Walkering the fine line between
nuts-about-HiFi and plain old common sense.
Lloyd Walker is somewhat of a legendary character in bespoke audiophile circles, as much for his acute hearing and infectious sales ability as for his products, all of which bear his unique imprimatur of doing things his own way, convention be damned. Consider that at the upcoming CES 2002, LAMM Industries' Vladimir Shushurin - introducing his eagerly awaited new reference tubed phono stage - and Kharma - debuting their new Exquisite Extended Reference 1A speakers - turned not to Rockport or Clear Audio, Basis or
Forsell, Simon Yorke or Spotheim La Luce, but to Walker, and more specifically, his 245 lbs Proscenium Gold Signature airbearing turntable with outboard motor controller. That by itself speaks volumes louder than the minuscule signal voltages emanating from a cartridge. Then there's The Absolute Sound's 1999 Golden Ear award for his Walker Audio High Definition Links, and Stereophile's Recommended Components listing of his AC motor turntable drive. It appears Walker is rather respected by his peers. Because he's outspoken and not one of the big players, he's probably also below the radar screen of many music lovers who'd enjoy rubbing shoulders with him just for some generous and affordable advice on how to tweak their systems for yet better performance - after all, most of us don't play and frolic in the $20,000+ per component leagues where his turntable makes its rounds.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lloyd Walker who stopped by my house during a visit to New Mexico. I was immediately captivated by his easy-going yet focused nature, and impressed by his drive and obvious passion for music and good sound. Even though some of his claims and stories might at first reek of Baron Munchausen's yarns, if you take the time to apply his advice or experiment with his tweakier products - including the out-of-this-world Omega Mikro cable which he doesn't make but represents - you quickly come to realize that Lloyd Walker simply calls a spade a spade and doesn't much care whether you prefer to call it a shuffle or shovel. I wrote about his HDLs
and the Omega Mikro cables for SoundStage!, and a review of his Valid Point Resonance Control System is forthcoming for EnjoyTheMusic.com early next year.
Today's article, penned from a remote interview, is simply intended to introduce you to one of the more colorful and talented personages that have made their home in this insane but wonderful industry called High-End audio, the same one that so captures our attention and wallets to sometimes rather scary and painful degrees.
There Once Was A Fella --
As the story goes, Lloyd perceived the first tantalizing tickles of the audiophile feather duster as a teenager, lusting after a Magnavox console home entertainment system to replace the little portable rig he schlepped from job to job. Sometimes in 1975 or thereabouts, a friend talked him into visiting another buddy's pad. Checking out the resident stereo system was to be the occasion. Walker was only half-heartedly convinced but resigned himself and went. Comprised of a complete stack of the best tube gear McIntosh made at the time, nothing in Walker's experience up to that point prepared him at all for this encounter. The very next morning, it sent him spinning to the bank and then to the local High-End stereo
shoppe, wildly out of control but with money in his pocket and hell-bent on spending it on a
bitchin' stereo. To this day, he distinctly remembers feeling flummoxed that he couldn't understand a single word the undoubtedly enthusiastic and knowledgeable proprietor lavished on him. In fact, Lloyd and his friend Mike spent the next four months prudently investigating this brave new world of audio to find their bearings. They finally settled on making two identical, carefully calculated purchases - identical down to the cartridge, speakers, amplifier and cabling save for the turntable. Walker was fascinated with a manual Acoustic Research model while his friend purchased the most expensive automatic table the store carried. Both system were packed up and shipped to Duluth, Minnesota, the friends' next joint job destination.
Events then took an interesting turn. After Mike helped Walker to set up his system for a glorious aural revelation, he returned upset three hours later to report that his own system, set up deliberately without Walker's help, didn't sound right at all. Marching up the stairs to verify this strange verdict for himself, Walker soon agreed that indeed, his own system sounded much better than Mike's. Determined to figure out why, he proceeded, one component at a time, to bring up first his speakers, then his amplifier and preamp, and then the cables to swap out components and help isolate the culprit. Nothing was to make the slightest difference. By now truly confused but undeterred, he finally exchanged turntables. They were both flabbergasted. Lloyd's $65 AR trampled all over Mike's $2000 fully automated super-table. Rather than chalking it up to aw shucks and feeling sly about having gotten farther with much less, Walker only wanted to know why - a question that continues to crop up on a regular basis even today when his ears tell him one thing while experience and expectations predict quite another. (If, with the same intense curiosity as he does this "why", Walker were to pursue Advaita Vedanta's classic self-inquiry "who wants to know?", he'd be a full-blown saint by now. As it stands, he's a very gifted engineer who's modified and raced cars and motorcycles, built and fired target rifles, has metallurgy, welding, pipe-fitting, pneumatics, machining and electrician's experience and makes one of the most coveted turntables in existence.)
