T + A Elektroakustik’s James Shannon Talks Audio

T + A ELEKTROAKUSTIK has been around since 1978 but it’s a new brand to New Zealand, with PQ Imports of Hamilton having just recently taken on the agency. This German company’s product range is both extensive and innovative, so to fill in the time until we get a few review units, I got in contact with T + A’s James Shannon and asked him a few questions to get a better idea about the brand and about the company’s take on developments in the hi-fi world. His responses are thoughtful, detailed and well worth a read.

First some background about Jim and T+A:

As you mentioned, I have been selling high-end audio for a long time and have been associated with Wadia in the past. This is a source of pride, as I believe that Wadia was amongst the first serious digital companies in our industry. My work in Europe allowed me to learn that T+A was also a very early innovator in digital technology. In some ways (particularly their proprietary designs of phase and time correct digital filters), T+A was creating solutions that have been very similar to solutions created by Wadia. These digital technologies that were at the same very advanced level at the same time period.

As one example, T+A was the first high end company in our industry to create fully digital active speakers, with very advanced DSP controls that enabled each listener to fully tailor time and phase response, as well as offering sophisticated digital room correction for each installation. Meridian followed by developing this kind of speakers a few years later, but T+A was the world’s first to have sufficient engineering skills to develop such complete digital loudspeaker products. The T+A digital loudspeakers were very successful in Europe, and were discontinued only after it became clear that the future included a wide range of digital formats, which confused customers about the value of investing in a complete digital solution.

In virtually every aspect of high-end audio development, T+A has been building very advanced and proprietary solutions. I hope the following will help clarify why I am very, very excited about the serious approach T+A has taken to both analogue and digital technology.

Witchdoctor: Is the silver disc dead? You’ve been with Wadia in the past, so high-end CD players are part of your background, and T + A offers a number of CD and SACD players in its range.

James Shannon: There is no question that the future of digital audio will be dominated by downloads, NAS storage, and similar streaming digital audio technologies. At the same time, a large installed base of serious music lovers like myself have several thousands of LP records and at least as many CDs. Companies that are very serious about audio reproduction have to cater to the formats that are chosen by music lovers, which is why T+A still makes both CD players and record players, and also includes very good quality FM tuners, even in a world that is increasingly dominated by internet radio (which we also provide). We know that the younger generation will never own many LPs or CDs, but we also know that T+A will never be the dominant playback choice for those who use MP3 or whatever the current compressed and very limited quality format may be.

T+A is a very serious high-end audio company, so we feel that we must earn our sales success by making products that enable music lovers to hear the very best performance from formats that they have collected and cherish. For most music lovers, this means we have to provide a serious way for them to listen to LPs, CDs, Internet Radio, FM, USB sources, iPod sources, and music stored on uPnP NAS devices. We feel that we have created a very compelling series of products that enable each of these sources to be heard with exceptional fidelity, limited only by the quality and mastering of the recording or source itself.

We are also one of the only companies in high-end audio that has built very high performance DVD and Blu-ray players, including proprietary scaling processors that enable customers to enjoy very high quality (1080p) video from DVDs and other legacy sources, while also providing the latest and best quality playback from Blu-ray discs. Even in a world with a lot of streaming video, we know that many customers have a large investment in DVDs or Blu-ray discs that they will want to enjoy for many years to come.

The design goal from the start was simple: T+A wanted to be able to provide very complete system solutions that allowed serious music and film lovers to have a wonderful experience playing their favorite films or music in the home. Our customers have frequently commented that T+A is unusual in building products that appear more lifestyle-like (think B&O), but are built and perform like true high-end audio products. Customers tell us that T+A systems are the baby that would be born if B&O married Jeff Rowland and had children.

T+A P 3000 HV integrated amplifier
T+A P 3000 HV integrated amplifier

WD: What would you say is the next hot trend in hi-fi?

