Inside Track: In Memoriam, Max Townshend
David Price pays tribute to the hi-fi world’s very own Rock star…
The hi-fi world has lost many greats of late, so the news of Max Townshend's passing on 31st December 2021 was all the harder to stomach. They broke the mould when they made Max - a true eccentric, a huge character, and a gentle and personable man.
Originally from Sydney, Max graduated from the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering. His early professional years saw him work on all manner of engineering challenges, from instrumentation for anti-submarine reconnaissance equipment for the Royal Australian Air Force to the first microwave landing system for Heathrow airport.
Yet his real passions were music and hi-fi – in that order. So it was only a matter of time before he launched Townshend Audio in 1975, then. He started by marketing parabolic phono cartridge styli; these proved popular upgrades for existing moving-magnet pickups and duly put Max on the map. He then launched one of the first moving coils to use a line-contact stylus and then the iconic Rock turntable. The latter used the unique front end damping trough invented by Professor Jack Dinsdale and was a true advance in high-end turntable art.
It's hard to overstate the significance of the Rock; it arrived at a time when vinyl was at its absolute peak, and any contender for the 'best turntable in the world' was a very controversial thing. Its tonearm and cartridge damping system were highly innovative, and it won many friends. Commercial rivals were, of course, highly dismissive, however. It was a testament to Max's character that he was able to make this quirky deck a success in a very cliquey industry that didn't suffer fools – or newcomers – gladly.
To build on his early success, Max moved to the United Kingdom in 1978, where he soon made his presence felt. Specialist hi-fi was a fiercely contested industry back then, and it took the big man's indefatigable spirit and affable nature to make his mark. By the early eighties, Townshend Audio was an established and respected purveyor of vinyl front ends, but Max didn't rest on his laurels. What followed was a succession of fascinating and often quirky products that marked him out as one of hi-fi's true originals.
I first met Max in the early nineteen nineties, shortly after he'd launched the Seismic Sink. He was first to market with this highly effective vibration isolation system, and it took someone of his charisma and persuasive skills to make it a success. Whilst this subject might be taken as read in 2022, it was very controversial thirty-five or so years ago. However, Max was great at demonstrating the worth of his products and appeared with great regularity at hi-fi shows all around the world. He loved talking to enthusiasts and was always a stalwart of the bar after the visiting hours ended.
As the new century arrived, Max seemed to have really found his purpose in life. He was an inveterate fiddler, experimenter, developer and thinker. He left no stone unturned in developing interesting and often breathtakingly capable new products, which he often sold for a lot less than others would – if they could come up with them in the first place!
Max's work on audio cables – especially deep cryogenically treated interconnects and speaker cables – was particularly impressive, and he then came up with the excellent ribbon-based Maximum Supertweeter. He did some great CD players and DVD players, which were radical reworkings of established, popular models. His superb loudspeakers – such as the Glastonbury – sold in limited numbers and were among the best-kept secrets in hi-fi.
In the past decade, Max further upped the pace of product development when most men would have retired. For instance, he came up with the super sounding Allegri passive autotransformer preamp and then the stunning Allegri Reference – which is one of the finest preamplifiers that money can buy. In addition, he pushed hard with a range of Seismic vibration Isolation platforms and Podiums, letting source components, amplifiers and loudspeakers benefit from his technology.
Max was working right up to his untimely death at the age of 78 from heart failure. As well as being a hard grafter, Max was a real bon viveur and most partial to a glass of fine red wine to wash down a good meal. He was a great conversationalist with a lively and expansive mind; he seemed endlessly fascinated about so many things, relevant both to hi-fi and life itself. Unsurprisingly perhaps – given their innovative and advanced suspension systems – Max was a passionate fan of Citroen cars and loved his flagship C6. Max was always modest and self-deprecating despite his impressive career as an audio engineering innovator. He never seemed happier than when talking about interesting and/or abstract concepts to anyone who would listen.
His passing is an enormous loss to the hi-fi industry. Townshend Audio has never exactly been a mainstream manufacturer, but Max's stewardship of it made it a fascinating little enclave of the wider hi-fi world. The sound of his products speaks volumes; I still count his own personal system in the lounge of his house as one of the finest I've ever heard. To his great credit, he always aimed to do affordable designs – and never got distracted by seductive packaging or needlessly ornate styling. Instead, his products got the job done as inexpensively as possible.
Townshend Audio continues, run by Max's family, with several new products that the great man had been working on, in the pipeline. Yet, due to his tragic and premature passing, the hi-fi industry has just got a little bit smaller. All the same, his legend will live on.
Rest in peace, big man.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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