Thursday, March 29, 2007

High End Hi Fidelity: Surviving as an Industry

Lots of interesting things are happening to the Hi Fidelity Industry (HFI). By HFI I mean several different groups:
  • Recording artists, and music labels
  • Hi Fi equipment manufacturers
  • Retail stores of CDs and stereo reproduction equipment
  • Internet Radio
Some is positive, and some is negative, but I think that the negative will eventually become positive.

The advent of MP3 music players and online music providers has begun to destroy the bastion of power that were major record labels. The biggest contributor to this isn't the technology itself, but the ability of consumers to purchase single tracks at a time. While this may mean the end of the concept album in pop-music land, I think in the long run, it will mean the decrease of influence that major record labels will have on our culture and music.

Also, recently record labels have tried to destroy small mom and pop internet radio stations by imposing a flat fee per record played. This is a boneheaded move. The independent artists will quickly find this as an opportunity, and regroup, offering the independent radio stations a sweeter deal than they had before. The indy-radio station will return, only with even LESS pop music/major label influence. Instead of destroying the indy-station, they will just reduce the relevance and power that "major record labels" will weild.

Another interesting trend is that serious music listeners are buying local, and directly from artists. The closing of 800 CD stores in 2006 will mean that music listeners will be buying more from their local symphonies, and jazz ensembles than they did before, meaning at the end of the day that musicians, especially good musicians, will make more money than they ever did before. This coupled with the inddependent radio station revival which will occur, will mean we will at the end of the day get much better modern music than we ever did before.

I also think that we are going to see more classical music being actually recorded. Why? Because with the closing down of major stores keeping back-catalogs dating back 50 years, there will be more immediate demand for the purchase of CD's before, and after concerts today.

I was going to write this all together as a long post, but I think I will stop here, and post more tomorrow about how the equipment industry will survive as well.

Power Conditioners Go Green

A few years ago PS Audio and Richard Gray helped energize the market for power conditioning products. Both seemed to offer real, measurable improvements in sound and video quality. In a way they started a race which continues to this day.

While the Richard Grey appoach has always been inherently "green", the PS Audio approach certainly was not. By using class A/B amplifiers, they would burn a lot of electricity and fossil fuels just by being turned on and they were every expensive per watt. On the other hand, the Power Plants could guarantee the quality of the output signal, something RG's approach, being in parallel with your devices, could not do.

Because of this, when ExactPower showed up with a radical, green approach to generating perfectly clean AC power, I thought surely the Power Plants would have serious competition. By using a buck/boost transformer in the path of the AC, they could blow the Power Plants out of the water in terms of wattage, with efficiency's over 90%, compared to the 50% or so efficient Power Plants.

To my surprise, Exact Power doesn't seem to have made many inroads. They list one dealer and seem to want to do most of their business over the net. I have no idea how many units they sell a year.

In the mean time, PS Audio has come up with a much more efficient design. They aren't giving out many details on how they are doing it, but it sounds a lot like they are borrowing some ideas from Bob Carver's amplifiers. Carver amplifiers would use power supplies with multiple, fixed rails. A switch before the output stage would select one rail or the other based on the incoming waveform, and the output amplifier would be responsible for cushioning these fixed-step changes as well as generating the final output to the speakers.

My point to all of this rambling is just that I'm glad to see that more high-tech approaches to power conditioning are going beyond the brute-force approach and using technology which is not only better sounding, but better for the environment and for the consumer's pocket books as well.

Happy Listening!

Roger Sanders of InnerSound is Back

I found out through the web grapevine that Roger Sanders, founder of InnerSound is back, and has started a new company, focusing on electronics at Sanders Sound Systems.

For a short period of time I was the New England rep for InnerSound. In a way, I was the catalyst for good and bad things to happen to Roger. My girlfriend was producing ads for InnerSound, which ran in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. When he ran full page ads in TAS, they often complemented Sara by copying the color schemes on the cover.

