Tim de Paravicini at QUAD & MOFI / Mobile Fidelity
INTERVIEW WITH TIM DE PARAVICINI
Stereophile / Steve Harris
How many hi-fi professionals can say that they've designed at least one of every part of a complete recording system, from microphones to tape recorders to vinyl-disc-cutting electronics? Probably only Tim de Paravicini (footnote 1). Best known to audiophiles for his extraordinarily durable EAR valve amplifiers, Tim is also an electronics guru to the professional recording world. His global reputation today is based on more than four decades of making things better, building equipment that stands the test of time.
In the 1970s, Tim spent four years as chief amplifier designer for the prestigious Lux company in Japan, coming up with such models as the classic high-end C1000 preamplifier and M6000 power amp. In Japan, too, he met his wife, Oliva, who taught him Japanese while he taught her English. Returning to the UK, he set up his own company, EAR (the initials originally stood for Esoteric Audio Research).
In the 1980s, Tim designed and built his first complete system of record-cutting electronics, for Island Records; as a consultant, he designed the hugely successful A1 integrated amplifier for Musical Fidelity. By the 1990s he was rebuilding Studer and Ampex analog tape recorders for ultimate-quality studio mastering. At hi-fi shows one year he used master tapes from Pink Floyd to demonstrate his astonishing "direct drive" Quad electrostatic loudspeaker—in which the high voltages for the electrostatic panel came directly from the tubes of his special amplifiers.
In the present decade he's added a turntable, CD, and loudspeakers to EAR's Yoshino line of domestic products, while continuing to take on major projects for professional clients—for example, a disc-cutting system for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. He's also acted as a design consultant to Quad for the new QC24P tube phono stage and the II/80 tube power amp.
But it all began at the dawn of the 1960s, when, like most teenagers in England, Tim heard rock'n'roll for the first time. He also learned to play the drums.
"I was a boy in Nigeria, but then I was brought to England to be educated. Did the usual thing—school, college—and then I went off to South Africa. But even when I was at school I was involved with bands in one form or another. It's a kind of addiction, rock'n'roll. I first saw it when I was about 12 or 13, and that was the holy grail. I was brought up with classical music, my mother loved to play classical music, but I was at the age where I didn't want that.
"Of course, the other notable at my school in Stevenage was Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep. I think, even at the age of 13 or so, I was able to see that this guy had the push, the determination, he wasn't going to rest. You've got to have that spark or fire by the time you're 15 or 16, some sort of drive to keep you going. I suppose that was my guiding light.
"The other thing was poverty. Necessity is the mother of invention. If you haven't got the money, you can't just go and buy the nice toys, you have to make them, and that puts you in good stead to learn how to do these things the hard way.
"In South Africa at that time [the late 1960s] there was no television, so hi-fi was very much broader-based, and (white) people who had disposable income were buying even the B&O class of hi-fi. So at that time there were more McIntosh amplifiers there per head of population than there were pretty well anywhere else. It was luxury having no television, in a sense!
"I worked for myself, and for a couple of hi-fi stores and a couple of studios in Jo'burg, and I did repair work and consultancy for one of the stores that imported McIntosh and Luxman and other high-end brands. It was there that I met the guys from Lux, who were on a sales trip, and they offered the invitation to go to Japan.
"I'd been in South Africa for seven years, I'd done this, that, and the other in hi-fi, been involved in rock groups, with PA systems and so on. So, not just domestic hi-fi—I'd been involved in audio from the microphone to the loudspeaker. I just wish more people who listen to hi-fi understood what goes on at the front end of it all before they pontificate about the quality of recordings—and realize that a lot of them are compromised badly.
"Anyway, in Japan...the Japanese have always aspired to quality. At Lux I luckily had the ability to do what I more or less wanted to do—occasionally they would ask me to develop or design a particular product, but it was usually a consensus. And one or two of the products have become classics in their own right. For example, there was the MB3045 amplifier, a 70W transistor amp. Then there was the C1000, and the M4000 and M6000 amplifiers. Even Robertson-Aikman [the late Alastair Robertson-Aikman of SME] had them at one time.
