I had the rare opportunity recently to catch up with Audio Note UK head honcho, globetrotter, music lover, and hi fi-industry legend Peter Qvortrup, who graciously agreed to be assailed with questions by me regarding what his company has up its sleeve for 2016. Qvortrup is a man I’ve offered to drink beer with more than most in this industry (which is saying something), so let me first say “thank-you Peter,” for taking time out of a very busy Christmas holiday schedule to answer my barrage of questions. Without further ado, I give you Mr. Peter Qvortrup.
RA: Peter, there are rumors floating around that the TT Three is being rolled out in mid-2016, can you comment on this and if it’s true, then obviously you and your engineering/design/manufacturing teams were able to solve the motor problem you alluded to in our previous conversation this summer regarding the TT Three in one of two ways: were you able to source the motors you needed from a third-party manufacturer, or did you have to take design and construction of the motors in-house, as you feared you may have to do?
And, with this new motor, is there any thought to making it the de facto AN UK turntable motor across the line of ‘tables in current production (TT One, TT Two, TT Two Deluxe) up to and including the TT Three?
Also, has the final pricing been established for the TT Three, and what will the outboard power supply look like (does it have one)?
PQ: We finally appear to have solved the problems we had with the constancy of the motors, so we shall start gearing up for production of the standard TT Three and the TT Three Super in January 2016, we will be using Papst motors after all, but it will be a modified version without internal speed control, as these turned out to be the source of the wow and flutter we were experiencing, instead of the internal motor controls we have designed a highly accurate power supply/speed control which controls all three motors simultaneously so they are locked to the same control frequency and voltage and that has solved the problem.
As far using these motors in the cheaper turntables, this is unlikely as they are far more expensive than the one currently used.
RA: The AN-E speaker range is getting company in the form of a version equipped with a 10″ mid-bass/bass driver and larger cabinet. In a previous conversation with me you referred to this new speaker design as the “Big-E.” Can you further elaborate on the design complexities your team is working on overcoming?
PQ: Speaker design is highly a complex affair, the interaction between drivers, crossover, cabinet, port position and dimensions, material choices etc. determined the eventual sound, and we insist on making sure that if a customer upgrades from a standard AN-E to the bigger model, if for example he/she has moved to a place where the rooms are much bigger, then the speaker has to offer the same level of coherence and driver integration that the AN-E offers, and that is not a small problem to overcome.
RA: You told me that bringing the current AN-E design to fruition from Peter Snell’s original designs took you and AN UK engineers four years. Would it be safe to say this is a project that could take some time to perfect?
PQ: The ‘BIG AN-E,’ as the project is called, is still in development, we need to redevelop the tweeter as I am not happy with the integration with the woofer, although compared to most conventional speakers it is really very good indeed, but when comparing to the AN-E proper, the coherence and integration between the drivers is not quite there yet and if we are to bring a model out which is suitable in larger rooms and allows for positioning out of the corners then it still has to have the same seamless transition between woofer and tweeter and back that the AN-E offers and this is no small challenge, so don’t hold your breath!
RA: You mentioned the possibility of an entirely new tweeter design to address coherence issues to deal with the larger main-driver unit, would SEAS be tapped to help build the new tweeter to your specifications?
PQ: I believe that in order for us to get the tweeter to “meet” the woofer better we need to increase its size to probably 1 ¼ inch from the 1 inch we use in the AN-E. We are working with SEAS and a couple of other speaker driver manufacturers to design a suitable tweeter as we speak. We will most likely buy the diaphragm/voice coil from one supplier, the magnet elsewhere (China probably, as they seem to be the only place these things are made now) the top and bottom plate here in the UK and then SEAS will assemble and test them, although we may decide to do this in-house, as I am trying to move as much in-house as possible, so we shall see. I would be hugely surprised if we have a final pre-production version of the BIG E ready in 2016, integrating the sound of a 1 ¼-inch dome tweeter and a 10-inch woofer is not a simple matter.
RA: Why do you feel the need to add to the current speaker line up?
PQ: Good question. We have been looking at developing a speaker that would work in larger room for many years, the old Snell Type C, is still in my view the best way of achieving this and we have been working for years on re-engineering the concept developed by Peter Snell. The problems making an improved version of the Type C are legion, we bought the IP (Intellectual Property) rights to the Oaktron tweeter quite some time ago, and have been working on getting the midrange and woofer remade. We are slowly getting there, but the internal competition for time to do these developments mean that it is a very slow process.
