In The Beginning... TAS 200th Issue Retrospective

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In The Beginning... TAS 200th Issue Retrospective

There were several things that made me decide to try my hand at audio journalism in the fall of 1972. I hadn’t intended to make a career out of it—in a sense, it was an experiment, brought on by the lack of any reliable source of accurate information about the sound of audio gear. Those of us who had lived outside of the major cities, as I did as a reporter in the deep South, didn’t have access to components and had to rely on the audio press, which came to mean J. Gordon Holt’s work in Stereophile, his alternative “underground” publication that told us how gear really sounded. I believed my work as a reporter, especially since I was writing about the politics of pollution and environmental preservation, was much more important. But I thought, arrogantly I see now, that I could produce a short-lived publication that would accomplish several goals, prime among them, getting J. Gordon Holt back in the saddle and producing new issues on a regular basis, instead of those coming at ever increasing intervals. And then, in ever sketchier reviews. I also thought that perhaps a back up truth-telling magazine might have a wider sphere of influence, one that could possibly affect the reporting and truth-telling of some of the major publications of the day.

Since Newsday afforded me a salary that I could stash away (reporters weren’t paid much back then), for the first time in my journalistic career I had enough to publish four issues (and in one year thought I, e’er the eternal optimist) and even if I lost a bit of money, I thought telling music lovers whether audio equipment sounded like music was worth the risk. John Cooledge (JWC), whom I called on for reviewing help, said: “They’ll laugh at us.” And I said: “No they won’t because we can out-write them,” meaning the Pharisees of the commercial press. I had been reading virtually every such publication since I had been in high school and, with friends, had heard a considerable number of components, not to mention a vast number of classic recordings especially the living Mercurys and RCAs of the day. The way it would worked at first: We would sell a year’s subscription (at $2 an issue) to anyone who subscribed during that first year. This meant if someone subscribed at, say, Issue 3, he would get Issues 1, 2 and 3, then 4 when it was published. After that, I reckoned I’d be out of business, and Gordon would be back again and in high gear. Me, I’d be the wiser, if the poorer.

Some of the folks in Newsday’s marketing department did a casual survey and told me I’d be lucky if I got 1500 subscribers during that year since, they reasoned from looking at the circulations figures of other alternative journals (and there were a few then, forgotten today), that would be about the best we could expect to do. A Sea Cliff publishing guru helped figure out the printing costs, which he estimated at $1500 for 1500 copies per issue. (How times have changed in terms of publishing costs!) I did the math and multiplied the 1500 (hoped-for) subscribers times the eight dollars, and thought I had a decent chance of getting by for a season.

So, the next question was: How do we get subscribers? And after putting the arm on all my friends, relatives, and fellow audio buddies, I had nearly a hundred putting up their cash. Then I got an idea from years of reading Audio magazine and its comprehensive classified section, and took out an ad ($80 as I recall it) and by the time the first issue was ready to go in the spring of l973, I had gotten 132 subscribers (who sent their money and sent it largely on faith), bringing the grand total to 232 subscribers for Issue One.1 (Enough, if you do the math, to pay the printing bill for the issue.)

In Issue One, I reviewed the Double Advent system, that is, stacking two of Henry Kloss’s Advent speakers together (mine on top of each other) to create a system that far surpassed the performance of either unit singly (the speakers cost a mere $130 some dollars—I say mere now, but even then they were a bargain.) Advent wanted permission to reprint the review, but I decided to do the unheard-of in those times and attach a condition—they could reprint but they had to include the magazine’s circulation information.

Ah, little did I know. On the basis of that alone, the circulation jumped to 800+ by Issue 2 (with a little help from the continued classified ads in Audio). But, to my and our surprise, the Advent reprints now were out there in increasing numbers. By Issue 3 we were at the magic 1500 number, and out of back issues if the number of subscriptions kept rising. Translation: We would have to print more copies of the first three issues, a bill we hadn’t expected, and, at the time, something of a welcome dilemma. One small benefit: In printing the first issue, whose cover was in plain black and white, with a different logo, we were able to add a color and adopt the modern TAS logo (designed by Newsday’s Gary Viskupic). And by Issue 4, we were up to 3000 subscribers, beyond the expectations of Newsday’s marketing folk and beyond our own; it seemed we had moved beyond what the paper’s people called the “hard core” and had become something of a crossover hit.