"I was quite pleased it all happened, really. I was never happy with mediocrity, and I don't think that I could have ever persuaded a British company to go to that measure. If I look at Peter Walker with Quad, he started off being at the top end of the market in the 1950s—the Quad II and 22 were among the best half-dozen amplifiers in the world—but as time went on, through the transistor generation, the 303 and then on to the 405, they slipped down the ladder. They lost that aspirational position at the top. The Quad Electrostatic was the only speaker that was at the top of the ladder, and it still is at the top! But as far as electronics were concerned, they missed it. The problem with British companies was, of course, the lack of investment at that time—although Quad were better than most, which kept them ahead. But the Harold Leaks of the world didn't invest in new products. But the time I was in Japan, the mid-1970s, was a time when Japan was prospering very well, and was prepared to take risks and gamble on things. If a company could see that they would make a minimum ultimate run of 10,000 units, it was worth going for.
"Fortunately, we had a couple of very good industrial designers. We could discuss it and come up with what we wanted, and they would interpret it and come up with a clay model. Lux built everything in clay as a dummy model before actually committing to putting a complete product together in the proper sense. And it's that detail, subtlety, that quality. I'd love to try and emulate that with my own products, but with the best will in the world, I don't have the capital to do the swish tooling. But I still try to keep an air of quality with my products.
"One example is that Stereo Sound award on the wall behind you, for the EAR 859. Curiously enough, I sold more 859s in Japan in that year (1995–96) than all other valve amplifier competitors together! I think that was a wonderful statistic. The modern equivalent of that is the EAR 834p phono box, which has sold very well all over the world.
"One of the measures of what I've tried to get is how much changes hands on the secondhand market. What is the brand loyalty? That, to me, is important, even in the pro audio market, where some competitors have come along and copied the ideas I've put out, cheapened them. They'd sell a stack of them, but then you'd very quickly see the secondhand pages full of them!"
I commented to Tim that, although hi-fi can be a bullshit business, you can't bullshit pro audio customers.
"No. It's a tool to them, it's not a frivolity. And they're not going to suffer fools gladly. Home hi-fi, well, you can go back even 50 years and there's a lot of product that was cheesy, and came and went.
"In South Africa I'd been in and out of doing pro audio, in the form of PAs and peripheral studio equipment. In Japan, I hardly touched any pro equipment. The nearest I got to that was forming the tape club at Lux. We had 40 people who had open-reel tape recorders, and a mixing console and a splitter box. We would go and rent a hall and hire musicians and record some music, so that everybody went home with their own master tape. And everybody clubbed in and put in...well, in today's terms, £50 to £100 a time, a relatively small amount, but when you amassed it together with 40 people, you had enough money to pay the musicians.
"Because the Japanese aspire to have the best quality. When I came back to England, I couldn't convince people about master tapes: 'Oh, if it ain't a Linn turntable, it ain't good enough' sort of thing. I was confronted with people accepting a record as if it was better than my master tapes! And it's not, I'm afraid.
"But, as I say, when I came back to England I had to face the competition. I chose not to try and fight them head-on, but to carve my products the way I felt they should be.
"I was a consultant to Michaelson & Austin at the very beginning, and I worked for a company called Tangent, which made loudspeakers. I was responsible for trying to develop an amplifier and active speakers under a high-end badge for Tangent, which was called Moonlight—an embarrassing name! I got back into professional audio equipment here in about 1983, when I met some people from studios who wanted some stuff, and I designed a disc-cutting system for Island Records.
"I know that I can make vinyl sound better than it ever does, because I know what all the limitations are in the cutting electronics. It wasn't just the amplification, it was the approach to the concept of dealing with the feedback on the cutter heads and everything else. Neumann and Ortofon and the others had all followed the same avenues, and I just said, well, I'm going to look at this with a fresh sheet of paper and see what I can do to tackle the problems.
"That system cut quite a few Number Ones. If you cut vinyl properly, it will sound virtually indistinguishable from the master tape. That's the ultimate aim of what I'm trying to do: to preserve the sound as closely as possible all the way through. And Mobile Fidelity have got the current version of the concept at their place in California.
