The Art of Serious Listening
Setting the Pace of the Vanguard
The American High End audio industry is a rare species, a stubborn holdout for artistry, perfectionism and iconoclastic value judgments in a world of lowest-common-denominator commercialism. Within this small community is an even smaller group of companies that set the direction and pace of the High End itself. Spectral Audio has always been numbered among these pioneering few. Since our founding in 1977 we have dedicated ourselves to exploring new dimensions of realism in the home reproduction of recorded music. Over the years, Spectral's techniques and tools have been honed to a fine edge. But its mission has never been changed.
Single-minded dedication to advancing the state of the art is a strenuous commitment. But it is a luxury as well - the luxury of relative indifference to price points, market niches and seasonal trends. Spectral designs and builds for an audience of true connoisseurs, serious listeners who are impressed only by exceptional performance and the tangible quality of a beautifully realized instrument. A Spectral product makes a statement only about itself.
The quest for greater realism in musical reproduction is, like the art of music itself, an exhilarating blend of intellect and sensuality. In common with those who choose to own our products we at Spectral are constantly inspired by musical performance and tradition. Preserving and advancing this heritage is for us a source of professiona1 pride and personal satisfaction.
At the farthest reaches of innovation, the development of home music systems is a philosophical quest. Little understood aspects of human auditory perception are involved, as are controversies regarding the behavior of electronic circuits and electromechanical systems, and the interaction of digital and analog technologies. The aesthetic issues raised by the capture and requickening of a live artistic performance have been debated since the time of Edison.
At Spectral we have always held that real advances in audio reproduction require mastery of key high technology disciplines. Single-point perspective is inadequate. Our design team members come from professional and academic backgrounds in microwave, instrumentation, communications, professional and home audio equipment design, recording engineering, and experimental psychology. Most importantly, all are avid music enthusiasts encompassing a wide spectrum of taste and experience.
Every new product design at Spectral is an assault on the unknown. While we focus our attention on a limited number of projects at any one time, the cross fertilization of ideas can be surprisingly fruitful. For example, the search for new ways to minimize power supply distortions in digital design, where they are acutely audible, led to unexpected dividends in Spectral's next generation of power amplifiers.
Spectral designers are equipped with the most advanced tools in the industry. Many of our measurement techniques and systems, which we have developed expressly for our own research, constitute major innovations in their own right. Our custom listening room is tunable for extreme neutrality and articulation. There the device under test is auditioned with a wide variety of high performance transducers. This immediate access to an optimized, reference listening environment is fundamental to our research methodology.
Spectral's design team is cautious about the limits of a purely scientific approach in judging what are ultimately aesthetic issues. We experiment with the most advanced circuit topologies, components and materials derived from state-of-the-art theory and practice in many fields. But we monitor the results continuously by ear. And in any contest between engineering theory or test bench measurement and what the ear actually hears, the ear decides. Like fine musical instrument makers of old, we believe in a wisdom of the senses that science has yet to equal.
Recording Is the Reference
In the early decades of audio, the same organizations and individuals were active from the beginning to the end of the audio chain, from recording to playback. While this sometimes created problems for the customer (one company's recordings often could not be played satisfactorily on another company's machine), the benefits were also profound. The inventor-engineer had a ready basis for comparing the reproduced sound with the original performance.
Spectral's existence is owed to the search for a more objective reference by which to judge audio performance. The company's founders were active as audio reviewers and engineers in the early days of the High End. What was to become the first Spectral product, the radically innovative MS-ONE preamplifier, grew out of an act of simple curiosity. Intimately involved with the solid state technological revolution in Silicon Valley, we sought to discover what ultimate state-of-the-art instrumentation techniques and devices could do for the problems of musical reproduction. The objective was to create an uncompromising reference instrument with which commercial products under review could be compared. The results so astonished listeners that a vanguard of music enthusiasts was soon clamoring for MS-ONEs of their own (and the cost was not trivial). This demand led to the formation of Spectral as a company. From the MS-ONE research came the DMC-10, a High End classic which set the preamplifier standard for a decade. For many years, Spectral has been closely associated with Reference Recordings, the esteemed San Francisco audiophile label. Indeed, Reference's internationally honored recording engineer, Dr. Keith O. Johnson, is also Spectral's Director of Engineering. Custom electronics from Spectral are the backbone of Reference's recording system, where their ultra-linear, high resolution characteristics make them indispensable in the pursuit of "archivalness." A truly archival recording is a radical step beyond an ordinary production. It captures qualities of dimension, interplay, voicing, location (an overall sense of place and time), and preserves them for future generations. It immerses the listener in the sound field as it existed at the original performance, recreating the artist's inspiration.
Reference Recordings master tapes are our constant "reality check". Often the entire Spectral design team is present at a Reference recording session. Far purer and more undistorted than any commercial product, these master tapes test our evolving designs against the most rigorous standard. A kind of aesthetic version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle makes perfect objectivity in musical listening impossible. But impeccable references heard under carefully controlled and repeatable listening conditions are possible. The use of the most accurate references is an inviolable principle at Spectral.
Continuity and Vision
Products with real integrity display a certain consistent style. While every new product development project at Spectral is an open-ended quest, the results have an acknowledged family resemblance. Spectral products are like the output of an artist in a distinct period: linked to the past and the future, but bearing the hallmarks of a particular set of concerns. This is the sign of visionary work that is guided by a cumulative store of knowledge and experience.
Spectral Circuitry has been characterized as "always discrete, fully complimentary, DC-coupled and ultra fast, utilizing selected FETs, M0SFETs and bipolars in the most linear applications feasible." This style of ultra-wide bandwidth solid state design still characterizes the state-of-the-art in audio circuitry, just as it did when Spectral first pioneered it. It is rigorous and exacting and requires a solid and detailed understanding of the sonic effects of circuit components and topologies which can only be gained by long first hand experience. An apt analogy can be made with tube amplifier design. The fundamentals were well understood in the 1920's, but it took three decades before the great, classic tube designs of the 1950's appeared. In the same way, high-speed, high-resolution solid state design takes time and experience to learn to do well. This is why we stress not only Spectral's own track record, but our design team's background in high technology fields other than audio. It is there - in specialties such as microwave and instrumentation - that these circuit design principles were first realized.
Spectral product literature makes constant reference to the micro-detailing of circuit paths, to transformer, power supply and grounding issues, to printed circuit board materials, internal cabling, non-intrusive protection circuitry and many other detailed but cumulatively highly significant matters. It is no exaggeration to state that every new Spectral product incorporates important refinements and often outright breakthroughs in several of these areas.
A System Approach
The most sacred principle of the Spectral design philosophy is our central concern with the integration of the music reproduction system. Each audio component, however exquisitely designed and crafted, is but one link in a chain. How each interacts with preceding and successive components in the chain is of the utmost significance for the final listening experience. Spectral was the first component manufacturer to collaborate with a High End cable company to achieve a totally optimized, integrated component system. Our path breaking work with MIT (Music Interface Technologies) in developing phase-compensated interconnects and speaker cables is a first in the audio field. The same overriding concern with fully integrated systems motivated Spectral to move quickly to the forefront of innovative, High End digital front-end design. And it is why our new preamplifier and amplifier designs like the DMC-30 and the DMA-150 are optimized to work together and to derive superior performance from the transducers our customers choose.
Product Making the Spectral Way
Spectral products blend high technology with hand craftsmanship of an incomparable standard. The immense care taken in their manufacture is an integral outcome of the technological vision that inspires them. Spectral's style of wide bandwidth, super-fast circuit design requires the finest materials and components, extremely close tolerances, and perfectionist standards of soldering, wire-harnessing, welding, finishing and all the other operations that go into manufacturing and assembly. Design engineers everywhere are constrained not only by the limits of the imaginations and the laws of physics, but by what is practically feasible in production. The Spectral design team enjoys the freedom of being far less constrained than most. Our military - and NASA - certified production technicians, representing decades of cumulative experience in Silicon Valley industry, are the most dedicated and skilled in the audio field today. Working unhurriedly on very limited production runs, they welcome the complex challenges posed for them by Spectral's innovative product designs.
