Issue 24

A New Year’s Resolution

A New Year’s Resolution


Happy New Year to all, and hope my colleagues are recovering post-CES.

I have no desire to go off on a tangent here, so I'll keep it brief:

We try to make Copper a place of refuge. A place of entertainment, enjoyment, and education. We do what we can to edit out the intemperate and belligerent. We do what we can to encourage free expression in readers who write in with comments on our articles.

Some comments are, to be kind, overly-emphatic, even mean. We have readers from all works of life, and all levels of knowledge. You may know more than another reader. That's fine: feel free to share your knowledge in a gentle way. If you feel compelled to insult one of our writers or a fellow reader, do me a favor: don't include that in your comments, or it will disappear.

And sooner or later, so will you.

In Copper #24, Richard Murison explains what FLAC is all about; Dan Schwartz waxes lyrical on lyrics; Larry Schenbeck examines rhythm at a stately pace; Duncan Taylor returns with teen guitar whiz Jaden Carlson; and WL Woodward looks back upon musical life---and death---in 2016.  Our old friend Jim Smith considers why some systems sound terrific, but don't have soulI look at the differences between creation and recreation; the history of the everlasting Quad '57 (with contributions from some notable colleagues); and poke around CES.  We wrap the issue with another beautiful image from Publisher Paul McGowan.

Until next time, be well---or for many of us, get well!


CES: Images Only

CES: Images Only

CES: Images Only

Bill Leebens

I’ve editorialized about CES in the past, starting way back in Copper #1. I’m still recovering from the dreaded CES Crud, and so as to avoid saying something intemperate–here are a few images of the Really Big Show. Aside from brief captions, I’m shutting my yap.

As soon as you get off your plane: lines. This one for CES badges moved pretty fast.

The Venetian houses most high-end audio exhibits. This is the lobby.

A typically-terrific DeVore Fidelity room, with John’s O/96s and Sugden amps.

A bunch of thugs in the hallway: Gordon Burwell (Burwell & Sons), Rafe Arnott (Parttime Audiophile), Brian Hunter (Audio Head), Jane and Mat Weisfeld (VPI).

VPI’s latest project: co-designing a turntable with Mark Levinson.

Herb Reichert (Stereophile), Stig Bjorge (Lyra), in the AQ room.

Big speakers, big guy: Raidho and Lars Kristensen.

Even bigger speakers from YG. Pardon the head: the room was always full.

Can you feel the love?

Having said that, you never know whom you’ll see at CES—from Charles Barkley (w/ moi and Travis Townes)…


…to The Most Interesting Man in the World, and…

…even more big speakers—these are the new Triton Reference from GoldenEar.

There were a number of companies tucked away at the Mirage, such as dCS…

…and Wilson. John Giolas shows a rendering of the new WAMM;–no, the mammoth real things weren’t there. Ken Kessler gestures emphatically, and with that, we’re out.

Science vs. Soul

Jim Smith

When do the best measurements NOT yield the best musical involvement?

I had originally wanted to write about how I chose my personal speakers, and how I voiced them, but – IMO – the issue is simply too long and too complex for Copper articles.

However, there are several things that I re-learned in the voicing process – things that I hadn’t thought about in a while. I’m hoping they might be of use to you as well.

I won’t go into all the details of voicing for best bass. Much of that is in Copper #15,  & #17  as well the Get Better Sound  book and/or DVDs.

At any rate, I was overjoyed to have found a place in my room with my new speakers that played the most perfect bass I’d ever heard. When I measured it, the response variations were less than +/- 2 dB from below 30 Hz to almost 300 Hz!  I’ve measured something like a thousand speakers in rooms in my audio career, but without at least some kind of EQ, I had never before encountered such flat response. There’s usually at least one or two peaks or dips in the best of systems, and always greater than +/-2 dB, due to effects of room dimensions and resulting room resonances.

Unusually excited, I settled in to listen to my system that evening. I’ve always said – and fervently believed – that, until you get the bass – the very foundation of your music – right, you’ll never be satisfied with your sound. When I’ve said “right”, I have meant with the smoothest bass, never expecting it to be nearly a straight-line on a frequency response graph.  Not necessarily the deepest bass, but definitely the smoothest – as I described in the articles in Copper #15 & #17.

Yet, I now had both. I reveled in the sound and especially of the bass lines and subtle shifts in bass dynamics and pitch. After a few hours though, I realized I wasn’t completely satisfied. In fact, I realized that I was listening to great sound rather than great music.

After some frustration – trying to understand how something so good could end up not so good – I had an idea.

It turned out that the listening seat position that yielded the most accurate bass (non eq’d) I’d ever seen or heard exhibited a shallow suck-out in the region around 200-400 HZ.

Because it was shallow and it started slowly, I hadn’t noticed that the dip continued downward above 300 Hz.

This area was producing the exact coloration that I mentioned in the GBS book & DVD. When a component or system is lean or slightly down in frequency response in this area (200-400 Hz), it gives the illusion of a mechanically precise sound, but never the compellingly musically sound that we want.

So I moved my seat back and forth a bit and listened to what happened. Ultimately, I ended up sitting back about 4-6 inches. Then – in order to maintain the separation & toe-in that I had chosen as most natural, I needed to address speaker position slightly. Happily, in my room, the seat relocation and the slight speaker relocation adjustments nearly filled in the 200-400 Hz suck-out area. But the bass, although still very good, wasn’t quite as superlative as before.

But now, the musical experience was exceptional. And I’ve never had any desire to go back to that flat uninvolving, technically superior sound. And dozens of advanced listeners who have heard it are unanimously in agreement about the powerful musical impact of the system.

