Making all the right connections in the quest for audio clarity
By Marty Paule
Before Noel Lee came along, there was no such thing as premium audiophile cables. People hooked up their gear using what was available. Speakers were usually connected to amps via ordinary lamp cord. Musicians and audio engineers were reliant on whatever was available at the local electronics or music store. Many cables were assembled from scratch with components that varied wildly in terms of their quality and ability to transmit a clean, accurate signal.
That all radically changed when Noel Lee entered the picture in 1979. A drummer and audiophile with a background in science and engineering, Lee put his considerable knowledge and intellect to work in creating Monster cables. The aim was simple: Move an audio signal from point A to point B with all its potential clarity and dynamics intact. Doing that wasn’t so simple and took a concentrated R&D effort.
The next stage was a process of education. Many musicians and audio engineers were dubious about the benefits of a premium cable that cost significantly more than its Brand X counterpart. Because qualities such as transparency and clarity can’t easily be demonstrated with graphs and waveforms, it took a lot of A/B listening to win over the market.
Today Monster produces a broad range of gear—all of it an outgrowth of Noel Lee’s determination to capture music with all its dynamics. From headphones to power conditioning to a vast range of A/V cables for both the pro audio and consumer markets, Monster has become synonymous with the best in audio reproduction.
We spoke to Noel and Product Area Manager and Brand Manager John Diaz, at Monster’s headquarters in Brisbane, California.
The HUB: You guys have been in the pro music industry cable business for a very long time. What’s happening at the moment with Monster that’s new and different?
John Diaz: We’ve always had the same great cable technology, but we knew we could advance our connector design. The new design features a durable collect strain relief system. It grabs the outer jacket when the assembly is tightened down, there is no movement or pressure around the solder. We’ve made it considerably more durable.
The HUB: Some people argue that it takes a pair of “golden ears” to detect any real difference among cables. What is your reaction to that?
John Diaz: It definitely takes a trained ear and years of listening to different cables and understanding how different instruments “breathe.” We have a number of application-specific instrument cables—with the Rock, Bass, Acoustic cables, it’s not necessarily a tonal difference. We really focused on the frequencies inherent with those types of instruments. The goal was to get the signal from point A to point B insuring that your amplifier gets the best possible signal. People are often concerned about whether this involves a tonal coloring of their sound, it’s actually about getting the signal to the amp as accurately as possible. A trained ear will hear a wide range in our premium cables; they’ll be very bright and full. When you go down our line to the more entry-level cables you’ll experience more mellowed vintage tone.
The HUB: What else is going on at Monster at the moment?
John Diaz: We’re revisiting the whole pro audio category. Preparing to launch a full mix of cables, power, and accessories that sound great and can take a beating.
The HUB: Some people are pretty resistant to spending the extra bucks on Monster cables. Why would somebody want to spring for the additional expense?
John Diaz: The lifetime warranty is something a lot of our customers love. If there ever is a problem, we will absolutely take care of it.
John Diaz: We’ve never seen any problems with gold connectors that have been out there for years. Gold also is a great metal for preventing corrosion.
[At this point, Noel Lee joins the conversation.]
The HUB: You came into this business in 1979 with a background as an audiophile. Can you talk about the state of audio cables back then and what led you to try and build a better cable?
Noel Lee: In 1979 nobody knew about better cables. Nobody really knew about the differences—they had to be taught that. That’s why we refer to it as a cure with no disease. You don’t know how bad your cables sound; we had to teach you how bad they are before you would buy them. We did listening demos: musician-to-musician, studio-to-studio education. It was a very trying time.
More interesting is what happened a few years after that. We started becoming popular in the consumer electronics sector as well as in the studio and musician sectors. And then the engineers and people who know better called it heresy. They said that it was snake oil; don’t believe it. The recording engineers and the musicians said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about; I know what I hear.’ So it became a battle of measurement with them saying we can’t measure what you’re talking about.
But then audiophiles and engineers like Bruce Swedien weighed in saying, ‘If I can hear it but you can’t measure it, then you’re measuring the wrong thing.’ So that was the biggest obstacle: the science versus the audio people.
