The Absolute Sound’s High-End Audio Hall of Fame | 2020 Inductees
The idea of honoring those men and women who’ve been instrumental in creating the high end has its roots in TAS’s series of large-format books, The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio. In the course of researching Volume One TAS writers and editors developed a renewed appreciation for the achievements of the pioneers who laid the foundations of this great industry. To honor these visionary engineers, entrepreneurs, and journalists, we decided six years ago to create a High-End Audio Hall of Fame.
For the inaugural round of inductees in 2014, we asked our writing staff to submit a list of candidates. The criteria were simple: Who had the greatest impact on audio’s evolution from laboratory experiment to consumer product? Who shaped the high end most profoundly, either through technical innovation, business acumen, or a combination of both? Since we wanted to focus on those men who built the high-performance consumer-audio industry, we omitted the technical pioneers—Edison, Berliner, de Forest, Williamson, et al. (We celebrate them, and other great inventors, in TAS’s Illustrated History series.) The final requirement for candidacy was that all members of the inaugural class be deceased—to allow us to concentrate on those giants past upon whose shoulders today’s designers stand. The following year, and in all subsequent years, we’ve opened the Hall of Fame to designers and company founders both living and deceased. Each year we will add three more individuals to The Absolute Sound’s High-End Audio Hall of Fame.
The following three articles showcase the lives and seminal accomplishments of the most significant contributors to high-quality music reproduction in the home. Today’s high-end audio industry would be unimaginable without them. —Robert Harley
A Cat Who Took Chances
“The only cats who matter are the cats who take chances.” —Thelonious Monk
The high-end audio industry was created by visionaries who shook up the status quo with a combination of innovative ideas, technical insights, and a relentless drive to succeed. Many such pioneers have contributed to high-end audio’s long history, but over the past 15 years no person has better exemplified that spirit, or had a greater impact on high-end audio, than Magico founder Alon Wolf. His cutting-edge technologies and no-compromise ideals not only created Magico’s acclaimed line of loudspeakers, but also forced the entire loudspeaker industry to step up its game to compete.
Alon came to America from Israel with a passion for music (he’s an accomplished classical guitarist) along with a bent for technology and industrial design. He worked in advanced CGI for big animated films such as Shrek and Antz, as well as on video games such as Sims. With access to state-of-the-art design tools, Alon explored various ideas in loudspeaker enclosures.
In the early 1990s he began building one-off custom loudspeakers for people he knew in the San Francisco Bay area. Some years later, one of Alon’s customers, amplifier designer Jeff Rowland, told his Hong Kong distributor about Wolf. The distributor urged Alon to build an extremely high-quality, cost-no-object mini-monitor to fill the need for a premium speaker that would fit in the small rooms typical in Asia. In response, Alon designed the Mini, an ultra-expensive stand-mount that would ultimately put Magico on the map. The Mini, Magico’s first production model, was built from layers of stacked birch ply, featured exotic drivers, and was easily the best-sounding small monitor yet created. Many decried the Mini’s astronomical price, but none could fault its sound. A demonstration of the Mini at the 2005 CES convinced Jonathan Valin and me that Magico was a company worth paying attention to. Later in 2005, the Mini won the prestigious Grand Prix Award from Japan’s Stereo Sound, and in the following year The Absolute Sound’s Overall Product of the Year Award—the two most coveted prizes in audio.
When I visited Magico’s 1500-square-foot factory in October, 2005, it was a one-man shop. Alon was building Minis, packing them into shipping cartons, and running the business single-handedly. On that trip, I also visited the home of a customer who had purchased Magico’s other product—the then quarter-million-dollar (now nearly a million dollars in an upgraded configuration) Ultimate horn system. The massive Ultimate is a horn-loaded loudspeaker without compromise, and its sound was transcendental. (See my report on the Ultimate’s design, and my listening impressions, at theabsolutesound.com/articles/magico-ultimate-loudspeaker-1/.)
Two years later, Magico moved to a 6000-square-foot factory as its product line expanded and demand for the company’s speakers grew exponentially. The aluminum cabinets Alon favored were being made by an independent machine shop in San Jose, a 30-minute drive. By 2008, Magico had purchased the entire machine shop and moved the CNC machines to the Magico factory, so that all the speaker components could be built in-house. Magico speakers were so popular that the company even outgrew this factory, moving to a 20,000 square-foot facility in 2013. A recent expansion doubled that factory size to 40,000 square feet.