Warning – this is directly related to addressing how we tend to listen – with our ears connected to our brains, or connected to our hearts.  By the way, I am not suggesting that one listening preference or the other is the best.  That is your personal preference. They are different though, and I am attempting to illustrate the very real differences.

Another instance of technically correct set-up at the expense of the music.

A few months later, I wondered if my system might benefit from having outboard super-tweeters. So, I embarked on that evaluation journey, with some of the most highly respected models. The first pair I tried simply were not a good match, mostly due to efficiency.

So then I tried some really exotic super-tweeters. These had high efficiency (so that I could carefully turn them down in level to match my main speakers). They were 8 ohms, like mine. They used Alnico magnets like mine. I came up with a fairly sophisticated means of dialing them in. I was cutting them in at about 16,000 Hz, and they went up to somewhere way beyond what I can measure (spec’d to at least 50 kHz).

I managed to get them time and phase aligned. When playing music, you could not detect any change in tonal balance. And yet, they defied logic, as various instruments, including voices, seemed noticeably cleaner, especially so on leading edges of transients.

This was super exciting sound! Everyone who heard the system (including a friend and well known industry set-up guy) said it was by far the best sound they ever heard, at any price.

This all took place after my findings about the bass in the room.

One night, maybe around 1 AM, I was up listening and reveling in my sound. I was skipping around, enjoying the sound of virtually every cut I played.

Then it dawned on me. I was listening to sounds once again!  When I voice a system, I do it with the primary aim that it will deliver the goods in a powerfully musical way.

So I had extraordinary sound, but musical impact – maybe not so much.  Sheesh, you’d think I would’ve learned, but no, sometimes my brain assumes dominance over my heart.  Certainly, after my recent discovery with the near-perfect bass, you’d think I wouldn’t fall for the same sort of thing twice, but I did.  Especially when you know that – in the past – I’ve referred to this aspect as listening to audiophile sound effects.

I decided to cover up the super-tweeters with a couple of thick towels. Next thing I knew it was after three o’clock as I had once again fallen into the music. Then I disconnected the super-tweets and removed them from the room. I listened to MUSIC until almost daylight.

I’ll never forget that awakening. We can have technically precise audio that may be exciting on the basis of its sound, but if it is at the expense of having each piece of music speak to us, what good is that?

In past, I’ve referred to this aspect as listening to audiophile sound effects

Organic EQ vs electronic EQ

Some of you will remember my interest in electronic EQ & time alignment.  Although I wanted it to work, I’ve still not heard a system that was musically satisfying when overall equalization – digital or analog – was employed with 2-channel music.  In general, they can sound very correct, but not especially involving.

That’s not to say that such digital EQ cannot possibly be musically compelling.  All I can say is that I’ve yet to hear such a system –even when set up by the manufacturer – that wasn’t more precise than profound.

I’ve come to think of physical adjustments that you can do in your room as Organic EQ.  When voicing systems, I have called it RoomPlay.  Whatever the name, you can dramatically improve your sound without initially having to resort to electronic manipulation.  And, if you do need to introduce electronic corrections, do not even think about it until you have done all that you can for your system organically.

If your system is already EQ/d electronically, I am not suggesting that you undo it.  I would suggest that you first try to do everything you can to make your system sound its best without eq.  Then when you do re-introduce it, it may have to work less hard.  Use the eq to touch up small areas, but don’t use it as an overall band-aid.

Here’s an example – it’s only opinion based on extensive experience – I am not representing it as a known fact –

If you have a mid-bass peak in your room, you could possibly reduce it with EQ.  And that may be your best choice.

But remember that the peak is almost certainly from a room resonance.  When you turn it down by eq’ing it, you are simply turning that whole frequency area down in amplitude.  Actually, you haven’t  removed the resonance from part of the sound.  Its percentage of the fundamental will still be similar, only turned down a bit (well, it will usually be a somewhat smaller percentage to some extent because it’s not resonating as loudly).

So this correct-amplitude bass note will still contain an inordinate amount of resonance even if it is reduced electronically.  Why not find the place in the room that doesn’t contain that peak to start with?  Then the bass will be more tuneful and be more likely to be musically engaging.

Of course, bass traps can help also, though they are not inconspicuous or inexpensive solutions.  But they ARE organic.  :)…


Umm, that’s Equalization & Digital Sound Processing… 🙂

Some readers have come to the conclusion that I am against any form of EQ or Digital acoustic correction.  That’s not necessarily true, except…

I have two significant (for me) concerns with EQ and DSP:

  1. It’s not a panacea. Some people think that if they get the response relatively flat, or “fix” time arrival and such, that is all it takes. If you wish to use these programs (as I have), don’t even think about it until you have first done all of the organic set-up techniques.
  2. Sadly, I’ve heard too many systems that sound technically correct, but were utterly boring musically because the owner or system tuner felt that once the measurement goals were achieved, they were done. Not so!


This is a brief observation re: the effects of electronic eq and time alignment – when set solely to meet a measurement standard.

Do you remember how an electronic drum track sounds when you are listening? Most of the music I listen to wouldn’t have one, but when it does, I find it annoying. Maybe it’s just me…

Systems that have been set-up to measure well will generally sound very clean – even technically precise. But from what I have heard to date, it’s not really the sort of ultimate musical involvement I’d want.

It’s if all of the performers are electronically produced – sort of an electronic drum track effect for all instruments and most recordings. Listening to these systems makes me think that the system tuner had a high technical standard, but an insufficient musical standard.

Not saying that it cannot be done – in fact, I think it can. A real marriage of science & art is required. But the majority of the highly touted systems set up with these techniques that I’ve heard to date (including by the manufacturers) are – in a word – soulless.