The HUB: So they felt there was a lack of empirical evidence to prove your case?
Noel Lee: Absolutely. Of course we and other organizations did a lot of research on the science of cables. A whole lot of articles were written about it both in the U.S. and especially Europe. We fought that battle for about 10 years. We would get written about in audio magazines saying our cables didn’t work and we’d have to rebut that.
Watch 35 years of Monster history in 3.5 minutes.
The HUB: Aside from being an audiophile, I understand you were also a drummer. When people like me back in those days hooked up their Klipschorns with lamp cord, did you really hear that something was missing?
Noel Lee: Absolutely. It wasn’t just the size of the cable. We would show how you would lose eight to ten percent power just through the wire. We very clearly demonstrated that with our impulse test. In those early days we had to come up with the scientific proof. So we did our best, but we’re not a research lab or a not-for-profit company, we really relied on a lot of other engineers and scientists.
My background gave me some unique qualifications. As an audiophile who listens to the music, trying to recreate the original sound, I would listen for every nuance, tweak phono cartridges, angles, isolation—all the little things that would make a difference in the sound. It was really my experience as a musician onstage that differentiates me from other audiophiles. The studio guy gets to hear the real thing. But even in a studio, you’re listening through monitors so there are limitations. But having been a musician onstage and being able to hear what the real thing sounds like gave me the ability to be a super audiophile.
When I’m in studios, I always make it a point to be on both the studio side of the glass as well as the control room. My other qualification is that of an engineer—I was schooled in engineering. Combine that with someone who’s got a lot of curiosity and a quest for improving how things sound, and then having the chops to do it.
The HUB: You mentioned being on both sides of the glass in the studio. One of the problems many of us face is having ears that have been trained to listen to hyped-up music with emphasis on bass and lots of compression. So when people hear studio monitors or in-ear monitors that deliver a perfectly flat signal, they’re less than thrilled. They’re accustomed to speakers that add a lot of coloration. What’s the balance point between pleasing sound and a signal that’s totally accurate?
Noel Lee: That’s kind of a deep question. What mix and recording engineers do in post production depends on the kind of audiophiles they are. Take the kind of guy who produces Steely Dan versus the guy who does JZ and Beyoncé. You have to look at their references. In hip-hop there are very few real instruments and so their reference is the EDM they hear in the club. Do you listen in the audience to sound coming through the speakers or onstage where the conductor and the musicians are?
So my reference is listening to the music without the aid of speakers, which as you said have various peaks and troughs. Some of the speakers of 10 or 20 years ago—you can’t even listen to those today. That’s why a lot of mixing is done on NF10s. The reference point and the knowledge of the mixer is where it starts. If I don’t know what it should sound like. I’m just mixing for my taste. That is not a reference. I mix to my experience.
A lot of the people today don’t have the ear or the reference, so you have inaccurate mixes. Listening to an album that’s really clean with little or no EQ is very different. In the analog days with say, Count Basie, where they would put two microphones up and do very little post production—that is a very different type of mixing and really very accurate compared to what you have today.
The Beats headphones aren’t about accuracy; they’re about what Dre wanted to hear—the club experience. It was never about recreating real music. But with the Pure Monster sound, we’re all about the real deal. Iif you listen to our DNA PRO 2.0 headphones, it is a reference and it’s unbelievable. We’re also going to be doing more tuning with an app so you can dial into the reference of real sound.
The way I do it today, I listen to old recordings, I listen to new recordings and try to strike a balance between old and new. It’s really hard to do because if you balance for old recordings, it sounds too harsh, too shrill on the new stuff. So we’re also going to let the user select from old or new recording settings. That’ll be coming out before the end of the year. A lot of people say that the sound of the Beats is over-hyped, but that’s what the kids love. If you give them to a classical or jazz guy, they’ll say, ‘That’s kind of boomy isn’t it?’ Well, yes, what you do for one doesn’t work for the other.
The HUB: Is this app you’re bringing out essentially an EQing tool?
