ONLINE - ISSUE 18
An Interview with Bill Low of AudioQuest
Bill Low and Joe Harley of AudioQuest
Matson: I'm glad it took so long to do this with you; I've lived long enough to go through a number of generations of AudioQuest cables, and I feel like I have a perspective on this now. I'm on my fourth generation of AQ interconnects now, and my third set of AQ speaker cables. It gives me a certain continuity, rather than randomly switching components.
Low: I often do bitch and moan about the lack of methodology in the reviewing community—I bitch and moan about the lack of methodology in the entire industry! I think reviewers have a certain obligation. I've talked to John Atkinson about instituting some sort of accountability. Everybody talks about it: how do you come up with an opinion that you have the guts to tell somebody else about?
Matson: So, what did you hear at the Met with John Atkinson? (Note: Bill had mentioned when I contacted him initially that he was in New York and going to attend the Metropolitan Opera with Stereophile editor John Atkinson.)
Low: Yes, we heard Turandot.
Matson: So how was it? Did it give you the sense of actual musicians playing in an actual hall with real singers?! (Laughter…)
Low: It was very good. I've gotten spoiled—the last few times I was sitting in the fourth or fifth row. This time we were just far enough forward from the back to not be right under the balcony. I'm a sucker for full immersion.
Matson: There are some audio people who go to a concert and say, 'Hmmm… doesn't sound as good as my Sonus Fabers', or whatever.
Low: It is often true that the emotional vulnerability required to let music pick you up and carry you away is not dependent on fidelity, but on a basket of variables. Sometimes a hi-fi has an advantage in its immediacy. It is not uncommon that audiophiles, or non-audiophiles, have an easier time crossing the threshold, having liftoff—whatever term you use- in an artificial context.
Matson: The Met is on the high end of the great hall scale right? But you go to hear jazz in New York, for example. I went down to the Blue Note, and I asked the cocktail waitress to sit me somewhere away from the PA. Well guess what? There is no place in that club away from the PA—the speakers are on the roof, beamed down, throughout the entire club. So no matter if you're five feet from the sax player, you're still hearing the PA!
Low: It's what the audience is used to, but what is even worse, it's what the performers are used to; an appreciation that you don't always need to be amplified. It's very hard to get musicians out from behind that—it's almost protection or security.
Matson: Well, let's not rag on musicians. Any predictions for the future now in 2005? I'll be real specific. Several of my colleagues at Positive Feedback Online have gone out on a limb regarding new fiber optic audio cables from another company. You've looked into this—correct me if I'm wrong—you actually have some fiber optic cables in your current lineup. How do you evaluate this technology? Is this a direction you want to go in or not?
Low: I've been making Toslink cables since 1987. There are pros and cons to fiber optics. You should take it seriously, it's a legitimate alternative. One should remain open-minded to the hardware and the implementation, to using different equipment. It's like balanced vs. single-ended. A designer of an amplifier ought to have a strong idea about whether he's going to get a better result from making balanced or single-ended equipment. Cable manufacturers should make the best balanced or single-ended cable they can. And the consumer or the retailer should find out what makes the equipment work best, and do it that way.
Matson: If you look at the history of the introduction and acceptance of 'Redbook' CDs, when push comes to shove, it's really in the conversion. It's fine to talk about fiber optics, but how does the signal get into and out of this domain. There's a conversion isn't there?
Low: Yes, there's a conversion—absolutely. So, if somebody says, 'Isn't fiber optic perfect?'—well, you've got a transmitter and a receiver and in many ways that is a more complicated process. Then someone a little more technical might say 'Actually, the conversion of electrical signal to light and back to electrical at the receiving end is an astonishingly accurate analog process and less of a problem than something in the electrical domain.' This is one of those very screwy things about audio, and Positive Feedback dances at that edge, often thinking about the problem gets in the way of making a fair evaluation of the results. In other words, a manufacturer should not be limited by opinions about what somebody else has made. But the reviewing community, people who aren't actually going to go design and manufacture the product, in many ways are better off turning off their brains and just listening.
Matson: From the future to the present. I currently have in my one and only 'A' system, AudioQuest Sky and Cheetah interconnects, and Mont Blanc speaker cables, using your DBS technology. Can you explain in plain English what the "Dielectric-Bias System" is all about, and how you came to that approach?