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To commemorate the 200th issue of The Absolute Sound, we reprint below HP's editorial from the first issue (Spring, 1973) that establishes the foundation on which the magazine was, and is, based.

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Viewpoints

Gordon hadn’t started publishing more, indeed, it seemed to be just the opposite, and we were all having the time of our young lives. I was still working a 40 hour week (sometimes more) on the environmental issues of the day (nuclear power, a hole in the ozone layers, crowding and over-development, and more) and was juggling what was turning into two full-time jobs at once, with Newsday paying, and TAS barely covering its own expenses. The crisis lay in the future, but, at the moment, it seemed we were onto something, doing a service for music by restoring it to primacy in the search for audio gear, whose only justification lay in getting out of the way of the experience of music, of the absolute sound itself.

The title of this magazine is part of what it’s all about. The absolute sound is the sound of music itself.

It is far from easy, though, to discuss this subject rationally. Because you have to assume that there is, philosophically or otherwise, an absolute in the reproduction of music. A referential reality.

Unfortunately, we are all lost in a sea of relativity and a world without absolutes, which is what, for better or worse, we wind up calling modern. But just because we assume, or even believe, there are no absolutes doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t.
The audiophile ought to know this better than anyone. That he doesn’t is a triumph of numbers and measurement over sense (in this case, aural sense, or the ear). How many times has High Fidelity assured us that the speakers it tests are “utterly transparent and neutral, without a hint of boxiness” and yak-yak-yak? The answer is, too many times. Because it is to High Fidelity’s commercial advantage to be relative, instead of absolute—Absolutes are Offensive.

We have no brief against measurements and numbers. They are sometimes revealing, but, just as often, they are confusing. The ear is an infinitely more subtle and sophisticated measuring device than the entire battery of modern test equipment. Sometimes even the best of the laboratory people aren’t certain of how to correlate what they measure with what they hear. All of this is to say that audio measurements are, at this point, rather like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test, which may give you interesting insights into a person (in the same sense that astrology does) but don’t come close to giving you the sense of what a person is like.

We will, of course, use numbers and discuss theory when we feel like it, but, by and large, the ultimate reference point is how well the components, or records, or discs reproduce the sound of music. Since all of our reviewers are inveterate concertgoers, they are familiar with the absolute sound of music in all of its personas (bad halls, good ones, and in between).

All of which brings us to certain guiding principles behind this magazine:

*   In the Reference System, we will also list our consensus on what makes up the state of the art in components.

*   Obviously, we aren’t going to list what we haven’t heard. We at The Absolute Sound have a profound distrust of instant analysis and careless A/B switching arrangements. There is a difference between what sounds good on a quick listening and what sounds natural over the long haul. Many reviewers, for example, profess to hear no difference between certain highly esteemed pre-amplifiers and basic amplifiers (e.g., Julian Hirsch on the Phase Linear 700). What such assertions show us is either a tin ear (Mr. Hirsch) or someone who doesn’t know how to listen to music. We do not pretend to argue that it is easy to develop a golden ear, since that takes time and experience, but we think anyone can, given the will and a bit of patience.

*   We will, among ourselves, disagree from time to time and annotate those disagreements. (At the end of each equipment review, the audio reviewers may choose to add addenda to the basic review, supplementing, complementing or shredding.) Such disagreements are likely when you consider the fact that all components are imperfect and that the real subjective choice in assembling good high-fidelity systems comes with the choice of which particular imperfections you can bear over the long run.

We anticipate that the magazine will carry, in forthcoming issues, a full battery of letters to the editor, that there will be considerable diversification in the kinds of equipment we review and that we continue our policy of searching out either the most lifelike or, just for fun, the most spectacular-sounding discs and tapes to commend to your tender mercies.

