning we have tried to build equipment that allows people to reproduce music more realistically and, thereby, enjoy it more.”

Gee, that seems to be a basic concept, but in the early 1970s, most folks wanted the modern convenience and reliability of solid state and most were convinced the sound was better, in part because the flashy bells and whistles of then-current receivers were hard to ignore. Johnson explains, “Our primary challenge to this day has been the lack of acceptance by a sufficient percentage of the market that vacuum tubes sound better and that they are worth the effort. The vast majority shuns tubes because they do, in fact, require some maintenance.”

Johnson still does most of the design work for the analog circuits-amps, preamps and the analog section of their acclaimed CD player-at his now middle-aged company that today produces about 1,500 units per year and employs 35 people. “I have good managers for the day-to-day running of the company, but I play the overseer’s role as any good CEO should. However, my primary role is in design. I still get great satisfaction when a letter comes in relating some customer’s increased enjoyment of music after buying one of our products.”

Most people stop working after such a productive life, but Johnson won’t quit. He remains dedicated to bettering the sound of his already exemplary components and creating new products when necessary-an innovative modular home theater amp is debuting this spring that will allow up to seven discrete channels.

Part of Johnson’s legacy might be that he started the modern high-end movement with his nascent one-man company in 1970, but even if he didn’t, the audio world would be a different place without him. “I cannot take credit for starting anything, but I’d certainly like to think that I’ve improved something,” Johnson summarizes. For jazz fans he advises, “Use your ears and forget the advertising hype.”

Though Audio Research did not start in a garage, many such designer-entrepreneur-driven companies have. And one of those, Vandersteen Audio, is a good example of a modest start-up that did everything right and has now grown into one of the longest-lived manufacturers in the boutique audio business.

“I started out building speakers for friends in my garage,” admits Richard Vandersteen, founder and still chief cook and bottle washer in his much-respected kingdom. “I was driving a truck for an oil company and took two weeks off to show a pair of speakers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in 1977. Well, people must have liked them because I signed up close to 20 dealers and sold something like 200 pairs during the show. I ran home, quit my job, rented a building and started making speakers. We have continued to grow slowly but steadily since then. From those early days with just three employees, we now have 23 working for us and we have turned out somewhere around 200,000 pairs of speakers.” Nowhere near the millions produced by corporate factories, but very respectable in the rarified world of so-called specialty audio. And Vandersteen still designs every nuance of his speakers, orders every part, transacts every sale. “Twenty-two of our employees are assemblers, the other, Jaclyn, works in the office, and I do everything else,” he confesses.

Far more than the elegantly controlled Mr. Johnson, Vandersteen wears his passion on his sleeve. He and his wife tirelessly make two trips across the country each year to visit, maintain and massage their dedicated dealer network.

“After 25 years I still love what I do,” enthuses Vandersteen. “My daily challenge is to do more for less, to give our customers more sound for less money. We carry this out in part by putting only about 16 percent of a speaker’s cost into cabinetry, where the industry average is closer to 60 or 70 percent. Instead of pretty furniture, we give our customers better drivers and crossovers, the parts that actually do the work.”

A self-acknowledged tinkerer, Vandersteen grew up in a rural Hanford, Calif., home where music his parents played was always in the air. “We didn’t even have a TV until I was 16 or 17,” he says. “I enjoyed puttering around with electronics and, after a stint in the Air Force where I received some training in electronics, I started a contracting company, but continued my experimentation with audio in my spare time.”

His experiments led to his realization that the ideal speaker would present an accurate representation of what the microphone captured at the recording session. Another straightforward idea, but few really get it right. Vandersteen calls this “preserving the waveform,” meaning preserving the characteristics and details of a sound wave that tell us what instrument is playing, what kind of voice is singing. Heeding the results of his research, he developed a unique design that puts the drivers into compact individual enclosures with curved edges instead of mounting them on a flat panel, or baffle, as are most conventional speakers. The various speakers and their enclosures are then staggered in their alignment, front-to-back, to ensure that highs, midrange and bass arrive at the listener simultaneously and coherently. All of these components are a bit strange to behold for those accustomed to standard speaker boxes, so Vandersteen cloaks them in a sonically transparent grille cloth that mimics more traditional rectangular paradigms.

Vandersteen elaborates, “We have eliminated the front baffle reflections, and the refractions in the midrange driver. In doing this we have arrived at a more open sound that is free of waveform-distorting reflections from the front of the box itself. The result is more accurate textures and dynamics from the music. The sound is more transparent and detailed because the listener is hearing something much closer to what the microphone heard. No ear/brain-confusing sound reflections to muddy things up.”

This was the basic thrust behind that unassuming speaker he hauled to Chicago back in 1977, the Model 2, that established his now successful operation, still based in Hanford, and still based on those early theories. Many of Vandersteen’s design ideas have been patented and most are to be found throughout his product line from the $795 Model 1C to the $10,900 Model Five. “All our speakers have similar characteristics; they just get more refined up the chain. I don’t know how to do it any other way,” he says. “I wonder, when a manufacturer produces 15 different speakers and they all sound different, which one of them is right, which one really replicates the recorded performance.”

