IN­TER­VIEW

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Peter Xeni

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.)

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