Q&A: Alexander Arion (Audio Aficionado)

Alexander Arion’s resume lists stints as a musician, technician, service manager, and even owner of an “illegal” research company. In a recent interview he explained how the seeds for his love of music and audio technology were sown in communist Romania.

Below is an abridged version of Arion’s interview in audioXpress November 2012. The issue is now available.

SHANNON: Tell us about your youth. What was it like growing up in Communist Romania in the 1960s? How did this shape your interest in audio?

ALEXANDER: My Romanian youth, which passed away like a dream, had plenty of sad moments, but it had also times of joy and happiness. After World War II, in accordance with the Yalta Convention, Romania and other countries were “given” to Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union installed a very strong and inhuman regime forcing us to make many changes in our lives. The “Nationalization” (read as confiscation) of all the factories, farms, and in general all the assets and goods were placed in the State’s hands, and uncultured people were promoted to strong government positions.

I was a tall, thin, poor boy, living with my aristocratic grandmother in her house, which was situated in the center of Bucharest, the Romanian capitol. The house was seized by the Communist authorities, and soon new “neighbors” arrived and “made themselves at home.”

Having no income, my grandmother sold some family jewels and, at 14 years old, I went to work singing in some child choruses that participated in movies and theater plays. One day, I found a mysterious old instrument that looked like a guitar in my grandmother’s attic. I eventually started playing it in a nearby park and attracted people my age, especially girls! That was the beginning of a long and lovely musical career that led to audio electronics.

SHANNON: How did you first become interested in electronics?

ALEXANDER: In Romania, under the “Iron Curtain” of Communism, information was scarce because the Communist government was “protecting” the people from the “bad” Capitalist influences of the free world. Our musical “experience” was shaped by what was playing on the radio, which was limited to Romanian popular music, and a few Russian and Italian songs.

One day, a new movie came to town, and that was the start of my revelation. The movie was actually a musical called “The Young Ones” (1961), starring singer Cliff Richard. For the first time, I saw an actual band producing magnificent sounds. After the movie, I knew I wanted to play the electric guitar! I also wanted to build the guitar I saw in the movie, and I wanted it to have the same guitar sound I heard in the movie. But due to my lack of knowledge, I did not understand anything about construction, sound, or electronics, so it was time to go back to school.

Arion at Sony with colleagues

SHANNON: You have a degree in electronics engineering from The Technical University of Bucharest (Romania). What made you decide to go into electronics engineering?

ALEXANDER: Two friends and I decided to make an “illegal” laboratory and an “illegal company.” (Private businesses were not allowed in Communist Romania.) We established our business in my grandmother’s attic. It was a mystic place where we experimented with electronics and tried to build different things we needed. And, we needed a lot because nothing was for sale in local stores. Since no private labs were permitted, we lived in fear that the “Economic Militia” would come barging in and asking questions about the parts and materials we were using. We had some friends who provided us with the parts, mainly they were stolen from factories! Little by little, the attic lab became a professional lab. We took information about our next projects (e.g., amplifiers, guitar pick-ups, etc.) from Italian and French magazines we found.

Much later, I discovered an important book, the Audio Cyclopedia by Howard M. Tremaine (1959 edition) and things became much clearer to me. After high school, I attended an engineering technical school. After three years of study, I received my diploma and began working in the audio Hi-Fi field in a state-run cooperative for another three years. To gain a more technical knowledge, I decided to continue my studies, and after five years, I became a proud Diplomat Electronics Engineer.

But due to my social origin, all those years of school meant nothing because there were no engineering jobs for me in the state-controlled institutions. My ancestors were wealthy people, so I decided to leave my country…

SHANNON: What projects are you currently working on?

ALEXANDER: I’m working on an 811A single-ended power stage, which is a student’s small amp. Another SE project I have going is something called The Russian Connection Nr2. I am also working on an IPod/Bluetooth-compatible power stage.

SHANNON: Do you have any advice for audioXpress readers who are considering making audio technology improvements to their equipment?

ALEXANDER: Yes, only one thing. If you choose a hobby as a lifetime profession, then you must seriously pursue it because this may be the key to your happiness. I have many hobbies (e.g., tin toy soldiers molds, old tubes, and old stamps), but none of them were my life’s dream. That dream revolved around tube amplifiers and making music. So read and try to perfect yourself every day, and the results shall come.

