Behind The Scenes (Jan. 1979)

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Every once in a while I write a "bits and pieces" column to report on some incidental items of audio interest, and this column is of that breed. At this time, the establishment and implementation of standards is very much on my mind, for several reasons. The 61st AES convention at the Waldorf will quite naturally be heavily concerned with digital matters. There will be quite a few papers on various aspects of digital technology, and many anticipate some real progress on the establishment of standards for digital recording. As I have previously noted, there have been indications that we would have two digital recording standards. Very roughly they could be designated as one which favored a "consumer type" helical-scan PCM recorder with a sampling rate of 44.056 per second, tying in with the NTSC color TV signal, and one for "professional" linear digital tape transports operating up to 45 inches per second with a sampling rate of somewhere between 50 to 54 K per second. Most of the helical-scan PCM units have been 13-bit systems, while the "pro" linear drive machines have been 16-bit systems. Well, friends, on the basis of some information I have and a private demonstration of a new digital recording system (which I have sworn not to reveal at this time), the standards situation is going to be newly complicated. I can tell you that it is a major effort by a major company, and therefore the system will command attention in the ongoing deliberations of the digital standards committee of the AES.

At the recent Teresa and Bob Rogers New York Hi-Fi Show at the Statler Hilton, I encountered a "standards" problem of a very simple nature, but one which needs to be resolved just as much as the digital situation and, in fact, has been a source of irritation for many years. Before going on to this, I should mention that the show itself was reasonably interesting and as well organized as are most of the Rogers' shows, but there wasn't a great deal of really new equipment, with such established giants as Pioneer, Kenwood, and Technics not showing. Some people ventured the opinion that the dearth of new equipment and the non-participation of the biggies was the imminence of the Winter CES, and this could very well be the case.

One item which caught the eye of many people was a new Hitachi cassette deck, which has the facility of automatically setting the bias and equalization for the various cassette tape formulations. Another thing about the Rogers' shows is that they allow dealers to exhibit, and thus many items of "high end" audio "exotica" not normally on demonstration at other hi-fi shows can be auditioned. McIntosh preamps, amplifiers, and tuners, usually conspicuous by their absence, were there in all their high-styled elegance.

The Bedini-Strelioff 200-watt amplifiers were impressive brutes, with huge capacitors in their power supply and massive heat sinks. The current "darling" in many high-end shops is the Professional Systems Engineering preamp and amplifier, and in the brief audition I had, they were impressively clean sounding. M&K of Beverly Hills were demonstrating their new subwoofer, a fairly small size for this species, but it has its own amplifier and a motional feedback circuit, and when I heard it, it was putting out some floor-shaking low frequencies.

As at the Chicago CES, Bowers and Wilkins were presenting a tasteful low-key demonstration of excellent classical recordings through their very accurate and smooth-sounding DM7 and DM2 speakers. Superex, heretofore known as a headphone manufacturer, was showing a new preamp and amplifier, from all places, Israel! The amplifier is said to operate pure Class A up to 40 watts and then in Class AB up to 150 watts per channel at 8 ohms.

I had offered to help a friend set up his demonstration system in his room when I ran afoul of the "standards" problem I mentioned earlier.

Mating Mishap

My friend wanted to use a new tonearm with a new cartridge in his phono playback system. The arm is one of the better ones on the market, and the cartridge has also received excellent reviews in the audio press.

Good as this combination of arm and cartridge probably would have been, there was no way I was going to determine this, as the twain were never to meet. The signal pins on the rear of the cartridge were too big for the diameter of the connecting press-on phono leads of the arm. Most of these press-on connections are of the split and crimp type and can be increased or decreased in diameter by careful use of a tiny screwdriver or long-nose pliers. Just by chance, the press-on connectors used on the arm were not of the crimp type, and if the signal pins of the particular cartridge you want to use are appreciably bigger than the connectors, you are out of luck. Understandably, the pins of the arm maker's cartridge fit perfectly with the leads of their arm, and although one tends to become very cynical in this business, I really don't believe the arm was deliberately designed this way to exclude the use of any cartridge save their own. In the first place, there are so many cartridges on the market, with total non-standardization of signal pin size, that any number of them might fit on a sheer random basis. You also can't fault the arm maker for using the type of press-on lead found in their arm. I'm sure the intent was a secure fit, and, in fact, after several manipulations many crimp type slip off the signal pins far too easily.

There is also the fact that many audiophiles use several different cartridges in their phono systems, and while many have arms with remove able headshells and thus do a minimum of pin/press-on adjustment, there are those who have tone arms with non-removable headshells. Several changes of cartridges and the press-on leads can all too easily become fatigued and break. Of course, you can buy new leads and replace them entirely, and, in general, several spare leads are usually packed in the parts kit.

Phono Frustration

My question is ... why do we have to go through all of this frustrating work? In an industry that is debating digital recording standards, surely we can agree on such a simple thing as a standard phono cartridge signal pin/ press-on lead interface. The Institute of High Fidelity has done a good job on establishing performance standards for complex equipment like amplifiers and tuners, and I would think they could be the organization to initiate action on this frustrating phono cartridge problem.

