Frankly Speaking

Confessions of a Setup Man, Part Eight: Too Hot to Handle

When I was working at The Absolute Sound as Harry Pearson’s set up man in the mid 1980s through early 1990s, Goldmund was a name at the top of the high-end pantheon. (Still is.) After all, they were the manufacturers of the mighty king-of-kings Goldmund Reference turntable. Goldmund also offered ultra-high-end loudspeakers and electronics, among them the Mimesis 3 stereo power amp and Mimesis 2 preamp, two sleek, gorgeous brushed-aluminum-panel solid-state components that were more than a couple of orders of magnitude above my pay grade.

I had requested them for audition at TAS World Headquarters in Sea Cliff. I set the components up and the equipment sounded superb, although I could see Harry wasn’t going bananas. Neutral but not dry or etched, with excellent tonality but not overripe or threadbare. If you liked the warmth, or maybe the second-harmonic distortion, of certain tube amps, these might not have been the components for you but there was no denying their sonic excellence, and their transparency and resolution were magnificent.

Goldmund Mimesis 2 preamplifier and Mimesis 3 power amplifier.

After that listening session, as was always the case, we left the equipment on so it would always be warmed up at its sonic best. (I am told Harry’s electric bills were mind-boggling but the person who paid them would never show them to me.) One listening session shortly after, I went to check the system and noticed the Mimesis 3 amp, resting on isolation cones, was placed crookedly. This irritated me so I went to straighten the amp out.

YEOW! The top of the amp was blazing hot to the touch! I mean, maybe egg-frying hot. I was surprised the amp wasn’t a congealed mess of melted wiring and parts. I knew the amp was supposed to run hot but what the heck?

I found a pencil and gingerly pushed the power button to turn the amp off, literally not wanting to touch it. I figured I must have done something wrong and would have to explain it to Goldmund. Taking a deep breath, I called and told my guy there the situation.

To my surprise he shrugged it off and said something like, “oh, there’s nothing wrong with the amp; it’s just trying to amplify RF.” What? “Yes, the amp is very wide bandwidth and will amplify anything that goes into it.” He patiently explained further about the high-frequency oscillation that could occur with such a wide-bandwidth amplifier. I was clueless.

“But,” I replied, “wouldn’t you want to put in some kind of circuitry that would prevent this?”

“That would ruin the sound!”

That was one of the early moments in my career when I started to realize just how passionate and adamant audio people could be about their creations.

“Replace the interconnects you have in there now with something better that won’t act as antennas,” he patiently explained. He also reassured me that no harm was done to the amp after my heated encounter.

Only thing was, the cables were MIT Shotgun and at the time, Harry would not use anything else. So, what was I supposed to do? The more techno-geek readers may guess where this is going. I figured, if the interconnects were antennas, I’d just move them to where they’d get bad reception! I moved the amp to a few different spots, turned it on and held my hand over it and soon found a favorable location where the amp wasn’t too hot. Harry and I then listened happily for a good long time.

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I like to engage in tube rolling on occasion. For those unfamiliar with the term, “tube rolling” is the practice of replacing the stock tubes the manufacturer supplied with other brands, to see if there’s a sonic improvement (or not). Certain NOS (New Old Stock) tubes are especially prized. Mention Amperex “Bugle Boys” or RCA black plates to some tube aficionados and watch them get misty-eyed.

The thing to do is listen to the tubes that are already in there, then swap them out and listen to the replacement tubes and decide if you like the second set better. Or third, or fourth…however, tubes are hot, especially power tubes, so it takes time to shut off the component, wait for the tubes to cool down, replace them and fire up the second set of tubes – precious minutes where your sonic memory of the first tube set is fading.

I get impatient.

And hey, preamp and small-signal tubes don’t get that hot, right?

When you’re a tube roller, you tend to accumulate a lot of them.

You guessed it – I can’t count the times I’ve burned my fingers on a hot tube. At times I’ve tried to cheat and grab a power tube with a rag. And then reflexively dropped the tube or jerked it flying out of my hand. Which can create a big mess on your floor or dent your bank account.

Sometimes tubes get microphonic and the classic test for that is to tap on them with a pencil eraser and see if they ring or clunk. Well, in today’s busy world who has time to look for a pencil? So yep, one’s index finger makes a handy tapping tool. I’ve learned by trial and error which tubes you can sort of get away with tapping on, like a 12AT7 for example, and which ones you really shouldn’t do this with – touching a live 6L6GC power tube will really make you wish you hadn’t.

I can’t be the only one who has been this dumb around hot tubes…can I?

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Ever seen a speaker go on fire? I’m not talking about merely blowing drivers but actually seeing a speaker go up in smoke. It happens when you push the voice coil way too hard. When I was a teenager I was curious about how much power a speaker could take until it blew. I hooked my Kustom 100 guitar amp head to a 6 by 9-inch car speaker and cranked it up until I got a righteous distorted Dave Davies sound. Cool! Then after a while the sound didn’t get any louder…and then I heard a bbbbfffttttt! sound and saw smoke and fire coming out of the middle of the speaker. Even cooler! Until I panicked and realized I’d better not set my parents’ house ablaze. Luckily the speaker stopped burning after about half a minute. I quickly disposed of the evidence, and no one was around to complain about the smell.

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A few years ago I had a festive Fourth of July celebration. For whatever reason I was home alone and thought, hey, I can listen to music undisturbed. I turned my system on…and about a minute later something odd caught the corner of my eye. My amplifier was on fire! In a spectacular fashion – since the amp was resting on cones, flames were shooting out of the bottom of the amp! I panicked, yanked the power cord and scrambled for the fire extinguisher but in the course of a few seconds the fire died out. Turns out a resistor had failed. File under stuff happens, and the amp was repairable. And no, I was not listening to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the time.

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While not strictly involving fire, I gotta tell this one and it does involve thermodynamics after all. In the 1980s Michael Elliot of audio manufacturer Counterpoint (no longer in business) hosted a party in California at the time of a Stereophile show. A who’s who of audio was there, including John Iverson, head of Electron Kinetics and Electro Research who had also worked for Marantz. A colorful character to say the least, John’s reputation for genius and eccentricity was fueled by his mysterious disappearance in 1992. (Where he went has never been confirmed.)

Someone introduced me to him. He did not need much prompting to begin talking and quickly started delving into some pretty esoteric stuff, to the point where those around us politely drifted away. Not me.

At one point I asked him what the best speaker he ever heard was. He brightened up and said, “No question about it – the plasma speaker.” I replied, “You mean the Hill Plasmatronics?” He scoffed and said something along the lines of, “No, not that thing! I’m talking about an experimental full-range speaker that I worked on. It’s makes every other speaker sound like a joke. However, it can’t be put into production.”

I asked, why not, thinking it would involve large tanks of helium gas, high voltages, oxygen depletion or outrageous expense. Iverson replied, “It’s too dangerous.”

“What could be so dangerous?” Iverson looked me straight in the eye. “One time we were listening to the speakers and a fly flew into the room. Then the fly flew between the speakers…and disappeared.”

Had I heard that right? “The fly disappeared?”

“Yes. I think the fly flew into another dimension. Somehow the loudspeakers created a gateway into another dimension.”

He didn’t want to go into detail. Meanwhile I was thinking, nyah-aah-aaahhhh!

Postscript: about a year ago a a friend and I had the opportunity to listen to an Electron Kinetics Eagle 2A amplifier in my system. We were shocked at how good this decades-old design sounded. It can hold its own in today’s high-end audio world.

 

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Jacqueline Macou.