Q&A: Craig Bernabeu – Recording Engineer Introduces Innovative Designs

Craig Bernabeu

Craig Bernabeu used his audio knowledge to start his own professional audio company, SBS Designs.

SHANNON BECKER: What compelled you to start your company, SBS Designs, in 2011?

CRAIG BERNABEU: I was not really seeing audio products designed for a variety of applications with different approaches to record or play back music that would suit my needs. So in late 2009/2010, the former head engineer from Summit Audio and I started designing visionary gear. SBS designs makes my vision of US-made high-end designs with a left-field approach available to users.

SHANNON: How did you choose the name SBS Designs?

CRAIG: I have a sound company called SBS that designs custom high-end analog systems for different venues. SBS Designs builds custom speaker cabinets, consoles, and desks for mixing consoles and outboard gear. I had originally planned to call the company SBS Electronics. Due to legal trademark issues I could not use the name so I came up with SBS Designs, which works perfectly. SBS is globally known for the systems I have designed in the past so I wanted to incorporate the name into my new business venture.

SHANNON: Tell us about your company’s first product.

CRAIG: Our first product is the Iso-Q2, which is a three-band program equalizer with infinity cut, 15 dB of boost with five front controllers, three gain controls and two adjustable frequency potentiometers for the low and top end. Its I/O is balanced and unbalanced with a selectable effects loop. The Iso-Q2 is 115 and 230 V ready. It also offers a rear-panel output gain trim for perfect gain matching or it can be used to reduce gain for heavy-handed end users.

The Iso-Q2 is a solid-state three-band isolator/three-band program equalizer with five usable front panel controls (top). The Iso-Q2 can be used in an effects loop insert, mixbus, or main output of any console (bottom).

The Iso-Q2 is a solid-state three-band isolator/three-band program equalizer with five usable front panel controls (top). The Iso-Q2 can be used in an effects loop insert, mixbus, or main output of any console (bottom).

The Iso-Q2 enables the end user to sweep the low frequencies from 50 to 400 Hz with a front panel potentiometer. The high frequency is sweepable with another front panel potentiometer from 3.15 to 12.6 kHz, and it offers a frequency response from as low as 8 Hz to 100 kHz.

It’s primarily used in recording studios, and mastering houses; as live PA for mix engineers, electronic dance music (EDM) performers, and DJs performing in clubs or at festivals; or for sound reinforcement.
This Iso-Q2 can also be used as a performance processor to cut and boost on the fly, cutting out and isolating target frequencies from a song to get an audience excited in a live venue to take the energy to the next level. In the studio, the Iso-Q2 is intended as a program equalizer to sweeten up the source or equalize rough frequencies that need to be smoothed out.

SHANNON: What other products have you developed?

CRAIG: The SP-1 is the company’s first tube processor. The SP-1 is a unique design, offering features and technology that has not been previously developed. It is designed to warm up and improve the dynamic range. The SP-1 is a handmade hi-fi processor that will let you record and add dimension to music in ways never achieved.

The SP-1 tube device has two front-panel controls (top). The SP-1 offers a line level to phono level playback with a reverse phono curve to a line level source (bottom).

The SP-1 tube device has two front-panel controls (top). The SP-1 offers a line level to phono level playback with a reverse phono curve to a line level source (bottom).

With the SP-1, I wanted to put a twist on vacuum tube processing. From the original concept, it took more than five years to get it perfect. We designed a few different concept prototypes and then put the prototypes through years of testing in different applications including live, studio and even home hi-fi applications.

There were a few things with the prototype that I did not like, so I started redesigning it and our engineering experts said I was crazy, and that no company would put this kind of R&D into one product. We spent thousands of hours on the SP-1.

That’s what is different about SBS Designs. The product needs to be right and very unique so it really stands out. So we went back to the drawing board and made multiple changes until it was perfect. Now, the SP-1 is my vision of what it should be.

What is really unique about the SP-1 is its reverse phono curve option, which is a first of its kind of feature with full control with the front panel controls. The SP-1 offers a phono stage to use with turntables for end users who want to get the most from vinyl to sample.

I wanted to include a feature that enables users to put phono curves on line sources to attain digital or analog line sources as close as possible to the sound of turntables. It is really amazing how good you can get line digital sources to sound.

SHANNON: Can you share some of the other challenges involved with the designs?

CRAIG: One major challenge is coming up with unique designs to put a twist on audio by offering features not previously done or different to the last design I have already brought to the market. But the biggest challenge with this philosophy is offering features for the end user but not at the expense of the sound quality.

To ensure this process properly works, I design my products two or three years before they are available to the public. Then I can really test them in a variety of applications so I know they work how I intend them to and sound the way I expect. This is very tricky to do, especially when I need SBS Designs to have perfect synergy with other high-end brands.

I have never approached any SBS Designs product with the idea that it will be like anything else on the market. I have always wondered what I could do differently than others to get the most out of the source and give users innovative options that are fun to use. I want to bring the fun factor back to recording or playing back music.

SHANNON: What makes your amplifiers unique?

CRAIG: The S-series amplifiers, which range from the S1 to the S6, are uniquely designed with a high-end old-school approach. Attention to detail is our first priority. Everything from the board layout and circuit design to all the components on the board, right down to the heatsink and manufacturing, are made to our specifications so the amplifiers sound and reproduce amazingly.

Our head of engineering and I are sticklers about this. If it doesn’t sound and function a certain way, it does not get released no matter how long it takes to get done. I don’t operate with time restrictions just to rush it and get it out the door. If it’s not right, it does not leave the facility.

So I think what makes us different is that we ensure our products are the way we want them to be throughout the entire process. This attention to detail is understood day one.

