SOUND TRAV­ELS

The am­pli­fiers in Hugh Dean’s sys­tem were de­signed and built by the man him­self. Dean also built the pair of VSon­ics Trans­mis­sion Line Speak­ers he uses in his home sys­tem.

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS -

Peter Xeni and Paul Boon in­ter­view High Dean, of Aspen Au­dio, to hear his philoso­phies about mu­sic, sound, the hi-fi in­dus­try and dis­cover what gear he uses in his own home.

Hugh Dean has been man­u­fac­tur­ing am­pli­fiers in Mel­bourne for more than 20 years. He owns a com­pany called Aspen Am­pli­fiers. His Maya and Saksa solid-state power units were mar­keted as ‘be­spoke’ units in Aus­tralia and over­seas. His cur­rent prod­ucts can be seen at www.ak­saon­line.com. The VSon­ics loud­speak­ers in his sys­tem were de­signed by Lau­rie Menogue. Aspen Am­pli­fiers sells them in ‘kit’ form for DIY builders and Hugh built a pair for him­self.

An eru­dite au­dio scholar, Hugh Dean re­jected a ca­reer in IT to pur­sue a life in au­dio man­u­fac­tur­ing to sat­isfy what he says is his ‘life­long ob­ses­sion’ with au­dio.

Dean’s lo­ca­tion in the leafy sub­urb of Rosanna in Mel­bourne’s north-east re­mains a cor­ner­stone of the lo­cal hi-fi scene and he says that his small busi­ness still sat­is­fies him, 24 years af­ter sell­ing his first com­mer­cial am­pli­fier. That am­pli­fier, the Glass Har­mony, was in­spired by his con­cert-go­ing and mu­si­cal back­ground. ‘I still go to clas­si­cal and other con­certs and it gives me a ref­er­ence and per­spec­tive into pro­duc­ing good sound at home,’ he says.

Hugh’s pre­co­cious in­ter­est in clas­si­cal mu­sic be­gan at the age of six and evolved into learn­ing pi­ano and later, play­ing the pipe or­gan. ‘Af­ter 50 years of study­ing sound and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, I think I’ve de­vel­oped a good ear for what con­sti­tutes good sound,’ says the now 67-year-old jok­ingly.

As a child, Hugh loved Mozart’s Jupiter sym­phony. He con­tin­ues to en­joy clas­si­cal mu­sic, but also en­joys modern jazz, as well as mu­sic by Bob Dy­lan, Leonard Co­hen, Fleet­wood Mac and many more, not to men­tion Daft Punk and other elec­tron­ica.

ST: Do you have a first mu­si­cal me­mory, a first un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence that left an im­pres­sion?

HD: Yes, most def­i­nitely. It was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht­musik. I was a child then, when my mother owned a Wil­liamson 15-watt tube am­pli­fier. I also love Rach­mani­nov, Borodin, Rim­sky-Kor­sakov and Dvo­rak. But El­gar’s Enigma Vari­a­tions is the one I want played when I fall off the twig!

ST: In what way does mu­sic af­fect your life, your emo­tions and the way you feel?

HD: Great mu­sic makes me weep. Mu­sic is so pow­er­ful. Mozart did that for me. Not long ago, I saw a modern bal­let set to Tchaikovsky’s Ro­cocco Vari­a­tions and I lit­er­ally wept through it. ST: How do you see the way we will con­sume mu­sic in the fu­ture?

HD: Mu­sic is mov­ing to the in­ter­net, and away from the tan­gi­ble, for fi­nan­cial rea­sons. Vinyl won’t grow any more. I don’t like vinyl any­way; it is so frag­ile. The me­chan­i­cal ex­trac­tion of the mu­sic sig­nal from vinyl is very sim­ple. It in­tro­duces con­sid­er­able sec­ond, third and fourth har­mon­ics to the sig­nal, giv­ing it warmth; the third gives it the ‘per­ceived’ sharp­ness of res­o­lu­tion and the fourth gives it ‘body’, and in this sense the vinyl phono­graph is an ‘ef­fects box’. If you put the fifth har­monic in it—which many am­pli­fiers add—it gives it a ma­chine sound, like a re­cip­ro­cat­ing ma­chine. For me, vinyl is cer­tainly a lovely sound, but I have at­tempted to de­sign am­pli­fiers over many years to try to sim­u­late and im­prove on this sound us­ing dig­i­tal sources. The ad­van­tages of a dig­i­tal source are low cost, small size, con­ve­nience, mo­bil­ity and easy stor­age and me­chan­i­cal ro­bust­ness. I love the dig­i­tal stor­age sys­tem. These days I have a tiny HDD with 3,500 CDs on it. I can lis­ten con­tin­u­ously for years and not hear the same al­bum twice!

ST: Was there ever a golden age in au­dio? And if there was, where do you think have we got bet­ter and where have we dropped the ball?

HD: I think it was be­tween 1955 and 1975 and it was orig­i­nally driven in Bri­tain by Peter Walker at Quad, Harold Leak, and Peter Baxan­dall. In Amer­ica it was first driven Bart Lo­can­thi, Henry Kloss, David Hafler, and then in later years by Nel­son Pass and Charles Hansen (Ayre). The mil­len­ni­als are driv­ing the in­dus­try now and they have dif­fer­ent stan­dards—not lower or higher—just dif­fer­ent. They like slam, top-end, bass and de­tail and need a bat­tery sup­ply be­cause the mu­sic is now mo­bile. It seems that is­sues of mu­si­cal­ity and depth of image are not as im­por­tant as they once used to be.

ST: What is your prime phi­los­o­phy in eval­u­at­ing au­dio?