Be sure to evaluate a system (especially yours) on its musical engagement, even when it measures outstandingly well. Soul music comes in many genres. ☺

But wait, there’s more…

Here are some topics that are waiting for later, in no particular order:

 Precise imaging vs. Tone

 Depth vs. Presence

 If different loudspeaker manufacturers use fundamentally different set-up guides, who is right?

 Why wide dispersion for loudspeakers might be a bad idea for home audio  

 The one thing that your system must have to be musically satisfying  

 Audiophile “sound effects”  

 The “around-the-corner” test  

 Why you should remove unused speakers or short/cover them  

 Could your chair or sofa be damaging your music reproduction?  

 Installing a wood floor on your existing concrete slab  

 How to determine the acoustic transparency of a material to be used for room treatments or speaker grille cloths  

 How to know when you’ve gone too far with room treatments  

 The Top Three most important places for room treatments  

 Why you shouldn’t place equipment or furniture between your speakers  

 How to avoid the ­worst sounding location for your system electronics and sources

 Fine-tuning tonal balance and stereo imaging with stereo separation and speaker placement

 How to use toe-in (speaker angle) to make your speakers seem to “disappear” sonically, as well as to affect their tonal balance  

 What happens when you listen at different seating heights  

 Why you shouldn’t consider speaker placement final until you’ve discovered the correct AC polarity for all components  

 When you should consider trying an asymmetrical speaker/listening positioning for the best bass response  

 When you should consider a 45-degree placement for difficult rooms  

 Why you need to have an audio system “road map” and why you must stick to it

 The one thing you must do to make sure your vacuum tube electronics perform at or near their peak

 Vertical vs. horizontal bi-amplification  

 Bi-amping with similar amps  

 Can you adjust spectral balance to +/- .5 dB with your electronic crossover?  

 When adjusting bass levels with a bi-amplified system, can you shift the crossover point to compensate for the lower or higher level you just selected?  


 Note: These Copper articles have been partially excerpted and edited from Get Better Sound topics, as well as from their accompanying Quarter Notes newsletters.

Sounds of 2016: Cubs Win! Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

WL Woodward

The turning of a year is a minor celestial accident. A day of delusion. Time knows no man. And man may as well use an hourglass full of ground stone to mark the passing. There was a beginning, but there is no end.



Jeez, Emerson barely made that last note. Drives me crazy every time.

I don’t remember exactly when I met Hank because it was timeless.   My Mom saved those class pictures from elementary school and the goofy pictures of Hank with a bow tie went back to 1st grade with Miss Vance. It was sometime in junior high during the days of Dark Shadows that friendship really grew a beard. Hank is still a dear friend and in fact reads this column. Hi Hanker. One of the highlights of the holidays after Christmas calmed down was a sleep over we’d do on New Year’s Eve and listen to the top 100 countdown of the year’s biggest hits. It was exciting to hear the countdown which ended at midnight with the #1 hit of the year. Listening for your favorites, arguing about the relative placing of your favorite songs of the year. This lasted until 1969 when the #1 smash with a bullet was Sugar Sugar by The Archies. 1969 was a rough year on so many levels but that moment changed me forever. Yeah, there was Vietnam, the inauguration of Nixon, and the moon landing. But the Archies?! Yep, time to start growing yer hair and move on.

I’ve read the articles about the passing of 2016. There has been a lot of hand wringing on the loss of so many icons, especially in the music world. CNN, the queen of liberal hyperbole, called 2016 the Year the Music Died. Certainly many blessed notes will never be the same. In January alone it seemed a day couldn’t go by without losing a respected bum you’d heard in a railcar or a smelly dorm room.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer lost 2/3 of the band when Emerson ate a shotgun and Lake died from a long illness. The Eagles will never be the same without Glenn Frey. Some unhappy folks would celebrate that but I’m not one of them. No more electric Prince. No more Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And no more Spiders from Mars.



And a desperado finally caught a train.



One of the greatest songwriters to come out of Texas, where everything is big but especially songwriters.

Like any year 2016 had its dark and shining moments. The self-hypnosis that we were living in a post racial America died an ugly heinous death. American democracy surprised and even shocked the world with a relatively peaceful election and a transition between two administrations that could not be ideologically further apart, and without tanks or troops.

The Standing Rock Pipeline protest went on for months with stories in the press about claims of violence on both sides and angry arguments that clearly contradicted each other. But out of this a veterans group which had joined several tribes of Native Americans in the center of the conflict took a moment, and took a knee in front of a representative group of tribal elders and apologized for the harm their units had done to their tribes and families over the last 200 years. The statement was read by Wes Clark Jr., son of US Army General and former Supreme Commander of NATO Wesley Clark.

During the Olympics two athletes running the women’s 5000 meter, American runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin, ran into each other and fell. Both injured, they helped each other to cross the finish line. Hamblin later said:

“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there. I went down and I was like ‘what’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ Then suddenly this hand on my shoulder, like ‘get up, get up, we have to finish this’ and I was like, ‘yep, you’re right’. This is the Olympic Games, we have to finish this… I’ve never met this girl before, and isn’t that just so amazing, such an amazing woman. Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that you’re never ever going to forget for the rest of your life, that girl shaking my shoulder.” Huffington Post

If you live in Chicago or Cleveland 2016 will go down as one of best years of your Life. You’ll be boring folks forever telling where you were at the moment.

Anton Yelchin, AKA Checkov from the Star Trek series, died of acute trauma asphyxia when he ran himself over with his car. Ok, look it up.

My daughter Amanda’s personal favorite day was when the Giant Panda was taken off the endangered species list.

We lost Muhammad Ali and Joe Garagiola.

But the pundits are right. The dominating and endless news story was the passing of yet another piece of musical history. I have a list here that was taken from a Newsweek list of musicians by month we lost that year. This is maybe 5% of the list.   The main list is a little shocking. I just wanted to list those that most impressed me. If you don’t recognize a name I urge you to look it up and stream something by them or produced by them. Then buy it.

