Written some time around 1993 for Positive Feedback magazine:



Biography of Neil McBride, Born 10.04.66 Glasgow, Scotland.

Department of Physics, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NR, UK.
Tel:   01227 823242
Fax:   01227 762616
email: nm1@ukc.ac.uk

My introduction to hifi started in 1983 when I decided I was bored of the
old Decca gramophone and wanted something that I could play records on
without having to put a penny on the end of the arm to keep it ploughing,
I mean tracking the record. I clearly needed to know what to buy, so I
read a copy of What HiFi and hey presto was instantly a hifi expert. I
trundled off to the local hifi shop knowing exactly what to buy, after all
I had read it in the magazine so how could I go wrong? A quick listen to a
load of stuff and I surprised myself by realising that the Best Buy gear
wasn't the stuff I liked most. Was it that my ears told me what I liked
better than the reviewers in the magazine? There was learned my first
lesson.  Armed with a starter system comprising of a Revolver turntable,
NAD 3020 amp and JPW P1 speakers, I went off to the University of
Sheffield to do Physics. Throughout the degree, I got very enthusiastic
about the whole hifi thing, and played around with various tweaks such as
solid core cable and the like. I also blew most of my grant on various
bits and pieces of hifi. Incredibly enough, even more than I spent on
beer. 

After graduating I tried my hand at being a Yupee and went to London to do
Chartered Accountancy (yawn). Now, I had always considered myself to be a
scientist through and through, so quite why I donned the suit and the
brief case to jump lemming-like into the sea of madness that they called
the City, I really don't know. Ah yes, I remember now. Money. The promise
of making big bucks (or is that big pounds?) was too tempting. This was
the boom time of 1987 and why should I miss out? Unfortunately the big
bucks was only a promise. The rather average starting salary was the
reality.  Worse, I discovered after a short time (I think it was by coffee
break on the first morning) that I found auditing excruciatingly horrible.
I stuck it out for a few months while trying to disentangle myself from
some debts clocked up while I was a hifi-buying-student, and then moved
on. It was a `an experience' I suppose. I was auditing a large firm of
stockbrokers on Black Monday. That was interesting (read hilarious). I
audited Robert Maxwell's accounts at the Daily Mirror. I didn't notice any
800 million pound cheques missing though. I even went to the Conservative
Party headquarters and had a look at what companies contributed huge
donations to the party funds. Most of the Managing Directors and Chairmen
of these companies had honours or even knighthoods. Funny that. 

Anyway, I fled to a job with some semblance of a technical base. I became
a trainee acoustic engineer. Not one that makes records, but one that does
noise reduction, building acoustics, traffic noise etc. It was great. We
had a load of expensive test equipment and a good anechoic chamber and I
had great fun carting various bits of hifi gear in and measuring this and
that. After getting bored with a pair of Monitor Audio 852 speakers I had
at the time, I tried remounting the tweeter on a compliant mounting (like
the Roksan Darius speaker). The treble became some of the best I have
heard from a dome design. Bolting something that relies on microscopic
movement (the tweeter dome) to something that is moving microscopically
(speaker baffle) doesn't seem such a good idea. Mounting it on springs
such that it is effectively isolated (with resonant frequency of say 5 Hz)
showed real promise. After all, the mass of air a tweeter dome moves is
tiny compared to the mass of the tweeter unit, so it effectively stays
still. It was all jolly good fun as they say. I even turned the speaker
into a reflex ported design for a while. With the aid of the anechoic
chamber and all that test gear, I even managed to get the frequency
response reasonably flat! 

One thing that company did was to supply full Assisted Resonance Systems. 
The system would typically consist of 200 Helmhotz resonators mounted on
the ceiling of a concert hall. These were basically closed metal cylinders
of various sizes with a tuning tube sticking out of the thing. These would
have a very narrow resonant peak that would be activated by the sound in
the hall. By placing a microphone in the tube and running that through an
amp and then feeding the sound back into the hall via speakers, one could
control and extend the reverberation time of the hall. This was a positive
feedback system so it took some `tuning'. The system I did a little work
on had 200 resonators feeding into 50 Quad stereo power amps (2 frequency
bands per channel, 2 channels per amp) which drove 200, 12 inch speaker
drivers (mounted on the ceiling). The Royal Festival Hall in London has
one of these systems to make it's very dry natural acoustics more
appropriate for orchestral concerts. 

