Designer Talk: Interview with Amphion
Amphion is a Finnish manufacturer of loudspeakers but very recently released a range of professional studio monitors. Specialising in passive designed speakers, Amphion has taken the community by storm with its range of high-resolution studio monitors with rave reviews amongst an increasing highly respected user base. We interviewed Anssi Hyvonen, head of Amphion to try and find out more about the company and the reason behind its success.
KMR Audio: Tell us about your background and what prompted you to start Amphion
Anssi: I have been creating high-quality playback systems since I was 14 years old. 16 years ago partially by accident, I spoiled a perfect hobby by turning it into a profession. And I love every minute of it! Especially now when I get to spend increasing amount of my time with talented and passionate people working towards a common goal which is to allow people to experience the beauty of music and to be moved by it every day.
KMR Audio: Amphion is relatively new in the Pro Audio market. What was your goal and what makes your speakers so special?
Anssi: Even if Amphion is a new player on the pro side we have 16 years of experience in producing products sharing the same philosophy as our speakers on the Hi-fi side. We always believed that a good loudspeaker should be as faithful to the original signal as possible. It should reproduce the signal without adding anything or leaving anything out and without distorting it. “Honest” monitors are preferred by many who believe you have to suffer for your art.
We believe that when it comes to the creative line of work, feeling positive beats being frustrated 10 times out of 10 if the evaluation period is over a 10-hour working day. We have worked pretty hard to create a pleasing tonality which allowed us to keep the response flat and highly resolving and still allow the user to tackle even the more sonically challenging material without him wanting to slit his wrists. These speakers are what we believe to be a pretty rare combination of neutrality, ultra-high resolution and "eargonomics” and that’s what we call being "Beautifully honest”.
KMR Audio: Tell us a bit more about the designs and design process
Anssi: One thing people tend to forget is that one can never evaluate a monitor without the room it is in. We never just hear the direct sound from the speaker, but always listen to the sum of reflections and the direct sound. If we can ensure that also the off-axis response is correct and controlled you get a speaker, which works in a stable and predictable manner in the wide range of acoustic spaces. The aim is to come up with a speaker that is predictable and similar sounding in various rooms, be they acoustically treated or live.
This becomes of special interest during times of uncertainty, when chances are that you will be using your speakers in more than one room during their lifetime. Our 5th generation waveguide plays a big part in that. In addition to aligning the tweeter and woofer voice coils, it turns the 2 or 3 driver combination into a point source and allows us to achieve a controlled and uniform dispersion throughout a wide frequency band. Our Waveguide allows the speaker to preserve its character not only in different rooms but also close to the boundaries. Using a passive radiator instead of a vented enclosure helps even further.
The interesting thing about a correctly executed passive radiator is that not only does it improve the bass (tighter, quicker, no overhang, better tonality), but also loads the room in a more natural controlled way. This means you can actually also enjoy these benefits in real-world environments rather than simply on paper. Interestingly the benefits are also clear and very evident in the midrange and in overall dynamics and transfer of energy. I honestly do not know why people do not use them more. The reason probably is that in order to show a lot of these benefits the acoustical engineering of the product needs to be pretty good so that you can keep is electrically as simple and transparent as possible. The question that defines our design philosophy is also what I would ask myself if I was looking for my next monitor: Where do I find a speaker which works in my current room as well as my next?
When it comes to measurements Amphion's official view is very similar to what Mr Rupert Neve once said: “The excellence in measurements does not automatically mean excellence in performance.” This should not be misinterpreted: We measure and continue to try to understand how changes in measurements more closely correspond to overall human experience taking place in an “average” room. I am certain that all differences, which we experience as humans can be explained by differences in measurements. This doesn’t mean they can be measured with the tools speaker manufacturers, regardless of their size, have access to.
Human perception is amazing in its ability to sense differences, especially when it comes to tone and feel. It is up to a manufacturer to decide whether to believe their ears or their measurement tools. It is very common and easy to shrug these difficult or impossible to measure differences as subjectivist hippie voodoo. Another way is to simply trust one’s ears and simply note that if something cannot be measured with the equipment they have at their disposal due to its complexity or small value it automatically does not mean it does not exist. What sets us apart from a lot of purely engineering driven companies is that we listen… quite often also with our hearts.
