Some audiophiles spare no expense to get the very best sound-reproduction equipment money can buy. They will happily plunk down US $20,000 for a pair of loudspeakers or pay $1600 for one of the more highly regarded preamplifiers. And price tags an order of magnitude higher are not unheard of.
Expensive stuff looks great and impresses your friends, but does spending more really ensure that you’ll get a better product? Blind testing has proved that proposition is no more true for audio gear than it is for wine. Still, many people who manufacture or review audio equipment persist in making subjective judgments, which are often influenced by the price tag. This practice badly irritated an anonymous electrical engineer known to the world only by his online moniker, NwAvGuy.
Starting in February 2011, NwAvGuy began ruffling feathers in audio circles by strenuously arguing on his blog and other online forums that the only proper way to evaluate audio equipment is to use quantitative blind testing. He used such tests to expose audio gear that had been highly touted in subjective assessments but in fact performed worse than some cheap alternatives.
But NwAvGuy wasn’t just shouting from the sidelines. He exposed his own skills to critique by presenting an open-source design for a headphone amp that he called the Objective 2 (O2). He created it for people who use full-size headphones with, say, MP3 players, which are typically designed to drive earbuds. On his blog, NwAvGuy boasted that his minimalist amplifier—which can be purchased for as little as $129—“proves you don’t need exotic parts or esoteric circuit designs for best-in-class sound, accuracy, and performance.”
His creation made a splash in the DIY-audio community. People started building his amplifiers using the design documents and detailed notes that NwAvGuy provided online. Then various vendors started producing and selling assembled versions of the O2 amplifier—most prominently JDS Labs in the United States and Epiphany Acoustics in the United Kingdom, whose version won Hi-Fi World magazine’s Best Headphone Amplifier of the Year award for 2012. “[The O2] was phenomenal,” says John Seaber of JDS Labs. “We put it into immediate production.”
When Seaber first contacted NwAvGuy about his plans to manufacture the O2, he expected a lengthy response from this blogger, who regularly posted 10,000-word essays. NwAvGuy would no doubt want his name all over the assembled units, Seaber thought. But he was surprised by the brevity of NwAvGuy’s response, which asked for no such thing. Indeed, he asked for nothing in return. He even made a point of coordinating design changes with Seaber and others who sold his amplifier. “He was basically a free employee,” says Seaber.
“I don’t want any revenue from the O2,” NwAvGuy wrote on his blog, “but I do humbly request everyone please respect the license, which includes proper attribution.” But the particular open-source license he applied—Creative Commons CC BY-ND—requires more than just proper attribution: It forbids derivative works. This is different from most open-source projects, which are released with the intent of letting others build on the original, perhaps improving things and, in any event, ensuring that useful designs will not languish if the creator goes bankrupt, loses interest, or otherwise moves on.
This wasn’t a problem while NwAvGuy remained engaged with the people building his designs, which grew to include a digital-to-analog audio converter board. He designed the converter in collaboration with George Boudreau, who runs Toronto-based Yoyodyne Consulting. NwAvGuy kept his identity secret even from Boudreau, who has some guesses as to why: “He said he had received e-mail threats.” Boudreau also speculates that NwAvGuy might not have wanted an employer to know about his moonlighting.
But in July 2012, NwAvGuy went silent. E-mails weren’t returned, and blog posting ceased. “He had gone quiet before—for a month or so,” says Boudreau. But no one has heard a peep from NwAvGuy in more than a year and a half.
It was always NwAvGuy’s prerogative to stop blogging or giving advice. But his mysterious disappearance created a predicament when the power jack used in the O2 amplifier went out of production. Equivalent replacements remain easy to source, but they don’t fit the holes in NwAvGuy’s original printed circuit board.
“He made it so you could see it, but not touch it,” says Seaber. That is, while Seaber and others had the files they needed to have printed-circuit boards made, no one but NwAvGuy had the original layout file, which would allow easy changes. So even after Seaber had wrestled with the thorny ethical and legal issue of whether to modify the board—which he decided was okay in this case because it didn’t violate NwAvGuy’s fundamental intent—he had to figure out how to make the changes. Fortunately, the only thing needed was to increase the diameter of three holes, which with a little sleuthing through one of the manufacturing-control files Seaber was able to do.
Why didn’t NwAvGuy allow derivative works? “NwAvGuy was ripping manufacturers apart left and right,” says Seaber. “He didn’t want to see tweaked versions of his designs” that didn’t perform well. Reasonable enough. But it’s unclear what will ultimately become of this immensely successful open-source project if nobody else can become its steward in NwAvGuy’s absence.
The bigger question: Has NwAvGuy stopped communicating with others for reasons of his own, or could he have been hit by a bus, as they say? One hint comes from the fact that the domain name registration for NwAvGuy.com was renewed in March 2013, eight months after he stopped communicating, which suggests he didn’t suffer some terrible accident or illness. If the mystery engineer is alive and well, he’ll presumably renew his domain again this March as well. Or perhaps that’s too much of an assumption to make about this Scarlet Pimpernel of the DIY-audio world.
This article originally appeared in print as “In Search of NwAvGuy.”