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 Tommy O'Brien of Digital Amplifier Company.
Digital Amplifier Company was founded in 1996 after several years of developing switching amplifiers for audio. Their goal was development of new high performance amp technology. One of
the company's first products was a six-channel digital audio amp for PCs that fit into a drive bay slot and ran from the disk drive power supply. This was about the same time DVD players hit the market.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. When I was about eight, listening to my Dad's stereo, I was amazed. A few years later, I remember listening to Crazy Little Thing Called Love and telling my sister "I can listen to this song over and over!".But…. If I go WAY back, I loved this little music box I received as a gift when I was three. It played "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" (BJ Thomas). I'm also a drummer, so I love to play music in multiple ways.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. I was introduced to hi-fi at a very young age since my Dad was an audio enthusiast and electrical engineer. He took me to local high-end audio dealers and audio shows on occasion. I followed in his footsteps in so many ways. He was referred to as the "Godfather of Cable TV" at his job. He worked long hours to provide for his family. He also built some audio equipment as a hobby, and was very good at it. He started a company to renew old amplifiers. That only lasted a few years until he had some medical issues.
I thought "I'm going to take audio to a new level someday" since my teenage years. When I was still pre-teenage, while my Dad was at work, and after I returned from school, I took various gear apart and put things back together several times. I remember having an old cassette deck in pieces on the floor when my Dad got home one day. He wasn't angry at all, much to my surprise. He told me to "fix it back up", but he also told me what the various parts were called and explained what they do while I was putting it back together. Tools were readily available at home. That was a key factor. My Dad was such a great teacher, and I owe it all to him!
The gift of a Radio Shack Electronics Kit started me building, debugging, and modifying circuits at about 11 years old. I built a cattle prod circuit and convinced my 6th grade math teacher, with the full support of my class (they were the initial guinea pigs), to touch the terminals. When I hit the switch, she flew back and hit her head on the blackboard. No joke, they sent me for psychological testing.
During college (Drexel University, Philadelphia PA), we had to build a 1W audio amplifier and measure it's performance for an advanced electronics class, as well as play some audio through it to demonstrate the end result. Mine was a Class-A audio amp, and was chosen as the best in the class! I played it on a custom speaker I built while on summer break. One of the other students, a gentleman in his 40s, built a Class-D amplifier as his project, with special permission from the professor. I was super fascinated. His amp smoked after a few minutes of producing audio, but the idea of a "digital amp" was so exciting! Yes, "digital amp" is a misnomer to some (versus Class-D), but I can explain in detail some other day.
The idea of an amplifier technology that can get close to 100% power efficiency was intriguing. I wanted to know more. For my senior year project, I led a team to build a reliable high fidelity Class-D amp, and the project was a big success! That was my launch pad for the idea of high-end Class-D in the very early 90s. Class-D was done before, as early as the 60s, but with less-than-desirable results. I wanted to change that.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. Probably my Apogee Centaurus Slant 6 speakers, circa 1995. They are still playing and sound great even after replacing the woofers. They turned me on to ribbon speakers. My Dad went from even-more-vintage Magnepan speakers to these Apogees. He died in 2003, and I made a promise to myself to never sell his "final" pair of speakers. They played through the moment he left us.
By that time, my Dad had Krell amps, a SONY multi-disc CD transport, Theta Digital DS Pro Progeny DAC, Technics SL-1200 turntable, Audio Research SP-9 Preamplifier, and many other pieces of audio gear, some of which I still have. It was hard to pick a favorite, by the way.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. Starting an audio company was a goal since I was in college. I just loved audio! It was my passion, even though I was also into video circuits. I designed and built a bunch of video circuits (and wrote software to drive them) while in high school, mostly for science fairs.
I was the first freshman at my high school to win the science fair. My project was an audio spectrum analyzer I made from a Commodore VIC-20 computer and an external A/D converter board built from scratch. I used music from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer for my demos.
I returned to audio in college. I designed and built speakers when I had time, even while I had night school and two jobs. Focal, Dynaudio/Morel, Seas, and Vifa were my favorite driver brands. I worked in the electronics industry, at various electrical engineering jobs, building experience in military, consumer, industrial, and medical systems. That lasted decades while I had audio as a hobby.