While working at the acoustic lab, I would have great fun arguing with a
senior engineer there. He had done speaker design work, and had worked for
HiFi News for a while doing blind testing and had even written a book on
the subject. He knew his stuff technically, but he had the strong opinion
that if he couldn't measure it, it wasn't there. I must admit to being an
empirical physicist. If I think I can hear something ie, if it's
`obvious', repeatable, and doesn't depend on consuming copious quantities
of alcohol, then I tend to believe my ears. It's afterwards that I come up
with the theories of why. And if I can't come up with a satisfactory
answer, I tend to think things like "we should be measuring it in a
different way", or "the test equipment isn't sensitive enough", or "may be
I'm missing something here" etc. Eventually, you'll come up with
something. One of the things we argued about was whether speaker cable
could make an audible difference. I `knew' it did and would have great fun
demonstrating this to anyone who was interested. The difference between
some cables weren't subtle, and everybody heard them. Unfortunately the
engineer chap didn't agree to have a listen. He said you couldn't possibly
hear any difference and there was no point. Pity. 

While learning some acoustics, the chance came my way to go back to
Sheffield and do a PhD in Astrophysics. Sad though I was to leave
acoustics, Astronomy is fascinating, and the chance to become a Doctor
without going anywhere near a hospital was something I couldn't pass up.
My researches ended up in the field of cometary physics, solar system
dust, minor bodies and the like. And a good time was had by all. Well me
actually. By that time I had graduated to a Roksan Xerxes with a Rega
RB300 arm and Audio Technica F5 cartridge, using an Onix OA21 integrated
amp driving Linn Index Plus speakers. Perhaps surprisingly, the Index had
usurped the Monitor Audio 852 (tweaked or otherwise). Even though the 852
was supposedly a `better' speaker, I found the life and musicalness of the
Index irresistible. Sure, they had their problems but I could live with
them. My next hifi move was a little odd. I could only afford to change
either the arm or the cartridge. Just about everyone would have said get a
better arm, but for the second time in my life so far, I was influence by
a hifi magazine. One Alvin Gold to be exact. At that time he was waxing
lyrical about the Rega arm when used on a Xerxes. He compared it
favourably to a SME V and an AirTangent arm. He felt the Rega competed,
and was good enough to bolt his own Koetsu Redwood Signature into. I
thought "fair enough" and went about getting a cartridge. An Audio
Technica OC9 to be exact, which had impressed me no end. It was a lot
better than the F5, don't get me wrong, but maybe not quite as big a jump
as I had hoped for.  It was a couple of months later that some unexpected
funds came my way and I went and got an Roksan Artimez arm (couldn't
afford an SME V). That was one of the biggest improvements I have ever
heard in my system. Just huge.  Good value though the Rega arm is, it just
wasn't playing in the same league. A while later when I was servicing the
deck (I had learnt to set up a Xerxes like nobody's business) I put the F5
in the Artimez just for fun.  The true gulf between the F5 and the OC9 was
exposed in a way that the Rega arm just couldn't fully show. Oh well, that
finally taught me to take reviews as guides rather than gospel. That
system I rate as being one of the most successful I've tried in as much as
it was well balanced and I had an excellent room. Everything sounded
really good in that room. 

My PhD was coming along quite well now, and the all day pub licensing laws
had been introduced which suits PhD work down to the ground (don't tell
the taxpayers). I had changed the Onix amp for a second hand Naim 42/110
pre/power arrangement, and the Index gave way to some Linn Kans. An odd
speaker, but capable of remarkable performance if driven well. The Naims
were great. I had sold the Onix for 200 quid and picked the Naims up for
300. Not bad. I was aware that I could do with a HiCap supply though (or
rather a Snaps for that 42 preamp). As a little earner, I was tutoring A
level physics, and it was the simple power supplies in the syllabus that
prompted me to get the soldering iron out. I resurrected some of my
electronics I did for my degree and built a 24v power supply, regulated
with a little in line voltage regulator (same type Naim used to use). Dead
simple. Dead effective. The amp's performance improved by quite a jump. 

A while later I would come back to power supplies, but at that time I was
more concerned with the front end again. I had been toying with the idea
of a SME V arm. I would also have got a brand new Xerxes as my one didn't
have the mirror finish platter and most recent power supply. I had a
listen, and although the modern Xerxes weren't hugely better, it was
worthwhile all the same. While I was in the market so to speak, I thought
I would have a listen to the current crop of `superdecks' as I had done
before choosing the Xerxes. A deck I had elected not to buy 3 years
earlier was the Linn LP12. I liked the way it reproduced pitch in a clean
understandable way, but it sounded a bit slow and muffled and lacked
transparency. The Xerxes sounded much more open and tight. However, then I
heard the current (at that time) Linn front end. A LP12/Ekos/Troika. I was
interested enough to try one at home in direct competition to the Xerxes.
I was quite amazed how this "muffled" deck had progressed. It still got
pitch right in a way the Xerxes couldn't but also competed in terms of
transparency, dynamics, detail etc. In fact the detail bit surprised me. I
had always thought the Xerxes was more detailed. But in the comfort of my
own home, rather than a dealer's showroom, I realised there was nothing
from the Xerxes that I couldn't hear on the Linn. It was just a question
of presentation. The bottom line is that I sold the Xerxes and bought the
Linn. 

