We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various
high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may
surprise you! This month we're featuring Jeff Poggi, Co-CEO Of Audio Research. Audio Research is one of the oldest continually operating manufacturers in American audio. The company was founded in 1970 in Minneapolis with one goal in mind: to advance the state-of-the-art in music reproduction. Today, Audio Research remains a performance-oriented company by philosophy and design. New product introductions are driven only by genuine advances in technology and performance — the HIGH DEFINITION that is the hallmark of the company's products.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
In 1976, I was 6 years old. I lived in a big farmhouse with my extended family – mother, sister, grandparents, and two aunts. One of my aunts was a teenager and had a record player. She taught me how to play cards – Pitch, Rummy, Crazy 8. We would sit on her bed and listen to Kiss for hours – Rock and Roll Over, Destroyer, Kiss Alive. It was amazing. I still have picture perfect memory of that bedroom and I think it was the music that anchored the memory so vividly for me.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
In 1994, I went to work for Harman International as a quality engineer in a transducer manufacturing factory in Martinsville, IN. Up to this point, I had only heard mainstream gear – Bose, Sony, Polk, and of course, I had a Pioneer tape deck and 6"x9" coaxial speakers in my car. But, after joining Harman, I was introduced to a whole new world – JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson, & Revel to name a few. I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the biggest names in audio – Dr. Richard Small, Dr. Floyd Toole, Dr. Sean Olive – and many others. When I made my first visit to the Harman campus in Northridge, CA I was in awe – the four anechoic chambers, multiple listening rooms, heritage gear everywhere. I was hooked.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
The JBL L100 speakers are my favorite. I learned about them after they were out of production while I was working for Harman in the 1990s and building a brand history for JBL. The Maxwell advertisement that features the L100 with the cool guy in the leather chair getting his hair blown back is a classic that we all know. The look was iconic with the orange fabric grilles and small stand to angle them just right. I got a pair of used L100s when I was living in Michigan and had then connected with Harman/Kardon electronics. They were fantastic for my Rock and Roll listening.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
I joined Audio Research, which is part of the McIntosh Group, in July 2017. At this point, I had spent 17 years at Harman and 7 years at Bose. Both big multi-billion-dollar companies. Audio was my career and my hobby. However, Harman had just got bought out by Samsung and I felt that the company was getting too big for me – it was time for a change. I was fortunate that at the same moment the McIntosh Group was looking for a new CEO to help Charlie Randall run the business. It was a real quick decision for me to join after meeting Charlie. He has been with McIntosh Labs since he was an engineering intern at RIT and had been running the company as CEO for more then a decade. We are both small town farm boys who became engineers, love cars, love audio, and love the Pittsburgh Steelers. We hit it off immediately. Now, Charlie runs McIntosh Labs and I am managing the three other companies in the group – Audio Research, Sonus faber, and Sumiko.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
After I joined the Audio Research team, the first new product that we conceived and launched was the REF160M mono block amplifier. Our Reference amplifier family (REF150, REF250) had been introduced in 2011 and was due to be replaced. We wanted to push ourselves and innovate in ways that we had not done before. We developed a very capable wide-band output transformer; a new low noise/high capacity power supply, an all-new auto-bias circuit; and an innovative new industrial design featuring our GhostMeter – a see through meter that allows the consumer to see the tubes through the front panel.
Plus, we refined the balanced audio circuit and introduced multi-layer PCBs to improve the noise floor. And, we introduced Pentode/Triode mode switching via the front panel. Finally, to get that last bit of 'High Definition' sound, we introduced new hi-performing proprietary capacitors and the most transparent wiring that exists in the industry today. The REF160M started shipping in April 2018 and has gone on to win numerous awards (Stereophile Product of the Year 2018, Hi-Fi+ Amplifier of the Year, 2018, and Absolute Sound Amplifier of the Year 2019 to name a few).
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
On March 17, 2017, our Audio Research Senior Design Engineer, Ward Fiebiger, had a sudden and fatal heart attack. Loosing Ward was a tragedy beyond words for his family, friends, and Audio Research. The company is a small family and the R&D team was a close-knit group. When I joined the company a few months later in July 2017, the team was still working through the loss of Ward and how best to move forward. Luckily, we had many long-term employees that had learned a lot from Ward, and from Bill Johnson. Warren Gehl, David Gordon, and Chris Ossanna were instrumental in helping the new engineers, Keith Carlson and Greg Lee, take the 'Audio Research recipe' and build upon it with new components, technologies, and methods. Creating this 'new' team was critical to the success of our new REF160M and REF160S amplifiers.
