Inside Track: Bill Low, Audioquest Interview
Audioquest's charismatic founder and CEO, William E. Low, was in Sydney recently and StereoNET's Tom Waters had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with him to ask a few questions…
On the fortieth anniversary of US-based cable company AudioQuest, it was a pleasure to sit down and speak with its founder William E. Low. I jumped straight in at the deep end by asking him why he got into this business in the first place, all those years ago. “Well, it was the only area of hi-fi where customers could spend $20 and say, “wow, that made a difference!” Many of the retailers around Los Angeles back then would call me and ask to sell my cables. Our very first one was actually designed by Dave Gore, based on an idea by Martin Colloms published in Hi-Fi News magazine back in 1977. This, in turn, was prompted by ideas of Jean Hiraga of L'Audiophile France fame.”
William Low (1980)
Bill says it was based on finely stranded Litz cable, which seemed to confer a sonic advantage. “I was invited in to be a co-buyer – which I did – and we put our plugs on the end and produced our very first loudspeaker cable. So I soon had a distributor in Japan, one in Hong Kong and a few dealers – these were people who'd heard my cable and wanted to sell it. So I thought, “well hey, I should make cable for the purpose of selling it!” I was more a retailer than a manufacturer, but in 1981 I went to the Las Vegas CES show as an exhibitor, and one month later I had dealers in thirty-five US states and nineteen countries…”
“I did long cross-country drives back then”, he remembers. “There was a city every two hundred miles, and I'd show up at a store that had never heard of me, and set-up my $99 boom box. Within twenty minutes, I'd be sitting with the manager sharing the process of comparing cable. They'd listen and say, “wow, that's cool, I can sell that.” That was possible because they had actually heard it. The market was very fertile back then. 1978 in the US was the peak. Today, some dealers tell me not to bother them, saying “I don't need it. My customers aren't complaining or returning what I'm selling them now, so why should I change?” To them, it doesn't matter if your product is twice as good. To them, there's no problem to be fixed.”
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
This presents a problem because AudioQuest has become a victim of its own success. Nowadays, the cable market is saturated and there's so much choice, so how does Bill cut-through? “The simple answer is by taking it to the streets. What I did with the boom box was to address the perception that you needed an expensive hi-fi to spot the difference. I found that when people heard the difference on a less expensive system, the emotional reaction was much more compelling. We still do that today, taking an inexpensive system out to dealers. One of our biggest customers is Dish Satellite, which sells a $20 HDMI cable with every installation, but also offers a $40 HDMI cable from AudioQuest. They sell twice as many of the latter, because the customer can hear the difference.”
To this end, Bill is a great believer in people's lived experience, rather than an appeal to authority. “Credibility doesn't come from receiving 'the facts', because the person receiving those facts doesn't know if they are credible. They know only by experiencing it. All marketing requires you to make some upfront assumptions, and they then sell you the logic of why something is better, and at the end ask, “doesn't that make sense?” Often though, the upfront 'facts' you started with were totally wrong but they trick you to ignore that. Again, the customer really knows something is better by actually experiencing it, not by being told something is better…”
His love of simple demonstrations reflects his dislike of the politics surrounding cables. “The phenomenon of religion and belief and science is thousands of years old, and includes the human spectrum of people that believe complete garbage and those that won't believe obvious truths. That's why I still get people telling me that hi-fi cables don't make a difference. This isn't an argument you can win. Rather, it's a matter of belief systems – and some people will not believe obvious truths if they don't conveniently fit into their belief system. It's true that there are audio accessories out there that are pretty ridiculous, and these then get used by people who don't want to believe in anything, to prove that it's all snake oil.”
Bill says the truth is that we don't yet really know how or what to measure with cables. “Life is permanently scary – we were scared of ABX testing, the San Andreas Fault, etc. It is extremely comforting for humans to know what they're afraid of when they're already afraid. We choose what to be scared of. The phenomenon of the naysayers is those people that have chosen to not believe, to be fearful of something that doesn't fit into their belief system. The smartest people are always open, whereas the worker bees tend to live within the world that they've learned. Science is the investigation of the unknown, and engineering is the application of the known. And yet engineers will call the audio people unscientific for saying that something like skin-effect is relevant! It's relevant of course because of inductance and phase shift.”
I put it to Bill that the problem with cables is that we have no standard by which to measure and compare them. “Well, yes and no”, he replies. “What you say is applicable to all components in audio, not just cabling. Loudspeakers are usually the most measured, and the most in need of it. Vandersteen has correlated a number of factors by listening and measuring which he then uses in speaker design. It's allowed him to design by measurement, and he then uses listening to validate. Peter Walker of Quad famously believed that measuring was good enough – you didn't have to listen. But something as seemingly simple as skin-effect… well, we don't know how to measure it! The inductance and impedance increases as you go away from the surface of the conductor. A great deal of the signal is on the surface of the conductor, and suffers no dispersion over time except relative to other conductors and the capacitance and inductance of the cable. But the signal at the surface has 100% current density at all frequencies. There is less and less energy as you go into the centre of the conductor.”
