An Afternoon with Chord Electronics
StereoNET recently had the priviledge of spending an afternoon with John Franks, Founder of Chord Electronics, and Rob Watts, the brains behind Chord's unique DAC technology.
An Interview with John Franks and Robert Watts
I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with a couple of industry legends, John Franks and Rob Watts from Chord Electronics. John is the Founder and MD of the Kent (UK) based company Chord Electronics and Rob Watts is his long term friend and colleague that is the brains behind the unique DAC technology. Chord Electronics is used internationally in places like Abbey Road Studios (London); Sony Music Studios (New York) and Skywalker Sound (California). Both were in Melbourne for a StereoNET sponsored whirlwind visit, to meet the local dealers at Carlton Audio Visual and Tivoli HiFi, along with their clients. We were accompanied by the Chord Electronics Australian distributor Radiance Audio Visual’s Chris Strom. In between meetings, I asked them about Chord, how they started and about their technology.
From left: James Trachina and Geoff Haynes (Tivoli HiFi), with John Franks (Chord Electronics).
Welcome to Australia gents. John, how did you start off Chord Electronics?
Thanks. Originally I was an avionics engineer, but I decided to go into Sales and marketing. I joined a company operating out of Hong Kong called Aztec, making small power supplies for the nixie tubes, which were used in desktop calculators. Aztec were approached by a couple of brash young guys, fresh out of college from California named Steve Wazniak and Steve Jobs. They would come over to Hong Kong to look for a supplier to manufacture power supplies for a new product; I believe it was the Apple IIe. They were working out of their garage at that time. It was decided that they were worth backing and within about a year they produced about a million machines! Aztec grew very rapidly and I ended up as a European Director for Aztec. But I hankered for my old engineering days. Every now and then, I’d fish out from a back of a draw a design that I had for a power amplifier. I’d realised that I could make great advances in the design of an amplifier. So I left Aztec and started Chord in my garage. I knew that it was the right thing to do because I’d seen Steve Jobs do it. I wanted a home life. Now I was so happy. When I got freezing cold fingers, I would go inside and make a cup of coffee and a toast. So that’s how I started. I built 2 prototypes, sold those and built another 5. With the proceeds built more and carried on that way.
After I’d been going for a couple of years, I was approached by the BBC. They had a requirement for an amplifier for broadcast use and they had heard from a guy called Spencer Hughes (Spendor founder) who had recommended my amp. So they took it in for testing and said that they loved the sound of the amplifier. “It’s unlike anything we’ve heard before.” So from being a start-up company we suddenly had a BBC qualified broadcast amplifier. We suddenly got calls from everywhere wanting our amplifiers.
We stayed in the garage for about 5 years, then we bought a new property, actually it’s a very old one. We bought what was originally a waterworks pumping station. We had to refurbish the place. It was very derelict and needed a lot of work. We moved in about a week after Dianna died, so it was 1997 and have been there ever since.
John, what is the relationship between the two of you and how do you define your roles?
Rob and I started working together in 1995. So we have been working on various projects for a long time. Our relationship is very good. He is not a Chord employee but he earns a lot of money from Chord. <laughter> He is a consultant and we use his intellectual property in our products. He doesn’t build the products, we do that. I define the products and he lets me know what is possible with the products. It just kind of works. Because of the complexity of what he is doing, he will not only design the structure of what’s inside the chips, but he will also design the circuit boards as well, as they are so critical in certain areas. I’ve decided recently that it’s time to kick the company up a level or two. Fortunately, Rob came up with some good technologies that we can apply to some new emerging markets. So that really helped us and it’s been great ever since. We are now growing at a very healthy rate as a company.
Rob, could you explain FPGA DAC’s for us please?
Sure, it stands for 'Field Programmable Gate Arrays'. Initially as used for prototyping, you can use a FPGA to check your circuitry. The benefit of FPGA’s is that if you want to make a change, you can change the program very easily before you create actual silicon. Today’s FPGA’s are extremely powerful devices. Now they have DSP (Digital Signal Processor) cores internally. They are the devices that are used to make interpolation filters. Now the FGPA chip used within Hugo (DAC) has 16 DSP cores. It is probably 100 times more complex than the digital logic in a normal DAC. And the one being used for an upcoming product is about 1000 times more complex. It’s quite exciting!
Rob, what’s wrong with industry standard DAC chips?
