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Pioneers of High-End Audio

Pioneers of High-End Audio

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.


James Bongiorno Great American Sound, Sumo, Ampzilla 2000
By Robert Harley

James Bongiorno’s long and storied career spans two entirely distinct eras, from Hadley, Dynaco, Marantz, and SAE in the 1960s, to Constellation Audio in the second decade of the 21st century. Bongiorno designed amplifiers in six different decades, working alongside other industry legends such as Richard Sequerra, Sidney Smith, David Hafler, Morris Kessler, John Curl, and Bascom King.

But Bongiorno will best be remembered for Great American Sound (GAS), the company he founded in 1974 after leaving SAE. The GAS Ampzilla power amplifier was an instant classic, outperforming many much more expensive amplifiers and sending ripples through the industry. This was the dawn of the high-end renaissance, right about the time of Phase Linear and Audio Research, when the demand for relatively high-powered amplifiers was exploding. The 200Wpc Ampzilla was the first to feature a full dual-differential complementary amplifier circuit, a topology that is the basis for nearly every modern solid-state power amplifier. The Ampzilla not only sounded terrific and sold in huge numbers, but Bongiorno exemplified the maverick entrepreneurial designer who created his company from nothing but talent, a dream, and (literally) a kitchen table.

Great American Sound was like a star that burns brightly but briefly; after selling part of the company to fund an expansion, Bongiorno was forced out and the company folded a few years later. Bongiorno quickly founded a new company, Sumo Electric Company, Ltd., to bring his circuits to moderately priced products. In typical Bongiorno fashion, Sumo’s launch was announced with a full-page ad in Audio magazine that depicted an ape (the GAS company symbol) hanging on a crucifix, accompanied by this inscription, in French: “The end of an era.” As with GAS, disputes between business partners led to Sumo’s premature demise.

What Bongiorno and his two companies left behind, however, is a rich legacy of innovative designs and a loyal following that continues to this day. There’s a cadre of audiophiles who still venerate the Ampzilla and GAS’s legendary preamplifier, the Thaedra. In fact, a company called Bettinger Audio Design is dedicated to restoring and refurbishing GAS and Sumo products with modern parts.

In 2008 Bongiorno launched a new company, Spread Spectrum Technologies, and another Ampzilla amplifier, the Ampzilla 2000. The new Ampzilla was widely praised and commercially successful, although the amp was entirely different from the original.

To call Jim Bongiorno a colorful character is not only a monumental understatement, but both figuratively and literally true; the accompanying photo reflects his daily dress. Audacious and flamboyant in the extreme, any encounter with Bongiorno was bound to be a memorable experience. He had a penchant for making sweeping pronouncements such as “I haven’t seen a single preamp in the history of the world that I would ever consider using other than my Thaedra.” When asked about the merits of specific transistor types, he replied, “It doesn’t matter whether a product is made with donkey manure. The only thing that is important is the final performance.” In responding to a negative review (of the Son of Ampzilla in TAS Issue 10), Bongiorno questioned the reviewer’s qualifications: “Our industry’s attempts may be compared to violin-making. Unfortunately, the performance of a Stradivarius can be clouded by the abilities of a questionable virtuoso.”

As passionate as Bongiorno was about designing amplifiers, he was even more passionate about playing the piano. He was torn throughout his entire life between amplifier design and working as a professional musician. Bongiorno was an accomplished jazz pianist who performed semi-regularly, and made four recordings that were released on CD. A journalist colleague of mine who visited Jim in the 1980s reported finding a house virtually devoid of furniture along with an empty refrigerator, but a living room filled with an audio system, a massive music collection, a stockpile of fine wine, and a 90-year-old, $100,000-plus, 9′ Steinway concert grand. The man’s priorities were writ large in his decor.