This especially applies with our ratings. We don’t play the ratings game just to show impressive numbers and have our products fall short of their specifications or go with the 1/8 duty cycle rating like most amplifiers do. Our S1 and S2 amplifiers offer 50% true duty cycle full output loads at full frequency from 10 Hz to 100 kHz and the same goes for the way we specify our larger S3, S4, S5, and S6 amplifiers.

We also decided to offer two high-current amplifiers. The S5 is a pure Class-AB, 2-Ω stable amplifier. The S6 is a Class-AB +B that is 2 Ω stable and designed to work flawlessly with 2-Ω load-driven hard and passive speakers with difficult chokes. In these applications, the S5 and the S6 would work perfectly and sound amazing.

SHANNON: How has the audio community reacted to your products? Is the audio market a difficult one to enter?

CRAIG: The community has been very receptive to SBS Designs. I have received several compliments and our products have been selling globally.

It seems the audio community is really enjoying the twist I have been putting on audio by adding different features to get the most from a mix or a sound system and providing really high-quality sound, which allows the end product to be improved whether it is live or studio recordings.

It’s been great so far with a lot of successful engineers and producers getting behind SBS Designs with great results on a production or in a live application.

The S5 is used in several mastering studios and receiving praise from engineers such as Nick Moon at Tone Proper Mastering in Oregon. Moon is using the S5 on the road to mix and he recently used the S5 to mix Liv Warfield when she performed on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show (http://sbsdesigns.com/liv-warfield-mixed-on-the-jimmy-fallon-show-s5-amp). So the S-series amplifiers are really getting incredible praise and demand is growing as SBS Designs’s reputations spreads.

The audio market, as with any market, can be difficult when you offer a left-field approach so it can take a while to make an impact. But, if you’re determined, you can make it happen, and it will.

SHANNON: Tell us a little about your background. What did you do prior to starting SBS Designs?

CRAIG: I went to school in the 1980s in New York City and got a degree in recording. I worked in a few studios then I started focusing on high-end analog pro sound system designs. They sold globally via word of mouth, and my sound system designs won or were nominated for best sound system times from 2003 to 2011.

I also built studio reference systems and worked closely with many major manufacturers and their engineers to change their products to structure them to meet my needs.

After several years, I noticed some of the great audio components be replaced by cheap products. I decided to design my own high-end products and I came up with a concept for an entire line.

I approached Summit Audio with my concept and they were interested. The first product, a tube processor that took two years to develop, was released in 2002. Next, we developed the amplifiers and then a solid-state equalizer. I also became an investor in Summit Audio in 2004.

After working with Summit Audio, Summit’s former head engineer and I started developing an entire new line. That’s when I started SBS Designs. SBS Designs are now sold in retail outlets in the US and a few countries around the world. It is growing fast and amazing things are happening for SBS Designs in 2014.

SHANNON: What’s next for your company?

The SP-1 PRO includes seven usuable front panel controls (top) and it can be used in any fully balanced or unbalanced circuit without any drive loss (bottom).

The SP-1 PRO includes seven usuable front panel controls (top) and it can be used in any fully balanced or unbalanced circuit without any drive loss (bottom).

CRAIG: I have been working on my 2015 products for the last year and a half. My background is speaker design, and I have completed a full monitor line that I would eventually like to release.

For 2014, SBS Designs has two new designs—the SP-1 PRO and the SX-3. The SP-1 PRO is our second vacuum tube processor. It will feature seven front-panel usable controls, designed to really let the end user improve the dynamic range of any full-range source.

Similar to the SP-1, a carefully designed expansion process will bring out exciting detail that is so often masked by recordings that are compressed and engineered to be mono compatible. The SP-1PRO will also bring back incredible detail to digitally stored/processed recordings that were subject to data reduction processing.

SP-1 PRO also has a sub bass expander and an extended range of top treble expander. These expanders are top quality fully analog that don’t contain any noise or distortion generators. They add dynamic range by controlling the target frequencies with photoresistors.

When bringing a second vacuum tube processor to market, I had to be creative and provide features not previously used to help the end user receive more from the vacuum tube technology. (More information about the tube technology is available at www.sbsdesigns.com.)

In late 2014, we will release the SX-3, a two-way, three-way dual mono stereo analog crossover or a four-way mono. As with my other designs, I put a spin on it that you just don’t see on other crossovers, especially in the analog domain.

SHANNON: Do you have any advice for audioXpress readers who want to build their own sound systems?

CRAIG: Learn the importance of the physics of a cabinet design for a loudspeaker. Do not think you can build a speaker just any way and make corrections in the processing. This is a huge misconception in proper loudspeaker design.

Try to learn how to design a speaker so it can naturally reproduce music with as little processing as possible. Overprocessing seems like the norm these days, but the best, most amazing sound is the least processed with as little crossover points possible. A good speaker system effortlessly works with the least amount of gear in the signal chain and provides great results.

Before beginning a loudspeaker design, truly understand an amplifier’s specifications not just the watts per channel. Learn the Thiele-Small (T-S) parameters of a loudspeaker. Knowledge of room acoustics is also ultra important so there are no weak links in the chain. That way the end result will deliver as promised and maybe even more than promised.

Adlib Audio Launches AA Install Speaker Range

adlib-speakersLiverpool based Adlib Audio launches a new specialist division – Adlib Speakers – to manufacture and market its AA brand of speakers, which are very proudly made in Liverpool, England. Hand-crafted and designed to perfection by a dedicated team of individuals who know their audio, using quality components, precision engineering and innovation, the AA series intends to be the ultimate ‘boutique’ brand for those who understand that their sound really matters. Adlib has been making, installing and using the AA range very successfully for the last 15 years, primarily for its own installations and projects, and now they believe the time has come to step up and make the AA series available for re-sale worldwide.

