Demetris Backlavas of Yypsilon, the company where ‘Greek austerity ends at the factory door’ according to Michael Fremer.
When Ypsilon amplifier cofounder Demetris Backlavas (pictured above at left with the other co-founder, Theofanis Lagkadinos) met Australian turntable developer Mark Döhmann at CES it ignited a collaborative synergy—and an unbreakable personal bond—and it was analogue guru Michael Fremer who created the audio alchemy because it was he who insisted they meet. At first they thought it was a chance meeting through a mutual friend, nothing special, but looking back they both say that they now realise Michael Fremer was a sorcerer: He knew it would work. ‘ The moment Mark and I met, we immediately knew we were on the same page. We were walking the same path in trying to advance audio reproduction closer to that of a real performance.’
Backlavas told me that he and Döhmann spent the whole night talking in Vegas, one man an IT aeronautics expert, obsessed with audio, the other a doyen of stadium sonics, and as the dawn broke over the night sky, they were still talking: ‘How would we combine our expertise in audio? What could each of us do to help to advance the goal of the other and take audio a big step closer to creating the illusion of reality?’ Their decision?
To build the best audio money could buy. That was the goal. The Holy Grail.
It was a heady thought for two men who’d met only hours earlier, but today the sister company of Ypsilon is arguably the most successful manufacturer of stadium sound in southern Europe and Mark Döhmann’s Helix 1 turntable one of the finest on the planet. Their kindred spirit was apparent when I met them at the 2016 Australian Hi Fi Show in Melbourne, where from time to time they’d retreat to a far corner of the room to discuss some arcane detail of advanced electronics.
‘To electronically re-create the sound of acoustic instruments, price no object, that’s an aim of ours—we think about it constantly—how to improve our products,’ says Baklavas. ‘It’s almost an unattainable peak, but the pleasure is in the climb.’
Both men were in Australia to exhibit in the rooms at the show booked by Telos Distribution, which distributes both brands in Australia, Telos itself being run by the redoubtable Con Lucas. All three men agree that what makes Demetris’ and Mark’s success so sweet is that they rely on research and development over marketing brawn, which has allowed them to make front page news in audio magazines around the world—from Australia, to Europe and the USA. ‘In audio, thankfully, quality doesn’t equate with quantity,’ says Demetris. ‘ Ingenuity trumps all.’
In his review of the Ypsilon Aelius monobloc in Stereophile magazine Michael Fremer wrote: Greek austerity ends at the factory door of Ypsilon Electronics. The luxury components designed and manufactured within are innovative, high-performance, visually elegant, and expensive. They’re aimed at audio enthusiasts, mostly outside Greece, who can afford to indulge themselves… and as Ypsilon’s slogan suggests, their products are “untouchable… but not unreachable.”
The aspiration of obtaining the best stateof-the-art equipment appeals not only to well-heeled audiophiles but also to the simply ‘well heeled’: those wanting audio in their yachts and overseas holiday homes. At the same time, according to Demetris, a household name who knows sound and heads one of the biggest music companies in the world recently upgraded his system with Ypsilon monoblocs. ‘These are not cheap,’ says Demetris, ‘but the real cost is embedded in countless, unpaid hours of research and development.’ Despite this, Demetris considers retail price to be a moot point in his design philosophy. ‘It’s not about money, it’s about sound,’ he says. ‘Music is an art, it’s a science—it’s not always fun, but it has a purpose, a philosophy, and the Greeks as a people love their music in all its guises: in concert, in their homes, and in public places. Our company in Athens is still small but we are ambitious. We can compete on quality, and a price-no-object basis with any company in the world.’
You could say the epiphany started in Vegas. But in reality the hard yards were done long before that fateful meeting in a corridor. I asked Demetris to elaborate on his personal quest to give voice to the lyre of Orpheus in audio form.
Peter Xeni: ‘Is there any particular product that you’re most proud of?’