JS: In all honesty, we don’t know. We are frankly never the first to engage with new or “hot” technologies. Any source that has become a serious delivery system for very high performance music in the home will become part of our product range. We carefully study new technologies as they emerge, and we learn what key factors we must address to allow the new source technology to provide an authentic musical experience. When a source becomes an important part of music in the home, we will find the best ways to work with the source, but we will never be among the first to market with new technologies, since our approach is more careful and methodical than most companies in our industry.

Having said that, we were earlier than some companies to embrace streaming digital audio. We immediately recognised that this was an important part of the future for serious audio, and we began building streaming audio products about seven years ago; we are currently selling our third generation of streaming audio products, and we have created some very high performance components for listening to the most important streaming audio sources of today, with resolution and capabilities that exceed any commercially available source material.

WD: What’s your take on the whole “The Future is Wireless” theory, where loudspeakers will be fully powered or active and hooked up to nothing more than a power cable with the source being a Wi-Fi connected computer, tablet or phone?

JS: We have a number of products that include either wireless LAN connectivity or BluTooth connectivity. We feel these are important new technologies for enabling music delivery in the home.

At the same time, we know that wireless technology cannot deliver the very best current performance. Perhaps wireless will have sufficient bandwidth and sonic quality sometime in the future, but we cannot honestly recommend wireless audio distribution for those interested in getting the very best performance today. We have added certain types of wireless connectivity to some of our current products for convenience, and we feel this is a very good thing. For those who wish to have wireless networking in the home, or connect a Bluetooth device with one of our products, this is wonderful. However, for those who want serious high fidelity to the original source, wireless is not yet capable of the necessary bandwidth and speed necessary for delivering true high fidelity music in the home.

Our customers who have stored very high-resolution material on uPnP NAS devices have done quite a lot of testing and listening. While everybody appreciates the fact that we can allow our streaming products to be wirelessly connected to a central LAN, everybody who has listened understands that the sound quality provided by a well-configured Ethernet system will be far more reliable and musically accurate than a system using Wireless LAN to access the storage device. In cases of digital PCM material of 192/24 resolution, the wireless LAN will probably not work at all because it simply does not have the bandwidth to deliver such high-density data in the time required. This is simply a function of current network limitations, and has nothing to do with the audio components or the quality of the stored media.

WD: With the above question in mind, how difficult would it be to adapt T + A’s K-Active speakers for CD-quality wireless playback?

As perhaps is implied in my response above, wireless transmission of audio is not a particularly challenging thing to offer. It would not be difficult to offer wireless transmission of audio in our active speakers. It would, however, be very difficult and expensive (if possible at all) to achieve the level of performance we can currently offer using our wired product solutions. Very high-end audio performance with wireless is currently quite a challenge. While we feel that there may be ways to add wireless to our active speakers in the future, we do not feel current wireless technology would be consistent with our performance goals or value propositions. In more practical terms, there are very few places where wireless is truly necessary, but it will cost more to send and receive a signal wirelessly (with all the redundancy and data packet checking required) than it will cost to send the same signal over a good quality, moderately priced speaker or interconnect cable. The cost/benefit analysis of wireless must always be considered. If there is no really urgent requirement for wireless in the home, it always makes more economic sense to use a wired system, which will also add more security and will have fewer problems in transmission, as well as delivering a higher quality musical experience.

The main point is that we have very few customers who tell us they would love to own our products, but cannot do so because of the requirement for cables. If and when that problem would be presented more frequently, we may feel the need to more aggressively find ways to overcome the current limitations in wireless transmission of high performance audio.

T + A G 10-2 vinyl disc player (i.e. turntable)
T + A G 10-2 vinyl disc player (i.e. turntable)

WD: T + A has two turntables across its product ranges – is vinyl playback a growing category for the company (and in general) or has the demand flattened out?

JS: The demand is still consistent, but demand will never be the same as it was 25 or 30 years back. We believe that we can offer very compelling and complete LP playback system solutions, but we understand that turntables will not be a huge part of our future.

We offer turntables because a lot of our customers still own a lot of LP recordings (I have a few thousand LPs, and even more CDs, which may make me a somewhat typical T+A user; most of us have far more invested in music than we have invested in audio systems). I expect we will continue to make record players as long as we have customers with LPs who wish to buy them.

