Stubbornness

August 22, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

My favorite audio company of all time is Audio Research, back in the day when William Zane Johnson ran it.

Bill Johnson was a passionate man—stubborn too. For many years, he had every right to be firm in his beliefs. In those days, Audio Research made the best-sounding audio equipment in the world. If you’ve never had the opportunity to hear a vintage Audio Research system on resolving speakers, you’ll have difficulty understanding the passion and reverence for that lush, rich, warm sound washing over you. It was so juicy you could just fall into the music.

Change was hard for Bill Johnson. The idea of balanced inputs or detachable power cords just chapped his buns. He and I sparred over such newfangled ideas but I was never able to sway him—particularly about power cords (though someone must have). Years later all Audio Research products sported detachable cords.

Bill’s stubbornness about power cables came from two areas: “bullshit!” and “what we have works.”

The first is obvious if you knew Bill. I could never persuade him that power cables mattered. He was too much of a diehard engineer to swallow any of that.

But what hurt Audio Research was the last bit of reasoning: what we have works.

Sometimes it’s alright—preferable even—to acquiesce to what your customers want as long as it doesn’t violate your core principles.

Bill Johnson’s core principles were simple.

Make great music.

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37 comments on “Stubbornness”

  1. I’ve never heard this brand, so perhaps I should stop now. “Yes” they shout. I am intrigued that the AR site refers to it as the daddy of High End audio, a peculiarly American concept. Had I been in the audio market in 1970 for a valve amp, I would almost certainly have bought a Quad II, flat response and distortion free, affordable, small, uncomplicated, launched in 1953 and still in production.
    There seems no point in a discussion about the merits of such equipment, I’m sure it’s a matter of taste and sides are polarised.
    Perhaps someone in the USA can explain to a European what High End really means.

    1. I owned an Audio Research SP8 MkII back in the mid ’80s, based on the rave reviews and a recommendation from the dealer who sold me my Linn LP12. Ultimately I didn’t “warm” up to it. At the time I read not only Stereophile and the Absolute Sound but also Hi-Fi News & Record Review and other English magazines. Audio Research gear was considered ne plus ultra both in the U.S. and U.K. audio press — Hi-Fi News was gushing over the SP10 back in 1984 — so I’m surprised you’re not familiar with the brand. English electronics were, for the most part, unloved in the U.S., unlike the turntables and speakers.

    2. Arnie Nudell is a genius. In 1970 the most expensive sound system was about the price of an American luxury car such as a Cadillac. the best speakers like Infinity Servo Static, KLH 9, JBL Paragon cost about $2000. Add the best amplifiers like McIntosh, Marantz, and yes Crown (recommended by Arnie to drive the midrange electrostatic elements in his Servo Static, a Thorens turntable with an SME arm and an Ortofon or Shure cartridge and you came to around to around five or six thousand dollars. Then one day something new appeared, the Infinity IRS. At $50,000 it wasn’t the price of a car, it was the price of a house. Remarkably there was a market for it. Soon others realized there was money to be made. High end meant high priced. Everything became fair game, even wires. Anyone remember Monster Cable and the shootout in Stereo Review magazine where they were found to be indistinguishable from 16 gage lamp cord in a very carefully designed elaborate test with a lot of test points and standard data analysis? Naturally Monster didn’t take kindly to it and withdrew its advertising. No one ever made that kind of mistake again.

      Up up and away. Sometime around the 1980s there was a wine scam. A French company bottled cheap wine under bogus labels indicating they were of much higher quality from famous chateaux. They shipped their worst wine to the US because the US public was least informed. There’s an old saying, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. I think you can extend that to the entire world. Anyone want to buy a pet rock? A mood ring? A hoola hoop? How about a Duncan Imperial yoyo?

      1. I was wondering if it was anything more than about money and people’s willingness to be parted from it. Others may disagree. All I know is that my audio system’s price tag is the same as an ARC 250w monoblock, so I will probably never know.

