1. Back in Russia you had a significant academic career that included, as far as we know, some very interesting research in mechanisms of the human hearing. This “science-hifi” mix is a very rare combination. So, it’s very intriguing to ask: How close, after all, is/or must be a Hi-End design to real human hearing needs, and how difficult is to design real state of the art equipment without sacrificing the academic design approach to the marketing hype?
If we are talking about the audio equipment that should truly belong to hi-end category, it must be designed as close as possible to the real human hearing needs. Designing the equipment of such level is, indeed, a lofty and complicated task. Some aspects of it are disclosed in my answer to question #2. I just must add that it is quite difficult to maintain the balance between laying claims to designing the real state-of-the-art equipment and not sacrificing the academic design approach to the marketing hype. It is difficult from the viewpoint of ensuring commercial success of such equipment.
On the one hand, the designer operates with the sword of Damocles over his head, which is the cost of building. On the other hand, there is a desire to create the most perfect product, which unavoidably leads to increases (sometimes, quite significant one) in the cost of building. The next step is to resolve purely technical tasks related to reliability and longevity of the product, its “maintenability”, etc. which, in turn, demand the utilization of very reliable components expected to perform flawlessly over long periods of time. I’m not even discussing the issues of testing and selecting components suitable – based on the lack of their own sonic signature — for using in the hi-end equipment; this also adds to the cost of building. (Naturally, the handling of these issues largely depends of the designer’s experience, but the most important traits from my point of view are the readiness of the decision-maker not to compromise and also such “trivialility” as his understanding of how to design the audio equipment properly.
2. It is a fact that you know a lot about how the human brain senses the sound. In what degree this knowledge affects your design process and the final design itself? Listening tests and measurements were always slightly competing methods to evaluate a design. Do you feel that listening tests must have a bigger role in the final evaluation?
My total accumulated knowledge had led me to an understanding that there exist a very limited number of topologies suitable for creating truly high quality audio equipment. In my opinion, utilization of these methods sets very high standards in equipment design and, in turn (as was mentioned earlier), leads to the increase in production costs that determines a correspondingly high retail price. At the same time, we are able to immediately hear the difference between the system based on my design principles and other systems.
What follows is an oversimplified description of the work I have done. Based on the results of mathematical modeling of the human hearing mechanism and its underlying processes, I had developed a corresponding electro-mechanical model in accordance to which it is possible to build –with a very close approximation — an electronic amplifier utilizing a specific topology. All subsequent efforts were focused on detailed research of the qualities of such topology and establishing the correlation between the discovered qualities of the topology and sound reproduction characteristics of the amplifier utilizing such topology.
Having gathered this information, I had proceeded to conduct a stringent analysis of the main types of circuits utilized in designing the sound reproduction devices and then to determine the basic aspects of compliance (or non-compliance) of the specific parameters in these devices with the requirements dictated by the theoretical model.
Based on the above, it generally follows that when the design of a sound amplification device is conducted PROPERLY* and CONSCIOUSLY*, its measurement results, if interpreted properly, will provide a complete picture of the sound quality.
Time and practice have proven the almost complete correlation between the research results and sound quality of the equipment designed in accordance with my methods.
Therefore, in summary, I could answer your question by stating that I do not conduct listening tests. In my case, the listening tests play no role in either the designing process or the final evaluation of the product.
[* the capitalized words presuppose that the choice of topology and design processes are made in accordance with research results of the theoretical model]
3. America has always been the hardcore of the Hi-End consumer electronics world. But, to our opinion, Russia and former USSR must not be underestimated on terms of scientific and cultural offering. So, the interaction between you as a Russian scientist/designer and Americans as colleagues and market people must be an interesting experience. Please talk to us about that experience.
America has always been and, I hope, still is the hardcore of the hi-end consumer electronics world. I had a chance to confirm that upon my immigration to this country and in the beginning of my work in this area in the United States.
