Exclusive interview with Analog Domain - Angel Despotov

In depth interview with Angel Despotov

Where and how did it all start for Angel Despotov?

My addiction to music started in my early childhood in the early seventies of the 20-th century. At the time we lived in London. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Genesis, to name a few, were making music history. I had the privilege to attend some of their live events, which left a lasting imprint in my mind.

One day as a child, almost by accident, I bought a “Do it yourself electronic organ kit” from the local toyshop. The kit was full of mysterious little parts – things I’d never seen before. As I had no soldering iron, but was eager to assemble it, I used a small screwdriver heated on the gas stove to make the connections. Crude, but it did the job. When I finally attached the battery and it worked, you can’t imagine the joy of the moment! From then on electronics has been my primary hobby and a constant source of fascination. The love of music and my hobby merged naturally along the way, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to transform my hobby into a profession.

What drew you to of high-end industry?

Let’s try to define what is a high-end product: in my opinion, it is something, which is created with emotion, manufactured to the highest technical and aesthetic standards, aiming to deliver ultimate satisfaction in every aspect. Performance is the goal, cost is an inevitable consequence, and only the best is good enough. This reflects in many ways my personal values, so it is the natural place to be.

Would you consider yourself as an audiophile?

Definitely! Who in their right mind would listen to the same track over and over again, just for the pure pleasure of its sound!?

Who were your inspirations (and still are)?

Nature is the ultimate source of inspiration. I marvel at its sophisticated simplicity and try to replicate it in my designs.

Kindly list all of the present products from Analog Domain?

Currently we make four models single-channel power amplifiers, popularly referred to as monoblocks – the Calysto, the Artemis, the Athene and the Apollo. They are based on the same core technology, differing in their power output. The Calysto has a modest output of 500W into 8 ohms, the Apollo delivers up to 8000W into 4 ohms. People have asked - who needs so much power? Well, it’s about headroom and dynamics, not about smashing your windows or damaging your hearing. Music is a very dynamic signal, requiring huge peak power, be it for only brief moments. So, if you want to reproduce the natural dynamics in music, you need the power.

Why the name Analog Domain?

We live in an analog world. The name reflects the fact that we focus on analog circuit designs, which in my opinion outperform digital by a significant margin, and always will.

Analog Domain products seem to have created a certain stir at high-end audio circles. When and how did everything start?

I suppose we have raised the bar somewhat – delivering a product that has unique features, combining extreme performance with pleasing aesthetics.

When did you establish Analog Domain and why?

The company was established in early 2010 in Munich, Germany. Here we have access to all the technologies we need to manufacture a world-class product with consistent quality.

Do you produce everything in house?

Yes and no. Everything we do is designed in-house from the ground up. I personally follow each product through its development cycle. The actual manufacturing of sub-assemblies is outsourced. In this way we have access to the latest technologies without the need to invest heavily. Furthermore, we work with suppliers who are leaders in their respective field. You simply cannot be “best in everything” if you do everything yourself. The final assembly, testing and quality assurance are done in-house.

Still believe in traditional German quality?

Definitely. Germans are famous for their high manufacturing standards, and for a good reason.

Your upper class amplifier got instant luxury high-end audio label. How did that happen?

What can I say? See, listen, and you will have the answer.

You don’t implement any tubes, but only solid state. Why is that?

Tubes have a limited lifespan and a wide parameter spread for the same model. When done right, solid state circuits will outperform tubes in virtually all aspects.

Why did you choose only Solid State in your designs?

High performance, long service life and consistent quality.

Have you ever even thought about implementing tubes into your products?

Yes, but I get over it quickly! :) Seriously, there are some remarkable achievements in tube technology, but the tradeoffs related to their use are simply not worth it in my opinion.

Tubes vs. Transistors?

This is a long debate. I prefer not to start. For me, solid state performs better, period.

You amplifiers go up to 4kw. Is that a must?

If you, like me, enjoy listening to music at natural levels, high power output is a necessity. There is no such thing as a “quiet” drum set, for instance. And yet, the amp must perform flawlessly at even the lowest power levels, as there is no “loud” violin either.

What is your approach and specific to your topology?

