It’s been a big year for AudioQuest, which has usually been thought of as a maker of audio and video interconnects and cables. In 2015 it launched its new lines of headphones and power filters, and released the second phase of its digital source devices. Earlier this year, I spent a day at AudioQuest’s headquarters, in Irvine, California. In the company’s listening room, I was treated to a demonstration of a prototype version of what has since become AQ’s flagship power filter, the Niagara 7000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System. I also talked with Skylar Gray, Director of Ear-Speaker Products; Garth Powell, Director of Power Products; and Bill Low, Founder and CEO/Chief Designer. All three, along with AQ stalwart Joe Harley, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, share a palpable passion for music and the playback of recordings of music, and each has an independent vision of what is still to be achieved in high-performance audio systems that complements the visions of the other three.
Over the course of more than two hours, the final conversation of the day, with Bill Low, took a circuitous and utterly fascinating route. The full transcript of that interview approaches 20,000 words, and comprises a mash-up of philosophical discussion, history lessons in the development and maturation of the audio industry and AudioQuest’s place in it, and a snapshot of where AQ stands today. I’ve divided the most germane portions of my discussion with Low into three parts: this month’s installment, Part One, goes into the founding of AudioQuest and the hi-fi industry it became a part of. Part Two delves deeper into the relationships among humans, music, and audio equipment, how companies like AQ can enhance those relationships, and the evolution of AQ over the past 35 years. Finally, Part Three focuses on Low’s addition to his company of necessary talents as Gray and Powell, and AQ’s entry into new markets with the NightHawk headphones and the Niagara line of power filters.
Peter Roth: I’m interested in how AudioQuest, a mature cable company, has become something that is no longer merely a maker of audio cables. Rather, AQ seems now to be a platform for bringing to the music lover products in both established and new categories. But while I’d like to better understand where AQ is headed, let’s start by talking about what you’ve historically attempted to achieve with AudioQuest, and where your current goals are taking you. What is AudioQuest, and how did you get here?
Bill Low: What is AudioQuest? The short answer is “Consumer Electronics and Audio -- Primarily Cable.” Have you heard of HDMI? More than half of our business is currently HDMI cable, which followed component-video cable (which had been huge), which in turn followed S-video cable as a pretty significant part of the business. Not until HDMI, however, did the video side exceed audio cable as more than 50% of our cable business. AudioQuest, at the scale it is today, wouldn’t be possible without some of the large merchants’ need for “attachment” cable. It is called “attachment” on the business side, because people don’t typically go to the store to buy an HDMI cable, but instead only buy a video cable when they buy a TV (therefore referred to as an “attachment” sale). We are a tail being wagged by a much bigger dog. At retail, when someone goes to a store to buy a TV, they need to hook it up with an HDMI cable. That’s the opportunity. Do they decide to buy a good one or a not good one?
But I love the implication of your question about AudioQuest being a company that is rapidly changing. It certainly is an observant, reasonable, and logical view of our company, which appears to be changing, or requiring a change in the definition of what it is. But actually, that’s not true. AudioQuest has always been the exact same company, just not on the same scale. Joe Harley’s officially been a part of AudioQuest since 1983, and was actually introduced to AudioQuest even before there was an AudioQuest. He was a customer of my appointment-only shop in Santa Monica.
Joe Harley: Was that 1979 or 1980? When was that?
BL: When you came to buy a metal record mat from me, late ’78 or early ’79. That was still in apartment 607, before I moved to 706, in a high-rise apartment building in Santa Monica. In 1980, I moved to the Pacific Palisades. That is when Joe joined the fray as an “in home” independent assembler of AudioQuest cable.
JH: I still had my day job, and then in the evenings I was sitting with a solder pot making cable.
BL: In those early days, cables were the first products -- two products, in fact, both speaker cables. An interconnect followed, then a second interconnect. In 1983, I introduced phono cartridges. In 1984 and 1985, phono cartridges were half of AudioQuest’s business. Through the 1980s we had liquid stylus cleaners, a vibrating stylus cleaner, headshell leads (essentially the same leads we still sell), a record mat, and a cartridge demagnetizer.
