A traveller’s report on The British Audio Establishment
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By Norman Eisenberg, High Fidelity Magazine, April 1965

Northward from London's Hyde Park runs Queensway, a busy but tidy thoroughfare of retail shops, among which, at No. 100, is a unique musical - audio diggings. Here, after walking up one flight, a visitor finds himself in a clubby sort of room lined with audio equipment, shelves of records, and several speaker systems flanking a fireplace. The place suggested to me less a business establishment than some private collector's den - an impression reinforced by its name, "Music in the Home," and by the avowed policy of its owner, Thomas Heinitz ("We are a studio rather than a shop; my clients are music lovers rather than sound fanatics."). This being a Saturday forenoon, Heinitz had set up rows of folding chairs and was selecting a group of albums for his weekly "live record review" at which new releases are played and discussed. These sessions, free of charge, are naturally intended to stimulate interest in both records and equipment, and Heinitz has found that stereo in particular "evokes an interest never before evident - in the very sound of the instruments, the seating of the players, and so on."

In this carefully de-commercialised environment, it is plain that "selling" is no more important than other functions: counselling on music and equipment, advice on home installation, competent servicing when needed, and - perhaps above all - the creation of an atmosphere that does not make a visitor feel guilty for having neglected to bring his check book. To be sure, Heinitz's operation is a rarity, even in England. (A ten - minute ride on the Underground brings one to the frankly commercial atmosphere of a "dealer's row" along Tottenham Court Road to the vicinity of New Oxford Street. Here sits Imhof's, an eight - story audio department store where you can buy anything from a tape - cleaning kit to a stereo console.) But Heinitz's "studio" for me somehow epitomized the literate, urbane, music - oriented and quality - minded British audio field in general. It is a field that has an identity, a style - one more clearly discernible than our own; it is actually an "establishment" in terms of products, personalities, and prevailing attitudes.

This character is particularly striking in that Britain has no formal organization comparable to our own Institute of High Fidelity. It is understandable, however, in extra-industry terms. For one thing, history and tradition lend a sense of continuity and permanence to most activity. This sense, in turn, makes for a certain calmness, and a pace that may seem slower than ours but is no less effective in accomplishing its own ends. History surrounds you, of course, in the vaulted environs of Westminster Abbey, or on the moors near Ilkley. But even audio, a very young field, also has its history, a consciousness of links with the technical accomplishments of the past and of its role in current music and cultural activity. What's more, tradition has a way of asserting itself in the context of today's affairs. For instance, you have lunch with Donald Chave of Lowther at the Tiger's Head in Kent, and learn that Francis Bacon is buried in Chislehurst Parish Church across the road (a group of researchers, hoping to prove a connection between Bacon and Shakespeare, recently dug up the grave, found nothing but sand, and repaired to the Tiger's Head to feed and water their frustration). Or, you visit the workshop of Cecil E. Watts - and you find it in the basement of a house built by Christopher Wren. Someone casually remarks that the original Garrard organization was an offshoot of the crown jewellers. You learn that the pedal bass of the organ in Westminster Abbey was heard in open air for the first time when, at the coronation of Elizabeth II, Tannoy "wired Trafalgar Square for sound" with a 1-kilowatt system loaded down to 30 cycles per second.

In general, the British audio industry, despite natural competition among members, has a strong sense of professionalism and an abounding pride in the "audio fraternity." It is not unusual for company officials to praise the work of other key men, even when the latter are employed by rival firms. It also was not unusual, during my series of visits, for competing firms to help me get from one to the other. Thus, Leak drove me to Truvox, Lowther drove me to Tannoy, Goodmans drove me to Jordan - Watts, Jordan - Watts drove me to EMI. An interesting variation on this procedure occurred in Yorkshire, where Wharfedale and Sugden agreed that the one would pick me up at Bradford station and the other carry me from my hotel to the station at departure time. And just about everyone else either collected me at, or delivered me to, bus and train stops.