The subject of accepting advertising has caused some soul-searching here. And not for the reasons you might think. Our staff is composed of professionals from many walks of life. We are well-paid. We are not publishing The Absolute Sound for profit, but for love. Its expenses are being met by the sale of subscriptions. Now this is not true of High Fidelity, Audio, Stereo Review, or, for that matter, any newspaper you can name. In most cases, subscriptions barely pay the cost of circulating the average magazine or newspaper. The advertising actually subsidizes the cost (your cost) of getting the magazine written, published and mailed (plus, of course, a small profit). Since the advertisers then become investors in the magazine, they are essential to its continued publication. Audiophiles, like most others in this country, have an instant distrust of advertising. It somehow corrupts and so the magazine without advertising is, by definition, somehow purer and more honest than the one without. It is a lovely selling point.

It isn’t true, though, that advertising itself corrupts. It is the need, or the greed, for advertising that does the corrupting. We don’t need it, and we really can’t imagine why any advertiser in his right mind would want to buy space in The Absolute Sound, since such an offer would probably make our iconoclasts doubly critical of his products (just to make sure we were not, in fact, being soft where we should be hard). We see no special purity in rejecting advertisements. Either you will sell out or you won’t. The ads are not the determining factor anymore than, say, the absence of legal liquor is a barrier to alcoholism. We noted, with more than a little amusement recently, that J. Gordon Holt’s magazine, The Stereophile, which does not accept advertising, would henceforth be accepting dealer advertising—something it had been doing in its want-ad columns for some time. But, for the record and for the time being, we intend to let the subject rest in peace and play whatever there is to play by ear. What this means, in plain English, is that we will not accept manufacturer’s advertisements. Pax.

And now for a few words about what we are not. We do not intend to compete with other publications. For example, we commend The Stereophile, J. Gordon Holt’s publication, to the attention of any of our readers who are not familiar with it ($5 a year. P.O. Box 49, Elwyn, Pa. 19063). It is an excellent if somewhat occasional (in its publishing schedule) magazine for the audio perfectionist.

We have set about, in this issue, spelling out our biases and preferences. Our main concern is with music—its performance, its politics, its reproduction. We see little purpose in pursuing audio as a goal in itself (although many people do just this), but only in pursuing audio as a goal along the way toward our increased appreciation of music.

Therefore, we expect the music section of this magazine to be just as iconoclastic as its audio section. We will introduce you (perhaps) to little-known composers and sometimes little-known compositions. Our bias is toward the music of our time, since we feel that too few music lovers really live in this century. We also intend to tell you how to make intelligent judgments about performances, compositions and critiques of music. We do not at present know of any publication about music that will tell you as we will in upcoming issues how Stokowski murdered the American Symphony Orchestra; which conductors the musicians respect and which they don’t; which music critics composers and performers would like to eliminate.

Because there are other publications adequate in reporting what is going on in certain divisions of modern music (Rolling Stone for rock, for example), we shall not compete. In other areas, we will. Jazz, for example. We have, with purpose, set out to present the viewpoints that commercial magazines, for one reason or another, will not present, and to tell you the truths they will not tell you.

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As part of our commemorative 200th isse, we reprint a classic review from Issue 13:

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The Infinity QRS ribbon midrange, planar tweeters and the Audio Research Magneplanar Tympani I-D woofer panels, a hybrid: The QRS–1D

 Harry Pearson

This is an evaluation of a product that, per se, does not exist.

This product has, rather, been created from two already existing systems. There is historical precedent in audio for such a conjugation. But, even if there weren’t, we would have no compunctions about establishing one.

Those who have read the reviews of the Tympani I-D (see Issue 11; also Editor’s Choice, Issue 12) and the Infinity QRS (Issue 12) may recall that this reviewer was less than delirious over the Tympani’s inability to resolve mid and high frequencies without serious veiling, especially at low levels. The QRS, on the other hand, was faulted (but not enough, I now conclude) for the low frequency colorations introduced by the bass box. Since both speakers—save for the QRS’s woofer section—are dipolar radiators of essentially ribbon-driven systems, it seemed logical to mate the strongest points of each; that is, the woofer system of the Tympani with the mid and high frequency panels of the QRS. And so we did.

The result is what we have decided to call the QRS-1D, a system of genuine musical authority and accuracy, possibly the “best” now extant.

The only other system I am familiar with that even approaches the standard of performance set by the QRS-1D is the Levinson HQD, a much more expensive speaker system that lacks the dynamic range, the imaging specificity and the top-to-bottom coherency of the QRS-1D.1

1  I am reluctant to extend any comparison between the HQDs and the QRS-lDs since I have not heard the Levinson HQD system in a listening environment with which I am intimately familiar. But I have heard two HQD systems (driven entirely with Levinson electronics) in two quite dissimilar environments, neither of which was said to be optimal for the system and I can tell you that, in a sense, the HQD transcends the normal listening room. It is a system of such notable distinctions that an average listening room, for better or for worse, simply will not disguise the speaker’s exceptional attributes. Likewise, I did not find either listening room totally responsible for some of the minor irritations (mentioned above) I noted.

But before I continue with a description of the QRS-1D, I ought to tell you that, given the commercial realities of the situation, setting up this system is going to prove troublesome, even to the most dedicated. And, of course, such a system is not inexpensive. If either Magnepan or Infinity made parts of their system available separately, then the overall cost and complexities involved in the set-up could be significantly reduced. After all, you won’t really need either the Infinity’s bass box, its own electronic crossover, or the hinged panels that come attached to the QRS’s midrange/tweeter strips. Nor will you need the Tympani’s midrange/tweeter panel. It is unfortunate that the two companies cannot pool their resources and produce the QRS-1 D jointly. Ah, dreamer.

The Van Alstine-modified Dahlquist DQLP-1, an electronic low pass filter, serves as the perfect crossover unit for this configuration. Through it, we drove an Audio Research D-150 into the QRS panels and, at first, two Kenwood L-07Ms into the Maggie bass panels. Unfortunately, since we did not wish to tri-amplify the system, we had to use the passive crossover that splits the QRS’s midrange and high frequency strips. Since that crossover is in the woofer box, which we did not want to damage, we found ourselves unable to move the sub-woofers out of the listening room, although we faced the QRS woofers to the wall, successfully eliminating any sympathetic resonances.

The Maggie bass panels were placed next to the side walls in Music Room #2, the QRS strips were on the inside, near the center of the room. (The bass panel placement actually prevented much of the dipolar cancellation effect. In larger, more nearly square-shaped rooms, it may be necessary to attach baffle boards to the Maggies or double up on the number of bass panels. What is needed is an efficient coupling of the Maggies to your listening room for maximum low frequency impact.) Since Music Room #3 is relatively narrow (and rectangular in its dimensions), coupling does take place in a way that extends the Maggies’ low frequency response down to 32Hz (flat). The system drops off rapidly below that frequency.

The QRS panels are supported by a wooden frame that remotely resembles an artist’s easel in design. The panels stand parallel to and several inches from the inside edge of each Maggie panel. One might expect separation to suffer since the QRS panels are so near each other (about five feet), but such is not the case. (Of course placement could be accomplished simply if one were to hinge the QRS panels on the inside of the Maggie bass panels.)

Such a system demands the use of the very finest components. And so it happened. In the first set-up, we used the speaker with the Van Alstine-modified ARC SP-3a-2; the Grado Signature II (in an SME 3009 III) and the Denon 1030 (in the Black Widow II, undamped, with the Denon HA-1000 head amp); the Van Alstine-modified Dahlquist crossover with the D-150 on top and the Kenwood L-07Ms on the bottom. (The QRS midrange and high frequency speakers are so exacting in their requirements that only a handful of amplifiers can drive them and none better than the Audio Research D-150.)

There was a second set-up, necessitated by an incompatibility between the newly-arrived Audio Research SP-6 and the Kenwood amps. On sudden high level transients, the Kenwoods would shut down momentarily. So the Kenwoods, which mated exceptionally well with the D-150 in terms of dynamic range and overall sound, had to be replaced. Finding that replacement has proved to be no small task. The Threshold 400A dried up the sound of the system considerably and had problems handling the extreme bass. The Iverson Electro-Research simply sounded wrong, so different are its colorations from the 150’s. The Grandson of Ampzilla (bridged, no less) was a lovely match, except that it ran out of power entirely too soon and entirely too often.

