In this Behind The Brand Interview, Hifi Pig talks to Mark Sears of The Missing Link and Vinyl Passion.
Your History
How did you get into/what was your first job in the industry?
I started out in sound engineering. My first job in the music industry was at Nottingham’s Rock City where I worked for around ten years 1984-1994. At the age of twenty I started out (relatively) innocent working in the night club environment of Rock Bands and by the age of thirty I was glad to escape alive. In 1994 I moved out of the city to Gainsborough a Lincolnshire Market Town and worked the sound with many wonderful musicians at the live theatre ‘Trinity Arts Centre’ – this was a far more relaxing and enjoyable period in my life and gave me the time to pursue the various research programs I had started work on many years earlier and also where I met the other half of the company and my best friend Jan without whom there would be no Missing Link and no Vinyl Passion ( well not in the business sense)!

Who or what was the biggest influence on your career?

Well this could go on for a long time as there are so many-not least simply my love of music. I think the primary thing that encouraged my interest in cables and subsequently some years later led to The Missing Link was a piece of data that was published in (I think) a magazine called ‘The Audiophile’. If I remember correctly the article was written by Hiroyasu Kondo on cable capacitance and the data proved that capacitance could affect the shape of the AC waveform passing through the cable at audio frequency. This was the first paper I had seen that made any sense to my own way of thinking and from reading this publication a mild interest grew into a 30 year research monster that overtook my life with a need to totally understand cables! The yearning to understand cables at their working frequency, what could be done to improve performance electrically, the chemical structure behind the metallurgy to the micro phonic effects of the insulators as well as pre and post production studies has not left me and this lust for knowledge has helped develop The Missing Link hand production techniques that preserve the delicate cable conductors. This initial data further encouraged my curiosity about connectors – I must by now have measured well over 200 connector types from many different companies to check impedance and contact resistance is at its intended bandwidth – these measurements are what interest me in a connector used for audio as this detail is the most important factor for superb performance – not, as many companies believe – how big or shiny it is!
If I may be permitted, I have to add a second major influence here, my audio hero and one of the finest designers of our time and a true inspiration: Peter Walker – in the immortal words of Bill and Ted ‘we are not worthy’! The ‘Current Dumping’ amplifiers, although a joint project was a revolutionary change in amplifier design and the Electrostatic Loudspeaker a work of pure genius and my Reference Loudspeaker to this day.
Proudest moment/product you’re most proud of?

From a work perspective certainly the pure Silver Link family of cables. There are many years of research behind them but they would not be the cables they are today without the kind assistance of Dr Anthony Swiss, a passionate and enthusiastic Archaeological metallurgist with a passion for music. His electron microscope work was essential in helping us develop the annealing process that is used in our wire post production and that is now produced from a very specific ore to our own requirements. Based on many years of research for a particular chemical finger print that offers the perfect path for the electrons to travel, this sets our cables aside from any other designs that I am aware of. The offshoot from this work has also lead to us producing the world’s lowest contact noise mains connectors which we back with electrical measurement- A world first from The Missing Link in the design and production of Silver plated Mains Connectors which we started to sell commercially in 2002. They are now widely copied, sadly with descriptions that simply do not make sense – no wonder the consumer gets confused. I am also very proud of our humble Dust Buster Stylus Cleaner that is now sold all over the world at a pace I could never have imagined.
You and your system

What was your very first system?

If we don’t include the first crystal radio kit I built at the age of 12 or the various transistor radios I owned, it would be a Ferguson music centre with an S shaped arm. I can remember drooling through my mum’s catalogue pages looking at all the music centres in the 70’s when I would have been around 14 and ceaselessly pestering her until the Christmas of 77 when it finally landed under the Christmas tree. The Ferguson soon took pride of place in my bedroom – my bed was a pile of sheepskin rugs (sent from my uncle in Australia) under a fishing umbrella with Christmas tree lights. I used to lay in the dark listening to David Bowie in the glow of the vu metres.. my mum was very understanding !
Tell us about your system history

