The Audio Interview: Jim Kogen--The Engineer as President (of Shure) (Feb. 1983)

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting

Departments | Features | ADs | Equipment | Music/Recordings | History


“The process of designing the V15 Type V was not necessarily so simple. We took the time to develop a simple solution."

--- ---

That Jim Kogen is President of Shure Brothers provides an important key to understanding that company, for many years a leader in the phono cartridge and microphone fields.

Kogen is an engineer--not, as one might expect of a chief operating officer, someone who cut his corporate teeth on the fundamentals of marketing, sales or finance. He came to Shure as Chief Engineer 20 years ago, bringing with him more than a decade of experience in application and development engineering. It is perhaps surprising that his only audio experience at that time came from owning "a minor hi-fi system," but, not surprisingly, Kogen's interest in audio grew quickly. His superiors allowed him to indulge other interests and to test his skills in a number of areas. He moved from engineering to manufacturing and production control, then to data processing and finance. After serving a stint as Operations Manager, he was named President in 1981. Kogen's thoughtful manner reflects his engineering background. He is clearly proud of Shure's technical achievements but in no way boastful, totally in keeping with the low profile the company has kept over the years. A smallish, trim man with a handsome head of gray hair, the affable Kogen seemed shy, almost out of place in his large corner office as he greeted guests from Audio, drew up a chair on the visitors' side of his desk and prepared to answer questions about himself, his company, and the products he has helped bring into the world.

--- ---

Why has there been such a marked difference between the so-called list prices and the actual selling prices of phono cartridges, even relatively new high-end units like your V15 Type V?

I don't see any sense to it. We know a product's worth. We are distressed be cause it demeans the product.

Why the high list prices in the first place? It's often said a cartridge contains very little in the way of materials.

If you take it down to raw material, I suppose that could be the case. The labor in producing a phonograph cartridge, depending on the quality, can be very high. We put a tremendous amount of highly skilled, technical labor into a phonograph cartridge. For example, with the V15 V a very big percentage of what we produce never gets out of the building because it doesn't meet the quality standard. It's a very difficult thing to manufacture.


Because it's so small, for one thing. For example, most steps in production have to be carried out under a micro scope or magnifying glass, such as forming beryllium with the incredible thinness of the stylus shank, putting a hole in it, and putting on a tip.

Did you develop the processes for doing these things?

We developed the process for making the beryllium shank on the V15 V. It took us several years just to learn how.

It seems ironic that we can put a man on the moon, yet to store music we encode it in grooves on a vinyl disc, then make a cumbersome-looking device to spin these discs, attach an arm to that, and hang another strange device from the end of that to follow the wiggles in the grooves. Isn't the technology somewhat primitive?

Well, I think your use of the word "primitive" is wrong, because what we're really doing is seeking perfection. Most developments are exponential. You can achieve 90% of the desired performance fairly quickly. Then to perfect the product takes a lot longer and a lot more effort, and I think that's what we're into with a V15 V. We are looking for perfection, and we're selling to people who want the best quality. You're really asking if the phonograph medium is obsolete. Today it is not. Twenty years from today it may be, but it certainly isn't now.

Where will Shure be if the medium becomes obsolete? Are you taking steps to deal with that possibility?

Yes. We'll be around.

How long did it take you to develop the Type V?

We were working on it about the time we finished the IV. We use the word "develop" in the sense of engineering development, making prototypes, and then in the sense of the manufacturing development, developing the tools and techniques. The two of these combined took four years.

What does the fact that you--an engineer--could become President of Shure tell us about the company?

In some companies, I suppose only people in the sales department could be considered for president. Here, I think we were looking for someone who had a good understanding of the total business. We have a very fine sales department. I'm not trying to demean that at all. It's just that apparently, at this point in time, I'm in a position to see that all of the things we want to do are carried out.

Do you think your technical background gives you any particular advantage as chief operating officer?

It definitely helps me in terms of making certain that we continue our policy of providing quality products, of developing new products with features that are advantageous for customers, of making sure that our quality control continues. I think it's important, at least for somebody in my position, to have a good overall perspective, to not just be interested in one part of the company or the other. I'm not the kind of an engineer that spent all his time in the lab.

What are the most interesting projects you've worked on in your years here?

I found the development of the V very fascinating, but I guess the thing that I find extremely interesting is to look back on where we were 20 years ago, when I started with the company, and how we have progressed in that period of time. I remember one of the first things that I questioned was the frequency response curves we used to run on the CBS test record. We were used having a big, high-frequency peak at about 14 kHz, and that affected the tracking. Being new with the company and not having been in the business, I was able to ask a lot of dumb questions. And I was fascinated by the fact that we didn't have all the answers.