Currently there are four products available for re-sale in the AA range – the AA61, AA81 and AA121 – containing 6, 8 and 12 inch drivers respectively, complete with a dedicated AA12HL 12 inch sub. All the AA series cabinets are constructed from premium birch ply sourced in Finland, and are available with a hard-wearing textured paint exterior for installs. A huge amount of quality engineering and detail goes into manufacturing the AA range all featuring the best components, custom speaker chassis, compression drivers and Adlib’s own custom crossover networks.

www.adlibspeakers.co.uk

Q&A: Engineer Takes a Chance on Start-Up Audio Venture

SHANNON BECKER: Tell us about your company Tortuga Audio. Can you also share the story behind your sea turtle mascot?

Morten Sissener used his engineering knowledge to open his own audio design boutique, which he named Tortuga Audio.

Morten Sissener used his engineering knowledge to open his own audio design boutique, which he named Tortuga Audio.

MORTEN SISSENER: Tortuga Audio is a boutique audio design, manufacturing, and marketing company located in South Florida. At present we only sell through the Internet via our website although we expect to add channel partners in the future probably starting in Europe.  We’re a little over a year old in terms of coming out with our first products—a line of passive preamplifiers built around light-dependent resistors (LDRs). We actually manufacture here in the US. While it may not hold much sway with customers, there’s something satisfying in being able to say “Made in the USA.” That’s the short and mostly dry of it.

Our mascot is the sea turtle wearing a set of headphones. People who know me wouldn’t describe me as being particularly religious or spiritual, but I’ve come to accept the sea turtle as my totem. A totem is an object or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as an emblem of an individual, family, or tribe. You don’t pick your totem. Your totem picks you.

I’ve always had a fascination with a place called The Dry Tortugas. It’s a small cluster of islands about 70 miles west of Key West, FL. I first heard of this place in an adventure book I read when I was a young boy. I fell in love with reading, warm blue water, and The Dry Tortugas.

Years later, I bought a boat in South Florida. The first time I took that boat offshore I went out 20 miles, stopped, and turned off the engines. I was out of sight of land. The water was glassy calm. Thirty feet off the starboard beam a sea turtle surfaced and stared at me. I stared back. This lasted for over a minute. Then the turtle dove away. The name I’d already put across the transom of my boat was The “Tortuga Dreamer.” So when it came time to name my audio company you could say it named itself—Tortuga Audio.

SHANNON: What prompted you to start a company that designs and manufactures audio equipment, particularly in 2010 when the economy was so uncertain?

MORTEN: Starting an audio company that caters to a shrinking niche of audio fanatics as the masses continued shifting to low-resolution MP3 audio and inexpensive ear buds was arguably a questionable business decision. However, it was definitely a passionate business decision. Approaching 60, I figured it was time to pursue my passion rather than my resume. And I’ve always been passionate about technology, audio, and music. You could say the rational engineer decided to follow his heart.

SHANNON: What kind of audio products do you build? Can you share some of your design challenges?

As with all Tortuga Audio’s LDR passive preamplifier (LDRx) products, the LDR6 has unity gain passive (no active amplification) volume controllers that employ digitally controlled audio grade light-dependent analog resistors to provide neutral and transparent attenuation.

As with all Tortuga Audio’s LDR passive preamplifier (LDRx) products, the LDR6 has unity gain passive (no active amplification) volume controllers that employ digitally controlled audio grade light-dependent analog resistors to provide neutral and transparent attenuation.

MORTEN: While the business rationale behind the founding of Tortuga Audio may not win first prize in any business plan contest, the decision to pursue our flagship product was, and remains, highly rational and compelling.

Back in 2009, I was building a tube preamplifier mostly as an exercise to see if tubes could really offer more than solid state. I was less than impressed with the results even though I’d used a well recognized kit/design and top-of-the-line components.

At the time I was using a motorized Alps Blue Velvet potentiometer for volume control. Thinking that perhaps I could improve the sound by going to a stepped attenuator, I stumbled across LDRs. I cobbled together a very basic LDR volume control based on bits and snippets of information on the Internet, pulled out the Alps potentiometer and installed the LDR. The result was nothing less than a revelation!

The fact that this tube preamplifier went from disappointing to awesome simply by changing the attenuator made quite an impression on me and frankly I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s what engineers do. Especially this engineer. I can’t stop thinking of ways to do things differently or better. I’ve always hated that old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that?

This led me to ask a simple question. Why do I need a preamplifier? Why preamplify and then amplify? Do I really need the additional gain? In most instances, the answer is no.

I looked at all the complexity of that tube preamplifier and decided to pull out the LDR attenuator, set the preamplifier aside, and use the LDR as a purely passive volume controller. The result? It sounded even better without the tube preamplifier. And not just a little bit better, a lot better! I was so impressed with this LDR attenuator that I couldn’t leave it alone. From that point forward, I dove into the deep end of LDR volume control.

SHANNON: What makes your audio equipment unique?

MORTEN: LDRs are challenging to work with because  they are both nonlinear and variable. Nonlinear means their relationship between control signal applied to an LDR and the resulting resistance level is not a simple fixed ratio. Variable means that this nonlinear relationship can vary from one LDR to the next even with LDRs of the same model, from the same manufacturer, and from the same production run. That’s a lot of variable nonlinear stuff and that makes it very hard to get consistent predictable behavior when using LDRs for volume control. No designer likes to work with audio components that behave like LDRs.

Part of our solution to taming the wild LDR was to design a programmable digital control unit that enables us to control the analog LDR with proprietary software algorithms. We combine digital control with a two-step testing protocol such that each LDR preamplifier we build has a custom set of software-based correction curves that ensures  predictable performance. This is neither simple nor easy, but we’ve put an enormous amount of time and effort into developing the software and hardware tools to do this cost effectively.