HD: Some­one once said that per­cep­tion is more im­por­tant than re­al­ity. This has been true for the au­dio in­dus­try, and also true for much of the equip­ment we de­sign for au­dio re­pro­duc­tion. The hu­man ear seeks a ‘nat­u­ral’ sound, a pri­mal and evo­lu­tion­ary re­al­ity, born of the need to recog­nise ex­ter­nal threats. Au­dio­philes fo­cus on ‘un­nat­u­ral sounds’ from their sys­tems us­ing their life ex­pe­ri­ence of mu­sic and in­stru­men­ta­tion, to seek a ‘nat­u­ral’ sound… or at least what they per­ceive as re­al­ity. This begs the ques­tion of why so many peo­ple love vinyl and tube amps, which cre­ate con­sid­er­able dis­tor­tion.

The fo­cus there­fore be­comes sub­jec­tive, in which case se­lect­ing a sound sys­tem be­comes just a per­sonal choice, like se­lect­ing cloth­ing, food or a car.

ST: We’re told that you es­tab­lished Aspen Au­dio to, and we quote: ‘Pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive choice to the pro­duc­tion line same­ness of com­mer­cial man­u­fac­tur­ers chas­ing a dol­lar and driven by the Ja­panese THD wars of the eight­ies.’

HD: Years ago, I de­cided to build a solid-state amp for com­mer­cial sale be­cause I then be­lieved—and still do—that the vast ma­jor­ity of amps on the mar­ket are poorly con­ceived. The en­gi­neer­ing is good, but the con­cep­tion and the psy­choa­cous­tics are in­com­plete. How­ever, dis­tor­tion is in­evitable, so we are obliged to work with it some­how. The key is the high THD fig­ures of tube am­pli­fiers; they are or­ders of mag­ni­tude higher than solid-state am­pli­fiers, yet they sound very good. Per­haps modern amps sim­ply don’t have the right phi­los­o­phy, lead­ing to an un­mu­si­cal pre­sen­ta­tion? Nev­er­the­less the THD mar­ket­ing con­tin­ues, driven by the aware­ness that this ap­proach does still at­tract sales—peo­ple love num­bers! My solid-state amps have a tube sound with a har­monic pro­file that tends to bring up the sec­ond har­monic, but with much more res­o­lu­tion, stronger drive and less noise. They are sweet and warm; 70 per cent of au­dio­philes like that, and the other 30 per cent are usu­ally purists who like some­thing with a zero THD and buy on specs.

Many pre­fer ‘the ice-pick in your ear’ clin­i­cal, dry sound which is nor­mal fare with high global neg­a­tive feed­back de­sign amps. But most like a warm sound, which is ev­i­denced by tube and phono amp sales.

ST: You claim that most tube am­pli­fiers don’t have the slam and im­pact needed for rock mu­sic, and that your aim is to pro­vide that, while re­tain­ing that hall­mark tube warmth and mu­si­cal­ity.

HD: The tran­sis­tors I use in my Maya range are used in hy­brid mo­tor cars to drive elec­tric trac­tion mo­tors. I use 70-amp MOSFETs with a 250-volt rat­ing which are ther­mally and elec­tri­cally more ro­bust than large bipo­lar tran­sis­tors, and they cost me $10 each, which is out­stand­ing value for money. Money is very im­por­tant: You have to build some­thing that is five times cheaper than your re­tail price to ac­com­mo­date R&D, trans­porta­tion, busi­ness ex­penses, ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket level sales. Most of the sound of an am­pli­fier is from the first, sec­ond and third stages, not the fourth out­put stage. If the out­put stage is well bi­ased at 150 mil­liamps on each de­vice—so in­ac­tive de­vices are still on un­til the cy­cle is up to 5 or 6 volts or more, it en­sures that your first watt is go­ing to be Class-A. In short, by us­ing strong de­sign and eco­nom­i­cal solid-state com­po­nents, I have cut costs and added some of the qual­i­ties of a tube am­pli­fier, but re­tained res­o­lu­tion, slam and mu­si­cal­ity.

ST: How do you judge the qual­ity of an am­pli­fier?

HD: My judge­ment is both by ear, called ‘voic­ing’, and by mea­sure­ment. Mea­sure­ments en­sure that you are build­ing what you are de­sign­ing for and that ev­ery unit you build is the same; so you need fre­quency lim­its—both top and bot­tom—and THD lim­its that are ac­cu­rate to within 0.06% at full power. Band­width de­pends on func­tion and re­quire­ment. An au­dio am­pli­fier with a high-fre­quency that’s too ex­tended will pick up ra­dio fre­quency in­ter­fer­ence from mo­bile phones and from TV and ra­dio broad­casts. Band­width needs to be re­stricted so that it is 1dB down max­i­mum at 35kHz and 4 to 6dB down at about 100kHz. With­out a fil­ter my amps would es­sen­tially go out to about one mega­hertz; I de­sign them in­trin­si­cally very fast for sta­bil­ity rea­sons. I build amps to au­dio­phile re­quire­ments, and my amps will drive any speaker be­cause of their un­usual feed­back regime. Global neg­a­tive feed­back on my amps is never higher than 30dB which, us­ing light com­pen­sa­tion, makes them in­trin­si­cally sta­ble with any load.

Over the years, Hugh Dean has met the de­mands he has placed on him­self, and met the de­mands of oth­ers who en­joy his bon vi­vant style…and his fine hi-fi sys­tem.

Story by Peter Xeni. In­ter­view by Peter Xeni and Paul Boon.

Hugh Dean, pic­tured hold­ing one of his own am­pli­fiers

Dean’s speak­ers use a SEAS 200mm bass/mid and a Peer­less 25.4mm tweeter

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