        1. You buy a speaker for $150,000 a pair and a few weeks later the same manufacturer comes out with an entirely new model he says beats the one you bought and only costs $25,000 more. What do you do? The $44,000 amplifier, the best of three Atkinson had couldn’t quite cope with the YG acoustics Sonja 1.3 (the BHK came through with flying colors.) The Sonja 1.1 was an even more difficult electrical load. So what happens if you bought that $100,000 speaker made from machined aluminum using a CRC milling machine to form all of its parts? A year later he comes out with one Dick Diamond claims is the best speaker in the world for slightly more money and there isn’t an aluminum cone or cabinet at all. I do agree with him in one respect, it is convenient to have a half ton crane in your listening room. Good thing you have all those muscle men Paul. I don’t think you have a crane in your listening room What do those woofer towers weigh, 800 pound each? Is a half ton crane enough or do you need a one ton crane instead? Are you going for the Genesis Prime?

          1. The audio market at all levels seems to feed on the brand loyalty / upgrade path model. Perhaps it should be named the Principle of Continuous Disappointment and Regret.
            Devialet ran into trouble as they sold the product on the basis of software-only upgrades and did two hardware upgrades in 6 years, so they had to heavily discount the second one.
            I got round the speaker issue by going for a brand (Harbeth) based on sonics, but which does not have an upgrade path. There is broadly one speaker for small and large rooms and three variants at similar prices for mid-size rooms, so you will never feel you have second-best. My choice has been through 7 iterations in 40 years of production, only one involving improvement to the main driver.
            Perhaps audio designers should be obliged by law to make one personal delivery per month. Perhaps they will then appreciate the issues relating to kit the size and weight of a small automobile.
            Griping apart, I have no qualms at all about the merits of a High End industry, because it is just Capitalism at work and I am a free-marketeer.

            1. I bought Harbeth’s for the excellent acoustics, but not long after purchasing my Super HL5 + Alan Shaw released the 40th Anniversary Edition which appears to have upgraded wiring, binding posts and a few other tweaks. And I could also “upgrade” to the 40.2. All the companies are going to upgrade……..part of the business model, surely?

              1. I changed from SHL5+ to the 40th Anniversary version for purely cosmetic reasons: they were made in walnut only, a wood never before used by Harbeth, but the main wood colour in my room. Harbeth have never said they are a performance upgrade, although their Benelux dealer thinks they are. I didn’t do a comparison. They really were limited – only 20 pairs of the SHL5+ were made for the UK. It wasn’t about profit either. The extra component cost probably reduced the profit margin. As a permanent new model at the same profit margin, the price would be too high.
                M40.2 really are for larger rooms. For midsize rooms SHL5+ are sufficient. I use mine with a small REL S2 sub, cost $1,000, a much cheaper and better solution if a little lower bass is desired.
                I also have P3ESR. For such a small speaker, they too can fill a midsize room and are often used that way as they are more discreet.

        2. Bueno – Steven and Mark are models of frugailty. The Very Model of a Modern Major….

          For the first half of Mark’s post, I thought, “My God – he’s said Arnie is a Genius, how refreshing…” – and then it turned into Arnie being responsible for rampant profligate expenditure on useless audio devices.

          How much does that stuff you develop at work cost, Mark? Or is it OK because it is funded by large corporations, and subsequently paid for by tens or hundreds of thousands of consumers?

          1. If I don’t spend at least a million dollars a year it’s been a very bad year. Their job is to find the money, my job is to spend it. I said spend it, not waste it. You don’t think I do this audio kind of work for a living do you? I’d starve if I did. I don’t develop products. I analyze systems, find out what is required of them for a new project or what is wrong with them, and then I come up with the best plan to get to the goal and implement it. I specify the equipment, buy it, and supervise its installation and startup. It’s a lot of fun and a challenge. Failure is not in my vocabulary. Usually I build Rolls Royces. I figure if you screw up a Rolls Royce a little you might wind up with a Cadillac. If you screw up a Ford Pinto, you could wind up with a Yugo. I don’t do Pintos. Nothing but the best for my clients, cost is never a consideration. First I figure out what needs to be done and then I figure out what it’s going to cost. Then I tack on about 40% to be sure I don’t go over budget. 🙂 If they can’t afford it and insist on the cheap junk like Siemens, well then they take the responsibility if something goes wrong. I always hate it when I have to tell them “I TOLD YOU SO.”