My personal experience of contacts with the American colleagues is fairly standard. Shortly after the immigration, I began working with Madison Fielding, Inc. and soon became one of the partners. I was there for about three years. I had not really encountered any personal or professional problems. There was a number of funny incidents related to my poor English, though; however, all of those were taken by both sides with a good dose of humor. Later on, when I finished the design of the M1 and M2 power amplifiers it turned out that the company either could not or did not (which did not make any difference to me) want to start the production of my designs. We parted our ways after this (around August 1993) and I established my own company. Afterwards, my contacts with the American audio engineers have been happening on a regular basis. Among them, I have a number of good friends and acquaintances.
Contacts with marketing people and dealers was a different story in the beginning. I am an engineer with a very pronounced research inclination; and so, I had no experience whatsoever dealing in these new, for me, areas of business – marketing and sales. Therefore, there were various misunderstandings (and often total lack of understanding) between the dealers and myself. However, I had been learning and still am, and at present I have no specific problems in these areas.
4. Do you feel that (a) there are some differences between Europeans and Americans in terms of designing and listening? (b) Did you have difficulties to function as a designer in America? (c) Do you believe that you had a “strong point” as a Russian there and what was that?
The answer to this question will, of course, be based on my own experience – personal as well as that of a designer.
(a) No doubt, the differences are quite significant; however, they exist not between the American and European designers as such, but rather between the individual designers with different levels of culture, attitudes, taste in music, and financial capabilities.
If we are talking about electronic equipment in general, the designing processes are fairly standardized (or ‘internationalized” so to speak). The end result will largely depend on the amount of money invested into the R&D, technical expertise of the designer(s), proper performance of the management team – basically, quite down-to-earth factors. However, if we are talking about designing hi-end audio equipment, the differences have to do with different schools of teaching and approaches to designing the audio equipment, rather than with the fact that the designers live on different continents.
(b) Yes, I did – but only for a certain time after I immigrated to the U.S. The difficulties had to do with my very poor English and lack of knowledge of the specifics of this country. After I had established my company, this “issue” became a “non-issue” (supposing that I were to ever consider this as an issue). In the end, I have reached my goal – to work independently without looking over my shoulder at anyone and anything, and to implement all my accumulated knowledge into the finished product.
(c) You know, my work schedule is very tight, therefore, I simply have no free time for pondering about things such as these.
5. L1 Linestage was a “hybrid” design. Until now, we knew that hybrids were circuits with mixed stages (solid state and vacuum tubes) in the signal path. But L1 uses vacuum tubes in the power supply. Please make for us a comparison between the classic hybrid circuit and your approach. What are the differences? Also please explain, if you wish, the differences between your approach to the power supply design and the traditional solid state regulated supplies.
Usually, the classic hybrid topologies use both vacuum tubes and solid-state components in the circuitries located in the signal pass; such approach, if implemented properly from an engineering standpoint, cannot raise any significant objections. I was able to create quite an interesting (in my view) topology without involving the vacuum tubes and utilizing very linear high-voltage MOS-FETs only.
Power supply is a different story. It is common knowledge that power supply is not an entity separate from the amplifier but is an integral part of the signal path, with all accompanying consequences. One such consequence is the necessity to ensure the constancy of its output impedance versus frequency at least within the audio band. If one also considers that the L1 sports a very high supply voltage of +350V, the conclusion is obvious: it is preferable to use the vacuum tubes in the voltage regulator circuitry. And here is the last point (which refers more to equipment reliability issues): traditional solid-state voltage regulators meant to stabilize high voltages for ensuring the high level of reliability of the product, demand the incorporation of sufficiently serious circuitries that offer protection from overloads and short circuits. This, in turn, significantly increases the overall number of parts used in the product, and its cost. In case of vacuum tube voltage regulators, it is enough to introduce the fuse at the regulator’ s output.
6. During the review of L1 we discovered two interesting details: First, you don’t have a RIAA stage (nor a RIAA pre- option as a plug in board, as far as we know). Second, you have adopted one elaborated volume control system (2 gains, one master). The first question is: (a) What about a customer who needs a RIAA? Do you have any plans about design one and what are your design thoughts about these circuits (which are, probably the most difficult blocks in the preamp design)? The second question is: (b) What are you thoughts about volume control? Do you feel that requires much attention so to spend the cost of 3 “Black Beauties” to this point?
