Frankly Speaking

Confessions of a Setup Man, Part One

This is the first in a new series about my misadventures in setting up audio systems. I’ve been an audiophile since the 1970s and have done uncountable setups for myself, The Absolute Sound, other magazines, manufacturers, friends, Romans and countrymen.

As such, I could do a series on setup optimization techniques, but…naah, there’s plenty of good advice out there already. I’d rather share some stories about the mayhem I’ve encountered.

A Shock to the System

Around the late 1980s when I was working at The Absolute Sound the late Mike Kay, former owner of Manhattan high-end dealer Lyric HiFi, brought over the then-new Carver Silver Seven monoblock amplifiers. They didn’t arrive without fanfare. Kay, not given to hyperbole, raved about how they were the best amplifiers he’d ever heard. (Note: this was the first version, not the Silver Seven 900 of today.)

Each amp had 15 KT88 tubes, two chassis connected by a thick umbilical, granite bases, big glass meters and immense output transformers on the back. They cost $17,000. Don’t remember if that was for each or per pair. I don’t remember how much power they put out either, other than…enough!

The amps sounded astounding. I remember the first time Kay and I set them up (with more than 30 tubes to plug into their sockets, it helped to have some help), sat back and listened, and were floored. We called TAS editor-in-chief Harry Pearson down to the listening room and his reaction was the same – completely wowed. These amps had it all – tight, powerful bass, a lucid, remarkably textured midrange, sweet highs, an epic soundstage, beautiful instrumental and vocal tonality, reach-out-and-touch-it imaging and most of all, effortless authority.

The Carver Silver Sevens quickly became the reference amp for the main system, complementing the Infinity IRS V speakers, Goldmund Reference turntable and so on.

The original Carver Silver Seven monoblock amplifier.

In fact, Harry was so enthused about them that he began inviting a bunch of people to come and listen. One of them was David Denby, the esteemed critic for New York magazine. Harry had hosted plenty of industry VIPs before but Denby was as VIP as it got.

The afternoon before the evening he was set to arrive, I did my usual pre-flight check of going over everything in the Big System to make sure all was working properly. David showed up a few hours later. Harry, ever the showman (and we were putting on a dog and pony show, after all), started the listening sessions in the second-room system, wanting to work David up to The Main Event – hearing The System From G-d.

In the meantime, I was in the main room double-checking the main system.

Except there was no sound coming out of the left channel.

Complete adrenaline-pumping white-out panic.

Shaking, I went through the components and determined the problem was one of the Silver Sevens. Sh*t! After doing the usual checking fuses, jiggling cables and trying to turn the amp off and on again I realized it was kaput.

From then on things went something like this:

I called Harry aside and told him I’d have to swap the amps. Oh no no no no. “WHAT!? David came here to hear the Silver Sevens, not some piece of crap other amp and HE’S GOING TO HEAR THE SILVER SEVENS! GET BOB CARVER ON THE PHONE!”

Going from shaking to quaking, I closed the door to the main listening room – Harry and I doing everything we could to hide what was going on from David – fished Carver’s name out of my Rolodex and called, hoping he’d answer the phone. A cheery Bob Carver answered. “Hi Frank, good to hear from you! What’s up?”

“I’m here with Harry and David Denby from New York magazine and there’s no sound from one of the Silver Sevens. Is there anything you can suggest I can do? They’re waiting to listen right now!” He asked me if I did the usual checking fuses and so on and I told him yes. He then asked, “are you good with a soldering iron?” I was.

“OK, take the back panel off the amp and call me back. I think I know a workaround that’ll get the amp running. A resistor probably blew and I can walk you through fixing it.”

I turned the amp upside down and took off the back panel. Meanwhile Harry stuck his head in and bellowed, “are we ready to listen yet?”

“I’m working on it! Keep stalling David!”

I called Carver back. “OK, look at the back corners of the amp,” he said. “Do you see a green and a yellow wire?”

“No.”

“Ummm, maybe it’s a white and a yellow wire. Do you see anything like that?”

“Yes.”

“Well, here’s what I want you to do. You see where one of those wires goes to a resistor? We’re going to remove that resistor and bypass it, and just connect the wire to what the other end of the resistor is connected to. Can you handle that?” At that point if he’d asked me if I could assist with open-heart surgery or run around naked in the middle of Sea Cliff I would have said yes.

“Yes.”

“OK, it’s not the greatest fix but it’ll get you through the listening session.”

So, OK then. I heated up the soldering iron, went to unsolder the resistor, stuck the soldering iron to it and…

WHAM!

I got hit with a titanic electric shock.

It was so intense that it threw me onto my back.

It was like someone grabbed me and slammed me onto the ground. I let out a scream.

David and Harry came running into the room. In unison, “Are you OK?” I couldn’t answer and was completely disoriented.

After a few seconds? A minute? I was able to reply. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just got an unexpected shock.”

You’ll be OK, right?” asked Harry, the implication clearly being, now that we know you’re not dead, you’ll be able to keep working on the amp and get it fixed and we can start listening already!

After replying in the affirmative, I realized I’d left Bob Carver hanging on the phone.

I picked up the receiver. “Hi Bob, I’m still here, just got a little shock, that’s all.” He replied, “You’re OK, right?” “Yes, and I’m going to keep working on the amp.” Which I did, in a state of near-incontinent anxiety. Was I really going to poke into the innards of this thing again? I felt like I was about to stick my head into the alligator’s mouth…again. Well, you know what they say about being young and stupid…

I managed to finish the soldering job, closed up the back, hooked up the amp and flipped the power switch.

The amp lit up. After about a minute I hesitantly put on some music at a very low volume.

The amp was working. The amp was working!

Then Harry came back into the room. “I HEAR MUSIC! Does that mean you’ve fixed it and we can listen?”

“Yes.” (Yes, we can listen to freakin’ music now, thought the person who just got the crap shocked out of him.) “Just let me call Bob Carver back and let him know everything’s cool.” Which I did, assuring him I was fine, which I sort of was at that point.

Post-mortem – oops, bad analogy! Bob Carver and I realized that one of the capacitors must have discharged – into me. Either that or I had forgotten to disconnect the power cord. (I think I had done so, but I was so harried and nervous that I might have forgotten.) To be fair, I have to think that Bob, figuring I was the all-knowing (hah!) Technical Director of The Absolute Sound, would have assumed that I’d known enough not to make a rookie mistake like not discharging the capacitors in a tube amp or unplugging the power cord before working on it. Or maybe I had forgotten to disconnect that $)#(*%! power cord.

David, Harry and I then sat down for The Ritual Listening Session…and the system sounded magnificent. The mood went from tense to celebratory and the wine flowed freely with, I confess, more than a little of it going into my glass. All was well with the world. It became one of those magical nights.

With a little shock to the system in between.

 

Postscripts: it should go without saying: do not attempt to service electronic equipment if you don’t know what you’re doing! The capacitors in certain electronic components can retain a possibly lethal charge even after the equipment has been turned off.

The Silver Seven amp was taken back to Lyric, repaired and returned to Sea Cliff, where it worked flawlessly for the rest of the time I worked for TAS. I never found out what that dang resistor did, or if it was the victim of shipping damage or something else.