From Clark Johnsen's Diary: For Lunch a Tasty Pair of Well-Tempered Electrostatic Loudspeakers, and for Dessert, Black Ravioli.
At the Newport Beach Audio Show, discussed in the previous issue, an unreported incident has resulted in this separate article. Out in the hallway I was accosted by a tall thin man who had nearly passed by me. "Clark Johnsen!" "Why, yes it is. Let me look… Bill Firebaugh! Goddam!"
Bill Firebaugh, inventor of the Well-Tempered Arm and later the Well-Tempered Turntable, had been a grand man of audio back in the Eighties and into the Nineties. Somehow I had picked up early on his arm and acquired a first production unit, with which I was well pleased. Not only did it sound good, but it boasted an operating principle so unique that I was eager to show it off to everyone. The turntable was equally unusual, but as a Merrill man by that time I never acquired one of my own. All the reviews were laudatory though, and Bill and I maintained our friendship. We even appeared once on stage together in San Francisco, but that, as they say, is another story.
"And now," he proudly informed me, "I have an electrostatic loudspeaker, tentatively named The Tesla. I believe it's the world's first continuous-membrane, full-range, crossoverless ESL." But where had he been in the meantime? We sure had some catching-up to do. For starts Bill introduced me to his associate Nila Sagadevan, who then joined the conversation. Soon it developed that both men live nearby, in Laguna Hills, and we agreed to meet and listen there.
So here I am in BJ's Brewhouse, about to be driven up to Bill's by Nila. After a pint of thick, delicious Stones IPA we set out, giving me a chance to interview him. So how did you two meet? "Well it was the strangest thing. I was dropping off a package at UPS and there on the floor was a box that seemed about the size of a pair of tall panel speakers. I looked, and sure enough that's how they were marked. I've owned several electrostats in the past, including Beveridges and Quads, so naturally I was curious. I asked the clerk if he could tell me the shipper's name but he demurred. So I asked if I could have the telephone number, and again he refused. Then I said, if I give you my card would you kindly call him up and explain my interest? So he did—and that was just six weeks ago!
"We met the next day and I decided then and there to help Bill Firebaugh through the business maze. I'm a retired engineer with a number of entrepreneurial interests, and a family to raise, but I was happy to make room for this project, for this man. The more I found out about Bill, the more I knew I wanted to help him. He is arguably one of the most original, gifted, outside-the-box thinkers I've ever met. Insofar as audio, I consider him to be a genius. But Bill is also a rather shy, almost painfully modest sort of fellow, and I felt that he could use my assistance in getting his product out to the world. And I love the speakers. Wait until you hear these babies yourself. Just wait!"
At this point we draw up to Bill's condo-laboratory. He greets us warmly and we proceed indoors. Here's a nondescript suite of rooms plainly devoted to music and audio. Gear and test equipment everywhere, and records, and books… and art on the walls. And here are the speakers, six-foot-high all-white panels astride a tall, wide rack positioned corner-wise. I am cautioned that everything appearance-wise is provisional, and I promise not to be concerned.
Also on display, the new Well-Tempered Turntable ("Amadeus") and Arm. But first we listen to CDs over an Opera Consonance player. Dorian organ. Stereophile Test CD II. Pictures at an Exhibition. OMIGOSH! This full-range sound handily beats almost everything I just heard at the Show. And no cones? No subwoofer? Where's all that clean, tight bass coming from? These are single full-span membranes and they measurably go down, I am told, into the low 20s of Hertz without any supplementation. Huh!
Then on and up to LPs. Nat King Cole. Maria Callas. Klymaxx, Meeting in the Ladies Room (a 12" single). Watch your man! Then another 12" single, Gipsy Kings' Bamboleo. Amanda. Bing. A Beethoven Quartet movement. Peg o' My Heart, the Three Suns. Shostakovich. HOLY....! In not a single instance can I discern that I am listening to electrostats, a design that sonically I do not normally care for (pace Roger West, Roger Sanders, and Quad). Wax paper on a comb, usually, say I.