While we are on our soapbox, another pet gripe of mine in respect to audio equipment, is the total non standardization of output terminals-on amplifiers and input terminals on loudspeakers. Some amplifiers have simple screw-type barrier strips. Others have various spring-loaded wire grabber devices. Still others use wire insertion and screw clamp connectors.

Some amplifiers are fitted with what is incontestably the best output connector . . . the double banana jack and plug. It is by all odds the easiest to use and affords the most secure connections and integrity of the audio signals.

Loudspeaker input terminals follow the same ideas as used on the amplifiers. Most have simple screw terminals to accept bare wires or wires with spade lugs. Some have spring clip-on terminals. An enlightened few also use the double banana jack and plug. In my opinion, the standardization of amplifier output terminals to loudspeaker input terminals is long overdue, and there is absolutely no question that the double banana jack and plug is the connector of choice.

Furthermore, if a speaker system has the capability to be bi- or tri-amplified, there should be banana jacks provided and clearly marked with proper polarities for this purpose. Some people have quite rightly pointed out that the banana jack on loudspeakers might be mistaken for a.c. power input in European countries. I would note that the user would have to make up a lead with a banana plug on one end and a European a.c. lead on the other. An unlikely happenstance and surely a warning in large print in the principal languages pasted to the back of the speaker enclosure would suffice to prevent this from happening. In our country, there would be no problem whatever.

The aforementioned examples of much needed standardization are concerned with mechanical and signal interfaces. There are other areas where standards should be established or updated. The correlation between disc cutting angle and disc playback tracking angle needs more study which should lead to a more precise standard than the rather loose one we have now. For many years, the NAB has not acted on their promised issuance of standard magnetic alignment tapes for playback and subsequent record calibration. In light of new work and new tape formulations, many of their references are obsolete. Fortunately for us, such companies as Ampex, Magnetic Reference Laboratory, and Taber have provided us with the proper tapes in spite of the default by the NAB. Well, I won't prattle on any longer about the lack of standardization. The need for it in the areas I mentioned is obvious, and I hope it will find a place on the agenda of the IHF in the near future.

London Lacquers

I am writing this column in London, where I have been making some direct-to-disc recordings of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Naturally this entails the use of lacquer recording discs. I had arranged for a supply of lacquers before I left the U.S.A., but when I arrived in London I decided we needed more, just to be on the safe side. That is when I learned how serious the worldwide shortage of lacquers has become. I had wanted to try some French Pyral lacquers and found there had not been a shipment of them to England for several months.

A call to the import agent for some Transco lacquers (which are made in the U.S.A.) revealed they had none in stock. Calls to friends in several record companies also verified that their stocks of lacquers were at a low level.

Steve Temmer of Gotham Audio in New York, importer of Neumann disc cutting lathes and Pyral lacquers into the U.S.A., has written a "white paper" on the serious threat to the entire record industry posed by the shortage of lacquers. Among other things, he points out that the aluminum discs are made from very special aluminum to very close tolerances, and the aluminum companies do not like to make them, as they claim they make no profit on such items.

Here in England, the problem is compounded because EMI, which used to make lacquers, has gone out of the business. So that leaves but three companies in the entire world who make lacquer discs ... Transco and Audio Devices in the U.S., and Pyral in France. Is so happens that EMI owns Capitol Records in the U.S., which in turn owns Audio Devices, so perhaps this is why EMI abandoned the business themselves. It must be pointed out that there have been many threats to the continued existence of the venerable phonograph record. Tape was going to supplant it, etc.

Such has not been the case, and even now, at the beginning of the digital era, the disc has a role to play in several areas of this technology. For regular analog and for certain digital discs, lacquer recording discs or some variation of them will still be a vitally important part of the entire record business.

Needless to say the companies involved are looking to alternative materials, if the situation with the aluminum companies should worsen. During the War, when there simply was no aluminum available for such luxuries as recording blanks, glass was quite successfully substituted, although breakage could quite obviously ruin a recording. George Konk, the President of Transco, has done some experiments with glass as a substrate.

Substrate Substitute

Actually, modern tempered glass, which is quite resistant to breakage, is nearly an ideal medium for use as recording lacquers. For one thing, obviously it can be polished to optical flatness. The disc needs to be a bit thicker than its aluminum equivalent, and it must be treated with a special compound before the lacquer can be properly "flowed" on the surface. It is an advantage to have the flatness of the glass disc, and one hopes this would produce smoother lacquers.

Even with the aluminum discs, which are very highly polished, this does not guarantee every lacquer will be usable.

Quite often there are tiny undulations on the surfaces, which can result in rejecting as many as 50 percent or even more of the discs in a given package, if you are doing really critical mastering as in direct-to-disc work.

In America, reject or even used lacquers can be returned to Transco for a certain credit, and then they are stripped of lacquer, and repolished as good as new. With a shortage of blanks, this makes good sense and in no way results in an inferior product. I was a bit shocked to find that in England there is no reclamation system, particularly in view of the lacquer shortage here, which is considerably worse than in the U.S. The need for alternatives is obvious; glass or otherwise, we have got to find a satisfactory disc recording medium.

What was my solution to finding discs in England? Why I had some flown in from Transco, of course, although with customs duties and taxes, they were mighty expensive lacquers!

(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1979; Bert Whyte)

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