by Dick Olsher
Audio hobbyists in the US have had little to cheer about in the last decade. Abandoned by mainstream publications such as Stereophile and TAS, they've had to fish the waters of the alternative press for FUN projects. Whereas home construction and do-it-yourself kits were once all the rage in the 50s and 60s, that's no longer the case. Kits are rare today, are generally imported from the pacific rim, and are usually not of the caliber that's likely to achieve classic status in the next 50 years. A case in point is the Harman Kardon Citation II power amp kit released in 1961. Here's a sensational sounding amp selling on the used market for $600 to $900 that simply blows away much of what passes for high-end today.
Ed Dell and the Audio Amateur Group (e.g., Speaker builder and Glass Audio), Joe Roberts' SoundPractices magazine (Tel. 512-467-0130), and Dan Schmalle's (a.k.a. Dr. Bottlehead) Valve - the monthly magazine of eXtreme audio (Tel. 360-697-1936) keep the flame alive for those of us crazy experimenters in search for the unusual.
On Labor Day weekend last year, August 29 - 31, 1997, I joined about 200 hobbyists in Silverdale Washington for the inaugural Vacuum State of the Art Conference (VSAC) hosted by Valve magazine. The focus was on vacuum tube audio gear (no solid state allowed!) and "vacuum tube friendly" supporting equipment. In addition to the traditional manufacturer exhibit rooms, a series of seminars by subject matter experts provided a forum for lively and informative discussion. There was also a room d edicated to showcasing of amateur designs. Let me say that the level of energy and enthusiasm in this corner of Puget Sound far surpassed what I'm accustomed to at typical audio shows. What follows is a collection of personal highlights, mainly in the for m of photos, from VSAC 1997.
(figure 1) Susumu Sakuma has achieved the status of audio guru in his native Japan. From his headquarters in a small restaurant in the seaside town of Ta teyama, Sakuma san holds court to over 200 annual visitors in search of his brand of audio magic. His approach is to design on the basis of emotion, not theory, so as to communicate the full emotional palette of live music. It is not therefore surprising that he is drawn toward tubes and horn loaded speakers. I found Sakuma san to be quite delightful in person, and in command of a healthy sense of humor. Just before I snapped this picture, (figure 2) Sakuma slipped on a pair of sunglasses as protection against camera flash. Note that he's strictly into mono. At the show he got by with a single Altec A7 speaker (figure 3) which was also used for the Sunday night "concert." When I asked him why mono, he just smiled and said in reasonable English: "I'm too poor to afford two speakers." The Sunday night audio concert featured Sakuma amplification and his favorite recordings. The idea that reproduced music can in and of itself be a concert form is certainly an original one. Over a period of some 20 years Sakuma has staged numerous concerts both in Japan and overseas. More than 4,000 people have sampled the Sakuma sound. In Silverdale the Sakuma concert proved to be a fitting end to a fun weekend. A single Altec A7 in the corner of a large ballroom did just fine in terms of sound pressure level. Jazz was served up extr emely well, though at times and especially with classical selections the Altec did manage to sound very much like a PA speaker.
(figure 4) Tony Glynn (Lowther Club of America) and Ron Welborne (Welborne Labs) combined forces to very good effect. Here Tony is resting comfortably ag ainst the Medallion II enclosure.
(figure 5) Dr. Bruce Edgar is all smiles over his excellent tractrix horn. Bruce's seminar on horns was a big hit with me.
(figure 6) The Doctor is in: Dr. Bottlehead in the flesh. Not content with straight S.E.X. (the single-ended experimenter's kit), the Doctor introduces t he "69" tapered pipe loudspeaker. Sounds like a recipe for a mind-blowing sonic orgasm.
(figure 7) Home brewer extraordinary, Ed Billeci, gets my vote as winner of the Amateur exhibition. Amazing stuff.
(figure 8)(figure 9) Kudos go to John Hoffman for shar ing his personal collection of early acoustic phonographs. Spanning the audio state of the art from 1897 to 1927, John started off with Edison cylinders (pretty awful sounding) and progressed to some pretty impressive acoustic horn systems form the 20s. T hat's how it started. And you know, there was something special about going directly from a grove through a horn, directly to the ear.
VSAC 98 will be held this year at the same venue (the Silverdale Resort Hotel on the Bay), on the weekend of August 21 -24. Check it out at: www.bottlehead.com.