Speaker manufacturer and designer Albert Von Schweikert has been a respected name in high-end audio for over 30 years. Starting with the legendary Vortex Screen in the late '70s, Von Schweikert has designed numerous speaker lines, for his own company and for many others, including the famous dual-box Von Schweikert Audio Virtual Reality series and the current UniField 1, 2, and 3 speakers. This past year, he launched a completely new speaker -- the VR-44 -- and has plans for a statement model called the VR-77. This past February, over lunch with Albert at a sushi restaurant in Covina, California, I began an extensive interview. Over the next two days, we continued the conversation at a listening session at a nearby dealer, then through a tour of the Von Schweikert Audio headquarters in Riverside, California.
Garrett Hongo: Where did you grow up, and what was it like growing up there?
Albert Von Schweikert: I was born in Panama. My father was German, my mother Spanish. My maternal grandfather, from Barcelona, was one of the engineers on the Panama Canal. My father, whose parents were German, had emigrated to the United States to avoid WWII. He ended up joining the US army as an officer. After being stationed in Panama, he got sent back to Germany to work as a translator. So I grew up in Heidelberg, where the great university is, and, until I was 16, attended German schools and had private music lessons at the conservatory. Music was all around us -- opera, brass bands, and street musicians with accordions, clarinets, trumpets, and a bucket for change.
This past November, in Texas to promote a new book, I found myself in Austin, which is famous for its live-music scene. It’s also the home of Colleen Cardas Imports, a new audio-distribution venture for Colleen Cardas, the vivacious and caring woman who for 20 years was president of Cardas Audio. She has now partnered, in business and in life, with Marc Phillips, editor of The Vinyl Anachronist and former contributing writer to Tone Audio. Together, they now represent only two major lines -- Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, based in Treviso, Italy -- and what great equipment it is. (I featured Opera/Unison in the column "The Traveler," in 2008.) Once firmly established, Cardas and Phillips plan to add other lines.
Whenever I travel, I try to drop in on manufacturers, distributors, or dealers and check out what they have to offer, not only in terms of equipment, but also for their approach to audio. This past October, in New York City for a week of literary events of my own, I peeled off a couple afternoons to visit Jeffrey Catalano, owner of High Water Sound, and Wes Bender, of Wes Bender Studio NYC. Both are amiable acquaintances I’d met in demo rooms at the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest over the years, and I’d been increasingly curious about the lines they represent and their overall takes on our pastime.
High Water Sound is a distributor of very special audio gear, mainly imports from Europe: from Germany, the TW-Acustic 10.5 tonearm and line of turntables, Cessaro Horn Acoustics speakers, Thöress Systems electronics, and WSS-Kabel wires; from England, Aspara Acoustics speakers and Tron Electric electronics; from Denmark, Hørning Hybrid System speakers and electronics; and the Thales tonearms from Switzerland. High Water’s domestic brands include Audience, Tri-Planar, Graham Engineering, Silent Running Audio, and Purist Audio Design. Jeffrey Catalano’s specialty is analog, analog, analog -- and then some more analog. His demo rooms at RMAF feature sensitive speakers, superb tube electronics, and some of the most eye-catching turntables and tonearms around. I’d briefly visited him in New York just a month before. This time around I wanted a longer session.
Part Two: Implementing a Philosophy of Sound
Two months ago, in "Developing a Philosophy of Sound," the first half of this feature interview, Andrew Jones focused on the studies, experiments, and experiences that underlie his thinking about sound, especially as it applies to his loudspeaker designs. Jones describes it as "A balanced design approach which maximizes, along multiple parameters, real-world performance and original artistic intent across the musical spectrum."
In Part Two we discuss Jones’s role as Director and Chief Engineer of TAD Laboratories, how he has applied his philosophy to the speakers he’s designed for TAD, and the systems he builds around those speakers at international audio events.
Part One: Developing a Philosophy of Sound
One of the highlights of 2011 for me was the opportunity to interview Andrew Jones, Director and Chief Engineer for TAD Laboratories. Jones not only designed TAD’s state-of-the-art Reference One ($78,000 USD per pair) and Compact Reference ($38,000/pair) loudspeakers, but also Pioneer’s SP-BS41-LR bookshelf model, an outstanding value at a low cost ($150/pair). Talented and engaging, Jones has had a fascinating personal and professional history in the world of high-performance audio. While our discussions ranged widely, they ultimately revolved around his philosophy of sound and the role it plays in his speaker designs. The exchanges in this segment focus on the studies, experiments, and experiences responsible for Jones’s formulation and refinement of his philosophy of sound. The final installment will focus on his role at TAD Laboratories, the implementation of his philosophy in TAD’s speaker models, and the systems he builds around those speakers at international audio events.
If you’ve kept up with the audio trade shows of late, such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show, and perhaps even wandered into a Magico demonstration to hear their speakers, you’ve probably also heard a pretty ambitious music server that was also demonstrated in June 2009, at the Computer Audiophile Symposium in Berkeley, California. The fellow who developed this unique audio component did so because Magico wanted the best possible source with which to demonstrate their loudspeakers. Since music servers have been an area of increasing interest to audiophiles worldwide, we wanted to learn more about them from Matan Arazi, the designer of the Audeeva Conbrio music server.
