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Ear Wax
by Srajan Ebaen
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Pat McGinty:
The Birdman of Watertown
Part II of II

 

From Transmissions In General...

There are all sorts of transmissions. Automobile ones span the gamut from ironclad to clunky to terminal slip jobs. Radio broadcast transmissions can slip depending on whether the program director’s creativity sparks or spasms. With cellular transmissions, it’s a matter of who’s calling, when and from where. Treacherous instant-on X-band police radar transmissions? Except for the boringly good types who actually believe in the speed limit, those are baaad no matter what.

Then you have satellite uplinks to outer space probes that transmit high-resolution surface scans of celestial bodies light years removed. Spiritual transmissions from inner space link up devotees with deities and long deceased masters outside of Space-Time as we commonly perceive it. Transmissions of potent healing are seemingly at odds with three-dimensional limitations as well, and ancestral transmissions via dreams and trance vision cut through the same illusory crap by connecting successive generations in ‘primitive’ cultures directly with the wisdom of their forbearers. Lastly, certain dedicated enclaves of our ‘civilized’ society attempt to transmit artistic intent via transparent audio hardware. Are your brain cells transmitting havoc yet?

 


McGinty transmitting – anybody listening?

With this latter kind of HiFi transmission, some musical playback arrives on the scenes of our listening rooms with good bass, some with bad bass and some with no bass at all. It’s McGinty’s credo to transmit bass of the forth kind – well damped, articulate, extended and amplifier-friendly; in so many words, better than merely good. To chase this elusive rainbow, he’s dedicated his cabinet craft to the so-called transmission line. We’ll find a fully-fledged TL already in his very first Meadowlark design, the Kestrel. Since then, this complex cabinet solution for how to progressively attenuate a woofer’s rear wave has become part and parcel of Meadowlark’s multi-tiered recipe for sonic superiority: first-order phase- and time aligned networks; separate sub chambers for the crossovers; decoupling of baffles, drivers and various other vital crossover parts; and transmission-line bass loading.

 

...To Felt-Lined Transmissions In Particular

McGinty had a highly plausible explanation for the relative rarity of transmission lines in contemporary loudspeaker art: they’re fiendishly difficult to design and execute properly. Without available computer software that could aid an aspiring designer as the established and proven programs for sealed and vented boxes do, the blueprinting of the serpentine lines inside the enclosure remains a time-consuming process of endless prototyping. Despite a name like his, you’ll never get it down pat. The Patman then quipped that even the tenth attempt could still rather resemble the work of a lousy marksman. Faced with such dubious target practice, salaried corporate engineers of major speaker design houses tend to value their job security over appearing to fish in the dark. They’d rather not present their superiors with the twentieth reject cabinet with the feeble assurance of “we’re getting darn close now”.

 


Vireo monitor TL

But McGinty the cabinet master straddles a horse of a different color. He owns his own company. He isn’t beholden to designing by committee. He doesn’t justify his progress to a treasurer or managerial inspection team. He builds one-ups until he either gets blue in the face or nails the bastard – and his successful designs are clear testament to who eventually wins these design room brawls at the end of the argument. Of course, accumulated experience over time provides the resilient with an intuitive feel for his subject matter. It empowers McGinty to now push the line specifics of a new model’s first prototype enclosure much closer to the final finish line than when he first embarked on this very poorly documented process. Still, development time remains far in excess of standard sealed or vented designs, the amount of throwaway cabinets for firewood potentially daunting.

 

How Does A Transmission Line Work Differently
From A Classic Vented Box?

The job of a speaker enclosure is to convert the rear-firing half of a driver’s output into heat as effectively as possible. A vented box goes about this assignment by using its internal air mass through elastic compression and rarefaction. This works but isn’t terribly effective. Such a system -- made up of the driver, the trapped air inside the box and the exit port – is highly resonant: once the woofer activates them, the resonant frequencies of port and cabinet ring. This equals a low damping factor or high resonant Q. It shows up on impedance transfer function plots as the classic saddle of two high impedance bumps that correspond to the enclosure and the port, the size of these peaks directly related to the severity of the ringing.

