It’s been a big year for AudioQuest, which has usually been thought of as a maker of audio and video interconnects and cables. In 2015 it launched its new lines of headphones and power filters, and released the second phase of its digital source devices. Earlier this year, I spent a day at AudioQuest’s headquarters, in Irvine, California. In the company’s listening room, I was treated to a demonstration of a prototype version of what has since become AQ’s flagship power filter, the Niagara 7000 Low-Z Power Noise-Dissipation System. I also talked with Skylar Gray, Director of Ear-Speaker Products; Garth Powell, Director of Power Products; and Bill Low, Founder and CEO/Chief Designer. All three, along with AQ stalwart Joe Harley, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, share a palpable passion for music and the playback of recordings of music, and each has an independent vision of what is still to be achieved in high-performance audio systems that complements the visions of the other three.
Part One of my discussion with Bruno Putzeys, we explored some early turning points in his audio education and career, his exciting period of blue-sky experimentation and commercial-product design at Philips, and his move to Hypex in 2005, where he expanded the boundaries of class-D amplification with the development of NCore. In Part Two, the conversation returns to 2005 and the formation of Grimm Audio, then brings us up to date with the launch of Mola-Mola, the products shipping at the start of the second quarter of 2014, and the groundbreaking Mola-Mola DAC, which will follow in 2015.In
Pete Roth: Looping back in time a bit -- feedback pun intended -- did your leaving for Hypex coincide with the work you began doing with Grimm Audio?
Bruno Putzeys: More or less. Grimm essentially was started because I’ve always been interested in A-to-D and D-to-A converters, back from my days of deciding on my thesis. Around 2000 or 2001, I proceeded to build a discrete A/D-converter circuit, which at that point I was hoping to sell as a design to some professional audio manufacturers. It was set up as a 1-bit front end with a decimating back end done in DSP, but I never got to the latter because the front end happened to operate at exactly the same format as DSD. In those days, we had the first wave of DSD. So I tried to sell that, but I was not really much of a sales guy, and so I failed.
While you may not yet have heard of Bruno Putzeys, it’s likely you will in the coming years. Already, his name is very well established in Audio Engineering Society circles. Based in Belgium, Putzeys graduated magna cum laude from the National Technical School for Radio and Film, in Brussels, and began his career at Philips’s Applied Technologies Lab, where he worked for the better part of a decade. He is responsible for the development of the Universal class-D (UcD) amplifier modules now made by Hypex for industry manufacturers and DIY hobbyists, as well as the new, state-of-the-art NCore class-D amplifier modules featured in cutting-edge audio equipment such as Bel Canto Design’s newly launched Black. Putzeys is also one of several equal partners in Grimm Audio, a company that serves the professional recording industry and makes several well-regarded products designed by Putzeys, including the AD1 DSD analog-to-digital converter and the LS1 studio monitor.
In the second quarter of 2014, Putzeys’s first consumer products will begin shipping via his first consumer venture, Mola-Mola. The line will begin with a monoblock amplifier based on his NCore technology, and a highly configurable analog preamplifier that will include modular slots for the installation of an internal phono stage and, later, an onboard DAC and possibly even bypassable tone controls. Mola-Mola’s third product will be a standalone DAC, projected to ship in early 2015, followed by an integrated amplifier (according to Putzeys, a high priority) and perhaps even a standalone phono stage. Based on my experiences of listening to Mola-Mola prototypes, I think the industry is in for a treat -- the DAC has the potential to rewrite the rules for what’s possible in high-performance digital. It was my pleasure, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, to talk for 90 minutes with Bruno Putzeys as he stood on the verge of much wider recognition, to learn more about his past, his accomplishments and philosophies, and his hopes for Mola-Mola and the industry at large.
Amelia Haygood -- the visionary
Amelia Da Costa Stone was born in Gainesville, Florida, on July 15, 1919. At 16, her interest in languages and international relations took her to Paris, to study at the Sorbonne. After majoring in history and international law, she returned to the States and Washington, DC, to work for the US State Department as editor and director of publications for the Interdepartmental Committee for Cultural and Scientific Cooperation.
In 1942, Amelia married J. Douglas Haygood, a clinical psychologist, and her interest and skill as a therapist soon emerged. She pursued graduate studies in medicine and clinical psychology, and eventually she and her husband established a joint practice in Beverly Hills, California. After his death, in 1956, and the subsequent loss of a close friend through a long terminal illness, Amelia Haygood decided to go in a different direction. Her lifelong passion and interest in music, performers, recordings, and high-fidelity sound, as well as her graduate studies in psychoacoustics and the physics of music, helped shape her new trajectory.
Four frames of reference
Recording steelpan and other genres of acoustic music on location has been my main focal point since 1983. This portfolio was initiated with a portable Nakamichi DMP-100 encoder and Betamax storage system, in conjunction with a pair of Sennheiser HD 580 headphones for monitoring.
