Book Review: Audio Reality by Bruce Rozenblit
by Doug Schneider
I first met Bruce Rozenblit at HI-FI 96 held at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York City. His company, Transcendent Sound, had just begun manufacturing, and he was displaying his only product offering at the time -- his well-known output-transformerless (OTL) amplifiers. The designs were sort of surprising given that Rozenblit is a youngish-looking guy who appears to have graduated with a degree in electrical engineering not too long ago. Tubes, let alone employed in an OTL design, are hardly the stuff of new graduates. Still, it is an area that Rozenblit has studied and in which he can be considered an expert. As Ive found over the years, he has always followed his own lead.
Rozenblit continues to break away from the norm and now sells all of his products factory-direct. Hes been able to slash the prices on his OTL amps, produce a $799 preamp called the Grounded Grid that was awarded a SoundStage! Reviewers Choice designation, and he has just released a new 150Wpc push-pull amp, with tubes of course, priced at $999. Reportedly there are more products coming in the future. In the meantime, he produced this book. Suffice it to say, he is a busy guy.
Bruce Rozenblit is like a number of design engineers Ive met. He has a knack for telling it like it is. His communication is, in a word, straightforward. Some would even say hes blunt. Ask him a question he feels qualified to answer, and you will get an answer. Whether you like the answer of not, Rozenblit will not mince words and he will get right to the point. His personality is reflected in this book.
"Its pretty controversial stuff," Rozenblit said as if to prep me for material that I didnt want to see. I wasnt too worried and told him to just "send it along." A few days later the book landed in my mailbox. I cracked open the envelope and slid my hands over the shiny cover, impressed by the glossy finish. Rozenblits company, despite being small, financed the publication of the book, and its a very professional effort.
Audio Reality is comprised of two parts. The first is called "Audio Science," which is a mixture of Rozenblits own design experience along with engineering-based explanations intended to enlighten and educate readers. Through some 60 pages of text and graphics, Rozenblit explains basic concepts for understanding audio engineering, including descriptions of electricity, conductors, resistance, capacitors, inductors, impedance, skin effect, etc. He also explains things like single-ended and balanced connections, negative feedback, dynamic range, power cords, grounding, biwiring and quite a bit more. The topics I mention here are only a fraction of what gets discussed. The information is intended for all audiophiles, to give them a requisite understanding of the science that is part of audio.
I praise Rozenblit for doing a very good job of explaining these concepts in laymens terms. He uses simple language and effective examples. There was not a single part that confused me, nor will any of it likely confuse others. Its target audience is obviously those who have little or no knowledge of electronics. While you wont come out an expert in electrical design, you will certainly understand the inner-workings of your equipment a lot better.
If there is something to criticize in this it is the fact that Rozenblit jams so much of this information in that it can be a tad difficult to absorb fully. Ideas sometimes stray, and much more information gets presented than the section headings would indicate. You can almost hear his enthusiasm when explaining, resulting in the need to re-read paragraphs and just soak it all in. Its a little overwhelming at times, and I feel a little more editing and further division of content could have helped readability. But like I already said, there may be a lot, but it is presented for easy understanding. Besides, I find it all the more important to have the information than not. Excess is welcome in this case. On the other hand, there were some subjects omitted that I would have liked to see included. For example, he refers to "break-in" when talking about his amplifiers in part two of the book, but I would have like to have seen him address the concept specifically in the first part. Perhaps an Audio Reality 2 will surface in the future.
The supposed controversy lies in Rozenblits comments as he is explaining the audio concepts. Some comments will win the hearts of budget-based audiophiles -- he emphatically states that "Cost does not directly relate to performance." and "A superior design is one that achieves outstanding results at a lower cost." He also professes to go against established doctrine. For example, he discusses why he feels negative feedback in amplifier design can be a good thing, but the marketing of some amplifiers would tell you otherwise! The truth is, as he explains, there are no easy right and wrong answers, and one way is not always the best.