Through that whole series of extremely varied music and recording styles, I am both moved and enthralled by the rich natural sound with tight bass, besides all the expected midrange detail. These are almost the best speakers I've ever heard—I'll go that far—and at one-quarter the price of the best. We're talking maybe twenty grand, with amplifiers and cables included. Watch for the announcements, then wait for the reviews. And if you're in the vicinity you might apply for a preproduction beta-test pair.*
But naturally I have questions, so we record an interview—appended in its entirety. Here, just a brief excerpt.
CJ: I would never guess from the way they sound that these are electrostatics. What'd you do?
Bill: Well, 21 years ago, between Christmas and New Year's, I sallied forth, I made a little electrostat about 18" by 18". And since then I've made—I wish I would have kept better track—maybe 300 or 400 pairs.
And now for dessert
Also at the Show I met up with Derrick Ethell, inventor and manufacturer of the superb isolation footers called Black Ravioli, written up previously in this column and twice by Bill Gaw in EnjoyTheMusic. Over an extended evolutionary period, both of us have had unqualified success with these pads. Armed now with the latest versions, I hope to show them to exhibitors by way of helping everyone achieve better sound. Not unexpectedly however, most of those, even my friends, have more pressing concerns—besides which, as I have often written, pretty good sound drives out excellent sound. The monetary analogy is called Gresham's Law. One needn't sound that great at a show to be appreciated, just be a noticeable cut or two above the crowd.
One exhibitor however enters into the spirit of the thing. Chris Sommovigo is so taken by the improvement that I bring Derrick in to meet him, whereupon Chris and I are shown, the first time for both of us, the application of Black Ravioli to—AC cords! Yes. And it's all good. Chris asks to be the American distributor, and so he has become. (OEM arrangements are also available.)
Outside in the courtyard over beers Derrick explains to me the operational principle of Ravioli, about which until this point I had been kept in the dark. Derrick, a shrewd and charming gentleman, has worked on UK defense technology while pursuing his audio interests, a vocational/hobbyist combination that has led to numerous advances in our field, albeit largely in what's denigrated as "tweaks". No matter. Back home in Boston the Black Ravioli do a superb and much-needed job, even atop my long-beloved Vibraplane isolation platform. Why, the US distributor for Vibraplane uses them too!
After the Show I haul my kit bag around, first to Bill Firebaugh's, where they work well, but not amazingly well, under his new turntable. Oh, well. Later I visit Rich Drysdale—he of Cogent Audio compression drivers and horn loudspeakers. His system includes those elements driven by excellent 300B amps and a WE437A tube preamp. After dinner we're spinning the music on both LPs and CDs, relaxing with some fine Spitzenweinen, and I pull out the compilation disc given me by Paul Butterfield of the Central Florida Audio Society. Paul's a tube and horn man too, and yet another dedicated experimenter. Most every cut is sourced from a master tape and do they sound grand! As previously reported, I had played the Ella one throughout the Show and it made every system glow, as it does here.
But for the first time I put on the Leonard Cohen tune, Tower of Song, and we listen to it all the way through. Then I remember what's in my bag. So under the CD player, an Oppo BDP-83 (also what I use at home), go the latest Black Ravioli. And for the second time in a week, O-MI-GOSH. Utterly transformative, mesmerizing, the greatest improvement these pads have given me. Possibly the greatest ever, whatever the trick is. Leonard seems to be here with us in the friggin' room! Rich and I trade the Look of happy audiophiles everywhere and lean back with our last glass of '71 Auslese.
How good was it? At the end Rich says, Let's listen again!
*Call Nila Sagadevan at 310-344-6452 to arrange an audition in his home.
Appendix - Interview with Bill Firebaugh and Nila Sagadevan, June 2011
Nila: [Hands device over.] Okay, now you're recording.
CJ: All right. All right! Bill Firebaugh?
Bill: Yes, sir.
CJ: I would never guess from the way they sound that these are electrostatics.
CJ: What'd you do?
Bill: Well, 21 years ago, between Christmas and New Year's, I sallied forth, I made a little electrostat about 18" by 18". And since then I've made—I wish I would have kept better track—maybe 300 or 400 pairs.
Bill: Using the technique, you make one, you see what you like, what you don't like, then you make another one. You know, the trial and error technique.
CJ: The old Tom Edison trick.
