John Hunter, REL Acoustics

John Hunter, REL Acoustics

Did your interest in the high end come from the music side or the electronics side?
Oddly both, and at the same time. I started playing electric guitar and bass in the early 70s. Just about then I was ready to start moving up to really good equipment. My oldest brother came home from MIT, and together we built a reasonably good-sounding 10W tube amp. The notion that I could help build something myself, and have it turn out well, stuck.

What does the expression high end mean to you?
The high end, done properly, is an attitude—an almost insane commitment to quality, no matter the price. Listening, in a high-end sense, is done actively not passively. The use of music as the background wallpaper of a person’s life is a sad, bland, dispiriting thing. If even an inexperienced listener walks past a well-tuned high-end system, it should arrest him—stop him dead in their tracks, draw him in.

What was your first high-end system?
Growing up in Europe in the 60s, we had tubed Sansui and sand-filled Wharfedales, so I was exposed to good sound early on. My first really good gear was a pair of Quad ESLs, driven by a Quad 33/303 combination. I taught myself what is now known as M.A.S.T.E.R.S. on those Quads—the art of speaker setup and system dial-in began on Quads. I’ve kept a pair around since.

Were you into DIY?
A bit, but I quickly realized that the guys building equipment every day were quite a bit better than I was. I focused on achieving the best sound possible from the gear I was using, or that a good customer needed help with.

Do you agree that audiophiles have a love/hate relationship with subwoofers? 
Yes, and they should! Most subs are simply awful. Their sonics generally fall in an area best described as entry-level sound reinforcement. I’ve always hated subs, and loved RELs. I love imaging and midrange accuracy, and I have never found anything else that, when added to the core system, improves every aspect of a system’s performance without any downside..

What is the greatest misunderstanding about subs?
That they need to announce themselves in an inappropriate way. When the bass integrates beautifully, when the bottom end floats the musicians on a cushion of air and allows the individual instrument or vocal signatures and harmonics to rise correctly in space, then a great sub is in the system.

What is the biggest challenge for high end? 
The joy for me has always been to surprise people with what is possible in the reproduction of sound. I hope to find a way to get that message across. It very much has to do with the quality of the dealers and the way the high end presents itself to customers. It’s about the musical experience and not the technical mumbo-jumbo. I think that many people who can afford an expensive system don’t feel they should be composing it themselves.

Analog or digital—do you have a preference? 
Is this a trick question? You’re asking the man who designed the Blue Point, the BP Special, the Blackbird, the Celebration, and the Palo Santos Presentation [cartridges] which format he prefers? Seriously, I use digital for room setup and dial-in, then use a combination of digital and analog for my demos. I need to get my SME up and dialed back in so I can start burning analog copies to digital file formats. The amazing thing is that well-tuned analog easily survives the digitization process..

Are you surprised at the resiliency of high-end stereo?
Not at all, well-crafted products that make people happy will never go out of style.

REL makes a wireless option called Longbow. Is this the future of audio?.
It’s quite wondrous to hear that wireless needn’t sound thin, dry, compressed, and bright. Longbow delivers something so special that we’re going to have to give serious consideration to releasing a dual-broadband version.

Going forward, what is the greatest challenge confronting the high end?
Getting rid of the pomposity of it all. Somewhere in the late 80s we ceded the voice and feel of our industry to a bunch of uptight snobs. The reality is that hearing great music being played back with astounding audio quality is (and was always supposed to be) fun. We also need to get better as an industry at making things that are truly beautiful.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?
The past few years, I have gotten into coaching youth baseball. The sense of profound accomplishment when a kid who couldn’t throw a ball before the season started gets to pitch in front of his parents is really something special.

What still inspires you about your work?
Helping people comes through in all the work I do. My first design, the old Blue Point, came about because I just didn’t feel we had much choice at affordable prices for phono cartridges. My work with REL is about adding speed and truthfulness to a category not known for either. I get to go to work and have fun; I have no idea what I’d do if I actually had to work for a living!