Andy Whittle, who fills two position in the company, sales manager primarily, but who is also a pretty sharp speaker engineer, ex-Rogers, Mordaunt Short and Celestion, felt that we could make a 10-inch version of the AN-E more easily, so that is what we decided to do, the three-way development is ongoing as well, but it has a longer time horizon, so in the meantime he felt we could perhaps try a combination of a 10-inch woofer and a dome tweeter, I have no doubt that this project will take less time and cost a great deal less than redeveloping the Type C design given we have to develop three new drivers for that.
RA: Will the BIG AN-E also feature the possibility of an external crossover like the current AN-E Signature models?
PQ: If, or should I say when (?), the BIG AN-E hits the market, it will come in the same versions as we offer now with the High Efficiency models of the AN-E, with either internal or with external crossover, depending on price point and a variety of cable and parts options.
RA: Audio Note UK is not a company I perceive as one that is all about introducing new models and upgrades constantly. That’s not to say you don’t have a heavy focus on R&D, but again, a lot of that seems behind the scenes, so to speak, with subtle tweaks and changes to current models that you don’t seem to really announce or discuss.
PQ: A key aspect of our market and product strategy is to keep models relatively unchanged for many years. Doing this requires us to do our homework properly BEFORE we release a product, so we have to make sure that it cannot be easily improved without increasing the cost. The development time of new products under that scenario is a pretty slow and painstaking effort, but the benefits are considerable over time. Customers realize how this approach rewards them with better overall sound and a much improved resale value should they ever decide to upgrade or sell.
We have had a massive R&D program running all the time, where we look at all sorts of things, focused mainly in two areas; materials technology and circuit/power supply designs.
The circuit part of this is largely coming to an end, as I think we are about to have explored all the avenues available that offer genuine improvements, so the focus has shifted to the development of genuinely better sounding audio parts, so over the past six – seven years, developing the best possible resistors and electrolytic capacitors has taken centre stage if you will.
We have worked with the same resistor manufacturer for more than 20 years. Six years ago we decided that the only way for us to get a proper dialogue started with them was to go to the factory and sit down with their engineering team and discuss the ideas we have had for years about how to improve the sound of resistors. We know from products of the past, like the Shinkoh resistors, that using non-magnetic materials has a considerable effect on the sound for example, so we wanted to have versions of our current Tantalum resistors made that use copper/brass rather than nickel/iron as end caps.
During our first meeting with the engineering team it became obvious that they were far more willing to help us experiment than we had ever imagined. We asked them if they thought it would be possible to make resistors with silver end-caps and silver wire lead-out wires, they were doubtful, but willing to try. It took five years, and nearly £150,000 ($240,000 USD) to make the first few silver resistor samples, so we could actually test how they sounded. Fortunately, the sound was superb, possibly even better than expected.
As part of the process we had to have a special annealable silver material made where the hardness could be controlled, otherwise the 99.9% silver is too soft for the end cap to hold on to the resistor body. To do this we had to find a specialist metallurgist to develop a silver alloy where the hardness could be controlled and which also did not completely negate the sonic benefits of silver.
We ended up with an alloy with a mixture of Germanium and 99.9% silver. It took four attempts to get the material processing to make the silver anneal evenly. Each time we made a few resistors at enormous cost, probably the world’s most expensive resistors!
We received the first 10,000 2-watt Tantalum-silver resistors in late November 2015. Next on the agenda are the 1 and ½ watt versions, but because the silver end-caps are much smaller, the manufacture may pose as yet unexpected problems, we shall see.
We have never dealt directly with Rubycon, which is a very large company indeed, and all my attempts to speak to them directly in Japan came to nothing. I have the good fortune to have a Japanese friend, Seiichi, who at the time was head of Suntory in Europe, when he retired seven years ago and went back to Japan I asked him if he would be able to speak to Rubycon (and our resistor supplier) directly to see if it would be possible to set up meetings with their engineering department. As vice president of Suntory he was able to open doors that I had unsuccessfully tried to open for years, so I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his help getting through to Rubycon.
We originally focused on finding a way to replace the Black Gate capacitors which were discontinued eight years ago now, but as our discussions with Rubycon over the first two years’ visits developed, it became clear that we could jointly develop a full range of consummate quality electrolytic capacitors at different price points to suit both very expensive, but also much cheaper products. A consistent supply of good, if not exactly exceptional parts, is very important. In some ways, more important, as the quality of many parts brought in from the general-market suppliers vary enormously in sonic quality, in spite of having virtually identical specifications. A clear example why making our own will be a benefit!