-- Who Became
Walker became fascinated with the performance discrepancy between these two tables and began to modify them. He soon sold his to buy more sophisticated linear-tracking models and improved those as well. When AR came out with a very expensive and large statement version of the manual design that had gotten him started, Walker bought it immediately and spent a long time modifying it. He adding the Merrill upgrades of acrylic platter and outer clamping ring, an Alphason titanium arm and eventually believed to have arrived in vinyl Nirvana. Of course providence looks unkindly upon such hasty conclusions and interceded in the form of a $500 newspaper ad for a prototype Maplenoll airbearing turntable. When it arrived, Walker immediately regarded it as a complete piece of junk, without a single straight-drilled hole, no right angles anywhere and a weaving arm completely out of alignment. With a sinking feeling at the sight of five wasted quid, Walker's curiosity momentarily got the better of him. He dutifully dumped it on a coffee table sited somewhat adjacent to where his AR sat solidly squatting on a custom-made, super-rigid high-mass rack. He fitted a cheap $40 cartridge to the
Maplenoll, prepared internally for a short-lived aural disaster and was shocked to see this atrocity stomp the living daylights out of his tricked-out AR. As we can by now consider routine Walker protocol, the question "why" nagged him once again. Lloyd stripped the
Maplenoll, blueprinted it and rebuilt it the way he thought it ought to be done properly.
Remembering him now as a top gun fighter pilot in Vietnam who later became associated with Bruce Thigpen of Eminent Technology, Walker eventually connected with the table's designer, Bob
Dilger, via Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade. During his first visit, Dilger arrived with his Maplenoll Apollo turntable, ended up buying back Walker's modified unit and then sold him his Apollo. Walker redesigned it over the following months and expected Dilger to eventually return for a shoot-out between a stock and his heavily modified unit. However, Dilger's subsequent visit brought with him yet another model. Before long, Lloyd Walker became Bob Dilger's distributor for Maplenoll turntables.
-- President: of Walker Audio!
In 1996, and after four years of distribution, design contributions and Maplenoll's eventual demise, Walker and partner Fred Law decided to design their own turntable from scratch. Settling on a crushed-marble composite, it wasn't until 34 attempts later that they finally arrived at a massively cast platter that conformed to their uniform specifications. They had about 10 minutes of impromptu first listening impressions before the final prototype table was to be shipped to the Waldorf Astoria for
Stereophile's New York summer show. Even though Walker Audio at the time was a complete non-entity, Lloyd recalls that during the final polls for Best Sound of the Show, their exhibit with Kumaro single-ended tube amplifiers and
Evett-Shaw speakers made number five from the top. What most show goers remembering that time won't know is that
Kumaro-san didn't show up with his preamp and phono stage as contracted. In typical opening-day tradeshow frenzy, Lloyd hounded the hallways of the hotel, determined to spend top dollars on whatever phono and preamp he could scare up as substitutes. He quips today that even a $10,000 bill wouldn't have wrought the miracle then. He finally did score a preamp from a gentleman whose name he doesn't recall. It had been built ten years prior and stored in a garage since, necessitating the removal of spider webs and a wasp's nest to get ready for prime time. For the first two days, Walker Audio showed with that until word of sonic excellence from their exhibit made the rounds. Legitimate High-End loaners now began arriving in earnest and unsolicited at their doorsteps.
Lloyds recalls that Audio Note generously flew in their $10,000 solid silver step-up transformer and $100,000 preamp for his use. Unfortunately, both components remained in his closet for the duration of the show because Walker then had no idea of Audio Note's excellence and reputation. Instead, he settled on his partner's personal CP-1 VAC preamp that Fred had gotten hold of from home but which suffered a bad selector switch. Unperturbed, the comrades in arms used its internal phono stage through the tape loop and ran it into VAC's entry-level preamp that Kevin Hayes made available. And that, in short, is how Walker Audio completed its first-ever audiophile show, with people lined up in the hallways to hear the room, never suspecting the tenuous wing-and-a-prayer dance its principals performed behind a stoic facade. (Lloyd, of course in updated form, still uses the very same air supply of that first prototype in his current personal table.)
The Real World, Before and After the Coup d'état
It's now nearly 2002. Sixty-two of Lloyd's Proscenium tables have sold. Over the last fourteen months, twelve prospective buyers have visited Walker's digs for a personal audition, and ten out of those bought one on the spot, with one too shy on funds and the other hopefully recovering enough from recent stock market slides to take home his vinyl trophy soon. When questioned when he actually started production after that eventful 1996 NY show, Walker replied "right away", which also entailed quitting his paying job shortly thereafter and betting, as have many others before him and since then, on the temperamental vagaries of High-End audio as a legitimate business.