SHANNON: Much has changed in audio technology during the past few decades. What changes do you consider positive? Any negative?

ALEXANDER: All changes could be considered  positive, but only after a lot of verification. Do not forget the controversial fights between analog and digital, tube and solid state, single ended versus push-pull, and many others.

With regard to the analog versus digital debate, in my opinion, it is preferable to maintain the “live situation” that analog provides as it happens, even with some mistakes, because life is full of them!

A good sound engineer, working in a modern recording studio, could easily correct all the faults with the help of a computer, but I like to hear the wrong slide a guitarist did on his guitar neck, someone coughing during a symphonic concert, and many other so-called mistakes. If that is how it happened, there is no need to erase the slight imperfections. That is life, so leave it alone!

And, don’t forget that many new musicians still like to record their songs in old and imperfect analog studios. My students are deeply convinced that the music of the 1960s will be ours, forever.

Refer to the audioXpress November for the rest of the interview.

AX November: Inside Audio: Loudspeakers for PCs, ESL Design, & the Tubes vs. Solid State

The first issue of Circuit Cellar magazine—a sister publication of audioXpress that’s focused on embedded computer engineering—was printed in 1988 with a now-famous quote on the cover: inside the box still counts. Since then, engineers and innovators have used the line to educate their nontechnical peers about the amazing technologies inside the devices they use every day. The line was on my mind as I chose articles for this issue. When it comes to audio systems like speakers and tube amps, the quality and design of the technologies inside the cabinets and enclosures are essential.

Turn to page 12 to learn about the technology Ton Giesberts implemented to improve his PC’s sound. It’s the first article in a series about an active loudspeaker system.

Two-way active speakers for your PC

On page 22, Giovanni Bianchi elucidates some theory, math, and science behind loudspeaker sound. He details the Linkwitz equalizer and its limitations, and then proposes a possible solution.

The inside the box theme continues with Mike Klasco and Steve Tatarunis’s article on ribbon and planar magnetic loudspeakers (p. 8). They provide thought-provoking details about topics ranging from “pure” ribbon topology to ribbon transducer manufacturing.

As usual, Vance Dickason puts a speaker to the test. This month he presents what he learned about Faital Pro’s FD371 bullet-type, high-SPL tweeter (p. 18).

Faital Pro FD371 bullet-type tweeter

For more about loudspeakers, check out Part 3 of Richard Mains’s series on experimenting with electrostatic speakers (p. 26).

Richard Mains mounted the ESL series resistance in the cabinet’s base

Richard Honeycutt wraps up the issue with “The Differences in Amp Sound” (p. 31). What goes on inside tube amps and solid-state amps matters. Richard weighs in on the debate that will likely keep audiophiles arguing for decades to come.

Munich High-End Audio Fair 2012

Did you make it to the 2012 Munich High-End Audio Fair? If not, don’t worry. Audio aficionado Ward Maas attended the event and took notes on the best products on display.

An abridged version of his report follows. The entire article appears audioXpress October 2012.

The 2012 Munich High End Audio Fair took place earlier than usual, running from May 3 to May 6, 2012 at the Munich Order Center (MOC). A total of 366 exhibitors from 33 countries represented more than 900 brands, and 4,427 visitors—a 4% increase over last year—came from more than 70 countries (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: The Munich fair drew 366 exhibitors.

All the ingredients were set for a fantastic happening, and it was. But, it differed somehow compared to prior years.

Some companies with well-known brands chose not to participate and new alliances were formed. There was also a great deal of competition among suppliers. For instance, the fair’s catalog listed seven pages of just connection cable and plug suppliers. There were also manufacturers, OEM suppliers, distributors, and sales houses competing for visitors by promoting everything from best products to best value for money to color.

There was also a change in the manner new products were offered. Some manufacturers chose to be more modest, just showing last year’s products. Luckily, quite a few other manufacturers also showed their new products.