Wow this would take a long time my first separate turntable was a second hand Pioneer PL 12D which at the age of 16 quickly got stripped! I made my own Balsa wood chassis (an offshoot from model aircraft making) and supported it on baby milk tins with balloons inside for suspension. The next turntable was a Sansui 222 Mk-IV and my first real Hi Fi TT . After this, simply by chance came the start of a long term romance with 3 point suspended turn tables. I was lucky enough to discover a TD-150 in a skip near my house with a missing tone arm – this is the grandfather to the modern LP-12. I took it home and the Sansui was butchered for its arm and cabling and it was obvious to me quite quickly that there was something very musical about the suspended turntable design. I then went the obvious route and ended up with an LP-12. Next came an Oracle Delphi MK II with Rega 250 and eventually an SME tone arm, still in my opinion one of the finest tone arms in the world and the very reason I manufacture many of my turntable upgrades from Magnesium Alloy but this was meant to be audio nirvana yet I still found aspects lacking. Next came an SME 10, a total departure from suspended. The SME was very particular about support by comparison but I had not sold my older turntables and over the years spent many hundreds of hours comparing them by this time (and this is the short version). I had also started dealing hi fi equipment by this time from our Vinyl Passion premises and home – a converted Co-op & Butchers shop, so a whole new world of equipment had opened up to me. The words ‘kid in a candy store’ come to mind. I now only sell what I would listen to myself and I love installing systems for our customers. The turntable I listen mostly to now is of my own design and combines what I consider to be the very best of materials and components.
What component/product do you miss the most/wish you had never got rid of?

Pioneer CTF 950 Tape Deck – superbly built machine and one of the few items I have owned that I never modified. I purchased another from E Bay a few years back but sadly it was in a terrible state on arrival. I listened to a lot of music on that machine in my first purpose kitted out listening room with a paving slab and brick built stand fully acoustic lined room with acoustic ceiling tiles ….. many happy memories.

Best system (or single component) you have ever heard (no brands you represent please…!)

Apart from systems that I have set up myself the Biggest Sonic Impact that a full system has made on me must be my visit to The House of Linn in Manchester. Jan and I were among the first to hear their Linn Exact System. We spent the evening with Brian, Trevor & David Price – at the time Editor for Hi Fi Choice. Brian and Trevor are highly knowledgeable, very hospitable and have a genuine passion for music – we listened to both vinyl and digital but what stood out for me was Touch by Yello – absolutely divine. By this time we were well settled in on our second bottle of wine and the system was nice and warm … this was a spiritual experience. The Exact System was sounding simply stunning and all enveloping. I have applied for a trade account with Linn and they never seem to reply so I am most certainly not linked! If you are reading this Linn staff feel free to contact me…

Tell us about your current system(s)

(s) Being the Main word.. … I mainly listen to vinyl having a rather large collection. The Vinyl Passion Music room (also home) is a large room, being an ex co op’s main sales area. I am still saving for acoustic curtains as the room has several peeks so choice of loudspeakers as with all rooms is paramount. Preferably I would use Quad 2905’s but the height is a problem with the cinema screen so we opted for Quad 2805’s. Wonderful Speakers.

I have tried so many combinations from so many manufactures over the years and also getting part exchanges regularly always offers a chance to broaden horizons. Nearly everything I own came about by a chance encounter or by reading technical specs that just make sense from an engineering point of view and then do not disappoint on audition. I strongly believe that the only way you can audition a piece of equipment is in your own environment and there is no right or wrong sound only what is right for you!

My analogue front ends are three main turntables – A self modified TD-150 with Rega 202 & Sumiko Pearl – for me it’s where the real obsession started and still a hugely musical performer with the right tweaks and a good basic arm and cart. Next TT I listen to is my own version of the LP-12 we call it the VP-12 it still carries a Linn main bearing and platter but the rest is my own design – the arm is a Linn Magik carbon fibre, the cartridge a Benz Ace SL… very musical detailed and dynamic. Finally a prototype that has evolved over the years and is a marriage of the best of the LP-12 and the best of the SME, not surprising given the Linn is the most foot tapping musical turntable I have encountered for all its short comings in standard form and the SME is the most dynamic and accurate, but somehow seems to lack the musicality of the Linn so enter The Golden Ratio as I like to call it. It is fully constructed from aerospace magnesium alloy carbon fibre and titanium the prototyping alone has kept me in the poor house! This is constantly developing but in its current state I find it hugely musical – it sports an SME 309 magnesium tone arm and the mighty Benz Glider SL and when I sit and listen I really am in the zone. It is not a league better than the VP-12 but I really cannot ask for more. The only limitation tends to be the recording.

