We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During 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 Bill Hutchins, Founder And Chief Designer For LKV Research. Devising amplification circuits and finding solutions to design problems, in the service of great-sounding music, is his passion. But he often wind up doing a bit of everything else, except accounting. Bill provides support to our customers, stuff boards, order parts, calculate shipping costs, measure and match JFETs, design ads, write copy for our website and blog, and on and on.
All the while though, Bill finds myself thinking about design problems, new products, and how to improve our existing products. The last, Bill says, is the one that gets him in the most trouble with the bean counters, who hate the money and time he spends on product development and improvement. Bill often hears, and usually ignore, "Leave it alone, Bill. It's already a fine product, can't you just sell the damn thing as it is?" How can they say stuff like that? Don't they understand that everything matters for good sound and that design improvement is always vital?
The company is located in New Hampshire's beautiful White Mountains, where they design and manufacture high-end audio phono stages, pre-amplifiers, and power amplifiers. LKV Research offers music lovers great sounding audio preamps and amps at affordable prices. They focus on the characteristics of each component that truly matter for sound quality and use good engineering design and extensive listening to achieve excellent performance without incurring unnecessary cost.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. My mother was an amateur viola player. I remember lying on our living room rug when I was probably eight years old listening to her and three friends play Haydn and Mozart string quartets. One afternoon, I realized, "Wow, this is really neat stuff." A few years later I latched onto acoustic folk: Woody, Pete, the Weavers, Joan Baez, Dylan, and all. Classical and folk have long been my favorites, but recently I have been discovering a lot of great jazz. I am listening to a Charlie Parker Nonet at the moment.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. I've been fascinated with electronic gear since I was about 12. That Christmas my parents gave me a Heathkit radio to build. I was seriously disappointed. I had wanted a basketball and could not have been less interested in a box of electronic parts and its thick assembly manual. I stuffed that box in the back of my closet and headed out to the local basketball court. But on a slow evening that summer I opened the box and decided to build my radio. I stayed up all that night racing to finish my new radio so I could listen to WABC (New York). As the sun came up, I turned it on and.... Nothing.
Construction failure. As I later realized, I had made so many construction errors that I must still hold the Heathkit world record for most construction errors made by a boy under 15. I looked at my dead radio, suppressed my urge to smash it to bits, put it back in the closet, and headed to the ballfield.
After a few days, however, I decided to try to fix the radio. I was certainly not about to admit defeat and send it back to Heathkit. (At the time their policy was to fix bungled construction kit builds for free). It took me about a year of off-and-on effort, many trips to the library, and a little help from my Dad to learn enough about electronics to fix my radio. When I finally heard music come out of that radio, I was hooked. From then on, no matter what else my life held, playing baseball, running track (the mile was my best event), earning a college degree, practicing law, helping two daughters navigate growing up, I worked from time to time on my electronic projects.
Sometimes I designed and built audio gear. At other times, equipment for my ham radio station. (My call sign was N4DRB.) My method was to decide what I wanted to make, study articles and books that gave me enough theory to understand the necessary circuitry, and then design and build my new toy. All my projects worked eventually, but rarely the first time I plugged them in. I learned the most when they didn't because that was when I had to go back to the books and figure out what the problem was and how to fix it. Project by project I learned analog electronics. Learning from my failures proved to be a good approach not only to electronics but also to the rest of my life.
At some point, I found and started reading Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. I don't recall how I found my first issues, but I became fascinated with the idea that two different audio amplifiers could have different sounds even if both were well-engineered and had similar specs. Each issue of TAS (when it finally came out) had written by Harry that sounded as if he was on a lifetime quest for... well, the absolute sound! This got me poking around hi-fi shops and listening to different setups. It took me a while to take the plunge and buy my first piece of real audiophile amplification. It was a conrad-johnson PV-5. With that purchase, I felt as if I had joined Harry and of course J. Gordon in a great adventure.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
That cj PV-5 preamp. Why? Two reasons. 1) It was my first and it gave me a glimpse of real hi-end sound. 2) That PV-5 got me started designing my speakers. One night, one of its power supply capacitor failed, generating a very loud 60hz signal that destroyed the bass drivers in a pair of VMPS speakers. What some might call a setback, provided me with an opportunity to repair and upgrade those VMPS behemoths. Doing that gave me my start on building speakers of my design. Good deal all around.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. I have long toyed with the idea of starting a company; but what with a family to support, a demanding job at the U.S. Department of Justice. other interests such as rock climbing, alpine mountaineering, and driving a Spec Miata racecar, there wasn't time.
But, eight years ago when I retired and my wife Lois and I moved here to North Conway, NH, I saw my chance. We started thinking and talking about what we would like to do with our retirements. Starting a small manufacturing business that would employ a handful of people in our North Conway area seemed attractive. From this, LKV arose.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. Our first product was the Phono 2-SB MC/MM phono preamp. It was a much-improved version of a phono amp I had designed for myself. We introduced it in 2013, first at a Mini CAF (Capital Audio Fest] that Gary Gill held and then at The Audio Show in California in a room to which we were invited by a very generous speaker manufacturer we met at the Mini CAF.