  2. Paul,

    my 1976 ARC SP-3A and D-150 still work fine with fixed power cords on both 😉
    No too bad for 40-years-old components.
    The SP-3A is still one of my references if it comes to timbre an comes back to my stereo from time to time.
    Especially with woodwinds there are only few pre-amps that are as good as the SP-3A.
    It is another thing with the D-150 beast which could only be handled with the help of a friend or two if you don’ want to wreck your spline.
    I guess a lot of people would enjoy the sound of the two even today although there are better ones you could buy these days.

    Regards

    1. Not knowing anything about ARC, I googled the SP-3.
      https://www.stereophile.com/content/audio-research-sp-3-preamplifier
      When reviewed, it was stated:
      “Meanwhile, we will continue to be completely happy with the closest thing we have found to that ideal straight-wire-with-gain—the SP-3 from the Audio Research Corporation.”
      Back to Peter Walker and Quad again.
      So what was ARC’s ethos in terms of its shaping, if any, of the sound? What makes their components as good as people suggest?
      Is ARC similar to Audio Note?

      1. ss,

        ARC is not similar to Audio Note (as far as I know there is a British company with this name as well as a Japanese company).
        ARC’s goal was just to build good sounding amps but that differs much with ARC of today.

        Regards

      1. That’s very worrying. It was considered straight-wire-with-gain and passed A/B bypass tests to that effect. I thought you liked a bit of colour (nothing wrong with that). How was Nebraska? Dark?

        1. Nebraska’s cooler than I had imagined, though the room we rented for the night at a fleabag motel for $400 was nasty enough Terri wouldn’t sleep inside the sheets so she laid atop a quilt from home instead.

          The eclipse was amazing. Darkness descended and all around us was the red of both sunset and sunrise at the same time. Pretty eerie and worth seeing for sure.

          1. Sounds amazing and worth being ripped off by a hotelier, as it is once in a lifetime. Unfortunately the residents of Nashville had an obstructive cloud, which led to some interesting CNN commentary and will no doubt lead to some depressing songs. In my youth I was booked in a hotel so bad we pitched tent in the front garden. My wife has standards that I can only aspire to.

  3. Aren’t we all stubborn in some way…
    I see examples on a daily basis on this site.
    Not a lot of mental flexibility. We stick to what we believe, not very susceptible to other opinions.

  4. I still do not quite understand why a short piece of power cord matters so much when one cannot do anything normally about the power cable inside one’s home and outside. When I finished my music room in the basement, I made sure the electrician used the thickest cables to all the power sockets which have since been upgraded to hospital grade in the music room. I hope he has also put in the best circuit breakers for these links too. I tend to agree with Bill Johnson that eliminating one socket by having a soldered power cord in your electronic equipment may be better. I think this is too difficult a subject for me to understand completely.

    1. If you ask a designer of a tv-tuner he could tell you that in his daily work he can observe strange effects when optimising a new designed circuit never mentioned in his design text-books. This gives much room for speculation and snake-oil dealers offering for instance some quantum-effects based tweaks. From a simple electron flow it is hard to understand or believe that a megabuck speaker cable should improve the sound while there is a simple naked unschielded litz wire between the voice coil and the binding post of the different drivers. But if you remember that flowing electrons create an electromagnetic field with consecutive effects things become a bit complicated. Other effect besides induction are reflected waves. Finally all models claiming to describe the world are based on assumptions and simplifications. However as our ancestors even today many believe that the “creation” of the world is based on “holy” numbers – ignoring that these numbers were invented/created by some smart human brains. And concerning perception: to err and to fool yourself is human.

    2. The removing of preasure contacts makes me wonder too.
      The IEC and grounding methods is much more important and matters in the end sound we achieve.
      Most devices including ps audio put the ac power input and huge transformers in the same cabinet with the sensitive low level audio and digital Boards. Makes me wonder why most all devices should be two parts or atleast a real rfi / emf enclosed separation.
      Cords matter a little if made to do so. A much larger ground wire is a good start. So if the cord has say 16 gauge conductors of black and white the ground should be 12 gauge. The larger the ground conductor ratio gets us closer to a starr grounding plane
      Isolating by shielding or other methods of the ground in our systems matters too.
      My setup has 10 gauge conductors but 6 gauge grounds that is not in the Romex with the conductors.
      All grounds go to one point and as individuals for each outlet. Keeping the same path for grounds. In doing so no power cords matter
      To me.

