When we first started PS, back in 1973, we had only one product: a phono preamp. This preamp was a standalone phono stage (turntable preamp) that sounded really quite good. In fact, it was this phono stage that first brought Stan and I together as partners.
I had designed the phono stage as a broadcast piece of equipment under commission to a local radio station. After designing it I tried it out on my own system, which at the time was a Kenwood integrated amplifier hooked up to a pair of Phased Array loudspeakers out of Boston. But an Audiophile I was not and rumor had it that the local audio aficionado was named Norm Little and he had an awesome stereo system I might try it on.
Waterbeds and stereos
The next week I got a knock at my front door and to my surprise, it was Stan. â€œI sold my van for $500. Would you be interested in taking that money in trade for 50% of your new company?â€ Norm owned a company called Ball Waterbeds, a local retail shop selling waterbeds which, in the 1970's, were the rage to sleep on. I approached Norm with my little phono stage, which at the time ran on a pair of 9V batteries and was housed in a Roi Tan cigar box. Norm took one look at that setup and said â€œare you kidding me? The thing doesn't even plug into the wall?
I have an Audio Research preamplifier worth several thousand dollars and I'll be damned if I am going to connect that thing to it.â€ Norm did know of one of his employees who was crazy enough to hook it to his system, a waterbed installer named Stan Warren.
Stan was eager to try something new and so I arranged to head to his house. There I found an odd setup. In the middle of the living room was a homemade turntable stand that was mounted to the ground underneath his home's wooden floor through four holes cut out of his living room floor (I later learned about vibrations and their evil effects on the sound). Mounted to this homemade wooden stand was the oddest looking turntable I had ever seen. It was a Rabco ST4 with its linear tracking arm and mounted to it was a Decca phono cartridge - the biggest cartridge I had ever seen.
On a table next to the turntable there was a Dynaco Pat 4 preamplifier, an SAE 31B power amplifier and a pair of homemade loudspeakers. The loudspeakers had a standalone tweeter on top called a Heil Air Motion transformer (at the time it was ESS) and below, a single 8 inch woofer feeding a folded transmission line. The amp used standard zip cord for speaker cables as at that time, no one had ever heard of high-end wire (which is another story, involving Neil Sinclair of Theta and Mike Moffet who showed us what was called Cobra Cables).
We first listened to a couple of records through the Dynaco Pat 4 preamp's phono stage, then switched over to my cigar box phono stage. It sounded good to me and I was surprised when Stan kept switching between the two and mumbling something under his breath each time. I remember we were listening to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, Help Me when Stan turned down the sound and said â€œthis thing really sounds good. I like it better than the PAT 4.â€ Pleased, I packed up and went home to begin building these for the radio station.
The next week I got a knock at my front door and to my surprise, it was Stan. â€œI sold my van for $500. Would you be interested in taking that money in trade for 50% of your new company?â€
â€œWhat company?â€ I replied.
â€œThe company you and I are going to form to sell these phono stages to Audiophiles.â€
â€œWhat's an Audiophile?â€ I answered.
The next step was to put our new product into a real box with a real power supply that would make Stan's boss, Norm, happy because it plugged into the wall. Stan was convinced we needed to try it out on Norm's state of the art system before we went to market.
Norm finally agreed and we went to his home to see what a state of the art system looked like and sounded like. I was stunned.
The entire living room was taken over by the biggest stereo system I had ever seen. Here was a tri-amped Audio Research system. Against the rear wall (1/3 the way into the room) was the coolest collection of speakers I had seen. On top was a pair of Janzen electrostatic tweeters. For the midrange there was some kind of planar loudspeaker which I cannot remember, but on the bottom was a pair of 18â€ Cerwin Vega subwoofers (number 1 and 2 if I remember correctly) that were enormous.
We fired it up and I was amazed. I'll never forget the first track he played was Stevie Wonder's Living for the City from Innervisions. Then we heard Lou Reed's take a walk on the wild side. I had never heard bass, dynamics, sound stage, and the entire room coming alive with a high-end system.
To merely state that this was a personal revelation is a major understatement but I don't know what else to say - I simply cannot do justice to the wonders of that first experience. It was an eye opening event that shaped the rest of my life for the next 40 years and counting.
Now it was time to connect my preamp. I was itching to watch Norm's face smile in amazement and bless our new product. This was exciting.
We listened to the same two tracks again and then Norm turned to us and said â€œyou have a lot of work to do to come close to the Audio Research. It's good, but not even close.â€ I was mortified; surprisingly, Stant took it in stride and actually seemed to have anticipated that reaction.
Then Stan asked an interesting question. â€œObviously it can't be as good as a tube, but what about as a solid state piece?â€ Norm contemplated that for a moment and then said â€œlet's try it out. I have what I consider to be the best solid state piece around.â€ He then went into the closet and pulled out a really cool looking preamplifier called a Quintessence.
We played the same tracks, did the same comparison and the results this time were better. Norm said â€œMuch closer, your little preamp's pretty good, but not up to the Quintessence.â€ So we left, and I figured we were doomed. Stan cheered me up by saying â€œlet's figure out what the differences between the two are and see if we can tweak it to sound closer. The Quintessence is a couple of grand and ours is going to sell for under $100. If we can get even close, we're in.â€ I had no idea what â€œtweakingâ€ meant, but I was in.
A Tweaking we will go
We learned that a second Quintessence was in town and available for us to audition and test against. We also learned that internally, the two designs were remarkably similar: both based on a 709C op amp.
The first step was to open the Quintessence and see what was different. To our dismay, almost everything was different except the basic amplifier circuitry. They used a single 709C with a wrap around RIAA curve, while we used two 709's in a passive RIAA curve (we still use this passive RIAA curve to this day). Both Stan and I were convinced that our topology was superior, so we proceeded to find out what else might be different.
Without going into great detail, we spend the next four months changing the types of capacitors, resistors, learning what each area of the circuit did to affect the sound. We tried different manufacturers of the op amp and, to our surprise, found HUGE differences between them (all the same dye). We settled on Motorola, and we got closer and learned an amazing amount of information about what affects the sound; but we never could break the barrier between the two units. We were learning a lot but not finding the actual key.
Just at the point where we were ready to throw in the towel, a good friend of ours attended the AES convention in New York. He was an engineer and an Audiophile (JBL corner horns and Audio Research system) and sympathized with our plight. While at AES he ran into the designers of the Quintessence and explained our quest and our dilemma. One of the designers confided in him the secret:
â€œThese guys will probably never get it trying to simply change parts and values. There is a fundamental problem they are overlooking and it's the secret to our piece. It turns out that the 709 op amp, while the best sounding op amp of the day - compared to the 741 and 301 op amps - has a fatal flaw. Its output stage is class B. What we did is simply ran a volt or two of DC through the op amp to bias the output stage to class A and that's why it sounds so much like a tube.â€
Bingo. In those early days there were only a handful of op amps available. Only one sounded punchy, dynamic and musical and we both found it. The venerable 709 was a killer op amp with one flaw that these guys caught and we did not. Thanks to the camaraderie and open attitude of sharing during those early heady days of high-end, we were able to fix the problem and build the first PS Audio product, the original phono stage. It retailed for $59.95 and came with a full money back guarantee. We sold thousands of them and still, to this day, they are treasured by many.
We will always be indebted to these designers and have always shared openly with others our design ideas and thoughts because it was and still is a great tradition of the high-end.