New speaker Products

Backes & Mueller (www.backesmueller.de) is a company that has been on the scene for decades, but never seems to get the breakthrough it deserves. Not only is it very competent when it comes to technology, but it also has the know-how to produce extremely good-sounding loudspeakers. It is an “ear-opener” to hear a  voice in a familiar recording as “background mumbling” become clearly understandable. At the fair, Backes & Müller showcased its BMline100 speaker on the Atrium floor next to its listening room. I got the impression many visitors regarded the speaker as a piece of art, nicely matched with the MOC (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: The MB100

While the Backes & Mueller system was large, the new Nola Grand Reference Series VI was very large (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: Four-tower system with 23 drivers per side

Accent Speaker Technology (www.nolaspeakers.com) presented this massive four-tower system with 23 drivers per side is as a major upgrade to its previous system, which the company described as “breathtaking.” Of course, the external passive crossovers and the ball-bearing crossover isolation platforms  are also needed.

Silbatone (www.silbatoneacoustics.com) was apparently afraid someone was going to top last year’s gigantic system, so it brought an even larger system this year: a WE-15A horn set with field coil drivers, field coil tweeters, and a subwoofer that I mistook for a shielded crew area. I only discovered it to be a subwoofer when I left the room and saw an EV30 (one of two) in a window reflection. Yes, it sounded very pleasant, but I do not think a single system component will fit in my living room.

What will fit is the KEF LS50 mini monitor speaker, which is KEF’s 50th year anniversary product. Inside it is a coaxial driver similar to its “Blade” system. It has special cabinet damping, an optimized baffle shape, a nice price tag, and it sounds great. I’ve seldom heard a precise bass that low and loud from such a small system. This is definitely going to be a hit (www.kef.com).

It is easy to get overwhelmed attending a fair like this. So, sometimes a product or a company can get overlooked. Luckily, I did not overlook the products of ADN Acoustics (www.adnacoustics.com). A casted, aluminum thing on the floor of the booth, which turned out to be a loudspeaker system segment, was on the floor of its booth (see Photo 4).

Photo 4: Aluminum segment of speaker cabinet

A number of the segments are bolted together with a top and bottom plate to form a stack. A front plate is welded onto the stack, then sanded and polished to form a loudspeaker cabinet (see Photo 5).

Photo 5: ADN segments stacked to form a speaker cabinet

The walls are then filled with a special damping material. Using Scan-Speak drivers and Mundorf crossover parts, it has everything needed to form an interesting speaker. Unfortunately, ADN Acoustics did not demonstrate this system at the show. But, even ADN Acoustics’s smallest variant “The Secret” is a backbreaker, weighing 46 kg (101.2 lb) and measuring 57 cm (22.4″) a piece. Its larger brother “The Column” weighs 90 kg (198 lb) and is 110 cm (43.3″) high. It was interesting to see this Spanish high-end initiative.

Horn Systems

Of course, the horn systems always attract attention. This year, a few companies showed milled plywood horn systems. Among them were Cessaro (www.cessaro-horn-acoustics.com) and TuneAudio (www.tuneaudio.com), a Greek company that showcased its Anima. It was worth a look and a listen.

In the horn section, Autotech’s products (www.horns.pl) could not be overlooked. It makes a wide range of multilayer composite horns and waveguides. The standard version comes in white, but all RAL (a color-matching system used in Europe) colors are available on request. Also, for the DIYer, it offers products in eye-catching colors (see Photo 6).

Photo 6: Bright red Autotech horn

MSB Technology (www.msbtech.com) impressed me with a series of high-tech products. They were really showing  off the Platinum Signature DAC IV with its Space Shuttle ceramic tile-style casing for the clock oscillator, modular approach to inputs (just plug in the kind of input you need), and its ability to be updated in many aspects. I have to admit I loved it. Besides having impressive specifications, its appearance is impressive as well (see Photo 7).

Photo 7: MSB Technology’s Platinum Signature DAC IV

Just before the show ended, MSB Technology debuted its new “affordable” DAC, the Analog, which is “just” a black/natural-colored 22-mm aluminum slab, with a rather minimalist user interface (one button, one knob), but, what an impression. For me, it confirms this is one of the most prestigious new products on the block (see Photo 8).

Photo 8: The MSB “Analog”

Refer to the October issue for the complete article in which Maas also covers media players, future technology, and more.