Bongiorno’s life and career is all the more remarkable when you consider that he was diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 34 and told that he had just months to live. He fought that disease valiantly for an astonishing 35 years before succumbing to it in January 2013, at the age of 69. He lived and breathed amplifier design, contributing right up to the end as part of the team that created the Constellation Reference Series electronics, which launched in 2010. Jim Bongiorno was one-of-a-kind amplifier (and tuner) designer, and a one-of-a-kind human being.


Nelson Pass Threshold, Pass Labs, First Watt
By Greg Weaver

A case could be made that no other amplifier designer more clearly embodies the philosophy and spirit of simplicity of design than Nelson Pass. From the introduction of his first commercial product in 1975, he has continuously pursued the often flaunted but rarely realized “less is more” goal. Following a decidedly different direction than some other successful manufacturers of that time—companies such as Phase Linear, Harman Kardon, and Crown, who were revisiting the status quo (based on original published Class AB or Class B RCA circuits)—Nelson’s work started to blaze in new and uncharted directions.

Those early days of Class B and AB amplifiers were a time when measurement was king. Looking at the distortion of a Class AB amplifier on an oscilloscope, you could clearly observe that distortion actually increased as the output level decreased, where the crossover notch got bigger and bigger in proportion to the size of the diminishing signal. This was due to the failure of the plus and minus halves of the amplifier to mate up cleanly.

Most designers were using more complex circuits and large amounts of feedback to achieve better bench measurements, but the sluggishness of more complex circuits created problems with TIM (transient intermodulation) distortion. In addition, heavy feedback had a tendency to dry up an amplifier’s harmonic character, leaving it sounding a little sterile.

By the mid 1970s, Nelson recognized that as distortion numbers were driven down further and further through feedback, the sound was not seeing a corresponding improvement. He saw the inherent linearity of Class A amplifiers, whose traditional low efficiency had limited them to low power output, as an alternative. Since Class A eliminated switching, it removed the offending notch distortion of the waveform and allowed for a monotonic distortion character, diminishing as the level went down—the opposite of Class B and AB designs.

 These insights would provide the jumping off point for what has been one of the most celebrated and illustrious careers in the industry. Pass founded Threshold with the strategy of developing a more efficient complementary Class A circuit. Even this early in his career, a pervasive theme had begun to emerge: select quality parts, put them in simple circuit, run heavy bias current, and use minimal (or no) feedback.

Threshold was extraordinarily successful on a number of levels, creating some of the first high-output Class A amplifiers, as well as delivering an incontrovertibly better sound than many other designs. Using bipolar transistors, Nelson pursued this line of development at Threshold throughout the 1980s, engineering one improvement after another—next building amplifiers with cascoded gain stages and then extending the concept to amplifiers having “current bootstrapped” output stages (and collecting a number of patents along the way).

By the early 1990s, Pass felt the urge to leave bipolar devices behind and explore the benefits of FETs, which offered output curves much like those of tubes, and sounded more musically natural. Over the next two and a half decades, his work at Pass Labs led to progressively simpler circuits and increasingly superior sounding amplifiers.

Pass has continuously advanced his craft with series after series of exciting and engaging products, including the breakthrough Aleph design in 1992 (the Aleph 0 was honored as “amplifier of the decade” by one magazine).

Whether making major advancements in circuit topology and performance with products like the revolutionary X (SuperSymmetry) and XA series, or simply refining and honing those already exquisitely performing circuits with revisions like the “.5” and “.8” enhancements, Pass has relentlessly employed minimalism in his pursuit of better sound.

A gifted and driven creator holding seven U.S. patents related to audio circuits, Nelson is likely not finished rewarding music lovers with his insightful and exciting work. Unlike many others in his field, he still believes that listening tests remain invaluable to advancing the discipline and that electrical measurements alone do not fully characterize the sound of an amplifier. His body of work demonstrates that just pursuing diminishing zeroes does not necessarily lead to better sonic performance, and positions him at the forefront in the Pantheon of High-End Audio Designers.

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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