 


vented box Z

 transmission-line box Z
(peaks much suppressed)

A properly executed transmission line without organ pipe resonances lowers this Q by eliminating or greatly damping said ringing distortion. It presents the rear wave with a tunnel whose absorptive qualities are greatly enhanced, usually by stuffing the line with Polyester wool or similar filler material. The woofer’s rear radiation is allowed to run its course through the line to exhaust itself in the process. In a full-length TL, the extension of this – usually folded – flute inside the main cabinet equals the wavelength of the lowest frequency the system can reproduce. Hence, 20Hz full-length transmission line loudspeakers require very tall or deep cabinets. More sensible for domestic acceptance are half-length TLs that perhaps don’t absorb their airflow entirely but certainly go far in attenuating its intensity.

The considerable amount of internal filler materials in a progressively damped traditional line can result in the dry and over-damped syndrome of what’s referred to as the classic “British sound”. The explosive American depletive of f—k is rendered as the more polite fog. This approach to material damping is also prone to somewhat haphazard settling and shifting. To avoid either liability, McGinty eschews filler material altogether. Instead, he damps the sidewalls of his lines with felt 5/8” thick. This treatment doesn’t seem to impart the slightly reluctant coloration of stuffiness but retains the natural decay and dynamically lively sound he favors. It’s also much more consistent to manufacture.

If you were to use a band saw lengthwise to slice open a Kestrel or Shearwater along its frontal centerline, you’d see the heavy felt damping on the sidewalls. You’d also see the elaborate half-depth braces that alternate between the front and rear panels to create a zigzag line for the bass wave that eventually terminate in a rear-firing port. The pictures here clearly convey a sense of this cabinet complexity to wordlessly explain why most manufacturers would rather avoid the topic of transmission lines altogether. A natural byproduct of all this internal bracing is very stout and dead cabinetry.

 


Kestrel TL

To test the absorptive efficacy of McGinty’s bass loading, simply play some bass-heavy material. Park your ear at the rear terminus of the line and compare its output against that of a classic vented box. You’d surely notice that Pat’s rear wave is heavily attenuated (hey, some guys are civil and don’t like to fart in public).

Besides more effectively controlling this output than a vented alignment, a transmission line also smoothes the bass region impedance curve and thus makes for an easier load that doesn’t present the amplifier with large impedance swings. Those who proclaim transmission-lines a bear to drive are cuddling up to the wrong koala (which ain’t even a proper bear but marsupial to begin with).

 

Secret Chambers Even Harry Potter Wouldn’t Fit Into

Driver rear waves are equally as loud as their frontal halves emitted into the room. However, captured inside a cabinet whose air volume is positively Lilliputian compared to that of the room, these internal emissions achieve sound pressure levels far in excess of what reaches your ears. Put bluntly, the loudest part of the room is inside the speaker cabinet. And amidst this lethal mayhem of decibel pollution is where most designers customarily place their crossover networks.

Ever the astute observer, McGinty had noted a strange phenomenon very early on in his speaker builder career. As speaker designer are wont to, he had prototype crossovers parts strewn on long umbilicals across the floor to provide easy access for testing. Once he’d settle on final values, he’d stuff everything back into the speaker box for that neat and finished look consumers demand. Invariably, our surprised designer would now detect a clear deterioration in sound quality. The speaker with its intestines gruesomely gutted simply always sounded better. Since messy doesn’t sell but good sound does, McGinty scratched his head until the mystery evaporated: capacitors are highly microphonic. They’re susceptible to external vibration and perform more linearly in an equalized environment.

