Every now and then a new company appears in the audio world, seemingly out of nowhere, with high aspirations and novel technology. Versa Dynamics was one such company, appearing in the late 1980’s with an outrageous and elegant state-of-the-art turntable system. The company may have been new to audio, but designer John Bicht had previously worked on phono playback systems for others, and on the mechanical and industrial designs of a bewildering array of disparate devices.
Bicht jumped feet-first into the world of design at age 16, when he sought to buy a Ferrari 250GT California for $5500 (it is to weep!) in Baltimore. Not having any money, he created several product designs and tried first to sell them, and then offered to trade them in exchange for the car. His offer was politely declined—and not to rub salt into the wound, but 2 California Spyders were recently sold for $17 million and $18 million….
His automotive obsession led Bicht into racing Formula Fords round the east coast, working as a race mechanic to fund his drives. In 1972 he moved to England, and became involved in the design and build of Formula Ford and Formula Atlantic racecars for DRL Engineering/Hawke. (A fascinating photo album of Bicht’s racing days can be found here: http://www.vintagegarage.com/hbicht1.html )
Still in England, at one point, when I figured I would have to find auto mechanic schools to bring my knowledge up to date… “I stopped racing and sold the race car, and that left me with extra money every month,” said Bicht. “I decided I’d buy some hi-fi equipment… I bought some gear, wasn’t impressed, returned it, and was tipped off by the salesman that I should look at more interesting stuff, and started reading the magazines.”
While working for Ogle Design on projects ranging from crash-protection for Army Land Rovers to emergency doors for Hong Kong commuter trains, Bicht continued to look at available hi-fi products.
Less than impressed by existing tonearms, he decided that designing and building a pick-up arm “might be something I could do.” “Schooled” by “a real crazy type” British reviewer, Bicht analyzed tonearm structure and designed a unit which “took it as far as I could, eliminating vibration.”
Friendships with those in the field, including Allen Boothroyd and Bob Stuart at then-new Meridian, led Bicht to take his tonearm design to a number of manufacturers. He encountered Farad Azima, who had recently started “a tiny company called Mission Electronics”. Bicht sold the arm to Azima, who manufactured and sold it as the Mission 774. The arm is still highly regarded; one recently sold online with matching 773 cartridge for 400 Euro. http://www.vinylengine.com/library/mission/774-(original).shtml
In 1979, Bicht returned to the US, and designed a belt-drive turntable for Azima, “which was the beginning of my research into suspension for record players….It was also the time when I became aware there was such a thing as constrained-layer damping, and I started to apply that. ” Mission ultimately rejected the design, and Bicht worked on a number of projects including the rebuild of a Ferrari engine and the design of a semiconductor-assembly machine which worked at the then-unheard-of rate of 10,000 units per hour.
In 1984, a new company was set up for production of robotics: Versa Dynamics. After a year and a half of development, funding fell through, and Bicht took on contract work, including the design of a high-speed parts counter.
During a visit back to England, reviewer Paul Messenger showed Bicht the latest-greatest turntable on the market. As usual, Bicht was unimpressed. Back stateside, a visit to Lyric HiFi in New York allowed him to examine the megabuck Goldmund turntable; again, he was unimpressed. “I tapped on it and bounced it, and said to myself, ‘I can do better than that.’”
In 1986, the Versa Dynamics name appeared in on the company’s first product, a record player which was oddly-named “Model 2.0”. “I guess I called it that because it was the second record-player I designed…but it did cause some confusion,” said Bicht.
The Model 2.0 combined a linear-tracking arm riding on air bearings with an air bearing for the platter, and suction to firmly attach the LP to the platter. J. Gordon Holt reviewed the Model 2.0, and raved about the unit’s performance, but expressed concern about a few issues—and the price: “There is something vaguely disturbing about the idea of an $8000 turntable and arm combination. That’s more money than a lot of audiophiles have invested in records through the years.” http://www.stereophile.com/turntables/785/index.html#e85XegZJf7AmAZ4K.97
Support from those in the audio industry quickly generated interest in the 2.0. “Dan D’Agostino helped spread the word, and was very good to us, and Richard Vandersteen was as well,” Bicht said. A simpler, less-expensive second model, the Model 1.0 (!!), appeared in due time.
After a few years of increasing costs, production was halted. “The problem was that the record players just cost too much to build.” While production of new units stopped, Bicht continued to develop improvements to both players and support units in the field, a practice which, impressively, continues to this day. http://www.versalab.com/VERSA%20DYNAMICS.html
From Versa Dynamics, Bicht spun off another company, Versalab. Bicht imported a CD player from Europe, and in order to get the players to pass certification for RF emissions, inserted a toroid into the power cord to reduce emissions. Bicht said, “I listened to the thing with and without the power cord—and I said, ‘oh, my…it SOUNDS better.’…I realized that you couldn’t get away from that RF noise—it was everywhere.”
The purchase of a $25,000 RF spectrum analyzer and “a massive amount of research on my part” led to development and sale of an RFI filter system in 1992, consisting of three elements: Rollers, Wood Blocks and Ground Blocks. Despite an enthusiastic review by Wes Phillips in Stereophile, the industry was unwilling to support the new products, viewing them as akin to other tweaks of the era, such as the Tice Magic Clock. Bicht said, “I’d moved out of this safe position of being a record player maker, where amplifier designers and speaker designers and cable people could like me and take care of me…I now was selling a device that would make their amplifiers and their cables and their speakers sound different…and they didn’t really like it.”
Bicht left the field of audio as a manufacturer (although, as noted, Versalab continues to support and update the Versa Dynamics players, thirty years after their manufacture). An avid photographer, he saw the need for a well-made print washer. He said, “I get an interest in an area, like watches—and then I go to buy stuff and then think, ‘I wouldn’t buy that, it’s not good enough’. And then I think that there might be a market for it. That’s the same thing that happened with the [photographic] print washer we make. I was…setting up a darkroom and couldn’t believe the prices people were charging for print washers., and they were all glued-together acrylic….I just designed one for myself and put it on the market [in 1996].”
Bicht noted parallels between film photography and analog playback gear: at one point, sales of the print washer had dropped to zero, but have now returned to about half of the peak level, similar to the recent resurgence in vinyl. An enlargement-alignment device remains so popular that Versalab has difficulty keeping up with orders.
Recent products from Versalab include an espresso grinder and press, and a stone for sharpening watchmaker tools. Bicht’s interest in watches led to redesign a vintage Rolex and other watches, and he was dissatisfied with the tools available.
“Nobody listens to me when I say this, but all these products— as much as I dove into them to make them as good as they could possibly be—they were all done because I needed a way of making a living. Every one of these different things—espresso, whatever it is—I could put you to sleep by telling you the details that one ends up learning about this stuff.” John Bicht may have moved away from audio, but he continues to innovate and invent.
A summary of Bicht’s amazing career in design can be seen here: http://www.versalab.com/BICHT.html
Current products from Versalab can be seen here: http://www.versalab.com/