The result is a unique and game-changing LDR-based passive preamplifier (volume control) design that we believe rivals not only all other passive preamplifiers out there but also meets or beats even the best high-end active preamplifiers. While I happen to believe this personally, feedback from our customers and reviewers continues to reinforce this view.

SHANNON: Are you currently planning or working on any new product designs?

The Tortuga LDR3x is a preamplifier controller board designed around LDRs that enables DIYers to build a passive or active preamplifier including remote control.

The Tortuga LDR3x is a preamplifier controller board designed around LDRs that enables DIYers to build a passive or active preamplifier including remote control.

MORTEN: Our core focus continues to be advancing the development of our LDR-based volume controller products. In the third quarter of 2012, we came out with our LDR1 and  LDR6 passive preamplifiers, which are finished preamplifier products. In the third quarter of 2013, we introduced the LDR3x passive preamplifier controller board (the LDR3x), which we marketed to the DIY audio community. We plan on continuing to serve the high-end audiophile consumers with finished products and provide DIY products to audio enthusiasts who’d rather build it themselves.

In November of 2013, we introduced the HiZ upgrade to our LDR-based preamplifiers. The HiZ algorithm enabled us to raise the input impedance of our LDRx products resulting in a remarkable improvement to an already fantastic-sounding preamplifier/volume controller. As far as we know, nobody else has done anything like this.

In terms of what’s next, we are working hard on coming out with our new line of LDRx passive preamplifiers including our new LDR3B, which I believe may be the first-ever LDR-based preamplifier for balanced audio. We hope to release the LDR3B before the end of March. Since we are a relatively low-volume business and want to offer distinctive products that are not priced out of reach to most audiophiles, we’ve decided to manufacture our own enclosures in-house going forward. This will keep our costs down while enabling us to offer high-quality products and still retain the flexibility of small-batch production, quick design changes, and the ability to offer custom solutions.

Beyond our next generation line of LDR preamplifiers, we plan to introduce a buffer companion product to our passive preamplifiers that will expand the application of our preamplifier/volume controller to include sources and amplifiers where a pure passive may not be the best fit. We are also considering the introduction of an integrated amplifier product that will allow us to target a broader market. These will be second half of 2014 products.

Longer term, we are quite excited about the prospects for an OEM version of our LDR preamplifier controller product. Every active preamplifier or integrated amplifier sold and marketed to the audiophile community that currently uses a potentiometer for volume control would sound better with a Tortuga Audio LDR volume controller. And along with being the best-sounding attenuator available, it also includes input switching, IR remote control, and a built-in encoder control.

SHANNON: How did you become interested in audio electronics?

This 3-D CAD rendering shows the front (a) and the back (b) view of a prototype enclosure design for Tortuga’s new LDR3B balanced passive preamplifier, a new product line that will be coming out in March.

This 3-D CAD rendering shows the front (a) and the back (b) view of a prototype enclosure design for Tortuga’s new LDR3B balanced passive preamplifier, a new product line that will be coming out in March.

MORTEN: As a newly minted mechanical engineer, I started my professional career in the aerospace sector working with complex electromechanical systems. This segued into energy when the company I was with in California became interested in alternative methods of power production. This eventually led me into industrial construction, large capital project development, project finance, software, sales and marketing, wind, solar and biofuels, as well as several start-ups along the way. An interesting ride but all along I was remained very interested in technology, software development, audio, and music. I decided it was time for my true interests to rule the day rather than the inertia of my resume. Plus I’m just an unapologetic techno-geek with a big creative itch that needed scratching. I also like to run my own show.

SHANNON: Where do you see the audio industry in 10 years?

MORTEN: I believe the high-end audiophile market with many components costing $10,00 or more is going to continue to decline into obscurity. Many have argued that the high-end market may already be in a terminal death spiral of rising prices and shrinking volume. I tend to agree. If true, that’s not a sustainable scenario for high-end audio.

The audio listening paradigm of a big-rig stereo in the living room that the aging baby boomer audiophiles were introduced to in the 1970s is not the central paradigm of contemporary audio. Where only a few years ago you could go into a big box store and see racks of receivers, rows of speakers and even a “high end” listening room, today, most of that is simply gone.

Ironically, we are collectively listening to more music from more sources more of the time than ever before. Access to music is wide if not deep. The Internet has become the new radio. Online streaming is becoming the norm for most consumers while buying and owning music is slowly retreating, This is especially true for physical media such as CDs.

Despite this bounty of access, we’ve also experienced the concurrent dumbing down of audio quality (e.g., low-resolution MP3 files) and listening through lo-fi hardware, most of which has gone mobile. So it’s an interesting mixed bag of good and bad news for us audio nutters.

While the road ahead may be unclear, I believe that a significant percentage of all those 20-to-30-something Millenials and Xers are eventually going to raise the bar on their audio game as they grow older and their incomes rise. But you can forget living rooms filled with big, heavy, and expensive gear as the norm. “Personal audio” will continue to grow and evolve and that means computer centric audio.

For most, that will mean DAC->preamplifier (volume controller)->amplifier->speaker configuration in which the DAC/preamplifier/amplifier separates will trend toward being a single integrated component. Speakers will be smaller, but higher quality near-field units usually located on desks or bookshelves near where people sit and work with their computers. And yes, no doubt a subset of these folks will eventually go with some bigger gear as well. But I believe we’re talking a few thousand dollars of audio gear and not tens of thousands of dollars.

SHANNON: Do you have any advice for audioXpress readers who want to build their own sound systems?

MORTEN: I tend to be a minimalist and a skeptic and try to not get distracted by bright shiny objects.  What I recommend is forget cables, power conditioners, cryogenics, and ceramic outlet face plates. Focus first on what matters the most.