Next in line is the obvious phono stage and my reference listen is the Ming Da 2006 with NOS Russian Gold pin valves and I also use The Vincent PH-700 as my reference budget box. I don’t really need to mention which cables and mains conditioning I use – I have three dedicated spurs and all sockets and connectors are pure Silver plated with the lowest measurable contact resistance available (I know as I have measured it and the data is public).

The pre amplifier I use is Ming Da MD7-SE fitted with TJ Full music’s and Golden Dragon and this alternately feeds my favourite amplifiers Ming Da 805 mono’s which sing so sweetly and also the Vincent MK-331 which I think is one of the most musical and affordable power amplifiers available and provides plenty of current to keep the Quads in line for my rock music.

Digital Vincent CDS-6 – rather dusty.

Stream FLAC direct from USB via Panasonic to M Audio Super DAC 24/192 … trying the Simple Audio Room Player at present and so far very impressed. Although for pure emotion Vinyl wins hands down every time.
The state of the industry

What’s your view on the valve renaissance of the past 20 years or so?

It has slowly becomes obvious to the general hi fi enthusiast, if such a person exists, that whenever you see high end equipment valves have always been present – at that level it has never changed and for good reason. Quality valve amplifier’s 10 years ago were prohibitively costly to the general consumer but now with Chinese manufacturers offering arguably the same quality with really good entry level EL34 designs starting at less than £1000 new it’s not surprising they have increased in popularity and in my opinion a good basic EL34 design is eminently more musical than anything solid state can offer at that price level and the second hand market is even more tempting – never has there been a more exciting time to be an audiophile.

For me valves never left. Although I think the finest all-around systems are made from both valve for its sweet and expansive if somewhat romantic soundstage and solid state for its sheer current capability and damping factor this brings speed and dynamics to the party that a full valve system can never hope to achieve. Listening to a diverse range of music from Crass to Debussy I need a good all-rounder!!! For human voice i.e. simple female vocal or simple acoustic recordings single ended triodes are king but put Jeff Beck or Hawkwind on and they will collapse into mush unless your loudspeakers are 100+ db

What are your views on the state of the industry/where is it going/what will it look like in 5 years/what will typical systems look like?/What will happen to prices?/What will happen to the high end – will it carry on regardless?
I really don’t think it will look a lot different. I do think Vinyl is on the increase and this makes me very happy. Vinyl is a very intimate and tactile way to use music. I love the feel and smell of an LP sleeve and the artwork that accompanies can simply not be matched by any other format. I have dedicated a wall at home that is covered with a choice from my favourite recordings.

It makes me feel happy to know others are now discovering what was once thought to be a disappearing experience and according to industry figures this is set to increase with new pressing plants being opened. The quality of polyvinyl is now far superior and Vinyl record sales have been outstripping the now almost dead format of compact disc. There will always be a market for high end as it seems this sector of the market is driven by passionate professionals or even borderline personalities that will forever push the envelope to the point where the line between engineering and art become increasingly blurred- there seems to be no limit to high-end as there is no limit to our passion for the recorded arts.

What are the industry’s biggest con(s)?