By the way, you may not know that our turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phono stage systems are designed as complete system solutions. Besides building very serious platter and motor control systems, we modify every tonearm and every cartridge to make complete mass-optimised playback systems. We also build very high performance phono stages into the bases of our two turntables, which allows the shortest possible distance from cartridge to electronics, and allows much lower noise floors and much higher resolution of the output.

Both turntables are also fully assembled and aligned at the factory, meaning that the delivery to customer is quite simple and almost turn-key, with a minimum of the problems of set up/alignment that have historically been problems with turntable installations.

T+A M10 monoblock power amplifier - 1000 watts if you need it!
T+A M10 monoblock power amplifier – 1000 watts if you need it!

WD: There are some very powerful amplifiers available from T + A, is there a chance that the EU will eventually legislate this kind of device away based on a maximum power consumption standard in the same way that standby power consumption standards have been put in place? Will everything audio eventually be class D powered?

JS: We have historically had some concerns that this may happen, but we do not see it in the near future. The forces that appeared to be moving in this direction in Europe have not really completed any of the steps that were predicted to be in place by this time. Perhaps obviously, this is something that is very much out of our control.

However, we need to be able to respond to any possible requirements in the future, so we have been doing all that we can to continue refining technologies that we feel will find success in any case. The current E and K Series products have been very, very successful. Both of these series use a very serious proprietary T+A-designed discrete switching amplifier technology (i.e., class D, fully discrete designs, no ICE power or other off-the-shelf parts in any T+A product). These very innovative power amplifier designs have been very well accepted worldwide. We thought it would be very good to have a basis of experience for our own class D designs in case this might ever become necessary, and we also feel that there are ecological reasons why it is good to build products that manifest more “green” technology.

Our E and K amplifiers are very efficient, run very cool, and use much less power from the wall compared to traditional amplifier designs. Because they were designed as fully discrete digital amplifiers, we can even tailor the distortion characteristics to make these designs mimic the aspects of sound that have always been appreciated with older technologies such as vacuum tubes (i.e. higher even order harmonic distortion, which we find pleasant to the ear). Most reviewers and listeners love the sound quality we have achieved, and do not even recognise these E and K Series designs as class D, which makes us feel they have been quite successful in accomplishing our stated objectives.

At the same time, we continue to refine our traditional class A and class AB designs. Our most recent V Series products are among the most advanced A and AB designs for valve/hybrid technology, and our new HV Series has a new proprietary design that is arguably the most advanced solid state class AB design in the world of high end audio. We see many different ways to approach the amplification of music. In some cases where all-in-one compact systems are required or budget restrictions apply, our newly developed digital amplifier designs are ideal. In cases where the absolute highest musical performance is required, we find that the newest versions of traditional linear amplifiers using class A/AB technology are still the best way to make the music come alive.

By the way, our new HV Series of electronics is very innovative in another way that we have never seen from another company. T+A engineers created the V range of products with the goal of creating the very best sound possible. The V Series uses a combination of valves and solid state to make sound that we honestly feel is as good as possible in today’s technology.

At the same time, we recognised that many modern customers simply do not wish to have glowing valves in their homes. To replicate the sound we get from the V Series without tubes is something that took a lot of research and study, but our engineers feel that they have solved this puzzle. Our engineers began to realise that part of the reason we have always loved the sound of tubes is because tubes operate on a very high voltage power supply, and consequently are able to use a much smaller and more linear part of their operating range. This makes tubes sound far more dynamic and tonally accurate compared to typical solid-state designs.

By designing a completely solid-state range of gear that uses fully discrete components operating in very high voltage fully regulated power supply rails, using only a small and most linear part of the device’s total range, we have been able to create solid state electronics that mimic the sonic and dynamic performance of tubes. The HV range is simply more dynamic, harmonically pure, and lifelike than any prior solid-state design, and the response from customers and critics has been fantastic. We believe there is still a lot of room to continue refining and developing both digital and linear amplifier technologies for every application.

WD: Why did the company choose to offer the M10 and S10 power amps with two different modes? Surely it makes more sense to design a dedicated power amp for those who want lower powered class A output and another one for those who need 500-1000 watts?

JS: Forgive me if I sound stupid, but I am not sure if I fully understand the question. There is really no compromise in performance or reliability made by offering both high current and high power modes in the same amplifier. While most traditional designs operate in AB mode through most of the operating range, this is done for reasons of budget. AB design is simply less expensive to build, as there is far less heat dissipated in such designs compared to anything approaching class A output operation.

Having said that, I can think of no commercially available high-end audio amplifiers that operate in class A mode all the time, regardless of load or output level conditions. The original Mark Levinson ML-2 and No. 20 were two amplifiers that operated in pure class A up to full rated output, although both of these products shifted into class AB for higher output (more than 25 watts/channel for the ML-2, and greater than 100 watts/channel for the No. 20) or when the load presented by the speaker fell below a set impedance. This is basic to amplifier design, as most manufacturers would consider it cost prohibitive to create a pure class A amplifier that remains in class A under all operating conditions and output levels. I have read that one of the Lamm amplifiers is pure class A in most of its rather low power output range, but I have no personal experience with the product, nor have I seen any reports to confirm the actual operating modes. I am honestly not aware of any other high quality amplifiers that are pure class A in all outputs and into all loads.

I don’t claim to be aware of everything in the market, so if you know of products that are pure class A at all times, I would be interested to learn more about these products.

The point is that class A operation into all loads at all times is extremely expensive to build and cool, since 100 percent of the output turns to heat at idle, and a majority of the amplifier output turns to heat even during most moderate passages. Most manufacturers feel that it costs too much to provide the kind of cooling system necessary to allow such a design to work properly in a normal domestic environment, and equally important, the product must last many years without creating heat damage to critical components.

Designing the M10 for full class A operation at all times into all loads and conditions would probably double the cost, and may not really yield any performance benefits that one could reliably, consistently hear. Since the benefits of class A operation are most relevant when you are using amplifiers into normal loads and normal levels, there are really not so many compelling reasons why most manufacturers would justify the costs to make a pure class A amplifier that remains in class A at all times.

Because of these issues of heat dissipation and the resulting problems caused when heat is not properly vented away from output devices operating in class A, every class A amplifier that I have seen in the past 30+ years has an output level and/or load at which the amplifier output slides into class AB mode, and does so without compromising the performance goals of the design. We have developed two amplifiers that use class A output where it is most critical, while allowing the output to slide into AB for very high output levels. I can confidently state that for any serious listener who feels class A output is important, either the M10 or S10 amplifier will deliver enough output to drive speakers to a life-like level without any trouble (almost 60 watts in the M10, and 35 watts in the S10), but will also deliver sufficient current when the musical material requires very high volume requirements.

At any rate, we thought it would be good to allow each customer to determine what matters more: absolute purity and refinement (High Current) or dynamic power and authority (High Power).

In High Current mode, our V designs operate in similar fashion as most very serious class A amplifier designs of the past, offering a very good level of pure class A output, but also limiting class A output so that heat dissipation can be managed in a way that is safe and provides long term product reliability. The benefit of our V Series amps is that we use a very complete voltage gain stage designed around valves, which provides the sonic character of the amplifier. The voltage gain stages in our V Series amplifiers could actually drive an efficient speaker directly, as they are capable of almost 7 watts per channel of power output. However, we separate and buffer this output with an extremely robust current gain stage using perfectly matched very high current output devices that can drive any speaker load to heroic levels. For those who really wish to play at concert hall levels, particularly with stadium rock or similarly compressed material, the High Power configuration is often a good choice. Having said that, most people who use either M10 or S10 amplifiers in High Current mode have told me that they have never, ever found the power or dynamics to be limited, so I think that one can safely use the High Current mode with almost any speakers except the most inefficient. Both amplifier designs are so powerful, even in High Current mode that there are very few situations where the limitations could be possible to notice. ASHLEY KRAMER

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