Interview with Thorsten Loesch - iFi

Exclusive Mono & Stereo interview with Thorsten Loesch of iFi (AMR) about their standout new affordable high-end audio products.

Q: Why iFi

A: i Stands for interactive, Fi for fidelity.

And to be truthful, the iSomething is a trend (not just with Apple and since even before Apple adopted the little i as it’s prefix). We wanted something simple, easy to say that explained what we do. So iFi. Not traditional big box, big bux “HiFi”

Q: Designed by AMR? What does this exactly means?

A: Many technologies come from AMR. Some are direct-trickle downs of the technology we use in AMR equipment. Others are the ones that "almost" made it into price (almost) no object AMR gear, but were beaten to the punch by something even better, while still being very good.

Much of the electronic design is AMR. We also worked on the industrial design, though to a degree what we can do there is limited. We consciously avoided the use of plastic shells more appropriate to items stocked at pile ‘em high toy stores.

We take a holistic approach. We work closely with our manufacturing partners, it is important to design things so they can be produced and tested easily, at this price, however we always push for something a little special, a little extra.

Q: How much of AMR we're getting with iFi?

A: Between 200 and 400 USD Dollars worth.

Okay, sonically?

Like with AMR gear we try to get the best sounds for the bucks. So we spend on the places that matter. So you get something that goes far. We have seen retailers pegging iFi at 70% of AMR. It's a subjective thing.

Let me put it this way. Every Xmas a friend in the diamond business has been sending me a small gift pack with handmade Belgian chocolates that are simply heavenly (and a bottle of Möet & Chandon that goes down rather well).

If we liken AMR to this Xmas gift, then iFi is a box of very nice premium Belgian chocolates from your local Safeways Supermarket and a bottle Freixenet Cava.

Q: We see you covered both DAC and turntable territories. So demand is strong for both?

A: There is much less demand for Turntable gear than for the DAC. But we have an attachment to Vinyl. You might almost say I made the iPhono for myself, for my 2nd system and tricked the company into paying for it...seriously, our market research intimated demand was more than adequate for a special phono stage where only the price is ‘budget’. By happenstance, we demo’d the iPhono at RMAF with US$17k of vinyl. It went down a treat.

The demand for USB DAC's is currently really picking up.

In 2006 when we introduced our CD-77 with Tubes, TDA1541 DAC and USB (only) external input, people used to do a double take: "USB Input, Computer Audio, WTF - do you want me to play MP3 via this player?". In 2012 - try selling a DAC or CD-Player without high-quality USB or firewire input.

Times have moved on and now computer-based audio is universal. In the high-end only AMR, Ayre and Wavelength Audio have been onboard with Computer Audio since early times. Others have been catching up rapidly of course and I personally see this as a good thing. Open competition spurs innovation and raises the overall quality in a given market.

Q: Can we expect iFi amplifier coming soon?

A: The watchwords now are active speakers and headphones. Convenience drives change. Traditional HiFi is losing market share rapidly. Who wants a rack full of halve a dozen big boxes just to play music when they can plug some headphones into their iPod or plug the iPod into a Speaker/Dock combo?

Traditional passive speakers and amplifiers can give great results (make mine with Tubes please), but they are not very living room friendly.

However especially at the lower-end, going active can give degrees of freedom and allow levels of performance that traditional Amp/Passive speaker combos at the same price cannot match. One may even include psycho-acoustic and dynamic processing with a "light touch" so it only cuts in at the extremes of volume and get a "mo bigga sound for much less moolah in smallah box".

For now we have no desire to make speakers or headphones. An amplifier for speakers is quite in the opposite direction where we see iFi going - not high on the list of things to do and possible speaker projects are on the shelf for now. Yet, as 007 (in Sean Connery’s imitable Scottish accent) once said, "never say never".

Q: Do you think it’s a great time for affordable audio?

A: It is always a great time for affordable, high-performance audio. But in times of economic dire straits, when all but the super rich are reduced to near penury, it becomes a time like no other. Sure, bad markets, economic difficulties and reduced spending among "aspirational" customers create difficulties for many producers of higher-end products (not just audio).

But more crucially, such adverse conditions create opportunities.

The volume of business that gets our manufacturing partners excited nowadays would have not given us the time of day in 2006. So yes, it's a great time for great affordable audio. But it is also a great time for super ultra-fi audio.

Q: Can we consider iFi entry level high-end?

We have always seen the high-end as a combination of exceptional performance coupled to impeccable build and industrial design with a price-tag that limits ownership to a few. High-end is exclusive.

In this sense iFi is probably entry level high-end only in performance. On build they are more than adequate (Apple and others have really raised the bar on build in the mid-range products). However on pricing and design we feel iFi is inclusive, not exclusive gear.

Anyone can aspire to own iFi Products. Few can and even fewer do aspire to own AMR products.

Q: Who do you want to address with iFi products?

Anyone who cares about how their music sounds like is disappointed what the mainstream manufacturers deliver in sound quality on a budget.

Over time there will be new products (strictly skunkworks stuff for now, so if I told you I would have to kill you) that will take the iFi concept both down-market and up-market and into new fields.

Q: With advancement of SMD great things seems to happen for the entry level audiophile gear. How much iFi gain with this approach.

A: Our current and future iFi products make aggressive use of SMD Components. It improves manufacturability massively by being able to use machines to both place and (reflow) solder components. Human involvement (and errors) are minimised.