Demetris Backlavas: All our products are very special in design and we are very proud of our uniqueness, compared to our competitors. There’s something different and unfussy about them that appeals to listeners. But I would like to say I didn’t do this without a lot of help from others, particularly my partner Fanis Lagkadinos. In reality, it’s more accurate to say that me and Fanis did everything together before I met Mark. For the record, our phono stage and amplifiers are two of the components we are most proud of. If I’m allowed to say so, I am very proud of all the equipment we have here at the show. The Amplifier SET-100, Pre Amp Silver Winding PST-100MkII, D/A Converter DAC-100, Phono Stage VPS-100, CD Player CDT-100. All of them represent a lot of innovation for us. PX: How did this career in hi-fi begin? DB: I started this company in 1996 with my partner Fanis Lagkadinos, who is now aged 50 also. I was an electrical engineer, finishing my advanced studies in 1992 in Athens when I first became active in audio. We started very small in the Greek market in 1996 with a few components and expanded from there.
My life in hi-fi began at about age 17, when I built my first amplifier in high school. I knew very early on what I wanted to do in my life. At the same time while I was studying I recorded live performance for broadcast and on record for staging companies in public arenas as a sound engineer. The mixing desks for some of these events, I made them myself. I have now about 25 years experience as a sound engineer in developing systems for live concerts. They are big events in Greece.
For example, I have engineered the sound for some of the most popular names in Greek entertainment, including the Katsimiha Bros, and Alkistis Protopsalti. These artists are very famous in Greece. They, along with other major artists, were on a 1990 program at the outdoor Herodian ancient Roman amphitheatre in Greece. It was a major event. I was also consulting and sound engineer at other major concerts. PX: What were your first products? DB: Our first product was a small integrated hybrid design that we supplied only to the local market. We also were building professional amplifiers for cafés and clubs around Greece. In 1999 we started building more seriously high-end professional amplifiers. In fact, we built around 300 pieces of professional amplifiers in a three year period. Some friends and working partners of ours at the same time also started a sister company called Ypsilon Live. They used our name in honour of our backroom work for them in developing and providing their equipment. My role was to supply and design large components for this company…mainly big power amplifiers and huge subwoofers. I also took on a technical role as an advisor. They are now the largest supplier to big-time concert events in Greece and the Balkans. Staging the Greek presidential elections in auditoriums and stadiums in 2003 was at this time a very great challenge for us. For this event we set up powerful amplifiers and speaker systems every 50 metres or so to send the signal from the main mixing desk to about 500 metres without losing any quality, and avoiding noise interference, distortions, and hum etcetera. In some systems we needed power generators and in some we used the mains power, whatever was the best for the sound quality. Thousands of people attended.
PX: On a more personal note, what was your early history in hi-fi?
DB: My father had a stereo system where he built the speakers himself. I watched him soldering the crossover filters, and it inspired me. I had had classical guitar lessons and realised that I was not destined to be in front of the microphone [laughs], I was instead destined to be behind it. So I concentrated on producing equipment for re-creating music.
PX: What is your favourite music and who do you like most in that field?
DB: Definitely classical music... (long pause). As for favourite composers, if I must choose, it would be Tchaikovsky. I like him because of his beautiful melodies and the way he works at various musical levels. If you don’t know much about classical music, you should listen to Swan Lake and The Nutcracker… you will love them! Then, as you learn more about classical music, later on, you will find other things that will draw you into his world. And if you are musician, it will inspire you to yet another level. PX: What is your preferred music source? DB: Vinyl is my first choice—with a good analogue system you can reach higher levels of satisfaction. PX: Is it better than tape for you? DB: No, but it’s very high in quality. Remember, we grew up with vinyl so I know this to be better. With the best analogue and the very best digital, to my ears the vinyl is best.
PX: What experience in audio is the most memorable for you?
DB: I must say, the biggest experience for me was sound engineering a Mikis Theodorakis performance with the East German Orchestra of 120 players, supported by a large chorus. It was ‘Canto General’ that he’d originally composed in 1971 when he was living in Paris, but updated for this 1991 performance. Mikis is known in the West mainly for scoring the Zorba movie, but in Greece he is a legendary figure. He himself attended the performance, which was in the ancient ‘Dion’ amphitheatre. It was a major challenge for me to wire up this concert for sound; such a huge area to cover, where the work was performed in front of an audience of several thousand people. I mixed the concert and I designed the horn speakers through which the orchestra played to this very enthusiastic audience. It was a big thrill for me.
Being here to jointly promote our products with Mark is also a thrill for me. I feel fortunate to be doing this work and talking to people who share our passion. Peter Xeni (Peter Xeni is a member of the Melbourne Audio Club.)