"I've been lucky to do tasks for people like the Pink Floyd. It's equipment that has to stand the test of time. Does it sound any good, or does it destroy the sound? Does it hold the integrity of what they're after? And so on. My compressors, for example, make controlling the level easier, without it sounding as if you have crushed the life out of the music. And of course in the studio you have to modify the events, because you are trying artistically to produce an end result. If you're recording classical music, it's a slightly different ball game than pop music—but pop music is meant to be an electronic artistic event, and there aren't any rules! And it's mentally more stimulating.
"But with home hi-fi, the fire's never gone out. I still want to do something better than anybody else. That was the whole motivation from the beginning. That's the competitive nature of it. And the business side, the money side of it, was secondary to producing something of quality."
When CD arrived in the 1980s, Tim de Paravicini was among the first to explain the shortcomings of the new format's sound quality by pointing out that existing analog media were superior when analyzed in terms of sampling rate. He argued then that a digital medium would need a much higher sample rate than 44.1kHz (and a higher bit rate than 16) to match the resolution of analog tape or vinyl. I asked him to explain this again.
"Well, the quick nutshell of it all is this. An analog microphone we all understand, and a valve or transistor amplifier is linear in its working range. On a vinyl record, when you are cutting an acetate, there is no modulation or chopping it up—you are down to the molecular level of the acetate to store that information. It's a totally random but very minute-resolution storage system.
"When it comes to digital, it's how to operate it, how many bits we devote to it, and the sampling frequency, as to how we store that information. The original digital system of CD, with 16 bits and 44.1kHz sampling, was what the mathematicians deemed to be the minimum acceptable to human hearing for so-called hi-fi. They never looked at all the artifacts and all the problems. And they never did enough analysis of the human hearing mechanism to realize that we don't stop hearing at 20kHz—people can discern and detect sound up to 45kHz. We have, as I say to people, an equivalent risetime of 11 microseconds in the hearing mechanism. And the ability to resolve detail in those digital systems wasn't quite good enough.
"In analog, you can change the thing and keep on aspiring to perfection without a compatibility issue. With digital, once you change any parameter, you've got a compatibility issue. Now, you can record on ProTools at 24-bit/192kHz, but it's not compatible with CD. I did my own summation—and this is from 20 years ago—that if we did 384kHz at 24-bit, we'll have a system that will resolve on a par with the best analog. That's the holy grail. And the problem, for the computer people, is having the balls to go that whole hog.
"At the moment, they are going the opposite way. Digital radio came along with a promise of perfect sound forever on the radio, and the BBC made all sorts of spurious claims using what I'd call not-true comparisons; for example, showing that they could drive a car around and digital would sound better under certain circumstances.
"FM, when it was designed in the late 1940s, had a dynamic range of 80dB potentially, and FM has the linearity of an analog system, because the equivalent sampling frequency is around 108MHz, which is huge, and gives an extraordinary resolution. And then they come along with a digital system that is only 13 or 14 bits, and 32kHz sampling.
"And now, with digital radio, even Radio 3 [the BBC's classical-music and arts radio station] has been cut down to 160 kilobits per second. They've now abused us, putting on more and more channels of poorer quality on digital radio. What is the purpose? It's not high quality! They don't care any more about quality, that's the saddest part. Whereas, with stereo and FM, the original aspiration was towards quality. With the BBC, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a relaxed quality in listening to Radio 3, for example, or Radio 4. But as time has gone on it's been mutilated. And now Radio 3 is processed until it's not very palatable.
"People will eventually believe McDonald's tastes good, if you force them. But there are people who like good food, and go out of their way to look for good food. The same with good music. And music is human emotion, it is every bit as important to us as food, because music conveys everything from laughter to crying to smiling to tears of joy.
"We've got to get people to realize—hold your horses, before it all disappears. In the pop field now, young bands are realizing that if they put the vinyl out, they know that the kids can't copy it. And the kids can now say to their peer group, 'I've got the Rotten Tomatoes record (or whatever the name of the band is), you haven't got it yet.' There's pride of ownership. But if you've got an iPod with 1000 tunes on it, you haven't got anything tangible to show what you own. It's a bit bucket, basically. And that's why, I think, vinyl has survived and has been growing. Because you've got a package, the record and the sleeve, that has some meaning."