My original plan was simply just wanting to be self-employed. I didn’t plan a company, I didn’t have something in particular I wanted to achieve, other than perceived control of my destiny.
Recently, I did a couple of little videos for a German magazine called Fidelity, and they have their standard three questions, the first of which is “What does the brand stand for?” As simple as that question sounds -- and I have had some opportunity to answer that type of question before -- each time allows me to realize some bit of improved perspective. The basic answer is that AudioQuest is a cable company because people primarily think of it as a cable company, and cable is most of what we make, but cable just happened to be the category that I fell into at that time of my life. It was not a plan, it was me having my eyes open and being aware that there was an opportunity. So I began making cable for my store, and then other stores wanted to buy my cable because they wanted something better than what was otherwise available in the market. It took me two years of making cable only for my shop before I realized I should make cable for the purpose of selling it to other stores.
As for the design of the cables themselves, there are so many things we now hold as tenets of good design which we want to prove, or make visible, through our now-classic demonstration with a boom box. Through our shared evaluations, a term we meaningfully prefer over demonstration, we are able to isolate the variables and make them aurally visible: stranded vs. solid; parallel vs. spiral; metal quality; dielectric involvement. Each shared evaluation is a controlled, single-variable experiment. Normally, when people compare one brand of cable to another, there might be a hundred differences in design particulars and in materials, even though there are only one or two things that brand has publicly identified as important. The listener has no real basis for understanding, other than simply buying into the advertising. That doesn’t mean that the brands are wrong, or lying, but the listener can’t really know. You take it on faith: “I like that thing, so it must be because it has no feedback, or . . . whatever has been identified as the thing.”
We set out to lay bare the fundamentals through our cable presentations. Yes, we happen to use mostly AudioQuest cables, except for the first one, because I’ve made a line of cables, many of which change only one variable at a time. Therefore, one can hear the change due to each variable. The distinctions have been shown to be universal truths, not limited to AudioQuest designs. Does metal make a difference? Does solid vs. stranded make a difference? Does geometry make a difference? Most of those were things I didn’t have an opinion about when I started making cable.
I fell into a lucky accident when originally playing with custom cables. Together with another dealer, down south in Anaheim (when I was still up in Santa Monica), we were stirring up the water to get a custom cable created. They invited me to join them on the first run of a custom cable I call “original recipe.” It wasn’t my design, but it was a great starting point, and from there I’ve incrementally evolved. I’ve had many accidents (not in the negative sense of having fallen down and broken a leg), but accident in the sense of an unplanned experience that taught me something.
A friend of mine, Randy Hooker of RH Labs, used to manufacture subwoofers, and I represented his product. It was a giant thing that used to fill my station wagon, which I drove all over Southern California, back in my days as a failure of an independent rep. I was horrible as a rep. An independent rep doesn’t have enough control over what they sell. I was OK as a retailer, because I could buy what I liked. I’m OK as a manufacturer, because I won’t make it if I don’t like it. But it’s very hard to be an independent rep, because you can’t get your favorite products, and then you’re supposed to sell the whole line, and very few whole lines are worth selling -- and a rep who advocates “cherry picking” is going to lose representing the line.
Randy asked me if I would take four of the conductors (of which there were two in one of the two cables I sold) and put them together in a single four-conductor spiral so that there would be a single cable that he could sell with his subwoofer. I said sure, and made the cable. I then listened to the resulting cable, and compared that four-conductor spiral against two twisted pairs, same exact conductors (four each) but in two different geometries. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything different, but I had the opportunity, so why not listen? Wow -- the single four-conductor spiral was noticeably superior to two twisted pairs, between the same amp and speaker at the same volume. That’s the day that I learned that geometry makes an important difference.