In just a few years, Magico went from a one-man shop making two products to one of the world’s preeminent loudspeaker manufacturers. Countless other speaker companies had been launched during this period, but none has come close to achieving Magico’s success. Why?
Magico’s meteoric trajectory has been the result of rejecting the status quo and creating new methods and technologies for building loudspeakers. The company is as far from a “me-too” manufacturer as it gets. Magico pioneered ultra-stiff enclosures made from aluminum with an extensive internal lattice bracing, also made from aluminum. It pushed forward the state of the art in driver design, first modifying off-the-shelf drivers and then creating cutting-edge drivers from scratch, using high-tech cone materials and new magnet structures coupled with Magico’s “Elliptical Symmetry” crossovers built from cost-no-object components. Magico looks to high-tech industries for solutions that can be applied to audio; the use of graphene in loudspeaker diaphragms, pioneered by Magico, is a good example. These, and other, advancements were the result of extensive use of sophisticated computer modeling and Finite Element Analysis.
Despite Magico’s advances in these areas, and its commercial success, the company has never stopped innovating. In fact, it leverages each accomplishment into more and more sophisticated designs and technologies. Significantly, Magico didn’t identify itself by sticking to signature technologies, but rather adapted and explored new ideas, sometimes to the consternation of its customer base. A good example is the relatively recent move to monocoque carbon-fiber enclosures (coupled to aluminum supporting structures) that reduce diffraction and provide greater internal volume for the same exterior dimensions.
Behind the scenes at Magico is Yair Tammam, who joined the company in 1998 and is now Chief Technical Officer. Yair does much of the theoretical design work, employing custom software to model driver and loudspeaker behavior. Years ago, Yair described to me how a software breakthrough allowed him to model a driver in the mechanical, thermal, electrical, and magnetic domains simultaneously.
Magico injected a jolt of adrenaline into the high-end loudspeaker industry, forcing complacent manufacturers to innovate or be left behind. The result has been an across-the-board elevation of loudspeaker performance.
Behind Magico’s tremendous track record of great-sounding products, technical innovations, and commercial success are the high aesthetic standards, devotion to music, and relentless drive to succeed of Alon Wolf—a cat who wasn’t afraid to take chances.
Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson
Tube Renaissance Pioneers
Today there are basically two kinds of audiophiles: those who own Conrad-Johnson (CJ) gear and those who lust after it—a testimonial to the sustained relevance of this iconic brand since its launch in 1977. By the early 1970s the onslaught of high-power and super-low-THD solid-state amplifiers led many to predict the imminent demise of tube gear. That, of course, didn’t happen. In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize that CJ was a major contributor to the tube renaissance that transformed the high-end scene through the 80s and 90s.
Bill and Lew met when they were research economists at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C. and discovered a common interest in audio. To quote Bill from his interview in the second volume of The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, “I think each of us egged the other one on toward the idea that we might one day build musically accurate audio components that would combine the best sonic attributes of various types of equipment we had admired.” Added motivation, according to Lew, was the realization that early solid-state electronics ranged in sound quality “from indifferent and uninspiring to dreadful.” As Bill put it: “[the] key things Lew and I had in common were our love for the music, the respect for the accomplishments of earlier efforts using tubes to reproduce music, and a sharp disappointment in most contemporary’s solid-state failures.” According to Bill, “we studied the best of the older generation of Dynaco, Leak, Marantz, and others in order to decipher both their strengths and their weaknesses.” There were lots of listening sessions during the design process as befits audiophiles; Bill’s system was configured around the QUAD ESL-57 while Lew’s around the KLH Nine. Their ultimate goal was to further the performance potential of tube electronics to provide a highly musical-sounding product at a reasonable price.