George Martin  Leon Russell  Prince

Merle Haggard  David Bowie   Glenn Frey

Paul Kantner Keith Emerson Greg Lake

Leonard Cohen     Toots Thielemans

Pete Fountain  Lennie Kilmister

Sharon Jones    Maurice White

Robert Stigwood  Guy Clark   Scotty Moore

Thank the Good Lord for the history of recording. They may be dust but we have the gold.

The Original QUAD ESL

The Original QUAD ESL

The Original QUAD ESL

Bill Leebens

The first question that will probably come to mind is, “what’s with all the caps on ‘QUAD’, Leebs?”

Well, faithful reader, I’m glad you asked. I’ll get to that after a little background:

I’ve previously written a bit about how electrostatic loudspeakers (ESLs) work, way back in Copper #8.  In this piece we’ll look at the history of the best-known ESL, and try to understand why, 60 years after its introduction, many still consider it the best loudspeaker ever built.

Back in 1936, the teddibly English Peter Walker founded a company called S.P. Fidelity Sound Services. Despite my usual bull-headed research,I’ve been unable to learn what “SP” stood for. No matter: within two years, the company was known as The Acoustical Manufacturing Company, producing a portable PA system in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.  A tuner, pre-amp and amp for home listening (likely not yet called “hi-fi”) followed; when war came, production focused on the portable PA.

After the war, the company produced a well-regarded speaker system, the Acoustical Corner Horn. According to the company’s literature,
“The loudspeaker incorporates a freely suspended ribbon for the mid-high and high frequencies, this being loaded front and back and arranged to radiate in all directions (including the rear). A cone unit is used for the lower frequencies, the back of which is coupled to the air through a two section acoustic filter.”  The moving coil woofer was made by Goodmans, a company which will appear again in our story. The system combined direct radiation of the woofer and a rear-loaded horn. The ribbon driver utilized high-powered permanent magnet materials developed during the war (AlNiCo, perhaps?). Apparently, only a few hundred examples of this interesting design were produced; amazing photos and source material can be found on The Art of Sound website.

In 1953, Elizabeth ascended the throne, a British team climbed Everest, and Acoustical launched their Model II power amplifier (valves, of course, and still around today, somewhat modified). The Model II received the designation, “Quality Unit Amplifier, Domestic”—shortened to the acronym, QUAD (ah-HA!).  As a recalcitrant stickler for tradition when it suits my purposes, I think of the company in all caps, just as I do for FIAT and SAAB—other acronyms that slipped into common usage as proper names.

In 1955, Walker exhibited two different electrostatic speaker designs: one was open-backed and reproduced mids and highs; the other was a full-range unit in an infinite baffle enclosure. (Meanwhile, across the pond, add-on ESL tweeters were being produced by Janszen and Pickering, amongst others.) The next year, the open-back (“doublet”) unit was developed as a full-range device, and was shown at the 1956 London Audio Fair, along with another full-range ESL designed by E. J. “Ted” Jordan for Goodmans, and a tweeter from Leak. Details of the speaker’s origins and design were provided in an excellent 1957 article by Ralph West in the UK mag, Hi-Fi News (click “history” in left-hand column, then “click here” on the History page). You’ll note that the speaker was referred to as the “Quad electrostatic loudspeaker”—not all caps. Oh, well.

To review: the QUAD electrostatic (all RIGHT: Quad. Sheesh.) was, like all electrostatic loudspeakers, essentially a capacitor. A conductive plastic film acts as the diaphragm of the speaker, and is positioned between perforated metal grids. A charge is maintained on the diaphragm, and as the high voltage to the grids varies with the music signal, the diaphragm moves, producing sound.  With controlling plates on both the front and back of the diaphragm, the Quad is a push-pull design, which has lower distortion than a single-ended design. In the Quad ESL-57 (common, erroneous nomenclature; the factory only referred to it as “the Quad Electrostatic Loudspeaker”), the speaker utilizes a step-up transformer to couple output of an amplifier to the plates. Unlike many ESLs, the QUAD is not a “one-way” design, but has a tweeter panel surrounded by woofer panels on its left and right. This gives the ESL-57 limited dispersion, creating a tightly-focused “sweet-spot”, especially as only the center few inches of the tweeter produce frequencies above 7 kHz.

Braun produced the LE1, an ESL 57 built under license in Germany, for many years. The angular, minimalist Dieter Rams design has its fans–I’ll take the classic Quad with its bronze metal grille.

Amazingly enough, the Quad ESL stayed in production until 1985, with about 54,000 units having been produced during its run. A new model, the ESL-63, was produced alongside the original model from 1981 until 1985. The ’63 addressed some of the issues of the original, including the narrow sweet spot and miniscule power-handling, by presenting a spherical wavefront radiating from the center of the diaphragm via  the use of a delay line, and a protection circuit which (mostly) eliminated overdriving the speaker. The fact that the ’63 started development in 1963 and didn’t reach production until 1981 should tell you how difficult it was for Walker to improve upon the original.

And yet: many preferred the ’57, and still do. The ’63’s use of a single, full-range unit, combined with the completely different radiation pattern, meant that the two were…different. Gordon Holt’s initial review of the ’63, linked above, decried its mellower character and still-inadequate power-handling.

Why does that odd little ’57  still have such a following? I can tell you that in my 45+ years of audiophilia, I’ve had exactly three demos that totally messed with my conceptions of  that which was possible with reproduced music, and all were memorable because of the speakers used. One featured the original Magneplanar Tympanis, which projected sound in a way that baffled me, and originally led me to call their sound “jukeboxy”. Another featured Hill Plasmatronics, which within their limits, simply sounded like real sound. The third game-changing demo utilized the ESL-57, which simply sounded like real music.

