Welcome to Linus’ new series on Headfonia.com! Every two weeks we will publish an interview with an insider of the audio industry. They will give us a little insight on how they started and what they are up to. We are thrilled to be able to share a little something with all of you.
This week’s guest of honour is non other than Chord Electronic’s CEO John Franks!
HFN: Please tell us about your role at Chord Electronics and your background
JF: My role involves listening to our customers and identifying tends within our markets, following them into internal and external discussion. I then craft the products that we wish to take forward into development. I’m still a designer at heart so, therefore, I am closely involved with the whole electrical and mechanical design process.
HFN: What are your influences and how did you get into audio?
JF: Formerly, I was an avionics engineer, a specialist engineer in electronics for aircraft which greatly influenced me. It’s a rigorous and very demanding discipline that states that if you have a design difficulty you absolutely must find the perfect solution for that issue. You can never find a solution to your problem by applying a secondary fix, because it just acts like a Band-Aid plaster over something very nasty underneath.
I have brought this aerospace philosophy, and its demands, to the audio industry and this is why when Rob Watts came to me, many years after founding Chord Electronics, with a far better FPGA DAC design than those already on the market, I signed him up straight away. Yes, it was was very complicated and expensive, but it was (and still is) fundamentally better than the other approaches on the market.
I entered the audio industry as a young engineer and, like many others of my generation fascinated by audio, I was messing around designing and building audio amplifiers. Unlike other engineers, however, I had a specialised knowledge from my avionics training which meant my approach was different to my peers’. I was working with planar magnetics and MOSFETs and ultra-high-frequency switch-mode power supplies. From this experimentation, I realised that I could develop an audio product with significant benefits and advantages, many of which are only now are beginning to creep into competitors’ products decades later.
HFN: How did it all start? What was the kick-off of Chord?
JF: From being an avionics engineer, I moved into other industries. For example, I joined a Hong Kong-based power supply company, of which I was made a Director in charge of 32,000 employees, but I wanted a more local life at the time, so I moved back to the UK, went back to my design roots and started Chord Electronics in my garage whilst working in senior positions for AT&T and Raytheon, etc. After a few short years, Chord Electronics became a full time company following a number of large broadcasting and recording studio contracts for my innovative switch-mode power supply and custom MOSFET amplification.
HFN: What is driving Chord forward?
JF: Five years ago, I attended an audio show for headphone equipment in Tokyo. The market was so enthusiastic, but I felt that it was missing something. I knew that if we could bring our DAC technology to this market then we could raise the bar, this was my epiphany! So, after much hard work and research, we confidently released the original Hugo and it was a resounding success. The one thing that has surprised and pleased me greatly is that the mobile products have raised the brand awareness of Chord Electronics, meaning that all of our products sell incredibly well – including our flagship Reference product line. What is so enjoyable about this is not just that the business is growing, but that we can fund more research, which means that we can only better the community.
HFN: Can you explain in simple terms what an FPGA is and why you chose to go with it instead of regular D/A converters?
JF: Most DAC designers aren’t necessarily DAC designers: they are really DAC users. What I mean by this is that the engineers that design DAC products string a number of components around an existing DAC chip to make the circuit work, usually based on the chip company’s application notes and BINGO, they have a working DAC. The trouble is that it won’t perform in an outstanding way because the DAC chips are relatively cheap, they cost only a few dollars each, they’re developed on a tiny chip of silicon just 2-to-3mm square so they are crude in comparison to a Rob Watts design which, by virtue, is designed across an entire circuit board with most of the processing performed by the truly massive FPGA and the conversion done by the partnering flip-flops. This DAC is designed, in every sense, to truly extract all of the information that was originally encouraged into the analogue signal that was then digitised by the ADC (analogue-to-digital converter).
HFN: Did you ever think Hugo would have that kind of an impact in personal audio?
JF: Yes, I had a very good feeling about Hugo. I knew that its performance would be considered as reference-class, which was something that no one had managed to achieve before within a mobile product. But it was when we realised that not just audiophiles could hear the difference that Hugo made, that we really knew that we were onto a winner of a product.
HFN: Hugo was already an outstanding product that received very good feedback, the sound was remarkable, what were your goals on improving it and coming out with Hugo 2?
JF: Technology had advanced and we learnt a lot by developing other products like DAVE, so we simply wanted to make a product better in every way.
Find out more about Mojo, Poly and other exciting information from John Franks after the jump!