RA: In an industry where it’s common to have upgrade cycles measured in months and new models introduced twice a year, AN UK seems rather measured in its pace.
PQ: As I mentioned above, I hold the view that real audio technology does not move forward at any real pace, if at all (introducing technologies developed for satellite transmission, computer power supplies, Class-D amplifiers, computer storage systems, streaming, and all manners of other clever non-audio stuff, does not in our view constitute improvements in sonic quality. Contrary to all the claims made about how wonderful these are). We work on the basis that the technology that made a venerable amplifier in 1950, or 1920, and where the original examples are still highly prized for their sonic quality (can I say in this regard that history really is the final arbiter of sound quality irrespective of what past or current reviewers may think, real sonic quality is determined by the value a product has 20 or 30 years after it was made, not how well reviewed it was at the time it was available).
My question to customers who disparage valve amplifiers is always, “OK, so how many 20 – 30 year old transistor amplifiers can you mention that have any value (meaning someone will actually pay money for it)?” in general there is no answer to this question, as most of these amplifiers are gone long before they get this old, now the next question is “So how many 30 – 40 year old valve amplifiers can you mention that people would buy now?” This list becomes quite extensive – depending on how knowledgeable whoever is answering the question is – Quad, Radford, Leak, Marantz, Fisher, Harman-Kardon, and so many others, so what we can conclude is that while fashion favours more modern technology, time tells the opposite story, which is partly why we make the products we make.
RA: Are there new products in the works that you can discuss? Tonearms, cartridges, pre-amplifiers, cables? I’ve heard tell of a ladder DAC possibly debuting in the near future, can you comment on that?
PQ: Apart from the new TT Three models we are working on a new pre-amplifier circuit which will revolutionize the sound of line pre-amplifiers. A new all-silver ultimate mains cable, the SOOTTO Mains, a cheaper MC cartridge below the IoI, and an R2R ladder DAC, we are also close to finishing a 32 and a 48-step attenuator with solid silver contacts, a competitively priced EL34 integrated amplifier, and one or two other things!
RA: Some of the best companies, IMHO, manufacture every aspect of a high-quality music playback system with idea that it is a holistic approach (AN UK, and Shindo come to forefront of mind).
That from source to speaker and everything in-between, each and every component in the audio chain is complimentary to one another and designed and voiced with one another in mind. What are your personal thoughts on this, and do you think it’s fair to say that that is an approach that AN UK prides itself on?
PQ: Without being too modest, I think we are probably the only manufacturer that actually makes everything in-house, do any real serious, and basic research and development, and make a complete products range end-to-end, and bottom-to-top using custom-made parts.
My belief is that in order for an audio chain to work properly all the interfaces between the different parts have to be very carefully managed. The standard audio industry approach, which is to combine products from different manufacturers – who have very different ideas what constitutes “good”– creates a mishmash sound which in most cases is limiting the sound, rather than expanding it, as each part detracts from the other because there are barriers to the signal at each junction point. A fact that makes it hard to raise the sound much above mediocrity, regardless of how expensive the individual parts are.
RA: We’ve seen record-breaking LP sales over the last several years as the music industry, and the world, seems to go through a vinyl, or analog, renaissance. People seem to want not only all their old favorite vinyl releases again, but they want the latest bands, and artists to release LP versions of their work too.
The problem, as I see it, is that many of these new vinyl pressings are sourced from digital files no better than 16/44, or are poorly pressed, poorly mastered, or both. People seem more obsessed with simply having vinyl rather than having well-mastered and well-pressed vinyl that is sourced from superior analog sources rather than digital files, which is a very different situation from what previous generations had to choose from when it came to analog. There was a time not too long ago when there was no digital source, only tape.
What do you think of this new phenomenon, and is there a point to educating people to these differences?
PQ: CD still outsells LP many times, and I don’t think that will change for some time to come, but it is encouraging to see LP sales increase as much as they are doing. I think physical media are essential to the whole culture of listening to quality music. The far less encouraging thing is, as you correctly say, modern recordings are digital, and in a way it is a paradox that LPs made from digital masters sound any good at all, and some do, but I think if it revives the culture of sitting down in front of a stereo system and listen to a whole album, it is a price worth paying.
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