 


Heron crossover sub chamber
(note the binding post options to
select from one of three hard-wired
mid/tweeter filter networks)

Thinking about the consequences, Pat quickly discarded outboard crossover boxes as aesthetic and costly boat anchors. He also wasn’t endowed with enough Vögel (birds) to believe that prospective buyers would fancy a very un-Italian spaghetti salad of raw parts strung like a junkyard collar between their amp and speakers. Perhaps it was then that every little boy’s fantasy reared its cute head – the fabulous hidden treasure chamber. Of course McGinty-of-the-slide-ruler couldn’t people his secret cave with wizards, dragons, damsels in distress or glinting loot. Instead, he had to fill it with coils, capacitors and resistors. He integrated this sub enclosure with a false bottom at the base of all his cabinets. Connected to the main cabinet merely via the hookup leads whose thru-holes he carefully epoxies for a gastight fit, these sub chambers not only provide easy access to the point-to-point wired crossover components but also create the desired equalized environment. The speaker brain can now perform optimally and unencumbered by the headaches of extreme decibel levels inside the speaker’s rockin’ upper story.

 

Sparkling Loot

Besides Auric capacitors, TARA Labs RSC hookup wire and PerfectLay inductors (now there’s a term worthy of locker room guffaw), McGinty pointed at heat-sinked Caddock metal-oxide resistors to underline Meadowlark’s commitment to top drawer parts quality. To make his point, he then temporarily transformed my slipping grip on Physics into a ferocious death grasp to explain those miniature heat sinks. He reminded me that as a resistor’s job is to turn power into heat – that’s how it resists, after all – heat rises as a squared function of current. If you’ve noted that difficult passages in large-scale material seem to momentarily dampen your speakers’ treble energy, that’s because thermal variations in resistors drive up their resistance values. To insure that the tonal balance of his Meadowlark speakers doesn’t change when the deaf get going, McGinty has implemented not only very expensive resistors but provided a means to guarantee thermal stability.

 


Kite xover – note its utter simplicity

 

Excellent Transmission Can Be A Bad If The Wrong Things Are Being Transmitted

While McGinty is all gung-ho on transmitting superior bass, he’s heavily opposed to allowing his drivers, cabinet or crucial network parts to contaminate our listening pleasure with mechanical vibrations. Every trademark sloped Meadowlark baffle is decoupled from its main enclosure via a 1/16th layer of Keldamp, a hi-tech material that converts kinetic energy into heat. A blob of this stuff dropped from on high onto the floor won’t bounce even once. It’ll just crash like a broken egg, fully absorbing all mechanical energy injected into it from the fall. Meadowlark employs the same Keldamp compound for driver gaskets. They decouple the transducers from the baffle. This twin-decoupling scheme undermines mechanical intermodulation between cabinet and drivers. The drivers can’t talk to the cabinet, and the cabinet can’t talk back to them – the perfect dialogue vacuum of a failed marriage. But then, divorcing signal and distortion from each other is a good kind of terminal separation. McGinty even mounts his capacitors on a bed of Keldamp so they can sleep – ahem, perform -- tightly.

 

Trading Places

Pat had dreamt for many years of vacating the sunny but overcrowded and increasingly hostile state of California for a place greener, more lush and, as of late, without the weekly prospect of being shut down by power shortages of feuding utility companies. Stemming originally from the Big Apple, upstate New York beckoned to its wayward son with lakes, wooded and rolling hills and a sparse population density. With less than 30,000 inhabitants, Watertown still remains a town rather than city and prides itself on the surplus of its highly skilled labor force. The local main trade is agriculture, particularly dairy farming, and paper mills. The nearby 1000 Islands region of Lake Ontario also does a rather brisk tourist trade. According to McGinty, the quality of life around Watertown harkens back to the 60s when the daily rhythm beat at a slower pulse. Folks there still treat each other with courtesy and respect. The word road rage or the practices of honkin’ car horns and erectile middle fingers aren’t part of the actual or habitual vocabulary on the streets.