The PhD was now moving into the home straight. I was writing up in fact. 
That small matter of producing a small book on a subject that everyone
assumes you are a world expert on having worked on it for 3 years, but
that you feel you don't know anything about. Working into the early hours
of the morning battling to get the Latex text processor to put the figures
where I want them and not where it thinks would be more ergonomically
acceptable.  As a bit of fun, I was keeping the soldering iron well used
by making little headphone connector boxes. You would plug the speaker
cable into this box instead of the speakers and drive the headphones from
it. Very useful if your amp has no headphone socket. I sold them to the
local hifi shop. Not original, but cheap. I still do the odd one for
anyone who asks.  The other excuse to slop solder about the place was my
newly invented 6 channel power supply for the Naim preamp. Ok, not new or
original. But incredibly effective. Naim had just brought out their
flagship 52 preamp which ran from a 6 channel supply ie, left and right
phono stage, buffer stage and line level output stages were powered
separately. I thought "I could do that". So I had a huge toroidal mains
transformer specially wound with 6 secondary windings, which fed 6
separate rectifier, smoothing and regulation stages. Then I cut the power
rail in the 42 preamp into the 6 parts and powered them up each with their
very own supply. The results were superb. That original supply didn't stay
with me for long though. A friend wondered what all the fuss was about (I
had been giving him ear ache about how good it was) and so asked if I
would bring it round for him to have a listen. The amp never came back. He
wrote me a cheque there and then! I've made some more supplies since then,
and great fun it is too. 

At last my thesis was submitted, my desk had a multitude of solder burns
on it, and my hifi needed a salary to support it. It was time to move on.
A tankard that I was given when I left had the tongue in cheek inscription
on it; "For outstanding contributions in the fields of hifi, homebrewing
and astrology". Homebrew is another favourite obsession with me. The
astrology is a long story, but I assure you it has little to do with
horoscopes. 

I have now been officially Doctored, and for the last 18 months or so I
have been working at the University of Kent responsible for resurrecting
an experiment which is on board the European Space Agency's spacecraft
Giotto.  It was the craft that took the snap shots of Halley's Comet in
1986, and was put into action again to go and see another comet in July
1992. I have had good fun doing this as working on a space mission isn't
something many people get a chance to do, and it also meant I was still in
the University environment with all the perks that go with it ie, long pub
lunches, `borrowing' components from stores for my amps, use of email etc.
I've also had some good fun playing with yet more power supplies. I've
spent considerable time despairing over compact disc. And I have even
tried my hand at modding cheap cartridges, the pinnacle of which was when
I tore my old F5 apart and rebuilt it with copious amounts of Araldite and
Superglue (and I assure you it made it sound a heck of a lot better). 

The reintroduction of a salary has also meant some hifi buying was
possible too. I got another Naim preamp, a 32.5, and partnered it with one
of my 6 channel power supplies. I then got hold of the circuit boards from
a defunct Naim 250 power amp. By adding my own pair of meaty power
supplies I effectively had Naim 135 monoblocks. This neatly treads between
my desire to have nice manufactured boxes with a name on the front, and my
enthusiast desire to build my own stuff. I expect it will just be a matter
of time before I build another pair of the 135 clones and a crossover, and
go active. Out went the Kans, and in came some Linn Sara 9 speakers
(biwired).  At last strong bass but without being overblown! As far as the
front end is concerned, it's still the Linn. But it's come on in leaps and
bounds again.  The Lingo power supply was the first thing, which was
excellent. Then the Trampolin base board. And now the Arkiv cartridge.
Expensive, but when I heard it there was a feeling of "so that's what they
were trying to do all this time". It's just gorgeous. The current top Linn
front end is a long way from that "muffled" sound of a few years ago, and
I'm a long way from that guy who read What HiFi and instantly became a
hifi expert. I've read almost 10 years worth of magazines now, and heard
10 years worth of equipment and their tweaks. And like the astronomy, the
more I go on, the less of an expert I feel. Cheers.