Noel Lee: It’s a lot of things. Right now we’re sorting out what we’re going to be doing. But yes, it will have EQ options. But I want to do other things with it beside EQ. If you saw that Sound City movie, we’re focusing on that Neve console sound. Dave Grohl has been in many recording studios and he knows the sound he’s trying to get. It’s about the nuances. Like the whole thing about drums. It brings drums to life. Only in that one spot in that oner studio do you capture that sound. So those are the kinds of settings that I’m trying to develop with the app.
The HUB: Your line of Turbine In-Ear Speakers have had a lot acceptance in the musician community; can you talk a little about them?
Noel Lee: I don’t care for carrying around a bulky pair of headphones. The challenge is how are you going to get the low end, the subsonic bass frequencies and dynamics out of an element that’s the size of your fingernail. I think we did a really good job breaking new ground on them. In fact, one of the Shure guys was listening to our product and that’s when they came out with their three-driver [model]. He says, ‘How many drivers have you got?’ And we said, ‘Only one.’ ‘He says, ‘No, no, how many drivers do you really have in it?’ ‘Only one.’
So that was a real revelation. We cover the whole spectrum with an amazing degree of accuracy. I love in-ears. We’re developing a second generation of in-ear technology and we’ll have these apps with adjustments as I talked about to make them even better.
If you measure one of our headphones, you’ll puke all over the graph. It looks so unlike anybody else’s headphones. Yet when you listen to them, they’re amazing. Things like clarity, definition, transparency that don’t show up on a graph is how we do things.
The HUB: We see this all the time: Waveforms don’t always tell you the real story. It’s only human ears interacting with human-made music that is ultimately the deciding factor.
Noel Lee: It’s the same thing with DA converters. Aren’t they all the same? Aren’t all DA converters perfect? No—they all sound different. Or tube versus transistor. One console versus another. All things you can measure, but not hear.
The HUB: Monster has been very engaged in both the Bay Area community as well as around the world with programs that help support music education. Can you tell us about that?
Noel Lee: I remember how it was to be struggling in the old days. My hat’s off to any band or musician who sticks with it for the passion of doing music. Very few people make a decent living given the time and talent that it takes. So we do what we can to give young bands exposure, especially when there’s a lot of talent involved. I don’t like some the music that’s being made these days, but I really love the passion of each one of these bands. It reminds me of the old days and makes me young again.
The HUB: Do you still play Noel?
Noel Lee: I don’t. I dream about it, but I have some physical limitations right now that don’t allow it. If I can’t so something well I’m not going to do it. But in the day, I had pretty some pretty good chops. I do lots of listening though. So when I’m with Stevie [Wonder], I say, ‘Stevie, can I go up on stage?’ so when I listen to “Sir Duke” on stage with Stevie, that’s an experience not too many people get to have.
The HUB: “Sir Duke” is a brilliant piece of music that ties together the two worlds you’ve been talking about: the old music and the new music.
Noel Lee: Yeah, and with real instruments.
The HUB: Of course, Stevie led the way with synths forging a bridge between two eras. Speaking of technology, I know it’s hard to imagine where technology is likely to take us over the next couple of decades, but I wondered where you see Monster 20 years out.
Noel Lee: Well let’s talk abou the industry and education. I think our speakers and headphones have a lot to do with that. The idea behind Beats headphones was that nobody had headphones that sounded like good speakers. That was our endeavor. It was not to reproduce the real music, but reproduce what engineers and producers hear. I think we made some strides and actually came pretty close.
As far as the future, when you have something that’s higher res like the DNA PRO 2.0, people get used to hearing that. Then they look for higher quality music files. With Pono and Sony doing higher-res files, you can’t really hear it unless you’ve got super-good headphones or speakers. Of course we want higher-res files. But can people really hear the difference?
So in terms of where we’re going, files need to be super-high, natural resolution. Today if I played you a 96/24 file and a CD at 44.1 or an MP3 at 128, most people would not be able to hear the difference. Even trained ears wouldn’t be able to hear the difference on ordinary earbuds.
The HUB: So it seems that you’re finding yourself back in the role of consumer education as you did back in the late ‘70s where people had limitations with their sound due partly to the cabling that was used to hook up their analog gear. Today it’s a matter of reeducating ears that have been raised on low bitrate MP3 files.
