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Positive Feedback ISSUE 67
may/june 2013


Does Long Hair Help You Play Better?
by Roger Skoff

You know, when I look at musicians nowadays, most of them seem to have long hair. Originally, when I was just a boy growing-up, "long-hair" was a slang term that—possibly because everybody had seen Leopold Stokowsky's flowing mane in Disney's Fantasia—referred to classical music. Ever since the Beatles, though, with their signature 1963 bowl-cuts, "long-hair music" has come to mean something else entirely, and long hair seems to have become de rigueur, first for Rock musicians; then for Country and Western folks; and now, for just about anybody who sings or plays a musical instrument.

Does the long hair help their performance? Does it help them sing or play better? Do they really think it makes anything about them better? Or is it just a way to look cool or a kind of uniform or badge to show that they're part of the group?

I find myself wondering about this more and more because, whenever I go to Shows or look at pictures of High End audio systems in magazines or on the internet, what hits my eye is tubes for the electronics, horns for the speakers, and LPs as the preferred sound source. That's just what it was when I was a kid; just as long hair was the style for men even before I was a kid. Whatever happened to the idea of progress? Of our bright, new, transistorized digital future? Of crisp young men in crew cuts playing the anthems of a golden age yet to come?

When I was a little kid and listened to music, what I mostly heard it on was a Silvertone radio-phono from Sears. The sound was awful, but I loved the music and that was all that mattered. Later, when at the grand old age of twelve, I became a HiFi Crazy, I learned that the sound could be made better, and made that my goal. My first move was to replace the osmium needles on the record player with a "permanent" one of genuine sapphire, then I added a Quam 12-inch "full-range" driver, just sitting out in the open with no baffle, and I was off to the races.

As I got older and could afford more, I bought and built an EICO HF20 tube amplifier; then a Heathkit FM tuner; then—wonder and glory of all wonders and glories—a Bozak B302 speaker; then a Viking mono tape deck (with "magic eye" record metering); then a Rek-O-Kut turntable and arm (With GE variable reluctance cartridge and a Fisher $13 one-tube preamp); then a tape-head-and-preamp upgrade to stereo for the Viking, and another amplifier and speaker so I could play the pre-recorded tapes that were the only stereo software available at the time; then, finally, so that I could play the new stereo records when they came out in 1957, I bought the new Electro-Voice ceramic phono cartridge—the first 45/45 playback device ever to be offered to the record-buying public.

Each new step made a clear and obvious improvement to the performance of my system, and it was that real improvement that was both my incentive and my reward.

By around 1960, solid-state came along, and I and my HiFi Crazy cronies looked at it with both glee and a certain amount of trepidation: Glee, because truly high-powered amplifiers were now possible (one of the reasons that the "Mac" 60 had been such a big deal was that the tube circuitry of the time was limited in output, and the Mac was, at least as I remember it, the biggest, baddest amp of its day); trepidation, because germanium transistors and the earliest silicon devices had a distinct tendency to produce an audible low-level "hiss" that, fortunately, was masked by the music at higher levels.

Finally, like practically everyone else at the time, we accepted solid-state because, to our ears, its real advantages—including no longer needing an output transformer to drive speakers—far outweighed its disadvantages.

With high-power amplifiers, horns, which had been necessary to play at high volume on low-powered tube amps, largely went away, to be replaced by a whole array of other kinds of drivers, including electrostatics, other planars, Edgar Villchur's surprising acoustic suspension systems, and others even more exotic (the Ionovac and the Hill Plasmatronics, to name just two examples).

These new drivers and more power to drive them (from solid-state and, later, from new, higher output tube amplifiers) brought one improvement seldom heard before, and another that was entirely new.

The one that had been possible earlier, but not often heard was deep bass. Even until well into the 1950s, 50Hz (we called it 50 "cycles", then) was about as low as most speakers would go. (One very famous example was the Altec A7 horn system—possibly the most commonly used West Coast recording studio monitor of the time, which claimed a lower limit of 50Hz, but was actually hard-pressed to deliver it.) The problem was that, in order to make really low frequencies, a horn speaker has to be HUGE, and most installations simply didn't have the room for horns big enough. Corner horns like the Klipschorn, the James B. Lansing (later to become JBL) Hartsfield, and the Electro-Voice Patrician, helped, but even they came nowhere close to the bass response of speakers like the AR-1 (a large "bookshelf" speaker that got down into the 30s) or the Bozak B-310 "Concert Grand" (another "sealed box" system, with a real bottom-end of 24Hz), that went a whole lot deeper but required considerably more power to operate.

The entirely new one was the second important development: "Imaging." With the move away from horns, audiophiles and loudspeaker designers were no longer concerned about making sure the fronts of their horns lined-up for looks or ease of installation, but could turn, instead, to lining up the diaphragms or voice coils of their speakers. The concept of the "time aligned" speaker system was born, and with it, the possibility of realistic imaging and the recreation of a believable soundstage.

All of those things, whether they actually achieved it or not, were done in the spirit of improvement. So, when it came along, was digital, which, for the first time ever, offered the audiophiles' Holy Grail, absolutely "flat" frequency response and threw in increased dynamic range, just for lagniappe.

But somewhere along the way, Audio Research popped up and brought with it the beginnings of a tube renaissance. That, perhaps as backlash to the truly horrid-sounding early CDs, was followed by a revitalization of the LP, and the whole thing was accompanied by a movement to bring back horns, possibly started, and certainly typified and led by the German company, Avantgarde.

All of this is well and good. LP recordings CAN sound better than their digital successors or counterparts; tubes can certainly make for great-sounding electronics; and horns (still except for deep bass) can be wonderful and thoroughly exciting speakers. I even own a pair that images! The problem is not that people are using and enjoying these things; it's that the form seems now to have surpassed the function in importance.

You've seen it yourself, with people on the Internet showing pictures of vast pretty glass bottles, the size of a small fish tank that turn out to be exotic, hideously expensive and largely irreplaceable, RF transmitting tubes, and asking if they might not make a nice amplifier. Or the never-ending parade of ever more baroque, grandiose, complicated, and viciously expensive turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges—including, now, a super deluxe and pricey cartridge just for MONO! Or the horns: What a truly amazing array of ever larger, ever weirder, and ever more costly horns we are treated to every day; made of thousand-year-old wood or other materials equally strange and exotic.

Don't they understand that tubes are just devices more or less suited to the task they are set to perform, and that some designers, notably Tim de Paravicini, use both tubes and solid-state, where and as appropriate, with equal facility? Don't they know that it's possible for an LP playback system to not look like it was designed by Rube Goldberg's rich uncle and still sound good? Don't they know that it's the shape, size, and length of a horn that determines how well it works, and that exotic materials aren't likely to improve it, but could very well, by adding spurious resonances, make it worse?

All of these things and many more seem to me to be like long hair on a musician: If it's worn for style or beauty or—for marketing purposes—to make a memorable impression, then GOOD! Go for it! But if it's intended somehow to make a real improvement, that's not likely: How well you play is how well you play, regardless of what your hair looks like.

It's the same for High-End audio: If what we're after is looks, or a membership card, or bragging rights, any of those things are fine with me. I love 'em all and want every one! But, just as with a musician's long hair, I really shouldn't expect any of them to make my system sound better!