Anyway, around 2002 I was also the rep for a company I used to do some industrial and PCB design for, Smart Theater Systems (now Smart Devices). Norm from SMART called me up and said he wanted to go to the NY Home Theater Expo held in NY every year, but wanted to share a room with some one. SMART was producing a very nice performing (if industrial looking) line of power conditioners, as well as licensing the Hafler amplifier designs to produce a hybrid tube/solid-state amplifier which was well received. As it turned out, at the time InnerSound and SMART were both located in Georgia, so getting them together was pretty easy.

Anyway, Roger had the speakers, and SMART had the amplifiers, and together we had a budget for a complete room display. At this convention, John Marks from Stereophile spent a long enough time auditioning the InnerSound speakers to agree to finally commit to giving them a real review. You'd think Roger would have been really happy with me. Nope, he ignored me completely, and chose to have dinner with designers of a new tube amp that as far as I know was never sold.

Anyway, Stereophile gave them a great review, which is when Roger's fortune's changed for the worse. At some point Roger met a man with money to invest, who convinced him to move the factory from Georgia to Colorado. After this, as is well known, there was a falling out, and Roger left InnerSound. So, I was good for Roger, and I was bad for Roger.

My point to all of this, however, is that Roger is back in business, and seems to be quickly rebuilding products based on the original philosophy which he built his company on. Now if he can make electrostatics with the same smooth responses at the Eros and Isis with wider dispersion, he'll soon be the talk of the audio world.

Good luck to you Roger!

MK Speakers are No More!

Miller & Kreisel Sound has shut down it's doors. You can find some information at their website, MK Sound as well as the Stereophile article here.

There are allegations of counterfeit, Chinese made speakers being partly responsible for their demise, as well as innuendos of ex-business partners or employees being part of it as well.

I do not know if any of this is true, but I must say, I'm kind of surprised MK made it as far as they did anyway.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my MK S-1B with the V-1 subwoofer combination that is the heart of my living room's home theater system. When I bought my main speakers, I happened to know the MK rep for the SE US, and since there were no dealers in Georgia, I got a deal. At the time I was a starving student, trying to make a business as an installer. I think they were great sounding, and well priced when I bought them, 15-20 years ago. Since then however, I never bought another pair, and ended up with Monitor Audio RS1s in the home office, and Cambridge Soundworks for surrounds in the home theater.

There were several problems with the MK speaker line for me as a pure consumer. The first was the complete lack of stores. I have run into 2 stores who even carried MK products. The second problem is just the cost. TINY speakers were running around $600-$800 each! And given the fairly standard Vifa tweeters they were using, I had a real trouble paying that much for them. Even when they had discounts and B grade products, I could find too many speakers that were cheaper and as good or better.

In addition, I think MK Sound suffered from another problem: Too many products.

They tried to spread their brand around to every conceivable type of speaker. Cubes to compete with Bose and Cambridge Soundworks, powered studio grade monitors, super sub woofers, and in-wall speakers. They experimented with every conceivable type of surround speaker. Bi-polar, di-polar, tri-polar, upward firing, behind the couch, you name it. Except for co-axial designs, and PA speakers, they did it all. On the innovation scale, they definitely get a 10+ rating. They were producing almost as many different types of speakers as Sony or Panasonic. The only other brands that I knew of that competed with this many speakers were Cambridge Soundworks, which I heard is in the process of closing many of its stores.

I really wondered how MK Sound could possibly control quality, maintain high prices, and get enough sales volume to keep the doors open. Having so many different models of speakers seemed like a nightmare for their reps. What DO you sell a new store? What products are you going to go in with? What are you going to promote to reviewers? To be really successful you need to have multiple good reviews of a single or closely related speaker models. How can you concentrate your marketing focus and generate brand excitement with 100 different models? This is the business model you would use to sell products to WalMart and Sears, not independent, high end stores.

Where MK Sound seems to have followed the high-end/specialty model is in their subwoofers. They got consistently great reviews on them, and they seemed to be a major part of their business as a result, selling to many customers who probably were not going to use MK speakers for the rest of their systems.

