Gary Morrison was a true legend of New Zealand hi-fi, and the man behind iconic amps from Craft, Plinius and PureAudio. SIMON BROWN shares memories of Gary, who died recently.
Fortunately for his mother, Gary Morrison wasn’t quite born with a soldering iron in his mouth. But he did start early, becoming interested in electronics as a schoolboy in 1960s Whangarei.
In that era before even kitset computers, those of tech leanings tended to express this by becoming interested in audio or photography. Gary was passionate about both. The story was told at his funeral in Wellington on February 18 of how he converted his wardrobe into a darkroom. At that time the likes of Dave Reid Electronics (a New Zealand equivalent of Jaycar or Radio Shack) had branches throughout New Zealand and produced many audio kitsets, and these shops were a stimulating environment for the budding enthusiast.
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Gary studied science at Auckland University at the beginning of the 1970s and photographs show a very cool guy with fashionable long hair and flares. By most accounts, he had a great time with the student life but was less enamoured with the formal studies. I am guessing his incisive intelligence and tendency to say, “Now hang on a minute, what did you mean by that?” would have been a severe test for any academic that didn’t really know their stuff and wasn’t able to support it with a strong argument. This was probably also indicative of Gary’s style of humour where punchlines were worked in as innocent questions and delivered with a nearly straight face. His funeral was full of funny stories.
The story that Gary told me was that after finishing with university, he found himself working on the production line at AWA (or Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) in Wellington in 1974. He was very rapidly shoulder tapped to train as an electronics technician. AWA made pretty decent amplifiers branded ‘Orthofidelity’ at that moment in tariff protected New Zealand. That proved influential in Gary’s ongoing interest and development.
I remember visiting Wellington in 1981 and seeing the newly launched Craft Audio CA1 / CA2 pre-power combo in the window of Wellington Audio And Records and thought it was just the coolest amplifier I had ever seen. I was new to audio and a poor engineering student so the price limited me to heavy breathing on the shop window. Even at that stage, Gary had a commitment to design that went beyond the electronics, enlisting Fraser Gardyne, a good friend and top designer to help to do the graphics.
Gary had left AWA to set up Craft Audio (and work part-time as a tutor in Electronics at Wellington Polytechnic). This was an exciting time for audio manufacturing in NZ as we had more than 10 serious amplifier manufacturers – Rait, Perreaux, McLaren, Plinius, Craft, Mega, Roberts, AuCom, Linx, Avalon and more. The 1986 Craft CA5 / Logic One pre-power pairing introduced the automatic source selection that was later used in the PureAudio Control One Preamp.
At the funeral, we also heard a story of how Gary (then of Craft Audio) and Peter Thomson of Plinius were in a lift at the 1987 Wellington Audio Show and a conversation started which led to them joining forces. Gary became a director of Plinius and ushered in the golden era for the company, first with the MA & SA100 family. Then Ross Stevens joined them to give them looks to match the outstanding sound with the Plinius Odeon (6 channels), which was the first product with the rounded corners (10mm thick aluminium) and widely copied radiused corners.
Gary left Plinius when it was taken over in 2006 and worked on a number of audio projects for other companies as well as doing small business IT work, something he has considerable skills for.
In 2009 Gary and Ross Stevens paired up to form PureAudio. This was their assault on the audio state of the art, the name implying purity of audio but also a purity of focus and philosophy.
Ironically, this was when I first got to know Gary directly as I was selling amplifier chassis for DIY audio enthusiasts and Gary approached me to buy a couple of identical preamp chassis for comparative testing* of different volume control methods. The first email I ever got from Gary was quizzing me about whether there were magnetic materials in the chassis.
This is revealing about what audio design philosophies were important to Gary that he honed to their highest point with PureAudio. For posterity, I’ve noted the ones I know of here:
– Chassis of non-magnetic materials
– Regulated power supplies, even of the output stage of power amplifiers, which is very hard to do.
– Dual Mono With each channel identical in track layout as much as possible.
– Single ended. Gary didn’t believe in balanced amplifiers
– Amplifier power 100W max. Gary was frustrated at the arms race of amplifier power, where lower power often meant the amplifier actually sounded better. I saw him do a demo with some 2m tall speakers from his friends at Von Schweikert when playing very loud. His modified multimeter showed no more than 25W was being used.
– Earthing was critical to Gary for purity of amplification. I left this to last not because it was the least but because it shows the subtlety of Gary’s design. Even if you had his amplifier schematic it would be hard to reproduce the sound without his attention to the physical layout of components and their connections.
I stayed in touch with Gary after this as I would often visit him when I was in Wellington seeing family who lived nearby. As I was just branching into the audio business proper, making tonearms, Gary became a mentor for me and he gave me much good audio business advice. We shared notes on international distributors. This led to the ‘Downunder Audio’ room at the 2016 THE Show in LA where we had an all-Australasian system that scored a couple of ‘Best Sound’ awards. (Wand Arms, Dohmann Helix 1 turntable, PureAudio amplification, Brigadier Loudspeakers, Les Davis accessories). This was pivotal for us all and resulted in collaboration in markets beyond the US.
This piece has focused on the audio side of Gary but he was multi-faceted in interests and experience, whether roasting his own coffee beans or fine-tuning his Mazda MX5. It is illustrative of his strong will and sense of ethics that Gary became a vegetarian as a teenager when a vegetarian meal in the 1960s would have involved removing the mutton from the plate of meat and three veg. Gary was profoundly private too, and would not push his own bandwagon or wave his product’s flag (except in a restrained Kiwi way). So at some levels, I feel I didn’t know him at all. I do know that he adored his family, including Dot the dog who was supposed to be his daughter’s dog. (Dot decided who was the top dog in the house and it was definitely Gary and would do amazing tricks to his delight.)
New Zealand readers may not have caught up just how good PureAudio amplifiers have become, as most have been sold offshore. It is worthwhile searching out overseas reviews from the last year. Gary was always improving his amplifiers and I don’t think this was always reflected in a model number change. I think it’s fair to say that PureAudio had been about to hit the big time internationally. Just where it goes from here is still being resolved after Gary’s death.
Production of The Wand EQ Phono, a cousin to the PureAudio LV1 phono, was just starting to ramp up late last year when Gary suddenly fell ill. It then took some time before the unexpected diagnosis of melanoma finally emerged. Before he died, Gary started working with me to enable the production of Wand phono stages to continue. I hope to restart in a few months and in his memory added a design acknowledgement on the serial plate and User Guide.
* Gary liked to try alternatives on his listeners as noted above. When developing The Wand EQ Phono stage variant, I was sent two PCBs – one labelled “This one” and the other “That one”. I never found out the detail of what exactly was different (but 7/7 listeners preferred “This one”)
Witchdoctor notes: To give an idea of just how humble and thoughtful Gary was, we received an email apology from Gary late last year. He’d been donating to Witchdoctor each month through Press Patron, but he’d been in hospital for some time and funds were temporarily unavailable. During the time he was contributing to Witchdoctor’s survival he didn’t once hit us up for publicity or coverage of his superb PureAudio gear. That’s integrity. – Witchdoctor Editor-in-chief, Gary Steel