The Stax DA-300 had muddy bass. Then we hit upon the Stax DA-80Ms, whose ADC XLM-like bottom bass was too romantic. (We selected, by ear, a crossover point at 125 Hz between the respective panels; so far, only one of our listeners has been able to detect the crossover point. Several have detected non-congruent amplifier colorations.) We wound up using the Ampzilla II for the lows.2

2  Near press time, we used the Audio Research D-110 as the bass amp for the system, thus ending the search for a coherent match for the D-150. The D-110 is, incidentally, a wonderful bass amp.

Let it be said that the two speakers mate better than anyone had anticipated. The Tympani’s response, from 125 Hz down to 32 Hz, is as smooth as the response of the QRS panels. Its response is as uncolored as the QRS panels—maybe more so since the QRS sometimes exhibits an upper mid-range brightness.

Let me attempt to put my observations in some kind of order:

Compared with any other speaker systems I know of, the QRS-1D stands alone in its freedom from colorations. Such is the resolving capability of the system that it took considerable time before I was able to separate electronic and cartridge/arm colorations from those of the system. Put another way: The most obvious colorations that you’ll hear from the QRS-1D will be coming from components which precede the speaker in the chain. What I’m suggesting is that we have, for the first time, a speaker with less “personality” than the components which precede it.

Compared with any other speaker system I’ve heard, the QRS-ID stands alone in its ability to recreate specificity of imaging, both laterally and in depth. With the best source material and best electronics, this system will extend a perfectly stable image from wall-to-wall—an image that, then, extends to the rear wall, without a triangular or trapezoidal contouring of the field of depth. It is a seamless wall as well. There is no bunching of energy around the individual drivers; there are no hot spots, and no dead ones either.

The removal of the box from the QRS has dramatically improved its imaging capability. Now the entire orchestral sound floats on its own cushion of air, without being grounded to the floor. Actually, the imaging is so good that I’ve had to re-think a notion I had on imaging specificity and line radiators. Detached from any box, the entire sound field is, suddenly, suspended behind the speakers. (Since the system is visually imposing and tends to fix the eye upon its individual panels, we, at first, listened in a darkened room in order to evaluate imaging.) That sense of the orchestra in space behind the speakers contributes mightily to a sense of musical reality, one that makes it very easy to concentrate on the music, not the technology behind it.

Like the Levinson HQD, the Infinity-Magnepan system’s virtues so far outweigh its faults that the reviewer feels impelled to use strong language to suggest that the reproduction of sound involved here is of a different class from that normally found even in the best audio systems. Even if one ascribes faults to both systems (for example, upper mid-range brightness) that are shared by many a more conventional system, one is hard put to put that ascribed fault in the correct context.

The QRS-1D is capable of very wide dynamic range. It will play as loudly as any system designed specifically for home use (as opposed, of course, to professional sound re-inforcement speakers) without any sense of strain or break-up. Your amplifier will be giving up before this speaker system does. What this means, in practical terms, is that you can get levels out of this system that exceed those of the concert hall. I really do not know what kinds of levels this system will reproduce because I run out of power before the speaker runs out of headroom. Unlike conventional systems, the distortion seems to remain exceedingly low even as the playback levels increase; it is very easy, and consequently, to play the system at very loud levels without necessarily being aware of how loud the sound actually is.

In terms of its ability to unravel orchestral complexities (Or those of the best popular music), the system has proved to be a revelation to everyone who has heard it. Professional listeners should be intrigued: Cartridges that shrink lateral in stage width or create phony depth will be instantly exposed—since, for reasons I don’t understand, bad cartridges shrink the sonic stage both laterally and in terms of front-to-back depth. Depth and width shrink on multi-miked recordings (interesting, no?). Amplifiers are similarly exposed. Equipment aberrations that sometimes took time to hear now become apparent after just a few moments.

But the best thing about the system, and the thing that will make you want to hole up with it and a week’s provisions for uninterrupted listening, is how, using the best source material, it reproduces music. That I cannot describe for you. But I can tell you this: A great problem with reviewing audio equipment is that the reviewer tends to lose sight of the music and listen (cringing) for things wrong with the system.

