Sunday, 7 March 2010

In The Beginning

In 1927 Compton MacKenzie founded Gramophone Magazine and although its purpose was to review Classical Music, it also introduced the idea of more faithful reproduction of recordings by describing how to sharpen thorn needles for the best reproduction of Choral music. Thus High Fidelity in the UK began and through the thirties great names like Murphy, Decca and Marconi produced high quality equipment to satisfy demand. Two of the finest were both founded before WW2, Quad and Wharefedale and when it was over, the quest for perfect sound continued and more and more companies appeared. They began by offering amplifier kits and instructions on how to build enormous brick enclosures or horns into homes to house huge old fashioned drive units! And they developed into quite a large and successful industry.
Not surprisingly the more extreme measures taken by some enthusiasts became the butt of many jokes and a record from Flanders and Swan, that is on Youtube, about High Fidelity was an excellent example of the best.

VHF radio and a bandwidth increase from 3.5 kHz to 15 kHz together long playing, vinyl LPs gave impetus to improvements in domestic equipment. This was especially true of live broadcasts of concerts by the BBC, which was arguably the best sound possible until CD replaced LPs in the eighties. The Beeb also used special heavy tracking cartridges to reduce surface noise, but these weren't suitable for home use because they quickly wore out records.

These were exciting times, Britain was a major player and our loudspeakers gained a worldwide reputation for being the best.

VHF radio had allowed listeners to hear faults in
recordings that those who made them often could not. This was because they were using Horn Monitors that were as loud as the music, but much more distorted than direct radiating speakers in better quality radios and radiograms. Wharfedale, Quad and later Kef, B & W and the companies born out of the BBC research department at Kingswood Warren all played their part in the development of less loud but far more accurate, direct radiating speakers for homes as well as studios concentrating on acoustic music, Jazz, Classical music speech and drama. Popular Music studios were the last to convert, but nearly all now use compact derivatives, usually active, of the designs pioneered by these companies. Few if any remain in British ownership, but they still maintain a presence here to reassure Far Eastern customers of their credentials.

By the early eighties, TV technology had overtaken the public's interest in hi fi and the major Japanese companies, who had by then bettered the Brits, decided to concentrate in this area and leave specialist hi fi for the locals. Sadly our industry has been in decline since. In my opinion the succeeding twenty-five years have been mired by subjective evaluation, the belief that all sorts of things that can't affect sound quality can and the rigorous denial of the value of measurement or comparison. A whole rather idiotic industry has sprung from this situation selling cables, stands, power supplies and a raft of other expensive and unnecessary add ons to keep people buying and believing there is sonic benefit, often to the tens of thousands of pound spent. At the same time the gentle humour of Flanders and Swan has been replaced by ridicule and dismissal not just by the engineering community, but also the buying public. The industry would probably have faded to obscurity sooner had it not been for Apple and the ipod for music and computers generally for giving voice to detractors who'd previously been denied the opportunity to express opinion publicly. As long as a cosy relationship between manufacturers, dealers, magazines and PR companies controlled the public domain, none of the rest of use knew just how many were as fed up with it as ourselves.

Computers have not only changed the way we access music or media generally, they have also changed how we buy and so have brought to an end the monopoly of the hi fi shop. Many still protest subjective credentials and advertise expensive multi box systems, but if you twist their arms, they will admit that 70% of their business is mail order, mass market and single box solutions.

These are exciting times as computers, TV and good quality sound converge into smaller more acceptable, easier to use packages. Customers can now buy DVD players with Hard Drives that record TV programs and store their music and photos or they can buy media computers (where Apple excel) and simply connect the digital output to and amplifier and speakers, or if they are canny and do more homework, AVIs ADM9.1s or Neutron Five 2.1 systems. These are technically superior, better sounding and more cost effective solutions that occupy far less space in any home and can be used by anyone. Old fashioned separate box hi fi systems are no longer necessary or desirable, because modern technology does so much better for a fraction of the cost. It has a been a particularly exciting time of life for me, because as I approach retirement I do so knowing that AVI has made a product for the future that most people need, want, can afford and can use and above all can enjoy more than was ever possible with the impractical angst and user unfriendliness of the dreaded separate box system of the past.



  1. Good blog Ash, .. keep going, keep the faith of science and engineering, not 'foo' in Hi-Fi. - JC Brum.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more, Ash. Since I got my ADM 9.1s I haven't played any vinyl at all and my musical tastes already pretty wide (IMHO) have widened even further thanks to web content such as Spotify. If I really like something I will acquire it legitimately either CD or download.

    Small point of information though - it's Compton MacKenzie not McKenzie - a small omission perhaps but one of great importance to us MacKenzies!!!

    John MacKenzie.

  3. Fixed! Sorry about that.

  4. I enjoy with all my heart everything you have write here.