We celebrate three of the industry’s greatest electronics designers and companies in short excerpts from The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, Volume Two: Electronics.
TAS’ Illustrated History of High-End Audio is a series of richly illustrated large-format books that reveal the inside stories of the pioneering individuals who created legendary companies and invented iconic products. The size of an LP cover, and printed on art-quality paper, each hardbound book is packed with candid interviews, historic photos, analysis of the industry’s most significant products, and technical milestones.
You can see the full profiles, interviews, and more historic photos of the following pioneers (and 94 others) in Volume Two: Electronics. Go to tasbook2.com for more information.
William Zane Johnson and the Audio Research Corporation
By Jonathan Valin
Where would the high end be without William Zane Johnson, the founder and, for better than forty years, chief designer of the Audio Research Corporation? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe in a year or two somebody just like Johnson would have come along. (He was one of those visionary figures so seminal to any movement that if he hadn’t existed, sooner or later, someone would surely have had to invent him.) But I can tell you for certain where I would have been as an audiophile in a world without WZJ: Nowhere.
Even though he was famously upbraided by an irate engineer when he introduced his Dual 50 tube amplifier at a trade show in 1970—“You’ve set the audio industry back 20 years!” the fellow shouted when he spotted all those “old-fashioned” glass-bottle 6L6s, 12AX7s, QA2s, and 6FQ7s sprouting from the chassis—the consumer world didn’t see it that way.
With the subsequent introduction of his SP-3 preamplifier in 1972—probably the single most important debut of the high-end era—WZJ changed everything: minds, prejudices, the market, the competition, the future. That preamp hit the audio world like a bombshell, provoking not just outrage from AES types wedded to solid-state but an agonizing reappraisal by audiophiles of exactly where that great new thing—the silicon transistor—for all its superior measurements and greater convenience had actually left them.
Oh, there had been plenty of stirrings of discontent in advance of ARC’s arrival on the scene. As is noted (repeatedly) elsewhere in this volume, first-gen transistor gear was, for the most part, terrifyingly unreliable and downright amusical. While pouring negative feedback on inherently nonlinear quasi-complementary circuits generated the great THD numbers that AES types (and Stereo Review) loved, it was like applying a Band-Aid to a compound fracture. As Bart Locanthi would famously note when he developed the first truly symmetrical circuit for JBL’s SA-600 amplifier, an audio circuit has to be linear to begin with. Otherwise, negative feedback only exacerbates problems, rather than fixing them.
Plenty of audiophiles, weaned on the great Marantz, McIntosh, Citation, and Dynaco tube designs of the Golden Age of Hi-Fi, knew that solid-state wasn’t right. Yes, it had measurably lower total harmonic distortion than tubes. But the distortion it did produce was odd-order, rather than the more pleasing even-order harmonic distortion of those disreputable glass bottles. Yes, glass audio didn’t have the sheer drivability of solid-state (the current and the low output impedance and the bandwidth); yes, it ran hot; and yes, tubes eventually failed. But those tubes were fast and sweet and musical, and you didn’t have to use as much negative feedback (or any) to make them work.
For a whole lot of us, the better “specs” of solid-state—and the reviews in the mainstream audio magazines that paraded those specs as if they were all that mattered—had failed us. The bass of solid-state was good; the neutrality was good; the resolution was good. But the overall sound wasn’t. And then along came William Zane Johnson with his SP-3 and D-75 (followed by his D-76 and D76A amplifiers) to show us that tubes didn’t have to sound like the fat potatoes of the past—that they could be neutral, high-resolution devices, too. And that on acoustic music they could give us a level of realism and musicality that transistors couldn’t then approach, much less match.
Although I met Audio Research Corporation’s founding father William Zane Johnson—who passed away in 2011, at the age of 85—at several trade shows and knew him well enough to say “hello,” I didn’t really have a personal relationship with him. As with a favorite author, I came to know him through his creations—the ARC amps, preamps, and phonostages that were to have a profound effect on my life as a listener, and on the lives of so many other audiophiles of my generation.
I’ve told the story of how I first heard Audio Research electronics (and Magnepan speakers, which were then distributed by ARC) in the magazine and in our first volume of this history. It was in the winter of 1973–74, and I was a student at the University of Chicago—a budding classical music lover who fell in with a bad crowd of audiophile grad students. I fancied myself an audiophile of sorts, too—had since I first heard Marantz 9s and a 7C driving a home-built horn system at a high-school friend’s house—but like the majority of hi-fi hobbyists in the late Sixties and early Seventies I was virtually rudderless when it came to buying decisions. Oh, I was well aware that some things—Quad 57s, IMF Monitors, a hybrid electrostat from the brand-new loudspeaker company Infinity—sounded better than other things, but preferring stuff that sounded good (which is to say beautiful, sensuous, and appealing) was as close as I came to a listening philosophy.
Then came the fateful day when a couple of those grad students dragged me and my wife to a specialty hi-fi “store” (actually a flat in a brownstone apartment building) on the Near North Side run by a colorful character named Basil Gouletas. Basil was rather like the Hugh Hefner of hi-fi salesmen: I don’t remember ever seeing him in anything but pajamas and a bathrobe. At the far end of his flat, Basil had a grand piano almost entirely shielded off by a pair of tall decorative screens; at the listening end he sat ensconced in a La-Z-Boy recliner with a turntable well within arm’s reach.
As soon as Kathy and I sat down on a couch nearby him, someone began to play the grand piano behind the decorative screens. “Who’s playing your piano?” I asked. Basil smiled and said, “Rubinstein.”
Of course, those screens weren’t screens—they were Magneplanar I-U loudspeakers. (No one in our crowd had seen or heard Maggies before.) And the electronics that made the I-Us sound so realistic that both Kathy and I were fooled into thinking that someone was actually performing a Chopin Ballade were the Audio Research SP-3 preamp and D75 power amp.
In all my years, that was the most unforgettable hi-fi demo I’ve ever experienced. And it was a turning point—a genuine epiphany. I didn’t know who William Zane Johnson was, didn’t know that he’d started a little hi-fi repair shop in Minnesota to modify Dyna gear and to home-brew his own electronics, or that (after a false step with a holding company called Peploe) he’d started his own electronics-manufacturing firm, the Audio Research Corporation, and shocked the hi-fi world by introducing tube gear that sounded unlike any tube gear before it.
What I did realize immediately—and what has stuck with me to this day—was that metal boxes full of electronic parts could not just make recorded music sound “good”; they could (with the right speakers) make it sound real. Suddenly, I had a philosophy that went beyond cosmetics, measurements, and euphony. I had a grail quest: the sound of the real thing. More than any other figure, William Zane Johnson put me—and thousands of other music lovers—on the road to audiophile enlightenment. As with so many of my generation, he and his creations are the high end to me—and always will be.