Nothing will affect your audio enjoyment as much as speakers. Poor-quality speakers can make a great rig sound awful. Great speakers can make a low-quality rig sound remarkably good but not great. My personal favorite these days are full-range speakers with alnico magnets. Full-range speakers are point sources with no crossovers or phase-shifting. They offer amazing clarity, articulation, and bass.

Second (self-serving statement alert!) get the best preamplifier/volume control you can. Every note gets squeezed through the bottleneck of your volume control and this is where the most irreparable harm happens to your audio signal, even if everything else you have is really good.

Third, choose the best DAC you can. DACs are evolving rapidly, which is fantastic news.

The last thing I would worry about in terms of main components is your amplifier. Not that amplifiers don’t matter, they just don’t matter that much compared to everything else. And the good news is there’s a huge selection of great amplifiers out there.

To summarize, if you’re deciding on how to prioritize your money, make it speaker->preamplifier (volume control)->DAC->amplifier. Of course, if you’re into vinyl then a good turntable and cartridge is critical, but don’t forget the phono preamplifier. This can get expensive fast. I’d expect to spend a few thousand dollars to get into the land of great vinyl audio. It will cost more for fantastic.

Once you’ve got a decent system you really enjoy listening to, you can begin the madness of tweaking this and that, trying various cables, power conditioners, and so forth. But remember that the purveyors of audio equipment will tell and sell you practically anything you can imagine to get that extra ounce of goodness out of your rig.

Despite all the changes happening in technology and the audio industry, music remains a wonderful art form and audio is still a great hobby. Enjoy!

Doing It Differently

Time moves quickly. We are already feeling the aftermath of 2014’s first two major industry shows. This is also a year when audioXpress is completing its transition to an expanded publication that addresses the needs of the audio engineering community—not only for those who have fun listening to music (there are plenty of magazines doing that) but mainly for those who imagine, create, and work with audio technology.

This year began with the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV, introducing innovations on all fronts. It was also the largest CES in show history. While some companies introduced products based on users’ needs, it appears many consumer electronics companies still prefer to throw hundreds of new ideas at the wall to see what sticks. I guess a major electronics show like the CES is the ideal place to test those ideas, but sometimes we have to wonder why the successful companies that only introduce market-ready products don’t even need to attend the CES.

Yes, we miss seeing Apple at trade shows and we miss the inspiring clear vision of the late Steve Jobs. Apple is one those companies with products that are the perfect combination of state-of-the-art technology and innovation that are available for purchase exactly as advertised. And while the company was not in attendance, Apple’s products still dominated the 2014 International CES. It is no surprise that many great ideas and reference designs were designed to complement the iPad, the iPhone, and even the new Apple Mac Pro workstation.

IK Multimedia promoted its iRing wireless sensors to control music apps (or any other apps) using only gestures. We’ve also seen great photography peripherals for the iPhone and many new charging and home-automation solutions. There are even iOS-device-controlled robots and drones. And of course, no audio company could ignore the huge market created for wireless speakers and headphones. Many were especially designed for Apple’s mobile devices, leveraging Apple’s push for Bluetooth Smart 4.0 and AirPlay technologies. Apple also effectively revitalized the worldwide home audio market.

Wireless speakers, headphones, soundbars, integrated A/V receivers and audio systems are experiencing impressive growth rates, according to recently published market reports. Bluetooth products, in particular, continue to bolster the wireless speaker market, offering the convenience of portability, while multi-room audio based on Wi-Fi is also on the rise. Among the 20,000-some products introduced at the 2014 International CES, there were a significant number of new headphones and earphones.

After every CES, we should also acknowledge those sparks of inspiration from obscure companies and the truly exciting technology announcements. For example, cars connected to mobile networks—actually talking and seamlessly interfacing with our mobile devices.

It’s always difficult to understand why, but clearly, in the middle of all the Internet-connected toothbrushes and forks, speech-recognition watches, and curved television screens, some innovations make complete sense and leave us asking ourselves “why did it take so long?”

João Martins
Editor-in-Chief

The March 2014 Issue of audioXpress is Now Online

This month’s audioXpress brings a great article from our regular contributor Thomas Perazella, in which he revisits the art of studio reamping and the different approaches and implications of that two-stage studio process. During the process, we first record a dry or clean track and then re-record the track by sending the clean track back through amplifiers and effects. Naturally, he looks at different Reamp circuits and some implications for the different impedance audio signals and balance to unbalance challenges.

audioXpress March 2014Another highlight is our review of the Rockruepel comp.two tube stereo compressor, hand built by Oliver Gregor in Germany. As Miguel Marques discovers, this is one of the most versatile audio processors on the market, packaged in a simple but impressive design.

Following the first of a two-part article dedicated to Dante audio networks, our Standards Review revisits Audinate from the perspective of those companies who have licensed the technology.

And for our readers who have are interested in the recently introduced loudness standards, Jon Schorah returns with another great article about Loudness Meters and Measurements.

Don’t miss another take from Mike Klasco and Steve Tatarunis on the “Weird Science Woofers,” in which they discuss some market innovations and pure research on unique speaker mechanisms, from huge to ultra-shallow speaker configurations.

In this month’s Sound Control column, Richard Honeycutt explores predictive acoustics and how the results of such evaluations can be highly rewarding.

Certainly an entertaining read is Shannon Becker’s interview this month with Morten Sissener, founder of Tortuga Audio, a DIY-oriented audio company dedicated and committed to audio enjoyment.

On the subject of DIY projects, this month contributor George Ntanavaras explains how to build his MC100 high-quality moving coil RIAA preamplifier. It is a great read for anyone who would like to know more about the phono signal chain.

And for Audio Electronics enthusiasts, Ron Tipton shares a fascinating project on testing a Class-T or Tripath power amplifier. We also discuss the story of Tripath Technology, which was later acquired by Cirrus Logic who discontinued the company operations. We also speculate on reasons why the Tripath ICs are still popular among the DIY audio community.