He continues. “Smear is also something we're unable to measure. We don't really know what to measure, and the how to measure may become an issue once we learn the what. Group delay is measurable. And that gentle smearing across time is very noticeable to the ear. The gauge of each conductor results in characteristic perceivable changes – when you get up to a millimetre thickness then odd things happen – it's a perceptual roller-coaster. The upper midrange becomes a little forced and pushed, the body of the bass is missing a bit, but it's very tight. The overall sound is an intellectual construct – this roller-coaster isn't a result of the frequency response, it's the brain. We see a fraction of the world, but it's presented to us seamlessly in what is an intellectual construct, not reality. It's based on reality, but it's not reality.”
Garth Powell, Director of AudioQuest's Power Division
Bill moves on to the technology behind AudioQuest's new Zero power cords. “One of the things that took me a while to understand was directionality. In the nineties, I theorised with Charlie Hansen of Ayre that the effect was perhaps due to diode-rectification. Back then, there were many questions about it. Then Garth Powell came to AudioQuest, and with his extreme curiosity and intelligence, and experience with RF noise, figured out the mechanism — which dovetailed perfectly with the evidence Charlie and I had noted in the mid-nineties. The mechanism is impedance, not rectification. Garth designed all our power products and is responsible for Zero tech and Ground-Noise Dispersion. He had the technology figured out as a teenager.”
“In 1976, Polk Audio imported the Cobra cable from Japan”, Bill remembers. “It was a woven Litz cable, very high capacitance and characteristic impedance of 9. It was based on the idea of impedance matching. I'm not an engineer but I thought that was ridiculous. The idea that you could have no characteristic impedance was off my radar. Garth explained it, it is very simple. The key to this being a zero cable is that the positive and negative are both coaxes with shields connected at one end. It eliminates the dialectic interaction. Our new Zero has two main cables inside, each with multiple conductors. Of course, 'Zero Technology' is a marketing name, you cannot have zero characteristic impedance, but you can have no characteristic impedance. If a cable has no characteristic impedance then you eliminate any mismatch.”
Bill says the sonic benefit is of unimpeded current flow. “You hear that as a thump-thump in the bass power of the music. You feel it in the gut, you think it's louder but it's not. It's quieter because there is less background noise, louder because the dynamic contrast is better preserved. Our concern isn't how much energy goes into the dialectic, but how much comes out of it. That is noise, a concept that has become the core of AudioQuest. There's something I call the 'funhouse effect' when you see yourself in a distorted mirror and recognise yourself – providing the data isn't too damaged. But it's badly damaged then your brain shuts down and no longer recognises you. The latter can happen with delayed energy caused by skin-effect, but with our Ground-Noise Dispersion system we've been able to more effectively mitigate this to 'do less harm.'”
William E. Low (left), Tom Waters (right)
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The trade name of AudioQuest was registered in April 1980, but Bill says he was making cable back in 1978, and before that was selling hi-fi separates. “To me, it is just one continuum. I'm a bit cynical about anniversaries and the like – especially when marketing departments get involved. They want to make 'limited editions' to charge more and make something exclusive. And of course, if you made something good forty years ago, then that doesn't mean you're making anything good today! So I never design anything for a show or an anniversary. Products are ready when they're ready. The need for a new product is driven by whether I can make something better. There will probably be a little '40th-anniversary' logo off in the corner of our website and literature to acknowledge the event. In truth, I worry that some people will think that a company that's been around for forty years is old-fashioned. But hopefully, more people will think that longevity is more of a benefit than a liability!”
“Our world of audio seems weirder than others”, opines Bill. “We have more renegades and it is not held accountable. Audio manufacturers don't benchmark. Manufacturers of almost any other product would benchmark against the competition. Audio manufacturers, for the most part, have never even heard of who they're competing with. Our world is one where the better mousetrap does not win. There are peculiar sensibilities in our little universe – in Japan, for example, it takes you five years to prove that you even have the right to exist! So to the Japanese, on our fortieth anniversary we have just reached adolescence!”
Is Bill going to get a proper job one day? “Well, I do sometimes catch myself thinking, “when I am going to grow up and get out of the hi-fi business?” It's like I personally never got a job and never grew up. Actually, I turned down what was potentially a fifty million dollar buyout deal back in 2008. When I saw the clauses and conditions of sale I thought, why am I going to do that? That made me think what I'd do. I could put money away in savings which I've never had, so that I could start another business that might fail. So I thought, no, I'm better off doing what I'm doing, I can enjoy myself – even if someday I might have no choice but to retire. Right now though, my life is a working vacation. I work every day, no matter where I am. I never wanted to get a job, I never planned a company, and I've never had a business plan. I now have 139 people I work for – yes, I work for them! – with 37 people in the Netherlands, 80-plus in Irvine, and 4 in Asia.”
Twenty years ago, business was shrinking, causing Bill Low to joke that “just so long as I die before all my customers!” Now though, he says the audio-visual industry is growing in the USA – and will continue to do so for the next two decades. However things turn out, expect this dynamo of a man to be there making the case for serious sound and vision for as long as he possibly can.
Tom has been into audio since he was a teenager, making it a long time ago now! He’s interested in jazz, blues, folk/rock and classical and high-end HiFi. He’s the past president of the Sydney Audio Club – a passion he recently gave up after 8.5 years. He’s now concentrating more on reviewing and the interviewing side of audio.
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