Pretty much coincident with dastardly 911 of last year, the Meadowlark team thus trekked from San Diego County to the promised land of Watertown. Meadowlark’s new digs in a pre World War II industrial complex were originally erected by New York Air Brake but in a very serious state of decline upon arrival. In the words of its present proud tenant, “our building was black and pounded to crap, with electrical and plumbing hanging out of the ceiling and walls”. Industrious McGinty and his merry team of veterans applied buckets of elbow grease and paint to where their new production facility -- 150’ long, 40’ wide, even taller than it is wide -- now provides cubits of natural light for a spacious and friendly studio loft feel. It even retains its existing indoor lab replete with counter and floor-to-ceiling glass front, the prior use of which a curious McGinty has been unable to divine thus far.

 


Whoa: putting his new router to good use, Pat carved
wave patterns into his custom 6-inch thick ceiling
tiles to optimize his new sound room

To spare his dealers the wrath of production down time during the relocation process, McGinty and associates had built up plenty of costly inventory while still in San Diego. He shipped it together with all his business equipment yonder East, two 50’ tractor-trailers just barely housing all the essentials. He walked into the new facility October 1, 2001 and was up and running and back in production forty-five days later in mid November.

 

A New Way Of Skinning Ye Ol’e Gray Cat

However, back in production isn’t quite the appropriate term. The new facility pioneers a rather different operational concept than Meadowlark adhered to before as a matter of necessity. As McGinty explained, his intent for the relocation had been to double his firm’s product offerings. He wants to invade the Home Theater arena in a serious way. Simultaneously, he aimed at cutting inventory requirements by half or possibly even two thirds. For those unfamiliar with speaker fabrication, the gigantic at-odds challenges inherent in this two-pronged proposition require a goodly explanation.

You see, most small to mid-level speaker makers really operate more as job or assembly shops rather than full-scale fabricators. They rely on outside vendors, usually industrial woodworking shops, to build their cabinets. This requires committing to regular time slots, say 4 days of dedicated company runs every 8 weeks. During these allotted periods, said shops set up production lines for their particular customer and burn through sheets of MDF, glue and veneer. A speaker manufacturer’s nightmare is to run out of cabinets prior to his next scheduled run. Unless he were willing to suffer exorbitant setup fees that might well force him to sell his speakers at a loss, he simply can’t call up the shop to order 10 extra pairs of anything outside his regular advance schedule, should he find himself short a few boxes to take care of impatient customers.

If you consider a firm like Meadowlark that until recently offered five floorstanders, one monitor and one center channel in at least four different veneer options each, you can appreciate the massive inventory necessary to fulfill dealer sales in a timely manner. Cabinets are by far the most expensive part of loudspeaker manufacture. Maintaining salubrious inventory levels of veneered enclosures ties up precious amounts of working capital. The perilous juggle always becomes to predict how many enclosures to order in what color and for what model. One secretly hopes that the shifty winds of fashion and consumer demand won’t turn on a dime and invite dreaded Murphy to interfere with forecasts. The reader should now readily appreciate how the planned introduction of just a single new model -- yet again in four or more veneer options -- becomes a significant financial challenge since inventory burdens explode exponentially once more. Consider further that a new model has no prior sales records. Order too many cabinets and watch your money grow moss and spider webs. Order too few and undermine your marketing efforts and the good will of developing word-of-mouth. It’s a devious tightrope act each manufacturer must face time and again when he orders parts from vendors.

To solve this perennial dilemma of that most severe expense in his chosen profession, McGinty had decided to create his own fully equipped cabinet shop. Rather than being tied up in palettes worth of paid for cabinets produced by an outside supplier, his designs would henceforth exist only as vaporware. They’d live on a CD/ROM file in his industrial grade CNC router.

