Thursday, May 10, 2012

Evolution of the High End Part 4

At the introduction of solid state (transistor) gear, circuit designs were in their infancy and painfully so. Amplification stages (where one physical transistor increases either voltage or current) were R-C (resistor-capacitor) coupled just like the tube gain stages from which they were modeled. The problem was that even though they "worked," they just sounded horrible compared to what they were trying to replace.

Tubes sounded "sweeter" and transistors "harsher" and some actually preferred this new but harsh sound. People's attention were drawn at that time to the extreme extension in high frequency response a transistor could almost effortlessly achieve and ignored all other of its flaws. Reviewers jumped on the distortion specification bandwagon where transistors also shined over tubes and before long, tube designs were almost extinct - except with those who were listening to the music with their ears and not their eyes.  It was clear that lowering THD or IM did not improve the sound but it was the only measurement reviewers could point to that was not subjective in describing what they heard. In fact, the opposite appeared to be true where transistor gear with extremely low distortion numbers sounded incredibly dry and sterile.

Finally, advances in transistor circuitry discovered what was wrong with conventional R-C designs and altered them to exploit the transistor's assets. Direct-coupled designs became popular as did a wide variety of other designs, and the challenge was on. Eliminating the sound altered by the inter-stage capacitors really began to show the potential behind a properly biased the transistor.

In an attempt to make a D-C transistor power amplifier, something was quickly discovered: when a transistor failed, it took out whatever speaker that was attached to it along with it. Not a good idea. So a variety of techniques were developed to limit the surge or open the connections between the speakers and the amp so that when a transistor failed it would not do damage to anything else. The problem was that these designs introduced additional distortions to the signals that again were ignored by early reviewers.

 The number of tube gear manufacturers dwindled like an endangered species but then the understanding of transistor designs was applied to tube designs and a whole new generation of tube gear was introduced. The challenge was on again.

Power supply stability, single point grounding, biasing, transformer designs, toroidal transformers were all used on both camps and the results of their proper implementation pleased the audiophile to no end. Like watching an exciting race, no one knew who would reach the finish line of audio nirvana first. Each time an idea was introduced in one camp, the other camp analyzed the success and copied it whenever possible or used that idea to spur other ideas. It was a leapfrog era.

Then in the mid 1980s, Sony and NA Philips introduced digital music and a third player entered this arena. You can imagine the learning curve that went on with digital designers to be similar to that of the tube-transistor transition, and it was. The first players sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard, but some actually preferred the convenience over the quality and the race between analog and digital was on.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about digital technology and some of the history behind its race of superiority.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

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