And for those with a passion for tubes, columnist Richard Honeycutt looks at Tube Guitar Amplifiers and why distortion evolved from an undesirable effect to part of the established guitar amplification industry practice.

Your new issue of audioXpress is now available at www.gotomyxpress.com

One More Take

“One more take.”

Remember that joke? The producer in the recording studio says to the band: “Not bad, fellas. Let’s do one more take, this time with more emphasis on tone, harmony, melody, rhythm, composition, lyrics, musicianship, tempo, and originality.”

Maybe it’s time for the audio industry to try “one more take.”

During last year’s 135th Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention in New York, it was apparent that the audio engineering community unites several generations. Also, the younger but much more technically perceptive generation is fascinated by the achievements of those who had the “privilege” of working in the big studios and doing audio production for live concerts, or during great broadcast moments from the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s.

The younger generations have learned to value the tools and what they can do with them. They even value the “good old analog” electronics, essentially by using plug-in emulations of the real things inside Pro Tools or Logic. Yet, this generation also encodes studio recordings to MP3s.

From one content format to another, the music industry continually re-released its content in physical media until the Super Audio CD (SACD) and the Blu-ray disc (on video) formats appeared. And that was it. Suddenly, the Internet, mobile devices, and digital files changed everything. With that change came the MP3, the iPod, iTunes, and mobile networks. This accelerated the demise of physical media, on which the entire music industry had become over-dependent.

Meanwhile, technology continues to evolve. Even though SACD is dead and gone, the key developments remain valid and high-resolution audio is still a logical proposition. But is it well understood by the “plug-in” generation? A very faint sign of hope emits from the enthusiasm detected at events such as the AES conventions and the NAMM shows.

With new 64-bit processors and OSes becoming the norm, large bandwith networks available everywhere, and memory and storage increasing faster than consumers’ actual needs, it seems the industry is ripe for another go at quality.

As our contributing author Gary Galo noted in his impressions of the 135th AES Convention, it seems consumers are rediscovering the virtues of high-resolution sound and finding compressed formats such as MP3 unacceptable. But at the same time, mobile platforms and wireless networks have created new consumer behaviors. People are increasingly listening to music via headphones, soundbars, and portable wireless loudspeakers. Therefore, we need a new approach to address that changing landscape, and it’s not going to be with $20,000 home stereo (or multichannel) systems.

If downloading high-resolution audio files is practical and inspires a new group of record companies to reinvest in high-quality content production, it is clear that 1-bit DSD recordings could also breathe new life into studios, the pro audio industry in general, and even many high-end audio brands.

And it is at forums such as the Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, CA—where those same generations again meet with producers and musicians—that the conscience needs to be raised. Not at the Venetian Hotel demo rooms in Las Vegas, NV. The signs are still fragile, the economic environment remains unstable, and the market trends are uncertain, but it all seems to be aligning for a “new take” in the audio industry.

João Martins
Editor-in-Chief

Industry Watch: January 2014

2013 CEA Technology Winners

Charlie Hughes

Photo 1: Charlie Hughes earned the 2013 Consumer Electronics
Association’s (CEA) Technology & Standards Award for his work on CEA-2034.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recently announced the winners of the sixth annual Technology & Standards Awards. Nominees were judged on their commitment to excellence as evidenced by the extent and consistency of their overall ongoing contributions to the CEA’s Technology & Standards program.

“This year’s award recipients have demonstrated industry leadership through active participation in the CEA’s Technology & Standards program both over the long term and with recent projects,” according to Brian Markwalter, the CEA’s senior vice president for research and standards. “All of our honorees have dedicated countless hours to creating standards that launch new product categories and make existing products easier to use.”

Charlie Hughes received one of this year’s awards for standards pertaining to loudspeaker development (see Photo 1). Hughes is president of Excelsior Audio Design & Services (www.excelsior-audio.com) and the co-chairman of CEA’s Sound Measurement Working Group. He received this prestigious award for spearheading the publication of CEA-2034, Standard Method of Measurement for In-Home Loudspeakers. Hughes is also a contributing Voice Coil author. Congratulations Charlie!

 


2014 CES Best of Innovations Awardees

The CEA also announced its list of 2014 International Consumer Economic Show (CES) Best of Innovations Design and Engineering award honorees. The CES Innovations Awards honor outstanding design and engineering advancements across 28 consumer electronics product categories, including two new categories this year: 3-D Printing and Additive Manufacturing and Wearable Technologies.

The Best of Innovations designation is awarded to products with the highest judges’ scores and will be honored during the 2014 International CES, January 7–10, 2014, in Las Vegas, NV. The award winners will be featured in the Innovations Design and Engineering Awards Showcase in the Venetian Hotel. Award winners with products related to the loudspeaker industry include:

  • Headphones: Plantronics, the BackBeat Go 2 + Charging Case
  • High-Performance Home Audio: Bang & Olufsen, BeoLab 18
  • Home Theater Speakers: Philips Consumer Lifestyle, Philips Fidelio E5 Wireless Surround Cinema Speakers

 

 


HTSA 2013 Awards

The Home Technology Specialists of America (HTSA) presented its 2013 HTSA Vendor Awards to those who have demonstrated commitment to member growth through the development of cutting-edge products and technologies, exemplary business practices, and unyielding service and support for HTSA members. Each year the HTSA Vendor Awards go to industry professionals who have had an overwhelming impact on the success and business growth of HTSA members.

For 2013, HTSA announced the return of its Lifetime Achievement Award, one of its most coveted honors. Sandy Gross, founder and president of GoldenEar Technology, received the 2013 award. Gross’s previous company was Definitive Technology.