Incidentally, Walker's formal background is as instrumentation and controls engineers. Before completing a tour of duty in Vietnam, he went through Houston's Trade Center apprentice program. After the war, he picked up further training at the San Jacinto College in Texas. Past his very first year, he already began to design the college's control simulators and ended up teaching two of their classes. He designed and taught several electronics and pipe fitter instrumentation and control programs for Philadelphia, Ohio, California and various other leading facilities of the ISA Instrumentation Society of America. He worked at Three Miles Island's and other nuclear power plant control centers, numerous petrochemical refineries, pharmaceutical concerns, chemical plants, always rushing to complete those persnickety but vital final 5 - 15% of engineering work required to get any such new industrial complexes up and running. This would involve loop-checking and controls calibration, last-minute engineering solutions and field design. Finally, the actual physical machinery would be successfully powered up; he'd program the computers, train the resident instrument control and operations technicians and develop long-term maintenance protocols. He laconically refers to this time now as high and intense overtime work, always occurring right at the end of everyone else's job, all eager to go to Phase Two while he labored under massive pressures to first get these multi-million dollar projects fully functioning.
One of his standard test procedures of the day involved the use of time domain reflectometers to test the integrity of critical wiring, say to the core of a nuclear reactor. Despite super-expensive connectors in the $1-3K per range that make our audiophile WBT jewelry look like candy box treats, Walker recalls that each such juncture and connection still caused very obvious signal spikes and noise reflections on his test gear. This constituted but one of many hands-on insights that would later find expression in his audio design work even though not all phenomena in the industrial arena translate directly into ours.
Walker's isolation cones dubbed Valid Points saw the light of day approximately at the same time as his turntable debut. He had settled on Goldmund cones for the Maplenoll tables as his then-favorite commercially available isolation devices and machined adapters for their metric threads. In the process, and after more than 10 different formulae, he developed the specific brass composition, high in copper and lead, that makes up today's Valid Points as well as all the high-mass parts of his turntable and motor controller. Valid Points served as the isolation base precursors for his turntables long before he had perfected the current automatic air suspension in a two-year development process. The high lead content precludes polishing these parts with high-speed buffers to avoid streaking - polishing his cones and table chassis/arm rest requires extensive hand labor that doesn't get any more fun as the years go by. But, as Walker has it, this particular alloy sounds better, he wants it to also look good, and that - as always with his kind -- is the end of that argument.
Based on the measurable and audible success of resonance suppression in his turntable, Walker decided to turn his brass mixture into resonance control devices for all components. This idea gave birth to the discs that together with the pointed cones make up the complete Walker Audio Resonance Control system of today. To optimize their effectiveness, he came up with the three small coupling squares planted into the undersides which permits the discs to mass-load themselves to whatever they're sitting on. This little detail means that what earlier had required four or five stacked discs could now be accomplished with one or two. In use, the discs can act as mass dampers atop components, as added load force for the energy-draining points below, as captive energy sinks underneath the points, and as mass load devices for the actual shelves. On the subject of appropriate shelf materials, Walker recommends hard rock maple butcher block as the very best. Due to the irregular stave construction of butcher block, the individual wooden constituents not only exhibit different resonance frequencies but also, by virtue of the high-pressure glue joints, are effectively isolated from each other. Conversely, marble and granite make some of the worst shelf materials possible, followed by glass and other ringing substances. To illustrate the reason for his disdain, Walker pointed to the digging of the tunnel between France and England. To get a fix on the opposing team's position digging towards the center, one only had to listen to a solitary strike that would carry on with precision through many miles of subterranean granite.
Being habitually attentive to small details, Walker noticed that his Valid Points worked better with heavy rather than lighter gear. Not only is the component's weight part of the actual equation that makes his points work, the flimsy case work of lighter components also suffers from non-rigid, non-flat surfaces that reduce the coupling mechanism. To increase the effective transfer function, Walker wanted to minimize the contact area, similar to the high heels of women's footwear that cause excellent transfer -sinking into the ground - the skinnier and pointier they are. He came up with three miniature upward facing points that lighter components rest on. Claiming that he could hear the difference, he aborted gluing these points to the top surface of his cones and now taper drills them instead. While a much more time-consuming method that only someone obsessed with wringing the last drops of improvements from a winning formula would condemn himself to, it's practically hardwired into his system to insist on.