I then had some different samples made -- with six conductors, and eight conductors, and ten conductors -- trying to determine what makes a difference and what doesn’t make a difference. Through this type of methodology, I started laying down some of the early fundamentals for the AudioQuest cable-design approach. That very first “original recipe” cable was made for us by a company that specialized in the medical equipment field, most of their medical-related cables being miniature Litz cables. Our larger, 12-gauge speaker cable used individually insulated strands of magnet wire in an official Litz arrangement, which means every strand has the same average skin effect over length as every other strand, rather than what happens in a normal “bunch” or “rope-lay” of strands. Overall, the cable had white nylon thread wrapped around the two conductors, which was kind of ugly and kind of stiff, but hey, that’s how they made their cables, so we went with it. Then we had the thought to make it pretty, and so we put a clear PVC jacket on it, and it looked pretty -- you could see the red enamel on one side, clear on the other. Then, provoked by Monster Cable -- their finely stranded 12-gauge cable was much more flexible than our comparatively stiff one -- we specified making a batch with a softer jacket. Why not? We can be flexible and ergonomically friendly, too. We received the resulting run of cables and, without really thinking about it, started to sell it and started to use it.
Jerry Axelrod, who still owns Systems Design Group in the South Bay [of Los Angeles], was a speaker manufacturer at the time, and he asked if I could bring over some cable to consider if he should use it inside his speakers. For the test, we would simply work “outside” his speakers, using my speaker cable between amp and speaker. In those days, before Compact Discs and before widespread implementation of remote control, people often had their electronics and turntable over by the listening position and ran 25’ speaker cables to get to the speakers, so that is what I brought in. Only once [I was] in his room did I realize Jerry had a central setup, with the equipment in between the speakers. So we compared my 25’ cables to the 10’ Monster cables he was using, and mine sounded a whole lot better. That was great, but knowing that longer speaker cables always sound worse -- a fact of life, no matter what the design: shorter speaker cable sounds better, less out-of-focus -- I went back out to my car and dug up a 10’ pair of cables. I had already won, but I am competitive, and wanted to win by an even bigger margin in a 10’ vs. 10’ cable battle. But my 10’ cables weren’t as good as my 25’ cables! That was weird, and embarrassing -- although still better than Monster, so I was OK. Wow, what happened? What was different? What was different was the jacket. The cable with the soft jacket sounded boomy and diffuse compared to the cable with the hard PVC jacket, which had sounded the same as the tight nylon wrap. That was the day I learned about mechanical stability. These happy accidents really paved our road.
PR: It sounds like the audio world of the late 1970s and early ’80s was an exciting one of discovery and growth.
BL: AudioQuest, despite being a fairly old company, is still simply practicing the exact same philosophy and way of life that, to my generation of upstarts, was considered the only honest way to be in the audio business. This was not unusual for an audio venture started in the late 1970s. There was, in the air that I and my peer group were breathing back in the ’70s and ’80s, a sense of “Let’s go find the good stuff and sell it to people!” It was evident in the kind of dealers who attended the Consumer Electronics Shows in Chicago even prior to 1978, when the specialty audio community finally became an official part of CES, and then afterward, when specialty audio was located at the Americana Congress and, later, the Hilton. There we found a group of semi-autonomous manufacturers who were self-differentiating based on how they thought they would earn a position in the market. The common ground was a belief that “I’ve got a better mousetrap, please pay attention!”
Dealers like myself, before AudioQuest, would go to the Bismarck, the Drake, whatever hotel in Chicago was playing host, and we’d ask each other, “What have you seen?” “What have you heard?” “Where should I go next?” and “What is important?” There was the pull of a healthy, growing market. That era was about the peak of the fertility of the soil underlying the audio industry. The audio business continued to grow for another ten years after 1978, but that was the peak, when normal people just wanted a hi-fi. What we now think of as the high-end community was built by those consumers, and some of us took it more seriously and got into the business. That business grew very healthfully for the next ten years, until 1988. Fewer people may have been “coming in” to audio from ’78 to ’88, but the value systems, the lifestyles that had evolved in the 1970s, fed the audio business as those people graduated, got jobs, and earned enough to improve their hi-fi system.