Other loudspeaker companies that received awards include:

  • Technology Innovation: Lenbrook Industries, the BlueSound line of wireless loudspeakers
  • Best Audio Product: Paradigm Electronics, Soundtrack home theater system

 

 


Harman Opens First US Store

HARMAN International opened its first US store on November 21, 2013, to demonstrate the company’s home, car, and pro audio products and to sell select home audio gear to consumers. The two-level, 8,500-ft2 store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, NY, also serves as a key showroom and experience center for the company’s channel and technology partners. It will also serve as a space for its automotive OEM customers to receive a full-brand experience. Harman also plans to use the venue to host music performances and DJ sets and offer seminars to educate consumers. HARMAN will leverage its “brand ambassadors” and celebrity friends to help bring unique and memorable events to the store for Manhattan consumers.

This new HARMAN store is only the world’s second.  The first HARMAN store opened in Shanghai in 2010. A third showroom is set to open in Moscow in 2014. HARMAN has tentative plans for future stores in Los Angeles, CA, or Detroit, MI, to be close to its entertainment and auto partners.

The Manhattan store features home-theater and two-channel audio rooms, which the company’s luxury-audio dealers and channel partners can use to demonstrate equipment. The store also contains a professional DJ mixing board and interactive kiosk-style displays customers can use to learn about the company’s OEM car audio and infotainment technologies.

Multiple interactive experience areas include an interactive table display and headphone rack so shoppers can test Harman headphones by listening to provided music or by plugging in their own music players. A soundproof chamber enables customers to compare their existing headphones or select products from competing brands with HARMAN products.

The stage area features HARMAN’s professional concert and music studio equipment and will host musical performances and special events. Customers can experience large-venue premium sound in a store environment.

The store sells products for home audio enthusiasts and audiophiles. However, it does not sell products for professional sound engineers or musicians. Pro products (e.g., studio and stage microphones, headphones, and musician accessories) will occasionally be showcased, but the store won’t be a full-line showroom for pro gear.

The full line of Harman Kardon, JBL, AKG, and Infinity products is available for sale. High-performance products from the Revel and Mark Levinson brands are also displayed, but the store refers consumers to those brands’ retailers for sales. The store also offers shoppers exclusive products available only through the Madison Avenue location.

 


Bang & Olufsen Launches Industry’s First WiSA-Certified Wireless Speakers

Bang & Olufsen (B&O) has launched the loudspeaker industry’s first wireless speakers that were certified by the Wireless Speaker and Audio (WiSA) Association. Additional companies are expected to launch their first WiSA-certified products at the 2014 International CES in January. WiSA technology certification includes the delivery of interference-free, wired-quality wireless audio in the 5.2–5.8 GHz U-NII band to stereo and home-theater speakers within a room up to 29.5’ × 29.5’.

B&O’s three active WiSA-certified speakers include the compact two-way aluminum BeoLab 17 ($3,990 per pair), the 12-sided BeoLab 19 subwoofer ($3,395 per pair), and the BeoLab 18 ($6,590 per pair). The BeoLab 18 speaker features a narrow, cylindrical extruded-aluminum enclosure with a spike-shaped pedestal that appears to balance the speaker on a flat, square base. This speaker can also be wall mounted. (The BeoLab 18 is actually an update of the BeoLab 8000 speaker’s iconic design, which features a tall narrow floor-standing speaker with a spike-type pedestal resting on a flat base. It was first introduced in 1992.)

In addition to the new style base, the BeoLab 18 also adds a top-mounted acoustic lens tweeter, which delivers 180° high-frequency sound to widen the stereo sweet spot. The speaker also has a front grille consisting of narrow horizontal slats arrayed in a way that maintains the speaker’s cylindrical shape. The composite-material slats are available in black or white, and an optional natural-color solid-oak grille is available ($1,350 per pair).

The BeoLab18 delivers up to 7.1 channels of 24-bit/96-kHz uncompressed audio. Using WiSA technology to eliminate cable clutter, it enables a more flexible speaker placement and overcomes sound-quality interference, latency, and cost challenges associated with other wireless technologies designed for multichannel home theaters. B&O’s implementation delivers 24-bit, 48-kHz audio over wireless and it is less prone to interference with the lower throughputs. The company maintains the sound quality is better than CD. Other B&O news includes its recent expansion of the “Play” sub brand into 32 Magnolia Design Centers inside Best Buy stores.

Prism Sound Launches New Free Webinar Series

The enormous success of Prism Sound’s Audio Design Workshop LIVE event at the 51st AES Conference in Helsinki has inspired the company to launch a new, free series of 30-minute webinars – Audio Design Workshop: Bitesize. These webinars are ideal to brush up on test and measurement knowledge and techniques.

The Bitesize series delves deeper into the audio engineering and measurement topics already discussed in Prism Sound’s popular Wednesday Webinars series and they are available to download from the Prism Sound website.

The first Bitesize webinar will take place on December 18th 2013 at 14.00 and 18:00 (UTC/GMT) and will cover FFT Fundamentals and discuss the six essential steps in audio test and measurement:

  • Why you need to understand Fourier Theory
  • The significance of the Time-Frequency Relationship
  • DFT/FFT and why they matter
  • How to choose the right window function for your measurement
  • Avoiding the ‘Picket-Fence’ effect and the errors it may bring
  • Make the most of your FFT – special measurement techniques

Each webinar will include live demonstrations and a Q&A session.

Anyone wanting to attend should register at www.prismsound.com/webinars to receive their session login details.

Audio Engineering Society (AES) Welcomes New President, Dr. Sean Olive

The 135th Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention, held Thursday, October 17, through Sunday, October 20, 2013, at the Javits Center in New York City, was hailed as one of the AES’s biggest successes in recent memory. Now, the AES prepares to welcome Dr. Sean Olive as its new president, taking over from outgoing President Frank Wells. Currently serving as Director, Acoustic Research for HARMAN International, Olive is based in Northridge, CA. His location is ideal since the 137th AES Convention will take place in Los Angeles in the fall of 2014.