(a) The L1 itself is a relatively complex design and the space inside is quite filled up, which formally did not allow me to allocate the space for plugging in the phono-board. In reality, I wasn’t very keen on doing it anyway since the methods I use in designing the high quality sound reproduction equipment are not aimed at significant micro-minimization of circuitry blocks or units. Therefore, I will most likely use an additional enclosure similar to the L1’s in designing the phono-preamplifier. Sometime in March-April of 2001 we plan to start the production of a full functioning preamplifier (pure tube) with the MC phono stage.
(b) Even the most impeccable sounding preamplifier may be degraded to a very ordinary level simply by utilizing the potentiometers of low or medium quality. Therefore, in this issue I don’t consider any compromises – and you had ample opportunity to be witness it examining the ALPS potentiometers used in the L1.
Moreover, in the next couple of months we are beginning the production of a new model of preamplifier: L2 (see our website and brief description in answer #7). The L2 will utilize even better (and of course more expensive) potentiometers than those used in the L1.
7. You have three power amplifier designs, but one preamplifier. Does this mean that L1 is an “all around” preamp or we must assume that something is “around the corner”?
At present, we manufacture two models of line-stage preamplifiers:
LL2, pure tube line-stage and L1, hybrid design.
Approximately by mid-September of this year, we will begin the production of another preamplifier: L2-Reference. It is a line-level dual-mono hybrid preamp with a separate power supply; tube rectifier, choke contained filter, vacuum tube regulator; TKD stepped potentiometers for volume control — the best available on today’s market; built-in remote on/off for LAMM AUDIO LABORATORY® amplifiers.
Sometime in March-April of 2001 we plan to start the production of a full functioning preamplifier (pure tube) with the MC phono stage.
8. Designing Hi-End products usually means that the cost is not an issue, or at least not the issue. Please comment on the consequences the “cost” factor can play in a good design. What, to your opinion, is the best allocation of the cost between design/components quality/aesthetics/quality control and marketing costs?
This is not a simple question. The allocation of expenses (within the product cost) among the various constituents you mention in a specific design is very often a result of personal tastes, preferences, mental and intellectual background (outlook, point of view, attitude) of the designer, manufacturing capabilities of the company, and so forth.
Let me describe my vision of this issue.
Design – in order to develop a product that conforms to my sound quality standards, I spend as much money and resources as necessary. Besides, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that this product will have to be manufactured in quantity, be technological, not require any future upgrades or modifications, and ensure the level of reliability specified at the development stage.
Component quality – I choose the highest quality components that not only ensure the reliability of our products but also have optimal characteristics from the standpoint of transmitting the sound (in other words, components that have minimal sonic signature).
Aesthetics – It is my firm conviction that the end product in Hi-End audio is the sound itself, whereas all those boxes into which the electronics are packed are a “necessary evil.” Based on this principle, I try to create the equipment that is visually as little noticeable as possible, and that attracts minimal attention of the listener. Speaking more plainly, I prefer the “form follows function” approach that works with the established tradition of designing the “pro-audio” equipment. I also partially utilize the concepts suggested by W. Morris at one point, along with certain principles of W. Gropius (“Bauhaus”).
Quality Control – This issue receives our most serious attention. At the conception of each design, we carefully consider its break-down into functional blocks or units in such a way that would allow us to check each block independently. Simultaneously with the development of a new product we design the test-stand specifically for testing of this product. Therefore, the quality control process of each product includes the following steps:
1 after the assembly, each block or unit (in the simplest case, the pc-board) is tested for functionality;
1 having worked for at least two hours, the block or unit is measured, and measurements are recorded in the production report maintained for each piece of equipment that leaves our facility;
1 we also test ALL vacuum tubes before their installation, as well as some semiconductor devices. Where necessary, we match the vacuum tubes (especially, the output tubes) and semiconductor devices. Out matching is done with the precision of 1% tolerance or better.