Geography also lends a tone to England's audio establishment. Quite small in proportion to the tremendous activity it contains, the country's very physical limits encourage a unity that transcends intermittent internal disagreements. This unity, however, does not decay into insularity; British audio men, like Britons generally, are eager world travellers, and most whom I met already have visited our country as well as Europe and the Orient, or indeed continue to do so regularly. An influx of foreigners complements the flow outward, and Britain - as much as or more than the U.S.A. - is truly a melting pot: visit any plant from Yorkshire to Sussex and you probably will meet Indians, Africans, Orientals, Europeans (even an occasional Yank!) working side by side with native Britons.

Finally, there is Britain's changing economy. "No one here can make a personal fortune any more," I was told, "but no one will starve either." In the general economic leavening and levelling that have taken place there is less incentive for small - scale production of prestige items and a growing impetus towards quantity production of lower - priced but nonetheless reliable equipment. At the lowest price levels, the British call these products their "cheap and cheerful" lines. "Cheap and dirty" items (i.e., shoddy goods) are, on the other hand, universally deplored. While prestige products or "state of the art" equipment are not very significant as marketing factors, their superiority is widely acknowledged, and their development encouraged. The prevailing product design philosophy, then, is that prototypes of excellence exist, and the job is to approximate their quality as closely as possible in necessarily lower - cost models. "We start from the top, and try to design our way down - and not too far down at that," said one company official; "the chaps who start at the lowest rung of quality simply don't get very far over here." Indeed, British audio manufacturing is basically engineer-oriented, and a manufacturer would no sooner deliberately downgrade his product or "let the advertising department write our specifications" than he would dream of serving tea without milk or cream.

My fortnight of tea and technicana began, logically enough, in the London area where most of Britain's high fidelity manufacturers and its two major record companies - EMI and Decca - are located. My itinerary about, and from, London of necessity omitted several firms; to cover them all would have required much more than the two weeks at my disposal. As it was, I travelled about eight hundred miles to visit a score of places, and perhaps three times that number of individuals. One of my first journeys was made on a London bus, a double-decker that carried me across the Thames to Blackfriars Road, just beyond what was once the legal boundary of London. I was reminded of the days when Shakespeare and his company staged their plays outside the city limits. Today the area is mainly given to light industry, though the Old Vic stands in the district as a reminder of its past. I had not been able to get tickets for Olivier's Othello, but my play-going interests were at least in part satisfied by my meeting with R. W. Merrick, managing director of the tape recorder firm Ferrograph and a man whose resemblance to a certain British film actor is complemented by a flair for vigorous projection of ideas. "We make our own motors, tape heads, chassis; we even mould our own knobs," he told me; "we produce exactly the kind of tape machine we believe in." Merrick has little use, from a high quality standpoint, for either tape cartridges or slow speeds. As for such features as automatic reverse, "it's another gadget, the more of which inevitably means greater servicing problems." He did point out, however, that Ferrograph machines can accept an 8¼ inch diameter reel which, when loaded with long - play tape, "should give adequate, uninterrupted time for most home tape uses. "Video tape?" I can't see why a home needs it, but that could be said about many things." In any case, Ferrograph will not "make a machine that must use the 'brute force' approach, such as 120-ips speed or rotating heads," though if slower speeds become feasible, the company will look into that area. As for transistors, Mr. Merrick's remarks were terse: "You can't get reliable ones in sufficient quantity yet to justify changing over from valves (vacuum tubes)."

With this product philosophy, Merrick does not expect the mass market to queue up at his doorstep. Nor does he see his typical customer, any more, as the "old audio nut, the kind who would crawl on all fours at the Audio fairs."

Ferrograph's customers are what Merrick calls the "mezzo hi-fi fans, who don't know all the jargon but who do appreciate what high quality tape can give them." Ferrograph's intransigence, while not the sole rationale guiding all British manufacturers, does figure in much of what is produced and seems to be echoed quite strongly by at least two well-known neighbours to the north and south. A little over an hour's train ride gets you to Huntingdon where, past the town itself, is a modern industrial area composed of several low-slung buildings looking like any analogous area in the U.S.A. One of these is the home of Acoustical Manufacturing, makers of the Quad electrostatic speaker, the first full-range system of its class to have been offered commercially. Peter J. Walker, its designer and head of the company, told me that the Quad's following is limited, but growing steadily. The basic design has not changed in recent years, although "we constantly try to improve things, particularly in the midrange, which is, to us, the area most important for a natural projection of sound." Walker seemed satisfied with the Quad's low end: "We are not concerned about the bass as such."

Walker similarly is satisfied with the Quad amplifier and is doubtful about its going solid-state. "To produce an amplifier with transistors that would give the same performance as our valve models would require 30% increase in cost," he explained. In common with many British manufacturers, Walker was amused at the high power ratings ascribed to some American equipment. An amplifier, he pointed out, may have an actual RMS value of 10 watts per channel when measured at low distortion and with a normal line voltage input. By such techniques as allowing more distortion, increasing the line voltage, taking peak rather than RMS values - and finally doubling everything for stereo - the basic figure of 10 watts can be inflated to 80 or even 100 watts. "We rate our amplifiers at the lowest distortion possible and operating under the most unfavourable power supply conditions. Actually, our 15-watt unit could easily be labelled a 44-watter (22 watts per channel) if we relaxed some of our test conditions," Walker concluded.

A somewhat longer trip south from London brings you to Steyning, in Sussex, a carefully preserved village in which a centuries-old atmosphere has not been disturbed by the proximity of the sparkling new SME plant on its outskirts. The company was founded in 1946 as a precision-engineering firm doing contract work, and its first orders were for Scaled Model Equipment (from whence the letters SME). In 1959, Director A. Robertson-Aikman, a long-time audiophile, felt that he wanted a pickup arm better than anything commercially available - and proceeded to build it. Today the company turns out two hundred arms a week, and Mr. Robertson-Aikman personally inspects each one. The basic design is still the same, but refinements have been added - a lightweight shell to accommodate ultrahigh-compliance cartridges, a movable end-cap to extend the balancing range and thus provide the lowest inertia with any cartridge, an odd-shaped board to fit the arm more satisfactorily to a Thorens turntable.

An audio perfectionist at home as well as at his works, Robertson-Aikman has built his own speaker systems. Each one uses an Ionovac tweeter crossed over at 3,500 cps to an EMI elliptical woofer installed in a nine-cubic-foot enclosure made of 1½ inch-thick reinforced concrete. The enclosures are stuffed with Fiberglas and covered with oak veneer to make them acceptable in the living room.

If such companies as Ferrograph, Acoustical Manufacturing, and SME serve a specialized interest within high fidelity, most British manufacturers, like our own, operate in a broader spectrum. That is to say, they offer variations of one generic class of equipment, or they produce different types of equipment. A few are expanding in both directions. A prime example of the first type is Garrard, probably the largest manufacturer of record-playing machinery in the world. Headquarters and main works are located in Swindon, Wiltshire, about seventy miles west of London, a town known primarily as a rail centre and a seat of bicycle manufacture. The Garrard works are so spread out that they must be covered on wheels. With this industrial complex, plus other plants elsewhere in England and distribution from Bangkok to Brooklyn, it can be said that the sun never sets on Garrard. In the company of Director Thomas H. Pritchard, I made the grand tour of the Swindon plants, met engineer E. W. Mortimer, who in 1932 built its first changer (the RC-1), inspected this model still proudly kept on hand, and generally stretched my legs across the acres of diversified and complex works. Garrard does "everything" for itself, from making the segments of a motor to stamping out parts on a 300-ton press. Actually Garrard produces a wide variety of record-playing gear, including the refined and improved automatics best known to Americans as well as changers and manual turntables for other markets. In all, some three thousand people are employed, including sixty to eighty apprentices who receive paid on-the-job training as well as free courses at a technical college and who form a manpower pool for future engineering and supervisory talent.