Allegedly, it’s Einstein who said: “Everything should be done as simple as possible, but not simpler!”. I really enjoy that statement: how can something be done simpler than possible!? The man was a genius indeed. This statement is one of my guiding principles: to achieve the desired performance using the simplest possible means.

The circuit designs we use are our proprietary creations and they have many specific features that set them apart from the mainstream. Furthermore, a good circuit is just a prerequisite. Component selection, layout and assembly techniques are just as important to achieve peak performance and reliability from a circuit. The devil is in the details, as they say - everything counts.

You don’t hide anything as far as I know. Just honest and clever engineering?

Why should I hide? Our designs are just as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside. If someone wants to follow in our footsteps, it would be recognition of achievement, and he’ll soon find out that it is nearly impossible to reach the same level of performance and quality at a cost advantage. I have no worries here. Our technology is available to OEM customers.

What does state of the art solid-state amplification actually means for Analog Domain?

“A wire with gain” – this is the Holy Grail in amplification. Nothing added, nothing taken away. Solid state has its advantages, delivering more power, better control and a long service life for the same cost in comparison to vacuum tubes.

Do you think balanced topology is a must for best sound?

Balanced signal delivery minimises the ingress of interference, whereas balanced amplification minimises distortion. All our current amplifiers are balanced by design, accepting a balanced input signal for ultimate performance.

What kind of speakers do you see as state of the art?

The basic technology has not changed much since speakers were invented, but serious improvements have been made in the design. New materials have raised the level of performance, and improvements are constantly being made. There is no single “best” solution.

What would you say sets apart Analog Domain design above other manufacturers?

Attention to detail in every aspect. We don’t just make things - we love what we do!

What is the difference between your pro and audiophile products?

Pro gear is designed to deliver maximum performance within a pre-defined budget. Aesthetics are only addressed in terms of functionality. Audiophile products are designed for maximum performance with uncompromised aesthetics. Then there is the “Wife acceptance factor: when I heard the term for the first time, it made no sense. Now I know better: we men have a completely different perception on aesthetics. Appearance does not matter much to us. Women, on the other hand, are extremely sensitive to appearance, and no man will buy something that his wife does not accept aesthetically. So much for pro gear!

Would you say, that one love for music reflects in his creations-amplifiers?

Love is the source of creation for everything, no exceptions.

Where is the borderline between luxury and quality?

You can have high quality without luxury in a product, as in pro-gear. Quality is about function and reliability; luxury is about aesthetics and materials selection.

There is the high-end and ultra high-end. What is the difference?

I suppose the difference is in the tradeoffs that were made in the products design and manufacture. The less compromises, the more “ultra” it gets. And pricey...

Are high prices a must?

A “high” price is when you pay for something you don’t get. It’s not about the absolute figure. Quality and performance carry a cost, and the price reflects it. 

To what extent do you use pure class A is your signal chain? Is AB the ultimate choice?

All signal amplification and conditioning stages in our designs are biased in Class A, right up to the final set of output transistors, which are biased in Class AB by popular classification standards. Our proprietary circuit technology achieves the sonic equivalent of pure Class A performance without the need to turn the amplifier into a heating appliance. If you want heat – buy a heater - it’s much cheaper. Heat is an enemy, so we aim to keep it to a minimum.

How important is the power supply in your view?

Any device can only be as good as its power supply.

What is specific to you approach?

We don’t take shortcuts. Everything has to be “done right”.

What importance do you give to [components]? Is there a need of exotics parts and how do you use them?

Our selection criteria are performance, reliability and availability. Some of the parts we use are critical to performance and are custom manufactured for us, but they are certainly not exotic. Should the primary supplier for any component go out of business, we will not follow. For every component we use there must be an equivalent alternative supplier, or we will not use it.

Classical music or studio recorded music. What do you see as ultimate test for ultra high-end?

The ultimate test is comparison: if you can convince your ears and brain that you are listening to a live performance, then you have achieved the ‘high end’ in reproduction. Any source material is good for this, but unfortunately too many recordings are crippled intentionally in the studio. The “Loudness war” is killing quality.

What is your opinion on digital music revolution and the birth of mp3?

Digital technology is evolving rapidly and we are following its development with interest.

Where is the fine line between, resolution, transparency and musicality?