CJ’s inaugural product, initially known as the Preamplifier and later designated as the PV1, turned out to be all that. It featured a fairly simple audio circuit with two phono inputs, and a linestage incorporating a cathode-follower output. The circuit sophistication was consigned to the power supply in the form of regulated high voltage for the tube stages, and this turned out to be one of Bill Conrad’s long-term design priorities. Bill and Lew didn’t quit their day jobs at first, so they had a safety net in case things went south. Prospects brightened when the first favorable magazine review came out. HP was sufficiently impressed with the PV1 in 1978, updated by then with a new volume control and wiring harness, that it earned a Class I product recommendation. Pretty good for an asking price of $585! No one would mistake the PV1 for trophy gear, but it was well built, technically competent, and sounded just right, as the CJ slogan proudly proclaimed. It was the product that put CJ on the map. Remarkably, over its 40+ year history CJ went on to launch nearly 100 new products, so it’s only possible to touch upon selected highlights and milestones.
The MV75, CJ’s first and highly successful power amp, arrived in 1979 and cemented its status as a serious company. It was a fixed-bias Ultralinear design coaxing 75Wpc from a pair of 6550 beam power tubes. Bill’s thumbprint is clearly evident in the power supply in the form of regulated voltage supplies for the output stage bias and front-end high voltage. A new and brilliant feature was a built-in LED bias-indicator circuit. By simply using a screwdriver it was now possible to accurately set the bias voltage. All subsequent CJ tube amplifiers have included such a bias indicator circuit.
Over the years CJ maintained a policy of incrementally improving its products for the consumer’s benefit. Updates were never a model to generate business but a customer service. A case in point is the MV75A upgrade, which provided high-voltage fuses for protection against power-tube shorts and upgraded the mylar capacitors to polypropylene. That was followed by the MV75A-1 upgrade, which reduced the impedance of the regulated power supplies for the voltage-gain and phase-inverter stages. On occasion, the design shift was more fundamental. In the late 80s Bill and Lew conducted testing to assess the impact of zero negative global feedback in preamp designs. They liked what they heard so much, that as a result, starting with the Premier Seven, all preamp designs incorporated zero global feedback.
The Premier line debuted in 1981 with the Premier One power amp, a T-Rex of an amp, wielding a dozen 6550s (six per channel in Ultralinear push-pull operation) for a rated power output of 200Wpc. Much attention was focused on the power supply, which was outfitted with massive computer-grade electrolytic capacitors totaling 4000µF. The Premier One garnered praise for its combination of brawn and finesse and ability to drive difficult loads. It remains highly collectible even today.
Introduced in September 1981, the Premier Two preamplifier was designed as a companion for the Premier One. A rather unusual and innovative design aspect was the reliance on tube cascode gain stages. Aside from the well-defined bass range and exceptional dynamics, its amazing three-dimensional soundstage was something to behold. The Premier Three, released in 1983 (and revised in 1986), was the first preamp to feature CJ’s proprietary CJD polystyrene film capacitors throughout the audio circuits and related power supplies. It earned the honor of being crowned the best-sounding preamp of the decade in our Tenth Anniversary issue.
Remarkably, after only six years in business, CJ had become a tube amplification heavyweight. Even so, CJ was still motivated to branch out into the solid-state arena. In 1987, under the Motif brand, CJ designed and manufactured the MS100, its first solid-state amplifier. To quote Lew: “I’m not an ideologue and I don’t insist that tube circuits always sound better. It’s just that every time we’ve developed a solid-state circuit that we think pushes the envelope, we’ve managed to maybe take it a little better with tubes.”
Fast-forward to 1996 to witness a major departure in circuit design – the composite triode. The ART preamplifier’s audio circuit consists of a single gain stage per channel comprising a total of ten paralleled sections of 6922 dual triodes. The genius of this arrangement is that it achieves a low output impedance while keeping the number of active stages to the absolute minimum of one. This is the product that Lew is the proudest of, partly for its industrial design, but mainly because it escalated sound quality to a new level.
In 2004, working closely with a capacitor manufacturer, CJ developed proprietary CJD Teflon capacitors. These caps were first used in the ACT2 linestage preamp, which was literally speaking the second act of Conrad-Johnson’s ART preamplifier. Switching to the Russian 6H30p dual triode meant that the compound triode stage could now be simplified from 10 to 4 triode sections per channel. Those Teflon caps took about 100 hours to break in, but once they did, the skies would part over the soundstage to reveal a wonderfully cohesive and natural presentation.