I don’t know how to explain the distinction between the Plas and the ’57; but I still kick myself for not buying that nice minister’s Quad system for the grand sum of $300. I expect I’ll still end up with a pair of ’57’s some day. Pleanty of people have had them forever, and never left them.

Says  our own Ken Kessler,  who literally wrote the book on the subject (Quad: The Closest Approach), “It’s hard for those outside of the UK to appreciate either their impact on the home market or to understand the genuine affection held for the brand that perseveres to this day. Devoted Quad ’57 owners are eccentrics who – like those who ‘get’ Alfa-Romeos and Lancias, or Alpa cameras – tolerate whatever quirks the Quads suffer, such as limited bass and output levels. Why? Because all the rest borders on the divine.

“Transparency, speed, detail, openness, freedom from nasties: as the speaker approaches its 60th anniversary, it remains one of the most natural-sounding transducers ever produced. In my humble opinion, the only designs I would place in the same area of the firmament devoted to music reproduction are the the BBC LS3/5A and the Apogee Scintilla. Audio notables including Dave Chesky and Tim de Paravicini swear by them, for good reason, which is as high as praise can be. Heard of their best, they are simply transcendent.”

Michael Trei wrote for Art Dudley’s Listener mag back in the day, still writes for Sound & Vision, and is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on turntable set-up. He’s also owned Quads for decades. Michael writes, “Like most loudspeakers, the Quad ESL 57 is a bundle of compromises.

“Quad’s founder Peter Walker said it best. When asked in a 1978 interview whether he was satisfied with the ESL 57 he replied, ‘Oh no, we think our loudspeaker very poor, but we think that the others are even poorer!’ Whereas most good quality conventional loudspeakers can do most things competently, the ESL 57 barely covers some areas of playback at all, while performing at true state of the art levels in most others.

“Whether or not this will work for you depends on your own priorities.

“People often say that the speakers don’t have any bass, and that they won’t play loudly at all. That’s not really true: the bass does roll off quickly below 50 Hz, but for the nine and a half octaves above that they are sublime. As for volume capability, I can easily get 100dB peaks from the listening chair, which is plenty for most sane people, although perhaps not the local frat house boys. Incidentally, when I say listening chair, I mean that literally, because the 57s are so directional at high frequencies, that they really are a one person speaker. Think of them as being a bit like a giant pair of headphones.

“Given these compromises, the ESL 57 can sound like a very small window on the recording, but it’s also the most transparent, coherent, and focused sounding window you’re ever likely to encounter. Mating them with a subwoofer can be successful if you’re careful not to overdo it, but most added super tweeters are unnecessary and  destructive to the overall cohesion. If you get a pair, charge them fully before playing them. This can take days if the panels are old and tired, but you risk damage if you try to crank them up prematurely.”

Speaking of Art Dudley, the former Editor and Publisher of Listener and current Deputy Editor of Stereophile is a longtime Quadophile (?). Art explains how he was brought into the cult. “Quad Ode: It wasn’t until age 42 that I first heard a Quad ESL—appropriately, during a visit to the UK, at a fine shop in the south called Chichester HiFi. A few years later, I made up for lost time by buying a pair of ca-1959 ESLs from an antiques dealer in New Orleans, and dove head-first into fixing them up. I can still remember the way I felt when I got my ESLs up and running: I put on “Repent Walpurgis” from Procol Harum‘s debut album, and sat transfixed as a bit of technology from the first year of the Ford Edsel changed my point of view, in this case by deepening my relationship with a record I’d been listening to for decades. Chills went down my spine, and I found myself on the verge of tears. (I might have been overtired, but still . . .)

“Since that day, other speakers have come and gone, but my Quad ESLs have never left me, and never will. They can play any kind of music, albeit sometimes by making the sounds fit the speakers rather than the other way around, and they are never less than convincing. It’s a horridly overused word, but I’ll say it anyway: Peter J. Walker was a genius.

My favorite explanation of the creamy goodness of Quads came from composer/record producer/digital pioneer David Chesky:

“Here is the real inside scoop..

“In the mid 50s Pete as I called him came to my  pad to hang out. Pete was an avid cyclist and wanted to go into the bicycle business. I was making a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and he started staring at the cheese between the two toasted breads. And it just hit him right there. A membrane between two stators would make an amazing way to fix broken bike tires.

“I said Pete, maybe you should make a speaker like that…I lent him 50 bucks to start the thing off… and that was it, the birth of the Quad 57.

“And I have been digging them ever since……”

Thank YEW! Try the veal, tip your waiter, we’ll be here all week!

Next issue, we’ll take a look at the culture that has helped preserve and occasionally even improve Quad ESLs, for the last sixty years.

On Words In Music

Dan Schwartz

I was trying to figure out when and where I first tried my hand at writing lyrics. The first time that I can still remember, they were written on the wall behind Stuart Marmelstein’s parents store on a starlit evening in 7th grade. They weren’t great, but you know, back then, it was a beginning. When I found out, upon his death, that David Bowie’s lyric writing method was sort of haphazard, I kicked myself for giving up.

