Laurence Borden: Mark, welcome to Dagogo. Please begin by telling us about your background in physics and electronics.
Mark O’Brien: I have been keenly interested in electronics and particularly audio and acoustics since I was a child. I earned my B.S. in physics at Cal Poly and then went to work designing laser systems. I eventually wound up at Bell Labs where I worked in research for a number of years before starting Rogue Audio. When I was in the planning stages of Rogue Audio I also went back to school and earned my MBA which has really helped me on the business side of things.
LB: When did you begin designing audio equipment? Was it originally as a hobbyist? What motivated you to form Rogue Audio?
MO: I started designing loudspeakers and building Hafler kits as a teenager. After college, I started designing my own preamplifiers because I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money required to buy a good one. In the mid-nineties, there was a glut of what seemed to me to be overpriced and underperforming equipment on the market. After working on a number of designs I finally wound up with what eventually became the Rogue Audio Sixty-Six, our first preamplifier. I felt like it was a preamp that other audiophiles would enjoy and I really liked the idea of owning my own business, so I started Rogue Audio. I really love designing amplifiers so the transition from hobbyist to being an actual designer came pretty easily. What isn’t so easy is creating a viable business that can survive the often difficult and demanding years of its infancy. Somehow we muddled through those early years and now sixteen years later here we are.
LB: Rogue Audio is known for providing high quality electronics at very reasonable prices. This is all the more impressive considering that all your products are built in Pennsylvania, rather than in China as are many of your competitors products. Can you share your secret with us?
MO: There really isn’t a secret. We maintain a low overhead and have excellent supply line management. We have worked with most of our suppliers for ten or more years and we have a great relationship with them. As a result, we can purchase large quantities of our most expensive parts and store them at our vendors’ warehouses and bring in smaller quantities as we need them. This allows us to get volume pricing without huge capital outlays. This, by the way, is something you can’t easily do buying parts offshore. We also share quite a bit of circuitry and parts between different models which helps us buy components at larger volumes, and allows us to keep lower inventory levels. I think we tend to spend less on frivolous cosmetic components than some companies, and instead focus on putting our design dollars to work where it can really bump up the performance rather than the price.
LB: Tell us more about your design philosophies. I note that all of your amplifier are push-pull designs. Have you ever considered adding a SET amp to your product line?
MO: The Rogue Audio design philosophy is that we only design products that we would want to own ourselves. An excellent example of this is the Cronus integrated amplifier. I wanted a small but powerful integrated for my living room and I recognized that there was probably a market for a reasonably priced, US made integrated. This turned out to be one of the most popular amps we have ever made. As far as single ended amps go, I have heard many nice ones but the requirements of most popular speakers preclude the use of SETs, so we just haven’t been interested in designing one.
LB: Many of your amps can be run in either triode or ultralinear mode. How do these differ, both in terms of operation, and sonically?
MO: There is an extremely complicated relationship between the tube circuit, output transformer and the speaker crossover so I can’t really make any blanket statements about this. Some speakers sound better with the amp running in ultralinear, others sound better with triode mode, and with still others it is difficult to discern a difference. I also believe that there is a fair amount of subjectivity as far as the listener goes with some people preferring triode to ultralinear, and vice versa. On most of our amps, we provide a switch so owners can determine which sounds best for themselves. A third option that we never use is Pentode/Tetrode mode. While this offers a bit more power than ultralinear, it just doesn’t sound as good to me.
LB: How is tube biasing done in your amplifiers? What are your thoughts on auto-biasing designs?
MO: I think we make it about as simple as anyone can. All of our tube amps have a built-in meter, and all one needs to do is flip a switch and adjust a potentiometer to obtain the correct reading on the meter. I think most ten year olds could learn to bias one of our amps in a minute. Our amps are also very stable so while we recommend setting the bias every six months or so, it isn’t really that critical. We used to make self biasing amplifiers but for performance and reliability reasons we just prefer to set the bias manually now.
LB: As one moves up the Rogue amplifier product line, do the units simply become more powerful, or are they sonically superior to the lower-powered (and less expensive) models? If the latter, is this the result of better circuitry, better parts, or both? And how much of a role does the power supply play to the overall sonics?
MO: I believe that our budget Titan Series is excellent, but our products do get successively better as you move up the product line. In my experience, a good circuit design is much more important than exotic parts; but excellent parts are often key to exacting the highest level of performance from a given design. With that said, we use high quality parts in all of our products, but our most expensive equipment is both more complex and more sophisticated, which ultimately makes it more expensive to manufacture. Of course, we also put even more expensive parts in these pieces where it makes sense.