For the current iteration of his table, Walker employs three industrial air suspension units of two different sizes that are loaded asymmetrically for widest possible resonances distribution. Again of two different sizes and damped with two different internal compounds, three chambers, with port-size critical fittings moving the air to and fro, test for less than 0.01 inch of internal pressure fluctuation. Contrary to his expectations, damping materials on specific internal areas still drastically affected the table's sound and required lengthy experimentations to get things just right. It is Walker's belief that the more dialed-in a component becomes, the more sensitive and critical it is to very minute adjustments. In fact, his entire philosophy of "the magic's in the details" centers on this experiential notion. If you unfold this seemingly innocuous statement, its implications for audio become clear: the more money you spend on presumably better and better engineered statement-level equipment, the more of your effort and time is required to optimize your individual components and their interactions. To put it bluntly: to get what you paid for so dearly takes exponentially more and more work on your part, to truly unlock from hidden potential to full blown actuality the performance your purchases are capable of. By remembering, from a recent review, the utter transformation the Avantgarde Duo loudspeakers underwent over the course of two days, from mediocre to world-class, I can certainly sympathize with this notion.
Clearly Walker and compatriot Fred follow this religion devoutly. For example, to determine the final belt material for the Proscenium, they auditioned forty different options before settling on 4mm wide silk. Their arm is a true 45-50 lbs high-pressure, low-flow captured
airbearing. The air suspension, unlike competing designs, operates under the same high pressure as the arm, for better stability and bass response. The platter, with a rotating mass of ca. 75 lbs., requires only one pound of air pressure to float its huge bearing by about one or two 10,000th of an inch, a lift so minute that it remains absolutely invisible to the naked eye. The vertical bearing uses a locator pin embedded in a
Teflon/Delron bushing and only deals with the barely measurable side load of the belt tension that's kept minimal for low friction. In fact, records can be replaced without ever turning off the motor. With it spinning uninterrupted, the platter can be stopped with a single finger in about 1.5 seconds, and once the clamp is in place for the new record, a gentle push of a thumb will get the platter back up to speed before the record is even cued up.
To illustrate this, Walker revived one tradeshow day during which competing visiting engineers claimed that he absolutely had to have a high speed, high torque servomotor if he wanted to run his table without suffering bass loss with low notes. Knowing better, Walker cued up a Sheffield drum record, took out a pair of scissors, cut the belt and let the onlookers eat their pants as they watched the platter continue to spin for another 40 seconds before pitch change finally kicked in.
Links From Yesterday To Tomorrow
In his personal system, Walker used to listen to Anthony Gallo's Nucleus Reference speaker. He fashioned an external Zobel network for it to accomplish his sonic goals, but without ever considering production of this add-on as a new product. When Gallo Acoustics abandoned fickle High-End sales for the greener and wetter pastures of Mid-Fi numbers, Lloyd's in-house speaker became the Merlin VSM with soon-to-be Walkerized BAM module. Since Bobby Palkovich outfits his speakers with an external Zobel network, Walker began to experiment and agreed that the speaker indeed sounded best with the Zobels installed. He then remembered his own, hooked them up and preferred them by a small margin. Being at work on his phono amp at the time, he was knee deep in hyper-expensive designer parts. He built up a Zobel network from metal foil, zero dielectric resistors on ceramic back plates. Needless to say, they sounded better yet. Partner Fred came up with the wooden body to protect the very fragile resistors inside a routed-out recess. The High Definition Links were born, and Lloyd doesn't know how many thousands he's sold since.
Eighteen months later, Walker's innate penchant for tinkering took over once again. He had on hand the super-expensive derivative custom Teflon capacitors created especially for the RIAA section of his phono preamp. These caps are customarily used in the GHz range of oscilloscopes, not audio. He built a sample set and lo and behold, the Ultimate HDLs were sired. Meanwhile, a customer of his had wrapped a standard HDL with EMI/RFI tape and reported phenomenal improvements. A week later, Walker had perfected this latest mod with a special grounding scheme and implemented it into production. The very latest development in this evolutionary chain got jumpstarted with last month's EarWax article. It persuaded Lloyd, after many years of knowing about her, to call up Jennifer
WhiteWolf-Crock and ship her some of his proprietary phono cable for exploratory Cryo treatment. He reports being so enthused with the results that he's already followed up by having her cryo a set of Ultimate HDLs and various other sundry parts. In fact, he's currently preparing a phono preamp for complete liquid nitrogen immersion, fully aware that certain parts could blow up or otherwise self-destruct. Still, he's hell-bent on walking down that road at least once to see where it might lead.
And that's about as perfect an exit note as I could conjure up to summarize the spirit of this particular music-loving individual. By extension, it also covers that of many others in this industry who continue to labor over minutiae and sweat the smallest of seemingly redundant details, all in the quest for that elusive magic that some tune fiend, out there somewhere, maybe, might be as enthralled by and interested in as they are themselves. Where Lloyd Walker is concerned, don't be surprised if this latest connection with Jena Labs doesn't bear further fruit, perhaps in the form of some joint project, or at the very least in some seriously cool - no, make that freezingly cold - implementations of Cryo in
Walker Audio products. Here's to loving your job as much as Lloyd Walker seems to dig his. Cheers!
An interview with up-and-coming speaker designer Vince Christian, and a layman's exploration of series crossover speaker networks.
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