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The Absolute Sound
Issue 265   September 2016
Standing On Their Own Shoulders
Editorial By Robert Harley


The Absolute Sound Issue 265 September 2016


  The idea that technological or intellectual advances are built on the previous work of others has been with us for a long time. Although Isaac Newton is generally credited with coining the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" ("If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants") that metaphor had been widely invoked since the 12th century. Throughout history contemporary innovators and thinkers have recognized that their achievements would not have been possible without the foundations created by their predecessors.

This phenomenon, of course, applies as much to designing audio products as to any other field of endeavor. The classic tube amplifiers from the late 50s and early 60s (Marantz Model 9, McIntosh MC275, Harman Kardon Citation II, Dyna Mk III) would not have been possible without the breakthrough Williamson amplifier of 1947. In turn, virtually all of today's tube amplifiers are derived from one of those four amplifiers.

There's a similar, but not identical, trend of an exceptionally skilled designer creating a landmark product, and then greatly improving upon that product. Of course, progress marches on it's natural that designs are refined and improved over time. But that's not what I'm describing. Rather, I'm talking about a designer creating a product that pushes forward the state of the art, and then significantly lifting that lofty product to even greater heights.

I've recently encountered several striking examples of this phenomenon. The first is the Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC, and the new Series 2 version of that product. The Alpha Reference vaulted the performance of digital into an entirely new realm when it was launched two years ago. But as soon as the Alpha Reference was finished, its designer, Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer, started looking for ways to improve upon it. The Alpha Reference's unprecedented technical and sonic performance provided a previously unavailable platform for better understanding the mechanisms by which audio signals can be degraded during digital-to-analog conversion. As great as the Alpha Reference DAC is, the Series 2, astonishingly, is significantly better. I would have thought that further improvements would tinker at the margins, not redefine the product's performance. It's one thing to improve a mid-level product, but quite another to significantly advance the state of the art. Importantly, the Series 2's technical innovations that led to these sonic gains would not have been discoverable without the breakthrough that was the original Alpha Reference.

The second example is the Magico Q7 and the Mk.II version of that speaker. For me, the Q7 set a new standard in loudspeaker performance. Yet Alon Wolf and Yair Tammam weren't satisfied, researching cutting-edge materials technology, developing an advanced new tweeter, and revising the crossover. They discovered a material (graphene) that when added to the midrange cone in a layer just one atom thick greatly stiffened the cone while adding virtually no mass. Coupled with the new tweeter and a crossover revision, the Q7 Mk.II was a giant leap over is progenitor.

My final example involves Bob Stuart of Meridian Audio and the British mathematician Peter Craven. They developed the "apodizing" digital filter that addressed filter ringing, a form of distortion that is largely responsible for the glare and flatness of digital. Audio signals put through a digital filter are spread out in time as the filter "rings" in response to the audio signal. Some of that ringing energy occurs before the transient, which is particularly nasty sounding because such sounds never occur in nature. Stuart and Craven's apodizing filter shifted all the ringing energy so that it occurred after the transient, greatly improving sound quality. Today, such filters are commonplace.

Yet the apodizing filter, for all its benefits, didn't completely solve the problem of filter ringing. So Stuart and Craven took the concept to the next level by developing a technology that completely eliminated filter ringing, even going so far as to remove the ringing of the analog-to-digital converter that made the recording. It was previously believed that this distortion was forever embedded in the music. Stuart and Craven's technique, coupled with many more innovations for improving digital sound, became known as Master Quality Authenticated (MQA).

After a particularly rewarding listening session, I sometimes think about the monumental effort that went into creating the products that just allowed me to experience such joy. That's especially true when listening to products that push forward the state of the art, realized by designers who see where only they can see because they stand on their own gigantic shoulders.




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