We tend to focus much of our design time on the power supply because it is in many ways the most important part of any amp or preamp. What many people don’t realize is that the audio signal is being used to modulate the output of the power supply, which, in fact, is what you are actually listening to. Large high quality power supplies are expensive but you just can’t get great sound without a great power supply.
LB: Of your various amplifiers, do you have a personal favorite, perhaps one that performs above its price point?
MO: I am particularly pleased with our new tube/class D hybrids because as far as I know, we are the first company to bring this type of amplifier to market. They sound excellent and have some real advantages over traditional tube designs. They are compact, cool running and don’t require any regular tube maintenance. Most importantly, they sound like big powerful tube amps; but with a damping factor of over 1000, they have tremendous slam in the bottom end.
I think our Atlas Magnum performs way out of its price range. It is priced under $2,000 and we have customers using it with $30,000 speakers because they just love the way it sounds.
LB: How do you go about designing a new product, and what motivates it? Is it an interest in a particular circuit, or more of a business decision to add a product at a particular price point?
MO: We definitely don’t design to specific price points but rather come up with designs because they are both interesting and marketable. Again, our most successful products have been those that we had an internal desire for rather than what we viewed as a hole in our product line.
LB: When designing a new product, how much emphasis is based on measurements, and how much on listening? Are you ever surprised?
MO: Needless to say we have quite a bit of test equipment here but I don’t use it much during the actual design process. If you start with a good design, it will almost invariably test well so it is really just a matter of getting the design to sound great and then verifying the performance through testing. I really don’t believe that there is much to be gained by chasing specs beyond a certain point because there isn’t a strong correlation between the popular measurements and what most people agree sounds good.
LB: Many companies seem to frequently upgrade their products, often to the chagrin of those who own what becomes an outdated model. In contrast, your line up seems to have a long product life. What factors influence your decision to replace a product?
MO: Yes, I buy audio equipment, too, so I understand how frustrating that can be. When we come up with significant product upgrades, we always try to make them available to owners of older versions. We have been in business for sixteen years and we still make variants of most of the models we started with. That said, at some point you pretty well exhaust the possibility of further improvement and it makes sense to start with a new platform, because you know you can build an even better amp from it.
LB: Conventional wisdom maintains that separates provide better performance than integrated amps; this is attributed to better isolation, optimized power supplies, and perhaps other factors as well. On the other hand, some have argued that integrated amps benefit from more ideal impedance matching and grounding, and from not having to use an extra interconnect. Your two integrated amps – the Tempest III and the Cronus – are less expensive than your amp/preamp combinations. Have you not made a top-of-the-line integrated amp because you feel it would be sonically inferior to your best separates? Do market perceptions enter into your decision?
MO: I agree that there are salient arguments to be made in favor of both separates and integrated amplifiers, and I think you can get excellent performance from both. Of course, you lose a bit of flexibility with an integrated amp, but for many people this is a non-issue. We are currently working on a very upmarket integrated that we will unveil at next year’s CES and it is a very interesting and exciting project for us.
LB: You alluded earlier to the latest additions to your product line, the Medusa and Hydra Tube/Class D power amplifiers, which were unveiled at CES 2012. These represent something of a departure from your traditional designs. Please tell us more about them.
MO: What is really exciting to me is that these amplifiers are much more than just a tube circuit in front of a class D circuit. We use only the modulator and mosfet output stage, and bypass all of the other circuitry on the amplifier modules we are using. We actually combine the tube and buffer stages with the output section, using proprietary circuitry that makes the output section perform like a tube stage rather than solid state. What is quite gratifying is that we have had numerous class D naysayers wind up purchasing them.
LB: What do you see for the future of Rogue Audio, and for high-end audio in general?
MO: We are at a particularly interesting point in the high end in that there are exciting advances being made in virtually every area of audio design. Now, more than ever before an audiophile on a budget can put together a system that money simply couldn’t buy ten or fifteen years ago. The resurgence of vinyl also holds promise to me in that more and more people are becoming interested in high performance audio. As for Rogue Audio, we love designing and building new amplifiers and will remain committed to our price and performance initiative. Dagogo readers can definitely expect to see some exciting new Rogue Audio products through the course of the next year.
LB: Mark, on behalf of Dagogo and our readership, I’d like t thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and business acumen with us. We wish you continue success, and I hope we can review some of your wonderful products in the near future.
MO: Thanks Larry, it has really been my pleasure!
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