From today, all the way back to that fateful day in 1973 when Stan Warren walked through my front door, plunked down $500 cash and asked if I wanted to start a company catering to Audiophiles (to which I replied “what’s an Audiophile?”), I have had been privileged to meet and work with some of the most interesting people on the planet. It’s time to share some of those experiences.
This is not an ordered history of the high-end. No, this column is really nothing more than me rambling on about the stories of my nearly 40 years in the high-end industry and, while there’s much to be learned about the history of the high-end from a proper historical chronology, this probably isn’t it.
I am, however, hopeful that some of what I write will impart a sense of what the high-end is all about and what it was like “back in the day”, as I believe much of the flavor of an era can be more readily absorbed from personal stories, than well chronicled histories.
Let me preface this story with a little background on the high-end industry; just to put the story I am about to tell you in perspective.
Most of the companies in the high-end, both big and small, started out as garage operations. From Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon’s $10,000 stake in building a tuner in 1953 (later forming Harman Kardan), Saul Marantz building a preamp on his kitchen table in 1952, Arnie Nudell building loudspeakers out of his garage and then founding Infinity, to Bill Johnson of Audio Research, Dave Wilson of Wilson Audio, Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson of Conrad Johnson; all started with small humble beginnings to go on and build companies that produced products that reflected their passions for high-performance audio. Not much has changed in the last fifty years.
PS Audio was certainly no different. Founded in 1973 with $500 cash from Stan Warren and a phono stage designed by yours truly, PS qualified as a true seat-of-the-pants startup in every way.
Once PS started selling products through small ads in Audio Magazine, we needed a better way to acquire dealers to sell more and so we decided to go to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where manufacturers could meet prospective dealers. In the early days, the shows were first in New York, later in Chicago, and today, Vegas.
In the summer of 1977, Stan and I decided it was time to attend our very first CES at the old Hilton Hotel on Michigan Ave in Chicago. There, we intended to debut the all new Model One power amplifier, the first power amplifier ever built at PS Audio.
The Model One was a joint design project between Stan and me (although Stan had the original idea to build a power amp and convinced me it should be “easy”). It was not.
I had primarily worked on preamps and phono stages and really knew nothing about amps. Stan, ever the logical sort, suggested that a power amp was really nothing more than a preamp with a powerful output stage. He was right, but the devil’s always in the details.
Stan sketched out what he wanted in the power amp output stage, some lifted from Bongiorno’s SAE 31B, some from the Dynaco amp, and even more ideas borrowed from Bob Carver’s Phase Linear amps, and it was left to me to try and get it to work. Problem was that our first go-rounds with building a power amp resulted in one explosion after another. These were not minor explosions. No, these were full on, fire breathing, smoke belching explosions that set my hair standing on end. The circuit boards would not only explode in my face but they would also light on fire, scaring me half to death. It got so bad that after a while my hand was shaking so badly I couldn’t adjust the trimpots on the amp.
Part of the problem was our lack of equipment and finances. In those early days we only had one engineering bench with test equipment, shared both by production as well as research. The bench did not include a variac, which is a variable transformer that allows you to turn the AC to the amplifier up slowly. Instead, we would guess as to what’s wrong with the amp, rebuild it, cross our fingers and plug it into the wall. Ba Boom!
We finally broke down, bought the necessary equipment and successfully finished the Model One (although still to this day, my hands shake whenever I play with any high voltage or high current circuits). The final design changes went into the Model One in late May and the upcoming CES was a mere week or two away in June. We had one working amplifier and this was to be the world premier of this piece.
With confidence levels growing, we decided it would be safe to spend the remaining time tweaking the sound of the amp before leaving for CES. Boy was that a mistake!
Designing high-end audio equipment is as much undocumented black art as it is structured engineering and we (along with the rest of the industry) were still learning all about these mysteries. Remember, at this time almost everyone built tube equipment and only a few daring folks (like Stan and I) worked with high-end transistor circuits. One of the mysteries we were working with was bias levels, or how many watts the amplifier used up just sitting idle or playing music softly. We knew that bias levels played an important role in how an amplifier sounded; generally more bias means better, sweeter sound, but too much bias wasn’t a good thing either as the sound became wimpy.
You’ve probably read about the different amplifier bias classes, such as Class A and Class AB. Much work was being done at the time on these bias levels – work far beyond the technical aspects we could see on a scope or distortion analyzer – work that was being done by ear. Among the brightest and most vocal experimenters was Threshold’s Nelson Pass who was working on what we called his “sliding bias” circuit – a means of turning the bias up and down with the music – adding essentially nothing more than a resistor and diode to accomplish this in one of the most effective yet simple circuits we had seen. Nelson was our hero.
Our method was much cruder. We set the bias of the amplifier and simply listened to the changes; over and over and over again. We would go back and fourth between different bias settings to learn what happened to the sound, what got better, what got worse and all the while, trying different power supply tricks (like bypassing the big power supply caps), feedback ratios, damping factors, direct coupled or cap coupled, and also learning what those changes sounded like.
To become a high-end audio designer, you really need to train yourself over the years as to what changes in the soundstage, tonal balance, micro/macro dynamics, apparent bass, top end, and so on, when you change any circuit or part parameter. Then you need to couple that knowledge with sound engineering practices to make a decent, well engineered and reliable product that is high-end.
