My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.

“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”

Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.

Brooks always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”

“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.

Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

1994 High End Amp Designers Round Table Discussion

Back in 1994, I moderated a discussion of high end amplifier designers:

Amplifiers have always been the products that have made icons of audio designers and engineers. Companies like Krell, Threshold, Audio Research, and VTL have, in a way, helped to define this industry. For a number of reasons, amplifiers are easy to view as being the most significant link in the electronic aspect of the audio chain. The Linnies tell us that the source, be it LP or CD, is the most significant qualitative link of the audio chain. Many meter-dulled objectivists would have you save money on electronics while spending freely on speakers.

What do I think?

To be truthful, I don’t know. My basic belief is that amplifiers are the most critical (note avoidance of the word important) device in the audio chain. The amplifier is literally and figuratively caught in the middle. It cannot reproduce more than the upstream components pass on to it, nor can it control or drive the loudspeaker to a level that is beyond the latter’s electromechanical potential. Further, it is the only device in the chain that has to deal with a potentially wild and varying electrical load, in other words, the typical audiophile speaker.

So, there, in the dark, sits the lonely amplifier designer. All the while asking himself, “What kind of load will my baby have to drive?,” “What if bipolars really were the way to go?,” “Will this single-ended craze last?” TAO is all about observations. The observations in my reviews and articles are purposefully limited to descriptions of the musical potential of the audio gear I evaluate. And while my technical competence may actually be somewhat greater in reality than I let on in print, I still believe that mine should be largely a non-technical presence.

Still, technical issues are of great interest to me particularly as they concern amplifier design and philosophy. So, I sat down and did some pondering. What questions can I come up with that will tend to reveal the thought process that goes into a successful amplifier design? What’s more, who will answer them?

The respondents to my questions are some of the best audio minds I know. Some of their names will be well known to you. Others may be new to you.

They are:

Kevin Halverson / Muse Electronics

John Kovacich / Pointsource Audio 

Eric Lauchli / Coda Technologies

Paul McGowan / Genesis Technologies 

Nelson Pass / Pass Laboratories

At the outset, I’d like to thank all of these guys for their willingness to take part in this humble survey, and for simply taking the time to respond to my questions.

The Round Table will be divided over three issues with each designer answering the same two questions in each installment.

Here are the questions for this issue:

Question 1: In amplifier design, science never really separates itself from art. To what degree are your design decisions based upon what you can hear versus what you can measure?

Question 2: As a follow-up to the first question, if you could only make three measurements of a design’s electrical performance what would they be and why?

QUESTION 1

Kevin Halverson As for the question about which skill (art or science) is most important in the design of hi-fi amplifiers, I would have to answer science. This is not to say that art does not play a strong role in my designs. If, for example, I find during listening that an aspect of what I’m hearing is either better or worse, no amount of artistic knowledge would do anything to assist me in understanding the phenomenon. Similarly, no amount of science will do anything to enhance my listening skills. If, by your question, you are suggesting that there is a fundamental conflict between what one hears and what one measures, I would reply that there is not, provided that one knows where and most importantly how to look (measure).

John Kovacich Since it’s quite easy to create audio equipment that has good specifications, there is no reason not to at least try and design amps and other products that look good on paper. Unfortunately, specifications and what you hear don’t always go together. In other words, a product can spec-out very well and still sound poor. Of course, we have to ask ourselves, does the product truly sound bad or is it simply revealing problems in the rest of the system that a lesser amp would obscure? For instance, some people believe that tube amplifiers sound superior to solid state because they are better in design, and their poor specs don’t mean anything. Other people feel that tube amps sound better because they create a pleasant sound. The key word being, create. Mainstream designers generally design for specs and then assume that their products will sound good.

Audiophile designers generally design, then listen to the product with little concern for specs. Now, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Can they really hear any difference? Since none of these listening sessions are done in a double blind fashion, they are, from a purely scientific point of view, invalid. I have heard many differences between designs but could never reliably and consistently pick the superior design when denied the right to know which circuit I am listening to. Secondly, should the amp be transparent? Or, should it rather reflect the designer’s personal opinion of what the sound should be like? And, if the amp reflects the designer’s point of view, that point of view may or may not be consistent with your own.