KMR Audio: How do you see your range of speakers? Which of your monitors should someone choose?
Anssi: I may sound like broken record, but one simply cannot overlook this fact: One can never evaluate a speaker without the room it is in. The only way to come up with a good end result is to choose a speaker which will provide you with the extension you need without overpowering your room. Ironically enough, studios do not have the budgets anymore to build rooms around their speakers and quite often engineers do at least part of their work in a "bedroom studio”. As a result, they have moved closer to the environment we are very familiar with.
We strongly believe that in order to know if monitors really work for someone, one must work with them in one’s own room because A/B’ ing things in dealer’s showroom simply are not sufficient. Speaker logistics can be a nightmare and in order to avoid extra hassle for anybody, we encourage people to get in touch with us or our dealers first to help in choosing the appropriate model. A proper homework is always part of every successful speaker purchase. It is time well spent: The satisfaction rate tends to be surprisingly high when proper care is put into understanding the pros and cons of various models and Amphion in general. We do not believe in automated selection chart. We believe that in today’s world your monitor is the most important tool you can buy and you should get it right. The only way to do that is to talk to your colleagues and others who have experienced the products in real life
KMR Audio: I monitor very quietly myself, you can hear the keyboard when I type and can speak at normal volume and be heard easily. I was impressed by how much detail you can hear at lower volume on these… how did you manage that?
Anssi: When you read about loudspeakers the main emphasis tends to be on electrical aspects of them i.e. crossovers, the quality of electrical components, possible use of DSP etc. I believe this comes from the fact that most manufacturers view loudspeakers mainly as electrical devices. For us, a loudspeaker is an acoustical device. Whatever we can achieve acoustically, we do not have to try to fix electrically. In today’s photography, the quality of your picture is ultimately defined by the quality of the lens you use. We believe that the same is valid for your acoustical lens i. e. your monitor. This is the reason we are trying to keep our monitors as pure, distortion-free and highly resolving as possible. The fact that they keep their clarity and balance even at low listening volumes is a by-product of the acoustical engineering.
KMR Audio: And the translation on other speakers is remarkable, I don’t understand why some speakers don’t translate so well and these do. Can you explain?
Anssi: Many manufacturers fall in love with their own product. For us, it is not our product. It is your tool. It is not ultimately about how it sounds. It is about what you can produce with it. Doing field testing on translation is amazingly time-consuming but no company with any financial sense would not do it. We were in a rare and fortunate position. The hi-fi side paid the bills so we were not pressured to release anything before it was ready.
The world has changed very quickly. The current playback environment is very fragmented and I feel that sometimes the “established tools” may have some problems especially with translation to modern playback devices, such as cheap in-ears, mobile phones and laptops etc. The reason we really took our time and spent over 2 years with this was that we felt we simply needed to get the translation right. However limited or wide in frequency all playback systems have one thing in common. In order to produce a decent and clear sound across all of these devices, getting the midrange 100% right is crucial.
Finland is a great market for developing something new. Due to language 80% of music is locally made. It is small enough so that whenever something works you can find out who did it in order to understand why. It became evident that changing the speakers was the single component which had the biggest effect on the end result when the person and the room remained unchanged. I am grateful for quite a number of people in the pro audio community, who gave us their valuable time to provide feedback.
During the past decade, all the focus has been on converters and plug-ins. Maybe now that the digital is maturing we can focus a bit more on the most important tool a music maker can purchase i.e. the monitoring.
KMR Audio: You chose to design passive speakers, which seem to be the lesser popular option. Why choose a passive design?
Anssi: We are a bit stubborn. We believe in doing what we feel is right despite what the market says. Speaker building is all about compromise and the manufacturer must be clear about the goals they want to achieve. Amphion is a textbook example of quality over quantity design. We simply felt that we could better achieve our objectives by keeping the speakers passive. Despite what companies manufacturing active speakers may say putting active electronics inside a heavily vibrating box and placing transformers very close to those ever so delicate voice coils is not a very good idea... at least not if you are going for the highest possible resolution and this was exactly what we wanted to achieve.