Honestly, this is all questions and conjecture on my part. For all I know they had solved all of these problems. I've never met Ken Kreisler, and don't have an MBA, but, if anyone has any ideas about this, please drop me a note, because I'd be fascinated to find out what really happened.

Take care!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Final Pics of the PV10/PV-Nigel

It's finally happened, I've made all the upgrades I can stand to do to the PV10 before sending it to CJ for measurements.

On the left you see the Power1 upgrade boards. Or their prototypes. Next generation will be smaller and double sided.

I should hold a contest to see who can recognize the most number of upgrades done to the main board, but I can't think of something to give away. Perhaps a 4700uF Black Gate cap with clamp, or my bag of Solen and Cardas capacitors? Well, ok, but only if I get at least 30 different entries. It's no good if only 2 people read my blog. :)

But seriuosly, if you want to try, send me a comment and I'll tell you how many upgrades you missed. I'll give you a hint, there are no audio path upgrades except the tube sockets. Good luck!

The 3001/A Boards go Out

I'm happy to announce that all of the pre-orders have been filled and mailed, and should be arriving in customer's mail boxes by Wednesday.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Tandberg Silver Output Boards

In celebration of the long overdue arrival of the Silver Edition of the output boards, I am posting a complete photo gallery to show just how far things have progressed.

First, apologies for those who have been waiting on boards. My manufacturer is usually very prompt but the high quality of materials which I specified is unusual. When I ordered another customer had just depleted their stock, and they were not prepared. The end result is that I just received the shipment of boards this past Thursday, March 8th.

Orders will be going out this Saturday, March 10th at the latest. Without keeping you in further suspence, here it is, front and back:

Notice the full solder mask and silk screen. You may also notice that the annular rings appear white instead of shiny, this is actually because of the silver content, lead free plating that was used.

Since this is probably the last posting I make about these boards, I'm going to do a full comparison between them and the originals, so please bear with me.

The next picture you see is a composite of the original board. As you can see, while the original used a single side for the ground plane as well as the traces while the 2.0 boards use a double sided board.

By having one side for the traces and another for the ground planes I could design the board with three separate, massive ground planes and optimally routed traces, with better clearances and thicker traces. In combination with the 2.5 oz. copper and silver plating the Silver Edition boards are going to be a large improvement.

I also wanted to share with you were pictures of the Cardas jacks so you can compare them with the originals.

I swiped this picture right off the Cardas web site, I hope they don't mind, but since each board takes 7 of them I think they will be ok with it, so long as I remind you that they have nothing to do with the design, manufacture or sale of the boards.

They look good don't they? Rhodium over silver over brass, oh my!

Here you can see four of the jacks I removed from the original board. Tin and plastic is really all there was to them. Keep in mind that the way these jacks were attached to the board was by bending over the three little tabs onto the board. What has happened a great deal in the years since Tandberg stopped making audio equipment is that male RCA plugs have gotten much tighter and heavier, especially in premium cables. So users would press their new cables into the jacks with all of their might, and unless the tabs were really tight up against the board, there would be just enough motion to literally lift the tabs off of the circuit boards from behind. The Cardas jacks don't use bendable tabs, by the way. The four prongs are thick rhodium/silver/brass which attach with a significant amount of solder.

By the way, sadly, many Tandberg tuners are having problems with the internal connectors separating from the copper on the boards. I think this has a lot to do with the size of the annular rings around them being too small for the solder to get a good grip. My point is, if you are going to replace this board, check all the other connectors you'll be exposing, on the power supply as well as the output stage board. If there is any play, resolder them.

I want to leave you now with two beauty shots.

The first is a picture of the fully assembled prototype board.

While not as professional looking as the Silver boards you can see the ground plane and the beefiness of the jacks. Those of you who have experience looking at the insides of tube gear may feel a twinge of nostalgia.

And this is what the jacks should look like after installation. Please drool carefully.