In the 30 years since, my recording suite has gradually evolved, and its epicenter is now a Pacific Microsonics Model One HDCD processor (the HDCD technology is now owned by Microsoft). Signal pickup is via two pairs of powered reference DPA microphones with associated preamplifiers: a cardioid Type 3512 and an omnidirectional Type 4004. An Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 hard-disk recorder stores all recorded information as high-resolution 24-bit files.
In today’s hi-fi market, if a company launches a product that sounds fantastic but looks awful, they’ll have as much, if not more, trouble selling it than if the opposite were true -- a sad state of affairs for those who would be happy to sacrifice visual appearance in the search for the ultimate sound quality. But with the way the consumer-electronics industry (think Apple and Samsung) and makers of other luxury goods (cars, watches, boats, you name it) have stepped up the style game, designers of high-end audio gear have pretty much had to ensure that their products’ looks befit their sound -- that, or get left behind by companies that do understand the need to optimize both form and function, regardless of a product’s cost.
One brand that I’ve noticed making real inroads in ensuring that its products are as beautiful as they sound is the Italian firm Sonus Faber, founded in 1981 by Franco Serblin but now owned by the Fine Sounds Group, also headquartered in Italy. Fine Sounds also owns Audio Research Corporation, McIntosh Labs, and Wadia Digital, all of which still make their products in the US; as well as Sumiko, a North American distributor based in Berkeley, California.
Based on what I saw and heard last January at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, powered or active loudspeakers seem to be a growing trend, especially at the cutting edge. Long a staple of the professional audio world, active speakers haven’t fared all that well among audiophiles. One might think that with the proliferation of multi-box digital playback systems and complex analog front-ends -- with their turntables, tonearms, cartridges, phono stages, disc cleaners, anti-static guns, electron-microscope-grade support systems, etc. -- audiophiles might have widely embraced the potential of active speakers. Perhaps they soon will.
Gryphon Audio Designs, Rockport Technologies, Vandersteen Audio, and YG Acoustic have now topped out their speaker lines with active or semi-active speakers. In Vivid Audio’s suite at the Mirage, I spent the better part of a morning with the company’s designer extraordinaire, Laurence Dickie, discussing the nuances of the active crossover modules he is preparing to offer as an option for Vivid’s Giya range of loudspeakers, which are already world-class transducers using passive crossover networks. While Dickie indicated that Vivid plans to offer an active quad-amplified, four-driver, line-level digital crossover network, all of the other examples (including what Dickie realizes will likely be the more popular choice Vivid will also offer) combine active and passive crossovers within a biamplified, multi-driver loudspeaker. In such a hybrid design, the active portion of the crossover feeds one amplifier specific to the low-frequency (LF) drivers, while the passive section of the crossover is connected to the other amp, which powers the rest of the drivers. Vandersteen, YGA, and Gryphon include amplification for the LF side of the split (Vandersteen also includes LF analog room correction), while Rockport and Vivid let the customer select amplification top and bottom.
Minimum resolution for digitizing vinyl
I received a number of e-mails following my April 2012 SoundStage! Hi-Fi editorial, “Why in the World Are Audiophiles Digitizing Vinyl?” Most of the letter writers expressed general interest in what sort of equipment would be best suited for the task, and a few wanted to see reviews of specific components. For our GoodSound! publication, Ron Doering reviewed the Parasound Zphono USB and I wrote about the Furutech Alpha Design labs GT40 -- both devices combine a phono preamplifier and USB-connected analog-to-digital converter (ADC) in a single box. Reviews of other relevant products are in the works.
One reader had a much more specific question:
Your articles have strongly suggested that higher-than-CD resolutions result in better audible quality than the ordinary CD can provide. If one digitizes from sources that do have such high quality (e.g., the new audiophile vinyl), then one might anticipate your recommendation: “buy an A/D converter that can do at least 24-bit/96kHz; don’t settle for the 16/44.1 that populates the budget market.”
Wouldn’t the same logic also suggest that digitizing older LPs does not need more than 16/44.1, since the masters did not contain information above what 16/44.1 can adequately capture? I may be a good representative of a subclass of readers: those who want to turn the page on the old LPs, cassettes, and CDs, only to adopt computer files as the future music medium, whatever the resolution of those files. For such people, would a good 16/44.1-only ADC still be a mistake? Key to answering this question is one’s knowledge of the masters used for LPs as late as the 1980s -- when CDs took over the market.
Thanks for providing food for thought. -- SC
Food for thought indeed . . .
Many audiophiles have systems comprising only digital sources. That may be a CD player or, increasingly, a computer connected to a DAC. More complex systems have multiple means -- e.g., disc transport, computer, and network streamer -- of feeding digital data to a single box for converting all those ones and zeros into the analog waveform required by the amplifier. In such cases, a new type of component has come to the fore: the digital preamplifier. These devices are not actually preamplifiers, in that they’re not providing an amplification stage. Instead, they offer source selection and volume control, so that they can be connected directly to a power amplifier with no need for the traditional analog preamp. Often, but not always, the volume control is implemented in the digital domain, which is what gives some audiophiles pause in using these devices as intended by their designers. Does a digital volume control really represent a sacrifice in performance?