Dr. Sean Olive

Dr. Sean Olive

Olive’s experience is wide-ranging. His education includes a B. Mus. from University of Toronto, a M. Mus. in sound recording from McGill University and a PhD in sound reproduction from McGill. He served as an audio research scientist for the National Research Council of Canada for several years, before joining the HARMAN team in 1993. He has stayed active in academia, teaching classes at UCLA on occasion, and has been involved in various aspects of the AES’s technical committees and research initiatives. He displays an unwavering passion for audio and the AES organization, and his unique perspective as a musician, educator, recording engineer/producer, audio researcher and consumer places him in an ideal position to guide the course of the society through the next year and help plot that course for coming years.

Among Olive’s goals is to continue diversifying AES’s scope and its membership. Olive said, “The recording industry has been at times resistant to change, and we are still feeling the effects of the failure to fully embrace digital technology. The ways that consumers are experiencing music are evolving at a rapid rate, with audio as a mobile experience now being much more common than a living room with a hi-fi system. Headphone sales are through the roof, and the AES has a chance to help improve the consistency and quality of the mobile experience. As our membership continues to move toward this world, along with the worlds of film, sound contracting, live sound, automotive audio and gaming, we need to further explore these avenues to better serve our members. There is also huge room for AES member expansion into the so-called ‘BRIC’ countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – and we plan to increase our outreach in those regions. The AES has a tremendous leadership role and a strong membership base, and I look forward to leveraging these assets to assist in the ongoing transition to the AES of the 21st century.”

For more information on the Audio Engineering Society and upcoming events, visit http://www.aes.org/.

Gel-Based Speaker Demonstrates Ionic Conductor Capabilities

Jeong-Yun Sun (left) and Christoph Keplinger (right) demonstrate their transparent ionic speaker, which uses a signal conducted by ions rather than electrons to vibrate a rubber membrane. (Photo courtesy of Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications)

Jeong-Yun Sun (left) and Christoph Keplinger (right) demonstrate their transparent ionic speaker, which uses a signal conducted by ions rather than electrons to vibrate a rubber membrane. (Photo courtesy of Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications)

Researchers Jeong-Yun Sun and Christoph Keplinger at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have demonstrated a new type of loudspeaker transducer, which works on a different principle than the conventional moving coil design.

It is made of a thin sheet of transparent rubber sandwiched between two layers of salt-water gel. A modulated high-voltage signal passed across the two outer gel layers exerts pressure on the rubber membrane, causing it to vibrate and produce sound, much like a planar (or flat) speaker. According to the Harvard SEAS report, the prototype speaker has a 20-Hz-to-20-kHz frequency response.

The important thing is that the vibration effect is produced by the electrical charges carried by ions and not the movement of electrons. So strictly speaking, this is not an electronic device. And the speaker is clear as a window.

The high-voltage signal that runs across the surfaces and through the layers forces the transparent rubber to rapidly contract and vibrate, producing sound.

Published in Science’s August 30, 2013, issue, this new speaker represents the first demonstration that electrical charges carried by ions, rather than electrons, can be put to meaningful use in fast-moving, high-voltage devices.

“Ionic conductors could replace certain electronic systems; they even offer several advantages,” says co-lead author Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard SEAS.

For example, ionic conductors can be stretched to many times their normal area without an increase in resistivity—a problem common in stretchable electronic devices. Second, they can be transparent, making them well suited for optical applications. Third, the gels used as electrolytes are biocompatible, so it would be relatively easy to incorporate ionic devices (e.g., artificial muscles or skin) into biological systems or wearable devices.

According to Keplinger, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard SEAS and in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, such systems have great potential as sensors and for actuating automatically on movement, which opens a range of application possibilities.

The audio speaker represents a robust proof of concept for ionic conductors because producing sounds across the entire audible spectrum requires both high voltage (to squeeze hard on the rubber layer) and high-speed actuation (to vibrate quickly)—two criteria that are important for applications but would have ruled out the use of ionic conductors in the past.

The electrical connection to the power source is established outside the device’s active region where it does not need to be transparent. The traditional constraints are well known. High voltages can set off electrochemical reactions in ionic materials, producing gases and burning the materials. Ions are also much larger and heavier than electrons, so physically moving them through a circuit is typically slow.

The system invented at Harvard overcomes these problems. “It must seem counterintuitive to many people that ionic conductors could be used in a system that requires very fast actuation, like our speaker,” says Sun. “Yet by exploiting the rubber layer as an insulator, we’re able to control the voltage at the interfaces where the gel connects to the electrodes, so we don’t have to worry about unwanted chemical reactions. The input signal is an alternating current (AC), and we use the rubber sheet as a capacitor, which blocks the flow of charge carriers through the circuit. As a result, we don’t have to continuously move the ions in one direction, which would be slow. We simply redistribute them, which we can do thousands of times per second.”

According to Keplinger, “Our system doesn’t need a lot of power and you can integrate it anywhere you would need a soft, transparent layer that deforms in response to electrical stimuli (e.g., on the screen of a TV, laptop, or smartphone to generate sound or provide localized haptic feedback). People are even thinking about smart windows. You could potentially place this speaker on a window and achieve active noise cancellation with complete silence inside.”

The Harvard team chose to make its audio speaker out of simple materials. The electrolyte is a polyacrylamide gel swollen with salt water, but the team emphasized that an entire class of ionically conductive materials is available for experimentation. Future work will focus on identifying the best combinations of materials for compatibility, long life, and adhesion between the layers.

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
www.seas.harvard.edu