The Rosetta Stone was discovered in July, 1799 by French soldier Pierre-François Bouchard during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. It was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, and it became key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, ending one of the great mysteries of all time. Until its discovery, scholars had no idea what the Egyptians were on about during the great days of Pharos and pyramids.
Universal keys to understanding are about as rare as Rosetta Stones and silver bullets. We almost never get the opportunity to use a list of knowledge to unlock secrets.
The same can be said of specifications. We’d all like a laundry list of specs to help us identify the benefits and shortcomings of products so that we might choose what we next add to our audio and video systems. Yet, no such list exists. Not for stereo equipment, not for almost anything you can think of.
Take cameras for example. There are hundreds of cameras to choose from, yet any accomplished photographer will tell you specs alone cannot tell the complete story. How will the unit feel? Does the viewfinder work for your eyes and fit your face? How’s the Bokeh of the lens? What are the end results based on the way you shoot?
If you’re shopping for a new power amplifier there are no sets of specifications to help you know how it will perform in your system. Sure, you can know if there is enough power, gain, and even perhaps damping factor to control your speakers. But, beyond that? What spec tells you its depth or soundstage ability with your speakers and in your room?
It’s why we read reviews, buy from trusted designers, hang out on the forums.
And in the end, only taking a product home and trying it for yourself really matters.
When engineering handed me the fruits of their 10-month journey to build the Stellar Strata amplifier I was somewhat underwhelmed. It just worked. No bells, no whistles, no fireworks. It just flawlessly worked.
A team of three full-time programmers had been laboring for nearly a year to make the control system for Stellar Strata unnoticeable. They succeeded, then they celebrated their boring achievement.
Perhaps a little explanation is in order.
Most of our products have user interfaces. These are controlled by microprocessors and a lot of programming. Over the years, the software to run these interfaces has been pieced together one brick at a time by different programmers. It’s kind of like the way a modern house is built by disparate teams. The first team puts in the foundation, another group frames it, then the interior gets done by still another group. The house gets done alright, but it’s far from perfect. If the foundation team didn’t get the cement footings in the right place, the framing team compensates and somehow it all works out. But house building is simple compared to programming. Consider that the simple act of turning the volume up and down has a 17-page engineering document detailing everything a programmer needs to know and do. 17 pages. And that’s just the volume. Never mind the display, the remote control, the input switching, firmware updates, contingencies for everything imaginable. You get the idea of how complicated just building a simple interface can get.
Nearly 1 year ago our engineering director, Matt, came to the management team and said it was time to throw out all the years of programming and start fresh. He proposed we build a new operating system from the ground up, one that was easy to modify, stable, robust, applicable to any of our products as a common platform. It would require thousands of hours and patience. And, at the end of the journey, we’d have a shiny new and boring operating system. One that just worked without flaws. One that was easy to update in the field.
So, it was an unexpected pleasure when the boys handed me the finished product and it just worked without fanfare, without drawing attention to itself.
Boring, yet beautiful.