The de facto, alternative-culture, album-oriented music aesthetic was marijuana (other than alcohol, which has been the world’s most popular imbibed drug, probably, depending upon where you are in the world). Pot definitely fed the audio business -- whether an individual smoked or not, the relationship to music that pot fostered was a universal, whether at a dorm-room gathering listening to Firesign Theater, or at an off-campus party. There were a lot of stories about the relationship between how marijuana affects people, and the likelihood of them wanting to buy a hi-fi. In today’s movies, teenagers to old ladies all get the munchies when they smoke, I suppose in part because watching people lie around absorbed by music isn’t so interesting. Cocaine, by contrast, gave us disco, and hardly anyone bought a hi-fi to listen to disco.
Things are always changing in the culture. I was an adolescent when I first referred to the audio business as perpetually adolescent. Ever since I got into audio, it was certainly past its childhood, but it’s never been mature -- it’s stuck in permanent adolescence. The value system of going out, finding the best stuff, and recommending it to people reflected what we hi-fi dealers needed to do to stay alive. The dealers at the time were basically a bunch of self-employed people. If they had a successful store, they may even have had a few employees. But the manager was the storeowner, and audio was essentially their job. It wasn’t the result of people going to Harvard Business School and developing business plans and being told to go into hi-fi the way Dustin Hoffman was told to go into plastics in The Graduate. Hi-fi was never on that list. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t had opportunities, but it’s a comparatively small business that is very difficult and very turbulent. It’s certainly not a traditional investment opportunity.
When AudioQuest was growing from a $125k company its first year to $250k the next year, on up every year for quite a while, I certainly learned that scale makes a difference. We’re certainly seeing the benefits of scale today, in terms of our ability to hire amazing people like Garth and Skylar and give them two to three years before having anything to sell. That requires scale. But the value system behind doing that, as unusual as it is, is exactly the same value system that I inherited, from the air that I breathed in the 1970s. Also, it’s a youthful thing, being a bit more idealistic. That never goes out of fashion, although quite a few people from that era did “grow up” and stopped playing out the agenda of trying to “save the world from bad hi-fi” (as it’s sometimes pejoratively described). There is a lot of pendulum swinging; it’s not just peculiar to our industry, but that’s where it is most visible to me. The kid is doing it for fun, but then he grows up and needs to support a family, pay the mortgage, get serious, and pay attention to business. Unfortunately, many throw out their original ideals, those basic values, and become cynical. “I can’t afford to think that way,” they may say, as they lock themselves into a room and crunch the numbers. Most of them go out of business anyway, partly because the business is turbulent, but also because if you become disconnected from the motivation of your customers, you’re likely to become disconnected from your customers.
PR: The statistics certainly show that running a small business is hard. It’s a challenge to balance all aspects, and most small businesses do fail.
BL: Big and small businesses fail. If you look at the history of the [New York Stock Exchange] and which companies comprise the Dow Jones Industrials, it’s constantly changing. There is always opportunity for new ideas and new people. Old businesses may not be inherently disadvantaged, but they often are prisoners to their success.
PR: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of relationships, and the understanding of those relationships, to having an effective presence in the hi-fi industry.
BL: We as manufacturers don’t sell to consumers, we sell to dealers, and so the products we make must be useful tools for dealers to practice their trade. If we are trying to sell dealers a Phillips-head screwdriver but nobody has Phillips-head screws, then the tools we offer are useless to the dealers. Our value in the marketplace is actually not so much determined by consumers but by the retailer. Obviously, without consumers, you die. But if there isn’t a retailer who can communicate a product’s value to a consumer -- unless it already has clientele asking for exactly that product -- it is just going to lie there. The world’s best mousetrap that nobody wants is useless, and nobody is going to buy it.
