The little things

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Sometimes it’s the little things that make something special. A smile, just at the right moment, or perhaps a helping hand when one wasn’t expected.

When I think about what makes a piece of audio equipment special it’s often the little unnoticed touches that, together, make a product worth owning. Take for example the powder coat we use on our products. It might not seem like anything special but that’s because it’s one of those little things.

Years ago we anodized all our product’s metal surfaces because, well, that’s just what you did. But anodizing, an electrolytic process that adds a protective thin layer of oxidation to aluminum’s surface, can be problematic when colors are involved. Aluminum’s natural color is silver. Just look at a sheet of aluminum foil. To make aluminum another color, like black, the aluminum is dipped into a big tank of dye, then that thin coat of oxide is electroplated over the dye to protect it. Which is great if every little thing is perfect like the shade of black (which is rarely consistent). Even the “silver” or soft “white” anodizing is problematic too. Consistency is the problem.

Getting consistent color matches between batches was a nightmare. Customers might buy a power amp from us one year, and a preamp or another amp the next only to discover the colors don’t match when placed side-by-side. It was a problem that vexed us for years. And then I saw a company that had solved the anodizing problem. Mark Levinson (the company not the man). Remember the classic ML 33 amplifier? I loved that design and always marveled at the consistency of the front panel with its lovely shade of soft white (usually achieved through an anodizing process called clear coupled with a precise bead blasting technique on the raw aluminum). Unit after unit were perfect matches. I was jealous.

At a chance meeting with the designer, David Barson, I asked him to tell me their secret to consistent color matching. Especially that lovely soft silver used on the 33’s front panel. “Hah! It’s not anodized,” said David. “It’s painted. Consistency is perfect.”

With that kindly offered info in hand we set out to get the same consistency ourselves, only there was a problem. Fingerprinting on the black surfaces. Touch the paint (or anodized) surface and the oils in your fingers left their telltale mark. How did we solve it?

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s answer.