We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Max Townshend, CEO of Townshend Audio. For nearly five decades, the team of highly qualified engineers at Townshend Audio have been working towards building the hi-fi system of your dreams. Their quest is to find the best solution for every problem in the audio replay chain and build the ideal high fidelity music reproduction system is guided by common sense and sound engineering practice. To create this system Townshend Audio had to re-visit almost every component, from source to speaker. Along the way they encountered many unproductive dead-ends and established that there was no single technology or silver bullet that could transform an ordinary hi-fi into an excellent one.
By taking a rigorous approach to the design of every component in the system the result is an exceptional music system. It has been highly praised as the best system ever heard by many discerning listeners and respected critics, including a number of professional soloists and orchestral players. Along the path of discovery, Townshend Audio has developed a number of components and techniques that are indispensable within their system that has been shown to enhance high-end audio systems.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. My Grandmother played the piano for silent movies and had a classical music collection of 78 rpm records at home. This is where I heard Grieg's Piano Concerto for the first time. It was a life-changing experience and the concerto has been one of my favorites ever since and started a lifelong passion. I paid homage to Greig by visiting Troldhaugen in Norway when I was working on an oil mud cleaning machine in the early nineties. My grandmother was thrifty and rather than buying a modern record player commissioned me to convert her 78RPM version to play 33s. As a result, my musical education is partnered with engineering passion.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high fidelity audio gear?
A. At the age of around 10 I had an interest in electronics and luckily a family friend introduced me to Guglielmo Marconi's assistant Ernest Wishshaw when he made the first overseas radio transmission from the Lizard Peninsular to Ireland. Wishaw had retired to Australia for health reasons. Somewhat reluctantly he allowed me to visit his workshop in Nedlands WA. He was color blind and unable to identify resistors without measuring each one individually. When he realized I could find the right one out of a box of random resistors I became a fixture in his workshop where he was manufacturing ultra-high-quality tube amplifiers. After a few weeks, I was invited into his listening room, where the thick velvet curtains shielded the room from the intense antipodean sunshine. It was mono, but wow! That's where I first heard high-quality reproduced sound and that pursuit has been my goal ever since.
In the early 1970s, I worked at 'Wireless House' AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia). At the time I was building myself a version of the HQD speaker system which comprised two KEF B139 bass drivers, a pair of stacked Quad ESL-57s, and a pair of Decca Ribbon speakers. In the office next to me worked John Ernest Benson, the father of the vented loudspeaker. Under his guidance, I measured the Thiele / Small parameters required to optimize the size of the box and port with the given frequency and resonance. I have built some great sounding speakers over the years but my latest is the culmination of a lifetime's ideas. I've been living with the prototype for a few years and I'm happy, as it can handle big orchestration and I spend evenings listening to great classical music, including choir and organ.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. I am getting a lot of pleasure from a high-speed Lyrec 2 track reel-to-reel I acquired recently, it manages to impart more lifelike presence to sound than any other format, even fooling my three-year-old granddaughter who is convinced there's someone singing within the room. I also heard a great Japanese super tweeter recently, the Murata. It matches our little Maximum Supertweeter in terms of performance. Unlike our super-fast ribbon design, it uses the piezoelectric principle. Both can reveal the subtle clues held within the recording that can be only be reproduced by an extremely fast driver which is crucial for creating truly convincing psychoacoustic effects. One can find the Muratas on the second-hand market if you are lucky, but they go for around £5000, sadly the company has ceased trading.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. I set up Townshend Audio to market the EEI long contact Parabolic diamond styli for record players and moved Townshend Audio to the UK in 1978. The concept of this new design was extremely popular, as it was superior to the elliptical in both sound and record wear. It has since become universal.
Q. What and when was your company's first product?
A. As well as the parabolic replacement styli and associated cartridges, I manufactured solid-state preamps based on the designs by Cyrl Murray of Sydney University as installed in The Sydney Opera House and the Canberra House of Parliament.
