We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring John Franks, Founder, Owner and Chief Designer at Chord Electronics. Chord Electronics offers a broad range of high-end amplification and digital conversion products including: DACs, headphone amplifiers, mobile audio components, music streamers, upscalers, integrated amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, stereo power amplifiers, mono power amplifiers, MM and MC phono stages and CD players.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. I was just twelve years old; we had very good but unfortunately highly strung, rather neurotic, prickly and even, at first, spiteful middle-aged tight-bun-headed music teacher. The whole class would enjoy sending her into apoplexy through the application of liberal amounts of mucking about and sullen indifference; she must have truly hated her job and all of us schoolboys.
To pacify the class on one particularly hot, boring and sultry afternoon, she had just about had enough and had given up as we slumped half-asleep across our school desks. She put on a piece of Debussy's music (after she had explained it a little) I think it was Daphne and Chloe or Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.
In our adolescent clock-watching revelry, listening to this impressionist masterpiece, something just snapped into place: I suddenly 'got' what it was all about. Strangely, this affected several of us in the class who later delighted the old teacher by actually becoming interested and wanting to hear other similar pieces then more pieces by other composers. Eventually, we all got to enjoy her classes.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. I was given an electronics kit made by Phillips when I was nine and I'd soon mastered how to make some simple circuits. But after a while, I started to make other circuits. I'd found a small, old shop in town that fixed TVs and sold components, so I'd save my pocket money and get on the bus into town to go and buy bits and put them together with varying amounts of success and failure. I learned how to solder with an iron the size of a pair of hair curlers and I made crystal radios and Superhet radios and small amplifiers.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. As a teenager, behind my house, there was a wooded area and gentle hills with huge green fields and a disused old chalk quarry that people would dump old radios into. None of them worked. I'd rob them of parts to make other stuff, but one time I'd found and old short-wave radio and took it home and got it going. It had a Bakelite moulded case and it polished up beautifully. I'd listen to stations from all over the world at night.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. In my early twenties, I was working as an avionics engineer and I'd seen and worked on some truly wonderfully designed and made electronics that were tens of years in advance of normal commercial electronics, so I knew what was possible. At that time, I made amplifiers for my friend's disco and we'd go around all the local nightspots. I attended a hi-fi show and was intrigued by the huge amplifiers I'd seen there, but thought perhaps I could use my advance avionics knowledge to do better. But by then, my career took off and soon I'd got married and left my interests behind and had become a company director of Raytheon and AT&T, however, I'd not totally forgotten my love of putting stuff together and I fished out a design idea I had that used some avionics design knowledge I had. Usually, I'd mess around on a rainy afternoon until one day, I felt I really had something and decided I'd like to try to build and sell it.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. It was 1989 and I was working for another company and my fellow directors said they'd like to build my design, which they did. I'd assumed that because I had all this advanced technical knowledge, I could make an amplifier just as good and as powerful, but an eighth the size of the huge American amplifiers on the market at the time. Big mistake! No-one would believe it could compare, though actually it was better, but no one bought it. The unit was called the SPM 900 amplifier. So, I redesigned the case to make the amp about eight times larger and after gaining a few nice reviews for the imaginatively newly named SPM 1200 we never looked back once the unit was selling well. I gave up my high-powered industrial career and started Chord Electronics in my garage.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. Lack of funding, lack of credibility, lack of staff, lack of everything to run a business, really, but I was ecstatically happy just building a few amplifiers and going out selling them. I got a break when The BBC came knocking. They had a studio problem and had heard about the advanced amps I was making. They liked the sample I supplied and soon I had a contract to supply them and the credibility that came with it.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. We've always been a highly technical company, pushing at the known boundaries of technological advancements, throughout the whole period we have been in business. As new devices become available, we'd use them to make constant and relentless advancements.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. In 2013 we developed a product for the mobile and headphone market, Hugo. It and subsequent mobile products, have been a great success and have grown the business by a thousand percent in about two years.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. We have five ranges of products. We will be bringing out more products in those ranges to enhance them all. Though, I'm sure you will understand that I can't go into individual products details, save to say they follow the philosophy of pushing the known technology of today to its limits.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. I think loudspeaker coils will become far smaller and lighter allowing high-quality loudspeakers to evolve beyond all recognition. Gallium nitride power devices will allow for limitless power in tiny packages, powered by solid-state batteries with at least four times the power of current-generation, bulky Lithium-ion types.