The current flagship preamplifier, the GAT, was introduced in 2009 and built without compromise. It heralded a hybrid audio circuit in which a single gain stage, consisting of one composite triode, is coupled to the preamplifier outputs through a high-current MOSFET buffer. It’s not just about the circuitry; CJ has long appreciated that the full potential of any circuit can only be realized by using the finest available parts and has sought out nothing but the best in its pursuit of audio excellence. The ART monoblocks followed in 2010 and can best be described as evolutionary descendants of the Premier Eight with a new driver stage.
As of 2017 Conrad and Johnson arranged a transfer of control and sold their company to longtime Senior Technician and current General Manager Jeff Fischel, who has been with the company since the late 1980s. Conversations about selling the company and how to shape its future actually began much earlier. Bill and Lew wanted to give Jeff a fresh start with a series of new products to help keep the company going. Those include a headphone amplifier and two new ART amplifiers, the ART150 and ART300, both based on the KT-150 beam power tube. For his part, Fischel maintains that he is dedicated to continuing Conrad-Johnson’s commitment to producing gear that is both musical and built to last.
CJ has always been a company by audiophiles for audiophiles, and for this all of us are most grateful. We wish the “dynamic duo” of Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson a happy and peaceful retirement, and in recognition of their seminal decades-long contributions to the audio arts, we are delighted to induct them into The Absolute Sound’s High-End Audio Hall of Fame.
A Man For All Seasons
Jürgen Reis, the brilliant engineer behind MBL of Germany’s celebrated line of loudspeakers and electronics, began his career in audio when he was 14 years old—and needed an amplifier and a loudspeaker for the electric guitar he played in a rock band. Because he didn’t have much money he decided to make both for himself. Using a technical manual to guide him, he bought some second-hand parts and soldered them together. Magically, the amp and speaker worked. It was this experience that set him on the path to earning a degree in electrical engineering. “I simply wanted to understand what I was soldering together, why it worked the way it did, and what I had to do to get a good-sounding speaker system.”
Toward the end of his university studies, Reis attended an audio show in Berlin and heard the first iteration of the MBL Radialstrahler, the Model 100—a unique two-and-a-half-way omnidirectional loudspeaker. Though the sound was far from optimal, Reis thought “the concept was genius.”
After graduating, Reis contacted some of the companies he’d visited at the Berlin show, looking for a job, and MBL offered him a position. At that point, the company was marketing the 100 loudspeaker, the brand-new 4010 preamp, and the six-month-old 4020 parametric equalizer.
After a few weeks at the company, Reis asked if he could bring in a preamp he’d made while he was at university in Frankfurt. Since he’d had no fancy measuring equipment, he’d built the preamp on the basis of what he thought and felt ought to be right, and was curious to know how it would perform on MBL’s sophisticated suite of Hewlett-Packard test gear. As it turned out Jürgen’s preamp measured far better than MBL’s just-released 4010. Mr. Lehnhardt (the “L” in MBL) and Mr. Meletzky (the “M” in “MBL”) were so impressed that they put Reis in charge of developing all future electronics on the spot. Unsurprisingly, his first assignment was to design a new preamp, the 5010, which later became the legendary 6010 (currently in its 6010 D iteration).
After two years at MBL, Reis began working on MBL’s loudspeaker. At the time, the bass and trumpet players in Jürgen’s rock band (Reis has been a performing musician for most of his life) founded a company for building carbon-fiber necks for guitars. Starting in 1984, Reis began applying the same techniques to speaker building, using carbon fiber to design a new tweeter for the Radialstrahler. Originally, the tweeter and midrange membranes of the 100 were made of slices of aluminum, but the metal gave the speaker a highly colored sound. Reis was looking for a material that would eliminate that coloration, lower distortion, and have smoother, broader frequency response. It took more than a year for him to perfect his new carbon-fiber tweeter, but he finally got it to work. He then applied the same techniques to the midrange driver.
Thanks to Reis, in 1986 MBL was able to offer a new and very much improved three-way Radialstrahler with carbon-fiber tweeter and midrange, the celebrated MBL 101 (now in its four-way 101 E MK II iteration). The initial reaction from the audiophile press and community to his speaker was similar to Jürgen’s own first reaction to the 100: “People liked the 101, but they didn’t understand why they liked it.” Without any enclosure to absorb anything or influence decay, the 101 added so little of its own colorations that listeners could not only hear the sound of the music but also of all the components in front of it with a clarity that they simply weren’t used to.