Bob Dylan has said people don’t often give him credit for his music — it’s all about his lyrics. Why not? He has so much to say that’s worth hearing. (Though personally I rate his music even higher.) There are certain (a very few) lyricists I admire for their words as much as their music. John Lennon, Joni Mitchell — all the obvious ones. But generally, I think what Brian Eno told me about his lyric comprehension applies to me, too: Meaning Myopia. If they sound right, my ears hear them as part of the music, and that’s enough. Most opera falls into this category. Think about Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s words for “Einstein on the Beach”:

One two three four

One two three four

One two three four five six

One two three four five six seven eight

And then it repeats. (Obviously — it IS Philip Glass, after all). It’s not quite Mitchell’s “Hejira”, or the Fab’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but in the context, it works beautifully. But some lyrics are poetry as well as lyrical. Which brings me back to Rosanne Cash’s album Black Cadillac; and in particular the song, “The World Unseen”:


I’m the sparrow on the roof

I’m the list of everyone I have to lose

I’m the rainbow in the dirt

I am who I was and how much I can hurt


So I will look for you 

In stories of the kings

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen


I’m the mirror in the hall

From your empty room I can hear it fall

Now that we must live apart

I have a lock of hair and one-half of my heart


So I will look for you

Between the grooves of songs we sing

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen


There are no gifts that will be found

Wrapped in winter, laid beneath the ground

You must be somewhere in the stars

‘Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar


And I will look for you in Memphis and the miles between

I will look for you in morphine and in dreams

I will look for you in the rhythm of my bloodstream

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen

On the night we recorded the song, virtually as you hear it on the record, I got home near midnight and I awoke my wife to repeat the last chorus to her, I was so moved by what we had done.

As with taste in music, who can say what makes something make sense to one person, yet the same words can be meaningless to another? I look back on the most lyric-intensive time of my life with only a few items, besides Rosanne’s album, having made much difference to me. With most of the people we worked with in those years, while their lyrics may have great meaning to them, for me it was a case of my suffering from Meaning Myopia.

I’ve written about the bridge to “We Do What We Can” before. A few of Bill Bottrell’s songs mattered to me — in particular one tune that no one heard called “If I May Be So Bold”. For most people, David Baerwald’s lyrics are what his music is about. For me, as long as he sang about what he talked about, I was good. It’s the sound of the music that matters here – it’s a very rare artist who writes lyrics that convey meaning while writing mediocre music; more common is the reverse.

But even more rare is someone like Rosanne, where it all comes together.

Taking FLAC

Richard Murison

You hear and read a lot of strange stuff in the world of high-end audio.  It can be hard to sift through what is real and what is rubbish.  Perhaps the gold standard for audio weirdness is still Shun Mook’s (in)famous ‘Mpingo Discs’. [Personally, I would point to the creams and foils sold for many years by Peter and May Belt—Ed.]  Made from a particular (and, naturally, rare) type of Ebony, and treated with a ‘proprietary process’, these wooden discs are placed on top of audio components such as preamplifiers, where, via a process described somewhat vaguely as ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, they are said to improve the sound of said component.  The little wooden discs can also be mounted groups of multiple discs (expensive, at $50 per disk) on little wooden racks, and disported about your listening room, where they claim to endow benefits that appear to border on the miraculous.

Mpingo Discs have been around for over 20 years now, and by all accounts people are still buying them.  There are countless reviews – some of them by credible names in the audio reviewing business – which appear to buy into the Mpingo Disc magic.  I myself have actually heard demonstrations of Mpingo Discs, but could not detect anything of any great substance.

There is a story about Albert Einstein paying a visit to another great physicist of the day, Niels Bohr.  Einstein was surprised to find a good luck charm – a Gypsy horseshoe – nailed to the wall above Bohr’s desk. “Surely, Professor Bohr,” he asked, “you don’t believe in such superstitious nonsense?”.

“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but the Gypsy who sold it to me assured me it would bring me luck, whether I believed in it or not!”.  Thus it was that in the spirit of Bohr I kept an Ebony disc – which I picked up off the floor of a carpenter’s shop – on one of my loudspeakers for many years.  I even engraved a crude arrow on the surface so that, if needed, I could rotate it to a precise orientation.  I don’t believe it ever made any audible contribution, but I had a lot of fun with it trying to con gullible audiophiles.

The thing to bear in mind, though, when discussing the Mpingo Discs of this world is that resonance control in audio equipment is a real thing, and that – in principle, at least – anything placed on the surface of a preamplifier (or whatever) has the potential to interact with the inherent mechanical resonances of the structure.  Which, if nothing else, holds open the door to a discussion.

There is another discussion that has been going on for some time on the fringes of the digital audiosphere, which holds that compressed file formats such as FLAC and Apple Lossless (ALAC) don’t sound as good as uncompressed file formats such as WAV and AIFF.  Then there are related arguments, such as the one that says files containing metadata sound worse that files containing no metadata.  Finally there are utterly unrelated arguments such as the one that says the original files ripped directly from a CD sound better than copies of those files.  I know some big names in our industry who hold fast to those beliefs, and despite my best efforts I cannot convince them otherwise.

Many of these arguments founder on the rocks of a flawed interpretation of logic.  This is the notion that because you can set up an experiment in which a FLAC file can be heard to sound different from the exact same audio data stored in a WAV file, that this proves the claim.  But it doesn’t.  The raw audio data stored in both FLAC and WAV files is bit-for-bit identical – a simply provable fact.  Therefore it is the playback of one file type versus the other which is different.  It’s like when Bill Leebens and I both get out of my car.  Bill is wearing sandals and I’m wearing sneakers.  Bill’s feet get wet, but mine don’t.  This proves that sneakers are waterproof, and sandals are not.  Except that it proves no such thing … because there is a puddle on Bill’s side of the car, but not on mine (what, you think I’m gonna park with the puddle on my side?).

When reading a compressed file, before the music can be played the file has to be de-compressed.  With an uncompressed file it doesn’t.  It follows that there is more CPU activity involved in reading a compressed file than an uncompressed file.  Most of you will know that I work for a small company, BitPerfect Sound, developing audio playback software that runs on Macs.  Our mission is to optimize the sound quality of computer audio.  To that end, we have developed numerous correlations between things you can strictly observe and measure inside the computer, and things that subjectively sound better.  As a broad generalization, CPU activity is one of those things.  If you can reduce the CPU activity, then you will generally improve the sound quality.  Additionally, HDs are electronically noisy devices, and there is good evidence that computer-based audio systems tend to sound poorer when their HDs are active.  The same applies for SSDs as well.

