In yesterday’s post, When we can’t we won’t, I wrote about the notion that there is sometimes value in not knowing what you can’t do.
I’ll share with you an example of how this worked for us in the past and then, tomorrow, I’ll share with you a future idea born out of ignorance as well.
In the early 1980′s the CD was launched and, with it, we entered the era of digital audio. Certainly digital audio had been with us for some time before the CD appeared, but this new portable storage medium changed the world and opened the digital audio floodgates.
Soon after the CD appeared we, and others in the high-end, started playing with the new medium to see if it could sound better. We realized that by replacing the audio stage we could make a significant improvement and we did just that when we launched our first CD player. It was an off-the-shelf Magnavox we gutted and put in our own audio circuit and called it the CD-1. But I wasn’t happy with just modifying someone’s product and calling it our own.
It was obvious that we needed separates – one box as a transport and the other box to decode the audio. This separates approach had many advantages and, in the past, served the high-end well by giving us separate preamps, phono stages, tuners and power amps (they used to all be together in one box). I was excited to do the same for CD players.
We poked around inside the CD players of the day only to find that the digital audio we wanted to extract was either locked into an integrated circuit or ridiculously difficult to access. What to do?
We then noticed that on the back of every CD player there was a single RCA connector that said “digital out”. Could it be the audio was available here? No one knew and the owners of the technology, Sony and Philips, weren’t telling (their technical secrets locked in something known as the Red Book).
All we knew was that the purpose of the digital out was to put album art out to a TV by some (as of yet) released interface box. It certainly was not to extract the digital audio. My engineers threw in the towel – because they were told it would not work.
I was just ignorant and stubborn enough to insist they challenge Sony and Philips.
Our chief engineer at the time, Mark Merrill, spent a week looking at this digital output with a scope and came to me one day and said “I don’t know what’s going on, but I can see the digital stream changing with the music I am playing. I am guessing they just might have audio available, but more than that I don’t know.”
3 months later he had unlocked the secrets, decoded the info and we showed, at CES, a prototype of the world’s first separate D to A converter for high-end audio – and with it – an entire category of products that are still with us today.
Within 1 month of our prototype display, Arcam of England came out with an actual product and not long after that, Neil Sinclair of Theta introduced a similar product (our first commercial DAC was third). All three were being worked on independently of each other – none of us aware of the other’s progress.
Sometimes a touch of ignorance and a stubborn challenge of what we are told “cannot be” leads to breakthroughs and innovations.