 


a sheet of complete Heron-i parts
machined to precision tolerances

His only inventory demands would be raw materials – MDF, glue, drivers, crossover parts, shipping boxes and veneers. In fact, his veneer options could grow staggeringly complex and his model offerings truly extravagant. A wild-assed full-length transmission-line subwoofer flat to 16Hz – by necessity humongous and probably only sellable in very limited quantities to a few heroic dealers – could now become a reality should he be thus inclined. Even as a singular and irregular order item, it could slip into a weekly production schedule. In fact, McGinty is proud to stress that a dealer can now order a particular Meadowlark model in any finish on a Monday and have it ready to ship five days later.

The particular math of this surprisingly fleet turnaround works out as follows: Cut and glue on day 1;

 


Joe selects and cuts veneer panels

 

Size and veneer on day 2;


cabinet clamping 

 


applying Lacewood veneer

 


raw cabinets

 

Base coat and lacquer on day 3;

 


Joe squirts lacquer

 

 

Assemble and test on day 4;

 


A Blue Heron pair ready for testing

 

Add one day for slop, unforeseen delays or production gremlins.

 


Joyce in various stages of packing

The really exciting thing about Pat’s new operation is that he isn’t stuck to model-specific production batches. He can schedule mixes in accordance with actual incoming orders. This fulfills the credo of the corporate Japanese giants -- “the best warehouse is an empty warehouse” -- a notion that simply summarizes effective manufacturing protocol: build to order with very fast response cycles and minimal inventory liabilities. While certainly not novel as a concept per se, to find it implemented in a modestly sized enterprise like Meadowlark Audio is testament to the persistence of a farsighted mind that’s not afraid to tackle serious challenges.

 

Fringe Benefits

One unexpected side effect of bringing the complete manufacturing process from raw to finished goods in-house was a significant rise in build quality. It resulted from increased glue surfaces, tighter tolerance parts cutting and a consequent gain in structural stability. To test a growing suspicion that his new operation built even better cabinets than he had ever been able to deliver before, Pat performed the famous but staged Kestrel toss of an earlier photo caricature for real. (The photo depicts the local UPS driver demonstrating proper delivery protocol by launching a Meadowlark shipping carton from his van’s loading dock onto the concrete floor.) Pat now dropped a packed cabinet from his 20’ high mezzanine onto solid concrete embankment and only busted a corner when the entire cabinet should have cracked open like a rotten walnut or brain on crack cocaine.

 


the infamous Kestrel drop (staged)/the crime for real
(note villain Joe Coleman on upper right)

Another perk of building his cabinets on-site is the newfound freedom to throw truly extravagant veneers at them. Zebrawood, Blue-stained Maple, Fiddleback Makore, Eucalyptus Pommele or Quilted Mahogany? - Meadowlark is proud and capable to oblige. In fact, were you to not find your secret fancy listed in McGinty’s multiple tiers of progressively more exotic dress options (20 in total!), his website clearly challenges you to ask since he can probably deliver regardless. This is about as custom and handmade as you can get shy of commissioning an exclusive one-up speaker. What cunning from a guy who dreamt of competing with the big boys and now finds himself in the very thick of it not by cutting corners but by upping the ante on quality and end user choices!

 
Figured Anigre                              Figured Makore

 


Sapele Pommele

 

First Crop Of New Designs

To exploit his new production capabilities, McGinty foresees a plethora of new products and possible OEM cabinet manufacture for other speaker firms demanding consistent high-grade output. For a sampling of new models in the birdman’s private books, watch out for these pending introductions:

The new Heron Center Channel ($2,750) employs the identical transducers of the floorstanding Heron-i and positions its tweeter above the 4-inch Aerogel midrange. The famous 7-inch Scanspeak carbon fiber woofers flank those while double U transmission lines terminate in two round and flared ports per side. Even the Heron’s adjustable voicing (three discrete hard-wired bass filter circuits accessible via different binding posts that allow lean/normal/fat bass contouring) is retained.