I think the first big contribution was when we started promoting the concept of trackability. At that time the most popular criteria for cartridges were compliance and frequency response. Of course, all products had high compliance and a response of 20 to 20,000 Hz-and we weren't even tracking the records properly. Today, specifications are much more comprehensive. And then looking back on those days--some of the dreams we had and some of the questions, and being able to say we have answered so many questions and solved so many of the problems.

How close to perfect is the V?

Well, I would never claim perfection, but it's come a long way. The frequency response is as flat as you could get it. The distortion and the things that cause distortion are getting to the point where they're insignificant, and we've paid a lot of attention to the practicalities of life, with the Dynamic Stabilizer and its ability to reduce low-frequency resonance. You're probably going to ask me when we'll have the VI and what it will do, and I don't think I'm prepared to talk about that yet. We're still in the process of digesting the V. We're very proud of the V.

-----" Developments are exponential. You achieve 90% performance quickly. Then, perfecting the product takes a lot longer, a lot more effort."

How do you feel about the difference between the audio industry of 20 years ago and the way things are today?

I'm a little disturbed about the trend I see in some areas of taking away features. I understand the desire to standardize and to reduce costs by making common parts, but I don't want to get to the point where hi-fi is like Henry Ford's concept that you can have any color you want as long as it's black. I like to have some adjustments on my hi-fi equipment. Now, I know there is a big segment of the audio market that wants to buy a package, turn it on, put a record on it, and play it. In the old days with packaged sets, that's the way it was. In the last 20 to 25 years, hi-fi has grown. It's a business in which people buy components, put them together, and make their own adjustments. Now we see signs of reversing that approach, where packages are provided all predigested for you with fewer adjustments to make and fewer knobs to turn. That may be good for part of the audio public, but it is not good for the rest of us. For example, I like to be able to adjust the tracking force on a tonearm. Another thing I dislike is the move away from changers. I like the idea of a high-quality record changer. Now that may sound sacrilegious.

But isn't that a contradiction? Record changers require less of your attention, not more.

Well, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have a good tonearm, a good playing system, but there are a lot of times when I have people to dinner and I want to play my hi-fi set and I don't want to get up every 15 minutes to change the record.

Are you also bothered by the fact that a number of one-brand systems have inferior cartridges? Or is this an opportunity for Shure?

Yes, it is an opportunity. I guess I'm bothered by false claims. I'm not making accusations, but any time some body comes in and says here's a super product and it isn't, it bothers me.

Many of us in the audio industry--not to mention people outside it--have often been bothered by the difficulty in mounting cartridges, the fact that there's no standardization in terms of mounting procedures or hardware, for instance.

I think if we can standardize, that will be wonderful-provided that we don't slow down development and improvement and progress. I agree with you. We put a whole bagful of screws and nuts in with our cartridges to try to handle that situation.

But have you tried to make the mounting process simpler?

Oh, yes. We put a lot of effort into that. It is something that concerns us very much.

You provide an alignment device with the V15 Type V. What led you to do that?

We felt that if we were providing the top cartridge in the world we ought to make sure it gets mounted properly, and with the help of a little needling from people like [Audio Senior Editor] Barney Pisha, we said, yes, that's a good idea and we ought to be certain that everybody who buys the cartridge has the capability of mounting it correctly. So what we've done is supply tools that are really quite simple to use.

I was very amused with the invention of our gauge. We assigned the project to Joe Kehl, one of our top design engineers, and asked him to develop a gauge to provide an easy way of mounting the cartridge and adjusting the overhang. He worked on it for a while and later came in and said, "Well, I think I've got a way, but I'm not sure I know why it works." Then Joe sat down with Roger Anderson, who is one of our top men in Development Engineering, and they spent several hours going through the calculations to prove to themselves that it really worked.

Was it a complex thing to design, or is it something so simple nobody ever thought of it before?

The process of design was not necessarily so simple, but in a sense it was analogous to Guy de Maupassant's comment that, "I didn't have time to write a short letter." We took the time to develop a simple solution.

There's a lot more competition in the cartridge field than ever before. What's your response to that?

We're becoming a lot more aggressive, marketing-wise. The market has changed. At one time we had half a dozen competitors, and now there are probably 40 in the cartridge field. Incidentally, a significant portion of our business is with microphones and other products.

Just how does your business break down?

We don't discuss percentages, although I don't want to leave the impression that our only product line is phonograph cartridges. We are a major supplier of microphones and circuitry products throughout the world.

In the microphone field we do quite a bit in recording and broadcast studios. We have a significant business in mobile microphones. Of course, we sell a lot of microphones to music stores, and through them to professional musicians and vocalists. Sound contractors buy a lot of our microphones. There's a great diversity of applications.

With hi-fi you think primarily of selling a phonograph cartridge to a consumer. In the microphone field, there are so many applications-for example, in sound reinforcement alone there are many subdivisions such as churches, hotels, auditoriums, restaurants, and industrial users. Designing products for those uses requires a great deal of application knowledge as well as de sign skill.