Noel Lee: Its not the MP3 files that are the culprit. The culprits are the DJs. They want to have music that moves you, and for most kids today that’s the reference. EDM is their reference and if you ask those kids in the clubs, they love it. So is that your reference? That’s our problem right now—the lack of desire to hear the real thing. But I believe it’s swinging the other way if you look at Lorde, John Legend, Lady Antebellum. It’s the same with the last five years of Grammys. It wasn’t until this year that the first four or five opening acts were acoustic. Before that it was Outkast—you name it—anything but real. But today you’ve got John Legend singing on the Grammys with only his piano—that’s way different from what you had just two or three years ago.
The HUB: It’s a pendulum, isn’t it? Popular taste swings back and forth, and as you say, the acoustic acts are on the upswing at the moment.
Noel Lee: Well, it’s about emotion. Real instruments are about the harmonics and textures that you don’t get with a lot of the digital sounds, Today’s music is about how much energy you can put into it. How can you get kids to dance, get them to move. But not really about soothing or feeling good. Human beings are analog. Our ears don’t sample. The revival of LPs is an example. You deal with the pops and clicks and they say, ‘That sounds a lot better than my digital.’
The HUB: You guys produce a lot power-conditioning equipment and I wondered if you could talk about how clean power impacts the performing and recording spheres.
Noel Lee: You have three things going on with Clean Power. First and most basic is power protection—if you get a surge you don’t fry your hard drive and a lot of other precious things in the studio. The second is clean power. We discovered that a lot the noises and hash on the line were high-frequency spikes, they were like motors; stuff that gets into the line. This happened with all the gear, especially with wide-bandwidth amplifiers that have high slew rates. It would drive those things crazy. It doesn’t affect low-resolution gear, but when you plug high-resolution equipment into Clean Power, that sounds amazing.
We have different stages where we isolate the digital from the analog stages. And we isolate digital from digital, so if you have two digital devices, and even though you’ve filtered it, one is interacting with the other.
The last step is voltage regulation. Before we came out with it, power regulation was all done with digital circuits. Those were bad because they didn’t have the capacity. So if you have 100-watt amplifier, you can’t stick it in a computer surge protector to regulate the voltage. Our products were designed for everything from a Neve console to a processor/ They were designed to work on 120 volts. So what happens when the voltage goes down to 90, and it does a lot, especially outside this country where voltage is very unstable, you still get the same dynamics. So in our approach it was really an education in how important power can be. You should not consider doing a studio without Monster Power. We’ve made inroads in the world’s best recording studios, and especially with studios in the Caribbean and other outlying areas where the voltage is terrible.
The HUB: You can definitely run into a lot of sags and spikes in third-world power.
Noel Lee: Absolutely. Your audio could be deteriorating and your amplifiers and mixers are not operating at full tilt. If you have a Ferrari you wouldn’t put regular gas in it. You wouldn’t get the full performance. But you wouldn’t really know unless you compared the performance.
The HUB: It’s sort of like when you get your windshield washed; it’s only in retrospect that you realize how filthy it was.
Noel Lee: There you go. That’s a good analogy. As we say with our headphones, we want you to listen to this transparency. That’s where we’re focused: on transparency, clarity and dynamics. We’re all limited by dynamic range these days even though our sources can give us 110 or 120dB, but our speakers and headphones can’t. One of the things we’ve really focused on with our headphones—even the small DNA headphones—is the ability to reproduce the full dynamic range of what’s on the recording.
The HUB: I recently spoke with Bob Heil of Heil Sound, a pioneer in the area of live sound and mic technology, and he made a similar point. It’s all about he transducers—it’s where the signal converts from sound waves to an electronic signal and then back to sound waves via speakers where the sonic rubber hits the road.
Noel Lee: With the dynamic range of digital gear these days, that’s the problem. The microphones have issues and so the headphones that are the inverse of the microphone. Any recording engineer will tell you that there’s a huge difference between microphones, and you pick your mic based on what you’re recording. It’s the same kind of thing; he’s absolutely right.
The HUB: Thanks so much for talking to us today Noel, and congratulations on the success of Monster. It seems that your efforts are paying off after three-plus decades.
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