ONLINE - ISSUE 19
Notes from an Audio Designer: Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio
All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson, from my upcoming photo essay on the craftsmanship, assembly, and sound of the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature turntable.
[As anyone who saw my Brutus Awards for 2004 knows, I think very highly of the work of Lloyd Walker. Both Lloyd and Fred Law, his associate, are getting some bloody amazing results throughout their product line. A while back, I invited Lloyd to write up some thoughts about fine audio, and what drives him to create at the level he does. This is his response…. Ye Olde Editor]
The creature himself! Lloyd Walker, the co-winner (with Fred Law) of PFO's 2004 Gizmo Award, during the setup of a Proscenium Gold Signature turntable in my listening room in Portland.
When we first launched Walker Audio, we didn't set out to become revolutionaries. We began with the premise that we would make the best sounding audio equipment and accessories possible and help our customers get the best from their systems. This shouldn't surprise anybody; we thought every audio manufacturer and dealer would be doing the same.
In the ten years since we introduced the Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable, we have learned that the business of audio and the pursuit of great musical reproduction are not always parallel tracks.
In the audio industry, manufacturers, dealers, reviewers and customers create a Rubik's Cube of intersecting and diverging interests. As anyone who ever attempted a Rubik's Cube puzzle knows, a trial and error approach can be frustrating. A player can spend an unlimited amount of time trying to figure out the right combination of moves to solve the puzzle.
Too often, in the audio world audiophiles go through countless moves as well, changing components in a sometimes never-ending effort to create a great sounding system. By better understanding the motives and biases of the various players in the industry, and with a few tips on how to evaluate components and systems, a customer can avoid some of the common mistakes and shortcut the trial-and-error approach to great sound for a more systematic and ultimately fulfilling one.
At Walker Audio, we go to extremes to achieve the best sound possible. That means we extensively test the parts we use in our components and accessories. We directionally wire all circuits using solid core wire, both silver and copper, and using the correct gauge for the current it is conducting. This allows us to minimize the dielectric and skin effect.
We utilize cryogenic treatments and, wherever possible, use our Extreme SST (E-SST) contact treatment in assembly. We keep the circuits as short as possible and we do not add anything that is not absolutely necessary. There are no extra switches, lights, LEDs... these hurt the music and are there primarily for your amusement. We believe the music should be enjoyment enough.
The bottom line is that all of our extra effort takes time and money. We are sometimes asked why we do this and the simple answer is, "It sounds better." We want to be the best. We believe that customers deserve the best and can tell the difference.
Sometimes the biggest hurdle is just getting the customer to try a particular product. So many have become jaded by manufacturer's claims and reviewer's opinions (more on this later) that don't hold true once they get the product home. We know what our products will do and what they won't do. And we are willing to spend the time to help a customer understand how to use a product and get the best from their system.
Also, unlike some manufacturers, we go into production with the same product we present for review. Some manufacturers create a product using top quality parts, get a good review, and then substitute cheaper parts in the production models. We don't do this.
One of the major biases some manufacturers have is that they do not believe in the value of so-called "tweaks." They believe that admitting a tweak can improve the performance of a product is the same as saying the product was flawed to begin with. What's more, if one manufacturer recommends a tweak for his product, a competitor will jump on this and say their product is better because it doesn't need anything else. Unfortunately, this attitude prevents customers from getting the maximum performance from their systems.
A high performance component or system is very much like a racecar. Take a Ferrari or Corvette directly out of the showroom to the racetrack and it will likely come in last. Why? It's simple, really: professional and amateur racers know that every car has to be tuned. Without proper preparation, it can be a dog. The same is true for high performance audio and video components.
Because high-end audio systems are assembled from components from various manufacturers, it is up to the customer to integrate the components into a system that works together. When a high performance component is installed in a system, the initial results can be disappointing. The mistake is thinking the component is flawed. In fact, the better quality component is most likely revealing flaws in the rest of the system. There are system issues beyond the confines of each individual component that must be addressed.
For example, treating all the cables with our E-SST Contact Enhancer can make a huge improvement. Add some resonance control such as our Valid Points, and a system can come to life. Taking the time to treat a CD or DVD with our Vivid can make a significant improvement. The magic is in the details.