Eric Lauchli Without a good technical understanding and adherence to reasonable measurement standards, a truly fine amplifier is unlikely to result. Having said this, number chasing can be and often is sonically disastrous. I must admit to using a considerable degree of intuition while designing, though this mental process is difficult to fully explain. An elusive but important concept seems to be design elegance. This is a characteristic of designs solutions which are both simple and powerful, while yielding overall circuits that can be said to be much more than the sum of their individual parts.

Paul McGowan This is awfully tough for an old goat like me to answer because so many of my decisions, both technical and sonic, are based on my years of experience in both realms. Where the specific knowledge comes from (for a given situation), meters or sonic experience, is not always clear.

As an example, my sonic experience tells me not to use a lot of global feedback because I know that it will typically make the amps sound bright and hard. There are also very good technical arguments against excessive feedback as well (TIM, SID). However, it would be the sonic experience that would lead me to pursue a low feedback approach.

Still, measuring is a tool that I use in virtually every design that I undertake. I measure so that I am sure not to stray too far in any one direction. I make sure that the THD hasn’t strayed too far under load. I look for ringing on the square wave under different conditions. I keep an eye on the damping factor (to make sure that there’s enough). I measure frequency response to make sure that there are no anomalies. I look to be sure that the noise floor is low enough, etc. Still, I rarely use my instruments as part of my basic design decisions.

For me, designing an amplifier starts out as a philosophical exercise and develops into a product when I can come up with enough simple and elegant solutions to the problems inherent in the chosen philosophy. Philosophically, most of my designs come out of a desire to correct a fundamental question or problem. The things that interest me are the most basic problems of amps that may entail a bit of new thinking. I get excited when I attack fundamental problems.

Nelson Pass I care so little about subjective versus objective arguments that this is all I offer: Listening is a measurement, and in high end audio is the most important measurement. Not all the art is in what you hear, and not all the science is in what you measure.

QUESTION 2

Kevin Halverson As for simply picking three measurements, I must admit that I would not allow a product to go to market if I were allowed only three measurements. Each and every product should be evaluated based upon several factors including: intended application, design expectations, and most importantly a typically elusive path whereby prior measurements lead to new discoveries. No two products will ever undergo the exact same regiment of tests. Rather, each product, having an individual character, will require a different approach in order for the designer to feel confident that all aspects of the product’s performance meet the intent. I might also add that I strongly endorse the use of blind listening tests. While these can be very humbling experiences, I always come away with a greater sense of understanding and validation.

John Kovacich I would make all the standard measurements, then I would make some special ones that I feel reflect the real world a little better. First, I would use a square wave, not a sine wave, at the input and I would use an actual loudspeaker or an equivalent circuit for the load. I would measure the level of each harmonic at the input and then at the output (their amplitude as well as their phase). This test would show how the amp does under complex signal as well as complex load conditions. Then I would use an actual piece of music as the source and a loudspeaker for the load. The test would consist of measuring the input and the output using a simple null test. This test would show how the amp is doing under the most realistic of conditions.

Eric Lauchli The direct, simple and inherently linear nature of our designs make ordinary THD measurements surprisingly useful, particularly at high frequencies and with a distortion waveform displayed for careful examination. High frequency square wave testing, especially into reactive loads, can reveal much about an amplifier’s stability and composure under transient conditions. A plot of output impedance against frequency and power level can help predict if an amp will remain stable and linear into any load.

Paul McGowan Frequency response, square wave performance, distortion. Frequency response: It has been my experience that as long as there are little to no restrictions in frequency response between 2Hz and 50kHz that the ear will not detect any anomalies. Square wave performance: This, to me, has proven to be extremely valuable. I can tell all kinds of things from an amplifier’s square wave performance. Ringing of the square wave is a key to a number of mistakes that an amp can make especially when a capacitive load is added to the output. A spike on the square wave’s leading edge can also spell big sonic trouble if not addressed. Typically, this relates to some feedback type problems. Also, the actual quality of the square wave is important in how gently it maintains its shape when the frequency rises, etc. Distortion: I use a spectrum analyzer to view distortion products. If the distortion rises over 0.1%, I get concerned. Another factor is the harmonic structure of the components. Odd order harmonics do sound worse than even order products.

1994 High End Amp Designers Round Table Discussion

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was an unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and even needed to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, hanging with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we usually did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi and Dynavector XL that was back in Santa Clarita were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but I realized he was building it for me. “You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.” Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA. He always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?” “Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.” “Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, Brooks got out his price sheets and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so send me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me, he was a friend. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me like a breeze. I miss not playing many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great. Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say he was a friend of mine.

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO