James Tanner - Bryston
Hi-end audio equipment is not only bought but also built by enthusiasts. Often those who used to be in a similar situation and developed their hobbies to such an extent that at some point they decided to build something of their own - better than what's offered in stores. The history of many companies involves a very important input from other people as well. Sometimes it is a friend who decided to help his colleague in developing a small, garage manufacture, sometimes an old lady who bequeathed a nice guy running a music store a huge sum of money, and sometimes a good accountant who can get one of the largest loudspeaker manufacturers out of debt. James Tanner is one of those characters. Perhaps a blind fate that brought James to the right place at the right time. It is known, however, that his contribution to the development of one of the most respected companies making both amateur and professional audio electronics was considerable, to say the least. Today he is Bryston's vice president, but who was he then? A friend of the family? An old lady? Accountant? Well, no. He was a firefighter.
You will admit that many dramatic stories can come to mind at this point. Fortunately, James did not meet the founders of Bryston during the fire in which half of the factory equipment burned down, or even when summoned to a cat that had climbed an exceptionally tall tree. He devoted every free moment to music, so he quickly got into the audiophile hobby, and the search for better equipment led him to one of the specialized salons in Toronto. The mission seemed simple - to find something that would sound better than the Dynaco Stereo 400 power amplifier that powered his electrostatic Dayton Wright speakers. It turned out, however, that finding such a device wasn't easy at all, not to mention trying to pull it off in a reasonable budget. Store's owner, probably fed up with hearing the story about James's too weak amplifier, decided to direct him to Chris Russell - the son of the owner of a company dealing in the production of medical equipment. Chris comprehensively modified the Dynaco power amplifier - installed four additional output transistors, bolted them to separate heat sinks, drilled some extra vents in the case, and added a bank of large capacitors in the power supply. And that was it.
The experience gained during this project was useful to Bryston later when the company's bosses decided to enter the consumer market with their own audio equipment. During the Summer CES exhibition in Chicago, Chris Russel somehow convinced Jon Dahlquist to use the 4B amplifier to drive the DQ-10 speakers, which are still considered iconic today. Legend has it that this model was the heir to the amplifier, which was commissioned by James Tanner. At one point, Peter Aczel, the reviewer of The Audio Critic magazine, entered the room and scolded the whole team for a buzzing advertisement in which the new Bryston power amplifier was called the best sounding amplifier in the world. Nobody knows what he said, but apparently he was seriously angry that another start-up company dares to call its products "the best", without any modesty or respect for other, more experienced companies. Fortunately, Bryston's team managed to calm him down and then persuaded him to listen. Aczel was so impressed with the sonic possibilities of their electronics that in his article he simply wrote: "they are right". Thus, as early as 1977, Bryston became a recognizable brand in the audio industry, and the demand for its amplifiers exceeded the production capacity of a modest factory. It seems that James Tanner formally joining Bryston's team was only a matter of time. But, when I asked him about his current work, he replied "I am the VP of Bryston but I do not tell the company exactly what I do - that way they can not fire me because what I do may be important.
In one of the interviews, I read that you grew up in a really large family, and in the pictures, you willingly pose with your grandchildren. But immediately I started wondering - is hockey like a compulsory thing in Canada?
Yes. When I joined the Fire Department one of the questions the job interviewer ask me was at what level did I play hockey!
Bryston's story begins unusually. Not from amplifiers welded on the kitchen table, not from speakers built in the garage, but... Medical equipment?
Precisely. Bryston was a Canadian company owned by three individuals who's initials were put together to provide the company name Bryston (Bower, RYbbert, STONeborough). We were a notable engineering firm specializing in medical electronics. We had a patented blood analyzer. When John Russell Sr. retired from work as an engineer in the USA with NASA, he bought Bryston. One of his sons, Chris, was able to explore his interest in music and audio by taking advantage of the facility's tools. While modifying existing amps of the time, he designed his own which won a sound quality competition at a local major recording studio. The studio ordered some amplifiers from Bryston and that began our rapid transition to an audio engineering firm.