I have two roles as a consultant, one obviously with Chord and another as a creator of IP and designer of silicone chips to go into audio devices. There are some huge disadvantages in creating DAC chips and also some benefits too. The biggest problem for audio is that all silicone chips are designed to a cost but also to a performance parameter. The marketing team says that they want the new chip to have this set of specs and the engineering team goes ahead and designs to meet those specifications. When they meet those specifications, then their work is done. That’s it. No one does any listening tests, it is all done on straight forward measurements. What I find is that there are very tiny errors, which are nonetheless significant. The problem is the mind set of these companies. It’s all about straightforward numbers and mathematics. As soon as you start doing listening tests, you’ll find out that there are so many interesting and subtle things that have a big influence on the sound quality. Sometimes these can make a difference to the measured performance as well. It’s a matter of getting all these things right and pushing it as hard as you can, but they are not interested in that. They are interested in meeting the requirements that were set.
How is what you do at Chord different?
In my case I have freedom to do exactly what I want. I don’t make any assumptions as to whether an error is audible or not. I do an audio test to prove whether something is audible. And I keep pushing a parameter until I can no longer hear any difference. The objective is to isolate distortions, aberrations or noises that has an influence on sound quality and then engineer a solution to make those problems as small as possible, to keep pushing. Base your requirements on very careful listening tests. That’s the big difference that Hugo has got against all the other devices out there.
Chord Electronics new Hugo TT DAC.
Rob, how does the new Hugo TT differ from the regular Hugo?
Firstly the Hugo TT has beefier batteries, which makes a surprising big difference. It’s got better reference supply circuitry. That reduces noise floor modulation. It improves the noise performance. The other change is the galvanic isolation on the USB. That is a big, big benefit.
Great! I had heard that you implement the Galvanic Isolation after the USB chip, it that correct?
Yes, correct. That means that the USB chip will run at 384kHz, so it’s very simple. The downside is that you are drawing power from your PC. So we couldn’t use it in the Hugo because if it was used with a mobile phone it would draw power and your left with big problems. The nice thing about using a mobile phone with a Hugo in a portable situation is that it’s an order of magnitude smaller problem. Because the processor within a mobile phone is very powerful, so it doesn’t generate a lot of RF noise and the RF noise currents have got nowhere for it to go. Whereas with a PC, it’s coupled through to the DAC, then to the amplifier, then to the power supply and it has a big earth loop. You haven’t got that earth loop with a portable application. We noticed from the word go, that there wasn’t really a problem with portables; the real problem is more with PC’s and laptops. I was hearing huge differences between laptops as a source. Now with galvanic isolation you can’t hear the difference.
John, any relationship between Chord Electronics Ltd and the The Chord Company?
Yes. We have always had a good relationship with them. Although I had registered the Chord name several years earlier, I wasn’t really using the name and they approached me and I didn’t want to fight over the name. They use our gear and we use their cables. We are good buddies and we have been buddies for a long time, so it’s not an issue for us.
John, where do you see portable audio going and how will Chord fit in?
I believe that we are experiencing a paradigm shift with what is happening in audio across the world. The way that people are living has changed. So many now live at home to an older age, most live in smaller dwellings. Not just in the West but through many places, throughout Asia, vast numbers, really everywhere. There are young guys messing around with small systems. The reason it’s with small systems is that mum and dad wouldn’t like anything noisier. Nethertheless it’s very viable and very exciting. What we are going to do is to expand our range into this area and plough that furrow. With the advances in mobile phones and cheaper memory, pretty soon, high resolution music won’t be the weird strange uncle any longer, but will become mainstream for everyone and what people everywhere will want.
John, any final words?
We are on the forums, we look at the forums and study what people are thinking. It gives us a very close insight into how the people are using the product, for the first time. It’s instant feedback that we can use. For the first time we can really get our message across as to why we do certain things. Perhaps it’s given other manufactures a bit of food for thought. We are not a typical company. In a way we are almost like a Formula 1 racing car, in terms that we are very specialist in what we do and we keep improving. Then again our customers are also very specialist.
Robert Watts (left) with StereoNET's Mark Gusew (right).
The Final Word
When I say that I enjoyed my time with both John and Rob, it is an understatement. They are amongst the true gentlemen of the industry! John certainly has a very specific vision for taking Chord forward, carefully and with integrity. Rob is highly intelligent and understands electronics at a level that allows him to consult to world class, cutting edge R&D facilities, yet has the ears and the musical appreciation to be able to relate that knowledge into better sounding audio components. I realised after some five or six hours, that I had only scratched the surface of their combined deep understanding of all things musical. And yet they care deeply for educating the public to rethink traditional audio.
It’s wonderful to see that Chord products are used around the world in homes, planes and buses, as well as professionally in the pro audio field. Evidently, Ed Sheeran’s “X” album was mastered in the recording studio using a Hugo. It’s that good! StereoNET reviewed the Chord Hugo last year. Stay tuned to StereoNET as we will bring you a comprehensive review of the new Hugo TT once it has become available in Australia.
My sincere thanks and compliments to Chris Strom from Radiance AV, along with the hard working management and staff at Carton Audio Visual and at Tivoli HiFi for their hospitality and for hosting the events.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.