The higher the resolution of an audio system, the more that attention to detail matters. Nowhere was this more evident than in the main audio system at The Absolute Sound. (I worked there as technical director around 1986 – 1994.)
Part of my job at TAS was The Care and Feeding of The System. Harry Pearson, the editor-in-chief, wanted the system to be in top performing shape at all times. I soon found out that the slightest adjustments or changes to it could affect the sound – sometimes significantly. Things that might cause subtle to moderate differences in another audio rig, like swapping interconnects or cables, changing tubes or moving speakers a fraction of an inch, would be intensely magnified in HP’s setup.
Small wonder, considering that it was comprised of ultrahigh-end components like the Infinity IRS V loudspeakers, Goldmund Reference turntable and a parade of premium gear like the Audio Research SP-11 and Convergent Audio Technology SL1 preamplifiers, VTL 500 amplifiers and all manner of cables, tweaks and accessories.
For example, changes in VTA (vertical tracking angle, the angle of the tonearm/stylus to the record surface) could be dramatic on HP’s system. We could readily hear differences in VTA when playing records of different thicknesses. Because we would test different cartridges, I had to regularly change the VTA on whatever tonearm we had in place, which was usually the Goldmund T3F straight-line tracking arm.
This was a complex beast which used an electronic servo mechanism to control the motion of the arm across the record. The arm was mounted on a large beam, and in order to adjust VTA, four Allen screws at each corner of the beam had to be loosened, then the entire beam had to be raised or lowered, the screws tightened, and the adjustment validated by listening and then repeating the cumbersome procedure if the sound/adjustment wasn’t right. The height of each corner of the beam had to be the same, to within 0.001 (one-thousandth) of an inch.
On a good day this could take a half-hour. But there were bad days. More than once I slipped and dropped the beam, hearing a nerve-wracking clunk – while forgetting to note the starting measurement. This meant that I had no idea what the original height was, and had to re-set up the arm height from square one. This could take hours.
In order not to accidentally trash the cartridge I had to hold the bottom of the beam with one hand while making adjustments with the other hand, an awkward balancing act at best. And the right side of the very heavy and very immovable turntable was almost against the right listening room wall, leaving little room to access the right side of the arm and work on it. I had to kneel down and twist into unnatural positions to get to it. After hours of such Houdini-like contortions my neck and back would be killing me. After a few years at The Absolute Sound I started seeing a chiropractor.
If only getting phono cartridges optimized in HP’s system was that simple.
Harry’s setup was so sensitive that changes in temperature and humidity could affect the sound. In fact, Harry noted these things in his listening notes and insisted TAS reviewers do the same.
The first time I worked with the Big System, I noticed that a Tensor lamp was sitting next to the turntable. For those who don’t remember, a Tensor lamp was small but had a high-intensity bulb. I asked Harry about it. He said, “it shines on the cartridge in order to keep the cartridge at a constant temperature. That way its performance is more consistent.”
“Jeez, this system really is sensitive,” I thought. And didn’t think much else about it.
One fine night some time later, after Harry and I had gone out to dinner, we sat down to listen. It was just the two of us, unwinding. We put on a record, then another. Then Harry looked at me with that “something’s not right” expression, something I had become all-too-familiar with after a few months on the job.
“The lamp isn’t on! Turn on the lamp!”
It had been a long and exhausting day, I had had a couple of drinks and we weren’t doing the usual show-off-the-system schtick for visitors, so I hadn’t done my usual careful pre-listening system check and had forgotten to turn on the Tensor lamp.
I got up out of my chair, reached for the switch on the lamp and flicked it on.
The sound of a gunshot.
“YAAAHHH!” Both of us recoiled. I instinctively jumped back.
Harry, however, was still sitting in his chair, so he flew back in the chair, which loudly slammed into the back wall. The chair hit the wall with such force that it put a large hole into the sheetrock. He was sitting with the chair leaning at something like a 20 or 30-degree angle, utterly panicked.
Having no idea what had just happened and in a state of sheer terror, I gingerly looked around to see where the gunman was.
There was no one in the house but us.
I have to admit, after I recovered from the initial shock, I had to force myself not to laugh out loud at the sight of Harry, ready to fall back and over out of his chair were it not for the fact that it was wedged into the wall and keeping Harry from falling over onto his keister. You should have seen the expression on his face. It was both scary and hysterical.
I grabbed the back of the chair and shoved him back into a normal seating position.
I may not be quoting those words exactly verbatim.
“I don’t know. I don’t know!” There may have been some off-color words in my response as well.
I stood there, completely bewildered. Something must have happened! And if it wasn’t a gunshot, it must have been something else. I looked around the room, and it gradually dawned on me that the sound must have come from the speakers. But what could have caused such a bang? I looked and looked and looked at all the equipment in the room…
The bang had occurred when I flicked the switch to the lamp.
I told Harry that must have been it. But why?
We both figured out at the same time. It must have been because the cartridge in the system, a Spectral, was a low-output moving coil. As such, it needed a phono stage with a lot of gain. When I turned on the Tensor lamp it must have emitted a burst of noise or interference of some kind that was picked up by the extremely sensitive cartridge/interconnects/phono preamp. And amplified by an insane amount of gain. Through a mighty Levinson 23 amp if I recall correctly, and a speaker system that could produce the requisite hellacious volume. Enough to cause a bang loud enough to sound like a gunshot.
I don’t remember if we did any listening the rest of the night or turned the system off and hightailed it out of that room.
For the rest of the time I was at The Absolute Sound and all the times I visited afterwards, the hole in the wall was never fixed. Who knows, it may still be there today, the new owners of the house destined to never know how it got there.
Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joost Dicker Hupkes