Some of the speaker manufacturers, such as Goodmans, also produce a "vertical" line of one basic type of equipment. Most of the companies known to Americans for their speakers, however, manufacture other components, or are about to do so. For instance, Tannoy produces stereo cartridges and a comprehensive series of public address and studio gear; Wharfedale soon will launch its own solid-state amplifiers and tuners; Lowther offers solid-state control preamps and tube amplifiers. In contrast, at least one new company, Jordan - Watts, will take a unique "economy-specialist" path by offering a loudspeaker cell or module that may be used alone or may be combined with other modules for wider response and greater power-handling ability. (The J-W units are represented in England by Boosey and Hawkes, a company long associated with musical instruments and well known as music publishers; they may be distributed in the U.S.A. later this year.) A host of lesser-known (in the U.S.A.) companies - such as Armstrong, Rogers, Goldring, R & A, Radford, and Brenell - are quite active in components ("separates") for the home market.

The major British record companies have equipment - manufacturing divisions. EMI's amplifiers and speakers will continue to be produced, together with a new phono pickup system and a new tape recorder, in a gigantic works to be started in Wales. EMI, incidentally, expressed relatively high hopes for a tape cartridge system operating at l 7/8 ips speed but neither "as complex nor as costly as any system we've had so far." Decca is bringing out both console sets and separate components, the former sleekly styled in teakwood and metal, the latter including a solid-state control amplifier. A new version of its "summation" cartridge, to fit any tone arm, is expected, as well as an improved model of the Kelly ribbon tweeter, fitted with an acoustical lens. Pye, known mainly in the past for its television sets and consoles, has announced a separate solid-state amplifier.

Among the names especially familiar to Americans, the broadest form of equipment diversification is in progress at Leak. Now located in a "factory estate" section of a London suburb, the firm soon will move to a three-hundred-acre site a hundred miles from London. The main impetus for Leak's expansion seems to be transistors. Harold J. Leak prefers them to tubes because "they offer better value for the same money." A solid-state amplifier, he feels, "can be made to be smaller, lighter in weight, and to cost about 10 per cent less than a similar tube amplifier" Leak does not believe that either type necessarily sounds better. As to test measurements in general: "Higher numbers in tests, of both tube and transistor amplifiers, often are not borne out by the results of listening tests - which only indicates to us that ultimately 'high fidelity' is an art form more than it is anything else."

In addition to amplifiers and tuners, Leak continues to produce the Sandwich speaker system (and the sandwich keeps getting lighter and stiffer), and is planning to bring out a new turntable, arm, and cartridge. The pickup will use the moving-iron technique, preferred by Leak because this design makes it easier to "get the high frequency resonance out of the audible range."

The Leak organization is thirty years old. "I started," says Harold Leak, "with $66 in cash and a test meter." Mr. Leak's attitude towards his work possibly is well illustrated by his reply to a restaurant owner who, after we had enjoyed a superb meal, asked him what he thought of it. Leak answered by telling a story: when he was a schoolboy, he and his classmates had to do "sums" that they considered very difficult. "Our reward," Leak told the open-mouthed proprietor "was matched to our accomplishment. For every mistake we received a rap across the knuckles. For no errors, we were let off with a warning."

Intense interest in solid-state also was evident at Truvox, a firm which in addition to its speaker systems and tape recorders is readying a new series of tuners and amplifiers. Chief Engineer Ron Bishop likes transistors, but not exactly for the same reasons as Leak. In addition to such agreed-on advantages as eliminating the output transformer, lessening the heat problem, facilitating more compact chassis, Bishop points to the instantaneous overload recovery characteristics of solid-state amplifiers, a feature that improves transient response and which many designers feel is the key to that "clean transistor sound." Bishop allows that "you can get similar performance from tubes, but it becomes very costly." Solid-state amplifiers, he pointed out, also lend themselves to higher damping factors for better control of speakers. As to "wideband response," Bishop favours going beyond 20 kc because "the more accurately you re-produce the highest overtones, the more natural the sound. Limited-band response can become tiring after a while."