Some comments will ruffle your feathers, particularly in regard to cables. Frankly, though, this is no real surprise because cables have been a source of constant debate. The part of the discussion I enjoyed was that which covered single-ended versus balanced lines. Rozenblit emphatically states on the subject of balanced cables: "How does this apply to a residential-based, consumer audio system? It doesnt." He goes on to explain that what you think is a balanced connection may surprise you -- it may be just a connector used for balanced connections, but implemented in a single-ended fashion. He also discusses the intricacies of RCA connectors ("..more times than not, whenever you see gold there is nickel underneath"), spade lugs and even the plastic binding post with some interesting conclusions and recommendations. Its clear that he is not a fan of the high-priced accessory market, nor is he a fan of components whose hype overshadows common sense. Instead, he explains that achieving good sound does not necessarily have to cost a lot of money and that "99% of the sonic characteristics reside in the design." He doesnt dispute that some products cost a considerable amount to produce, particularly with first-rate cosmetics, build quality and the most esoteric parts. But he does question the need to go that far. These comments are only the tip of the iceberg to give a flavor of whats in the book; youll have to read it to get it all.
Some may think that Rozenblit is anti-high-end, but that is hardly the case. After all, the guy designs tube-based equipment, and as we approach the millennium, I would think that some current-day engineering grads could take issue with that! What I gleaned from the book is that its writer is not anti-high-end and not a designer who feels that everything sounds the same. Rather, he attempts to give explanations as to why differences may occur and gives practical explanations on where money is well-spent in an audio system. Its not a definitive book on the subject, but it is a very worthwhile attempt to explore what were hearing from a designers point of view and with sound engineering practices as background. The real point of the book is to point out that you can build a truly outstanding system for a very moderate investment through a thorough understanding of the components involved. Rozenblits own designs are decidedly no-frills affairs. Do you want cost-no-object build quality and construction, or do you want something that will get you most of the way there? Thats Rozenblits reality.
So in the end is the content really controversial? I dont thing so. But that does not mean it is not inflammatory -- you can see the same discussion incite arguments elsewhere on a regular basis. This is all information that many talk about daily, particularly on the Internet newsgroups and bulletin boards where worldwide communication is very quick and efficient. However, it is also the kind of information that is vital in this industry, that keeps it alive, interesting and progressing.
Part two of the book is "Projects," and it is as valuable a read as the first part. It is here that Rozenblit explains all of his current designs, including his OTL amps, Grounded Grid Preamp, Super Compact 150-watt amplifier and even throws in a couple designs that he is not building commercially -- the Single-Ended with Slam amplifier and Grounded Grid Cascode Phono preamp. He leaves nothing to hide, feeling that anyone who wants to see his circuits can just look inside his products anyway. A full parts list is disclosed along with the circuit design; however, this information is intended for the experienced builder because Audio Reality is not a how-to book.
While the book gives some fairly thorough background and theory on these designs, it is not a paint-by-numbers instruction manual on building them. The circuits are fully drawn and documented, but will only be understood by someone already well-versed in electronics. Basic instructions on chassis design, wiring and component mounting are given, but these are not intended as directions for a kit because the information is nowhere near explicit enough. I would imagine experienced DIY hobbyists will consider taking a crack at these designs, but novices will have to leave them alone and be satisfied with just reading what theyre about. I would personally like to see Rozenblit produce a straightforward how-to book with exact details on how to build each product from start to finish. Or perhaps he can supply his own products in kit form!
Part two is also, obviously, a chance for him to promote his company and his products (he says so in the book). If you are impressed with the description of the products and you are like me and not inclined to build equipment like this, you will readily fork out the $799 for the Grounded Grid preamp or $999 for the Super Compact 150-watt amplifier to have it built for you and done right! The price is already very reasonable.
I joke to people that Ive made a lifelong career out of education. I cant remember a year since I was five years old that I havent sat in a classroom taking some sort of course. In fact, Im starting a new course this week that will take me through the spring/summer semester. Am I killing my summer? Hardly. The truth is, I view courses and books as knowledge, and I enjoy learning. While I may not always agree with everything thats presented to me, I find it best to hear it first before I make up my mind. Ignorance may be bliss, but enlightenment is more rewarding.
Surely not everyone is going to agree with all of whats presented in this book, but you should to read it before passing judgment. Audio Reality presents educational information that can undoubtedly be found in other text books on electronics. However, whats key here is that all explanations are presented in a context that pertains specifically to audio. Rozenblits own insight and views are undoubtedly eye-opening and interesting, and he will likely win some supporters while he makes some enemies. The details on his designs are worth reading about, particularly if you plan to buy one of his products. I certainly learned quite a bit in the short time it took me to read through Audio Reality. In this hobby where products cost hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars, $29.95 plus a bit of reading time (perhaps while you are listening to your current audio system) seems almost insignificant and will likely be a very sound investment.
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