An added benefit – more so to the customer, not so much to the manufacturer or reseller, is that by separating the digital parts from the analogue part we are achieving a longer life for our products. As companies continue to introduce new and better products at breath-taking speed, many of otherwise fully usable mainly analogue products age prematurely. I doubt anybody would disagree with me when I say that the future of amplification is digital. If this is the case does it not make sense to isolate the rapidly ageing digital component from the rest? Does it not benefit the customer that we isolate the ageing component into an external box so that whatever wonderful the digital development team can come up with?
This way it does not prematurely age the parts where we wrestle with the laws of acoustics and they remain fully usable for the next 10-15 years. It took me 5 years of constant evaluating to find a digital amp, which I felt was good enough to be used with a high-resolution speaker like ours. Already In that half-decade, Class-D amplification has progressed by leaps and bounds, but I do not believe for a second that development will slow down let alone stop.
I personally do not understand the heated discussions on active vs passive. How is our powered solution (speaker, amp, speaker cable) so different from an active speaker? Does it really matter if we use a passive or active crossover? Should a user really care how it is done as long as it works? Which is a more coordinated design, an active speaker using standard amp modules or our powered solution using a module which is developed using our products? And an added benefit for those who already own an amp they like is that they can just buy the speaker.
KMR Audio: While being relatively new on the pro audio market, the response from the audience has been overwhelmingly positive. Why do you think that is?
Anssi: This is a question that should be presented to our customers instead of me. They would know the answer, I can only guess. Most likely there are a number of changes, which are happening at the same time, that Amphion seems to address quite well. And it should as some of these things were very much part of the design process:
- Rapid change in playback environment. What used to be a car radio and a boombox has now become tons of devices, good and bad. How do you control that?
- Increased demands on efficiency. Deadlines are getting shorter. Budgets are shrinking. You must produce more in less time. Optimally you should not only achieve more in the same time but should also produce better quality work even if providing better quality does not pay more. But it gets you future jobs.
- Change in working environments. What was good acoustics built around your monitors is now bare bedroom walls this week, the studio the next? Can you keep the quality of your work consistent despite this?
- Volume levels. Being able to work on lower levels has become important for many. This does not mean that you cannot use “normal volumes” but if the idea is to blast the shirt of customers back there are better alternatives around.
A real satisfying feedback, that comes through quite often is that despite that challenges of today’s sound making environment many have found the joy and emotional involvement again. We spent a lot of time to get the “feel” of the product right and I am happy that customers react to that. Music is about emotion, and unless the maker himself does not get emotionally involved when making it, do we believe that it happens to the listener?
KMR Audio: Any plans you can share for the future of Amphion? Any plans to make active monitors?
Anssi: I believe that music is one of the most precious things we as humans have created. I can promise we will continue to work hard to find ways to better transfer the emotion of the performance to fans enjoying it. Some of the future solutions might be even a bit unconventional and it remains to be seen if their commercial lure matches that of their sonics. Then again if I believed those experts who 6 months ago told me that selling passive speakers in today’s pro market is impossible I doubt this interview would have taken place. The more immediate plans include something, which applies to everybody who is thinking about buying a pair of monitors today. Our current efforts have focused on getting the midrange right. Now that it seems we have at least partially succeeded in scratching the surface we can try to remind people what honestly reproduced lower frequencies can do to the beauty and involvement of music.
KMR Audio: You said you were doing some research to answer which speaker design is the best between 2-ways and 3-ways. So which is it?
Anssi: The biggest challenge of speaker design is integrating the drivers into one cohesive point source type unit. We are living in the world which is very focused on specs and numbers. For many, a larger number is automatically better. It is easy not to see the forest for the trees. It feels like a lot of today’s monitors are made for measuring devices instead of human ears. Human hearing is most precise between 2 - 5 K z. Is this a good range to house a crossover point? A sofa manufacturer will never have the seam running in the middle of the cushion. Why should we? How many of those who have a solid stance on the superiority of a 2- or 3-way design have ever checked and evaluated what the effect of the crossover point might have on the end results?
When it comes to sound I am not sure if we understand yet enough of the hearing process and our current theory and application do not necessarily go hand in hand. As you can already see my answer regarding passive vs active designs I feel customers should just listen to the products with an open mind and only after that decide what works better for them.
When it comes to the superiority of 2-way or 3-way design our current feeling is that both is better! More on that in due time...
By Paul Lavigne