There needs to be a continuity, and I’ve always thought there should be a far greater continuity between the reviewing process, the consumer buying process, and the dealer buying process than there is. In my mind, all three have exactly the same basic job: “Find the best stuff and do something about it!” The reviewer should write about it, the dealer should sell it, and some of the consumers should buy it. The differences between the three agendas -- what the consumer wants to buy, what the dealer wants to sell to the consumer, and what the reviewer writes about -- will never stop bothering me, because they really are surprisingly different agendas. A magazine has to sell subscriptions -- it has a physical product to sell. SoundStage! Network being exclusively online changes things somewhat.
An audio magazine exists primarily to entertain. Also, to a degree, a magazine is a cumulative buying guide. I believe Stereophile’s numbers still show it sells more April and October issues. Why? Because they include “Recommended Components” in those two issues. No matter how hard John Atkinson insists “Recommended Components” is not a buying guide, that is why it sells. My version of a buying guide is that all magazines, Internet or print, are a cumulative buying guide to the extent that, when a customer is ready to act, there is a knowledge base that helps them have the confidence to act. Following the decision to act, and then determining what it is they might want, the key is identifying a dealer worth asking for a recommendation, which is always more important than anything they can read. That is not to belittle what is written, but what is always most important is finding a dealer who puts themselves on the line, making themselves responsible to the customer for their happiness.
I’m always telling customers it doesn’t really matter what brand of cable your dealer sells, as long as your dealer establishes and practices a healthy customer-dealer relationship. When all is right with the world, the dealer takes on responsibility for your happiness, and if you’re not happy . . . that dealer will work with you to ensure that you do become happy. In that context, the particulars of the brands and the hardware are irrelevant. People have been enjoying reproduced music since the worst-sounding hi-fi was invented. They aren’t going to enjoy music any more ten years from now, when hi-fi is hopefully better than it is today. The human ability to experience enjoyment is a constant, unaffected by the quality of the hardware. That doesn’t make the hardware irrelevant, but it is a local or “learned” phenomenon that one piece of equipment is a good value and another piece is a lousy value. It is a matter of context, and the context does evolve.
The relationship between humans and music? Lifestyles evolve, but the ability to be turned on and get high on music is constant. Music is the world’s favorite recreational drug -- since music was invented, probably. And music as a drug has, including from what we know of tribal societies, often been associated with other drugs. It seems music is part of a common desire for humans to feel good, in whatever form that takes. Joggers become addicted to the chemical rush that comes with running. Some people become addicted to stress, when their internal chemistry is such that they crave stress. We are consciously and unconsciously manipulating ourselves to make ourselves feel good in every way that we, consciously or unconsciously, know how. Some ways are more accepted culturally or morally than others, at any particular point in time.
PR: At a recent CES, my “show question” was: “Given the chance, what is the one thing you would like to communicate to a consumer that you wish they truly understood about their enjoyment of music through the hi-fi hobby?” The response I’m remembering was an admonition to find a great dealer who is making great sound -- if that dealer can make good sound in his shop, he’s likely to be able to make good sound in your home. It sounds as if you would agree.
BL: There is a range of customer-dealer relationships practiced in every industry. Where do you buy and/or service your car? Where do you shop for clothes? The Internet has disrupted some of those relationships -- I buy shoes primarily online, at this point -- but we are constantly coping with that edge between dealers who want to make the short-term sale and those who play the long game. It’s all about the relationship. If you find that relationship dealer, it doesn’t matter what products they sell, as long as they work with you to find a voice that allows you to enjoy your music. There is no certain, objective level at which happiness is achieved. It’s not like a plane ascending through the clouds during weather and, upon breaking through, exclaiming, “Eureka! The sky is blue!”