Professional audio gear is a slogan that attracts audiophiles all around the world. For some reason, they are very interested in loudspeakers and amplifiers that are used in recording studios. From your point of view, are these two completely different worlds or maybe two markets that can coexist to some extent, and do not interfere with each other?
I think in the past having a product that was accepted in the pro market was negative and was not accepted by audiophiles because they consider them a 'tool' for the pros to use for accuracy of the recording mix and not necessarily a pleasant sound to listen too. So they were perceived as different worlds but I believe that is changing today due to audiophiles being more educated into what happens at the recording end of the music business as well and how that translates to what they hear at home.
Rarely the company that produces professional equipment offers exactly the same models for the amateur market. Most often we see a clear division - loudspeakers manufacturers make active loudspeakers for professionals and passive loudspeakers for audiophiles. But at Bryston these are the same devices that you can simply order with a wider front for rack mounting. Wouldn't it be better to separate them completely?
Maybe... But we have always been an engineering company first and a marketing company second. So building the most accurate amplifiers and gear available given the current state of the art has always been our holy grail. We have always felt that a linear amplifier tells the truth - good or bad - and that is the best way forward for both the audiophile and the studio as anything else just takes you in a big circle.
When audiophiles look for hi-fi equipment, they read reviews, visit exhibitions, arrange auditions, etc. What about professionals? How do they decide to go for Bryston? Because of a direct recommendation? Due to the fact that some other producer works on Bryston's gear?
Yes. The Pro market is a reasonably small community so if you are accepted by the leaders in that field then others tend to follow. Bryston from day one has been well accepted in the studio market because it represented excellent accuracy and most of all high reliability - a must - the time is money in studios. Many customers also appreciate our scientific engineering approach to product designs. We can prove the accuracy and performance of our equipment scientifically instead of just telling people to buy what they think they will like. But, I think pro customers buy Bryston because it happens to sound fantastic. It stands up really well against competing products in a demonstration.
You are famous for the fact that your company provides a 20-year warranty on analog devices. Does it work? I mean, is it worth it? Or is this warranty really included in the price of the product and the customer pays for it at the start?
We implemented the 20-year warranty in 1990 when we were 18 years old. Even though back then we had a 5-year warranty we had never charged for a repair. So after 18 years, we were still seeing our original amplifiers operating without issues so we decided to make it official and offer a 20-year warranty. So the warranty was never about who pays for it - it was the outcome of building a product with the best possible parts and with the long-term reliability in mind. Many people assume that we just build in the cost of inevitable repairs, but we don't. We work really hard to design robust gear that will outlast us all. Furthermore, our electronics go through a 100-hour test cycle at our factory before shipping to ensure quality.
Why not extend the warranty to 20 years for digital products? Where does this division come from?
The problem with digital is it changes too quickly, and we feared that some parts would not be available going forward. We are seeing how this goes and may extend the warranty but so far all our digital products have been very reliable with very few warranty issues.
At some point, relatively recently, you decided to change the finish of the front panels - from brushed to satin aluminum. Why? Some customers will certainly not be happy with it, because suddenly the look of their whole system has to change.
Well, I guess it's one of those issues where you are dammed if you do and dammed if you don't. The main reason for the satin finish was it was much better liked when we showed prototypes at shows and it is much easier to get a more uniform finish from product to product and with fewer problems with scratching and discoloration over time.
One of our favorite Bryston devices is BDP-3. Its sound is sensational, but inside there is a pretty prehistoric computer. Is it not strange, especially considering its price?
To oversimplify, any digital music player is just a purpose-built computer. Our BDP-3 includes a fully linear power supply, Bryston designed and built digital audio output device, and of course our own logic board and casework. The 'computer' itself is a motherboard we source from a company that specializes in high-reliability long-term-support hardware often used in critical care and industrial applications. Music playback does not require an enormous amount of power or the latest Intel processor. In fact, big fast processors are at greater risk for radiating high-frequency noise. Finally, the more powerful the processor, the more heat it generates. We very much like to avoid fans if possible for a variety of reasons. Our firmware and hardware were developed to work with each other, and the internal computer is the right choice for this digital player. Would the state of the art processors and tons of RAM enable more advanced features? Probably, but it would add a tremendous cost, decrease reliability, and quite possibly sacrifice sound quality.