The success of the 2-SB was due in no small part to favorable reviews from Tom Lyle (Enjoy the Music.com), and Michael Fremer (Analog Planet), and a short preview written by The Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson.
The story of Harry's preview began when his assistant invited me to bring the 2-SB to Harry's house in Seacliff, NY for a listening session. As I carried the unit into the entry hall, I heard Harry say in a loud, slightly hostile tone, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Harry met my response, that I had brought my new phono amp for him to audition with a loud "Go away!" I took a deep breath and countered, "I'll leave, but not before you listen to my new design." At that, he smiled and said in a congenial voice, "OK, bring it into music room 2." Once the 2-SB was set up there, I spent several hours sitting beside Harry as he listened to record after record through the 2-SB. It was a delightful afternoon. I remember best Harry's great enthusiasm for the music and his delight in giving me a heads up when the really good parts were coming. Harry's preview appeared on his website a few weeks later. It concluded that our 2-SB was a "great phono stage at a very reasonable price."
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. What challenges didn't we face? Starting from scratch as we did and without any prior manufacturing or small business experience, we had to learn almost everything on the fly.
I had already developed the basic, good sounding, amplification circuits that we have since used in all of our products: a balanced, Class A, voltage amplifier circuit that uses zero loop feedback. It is executed with discrete, hand-tested and matched JFETs. But I had to learn quickly how to design finished products that could operate reliably and effectively in a host of different systems without my being there to care for them. Learning quickly how to do this is one of the things of which I am most proud.
We had to find sources for building a website, making cost-effective enclosures, producing the custom transformers my designs required, making our printed circuit boards, and a host of other issues. Fortunately, we were able to find other small businesses, most located here in New Hampshire, to provide for these needs.
We established an inventory system to keep track of the myriad of parts required for our products, a task with which we are still struggling.
We wrote and produced clear Owner's Manuals, a particularly important task for us because our products offer many adjustments to help the user get the best possible sounding music. But, the adjustments have to be done correctly, and the manuals are the key to that.
We needed to set up an accounting system. Lois even had to convince me of the need to save invoices and receipts for tax purposes.
Pricing our products was also a challenge, After some tentative attempts to find dealers, we decided to sell only direct from our shop. This gave us the ability to do what I like to call "real-world pricing," under which the direct sale price of each of our products is based on our costs of making them. Specifically, we try to keep our prices between two and three times the cost of the parts they contain. The "parts cost" used in this ratio does not include our labor costs or overhead, etc. Because we sell direct, the ratio of our cost to selling price can be a lot less than the five times ratio found in many high-end products.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. We have stayed true to our original circuit concept: balanced, Class A voltage amplification implemented using hand-matched JFETs with zero loop feedback. They are a trial to manufacture because the hand matching of components is essential to obtaining the ultra-low distortion we demand. We now manufacture 5 different amplifiers, all of which use versions of this circuit.
· The Phono 2-SB
· Our top of the line phono preamp, the Veros One
· Our line level control preamp, the Line 1
· An integrated amp (phono/pre/power), the Verito 1
· Our power amp, the Veros PWR+
In each successive model, I have found ways make our basic balanced voltage gain circuit quieter, more accurate and more musical. The last of these, the Veros PWR+, represents a big step forward in that we combine our signature zero-feedback voltage gain circuit with the revolutionary Purifi Audio 1ET400A class D module. I like to think of this combination as a Class A/D amp. Our Class A is used for input, voltage gain, and driver, while the Class D boosts current and provides a crystal clear window through which to send the signal to the speaker. Check out our LKB Blog for more info on this innovative design. http://lkvresearch.blogspot.com/.
Q. What is your company's most popular product?
A. Initially, it was the Phono 2-SB. Although a significantly upgraded version of that design is still in production, our top-of-the-line Veros One phono stage has recently eclipsed the 2-SB in popularity. I anticipate that our new power amp (the Veros PWR+} will shortly overtake both of them.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. We've currently got several projects under consideration, but we are not sure which of them we will commit to first. My favorite is a replacement for the Veros One. My intent with this design would be to make the very best phono amp available today.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. · Control loops (negative feedback) will be used much more extensively to allow electronics to compensate for room acoustics.
· Class D power amps will supplant Class A/B because the former is capable of greater accuracy so long as used with properly effective control loops (e.g., the kind now designed by Bruno Putzeys).
· Prices for high-end audio gear will fall as manufacturers get better at making gear with state of the art sound at lower prices and audiophiles get better at distinguishing what makes for better sound from over-hyped mediocrity. Real-world pricing will become the norm.