Tim thinks that people will be playing vinyl records for the next 30 years or so. So perhaps it should have been no surprise when he decided to launch his own turntable, the EAR MasterDisk.
"The turntable is so complicated to discuss, it would probably take a couple of hours to describe it—it's not something that could be grasped in a few minutes. But the principle, what I was after, was a turntable that didn't sound like a turntable. I wanted you to hear the record, warts and all, but I didn't want you to hear extraneous problems that were going on in the room. That's why I developed the magnetic drive-coupling system, so I could divorce all the outboard world from the platter and tonearm. That was the secret of the thing, to make sure that the platter and tonearm are one entity that is isolated from the room and from all the boundaries, from noise and so on."
More recently, Tim finally decided to launch a CD player as well.
"I could have put out a CD player a long time ago, but I didn't. I held back, looking at it carefully, because I don't want to put out a product that has my name on it and have it coming back to haunt me. There's nothing to stop me doing new technology, I'll use transistors. If somebody wanted me to do class-D switching amplifiers, and I thought they were good, I would do them. If I thought they were good.
"Lots of people have made so-called valve CD players with a couple of token tubes. Most of them don't actually address the problem correctly, because a lot of them, if they're going to offer balanced outputs, actually go back into op-amps to do the balanced output configuration. So they've got this token tube doing not very much.
"I looked at CD players and I decided to use the Wolfson chipset, because I considered that to be the most analog-sounding (for want of a better word) D/A converter in the business. What I had to do, instead of using any further op-amp technology, was to get the output of [the DAC] and amplify it in the valve domain, and use an output transformer with a line stage similar to what I use in my professional audio equipment, to have the ability to drive both professional audio lines and consumer domestic audio. And if people want a minimalist setup, with an analog volume control on the CD player (and an output up to 5V instead of the usual 2V), it can drive any power amplifier.
"That's it! That's the logic of it. It doesn't have to be mega-expensive to make a statement. I want to sell a realistic number of them. It allows me [to compete], in the next year, when we can see what is the commercial reality of multichannel sound—whether Blu-ray or HD DVD win that race.
"A lot of audiophiles would like 2.1 [channels] rather than 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1. In other words, they've got their home theater, but they can't be bothered with the side speakers and all that, because they know it's all gimmicks. And if you reprocess the multichannels back to two channels and have a subwoofer driven from the 0.1 channel, you can get all your explosions and things to happen with your pictures. So I think 2.1 is a very good logical conclusion to it all. Instead of 5.1 upwards, go backwards!"
With the launch of his own Primary Drive loudspeaker, Tim de Paravicini can now offer a complete hi-fi system.
"I wanted a speaker that had some of the qualities of the Quad electrostatic, a dipole package that was not too big and awkward and had a degree of appeal to the domestic side of the family. I don't claim it to be the best-sounding speaker, though I consider it better than most packages on the market. But it had to be affordable and usable in the home, in a realistic situation.
"Basically, it's a dynamic speaker system, with a tweeter and a midrange and a bass unit. The bass unit and the midrange drive a membrane. The bass unit makes a membrane of effectively 12" by 18" (305mm by 457mm) surface area bend and vibrate to put bass into the room. So it has dipole properties. I don't make the drive-units myself and I subcontract the cabinets, but it's still my basic principles."
Tim has often been regarded as an eccentric genius, an audio maverick—always outspoken, sometimes outrageous. At one hi-fi show at least, when asked by another exhibitor to turn the volume down, he turned it up. He's been known to throw visitors out of his demonstration room when they've asked particularly stupid questions.
If Tim has mellowed in recent years, it might be because he's now getting more of the rewards and recognition his work deserves. Although his aristocratic ancestry can be traced back to 15th-century Italy, for him the important thing is what you do and how well you do it.
"Think about a thing carefully, and try and do it correctly," he says. "Don't think 'How can I save, cheapen it, cut corners, to bodge something to sell.' If you think with a salesman's hat on, you will never make a good product."