Another challenge was that the lease on our facility was expiring at the end of 2018. Our building in Plymouth, MN was bigger than we needed and a bit out of date. So, we embarked on moving the company a few miles north to Maple Grove. We invested a substantial amount of money to custom design the space to our needs – a new R&D lab, two new listening rooms, new office areas, and a completely new manufacturing layout using lean manufacturing techniques. This new facility is now the perfect platform to enable our next 50years of High Definition audio.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
One of Bill Johnson's quotes that still echoes the halls of Audio Research is 'only do something if it advances the sound quality of the product'. This guides everything we do and how our products have evolved. Fundamentally, we make very similar products to the original SP1 and SP3 pre-amplifiers. Balanced designs using valves. But, our most recent products, like the REF6SE line-stage, is a significant sonic improvement over the original products. The advancements in material science is a significant driver of sound quality over the years – the PCBs, the wires, the capacitors, all the components – have gotten better and better through each generation. Additional our knowledge of transformers and power supplier has grown from generation to generation. And, of course, the tubes used have evolved over time as tube manufacturers have come and gone and new models have replaced some classics. Our current line of Reference amplifiers relies on the KT150 valve which we believe is the fastest, most transparent, and most dynamic tube on the market.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
Our REF6SE line stage pre-amplifier ($17,000) is our best-selling SKU. We have always been known for our pre-amplifiers since the companies first commercially successful product, the SP-3, some 50 years ago. The REF6 has been a Recommended Class A product from Stereophile since it was released in 2015. In December 2019, we upgraded the REF6 to a REF6SE. The upgrades leveraged our learnings from our Reference amplifier development (REF160M and REF160S) and brought these into the REF6. For example, and to inform those reading Enjoy the Music.com's 10 Question series, we use new higher capability capacitors and introduced new more transparent wiring in the audio path. The new REF6SE is more transparent, more detailed, with more air, and more dynamics.
But, while the REF6SE is the single best-selling SKU, our Reference amplifiers (REF750SEL, REF160M, REF160S, and REF75SE) are the biggest selling product category for the company. And, the new features introduced in the REF160M and REF160S – auto-bias, front panel tube hour counters, tube fault monitoring, and pentode/triode front panel switch - make offering a tube product a low-stress purchase for any consumer. You can now get solid-state quality and reliability in a more musical, high definition Audio Research valve amplifier.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
We are bringing out several new products to celebrate Audio Research's 50th anniversary. On March 9, we will announce a new special edition upgrade to our Reference Phono 3 phono pre-amplifier. The new REFPHONO3SE will take all the learnings from the recently announced REF6SE line-stage and bring these into our top-end phono stage. Additionally, it is not a secret that we will be replacing the REF75SE this summer with a new REF80S that follows on the footsteps of the REF160M and REF160S. The REF80S will bring all the same features found in the REF160S with less power (2x75 Watts versus 2x150 Watts).
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
Well, 10 years sound like a long time, but for a hi-end audio company is only two generations of product as each generation tends to last four to seven years. And, if we look back at the past ten years, we see a few things that may guide us. First, the major changes in the high-end audio business have been on the source side – CDs have given away to digital audio files and now to streaming. This has been the most significant development over the past ten years. Today, many consumers still have 100s of CDs, and in Asia many have SACDs, so disc players are still a necessary and popular product.
But, as time moves forward, I would see this slowly changing as the streaming and digital audio playback gain bigger and bigger market share. Thus, I see streaming DACs as the source of the future. But, let's not forget our old Vinyl friends – Records are here to stay! The youth culture movement of the past decade has brought a whole new generation into the wonder of turntables. And, I am glad that these should continue to perform well. If I had to make a small bet, I would see a resurgence in reel-to-reel tape players. It won't be big volume, but it will be fun for those that go down the road. As for Audio Research, we plan to continue to do what we have always done – make the best performing, High Definition, tube-based, two-channel audio gear right here in our new factory in Maple Grove, MN.
Voice: (763) 577-9700