Bill: Outrageously inefficient, but if you keep at it you're going to get a good result. So I kept at it, became outrageously stressed, nearly quit numerous times, because I didn't think I could solve the arcing problem, the stability problem. But even when I quit, after a few days new ideas come from somewhere. And that's what I did, Clark.
CJ: I can see several models standing around—rejected, I assume.
Bill: Well, those are just before the final iteration. There are little tiny differences.
CJ: So there's no museum of all 400?
Bill: No. I had so many, I would say four or five dozen times I just had to disassemble them and throw them out.
CJ: At what point did you reach this six-foot height?
Bill: Well, I originally—you see those black marks up on the ceiling? They used to go all the way up there.
CJ: And then they arced?
Bill: Well, no. Apparently—and I had them there. I mean, I was kind of stuck on that geometry for a long time. Until, you know—remember Flip Wilson, when he was asked, Why did you do it? The Devil made me do it! So I thought, well, what the heck, I'm gonna try a lower one. Because I had a suspicion that the sound coming from up there is being delayed by the hypotenuse, and that may affect the overall sound. It did. The tall ones didn't sound as good as the short ones. And so I said, oh, wonderful. Because I preferred to make the short ones.
CJ: Yeah, of course.
Bill: But definitely there's a noticeable difference. And those are the remaining battle scars, those black marks up there, resulting from the real tall ones.
CJ: What was it that caused the black?
Bill: Well, it's that high voltage bias on there just attracts the dust. And it accumulates above the--
CJ: Whoa! And not in the membrane.
Bill: Well, oddly enough, a lot of—like, the quad people, they had their diaphragms in a bag, remember? You know, they had theirs enclosed in a bag because they had trouble with dust and so forth. But in this configuration it's never been a problem. And everybody who comes, all the quad owners, they come and say, "Oh, gee, don't you have these in a bag?" You know, I never thought of doing that. It never became necessary.
CJ: Wait till you get them into the field!
Bill: Well, that's the next part of the program.
CJ: And that's the next question too.
Bill: I want to get at least ten pairs out there locally and identify the remainder of the problems. And I want them locally so that I can go over there and doctor them myself, or bring them back here and fix them. Beta testing. And we haven't experienced any problems yet, Clark. This final version is… You know, I like to say, not facetiously, there's several secrets hiding in plain sight. I think even a knowledgeable electrostat person, if they were to disassemble it, still wouldn't see my diabolical secrets.
Nila: Absolutely. They're ingenious. Most of these things are so ingenious.
CJ: Well, you've obviously told Nila, can you tell our readers anything?
Bill: Oh, no, I… If I tell you, my business partners will skin me alive. So… because of that, and because I'm sworn—not sworn, but you know…
Nila: Only because it hasn't gone into production yet.
CJ: I see a group of white spots on it over there.
Bill: Yeah. Those are battle scars from previous engagements.
CJ: [laughs] But they're regularly spaced.
Bill: Actually I had 'em stuck on. Before I figured out a different way to do it, I had cross-members going of half-inch wide, quarter-inch thick aluminum to keep the panels flat. And so I stuck 'em on there with a VHB tape. You know VHB?
Bill: Very high bond tape. Made by 3M. Well, just as a digression, after Katrina the street signs that were put together with this particular 3M tape, they lasted. All the other ones that were put together with nuts and bolts, they broke.
Nila: And 3M tells me this stuff is used to put the windows on skyscrapers. But to make a long story short, when Bill took the tape off, he ground it off—put a grinder on it. And those are the marks you can see.
Bill: I couldn't get the stick-em off, so I had to attack it, which I did.
CJ: Ah. So they aren't doing anything, they're just… remnants.
Bill: They're just—they're scars. Purple hearts. I was awarded a purple heart for each one.
CJ: Got it. Okay. So there's nothing holding the membrane except around the perimeter.
Bill: That is correct. It's just one single diaphragm. That's unique to this particular design.
Nila: Clark, may I add something? I bought a textbook on electrostatic design to learn more about the nuances of the subject. The expert who wrote the book—one of the leading gurus in the field—stated categorically that what Bill has accomplished is impossible.
Bill: It's impossible!
CJ: Well, the New York Times once said heavier-than-air flight would never be possible.
Nila: There you go. But in this day and age with electrostatic speakers having evolved, you would have thought they would have allowed this as a possibility. But they say that a single panel full range ESL without a crossover cannot be realized.
CJ: Ed Meitner developed a—I'm not sure any longer, because this was 15 years ago—up in Canada, a single panel speaker.
Bill: Oh really? I didn't know that.
CJ: Yes. And it was rather good, but not like this. But the National Research Council of Canada refused to test it.
Bill: For crying out loud.
CJ: Because it just can't be.
Bill: They already had had their minds made up.
Nila: Are these the same guys who worked with Otvos on the Waveform speakers?
CJ: Not sure. But he was Canadian too.
Nila: Yeah. Because I thought it was the same research council where he did all his work.
CJ: No, this was Ed Meitner. But they do have a lot of test facilities up there.
Bill: Yeah, they do.
CJ: By the way, the Otvos speakers were pretty good.
Nila: Oh, they were damn good.
Bill: I never heard a pair of them.
Nila: Waveform Mark I. Superb.
CJ: Yes. But he went out of business. A couple of bad reviews.
Bill: I see.
CJ: So don't get any bad reviews!
Bill: Well, hey! [laughter] I have nothing to say about those reviews.
CJ: All right. Anyway, these really are good.
Bill: Well, thank you.
CJ: Do you anticipate later models?
Bill: Uh, no. I… well who knows? But I'll be tremendously satisfied, should I iron out all of the problems. Although I don't think there're any existing, but…
Nila: That might come up.
Bill: I'd be very satisfied to take a break, let me put it that way.
Nila: But Bill has bandied around a few points about saying… rather than have just one. This is the ultimate at the moment. We might have less affordable models at various price points.
CJ: You mean more affordable?
Bill: Yeah! Or even, less affordable.
CJ: [laughs] Have you done research for manufacturing?
Bill: Well, I myself am going to manufacture this first group of ten—at least ten. We're going to get some money together, get a place to work, with a demonstration room, et cetera, and have at it. Once we get a dozen or so pre-production models in people's homes, and we're satisfied with their performance and reliability, these will probably enter the Well Tempered line. But for now they'll be called the Tesla ESL. As it stands right now, Clark, I am the only guy on this planet who knows how to do this.
CJ: Uh huh. But there are other planets!
Bill: Well, I'll consider that.
CJ: All right!
Bill: So that's what the plan is. It only needs some beta field testing to verify and validate the design. And that's going to be occurring very soon. And at the termination of that, it's likely my group in China, I've been there several times, might make… You see, because there's a thing called the CE validation. In order to sell something in Europe you have to have your CE. Right now in the U.S. you don't have to. But my group in China—that CD player for example is CE certified.
Nila: And so when you go into production, the chances are these things will be made in China to very, very tight tolerances and very precise specifications.
Bill: But for the USA…
CJ: You're good to go.
Bill: Yeah, that -- well said.
Nila: "Made in America" is important to Bill.
Bill: Well said. I want to make 'em here for the USA.
CJ: All right. Well, how about cats, dogs, children?
Bill: Uh… Well, for the final design, that aluminum panel will be powder coated. And that's an epoxy coating on there. And so we take the experience of—who's our friendly… other elecrostatic friends? Martin Logan.
Nila: Roger Sanders, and so forth. The production model of this, to give you an idea, Clark, you won't see any of these bolt heads. There'll be a fascia of rosewood or ash…
Bill: Ceylon rosewood.
Nila: We'll offer various finishes. This will be all beveled and rounded. It'll have very elegant feet underneath. This entire panel will be powder-coated black. So it'll look totally different. The transformers in the back will have their own housings and they'll be neatly laid out. And even the amplifier will carry the Tesla logo on it.
CJ: You're going to sell it only with the amplifier?
Bill: Absolutely right.
Nila: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Bill: That's necessary.
Nila: That's a very key component. This is a system. It is not a pair of panels.
CJ: And the wires? Included?
Bill: We will include wires as well, of my own design..
CJ: All right. Well, be careful.
Bill: Oh yes.
CJ: I mean, people are very particular about their wires.
Bill: Well, we'll give them a pair—enough wires for them to use. But of course they can use their own and they can play with them and do whatever they want.
CJ: All right!