That is why a lot of modest systems sound and look much better than many very expensive systems. The audiophile with the modest system works to get the maximum performance and invests the time to do it. Dealers usually tell the customers who buy the expensive systems that they already have the best, so they don't need to do anything more. Too often after investing big bucks, these people end up with the worst sounding systems.
Lloyd Walker carefully adds oil to the Proscenium's damping trough - fresco by Robinson
There are two biases among some reviewers that contribute to a great deal of confusion among customers. The first bias is that every recording should ideally sound like a live concert at which you are seated mid-hall. And the second is that a great component or system should make a poor recording sound better.
You should not directly compare a recording to live music you hear at a concert... or what you think it would sound like. I know—this amounts to blasphemy to some people.
Most of the time, I find that a good recording on a well set-up audio system is more enjoyable than going to a concert. Note that I said a "good" recording. At a concert, a variety of factors affect your enjoyment, such as where you are seated, crowd noise, and the performers' biorhythms. (Just kidding about that last one, but you know what I mean!) Sometimes a performer or orchestra has an "off" night. It happens. There are those magical nights when everything is perfect, but to tell you the truth, they are rare. When you have a good recording and are able to control your environment, you will hear much more and, better still, you can hear it exactly the same way again and again.
When listening to a recording and/or evaluating a system, you should not be comparing these to a live concert. The goal of musical reproduction is not to trick you into thinking you are in a concert hall. The goal is to reproduce as faithfully as possible what is on the recording. If a recording is multi-miked and close-miked, you will hear much more information than you would if you attended a live concert, unless perhaps you are seated in the second violin section.
We were at the home of a major reviewer who was comparing our turntable to another one. He commented that with our turntable he could hear the musician's fingers move on the strings, the mouth of the horns and the reeds. "I don't hear these things on the other turntable, which is more like being at mid-hall where I usually sit. Why?" he asked.
I explained that the recording was close miked and he was supposed to hear these things, but that the other turntable could not retrieve that level of detail. We don't have a karaoke machine built into our table; we are not adding detail. He was hearing for the first time what was actually on the recording.
I suggested that next thing we should do was to play a record that was not close-miked. The sound was just as good, and the finger and reed sounds were not present. When played on the other turntable, the record sounded totally boring. The other turntable was not able to pick up the subtle details that the LP had, and as a result a nice recording sounded "blah."
Impressed, the reviewer asked me what he could do if he did not want to hear the fingers and reeds on the first recording. Right there I should have known that he was off-base. Remember: the goal of audio reproduction should be to faithfully reproduce what is on the recording. I told him, however, that by adjusting the damping he could essentially "de-tune" the table and eliminate those details. The table was able to do what he wanted it to, even if it was not optimal and not recommended.
Unfortunately, in his mind, this was not a good thing. Instead of doing the review, he wrote that the table was not reviewable because it had no sound of its own. No sound of its own?? The table is not supposed to have a sound... that is the point!! It is supposed to reproduce what is on the record. Needless to say I was stunned by his lack of understanding.
This pervasive lack of understanding became apparent again when another reviewer visited our room at a CES.
"Wow," he said when he entered our room.
I said, "Glad you think so, let me play you something else."
He responded that he didn't want to hear any of our records, because he knew they were all good recordings. He wanted to hear how bad recordings would sound, and handed us two records. Against our better judgment, we played them.
Afterward, I asked him what he thought. He was unenthusiastic. I said, "I thought it was great. They sounded terrible. I have those recordings at home and they are poorly recorded. They sounded just like they should have."
Apparently, he thought a great turntable should make a bad recording sound good.
No, no, no!
A great turntable should capture every detail included in the recording, warts and all. If you design colorations into a component to make a bad recording sound better, a great recording will be distorted, muddled and boring. You will never have great sound.
Lloyd meticulously adjusting the extraordinary carbon fiber air-bearing tone-arm on the Proscenium turntable system
More and more people are getting into video, and two-channel audio is in decline. Frankly, I'm not surprised. One of the most disappointing aspects of my experiences in the audio industry is talking with dealers.
It seems like many dealers are in the business of just selling boxes. They want to sell products that are beautiful, expensive, and easy to set up. How they sound is secondary. Dealers tell customers "it will sound great in your home," so most customers take it and go home. The customer gets very little help on how to get the best from their purchase and how to make their components work as a system. They are on their own.