I started a digital voice recorder company with a friend in 1993. It was audio related, but not high-end. I started Digital Amplifier Company in 1996 to develop intellectual property. The target was licensing to semiconductor companies. Still, not high-end. Digital Amp Co didn't start making finished products until 2005 or so, and that was originally a reference design for the technology. Eventually, we were told "This amplifier is high-end worthy!". Soon after, we started the Cherry Amplifier brand. Now it's high-end into the future.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. Our first product was a scalable Class-D circuit design for use in consumer amplifiers. That was around 2004. It was an "intellectual property package". There was a major rut in the semiconductor market at the time, so we wound up designing amplifier circuits for other audio companies. We wanted to go high-end, so we developed an "amplifier brick" for use in high performance multi-channel amps. They were the size of an actual brick. We were fortunate enough to have a customer that was already manufacturing high-end multi-channel amps. These "amp bricks" were absolute beasts! They were 1000W single-ended Class-D amp modules in vented steel enclosures. We also developed a reference design to drive two bricks. This became the DAC4800A amplifier, our first finished product, around 2006.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. Primarily cash. We didn't want to take on debt to ramp up production. Things went slow at first as we bootstrapped the operation.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. Most of our product line evolution is in the form of better measured/sonic performance and smarter designs. We have also created a smoother production flow.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. For several years it was the Stereo Maraschino, a compact 2-channel integrated amplifier with selectable back (true balanced) and front (single ended) inputs, a volume control, and external power supply.
Recently, we have been selling more 2-CHerry amps. This is the 2-channel version of our x-CHerry multi-channel amplifier series. These amps drive 2-5 channels per unit, so the model names are 2-CHerry, 3-CHerry, 4-CHerry, and 5-CHerry.
All x-CHerry amps have a 1000W+ power supply, shared as needed by the channels. When an input is "quiet" for more than eight minutes, the corresponding channel automatically sleeps, so you never need to turn the amp off. Sleep mode is also channel independent, and the channels wake up immediately when audio returns.
All x-CHerry channels are capable of 400 Watts into 4 Ohm. Mid-power THD+N is 0.002%, and SNR is 118dB. Bandwidth is 100 kHz. Output impedance is 0.016 Ohm wide-band. x-Cherry amps are DC coupled and true balanced end-to-end. They come with Neutrik RCA adapters to accommodate single-ended inputs. The design is tweaked for sound quality above all else. Our design philosophy is simply sonic transparency. The x-CHerry is also compact and lightweight (14" x 9" x 5" and weighs around 12 lbs).
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its features?
A. The Cherry DPA, a digital preamp with three digital inputs and one analog input. There are two outputs (both stereo). The main output is true balanced, double differential, and DC coupled. The secondary output is single ended and DC coupled. This product is expected to be released late 2020.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. About a decade from now, I expect to see increased audio streaming capabilities, better measurement/calibration systems, and innovative new approaches to immersive audio.
I also speculate that there will be better speaker technology to create smaller and higher performance transducers (drivers). As far as the electronics, more DSP and less analog as listeners realize much higher performance levels are attainable by adopting digital technologies.
Unfortunately in so many ways, I envision nearly no dealers. We sell direct, so we are able to offer better value to our customers, but this makes it difficult to demonstrate the capabilities of our products. Dealers are offering more value than ever before with more conservative margins to drive business. The sad thing there is that economic stress can be the straw that breaks this camel's back despite this "less greedy" approach.
I envision a resurgence of spec wars due to new semiconductor device availability. The smartest audiophiles will be knowledgeable about the difference between audible and inaudible improvements. I'm also hoping there is less "snake oil" in high-end audio moving forward, and more of an emphasis on science and engineering. Some recent product introductions by notorious charlatans have shown a sense of desperation in the high-end audio market. We need to get young audiophiles to join the drive toward a more truthful and exciting future.
Another related wish is for companies in this space to realize that the customer is the only reason they exist. That's' who puts the food on our tables. There is no greater honor for me than someone deciding to put their hard earned cash into something that I've created.
Another prediction is that Cherry Amplifiers will eventually dominate the "reasonable priced" high-end amplifier market. I don't take this lightly. It's time the industry knows our name.
Thank you, Steven R. Rochlin, for including my thoughts in your excellent idea! Sharing the views of people who run high-end audio companies should be very informative for your readers. I look forward to reading the thoughts of other company owners. I am so honored to be included!