High end audio progress comes in chunks, driven by generations of designers in concert with generations of listeners.
Of course there was the Edison inspired group of mechanical designs with wax cylinders, cranks and horns. And Alan Blumlein’s stereo invention which, along with vacuum tubes, microphones, vinyl, and startups birthed in garages, ushered in the electrical age. Marantz, Fisher, Klipsch, and Villchur broke free of the cottage industries, and were eventually challenged by Morita, Yamaha, and Matsushita. Nudell, Walker, Tiefenbrun and Harmon lead the charge in the 70’s and 80’s, giving way to Rowland, Hanson, Schifter, Burmeister and my generation. And now we see the next coming of age: my son Scott, Matt Weisfeld, EJ Sarmento, and so many new faces I can’t keep track.
Each generation put forward fresh ideas and products that reflected their love of music and how it is enjoyed in the home.
And those who enjoy the fruits of their labors come and go in the same generational chunks, yet… there is one common bond we all share, the glue that holds us all together.
Trends and patterns
If you look back through the history of high end audio amplification you see numerous design trends, followed by patterns of development to address their shortcomings and maximize their strengths. Take vacuum tubes for example. The first power amplifiers were what we would now call SET (single ended triodes) where one tube fed an output transformer to power a loudspeaker. This worked great when speakers were of very high efficiency and not more than a few watts were needed.
As demands for higher fidelity and greater frequency extensions were demanded by the growing number of hifi buffs, more power tubes and larger output transformers were added to build higher wattage amplifiers that could drive less efficient loudspeakers. Then the weakness of transformer coupled outputs became more apparent as the loudspeaker loads got harder to drive. To address this issue, one camp went off in the direction of removing the output transformer altogether (OTL designs), while another marched forward with even bigger transformers and massive numbers of output tubes. I can remember seeing some Sonic Frontier, Audio Research and Jadis power amplifiers that looked like miniature glowing cities and probably weighed close to that of a building. Extreme approaches were de rigueur for the time.
And then along came solid state amplifiers and we began an entirely new chapter in our quest for music. Some of the first transistor amplifiers even had output transformers mimicking that of a vacuum tube power amp. We’ll take a closer look tomorrow.