When we connected the 4B3 power amplifier during the test, we had a problem starting it. Later it turned out that there's a whole procedure to do this - you need to turn on one button on the back, insert the power cable, then the device measures the current and voltage, and only then it can be turned on with a button on the front panel. Is that necessary? Do you think that hi-fi equipment sounds worse if the supply voltage is a bit too low or if the polarity of the plug is incorrect? If so, how do you explain it logically?
Yes. In order to get all the safety and hydro requirements and clearances, we have to provide these safeguards. Every product has to go through a very extensive and expensive test by the safety authorities before we can sell our equipment. The supply voltage can change quite a bit with our products without issue as most of our source gear runs Class A. With the amplifiers the lower or higher voltage will allow for slightly lower or higher power but there again there is a fairly wide envelope as to where it will perform without issue.
There are plenty of power conditioners in Bryston's catalog. I counted 16! Are they used by audiophiles or mainly professionals? How does this affect the sound?
We sell them about equally to pros and audiophiles. Oh, and these are not power conditioners - they are isolation transformers. The basic idea is to isolate you from the outside world. It's like having your own little power station inside your music room. The transformer has a primary and a secondary section and you are working off the magnetic field between these two sections. So the outside world (primary) never sees the inside world (secondary) thereby isolating your system from all the noise and crap on the hydro line outside your listening environment.
Recently, we tested the BDA-3.14, which looks a bit like a device invented in five minutes, with a combination of two others. Are you not afraid that the implementation of Raspberry Pi in such expensive equipment looks a bit frivolous?
Not really. The Pi is a great and low-cost piece of gear so it is a very cost-effective way to add a computer to our BDA3 DAC. The one design parameter we have implemented though is we use the I2S output from the Pi to drive our DAC. This is the most accurate way to transfer digital signal and I think you will agree the 3.14 sounds superb as a result. Also using our DAC - which is the same as the BDA-3 DAC - eliminates any downside to the Pi itself. The Pi is being updated and improved upon as we go along and is retro fit-table to the 3.14 so customers will be able to upgrade going forward if required. Finally, Raspberry Pi devices have proven to be extremely reliable and versatile over many years now. We feel very confident in our decision to use them. And if I can make a point - quality engineering is not about using the most expensive parts available. It's about understanding the complexities of the circuit and implementing solutions that improve the performance of the product.
Bryston's loudspeakers are manufactured by Axiom. What is the purpose of having Bryston speakers, since Axiom also produces loudspeakers under its own brand that look very similar?
I am often asked why Bryston decided to partner with Axiom on our loudspeaker project. Yes, some of the products look similar, but that's an economic advantage and some are totally different. For example, we use 8-inch woofers they do not. But here is the complete story. Axiom is more capable of producing a quality loudspeaker than 99% of the companies out there. They have their own on-site anechoic chamber (same size as the NRC's chamber in Ottawa). They have the latest and greatest test gear. They have two superb engineers that have been involved in speaker design for over 30 years each. They have an on-site tower for testing subwoofers in a true anechoic environment. They make their own (and our) drivers to suit each model independently. They make and test all the speakers in Canada (drivers are made in Axiom's factory so they maintain all aspects of quality control). All Cabinets are made in their factory in Ontario using high-quality CNC machines. Also, they do this at a price point that mere mortals can afford. If you think about it, there is a striking symmetry between our companies. We have known each other for over 30 years, since our days at the NRC in the early 80s. Both Bryston and Axiom are still controlled by their founders and built on a passion for audio. There are very few audio companies left that are not now controlled by a conglomerate. We are geographically very close to each other in small towns in northern Ontario. We both share a passion for doing real research and staying on the leading edge of our areas of expertise. We both share a belief in manufacturing the products we design and sell and we both have extensive manufacturing facilities located in Canada to ensure the best product quality. So I chose Axiom to work with me because they are the most qualified to help me with this project and because we share a passion for audio. If I tried to tackle this project on my own the capital costs would have been horrendous and the speaker would be 3 times the price, with the initial ship date still in the future. I was also starkly aware of the abysmal track record of electronic companies entering the speaker market. Having a speaker company as a design and manufacturing partner eliminated the reasons this happens so often.