For what it is worth, the current incarnation of Vandersteen’s initial design, the Model 2Ce Signature at $1,549, is a tremendous value, especially for jazz listeners. The sound is extremely faithful to the experience of live music, and really does exhibit an openness that contrasts markedly with the boxy sound we traditionally hear in showrooms and in our living rooms. The bass goes down to a solid, grounded 30Hz, which, for the money, is quite an accomplishment, while voices, piano and other hard-to-replicate instruments are true and lifelike. And highs are clean and believable, no tizzy cymbals here, just pure, clear, pings of wood on brass like in your favorite club.

Vandersteen says he strives for realism in musical playback, for getting these details correct so his customers can better relax with their music through an enhanced listening experience. “Music,” he concludes, “is better than Valium.”

Relax is not a word in the vocabulary of Joe Fratus, principal designer and majority owner of Art Audio, a small company indeed, even when compared to these other small companies. “I travel a lot so I can have a one-on-one relationship not just with our dealers, but particularly our customers. Really, I am not out there just to sell a product; I am out there to spread the philosophy we have developed at Art Audio,” he explains. And that philosophy, like Vandersteen’s, revolves around music. “We want to give the customer the ultimate in musicality,” Fratus insists, “and that’s what it’s all about-the music is the final product.”

Fratus learned about music and audio design as a kid from his opera-loving Italian-immigrant grandfather, who had mastered the art of hand winding electrical transformers in Providence, R.I. “He and a friend would, shall we say, appropriate any leftover silver and copper wire for their own projects. He always had a lot of tubes and projects going in his cellar when I was growing up and we would spend three or four nights a week together working on amplifiers as he taught me what he knew. He wanted to pass his skills on to someone and my father wasn’t really interested,” recounts Fratus.

As it turns out, the art of hand winding transformers is quickly disappearing and, as most thoughtful audio designers will tell you, the transformer is one of the pivotal elements in achieving truly good sound.

“We have a company in England that hand winds our transformers to our in-house specifications,” reveals Fratus. “These are our proprietary split-core transformers, and are one of the secrets to the extended highs and solid bass of our amplifiers, in contrast to much of the competition, which can often sound soft on top and woolly on the bottom.”

In fact, Art Audio was begun by an Englishman, Tom Willis, who Fratus met about 10 years ago when Willis unveiled the prototype for a new amp at a New York audio show. “It looked like absolute shit, but it sounded like the stuff my grandfather made,” Fratus says. “It was the transformer that impressed me the most. So I joined forces with Tom, polished his design a bit, especially the looks, and Art Audio U.S.A. was launched. Our first amp, the Diavolo, received a rave review and we were suddenly backordered by two months. To avoid the time lag between England and the States, I set up a manufacturing facility here. Then I bought most of the company from Tom and we now have 12 employees in Rhode Island. One thing we do that is different is that I have hired 15 high school kids, though now they are college freshman, to help us fine tune the sound of our equipment. We rely on their unbiased ears to help us as we evolve our new designs, a process that can take a year or more. Our own ears get burnt out after a while and the kids’ fresh ears can really hear those subtle differences.

“Another thing I want to emphasize is that our designs are the product of a team, myself, Tom and David Gill. I might have put a lot of work into these things, but all our products are a team effort.” This modesty comes from a man who, in addition to all his other work, spends many an evening assembling components along with his night crew. “After midnight, I might get to have some peace and tranquility when I can listen to music by myself,” he confesses. Making music the old-fashioned way is a recurring theme with this former jazz and swing bass player who, at the age of 15, honed his chops by absorbing all he could from an old bassist in the sometimes rough and tumble Federal Hill section of Providence.

Fratus, who wears most of the hats at Art Audio, is a tireless crusader, all the more remarkable when you realize that he can’t walk without the aid of braces due to a broken spine that resulted from a tragic accident 17 years ago. “It took years for me to learn to walk again,” he says, “and after meditating for 16 months in three hospitals, I realized it was time to get into audio and use the stuff I learned from my grandfather. We base most of our amps on triodes [a tube type that, though low-powered, is acknowledged to be more liquid, more detailed and more musical than the more modern, higher-wattage tubes introduced in the 1940s that are most common today] because my grandfather convinced me of their superior performance capabilities through the incredible sound he achieved and not because triodes happen to be in vogue right now.”

Critics continue to hail the Art Audio line, which now includes a range of exquisite tube amps beginning with the amazing 15-watt Gill Signature ($3,800) to the 20-watt Jota monoblocks that start at $11,000. The company also offers preamplifiers, a lauded phono preamplifier, a new digital-to-analog converter and has several new products in the design stage. I have not returned the 13-watt Diavolo amplifier ($5,995) I borrowed in late 2001 and am considering an unlisted phone number so I can savor it a bit longer.

Fratus says he shipped 70 units in the last two months of 2001, and if this sounds miniscule compared to the mass-market brands, remember that all Art Audio’s equipment is handcrafted, like a gourmet burger, and can even be ordered, also like a good burger, anyway you like it. Fratus elaborates, “We are known for our ability to fill special orders. I will spend time with the customer to find out what they need in their system and will tailor an amp to fill those needs.”

And that is what the somewhat rarified world of specialty audio boils down to: creating relentlessly accurate equipment for a clientele that wants it built the old-fashioned way-by hand, by ear and, perhaps most importantly, by a spirit dedicated to curiosity, craftsmanship and, of course, music.

How would you like your sound system cooked?

If you have any comments, questions or ideas regarding Sound Advice, Mike Quinn can be contacted at [email protected]

Originally Published