Low: There is an expression that I think has a lot of merit about the scientific point of view—'There are no facts, only theories that haven't been proved wrong yet.' There are areas, like directionality of metal, where I say, 'I have no idea.' But that has nothing to do with my actions—I listen to metal and I use it in the direction it sounds best. And whether I have any understanding about what causes directionality, that doesn't interfere with my understanding about what needs to be done with the system. Dielectric involvement, which is the problem that 'DBS' is addressing, I am quite comfortable in saying, has some fuzzy things around the edge about what is in the mechanical domain, and what's in the electrical domain. But I am quite comfortable with the phenomenon of dielectric involvement. That whatever is next to a conductor is dielectric, and the only perfect dielectric is a vacuum, and anything less than a vacuum is a dielectric exhibiting less than ideal properties. A common easy to understand phenomenon is 'time delay.' A kind of analogy that I'm using in current advertising, trying to look for lay language, is if you drop a coin in the air, the air provides so little resistance that it's irrelevant. But if you drop a coin in water or shampoo—then the coin is slowed down.
Matson: And I have this visual image of those dams in the Northwest that the government has decided cost too much money to remove. But each one you take out makes it a little easier for those salmon/electrons to swim along that stream.
Low: 'Skin effect' is one of those much-discussed things about cables. The nay-sayers say 'There's no such thing as skin effect at audio frequencies,' and the other side says, 'Oh no, here it is, it's in all the textbooks.' Then the question is, is it relevant to audio? There is no loss in amplitude at those frequencies and in those lengths. But there is skin effect, in that as you go away from the surface (of a conductor) there is less current and more phase shift. At some point any single frequency is progressively delayed in time depending on what part of the conductor it is going through. So this single frequency, as it's energy spectrum is spread across time, it's not losing energy—not any relevant amount of energy in audio terms, but it is spread across time. At some point it's spread enough that the brain can't recognize the shape of this energy packet, and it just doesn't give it to the consciousness.
Matson: What has been your R & D process at AudioQuest over the years? How do you go about formulating prototypes and developing the products?
Low: Most everything I sell was a successful experiment the first time I manufactured it. There are very few things I've mocked up. Before making the counter-spiral geometry we mocked one up by hand, and anything made by hand lacks the consistency of a machine-made product, and consistency is such an important variable in cable performance. Before making the first DBS cable we took as long a piece of Amazon (cable) as we could, which has six conductors around a dummy core, pulled out the core and stuck in another conductor, attached a nine volt battery to it, and had the 'wow' that we were waiting for.
Matson: Where are the components for the AudioQuest line physically produced?
Low: Well, over the years it has been in various locations, but over the past couple it has been a factory in China. At the top of the line, I've gotten much more cooperation for making unusual designs. I have a model now called King Cobra that costs $175 for a one meter pair. That cable is identical in construction and materials to what used to be the $550 Python cable. The U. S. cable manufacturers are not, as an industry, sensitive to the values of the audiophile world. It used to be that when I wanted to make a construction as nominally exotic as the air-tubes that currently are in the King Cobra, that I called Python previously, there were manufacturers that wouldn't quote on that, because it was weird and they didn't want to waste their time thinking about something which they would try to set up and wouldn't be able to run, and waste factory time.
Matson: Have you made any effort to get with manufacturers of high-end hardware to integrate AudioQuest methodologies into internal wiring? So that the management of the signal internal to their devices is at a high level, as well as externally?
Low: It's an old subject that we danced at the edges of without much energy. George Cardas, a wonderful guy, thinks more like a manufacturer, and I think enjoys talking to manufacturers more. I have been frustrated by the narrow-mindedness of the average manufacturer. They tend to be more engineering-minded; they think up a solution and then apply it—versus being open-minded about anything that makes a difference. Now, some are much, much more open than others. But cable is generally fairly far down on their list.
Matson: Regarding the DBS cables. When I compared them I listened to two matched pairs of both the Sky and Cheetah interconnects—one with the DBS battery connected, and the other with it disconnected for two weeks. Is this the correct way in your view to get an A/B comparison that means something?
Low: Yes. And it goes back to how I got the idea in the first place. It's the same idea as why you turn your amplifier on when it's new and leave it on for two weeks; it's that long before it gets up to speed. Or when you have an amplifier fixed—you send it back, and then you turn it on when you get it back and it sounds like shit! And in some ways, the better the equipment is the worse it sounds when it's not warmed up. The distortion caused by an unformed dielectric is a higher percentage of what's wrong, because it's not masked by out of focus generalities. This type of distortion is also particularly obnoxious. With batteries on a cable it also takes a couple of weeks, and when you take them off it doesn't go back to zero right away.
Matson: Good, I just wanted to confirm that.