  5. While I can agree with you that AR was great sounding stuff back in the 1970s, I sold a lot of it and owned it myself, Bill Johnson’s ethics finally drove me away. I won’t go into detail here as it would not be appropriate, but trust me his business model was one not to be envied. You just keep doing it your way.

    1. Back in the day I met Paul Klipsch. In the late 70’s/early 80’s manufacturers and their reps had elaborate dealer agreements with requirements that no dealer could really adhere to, using “secret shopper” visits to see if the dealers were following the terms of the agreements. Paul was different. He just had a credit agreement, if he shipped you product, you were obligated to pay for it. He had more of an “at will” relationship with his dealers; he’d ship you product if he wanted to, you purchased product if you wanted to, and interesting and then successful business model.

  6. This post reads to me like a slam of today’s ARC. How good they used to be. I have owned older ARC and newer ARC gear and they are both well-built and gorgeous sounding. Different, yes. But to my ears, the Ref 5SE sounds every bit as good as the SP10.

    1. I certainly didn’t mean it as a slam to AR. Truth be told I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the brand in the years following Bill’s departure. I suppose they’ve kept up with their heritage, but I wouldn’t know.

  7. A few commnets to paul as I think this is more him than bill perhaps.
    A few years back dsd is not needed and sounds worse ?? Remember paul
    A few Months back mqa is bad not needed and too complex to have.
    What a difference some time makes
    Or is it the line at your door advising you. My hope is trump learns as you did lol.

    1. The whole MQA set of issues hasn’t changed for most of us, including, I suspect, Paul. He’s just the most mellow and accomodating guy, and very willing to see the other side – including lots of his customers losing their collective minds over the notion that he was going to Deprive them of the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, audio-wise. He managed to accomodate them without compromising his DAC code, so – sorta, win-win.

      (This is saying “Win” with respect to PS Audio with tongue firmly in cheek, as it was a gigantic PITA for them, and the actual cost of which would be hard to assess. And MQA might put “Win” in quotes on their end as well, as they started out insisting that it could not be implemented other than via dedicated hardware.)

      For many of us, it has Nothing to do with how MQA sounds. If it had been a free codec from day one, along the lines of flac, the controversy would’ve been either significantly less, or non-existent.

  8. As someone who installs audio equipment I often begged for removable power cords on everything. Not because I cared if they sounded different but because it’s a pain to drag an eight foot cable in an out of a cabinet and try and fish it through a tiny space while attached to a heavy amp etc.

  9. I have had experiences with early ARC gear both very good and very bad. But even more important than any piece of equipment I believe Bill Johnson and ARC and Mark Levinson are the two factors that changed the scale of the audio industry that has led to the stratospheric goals and costs that we live with today. Both were important in a magnitude change in prices which allowed these higher goals. Mark changed marketing and packaging as well as performance culminating in the full Levinson system with electronics and speakers that anyone could instantly see wasn’t like the stuff your daddy had. And Bill made the industry look at multiple directions for performance in an almost contradictory way by going back to but scaling up the past, tube gear in the beginning of the solid state era. Now everyone didn’t need to follow one path to audio bliss.

  10. Stubbornness or skepticism? Skepticism is healthy in a world of scams. I lived in what I thought were three of the scam capitals of the world, New York City where Madison Avenue finds ways to sell you anything, California where everyone pretends everyone else is what they say they are even if they haven’t got a clue, and Europe where they even scam themselves into believing in their own superiority. But scamming is now worldwide and I could relate a thousand stories about different ones I’ve run into. It’s not just uninformed consumers who are the targets of scamming, it’s everyone including leaders in large corporations, scientists, and government. They are also among the scammers. Magic pebbles, a brick on your amplifier, green ink from a felt tip pen on your CDs, who knows what to believe? Your computer is infected with a virus. Click here and get a free scan and fix for your computer for free to see how wonderful our virus protection works. Click OK and you’ve just downloaded a virus or some other malware.

    Finding out what is true and what isn’t, not to mention what it is really worth moneywise is not always something easy to do. Buyer beware. Is so called high end audio a scam? Add up the cost of the parts, multiply it by 10 and if it costs more than that, the answer is yes. If you think you are paying for scientific research you are usually wrong. Mostly what you are paying for is the time it takes for trial and error to come up with something the manufacturer likes and then goes out to sell it for what he thinks the market will bear. A rave review in a hobbyist magazine helps a lot. Since they are advertisers or potential advertisers there is a clear potential for conflict of interest. How many times have I heard audiophiles say they heard very expensive sound systems that were awful? Call the dealer and you’ll likely get “it hasn’t been broken in yet, give it time.” It’s been six weeks and it still sounds awful. “Sorry our return policy is 30 days, you’re out of luck.”