There are many circuit topologies that will give you identical results when measured but very different results when played back on a high-end system. The challenge is, and always will be, what blend of circuit topology is going to work best for what you want to achieve. And yes, even then we were doing battle with the folks we called “flat-earthers” who believed if you can’t measure the differences than they don’t exist. More on these folks and how silly that is in later issues of PSTracks.
After many long hours of tweaking and modifying, we finally arrived at what we felt was the right combination of bias current, input roll off, output impedance, damping factor, and feedback levels to get just the sound we wanted for the upcoming CES.
It’s probably important to point out that as a small company (I think we had two employees at the time) we had very limited funds and this show was a major drain on our limited resources. With tiny sales levels, we really needed CES to be a big win for us as the dealers we wanted to sign up wouldn’t buy our preamps without a matching power amplifier. They needed to sell a PS system and without an amp, we couldn’t get much more traction in the marketplace. The Model One and its debut at the show was a big deal for us.
At this point in our history, the company was located in Santa Maria California; a small farming community on the Central California Coast where most of the country’s strawberries are grown (think Driscoll farms). To go to the big city of Chicago, we’d have to drive to Los Angeles, about a four-hour drive, and catch a plane. Our flight was at 2 PM and we needed to leave no later than 9 AM (this is before TSA existed and you could walk right up to the gate).
At 8AM I was putting the final tweaks on the amp’s bias and Lowell, our one early rising employee, was waiting to slip it into the packing box, throw it in the trunk of the car and we would be off! I dropped a clip lead into the amp while it was on and the entire left side of the amplifier caught on fire. Not just a little bit of fire, but sparks, smoke, flame and the sound of firecrackers going off that sent me reeling backwards from the bench, landing on my butt; smoke billowing from the now-dead amp.
Just at that moment, Stan walked into the building ready to go. One look at the smoldering amp on the bench and the horror on my face was all it took to assess the situation. Stan calmly took charge of the chaos. “OK, there’s no time to rebuild this amp, so let’s pack up the amp AND the bench and go to Chicago”. And this we did.
In those days, we hand carried everything to CES except the loudspeakers (which we shipped). If memory serves correctly, we used a pair of Magnepan MGII’s for the speakers, everything else we hand carried from the taxi to the room. Well, almost. The unions in Chicago have always been, um, powerful and the hotel would not allow guests to haul luggage or equipment to their rooms.
We engaged a friendly bellhop who promptly loaded two luggage carts with our products and our test equipment and headed to the room. After unloading everything from the carts, I knew it was my duty to give him a nice tip for his troubles and so I had a big five dollar bill waiting and ready for the moment (we were in the big city after all!). When he finished, I proudly whipped out the tip expecting to appear cool and business-like. He was not impressed.
“Five dollars? Seriously?” I supposed it was one of the bigger tips he had ever received.
I said “You bet! You earned it” I was starting to get the sense this wasn’t going well. In Santa Maria, a buck was a big tip.
“This wouldn’t cover even one luggage trolly, let alone two!”
“But it’s all I have!”
Then he promptly handed the $5 back and said “You know, if that’s all you have, then you need it more than I do” and promptly left in a huff. I shrugged my shoulders, pocketed the $5 and Stan and I started to unpack
I am imagining the old Hilton Hotel in Chicago never played home to an electronics lab until this very moment. We had a one bedroom suite which consisted of a big living room and a small bedroom with twin beds. This was to be our home for the next five days, but immediate on our minds was to setup the lab in the bedroom and get working on rebuilding the Model One amplifier.
Modern hotel bedrooms aren’t setup for putting together a test bench and this ancient room was even less accommodating. There was, perhaps, just enough room for the two beds and a dresser and no room for a desk. So while Stan was in the living room setting up the Maggies for tomorrow’s opening of the CES, I was removing all the drawers from the dresser and setting it on its side to form a bench.
Take a moment to picture this: a five foot tall chest of drawers on its side, the drawers removed so my knees had somewhere to go and the night stand used as a bench. Propped up on the dresser’s side was an oscilloscope, THD analyzer and meter, variac, soldering iron and parts bins; a table lamp provided illumination. It was 6PM and the show started in a matter of hours.
While I sweated to rebuild the amp, Stan labored to set up the room and the system – which was a rather impossible task without a power amp. About 10 PM I finished the amp, brought it out, set it up and we tweaked the system and went to bed; happy we made it by the skin of our teeth.
The next morning we had our fancy duds on with shoes shined, and big smiles ready to meet the dealers. We opened the doors for business and dealers started ushering in. The very first demo of the new amp started out great and then, about 10 minutes into the demo, all hell broke loose. A sound so loud and so nasty (that I can still hear it today) came through the maggies and sent the amp up in smoke. Right there, right in front of all the dealers. We were mortified.
Turns out the sound came from a CB radio broadcast from an illegal high-power rig just down the street in some knucklehead’s car. We weren’t the only victims, many others on our floor suffered the same fate. The broadcast came right through the phono preamp and flipped the amp out.
That was the bad news. The good news is we were the only ones on the floor to have brought our own repair facility with us. We were up and running successfully within a few hours, while others weren’t quite so fortunate.
As I was in the bedroom rebuilding the amp (yet) again, and Stan was out in the living room diverting the dealer’s questions about where the amp was they had come to see (a sales process known as “shuck and jive”), some dealer inadvertently opened the bedroom door thinking it was the exit. He took one look at me, soldering iron in hand, and said: “wow, you guys actually build the amps to order right at the show?”
“You bet we do, how many you want?”