Nila: By the way, can I say something about Bill's partnering experience which he's too shy and too humble to say? When Bill started manufacturing these turntables he was doing them in his garage. Soon the demand began to increase and he found it difficult to cope. So he goes to an audio show meets this lady well known in high-end audio [….].
Bill: You know her
CJ: I do.
Nila: And on a handshake—there is not one signature, there is not one sheet of paper—on a handshake they decided, they agreed, to go ahead and take Bill's design, and they ran with it, manufactured in China, going to give him a 15% royalty on every item sold. He has not seen much money at all, hardly one penny, he has no clue how many were sold.
Bill: Well, I… We received a little a few pennies.
CJ: I was just going to say, I was surprised a handshake would work. And it didn't.
Nila: Not only that. [She] takes it and sells it—presumably sold it, because she wasn't going to give it away free—to Stanalog. George. Okay?
CJ: Right. A good man.
Nila: George takes it and runs with it, sets up Well Tempered Lab dot com and carries on doing business. Finally, nobody knows what happened to it. Bill's out of the loop altogether, and Stanalog goes off the radar. Nobody's heard of him for five years.
Nila: Stanalog still has Bill's turntables advertised for sale on their website, but the business is defunct. It's at this point that Bill met his current partner, who is in New Zealand.
Bill: Frank Denson. Denco Audio.
Nila: Yes. And they've really got it together. Bill's got the technical brains, Frank handles everything else. It's all coming together very well. Before he met Frank, Bill hadn't been the beneficiary of even a…
Bill: Well, I got a few, got a few pennies. Frank rescued me. My Amadeus turntable is an actual product because of Frank Denson and his staff. I had all the fun and Frank has the business headaches.
Nila: How many?
Bill: Not much.
Nila: But these people picked up the phone and told Bill's now-ex-wife, "By the way…"
Bill: Somebody else has taken it over.
Nila: That Stanalog had taken it over. Case closed.
Bill: And I read about it first in Stereophile.
Nila: He read about it in Stereophile! [laugher] And then Bill runs into this George guy at a show, and all Bill tells him is, "By the way, don't forget that I am Well Tempered." And George agrees and says, "Yes, I know. "
Nila: You were screwed right royally, and tattooed, you know.
CJ: Well, that should serve you well. And now you know to copyright and trademark.
Bill: Yeah. Well, it is trademarked and copyrighted now.
CJ: All right, good.
Bill: Well Tempered Lab. And George Stanwick has disappeared.
CJ: Uh huh. He was a pretty good guy, in my experience.
Bill: I don't know why, but he's disappeared.
CJ: [Introduces Black Ravioli] Well, I'm pretty sure that, if and when we put these—or you do—under your CD player, you'll note another level of improvement.
Bill: Yeah. Well, have your pal, or whoever that is, send me a set of those.
CJ: Well, they're from Scotland.
Nila: Nothing to do with Linn, is it?
CJ: No, certainly not. But they work with Linns. And they work with the Naim equipment too. Oh, and they're called Black Ravioli.
Bill: Black Ravioli.
Nila: Black Ravioli, okay.
CJ: Because the original pads looked like black ravioli. They've since gotten away from that. But the deal is—just very briefly—the elements in here are under compression by the cloth packaging.
CJ: So… now I have to get off to dinner with an old friend from Boston, up at Google headquarters. But I'm thinking of more questions. I should send my editor over. He's in Long Beach.
Nila: Oh, lovely.
CJ: But not before I write this up myself. Because I don't want him to get the jump. [laughter] But two articles would be better than one. And I'll tell whoever I know out here who might be of any consequence to you. So, you got distribution lined up?
Bill: Well, we're working on some excellent schemes on that. But so far no. The USA distributor for Well Tempered Turntables is Mike Pranka in St. Louis.
CJ: Yeah, it's a troublesome area.
Bill: So that's still unexplored territory, shall we say.
CJ: Mm-hmm. I know several reputable guys.
Nila: Good to know.
CJ: Yeah. I will kinda—well, after the article appears, or at some point, I'll mention this to them. But speakers are the hardest thing.
Nila: Although arguably the most important.
CJ: Yes. Well, let's adjourn.
Nila: Hit the red button. Yeah, that's it.
CJ: My fingers are too big!