  11. Paul, I don’t believe you presented a full picture of William Z Johnson relating to his willingness to change.

    He began his business as an electronics repair shop which led to modifying Dynaco gear. From that he started his own brand, Audio Research Corp., ARC. Typically all three initials were used to differentiate them from Acoustic Research, Inc. (AR) the speaker manufacturer.

    Anyway, as Bill’s products evolved, marked by increasing model numbers, by the time he moved on from the SP-3, the SP-4 (and 5) was solid state design. However, in spite of some favorable reviews for those, and their companion amps, he returned to tube designs with the SP-6, which he then remained utilizing. I believe that demonstrated more openness to change than your story suggests.

  12. I used to work in the 70’s as a line repairman for the now defunct BSR turntable company. The head engineer was Jack Dodgson, who had been one of the top engineers for Fisher when Fisher had been one of the highest names in audio. On the work floor I used to get a few seconds to ask Mr. Dodgson questions about improving my audio sound. One day he handed me a white paper… “Valves vs Solid State.” That changed everything.

    All of a sudden there was news that Audio Research selling equipment that probably sounded better than anything else on the planet that time. I never could afford Audio Research. I settled for finding a used McIntosh MC 275 and C20 preamp which I had refurbished. With KEF 104ab’s? It was my first taste of what has been hidden from the mass market of herd-ears. When Absolute Sound and Stereophile started circulating , the audiophiles who used to tease and jeer me for liking tubes were silenced. Some started looking for tubes too.

    Today… solid state and hybrid technology and digital are finally catching up. Back in those days of tubes I found myself being very stubborn. My ears told me so. The other voices? … They were fake news. Sometimes its good for a soul to be stubborn.

  13. Audio Research products were indeed very good and still are yet I wonder if they could not have been even better if good separate power cords had been used when they became available. Since AR products were already at the top with inbuilt cords Mr. Johnson may have concluded that separate cords were just a fad as they did not make sense from an engineer’s point of view. Stubbornness is a two edged sword. While on the one hand AR stuck with tubes in the face of relentless solid state onslaught and succeeded very well by making tube products that sounded definitely better than competing solid state products on the other hand the same stubbornness prevented AR products from being even better then they actually were. In a field where resisters, capacitors, connecting wires etc. of different makes sound different why not power cords ? Regards.

  14. ARC’s new gear is competitive with anything that sells for high, but not insane prices. I have spent hours listening to the Ref 6 preamp with 75se amp, and CD9 CD/DAC, played through Vandersteen 5a with Audioquest cables.
    It is the best system I have heard in someone’s home.
    I think they have gone towards the neutral side, no excessive tube sound, just music.
    My feeling is that their products are fully realised, and very reliable. If money was no object, I would probably go in a different direction, but would audition the Ref 6 along with the BHK Signature preamp, and CJ Gat. I like solid state or hybrid power amps, as retubing the 75se is not cheap, or practical for someone who seldom turns off their system. Since my neck went bad, I mostly sleep sitting on the couch, in front of the stereo. I run the TV through the system too,

    The other day someone referenced ARC in a poor way, my first thought was have they actually heard the current line. My short list of amps would start with Coda, the BHK 300s, and if I could justify a $30,000 amp the new Levison, D’Agostino, and Ayre amps. Other than the Levison all those amps are from smaller companies, with a history, based on the owner/designer having their own vision of the high end.
    Stubbornness or a singular vision? My guess is that Paul can be stubborn too, when it comes to fair prices, excellent customer service, and his vision of the high end. Nothing wrong with that. Adding MQA to the Bridge II was a gift to his customers, along with a smart business decision. Right or wrong, people shopping for a new DAC expect it to include MQA, even though it is more due to marketing than SQ, that is making MQA a necessary evil. Last night I compared the MFSL version of Muddy’s “Folk Singer” using the PWT, vs the Tidal MQA version, half unfolded. The CD was my preference. And it just played, no buffering or Tidal app quirks.

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