Did you ever think about moving your production to China? With Canadian labor costs and taxes, each device can be much more expensive than the competition, which has comparable parameters and even sound...
No - we are keeping the jobs in Canada. Most of our factory staff have been with us for many, many years - decades in some cases. Building precision electronics isn't a job for just anybody. It takes care, patience, and skill that isn't easy to learn. Sure, there is some nice-sounding gear coming from low-cost labor countries, but there's more to high-quality gear than just sound. We want our casework to be elegantly machined, we demand high reliability. In the event of a repair, we want it to be serviced quickly and effectively. How would you feel about having to ship a 40-kilogram amp all the way to China for service? We can provide rapid turnaround on repair either at our factory or by providing parts quickly to our distributors worldwide all of whom are properly trained in service.
You have a very large and very nice system, many of Bryston's employees probably also use your devices. Are there situations when the idea for improvement arises not in the company, but at home, when, for example, you connect a new model, listen to it and think "hmm, we should do it differently"?
Yes. In fact, one of my main jobs is to assess the product before we go into production. I have the facilities to do blind tests as well, which believe me removes a lot of "gee it looks great so it must sound good!". And yes, it usually takes a few tries before I am happy. As an example, I went through five prototypes of the Model T speakers before we decided to go to market with it.
Huge home theater systems and installations with a dozen of devices, from sources and processors to five-channel power amplifiers, are still popular in Canada and the USA. In Europe, this is hardly seen. Here audiophiles prefer more minimalist stereo systems. At first glance, Bryston's catalog is constructed more for the US market, but maybe I'm wrong? For example, are you seeing a huge demand for these largest, most expensive devices in China or in other markets?
It varies depending on the timing. I would agree though that Europe and the Far East tend to be more stereo-motivated, but there are areas where surround is still a large market for our distributors. An interesting development though is we are selling more phono stages now than we ever had in all markets so I guess that tells you stereo is still very much alive and kicking!
You are one of the companies that are clearly not interested in launching network speakers, wireless headphones, soundbars, and other recently fashionable devices. You recently released a turntable, which is no longer on offer. Aren't you afraid that at some point it can work against you, that is - customers will be accustomed to brands that do these things today, and will never get to know something like Bryston?
Actually, we have just introduced a complete line of wireless powered speakers including a soundbar. So yes, we are aware of trying to establish the Bryston brand in these market segments. I agree that customers starting out seem to prefer a simpler all in one solution so we will be offering more products in that segment going forward. Our advantage in new audio markets is that we are sound quality experts. The fundamentals of a good speaker and amplifier design are still important in wireless audio and all-in-one type devices.
I'm asking about this because I remember how Naim was once treated. It was the equipment for absolute weirdos who like to do everything differently. Even among audiophiles, Naim owners were treated like freaks. Sect inside the sect. Suddenly it started to change. Naim created all-in-one cinema equipment, then quickly entered the topic of streaming, was one of the first companies to play music from files and iPad at exhibitions, then made great Uniti systems, Muso speakers, other amazing streamers, and today is no longer a brand for fanatics, and extremely demanding audiophiles have also benefited, because of, among others, Statement. Don't you think this is the right direction?
We see our place in the market clearly. Bryston is the brand music and movie lovers can turn to when they need a top-quality sound that can be scientifically proven and easily heard and the most excellent reliability. After all, nobody cares what it sounds like if it's broken. If we can apply these principles to more lifestyle-oriented products, we will do so. We are not the brand to turn to for "latest and greatest". Our equipment is built to provide an enormous sense of enjoyment and pleasure for a very long time. We feel very confident in the superb sound quality and timeless design of our powered wireless products.
So what are your plans for the near future? Can we expect something surprising?
We are working on new products all the time based on feedback from our customers and hopefully will be able to provide our customers with more superb musically satisfying gear for many more years to come.