1 upon final assembly of the product, it is turned on, adjusted and measured again. The parameters are again recorded in the production report;
1 then, the product undergoes a 72-hour burn-in test; the measurements of all parameters are again taken and, if necessary, the adjustments are made (again, the measurement results are recorded in the production report);
1 after the 72-hour burn-in test, each product is tested in the reference sound system for at least two hours.
All of this gives a fairly good impression of the costs involved in quality control.
Marketing Cost – the product cost includes a fixed amount allocated to marketing expenses. Of course, the actual amounts that we can invest into marketing venue directly depends on the cash flow in the company.
9. During the last years two new digital audio formats were introduced. What is your opinion about the future of DVD Audio and DSD/SACD formats? Do you feel that a “super” format will introduce some new requirements from amplifier designers and manufacturers, (since there are already rumours about power stages with severe problems in very high frequencies)?
I would rather not get involved in discussions regarding different digital audio formats – more than enough paper has been used up on this issue. Regarding “some new requirements…” to power amplifiers that work with “super” audio players, I can say that, first of all, the problems you indicate may arise with certain types of very powerful solid-state amplifiers utilizing a large amount of global negative feedback. From the technical standpoint, such problems are very likely associated with methods of implementation of certain circutries, as well as with the designer’s ability to properly ensure the stability of the amplifier in high frequencies region (phase margin, poles, zeros, etc.). In general the proper engineering solution of these issues can be learned from any university’s “Automatic Control Systems” course. If such problems are exhibited in the finished product, they can be partially remedied by installing the filters with appropriate bandwidth at the amplifier input.
10. Multichannel sound is a hot issue, especially in the USA, but in Europe too. What is your position as a Hi-End brand in respect with Dolby Digital “cinema” sound? Taking into account the high density formats which can carry up to 6 channels of high definition sound, do you feel that Hi-End could be in the future multichannel?
The systems you mention were designed for wide-screen cinema and include multi-channel amplification — including separate channel(s) for special sound effect — for high quality sound reproduction in movie theaters of large size. These principles in a slightly modified and simplified manner are used in so-called ‘home theater’ system, and quite successfully, too.
However, when we talk about such systems it is necessary to remember that they were generally designed as an integral part of a more sophisticated audio-visual system, and all possible aspects of its interaction with the man differs significantly from the interaction within the system “two-channel-stereo – man in the listening room.”
But if we are talking about the serious modern two-channel hi-end audio systems with properly chosen components (synergism) then it is possible to encounter a fairly faithful sound reproduction. I think that the priority should be given to improving the system components and characteristics of listening rooms, rather than increasing the number of channels.
11. In the end of this interview we want you talk to us about the near future plans of LAMM Industries. Does your strategies include products in different categories, like speakers or digital sources? Are you planning products in lower prices? How do you see the future of LAMM?
First of all, I don’t have plans to significantly expand the company because it inevitably leads to a certain loss of control over quality in design and production, which in turn leads to a decrease in sound quality. Moreover, the expansion brings with it the shift of emphasis toward the mass production – and that I’d prefer not to do. That is why, among other reasons, we don’t plan to design and manufacture the relatively inexpensive products, as well as products in different categories such as speakers and digital sources.
Regarding the products in a lower price range – at the end of last year we already began the production of a pure vacuum tube line-stage preamplifier LL2 (https://lammindustries.wpengine.com/products/ll2descr.html). In the next 6-8 months we plan to start a stereo version of the ML2 amplifiers. It will be a single-ended amplifier with the output power of about 14 Watts/channels. There is also work on implementing into production a hybrid dual-mono amplifier designed on the basis on power amplifiers M2.1.
The future of LAMM – we will continue in the direction of making two lines of equipment: hybrid (mostly solid-state) and vacuum tube. Here is the breakdown of price ranges:
Power amplifiers – from US$ 9-10,000 to 70-100,000
Preamplifiers – from US $3-3,500 to 30-40,000