The QRS-1D, however, makes reviewing a pleasure and listening to the music, just for fun and the wonder of it, once again the indescribable joy it should be. HP

Additional Notes

Infinity advised us, close to press time, that the QRS is being significantly modified. Arnold Nudell heard, through the grapevine, that HP had dispensed with the 15-inch Watkins woofer enclosure and he decided, upon hearing Magneplanar bass panels with the QRS, that some modification was indeed in order. The new sub-woofer module for the QRS will contain 16 (count ‘em) 5-inch woofers, electronically equalized, for bass response that, he says, extends below 20Hz. Nudell says that the speed of the bass drivers nearly matches the speed of the mid and high frequency drivers. Magnepan has been aware of the QRS-1D system since its inception. The company is now considering releasing a Tympani III-B to meet the challenge.

HP’s Afterthoughts

Upon re-reading the initial review, I see that I did not stress (deliberately) some of the QRS-1 D’s failings. These: The extreme highs are down; the EMIT tweeters droop in the extreme highs, robbing the top end of some of the bloom that occurs in live music. The midrange panels of the QRS (see review, Issue 12) do have a somewhat metallic sound, especially if used in conjunction with most solid-state amplifiers (with the exception of the Electro Research). Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the construction of those midrange modules and the metallic bars in front of the drive units. [Infinity plans an updated version of the midrange drivers, to be released within the next few months.] Another part, I suspect has to do with the passive crossover used in the QRS to separate the middle from the high frequencies. I am certain, Infinity’s suggestions notwithstanding, that the QRS midrange/high frequency panel presents a severe load, one that invites solid-state devices to do their worst—and on this speaker, they usually accommodate that invitation. And there is a gentle dip in the upper midbass that lends this speaker its rather “coolish” sound.

Regardless of these failings, the QRS-1D is the first speaker system I have heard that can, at realistic levels, reproduce a shockingly accurate facsimile of an orchestra.3 On certain discs, i.e., the best recorded ones (viz, the M&K Realtime release of Ed Graham on the drums, Hot Styx), the sonic accuracy achieved is nearly stupefying. In time, we will, no doubt, hear better. But, in the here and now, there is finally a speaker system that could, with apologies beforehand, be called a breakthrough.

3  An example: one member of my listening panel brought over some of his treasured reference recordings which, as it turned out, are not really all that well recorded. His inclination was to erroneously designate the QRS-1D. Further listing with supplemental material made him aware of the limitations of his valued discs. To me, this touches on one of the key criteria in assessing the absolute accuracy of a given component. How little does it impose its own sound character on the system? When other elements in the playback chain are altered? How clearly does it let the inherent character of the different ancillary components shine through? Rest assured that with this system you will have dramatic resolution of hitherto unexpected differences between components and recordings.

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Sidebar: The QRS Annotated by HP (November, 2009)

What now strikes me as odd when I re-read the original review is that I made so little of what turned out to be, for me, its most stunning achievement—the recreation of a true soundstage, one with both uninterrupted width of that stage and a remarkably realistic sense of front-to-back depth.

But in his comment (not published here because of space limitations) John Nork began to nail down what would be, for me, the most revolutionary achievement of the system. And I quote, from Nork’s comment: “Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of the QRS-1D is its (totally unexpected) imaging precision. I was unprepared, to say the least, to hear a cymbal recorded at the extreme left side of the sound stage, placed exactly there when played back on the QRS-1D…In addition to its highly focused imaging and excellent definition, one cannot help but marvel at the striking sense of openness and depth of the QRS-1D…The QRS-1D projects a continuous, spacious, three-dimensional wall of highly detailed sound.”

From my continued listening experiences with this system, I was able to formulate (verbally) a new way of looking at the reproduction of an acoustic soundfield, in other words, a three-dimensional soundspace in which the music was and should be taking place. It was from this discovery that we were able to create today’s language for describing high-end sound.

And, yes, I have heard the original QRS-1D system in relatively recent times and found, with the better equipment available then, the system was as good as I thought, if not better. Put together its quite low distortion, its considerable sense of coherency, and continuousness, all with its ability to recreate an ambient soundfield and it would, if available, be something of a bargain (particularly at its 1978 prices).

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