It’s the combination of all of the above that makes a truly outstanding product.

How do you tune your products or what is your specific goal in creating Analog Domain in house sound (or lack of it)?

The ultimate measuring instrument is the ear. A device must measure well on the test bench, but above all - it must also sound well. A good-sounding product usually measures well, but the reverse is not always true.

What is the reference for your when designing to products?

Natural sounds, acoustic instruments, voices.

Is there a need for a high price in high-end?

Quality has its price, that’s why it is the high-end.

Analog Domain and vinyl? Yes?

Vinyl is coming back, and our line stage will feature a top-performance RIAA preamp, but we have no plans to make an AD turntable.

What were your explorations on of Class D?

We are currently not considering Class D as a viable option for high quality, high power amplification. If and when devices become available, which are capable of switching very high currents at very high speeds, we may revisit this issue. Class D is simply not up to our standards with the current component base.

How close can one get with digital reproduction in comparing to analog in your opinion?

The digital representation can approach, but never quite equal the analog original. It’s intrinsic to the principle of digital conversion. As bit depth and bit rate are increased, you can get pretty close to the original signal to fool the senses. Digital technologies are constantly improving.

Does form follows function with Analog Domain?

Definitely. Both are equally important.

What do you think about products coming from East (China)?

China is a fascinating country. The Chinese people are extremely hard working and pay great attention to detail – it’s in their culture. The “Made in China” label is getting more recognition and there are some fine products that were made there.

Any plans for more affordable Analog Domain components?

What can I say: work smarter, make more money and everything will be more affordable! :)

If you want the best, you have to be prepared to pay the price.

Many say the first watt is most important. Is it?

It is because we listen to low levels most of the time, even when the volume is up. Music is a very dynamic signal. 20 dB of dynamics means a 1:100 power ratio between the average and peak levels. Some performances have even higher dynamics.

Many say over 500 w. Over rated! Really?

The specifications of our products are quite conservative, actually. We’re not in a label war and raw specs are not a key selling point in high-end audio. The figures we publish are verifiable, and are provided for reference.

Continuing from previous question. Is Solid State Pure A class an ultimate perfection?

Pure Class A achieves minimal distortion in the respective stage, however its use should be done with reason and caution. It is not a panacea to solve bad engineering decisions.

How important are the room acoustics from your experience with pro audio?

The room acoustics are just as important as everything else in the audio chain. Investing in top quality electronics makes sense only if adequate steps have been made to assure good room acoustics. “Easy Fixes” like digital room correction systems can improve the result somewhat, but they can never fully compensate for bad acoustics in a room. Achieving a “sweet spot” is relatively easy. Extending that zone over a wide listening area is a challenge.

There are quite few DSP and room correction solutions, but they seem to add too much to the music. What are your experiences?

Multiple conversion and intermediate processing carries the risk of degrading the signal. Some have done it right; most have compromised their designs.

When is it simple enough (design and topology) to say stop, this is where it all ends and amplifier is finished?

A product is considered finished when it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I listen to it.

Do you ever plan to bring any other components to your line except the amplifiers?

The future holds many interesting prospects. Stay tuned!

How do you see the state of the present high-end society?

The Highend Society brings together people who share a similar set of values and passion as related to music reproduction. We are happy to be part of it and look forward to its contribution for the advancement of our industry.

And what about High-end magazines? Do you believe in traditional High-end audio magazine reviews?

Magazine reviews have their merits, as products are evaluated based on a standardised set of criteria. They also enable people to learn about new products and to judge opinion. We may provide some of our products for review to magazines.

Advertising is the king? Sad and true?

Advertising is a necessity.

I like to think, that serious audiophiles are more than intelligent when spending the money. How do you see this?

It’s about getting the value you expect for you money, at any price level. Audiophiles are smart spenders.

Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?

Components are becoming better for the same cost through advancements in technology. However, a good design and careful implementation are mandatory. Premium components and premium implementation of a product always carries a premium price tag.

Who would you say typical Analog Domain audio customers are?

People who share our passion for music and demand top performance in a luxury package.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

I’d like to wish your readers the best of luck in life. Music makes it so much more fun!

Text: Matej Isak
Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine
All rights reserved, October 2011