I can't count the number of dealers who have told me that they don't do analog because "it takes too long to set up" and they "don't do tweaks." Tweaks take too long to explain how to use and they are not pricey enough to be worth their time.
When was the last time you really heard a great sounding system at a high-end dealer's showroom? Dealers justify this by saying, "Our customers don't know how to listen and we don't have time to teach them."
So what happens? The music lover gets frustrated. He ends up at Circuit City and buys a video system. For music, he has an "ambience" button. It doesn't sound too bad when watching a movie, but whatever happened to the love of great music? And video is going in the same direction. Some comments we've heard from dealers include little gems like, "I can't tell you which is better, but I'm making a ton," and "We just sell the customer what he wants."
These are the same dealers who are angered when their customers start buying audio equipment on-line or through mail order. But look at it from the customer's point-of-view: if the dealer doesn't offer anything more than a box, then why not get it at the best price?
Whatever happened to pride and customer relations? Dealers earn customers' loyalty when they offer customer support and knowledgeable advice. When a customer sees that a dealer is interested in helping them get great sound, and not merely offering them a ride on the component merry-go-round, they come back again and again.
Evaluating A Component or System
As I've said, we believe the purpose of an audio system is to faithfully and as accurately as possible reproduce what the recording engineer laid down. Not to change or augment the sound, not to sweeten the sound or improve a bad recording. Just play what is there.
As your system gets better and is more revealing, attention to the details becomes more important. High performance components will reveal everything. Cleaning your LPs and treating CDs or DVDs will be essential. Resonance problems will be evidenced by highs that are too bright and/or edgy. You will want to clean and treat your connections, and you'll definitely want to separate your cables and keep them off the carpet. They should not touch each other, or anything metal or plastic.
A Word about the Bass
The bass should never dominate a recording. If the recording is multi-miked, the bass will be very defined and come from a specific spot at the rear of the soundstage. You should be able to hear the tightness of the drumhead and define how and with what it is being struck. It comes from a focused point in the rear of the stage and expands out from there. However, if a recording is miked out front of the band or orchestra, the bass should still be at the rear, but some of the finer detail will not be there. In general, the bass will appear to be larger and fuller.
Sometimes a listener will find that simple music is very good, but with complex music as it reaches a crescendo, the soundstage gets larger and everything seems to move forward and to the center, especially the bass. This indicates a problem, usually with the cables. The cables are not handling the increased information correctly, often due to dielectric and skin effect. Ideally, everything, including the bass, should remain in its proper spatial orientation, only getting louder.
Dialing in Your System
We always use a well-recorded, complex classical music selection to dial in a system. Everything is there – soundstage width and depth, the full frequency spectrum, complex music passages, solos, pianissimo and fortissimo levels, strings, woodwind and brass nuances—it is all there. You can hear quickly the effect of any changes you make. You are wasting your time trying to dial in a system with only female voice, piano or acoustic guitar. We use these after dialing in the system with classical, as a double check to make sure the system is sounding right. If a system will play complex music, it will play simple music. The reverse is not so.
When we do audio shows, all of our equipment is on our Prologue rack and amp stands, and Valid Points resonance control kits are used. We use E-SST on all the connections including the tubes, power cords, fuses, etc. Our records or CDs are cleaned. Velocitor Power Line Enhancers are installed and you will not see cables wadded together and lying on the carpet. We spend all our time getting the system to sound the best it can. If in the other rooms, or at dealers' showrooms, this attention to detail is not taken where thousands of people can see and hear the results, then how much time and care will they take for one customer? Unfortunately, the truth may be that they do not even really know or understand the effect these steps can have on the way the system sounds.
We began our audio journey 25 years ago as customers. We know the joys and frustrations of trying to put together a high-end audio system. We want each of our customers to be surprised with the level of detail they can hear when their system is optimized. And we are willing to take the time to help a customer get there.
I've outlined our philosophy, told you what is important to us and what the problems of industry are as we see it. We hope you find some tips here that might help you in your quest for great sound.
Remember the magic is in the details and anything worth having is worth the extra effort. If that is revolutionary, so be it.