Low: It's an idea that's as old as the hills; that the insulation of interconnects makes a difference, or people talking about polystyrene versus oil-filled capacitors—things that make an audible difference. This goes back to when I was born, and it has been buzzing around in our community. So DBS as an implementation is new, and I actually can get a patent on it, but the fundamentals are astonishingly old ideas. It's that simple—we know it's advantageous to apply a charge to insulating material—that's why you leave your amplifier turned on. So why not add some mechanism for keeping that charge permanently, or for that matter applying as much charge as optimizes the process? So it is that simple; when I was first asked several years ago if I thought I could patent this idea, my first reaction was 'no, it's too simple.' It shouldn't be controversial, it's two old ideas put together.
(Note: At this point I read Bill some of my listening notes [see my review of the AQ DBS cables elsewhere in this issue of PFO] and asked him if I was making things up or hallucinating… )
Low: No, everything you say is totally in sync. For me it comes from a little more holistic phenomenon. For me, the difference between good and bad hi-fi is how long does it take before you get fatigued? Fatigue is inevitable, but slowing the onset of fatigue is better hi-fi. This is related to intelligibility and resolution, but fatigue is even more important to me than those things, because you could never hear some of those things you are describing, and still love the music.
Matson: We all have our different priorities. For me, I lean more towards that camp of old Sam Tellig—the harmonics. The way the harmonics get reproduced, the way they are either alive or dead, is very linked to the emotion that I'm getting out of a piece of music.
Low: We all agree over what perfection is, but there's lots of disagreement over the gross imperfections that do exist and their tolerability. My wife has perfect pitch, so for her the speed of a turntable is more crucial than it is for me. We don't disagree on what we like, but on what we're willing to tolerate when you can't have perfection. What's wrong with the best (gear) these days is what's added, not what is missing. There is added garbage as a result of digital processing creating harmonics that have no fundamental—they're just garbage. What's happening in active electronics is also that each harmonic becomes a new fundamental for a new series of undesirable harmonics. Take a flute, or Joan Baez's voice—which is practically a pure sine wave—and you can get away with adding false harmonics to it, because it just sounds like a different instrument. However, take an instrument with a richer harmonic structure and you can't get away with it. Good equipment is less likely to take the garbage and exaggerate it, and therefore does a better job of preserving the reason we listen to music. It's not data processing! If it was just data processing all you'd have to do is worry about copying every little bit of information. But because we aren't good enough to do that there has to be some serious prioritizing—serious informed compromise.
Matson: Is the 5.1 world we find ourselves in being good to AudioQuest?
Low: Well, the business I was once upon a time in, the hi-fi business, is now only a very small percentage of my business—in the sense of what I call 'audio as a destination activity.' It's kind of ironic—the wave that created the audio world that we now wring our hands over as shrinking—was a wave that was driven by culture and drugs. Music is a recreational drug and it tends to be accompanied by chemicals, alcohol and grass, etc. The culture of the 70's was one where sitting around listening to hi-fi, listening to music, was a worthy, noble, respected activity. The phenomenon of audiophilia, of equipment having to be good to justify spending your time listening to it, is a sickness that only came later.
Matson: The world wants to know: what does your 'A' system consist of at home now Bill?
Low: Acknowledging a little bit the separation between evaluation and pleasure, because if you use the equipment that you really like for evaluation you learn to hate it. I use Vandersteen 5a speakers that I think are extraordinary, and I love them for either side of the brain—evaluation or pleasure. I use Pass Aleph 2 mono amplifiers—100 watt Class A, because I love tubes and in my limited experience that's as close as I've found in a very liquid solid-state amplifier. My preamps are very different; for evaluation I use an Ayre K-1x, and I do certainly get great pleasure in listening to music through it, but the preamp that I use for pleasure is an Aesthetix Calisto; it transports me. An Ayre D-1x is my primary CD player, while a BAT VK-D5SE provides backup, and a 24/96 updated CAL Alpha/Delta combination is my digital cable workhorse. I'm just setting up a VPI Super Scout and a Lyra Titan cartridge. Cables, oddly enough, are Sky and Everest.
Matson: Art Dudley brought me this box of AudioQuest cables, and I sent some of them back that I didn't need to make the A/B comparison in my listening. But the rest aren't going anywhere! ( laughter…) They just sound too good—I really wasn't ready for that. It's like having a whole other component in there. I didn't expect that truly, but it's nice when it happens!
Low: Yes, I've had some of those—when we are sucked in, seduced, carried away, taken by surprise—that's what we all kind of live for. And it's wonderful when it happens.