Marketing is a many edged sword and they all cut. It’s a sad fact but no surprise to any realist that in this industry those with the biggest budgets and that feed most mouths will receive constant praise and awards regardless of product quality. I have several friends in the Hi Fi press and they are all on someone’s leash – this may not be a popular statement but it is a fact. There are many companies that are 95% marketing and 5% product in my opinion. If you’re not passionate about the music you should find another job – enthusiasts need to support enthusiasts. There was a certain magazine with a certain editor who constantly raved about a certain company for three years – the praise was stratospheric as were the prices and it worked well and sales hit the multi millions. It is no surprise he is now employed by them in the marketing division when at the time he claimed no connection. He also claimed one of their loudspeaker cables was good value at £30k. Where I come from you can almost buy a terraced house for that much and I worked out while having a jovial chat with my good friend and ex Hi Fi News writer Janine Elliot that for that price you could have purchased enough QED79 to go around the world. I have published many engineering papers over the years and submitted them to the press and received not even a reply so I wonder how can a magazine that calls itself ‘news’ be News if it has no interest in the industry apart from promoting its partners? I feel sure there have been many small companies held back by this in the past but the internet is somewhat of a revolution as it enables real end users to tell other real end users what is good and not good. Sadly even this is now widely abused by those seeking their own ends but time tends to root out the obvious.

The way you work

Presuming the measurements are fine, what do you listen for when assessing products?

Being first and foremost an engineer I must admit that measurements come first. I have listened to countless claims of “we developed it by listening “ all too many times if you quiz so called designers who make these claims they will often know little of the relative subject relating to what they are supposedly designing and this always makes me suspicious but as they say the proof is in the pudding. I am in the lucky position to have many academics on my friends list and I specialise in electronics and material science, but even with a second life there would not be enough time to digest all the things that interest me. If there is something I am not sure of, as is often the case when I am problem solving, I usually know a specialist who will know the answer or will have access to the necessary test and measurement equipment required together with opportunity for some lab time. It goes hand in hand that not only the equipment I design myself but also some of the finest equipment I have listened to is based on sound engineering principals to coin a pun.

Your sound preference -‘Smooth, listenable musicality’, ‘forward, driving, ‘foot-tapping’, involving sound’ or ‘detailed neutrality and transparency’?

Natural

Your preference – Full-range floorstanders or freestanding mini monitors with a sub?

It would depend on the room size etc but acceptable floor standers every day of the week -preferably electrostatic. The transient speed of an electrostatic transducer cannot be matched by a moving coil this is simply a measurement fact based on moving mass – it measures good and it sounds good as the phase is more linear than a coil could ever dream of !

It’s all about the music, man…

What is your favourite recording?

Stina Nordenstam – Memories of a Colour – on vinyl ( spellbinding )

Tell us about your 3 most trusted test recordings

Thomas Dolby Astronauts & Heretics – this was his last recording on vinyl and is now getting increasingly rare – every Dolby recording has a sound theme and this is a heady mix of blue grass and electronic – Dolby’s trademark. I am a huge fan of all of his work and this is a spectacular recording the speed rhythm and dynamics – I live in a suitcase has a huge soundstage ironically and the Non Sisters is a dark and moody tale of friends lost – certainly a desert island disk.
Only being allowed 3 choices I have around 40 reference recordings I use I was torn by Yello Pocket Universe as this will test any system to the limit with is driving rhythmic trance or Crime of the Century Super Tramp MOFI both again are technical masterpieces.You choose !

Sting Soul Cages although I was not a huge fan originally, but the recording genius is undeniable. Hugh Padgham has to be in the top 5 recording engineers/producers in the world today and I am a huge fan of his work and even collect recordings just because he has worked on them. He is another constant on which you can trust and this is some of his finest work.

What are your most embarrassing recordings/guilty musical pleasures

ABBA on occasion ( I don’t dress up… honest ) Debussy Children’s Corner – my website might give that away … don’t tell anybody though that’s my street cred down the pipe – hang on, I am past 50 so it don’t matter anymore.. Guilty as when I am feeling rebellious.. Not so often nowadays it takes effort .. I will spin Feeding of the 5000 Crass that usually makes me unpopular with the family but I do enjoy it.. I traded my walk on part in the wall!
Having safely ushered your loved ones out of the house as it is burning down to the ground, you ignore all standard safety advice and dash back inside to grab just one recording – what is it?
Spring by Spring first pressing mint on the neon 6 label pride of my prog rock collection and getting rather rare. I take it out once in a while stroke it then put it back (the record sleeve that is) Enjoy !!!

Mark Sears … Partner of The Missing Link & Vinyl Passion UK.

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