Wednesday, March 23, 2011

PMC's guru of sound

Peter Thomas, the owner of PMC, looks very much like an ageing rock star - indeed he has sometimes been mistaken for Ozzy Osbourne or Meatloaf.


But his shoulder-length hair and hippie-like attitude belies his stature as one of the leading lights of British hi-fi and the last surviving graduate of the so-called BBC school of speaker-making.


Many experts who honed their skills and picked up knowledge from the R & D department of BBC left and started speaker-manufacturing companies like Spendor, Harbeth, KEF, Rogers and PMC. 


Some of these are now owned by the mainland Chinese, but there's no way that PMC will be sold to the Chinese or anyone else.


"I am still doing some designing for my company, but I have an MD who runs the company and PMC will continue running when I leave. I have a team of designers who know my philosophy and they will continue my work," said Peter, who was at the AV Designs showroom in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday.




Seeing double: PMC owner Peter Thomas
and Jo Ki, Malaysia's LS3/5A expert.


Peter, who is on a tour of the East, was on his first visit to Malaysia and took the opportunity to hand over a certificate of excellence to James Tan of AV Designs for his fine work distributing PMC speakers and also the creation of a listening room specially for PMC speakers.


Over a Chinese dinner at Concorde Hotel, Peter talked about a wide range of topics on hi fi and his views on the differences between vinyl and CD.


He also revealed - rather hilariously - how the naming of some PMC models (like BB and OB) came about, but I think it's best not to reveal the truth and let things remain in the realm of hi-fi folklore and myths.


Peter has deep knowledge of BBC, music and speaker making.


He was the man who actually brought friendly rival ATC into BBC. It was because of him that several pairs of ATC's SCM100s were bought by BBC.


When he left BBC to form PMC, he used ATC's famed dome mid-range for his early speakers and when ATC seemed reluctant to supply him the unit, he used his own soft dome mid-range unit that he had developed and is still in production today.


I asked him about the new trends and whether the CD player would still be around in the near future.


"The CD player will still be around just like the turntable. There will always be some guy who will want to play CDs just like some people still want to play LPs," he said.


But he acknowledged that the industry is changing with hi-res downloads and kids listening to iPods.


I asked him his views on the vinyl vs digital debate.


He said vinyl on a good system will often sound better than a CD especially in the areas of soundstage width, depth and height. However, these are factors that cannot be measured.


"CDs can have no distortion and no noise and these are things that engineers can measure. But digital can sound flat," he said.


At home he has a Michell Orbe with SME V tonearm a Koetsu cartridge and very soon he will the proud owner of a Roksan TMS 3 turntable. He is an admirer of Rega but is not a fan of Linn.


On hi-res files, he feels that a well-recorded CD played on a good CD player can sound as good as a hi-res file.


He does not think that having 24-bit files will make a difference. A well-recorded 16 bit 44.1 file will sound good enough.


"I don't think there was anything wrong with the Red Book specifications. They are good enough for good sound," he said.


I asked him that considering that most modern recordings are made digitally on 24/96 programs, why do vinyl versions of them often sound better than the CD versions.


He said it has a lot to do with quality control. The digital master sounds very good and the person who makes the LPs will listen to the songs on the test lacquer pressing and compare them with the master before making the stamper to make the LPs whilst CDs are made in mass-production factories where the technicians don't bother to check with the digital master under the belief that since it's digital, it should be okay.


But there are small labels which pay more attention to sound quality and they make pretty good-sounding CDs.


Big E of Hifi Unlimited asked if he agreed that there was such a thing as 'British sound' or 'American sound'.


Peter agreed that there was such as thing, but it was due more to how homes are built in different countries rather than the musical tastes of the people.


"In America, the rooms are big and walls are thin, so a lot of bass leaks out," he said. That's why American speakers tend to produce more bass while in England, most homes have brick walls and manufacturers made speakers to sound good in home environments.


"Classical music sounds the same regardless of which country the concert halls are located in, but I think it's more the homes, how they are built, where the sound differs," he said.


Finally I had to ask him something that had been bothering me for a while - what defines an active speaker?


I had to ask that because PMC speakers are unlike those made by ATC or Meridian which have amplifiers built into the speaker cabinets whereas PMC's models have their power amplifiers placed outside just like any other normal system.


He said an active speaker system is one which has an active crossover placed after the preamp which splits the frequencies and feeds them to the power amps.


"It does not matter if the amps are outside or inside the speakers," he said.

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