Most playback software plays the audio stream directly from the file, so while it is playing music it is both reading the Disk, and extracting the audio content.  These activities will be slightly different if the file is a FLAC file or a WAV file.  Because a FLAC file is typically half the size of a WAV file, there will be half as much disk activity involved in reading it.  But because the FLAC file needs to be decompressed, there will be massively more CPU activity involved in extracting the audio content.  If nothing else, these mechanisms provide a basis for arguing that the playback of the two different file types can sound different.

To resolve this potential conundrum, therefore, we need to eliminate all playback differences from the picture.  Then, if there are any fundamental differences in sound between identical audio data stored in FLAC and WAV file formats, these can unambiguously emerge.  To a large extent, this is what BitPerfect, in the company of a select few other no-compromise audiophile playback Apps such as Audirvana, is able to do.  BitPerfect does not stream the audio data direct from the disk.  It pre-reads the file, and loads the audio data into RAM, where it sits in its native form as a raw PCM bitstream ready to be transmitted directly to the DAC.  Any processing that may be called for – such as sample rate conversion – is also done in advance.  Once the file has been read, decoded, pre-processed, and the raw data loaded into RAM … at that point we have identical raw audio data located in the exact same memory location – ready for playback – regardless of whether the file it came from was WAV, FLAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, or whatever.  From that point forward, the original file format can have no impact whatsoever on how playback proceeds.

To me, given the above scenario, there should be no detectable differences in the sound of the music, and indeed, I am utterly unable to perceive any.  With BitPerfect, the process of reading the file, decoding it, pre-processing it and loading it into RAM typically takes between 2 to 5 seconds.  During those brief seconds, I would concede that the potential exists for an audible difference to be present.  But it is beyond my capabilities to detect subtle sonic differences in such a short time.  Believe me, I have made many repeated efforts to compare ALAC vs AIFF (the Mac equivalent of FLAC vs WAV) over the years.  I maintain a significant proportion of my music library in various file formats so that I can readily call up a comparison if and when I wish to do so – being a software developer I need to do far more critical listening than the average sensible audiophile (if indeed there is such a thing).

One final observation.  Of all those who have told me they hear differences between FLAC and WAV files, as well as some of the other strange things I mentioned in the opening paragraph, one thing they all have in common is that all of them listen using Windows PCs.  I can’t help but wonder whether that is mere coincidence.


Lawrence Schenbeck

Boulez called it duration. By that he meant the whole spectrum of ways that music moves through time. (Jazz and rock musicians often refer to a sense of proper rhythm, or even rhythm itself, as “time,” e.g., “That cat has no time.”) Time really is of the essence. As music moves through time, it may also present with tones of higher or lower frequency (pitch), with pitches and beats that occur by themselves or in simultaneity with others (texture), using tone colors of one hue or another (timbre) and with varying degrees of loudness (dynamics). What it must do, however, is move through time. Time is prime. It’s the organizing factor, the true first dimension, the story.

Most of us learn about musical time via group activities like marching and dancing. You do these things with others, which is to say with some degree of coordination. Your partner—or your 140 marching-band partners—will want to hook up with you rhythmically. (One of the saddest scenes in a recent film, The Lobster, shows a rebellious group of outcasts, the Loners, dancing together but separately, each person tuned in to his or her own dance rhythm via smartphone and earbuds. Obviously pathological.) Rhythm can keep us all together; it’s a metaphor for social cohesion.

Immediately and as a matter of course, clever cultures find ways to complicate rhythm. Take the many survivals of West African polyrhythms in music of the Western Hemisphere.


They can be 2-against-3, or 4-against-6, or more. Part of their charm is how quickly and smoothly they reconfigure. Even the simplest iteration is more complex than the thuggish monotony of, say, a march. Consider the Allman Brothers in full swing:

00:00 / 01:22

That unrelenting, uneven foundational pulse is just one variant of the “clave” or “Spanish tinge” (thanks, Jelly Roll Morton) or “Bo Diddley” or hambone rhythm that pervades Caribbean and Creole dance. The precision with which the Allman Brothers execute it here, their two drummers, rhythm (!) guitarist, and bass player all hitting together, again and again and again, generates enormous power without ever relinquishing its infectious, asymmetrical groove.

When classical musicians appropriate this rhythm, they often reframe it as “atmosphere” (the picturesque, exotic, or historical) or they provide further complications. Here is Debussy at his most atmospheric in La Puerta del Vino:

00:00 / 01:23

Inspired by the Wine Gate near the Alhambra, in old Granada, this short piece from Book II of the Préludes is subtitled “Mouvement de Habanera,” i.e., a dance rhythm from Havana, i.e., the “Spanish tinge.” More accurately: Afro-Cuban. That’s exoticism for ya. (Our pianist was Marc-André Hamelin, from a Hyperion recording.)

And now, here are rhythmic “further complications” courtesy of Steve Reich. His 1985 New York Counterpoint relies on canon—strict repetition of a single theme that becomes more interesting when complicated, i.e., when each player begins playing it at a different point in time. The theme itself is jazzy and syncopated, so NYC can enact solo echoes of West African rhythm (as if one were playing only the right-hand part of a Joplin rag) but also mimic ensemble polyphonies (as with an entire drumming group or like when the whole front line of an old-school New Orleans band takes a chorus).