However, most SMD components are subject to many problematic issues. Some very small size and high capacitance capacitors make excellent microphones for getting much output from small vibrations. Some cheap SMD resistors have massive excess noise, often 20dB (10 times) over what you'd expect from their value. So using generic SMD often does not sound great.

At AMR we have been using SMD extensively for a long time. So we have learned the pitfalls of this new tech for sound-quality as well as the opportunities. We have also found our own ways of maximising the gains and minimising issues. iFi is by far, more reliant on SMD and we have been able to put this experience to good use.

Q: With iFi. How high with bits and resolution? Async?

A: Our iDac operates as USB Audio Class 2 Asynchronous device, maximum sample rate is 192KHz and maximum word length is 24 Bit. Right now we see little mainstream interest in higher sample rates, greater word length or DSD. It is worth remembering that most recording studio equipment is 24/88 or 24/96. So to play Bit-Perfect, this is where the focus should be.

Q: Compared to rivals you offer quite some technologies seen in this price range. How did you manage to do this?

A: Economies of scale; The research and much of development was already paid for (and amortised) at AMR. Combine this with large quantities (by high-end HiFi standards anyway) and you can afford to put in a lot. Using automated assembly and testing also keeps costs to a minimum.

Q: What does the future holds for iFi?

I wish I knew. I am not an oracle. We hope that iFi can raise the level of competition in the audio market the way Apple has done for computers and that iFi keeps innovating and producing products that make people happy.

Q: Do you see a strong need for integration with mobile devices?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Streaming audio. Coming up with IFi?

A: Depends on the definition. With the right peripherals general purpose computers (and Pads) are excellent "streamers" and people usually already have one. So I think we instead focus on the peripherals and on supporting good playback software.

Q: iFi seems to want to raise the bar of high quality for all. A noble goal to share know how for the music lovers and audiophiles at large?

A: Nah, we are just in it for the money, as Fish in Alley McBeal used to say “mainly I'm in the this for the piles, heaps, the really big piles.”.

Or maybe not?

Music is the one art-form that seems to bypass our consciousness if done right.

What would "Titanic" be without soundtrack. Would our heart go out to Rose & Jack quite the same way? Sometimes music has even been the start of revolutions.

So good quality gear, to accommodate high production values in recorded music may make a difference to more than just corporate bottom lines. As Ghandi said, perhaps quite blue-eyed, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

We would like everyone to have access to great music, great gear and to have this affordable. If we wanted to make money first we would all work as patent lawyers or politicians.

Q: The rise of head-fi, this phenomena seems to become an important movement. Is this why you presented the headphone amp?

A: No.

Headphone Amp's have been around for ages. But most just "amplify". Almost all recordings are made to be replayed via Speakers. Playing them via 'Can's is unnatural and sounds that way. This has been a long standing gripe of ours.

The iCan was designed primarily to build a bridge over this gap.

Q: Can you shortly elaborate what is different about it?

Okay, ignoring many of the non-buzzword compliant technologies included…

The electronics operate in Class A (hence the iCan gets warm) and with enough power to drive pretty much any headphone out there.

We use circuitry that can operate at many 10's of MHz. We could in principle make the bandwidth of the iCan 50MHz or more, we simply limit it to something less wide, we do not wish to amplify the local FM Stations or build a VHF Transmitter.

So we combine Class A with ultra-fast circuitry, simply to make sure that the amplifier tracks the incoming signal precisely. This is the “just amplifying” part done a little different.

More crucially perhaps, we add psychoacoustic processing for the bass and the impression of sound-staging, to make sure recordings made for speakers don’t drive you insane via headphones. While they may look insignificant, the little switches marked “X-Bass” and “3D sound” represent secret weapons in the iCan’s arsenal.

If you like the way many headphones lack low bass and if you like how they place the band right inside your skull, then you do not need those two switches (though you may want to try them anyway, you may like your headphones even better afterwards). However, if listening this way puts your OCD into overdrive and you wish to remedy these shortcomings, the iCan is the solution.

Q: So digital audio is finally opening for masses. DSD or PCM for iFi?

A: We are observing. DSD seems up for a little revival, it seemed completely dead. However for now only a handful of small, audiophile labels offer DSD downloads.

When Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (or whatever will be its equivalent in the future) is available as DSD download one may say that DSD is relevant.

For now we have PCM covered, if DSD wins significant market share (or at least captures the imaginations of a significant proportion of our customers), we will offer DSD in addition to PCM.

Q: So what resolution is and will be enough for "consumer" market?

A: The consumer market thinks "good enough" is MP3 at 192KBPS VBR or less. Hard to argue with that, unless we can convince people they actually want better. So simply pushing full-resolution, lossless CD and possibly higher-grade PCM formats is difficult.

Q: Quite some answers. Shall we end with last thoughts for our readers...

A: What matters most in all this is the enjoyment of music. Equipment is just a tool to enjoy music, not a thing in itself. So enjoy the music, no matter how humble or exquisite your gear is.

And when you are listening and kicking back to some especially great piece of music and maybe had a little snifter of Cognac, a wee dram of Usquebaugh or perhaps a glass of red or whatever is your favourite tipple, take some advice from the late Kurt Vonnegut in his Article "Knowing What's nice" and say quietly to yourself: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” 

iFi is posting a series of simple technical notes and other interesting items in their Facebook account, notes section: 

Matej Isak Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine All rights reserved, 2012 Matej Isak Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine All rights reserved, 2012 None of the original text, pictures, that were taken by me, links or my original files can be re-pritend or used in any way without prior permission!