To a significant extent -- and this can be seen as rather negative -- the audiophile business is, to some degree, selling new equipment to older people, to an older market, to justify allocating time to listen to music they’ve heard before. In this regard, there is a huge difference between audio and video. Aside from kids, who can watch the same video over and over, adults for the most part watch videos once, so the video system is “new” every single time you use it. Almost nobody changes the HDMI cable in their video system, unless they add a source or get a new TV. The reason they choose to watch their TV any particular night is to see some piece of software they haven’t yet been exposed to previously -- a new episode of a show, the news, The Tonight Show, or maybe a sporting event that hasn’t even happened at the time that they turn it on. Contrast this to the audiophile world, where we primarily listen to music we’ve listened to before. Most audio people, music lovers, audiophiles -- whatever the category -- buy a certain amount of new music, which is like the area of the pulp underneath the bark of a tree. It’s a tiny percentage of the tree that is, in a sense, alive -- but it’s life or death for the whole tree. Similarly, for many people, a little new music helps keep the living relationship to one’s entire collection healthy. A music collection is like a medicine cabinet containing the ways of feeling you already know you like. You like Pink Floyd, you like Beethoven, Herbie Hancock -- whatever your drugs of choice are. As you add incrementally, it keeps the whole collection alive; it keeps the relationship healthy to have that moving edge.
I view the hi-fi equipment “upgrade path” as being like bringing flowers home to your system. Possibly, the most significant ingredient in the upgrade path is not the presumably better performance, but the novelty and renewal of the audio relationship that the new equipment enables. The change in audio quality and the renewal of the relationship are intertwined and inseparable. A successful renewal brings back the same extreme joy of staying up until 4 a.m., rediscovering one’s music again, as they did following the previous renewal six or 12 months earlier, or whatever the particular listener’s musical metabolism is.
JH: [laughing] It sounds so cynical, Bill.
BL: When the listener has come down from the peak of the new to the valley of the familiar, it’s like, “I haven’t listened to my hi-fi for a couple of weeks; my system must not be good enough anymore. Maybe I need some new speakers.” What they need is a new relationship that justifies allocating time to something that doesn’t have what I call “Event Status.” You buy tickets to attend the opera, or the Rolling Stones come to town, or anything that doesn’t happen very often, and you have “Peak Event Status.” People are drawn, in part, by something they don’t have control over. You have to do it [buy those tickets, go to the event].
In the old days of VCRs, it was not uncommon for people to have walls of tapes they had recorded but never watched. The psychology is that they could always watch those tapes “tomorrow” -- it was something over which they had control -- yet “today” they will watch the thing that hasn’t yet been recorded, because they don’t have control over it. There are times we like other people to be the DJ. We don’t, actually, always want to program everything. We are attracted to having a schedule that is, to some extent, externally dictated. We’re going through a long evolutionary process with the DVR. It is interesting to me to watch the extent to which the DVR has been disruptive, and to what extent does it only contribute to people wanting to watch the Super Bowl at the moment it happens. Those are special occasions, and we prize having special occasions. Humans respond to that -- it’s a relationship. Giving flowers to your system, buying a new component for your hi-fi . . . if you’re lucky, it may actually make the system sound better, but in any event it renews the relationship, makes it special.
In the case of power filters, my feeling is that, in a great majority of instances, inserting a filter makes the system sound worse, but they do make it sound different. So power filters provide two “hits”: the optimistic, positive result of putting it into your system and having it sound different, and then, a year later, you can take it out and have the pleasure of change again -- as long as you don’t beat yourself up too badly for having “listened to that thing for a year.”
But we all live locally, we all live in the present. As much as I’m a fanatic about getting to higher altitudes and having more perspective, the local is where we live. Overall, as humans, [we live in] some combination of those ingredients: What is this instant? What is this minute? What is the arc of life? Americans have a comparatively short view, Europeans have a somewhat longer view. I’ve been stunned, initially, with some of my relationships in China, to have somebody in their 20s codify something they really enjoyed as being something they will fondly remember when they are 80.
. . . Peter Roth