Truvox's newest tape recorder, probably to be introduced in the U.S.A. later this year, will contain solid-state circuitry and, among other features, an adjustable bias control to get best results from all kinds of tape. At that, Bishop counsels, "it will not be so accessible as to encourage undue or casual use by the owner." Bishop feels that 7½ ips is the "standard high fidelity speed" largely because of its superior signal-to-noise ratio over 3¾ ips, but he concedes that the slower speed may eventually rival 7½ ips in s/n ratio and in response.

As in the U.S.A., speaker design in England remains the subject of possibly the liveliest disagreement and the most experimentation in audio. In addition to what I encountered at the firms mentioned above I learned more about current British opinion during subsequent visits to other manufacturers. For instance, Goodmans in Middlesex has not given up paper as a material completely, Company Director Peter Collings-Wells told me, but "the tendency now is to use it as a 'carrier' - to help shape the diaphragm which itself may be a laminate of paper and plastics. "A definite trend, Collings-Wells feels, has been towards complete speaker systems; most people no longer buy individual drivers to install in their own enclosures. In his view, this relates to a general lessening of do-it-yourself interest and to the improvements evident in system design. The new Maxim (Maximus in the U.S.A.) was developed to conform to this trend, and also to provide very clean sound within the smallest possible installation space. As for the general debate on "big versus small" systems, Collings-Wells is content to let personal taste settle the matter. "We supply all sizes." A similar listen-and-let-listen attitude was evident at Tannoy, where Michael H. Fountain (son of Guy R. Fountain, whose initials designate Tannoy's enclosures) and T. B. Livingstone agreed that speaker evaluation is a personal thing and that listening tastes cannot be prejudged with a slide rule. Tannoy's design approach centres around "making the treble and bass drivers as good as we can, and then offering an enclosure to suit acoustical taste." By way of explanation: "When we visited the U.S.A. years ago to attend your first audio show, we knew nothing of your country except that the traffic ran on the wrong side of the road. Since then, we've learned a good deal more, including the fact that there are differences in listening tastes between our two countries."

These differences (which were mentioned to me by other British audio experts) are subtle, not always agreed on in their respective countries, and certainly subject to change. Nonetheless, they have been discerned by many in listening tests. Tannoy believes, for instance, that the prevailing taste in the U.S.A. has been for "front-row sound, or perhaps right-in-the-midst-of-the-orchestra sound." Britishers, in contrast, prefer a "farther back" sound, more like listening "through an open door on the concert hall." On the European Continent, "people like their sound relatively light, but smooth over-all. Your hi-fi chap on the Continent, incidentally, fiddles a good deal with his tone controls to get the sound just as he wants it. Americans - and we Britishers too for that matter - demand these controls, and then - for some reason - never use them."

A similar emphasis on the role of the enclosure, though with a somewhat different twist, was expressed by Donald M. Chave, director of Lowther. "My aim is to use the magnet and voice-coil assembly to set up a wave-train rather than to try to get the driver itself to move all the air needed for accurate reproduction." The latter function, from his point of view, is the job of the horn enclosure that is loaded to the driver. At Lowther, little is left to chance, or to outside sources, and Chave has built his own machine for making magnets. He agrees that a valid aim of speaker design is to try to "reduce size for the same performance, or to improve performance, in the same size." Accordingly, Chave experiments as well as manufactures; his latest effort - still something of a secret and possibly to be patented - is towards a "high productivity voice-coil related to an improved magnet." Lowther products, sold in Europe and in Japan, were once sold in the U.S.A. and may be reintroduced soon.