 


Heron Center Channel

 


Heron and Nightingale Center Channels

 

The Blue Heron and Nightingale floorstanders receive a companion center channel as well ($4,400) that proudly sports the oval gas Piezo tweeter by Audax listed as order item # HD3P. Despite its seemingly fragile nature –a bubble of gas enclosed by a thin Mylar sheath with gold vapor deposit – it has proven itself extremely reliable. In his implementation, McGinty reports zero failures in the field and claims this tweeter rivals the very best of ribbons in extension, speed, finesse and sweetness.

 


Nightingale Center Channel

Two conventionally sized subwoofers powered by a US-sourced 1000-watt Class D amplifier with separate pre- and power amp plates will go into production soon. As yet nameless, they’ll utilize the custom 8-inch woofer of the new Kite tower or the 10-inch version of the Nightingale floorstander respectively.

On-Wall rear speakers based on the Kestrel/Shearwater and Heron with switchable di/bi-polar dispersion patterns are forthcoming as well.

 

And then there is the Kite (ca. $12,000), a floorstander only slightly larger than the Shearwater. It sports a deceptively ordinary 8-inch three-way configuration. Then the word ordinary vacates your vocabulary when you realize that its woofer offers 1.25 inches of honest excursion.


Kite woofer doing 8Hz @ 200 watts
/Nightingale woofer showing off its assets

A kilowatt on-board amplifier is equalized to wring a true 20Hz flat out of the bass system. Response trim pots can dial the Kite for an earth-shaking +1dB at 18Hz response. In a canny move, the woofer amp derives a high-level signal from the end user’s main amp that powers the anything-but-ordinary 9800-series Scanspeak tweeter and the truly extraordinary 5-inch Scanspeak Revelator paper graphite midrange. This hookup scheme assures correct timbre matching since the main amp’s sonic signature is passed on intact to the integral active subwoofer section. With its 90dB sensitivity, the passive upper two-way could be powered with a modestly endowed triode SET. (Tube fiends with a lust for Herculean bass action; keep your eyes glued to this baby!)

Pat credits Thilo Stompler of San Diego based TC Sound with the design and manufacture of the monster woofer whose bigger 10-inch cousin, in doubled-up glory, provides the devastating bass impact of his three-piece Nightingale flagship effort.

 

End titles?

At the rate he’s going, certainly not – end titles, that is. At a time when able-bodied males in my local Southwestern Taos community beg for handouts and economy pundits predict stormy weather ahead, Pat McGinty of Meadowlark is stubbornly pursuing the all-American dream of the self-made entrepreneur. At the head of a small but stable empire erected from scratch with sweat, doggone persistence and ingenuity, he’s providing jobs for other Americans that get to work in a true modern-day Craftsman tradition. He offers a fairly priced yet upscale performing and looking product with more finish options than anyone else I can think of in this industry. While he’ll never become a fat cat in this line of commerce, he can stagger to sleep each night deeply exhausted from an honest day of overtime work. Perhaps he dreams of his carefree days as a beachcomber and wave glider? He wouldn’t have thought twice then about remaining entirely unproductive, hanging for months on end as long as it felt good. Do you think Pat made a fool’s bargain by trading that existence for the crucible of running his present business?

 


Heck, at least you get to listen to a cool system
as part of your work schedule…

I think not. They say that Spirit connects with us through our passion. And true, what fires us up does change over time and in accord with our station and season in life. The important thing is simply to go for it when the inner voice prompts you to, to throw your whole weight behind it no matter what and trust that the outcome will merit the effort. In Pat McGinty’s case, there can be no doubt that he follows this personal tenet to a ‘T”. And that calls for applause and admiration whether you’ll end up becoming a 1st order Meadowlark convert or not. These are good words to tie up this two-part article and wish Pat, his wife Lucinda and their crew ongoing success with their venture and new location.

 


Fly high, sing your song and ruffle some
feathers in the process!

 

Meadowlark Audio Inc.
800 Starbuck Avenue
Suite A-103
Watertown, NY 13601 

Voice: (315) 779-8875
Fax: (315) 779-8835
E-mail: meadowlarkaudio@meadowlarkaudio.com
Website: www.meadowlarkaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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