It was that very transparency (and his own genius—a word I don’t use lightly) that helped Jürgen to develop his standard-setting MBL electronics, including MBL’s first Reference amplifier, the 9010, and (in time) the 1611 Reference D/A converter and the 1621 Reference CD transport. “Being a musician helps me to understand how something actually sounds and how live sound feels when I am listening. My chief objective in designing is to ensure that I am satisfied with the presentation in the long term, so that the product continuously invites me to turn it on and listen, and become emotionally involved with the music. But it’s also imperative that I back everything up with measurements. And since a great deal of what I heard could not be explained with standard tests, I was inspired to invent new measurement techniques.”
For example, Reis noticed that some power amps sounded weak and stressed when driving loudspeakers, even though they had several hundred watts on tap, where other power amps sounded sovereign and in control with only 100 watts. This observation resulted in the development of Reis’ “Four Quadrant Test (4QT).”
“Typical testing uses a resistor or capacitor or inductor at a fixed value, but this doesn’t tell you if an amp will sound stressed or have control over the loudspeaker. No matter if 2, 4, or 8 ohms is being used, the current on this resistive load always has the same phase as the voltage. With real music and a real loudspeaker load, you can have a situation where the amp drives positive voltage but negative current flows into the amp because of phase shifts within the speaker’s impedance. The ‘4QT’ measures amplifier performance under all phase conditions—when the voltage and current are in phase, when the voltage and current are negative, if the voltage comes before the current, or if the current comes before the voltage. All four quadrants of these phase relationships are verified.”
In 1990, Reis began developing the Reference Line amplifier using his ingenious “4QT” test to measure performance. The result was the remarkable 9010 monoblock (the current 9011 is a further development of the 9010), which can verifiably drive any phase relation between voltage and current.
In 2005, Reis started his own recording studio, signing on to be an Apple Certified Mastering Engineer. This required a spec for true high-res files that are 24bit/96kHz and have no “sample overs” and no “intersample overs” (no distortion from AD to DA).
At the time, the “Loudness War” was well underway. “Each CD got louder and louder, and I realized when listening to a D/A converter that the sound was often harsher, brighter, and more aggressive than the measurements told me it should be. Sinewave distortion might say everything was fine—no clipping—but as with the ‘4QT’ you needed to use a complex signal like real music when testing.”
So this ingenious man developed the “Reis test” to prove that he could measure what he was actually hearing—and discovered that you can drive a D/A to clipping with recorded music. In fact, most DACs can’t avoid it. “When I tested the ten most popular CDs in Germany, I found in total there were approximately 1.5 million intersample overloads. This means on average in each second, the signal was clipping 50 times. This is the reason why digital sounds harsher than a regular THD measurement would indicate.”
After learning via the Reis Test that nearly all new releases produce intersample overloads in DACs, Jürgen wanted to make sure, from that moment on, that MBL DACs would produce no intersample overloads, even though the musical releases were loaded with them. “You can play CDs on any MBL DAC and hear no intersample overloads because I devised a method to build-in headroom that prevents those ‘overs’ from causing clipping.” If manufacturers took care of this problem from the beginning, the D/A chips themselves could be built to be immune to intersample overloads. But DAC manufacturers don’t do this. MBL DACs, however, are immune to the problem, because Reis was able to test for itand come up with a solution.
In his 38 years with MBL, and 36 years as Chief Engineer, Reis has designed ten preamps, fourteen power amps, six integrated amps, and over thirty MBL speakers (including one of the world’s greatest, the 101 X-treme). In the 15 years he has had his own recording studio, he has made scores of recordings, several with his marketing partner the Concerto Köln. “I sing in a choir, have been in several bands, record, mix, master, design electronics and unique loudspeakers because sound and music are my life’s blood.” And we are the better for it.
For all his contributions to the building and testing of audio equipment, and the enjoyment of music played back on it, this extraordinary man for all seasons, Jürgen Reis, is hereby inducted into The Absolute Sound’s High-End Hall of Fame.
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