For whatever significance it may have in the mystique of British audio, the production of cylindrical speaker systems today seems to be confined to a small radius in Yorkshire where Sugden and Wharfedale are found within a few miles of each other. But apart from a common interest in what G. A. Briggs calls "drain pipes," a mutual pride in the moors and other scenic marvels of the country, and a wry humour over being unique establishments in the heart of England's textile region, the two companies are fairly dissimilar. To begin with, Sugden is one of the few British companies to designate its products by a tradename (Connoisseur) rather than by the firm's name. And speakers as such have not been this firm's main or sole product line. A. R. Sugden was, in fact, one of the first to demonstrate publicly, in 1956, a stereo disc and pickup, the latter a ceramic type. Sugden still favours ceramics, although a decade of research has brought refinements to the original design. The latest version is made of a "double length" of material that is cut in half; the sections then are moulded to yield identical elements for each channel. This new pickup uses a 0.6 - mil diamond stylus and tracks at a 15-degree angle. The stylus is replaceable by the owner, and a 78-rpm tip is available. Sugden also showed me a new arm, which, though designed primarily for his own cartridge, can accept other makes as well.

While going through the Sugden works, I saw the prototype of an unusually designed turntable - a two-speed model (33 and 45 rpm) in which each speed is selected by its own hysteresis-synchronous motor. The speed control switch activates the appropriate motor, which turns the inner rim of the platter by means of a direct-drive wheel; the motor not in use swings away under the plinth. Connoisseur products, like Lowther's, may again become available in the United States after an absence of some years.

Speakers, of course, have always been the main concern at Wharfedale, whose founder and head, G. A. Briggs, is internationally known as a writer and lecturer. Indeed, Mr. Briggs may well have brought the idea of high fidelity sound to more people than has any other individual. Today, at seventy-four, he has, in his own words, "put health first, work second, and money last." Long-distance tours are out, but he still lectures and demonstrates closer to home, is writing a new book, continues to correspond with enthusiasts the world over, and is in fact very much the managing director of Wharfedale Wireless Works.

The plant, through which Mr. Briggs conducted me at a brisk pace, is located in Idle-Bradford, although the company name is derived from the lovely Wharfe River Valley, not far away. Briggs's own explanation of the name (in his book Loudspeakers, 5th edition) is worth repeating. At a demonstration he was once asked, "... why our speakers were named Wharfedale when they were made in Bradford, which is in Airedale. I pointed out that the beauty of Wharfedale matched the beauty of the product (ahem!) and we could not risk using a name like Airedale in case dissatisfied customers ... complained that we were dirty dogs; whereupon a lady observed brightly that we might at least have adopted Airedale as a suitable name for our woofers."

Like so many speaker experts, Wharfedale engineers allow that, beyond a certain point in the design effort, much of "the beauty of the product" is in the ear of the listener. They too are aware of differences in sonic taste, and noticeably between British and American listeners. These differences, they find, are not a matter of over-all frequency range or of distortion, but more of tonal balance or emphasis. Americans, it seems, generally prefer a more prominent bass, tentatively characterized - in an impromptu word-searching contest we indulged in - as "rich" (our economic status?), or as "excessively warm" (to conform to our central heating?), or as "woolly" (that textile influence!), or as "pregnant" (this really signifies reproduction!). One plausible explanation advanced for the bass preference was the generally larger size of the average American living room, which would be dimensionally suited to accept the longer wavelengths of deep bass tones. Whatever the explanation (and however one describes the differences), Wharfedale makes an effort to satisfy a wide range of listening tastes, especially ours, and the result is a fair diversity of systems. In addition to speakers, Wharfedale is about to enter solid-state electronics; the forthcoming amplifiers and tuners will be manufactured in a new plant. Technical manager Kenneth Russell was very enthusiastic over the possibilities of solid-state; he favours the new technology for its extended frequency response and "superior transient characteristics which will make good speakers sound even better."

What "sound even better" actually means is perhaps most aptly suggested in a remark of Mr. Briggs's daughter, Mrs. V. E. Pitehford: in describing what guides the Wharfedale people in choosing records for their demonstrations, she pointed to a "strong musical rather than gymnastic bias...." Indeed, this reaffirmation of "sound for music's sake" might well sum up the entire British philosophy of audio which is - when you think on it - not really so different from our own.