Is this more of a meat and potatoes business, whereas the phono cartridge business is more exotic, a kind of nouvelle cuisine, if you will?

I don't know if I'd use those words. Yes, there are a lot of meat and potatoes aspects to the microphone business.

You don't come out with a basic new microphone every year or two. In the phonograph business we have to keep coming out with new products.

We brought a V15 V out four years after a V15 IV, but in the interim we brought out dozens of new designs and variations. Some of our best-selling microphones were developed over 20 years ago--and they are still among the best in the market. Why? First, people be come accustomed to the microphone and, second, the field isn't changing as rapidly as it is in hi-fi.

---"Joe Kehl developed the V15 Type V's mounting gauge, and said ‘I think I've got it, but I'm not sure I know why it works.’"

Then there's less of a model-year syndrome among professionals than home audio buyers?

Oh, by all means. There are recording engineers who still use the old RCA ribbon microphones. They just like the sound of them. For example, we thought of putting a new microphone cartridge inside our Unidyne II--something more modern which had certain features--and we talked to people and they said, "Absolutely not. If it sounds one bit different, we won't buy it."

In Japan, a lot of amateurs are fond of recording--not off the air or from discs, but with microphones. Why has this never caught on in America? Do you have any insight into that?

No, I really don't. I've thought about it on occasion. I've thought of uses where I might have some fun with re cording. For example, I just took a trip to the Southeast and heard all kinds of different accents. It occurred to me it might be fun just to record those different accents, you know. But it's just never become that popular here. It may become much more popular with video recorders.

But will it? I often wonder how many 35-mm SLR cameras or home movie outfits spend the better part of their lives in the closet. I've professed an interest in photography for years, but I never use my SLR or the four lenses I own for anything other than business purposes.

When my children were little, I took a lot of 8-mm movies. Bell & Howell brought out a sound system which used a cassette recorder, and I bought one of those and took about seven or eight pictures and stopped using it. I found that it was great for taking pictures of little kids, because you just wanted to record what they were doing. But when they started growing up, you would say "Now do something" and they never knew what to do. Then, when you said "Now say something" they couldn't. That was the only way I ever found to make them stop talking.

I'd like to get back to phono cartridges for a moment and pursue that idea of "primitive technology." Don't you think that further development of the cartridge as we know it is a little like trying to build the perfect stone wheel?

If you want to characterize it like that, that might be true; but if you don't have anything better than stone to make wheels out of, then I guess you make the best stone wheel. For right now, I think we ought to continue improving the phonograph.

What are the chief problems left to be solved?

Certainly noise and record wear are significant problems. That's something we feel rather keenly about, and that's why we try to optimize our cartridges for lower tracking forces.

I don't normally think of a cartridge as producing noise.

But cartridges damage records, and that produces noise. You can track a record at a higher tracking force and achieve efficient tracking capability, but you wear the record faster. We could make a 2-gram tracking force cartridge that would track fantastically well but, of course, that's not the objective. We're trying to get a concept across with our total trackability index—TTI--because, to us, the really difficult job is to make a cartridge that tracks very well at a low tracking force.

Somebody in the business once said that most 1/2-gram cartridges are actually 1 1/2-gram cartridges. Is this true?

Well, it's not true for Shure Brothers. I'll guarantee that.

A lot of the moving-coil cartridge people recommend 2-gram tracking. Do you suppose part of the moving-coil mystique originates in the fact that a moving-coil pickup might track better and sound better--at least the first 10 times a record is played?

First of all, moving-coil cartridges don't track better than our V or even our IV. So it's not tracking. If people have decided they like a particular kind of frequency response and a moving coil provides it, then they like a moving coil. Our position has been that a phonograph cartridge should translate the information that's in the record into electricity. It should not change that information in any way. It should not add distortion; it shouldn't change the response. If you take the position that a phonograph cartridge should be like a musical instrument and actually change the character of the information that's on the record, then it's a completely different ball game. Now you've got to employ an Antonio Stradivari who knows how to fine-tune the cartridge, and we just don't feel that's the place of a cartridge manufacturer. The point I want to make is that we feel a phonograph cartridge should have no sound. It should be as transparent as a window glass.

"A cartridge should not change the information on the record. If you think it should be like a musical instrument, that's a different ball game."

above: Trackability refers to a cartridge-arm system's ability to handle anything on the disc, even warps

(Adapted from: Audio magazine, Feb. 1983)

Also see:

The Audio Interview: Godehard Guenther--The man who made the Mini-Speaker (Nov. 1982)

The Audio Interview: Ray Dolby (July 1982)


Top of Page   All Related Articles    Home

Updated: Saturday, 2018-09-15 18:07 PST