Purchased parts and components must also meet the same exacting criteria as our in-house production. Spectral searches the world for premium quality suppliers, routinely having parts custom made to our designs and specifications. We carefully screen and hand match components and devices, skimming the créme de la créme for use in our products. Incoming inspections, production quality control and final burn-in and testing are rigorously performed to merciless standards. Every Spectral product that leaves our premises must first pass a personal listening test by Spectral's president and founder. The goal: that every Spectral unit perform as well as the best of its type we have ever produced.
Some might question whether such fanatical devotion to quality is really worth the effort. Spectral has been described as building "museum-quality" pieces. Our view is that recordings and playback systems are the museum of our musical heritage. It is a boon to all that the contents of this museum are accessible to us in our own homes. And it is our privilege at Spectral to play a role in making them available at the highest possible level of reproduction.
In Good Company
The American High End audio community is like an extended family of stubborn individualists, blazing our own trails but transfixed by the same dreams, more in each other's debt than we sometimes care to admit. As we approach two full decades of membership in this family, we at Spectral feel keenly appreciative of the opportunity to be part of it.
No members of this community are more important than the discriminating dealers who care enough to keep the High End audio tradition alive. They introduce new listeners to the joys of the finest music reproduction. They educate the public about important innovations in the audio art. And they hold the line on standards when market pressures threaten quality and performance. We are ever grateful for their efforts.
Our proudest achievement at Spectral, more significant than any single product, has been to maintain our independence. One key to this has been controlled growth holding to a responsive size, neither too big nor too small. New stimulus often comes from our association with other fine, independent-minded companies like Reference Recordings and MIT. Another key has been our loyal international clientele, many of whom have supported us from the beginning.
Independence makes possible the daring to try what is radically new, the dedication to stay the course of a long and arduous development project, and the stubbornness to stick to serving the "market segment" we really respect and understand: ardent music lovers who demand the best.
The Last Word
New Spectral owners returning their warranty registration cards are queried as to their reasons for selecting Spectral components. Their answer, in the great majority of cases, is strikingly concise: "The sound."
Our dealers tell us that this is a most unusual pattern. Purchasers of other makes of premium audio components respond with answers like "the reputation of the brand name," "the convenience features," or "what I read in a review."
This confirms for us what we have always believed. Spectral owners are special individuals. They trust their ears, and they hear that unique transparency, that extra measure of clarity, dimension and naturalness that distinguishes what Spectral is all about... The sound.
The MS-ONE Preamplifier
The debut showing of the Spectral design philosophy. The MS-ONE was initially developed from an instrumentation preamplifier to investigate new devices and circuit topologies as a lab and review reference. Enthusiastic demand from those who heard it resulted in its going into production in 1977.
In 1980, Spectral took the basic design concepts of the MS-ONE and rationalized them for a decade of production. The result was the straight line, ultra-linear DMC-10, an instant classic.
Appearing in 1982, the DMA-100 class A amplifier was the first power amplifier to meet the standards of the Spectral performance envelope.
In 1985, a joint development effort between Spectral and Music Interface Technologies (MIT) resulted in the MI-500 Interconnect and the MI-750 Speaker Cable, completing the performance envelope of Spectral components.
Combining high technology, exotic materials and exacting hand craftsmanship, the MCR was introduced in 1987. It featured the first moving coil design to accurately mirror the master tape.
In January 1987, Spectral shipped its first digital product, the SDR-l000 Compact Disc Playback System, the result of four years of intensive investigation of digital audio issues. The SDR-1000 was the direct result of Dr. Keith 0. Johnson's lifetime engagement in recording technology design, and was the first product to directly attack the problems of CD sound by correcting in playback the errors inevitably introduced in the digital recording process.
Never before had it been possible to combine exceptionally high output current capability with the uncompromisingly high speed, high resolution performance of a classic Spectral amplifier. In 1992, using the latest in high technology components combined with exceptionally innovative circuit design, Spectral introduced the DMA-180, the first of a whole new generation of Spectral amplifiers.