I met Professor Jack Dinsdale, inventor of the transformerless transistor power amplifier at the then Cunard show at Hammersmith in the early eighties which led me to head up the production of his invention of the front-end damping trough, which was incorporated in the Rock Turntable and Excalibur arm first developed in conjunction with work at The Cranfield University. Faced with the challenge to build the world's best record player, he invented the curved silicon fluid-filled trough for front-end damping. This eradicated virtually all of the subsonic rumble caused by the un-damped arm/cartridge resonance, which plagues all ordinary record players. It also got rid of the bass “doubling” and reduced surface noise to virtual inaudibility.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. Let's face it, it was never going to be easy to market a record player with a trough on it, especially when it went up against the well-established home-grown offerings. I think the hi-fi establishment would be more open to such a radical idea today, as it is a design that works. There may be a new player in the future.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. My product timeline has pretty much seen me revisit every component within the audio chain in a very natural and organic process and each product has involved complete immersion for years at a time. We made the first Seismic Sink isolation platform in 1989 using air bladders. Unfortunately, our old enemy entropy meant they needed to be pumped every six months or so. So, we developed the air-damped, sprung bellows that we use today. They are set and forget. Along with the suspended mass, they form the classic mass/spring low-pass filter, with isolation starting at 4Hz and attenuating at 12dB per octave.
The bulk of our sales are through word-of-mouth and forum recommendations and have become increasingly popular over the years. It is an indispensable product for the music lover who wants to maximize their existing system without the inconvenience of changing your hardware. Users still wonder at the massive improvement the isolation has on the sound of amplifiers and streamers. Once you have heard it you can never go back.
Our Isolda cables evolved in the late 1970s and comprised six runs of 50 Ohm coax connected in parallel to give a characteristic impedance of 8.2 Ohms. While this is fine for many amplifiers we had to think about and solve the problems in many others, so to stabilize incompetently designed, marginally stable amplifiers, we incorporate suitable inductors in each leg at the amplifier end and a frequency equalizing Zobel network at the speaker end.
The multi-coax design has evolved into the twin flat strip design, which is our standard Isolda cable, and lately into our flag-ship cable, The F1 Isolda, incorporating our secret Fractal treated copper. The insulation is ultra-thin PTFE with the whole is encased in heat-shrink tubing and then in a flexible conduit filled with synthetic silicone rubber. Many critical reviewers and end-users remark that they are far and away the best cables they have ever experienced. The big reason the cables are so good is that the impedance matching virtually eliminates the sound degrading multiple chaotic reflections that plague non-impedance matched cables. We have developed a measurement system that shows these transmission line effects extending down to 400Hz. See my white paper: The Sound Of Music and the characteristic impedance of speaker cable geometries.
I have been building speakers for forty years and using Plaster-of-Paris cabinet walls, which form the ultimate launch pad for attaining our signature subterranean bass and super-fast mid-range. I have now developed this idea further and now the plaster is incorporated inside the cabinet for further rigidity, stiffness, and mass. I also designed the first double flared port which was incorporated in the Glastonbury II speaker and was an expert witness in the lawsuit between Bose and JBL over the very same design that is in the Bose Acoustimass bass speaker and the JBL equivalent.
But it was our Allegri autotransformer Preamplifier incorporating our exclusive and secret Fractal copper wire that has spearheaded our latest advance in musical playback. The volume control is the weakest link in the audio system, and it has taken a further ten years of development to arrive at our latest beauty, The Allegri Reference preamplifier. It out-performs the best digital volume controls and has to be heard to be believed.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. I would say purely on hits on our website the Allegri Reference is the most popular. This is great, as it is a new product and it is fantastic that it has been gaining a reputation as the state of the art volume control. I enjoyed getting my teeth into this project as it offers the greatest leap in audio playback and is suitable for all high-end systems.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its features?
A. We are designing an Allegri+ preamp with remote control and are also creating a multi drive-unit, focused-line speaker. It incorporates six Supertweeters, six air motion transducers, and six long-throw bass units, with all acoustic centers on a perfectly time-aligned four-meter radius arc with the center at the listener's head, 1m above the floor. We will be using a plaster launch pad for the drivers and will feature an acoustically invisible grill. The curved edged cabinet is of anodized aluminum incorporating internal constrained layer damping. There is also a universal player, a DAC, and a phono stage in development.