00:00 / 01:31

For the NYC recording, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn of Bang On A Can recorded 10 of the canon’s lines and then played along with them as 11th member of the “group.” Reich has done similar astonishing work with percussion alone, as in Music for Pieces of Wood; you can view a classic live performance here, or a helpful visualization of the beats here. After about a minute, you’ll hear the initial beat pattern seem to change from one-one-one-one or one-two-one-two-one-two to one-two-three-one-two-three-one-two-three. It doesn’t change, of course. Only the context—supplied by the other beats—changes. Keep listening.

Once you become aware of the beauties of syncopation (a Western word for asymmetrical, groove-inducing beats and the melodies that accommodate them), you may find yourself reconsidering the function of non-syncopated beats. Early in the 20th century, a number of creative musicians became newly mindful of The Machine and its heavy influence on the dawning Modern era. So we got George Antheil’s 1926 Ballet Mécanique, scored for multiple pianos, percussion, electric buzzers, and airplane propellers:

00:00 / 01:04

More recently, Mason Bates looked back in nostalgia at the machine era with a wry ode to the internal combustion engine in “Ford’s Farm, 1896,” part of his suite, Alternative Energy. The music proceeds in fits and starts, just as Henry Ford’s early prototypes may have done. After all, if you’re just one of several cylinders, timing is everything.


Want to take a little break from all this rhythm? You may well ask, how is that possible? Like music, aren’t humans fated to move through time? We can’t get off the bus. Well, we can, but you know what that means.

And so did Medieval and Renaissance musicians, who gradually invented musical ways of suggesting that time could stop. In heaven, time doesn’t matter. Visionary Christian composers developed musical metaphors for timelessness. Chief among these was a smooth, ceaseless flow of polyphony through which eternity and its multitudes of angels—the heavenly host—could be suggested to the faithful. Here is one of the most famous such works, Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585). It is scored for eight five-voice choirs.

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This way of dealing with time never completely left us—see Gavin Bryars, below. But in the mid-20th century, Olivier Messiaen spent time in a German POW camp and found another way to stop it. In composing a Quartet for the End of Time for his fellow prisoners, Messiaen envisioned both the Apocalypse (which he may have felt was already underway) and the peace that passes all understanding. He shattered time. We hear apparently random bird calls, virtually arrhythmic “Hindu” rhythms, shards of brilliant, incoherent sound. Yet somehow serenity also happens.


Messiaen’s Quartet breaks with the traditions of Western polyphony, but other voices have risen to continue those traditions in their own way. A new ECM recording of recent music by Gavin Bryars (b. 1943) includes The Fifth Century for choir and saxophone quartet. It’s a seven-movement setting of words by 17th-century English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne. Here’s a sample:

00:00 / 01:45

Eternity is a mysterious absence of times and ages: an endless length of ages always present, and forever perfect. . . .

(To be continued.)

Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde

Paul McGowan

Even in winter's grip Mesa Verde still displays color and history of the Southwest.

Canon 5D

Creation and Recreation

Creation and Recreation

Creation and Recreation

Bill Leebens

After writing this column for issue #22, which pondered why any of us get into designing or building  audio gear, I encountered a piece by Michael Lavorgna on AudioStream that gave me pause. That’s not a first: Michael is kinder, gentler, and more contemplative than me, and his ideas often force me to examine things that I’ve taken for granted.

Michael wrote about why actually producing music is important to those who obsess over REproducing music: “There are at least two relevant aspects to having and playing an instrument regardless of how well you play it; you gain a greater appreciation for and understanding of other people who play, and your ears will become fine-tuned to the real.”


Music has always been an important part of my life, but I never possessed the discipline to practice diligently, or to pursue lifelong instruction (unlike my old classmates Dave Soldier, Shawn Colvin, Susan Shiplett Ashbaker, and Randall Black, all of whom are respected professional musicians). My lazy-man, tangential relationship to music is rooted in singing Rogers & Hammerstein with my mother and sisters, gathered around the piano. Brother Chuck’s high school band, the Dimensions, inspired me—just not enough to work hard at piano lessons (hey, my teacher had an octave-and-a-half reach—how could I keep up?).

As the years went on, I sang in school choruses and plays (our high school production of My Fair Lady featured operatic singers  Randall Black and Susan Shiplett Ashbaker, with  multiple Grammy winner Shawn Colvin as Eliza Doolittle, for goodness’ sake). I could always project, and had a wide range; control was another matter.

Brother Chuck’s connections to record stores allowed exposure to all manner of music, all the way from Edgard Varese (“The present-day composer refuses to die!”) and Harry Partch to The Move and Dan Hicks. In late adulthood, I was recruited to sing bass in a Florida church choir. Florida being Florida, at 48, I was the youngest member of the group. Kvetching about my aches and pains during one rehearsal, I was taken to task by a 90-year-old bass: “You’re just a KID!” Yikes.

As always, I digress.

Michael’s piece hit me just as I’ve been thinking that I need to get back into singing, either in a choral group or a choir. Maybe even get some real lessons, and see if my erratic, thunderous voice can be tempered. I can no longer hit the Harry Nilsson high notes (neither could poor Harry in his later years!), but there’s still something there, some power and presence.

Even weirder for one who never progressed beyond playing by ear: I’ve been feeling the urge to get a piano. Not a little electronic keyboard, which would be the sensible thing to pursue, but an honest-to-God, bulky, bear-to-move piano. A restored Steinway upright has caught my eye, but can you believe how cheap nice baby grands are on Craigslist??

As is the case with audio gear, once the rabbit hole is entered, it’s tough to stop tumbling ever downward.

Entering my seventh decade, I’m less concerned than ever with doing things that are sensible. As far as I can tell, there’s very little in the world that’s sensible. I might as well cut to the chase and do what I want to do, those things that have been postponed by parenthood and endless other responsibilities. If 2016 has taught us nothing else, it’s that nobody lives forever. I should just do what I want.

…preferably without Cartman’s get-up. ;->