Most audiophiles will recognize that of the myriad components in audio playback chains, loudspeakers have always been the subject of the most rigorous, passionate, and inconclusive debates. And there's plenty of evidence suggesting that this trend won't be changing any time soon.
Specifications might weigh heavily in the analysis of other high-fidelity entities, but they take on a whole new significance with loudspeakers. Because we all hear and listen differently, however, there's little room for unbiased assessments, and audiophiles are unlikely to reach consensus. Recently, Jeffrey W. Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, has added more fuel to the debate with two insightful articles: "Do You Always Get What You Pay For?" and "Comparisons on Paper: B&W 803 Diamond vs. Tidal Contriva Diacera SE."
Clearly there must be some sensible approach to evaluating loudspeakers. But because customers are rarely able to audition equipment in their own homes, they're often forced to make purchases in pressure-filled, aurally blind circumstances. Are we forgetting that without patrons there can be no industry? Consumers need to be numerous, nurtured and nourished, and dealers should never treat them like audio neophytes.
A challenging portfolio
The fiercely competitive field of high-resolution audio is a challenging job environment. The ideal recording engineer should have a keen sense of music appreciation, and strong knowledge of electronics and acoustics. A thorough understanding of microphones and their applications is an essential prerequisite.
One of the portfolio’s main objectives is to guide clients into making technically sound decisions, so as to optimize the overall quality of finished recordings. This is usually done in conjunction with the project’s producer.
Most musicians will accept good professional advice. Therefore, the recording engineer needs to instinctively appreciate the finely delineated balance between the words subjective and objective. By accepting tactful, prudent recommendations, musicians can avoid wasting money resulting from poor productions. This strategy generally ensures repeated business from satisfied clients and generates new opportunities through referrals.
However, according to Jack Renner (at his recording console in photo above right), who was the chief recording engineer of TELARC Records, "Many would argue that the producer on any project has more influence on the final outcome, musically speaking, than the recording engineer. The engineer is ultimately charged with delivering the final sound re-creation which satisfies both performer and producer."
Summer in Southern California is beaches, BBQs, sun and fun, outdoor symphony concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and a lot of freeway driving. It’s not as well known for audio, though manufacturers, distributors, and legendary dealerships abound in the area. I recently dropped in on two SoCal distributors: Philip O’Hanlon’s On a Higher Note, in San Juan Capistrano, and Dan Meinwald’s EAR USA/Sound Advice, in Long Beach. On a Higher Note distributes Brinkmann Audio, Luxman, Vivid Audio, and (soon) Audio Aero, while EAR USA/Sound Advice distributes EAR, Mårten Design, Townshend Audio, and Jorma Design.
Philip O’Hanlon lives in the foothills above San Juan Capistrano. I drove up through swank suburban roads to O’Hanlon’s large, two-story, Mediterranean-style home. O’Hanlon greeted me at the door and waved me quickly inside; he was busy making up playlists on an iPad, for later burning to CD. He spoke with the distinctive Gaelic lilt and precise pronunciation of the Irish; he’s from Cork, in the south of Ireland.
He led me into an incredible space. A long spiral staircase descended to a spacious (40’ x 31’ x 23’) master room with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, floor-to-ceiling rear windows, French doors at one end, large artworks on the walls, and, in a pot in one corner, a living tree. The staircase curled toward a long bar with a huge mirror behind it, then to a living-room space with couches and chairs on one side, and on the other a listening space with Vivid Audio’s distinctively shaped G1Giya speakers (91dB/6 ohms, $65,000/pair), a leather couch, assorted electronics, and other audio gear. Tucked under the staircase was a collection of LPs and CDs.
A Pandora’s Box for audiophiles
My realization that Jack Renner had miked Ahmad Jamal’s Chicago Revisited from the audience perspective proved to be very serendipitous indeed. A piece to provoke healthy discussion among the many avid supporters of this publication was long overdue.
Renner’s statement was astounding because I had always assumed that pianos were miked from the performers’ perspective. So with my curiosity aroused, I spent days listening to nearly every piano recording in my library and contemplating the intrinsic sonic characteristics of today’s modern high-resolution recordings and audiophile playback systems. An audiophile’s Pandora’s Box had been inadvertently opened.
The main ingredients
Perspective relates to the way our senses perceive events. When we close our eyes and listen to recorded music, there should be spatial cues that allow the brain to reconstruct events accurately. We should see the performers. For clarification, players’ perspective refers to musicians onstage facing an audience, while audience perspective refers to an audience facing the performers.
Realism in audio reproduction pertains to the delineation of a soundstage into a facsimile of an original recording, without embellishment or interpretation. The term relates directly to nuances and detail, phenomena that are inextricably linked to the resolving power of audiophile playback systems.
Many factors influence perspective and realism. Some of the more commonly used industry terms are:
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