Geoff Merrigan - Tellurium Q
Geoff Merrigan is one of the founders of Tellurium Q, a company which manufactures cables and audio electronics. Why the company itself is relatively young, the approach to audiophile cables is rather unusual, prioritizing research on the nature of electric signals, physical phenomena and measurements. All this, of course, is to achieve the best sound quality, but you can tell that people behind Tellurium Q think that the whole fun should be the end of the process, not the thing you start with. In other words, these cables are not formed on the basis of trial and error during listening tests. Instead, the whole design process begins with exploring the phenomena occurring during the transmission of electrical signals, and the final product has to be like printing the conclusions of these studies into the real world.
However, Geoff Merrigan doesn't look like a mad scientist or a typical sales representative. He is a warm person open to all kinds of discussions, doesn't matter if he's talking to journalists, people who design loudspeakers or just normal music lovers who don't yet believe in what cables can do. After a few minutes of conversation, I knew that Geoff knows what he's talking about, so I tried to squeeze as much out of him as I could. Of course he had to keep some secrets, but the whole approach to cable design by Tellurium Q is indeed very interesting.
Tellurium Q started as a cable manufacturer. I heard that they were designed for recording studios. How did it happen?
That is just where myself and Colin met and started talking about sound quality and what we believed was missing or rather what was not paid attention to. He said that the sound in the studio could be improved and explained how he thought it might work. To my background in materials and chemistry it made sense and so that's how Tellurium Q was born.
Most people believe that wires transmit electric signals - a stream of electrons - much like a water flow inside a pipe, but you say that is not entirely correct. So what is the true nature of this signal?
For a copper wire of 1 mm radius carrying a steady current of 10 amps, the drift velocity is only about 0.024 cm/sec. I could outrun an electron in a wire, hell I could even out crawl one! Current is not electrons zipping through a wire. Think more of the old Newton’s cradle where you have metal balls suspended together and then you lift the end one and drop it against the end of the line. Almost immediately the ball at the other end flies up. The balls stay virtually still but the force is propagated along the line of balls. Likewise in a copper wire the electrons don’t move hardly at all but the propagation of the electronic “impulse” is staggeringly fast. This is also just a model and not actually what happens but it is possibly a closer mental image of how to think about what may be happening. Even knowing that I can say that no one on this entire planet of ours really knows what electricity actually “is”. We have models for how it works, we have theories for what it may be, equations to manipulate it and we are familiar with using it but what “it” is, is still another question that, surprisingly, has not been fully answered. What is an electromagnetic force, for example? Faraday and Maxwell described what it does a long time ago but again no one has said what it is and the latest research is throwing up some really interesting and kooky effects that are not described by classroom physics.
What is the most important thing in designing a cable?
There are many, many factors that are important and these factors change in relevance depending on the precise function that that cable will have to serve.
There are many cable manufacturers who concentrate on one thing. Some say that the purity of copper or silver is critical, others say it's the geometry or dielectric material. What would you say about that?
Well we concentrate on primarily one thing too – phase distortion – or rather combating it. However to do that we have to take into account all the above and more. Then begins a fine balancing act that requires compromises to be made. The trick is to know how the web of factors interrelate with one another and which compromises will give the best balance for sound quality.
On your website you wrote something about the interaction between the conductor and dielectric. Most people think that it's very easy - in a wire there are electrons running like crazy and in the dielectric material nothing happens, because it's electrically neutral. But is that the case?
People do believe that, don’t they?
Audioquest invented the DBS system, which uses batteries to 'charge' the cable from inside. Some people say that it's there purely for "warming up" the dielectric. What do you think about such solutions?
Audioquest is a good company with excellent products but there are better ways to achieve performance gains, we believe. The battery system can actually introduce another layer of difficulties that need to be accounted for, depending on how it is employed.
In Tellurium Q catalog there are power, speaker and interconnect cables. Which group is the hardest to design?
Each one has it’s own particular problems to overcome and it is actually fun to find out what they are and puzzle out the best way round those problems. That is the way we look at development. Start from the fundamentals. What function does this cable/equipment need to perform? Secondly, what problems are inherent with the function? Thirdly, what really is occurring at the most fundamental level (for example, digital signal is not ones and zeros for example but most designers and developers believe that is the case and long may they think that). And finally, what materials, configurations, approaches, allow for the best real world solution?
How do you design your cables? Is it mostly calculations and computer simulations, or do you still listen to the results?
All three and understanding of how materials function in different conditions. Then there is a lot of building and testing and quite often from what we discover we simply start from scratch again with the new information we gather.
How long does it take to design a cable?
That varies enormously. You might as well ask, “how long is a piece of string”. Sometimes we are lucky and have a breakthrough as in the case of the Black Diamond range. We were studying how to improve on the Graphite’s system compatibility because while it sounded phenomenal in most systems, there was the rare occurrence where it sounded slightly “boomy”. When we heard this we immediately started to look into why. Within just 6 months we were on the track of not a fix but a whole new class of cable which outshone the Graphite in every way, which is the Black Diamond.
Are connectors just as important as wires? What types of connectors are you using for power, speaker and IC cables?
Connectors are very important but are not the be all and end all that people tend to think. Connectors need to compliment the cables. For example we like to use Furutech power connectors but not for the reason that people think. Our blue power cables won product of the year in the UK last year and had apparently very simple gold-plated connectors, not well known branded plugs. We have produced our own tellurium copper connectors for many of our products simply because we find certain metallurgical mixes have a very good synergy for our cable’s performance.
You said that you don’t waste money on fancy boxes, instead putting all your profits into research and development. So what are you currently working on?
Could I just clarify something first, what I said (or meant to say) is that I believe that we put more of our profits back into R&D as a percentage of profit than any other audio company out there. R&D is at the heart of every decision that we make. We only produce a product if we believe it can offer a significant advantage over something that already exists. We are still a relatively small new company so have to target what we produce very carefully. We have a very long list of ongoing projects, one is a set of A class monoblocks, an A class preamp, tonearm cable and many other things that I cannot mention at this stage some of which are outside the audio market.
The other side of Tellurium Q catalogue are the amplifiers. It doesn't happen very often that a cable manufacturer starts building big boxes. What is the story behind that?
That is because our technical director, Colin Wonfor, has an audio background spanning over 40 years in amplifiers and analogue power. He designed TOCA, Claymores, Magnum amplifiers and acted as a consultant to Naim and Cambridge Audio. The surprise should be that we produced cables at all but that goes right back to our first discussion in a recording studio in the UK. The first amplifier Tellurium Q produced was a demonstration piece to show what sound quality could be achieved with solid state technology – the Iridium Single Ended Class A power amplifier – we are very proud that it won product of the year in the UK. Our latest amplifier – the new Claymore has first been shown here in Poland at the recent show and is still to be seen anywhere else in the world at time of this interview. It has already surprised people who have heard what this integrated can do.
You had a lot of experience designing power supplies for Naim or even NASA. What was the biggest or the most impressive project?
Colin did. The biggest project in pure size was a 100000 amp 55V DC linear power supply for British Telecom in the early 80's. The most impressive was designing one of the power supplies for the space station which was the most efficient 1 KW switch mode power supply in the world at that time. In audio it has to be the TOCA amps. Colin heard of an American A Class that was quoted as being the biggest power rating in the world so for the hell of it he built the big TOCA amps which were the biggest in the world. I think that Colin’s got into the Guinness book of records as the most powerful single ended Class A amplifiers.
How does this experience with power supplies transmit onto the field of home audio?
Audio is all about efficient power handling! Signal transmission and power amplification is analogue power.
Are you planning to expand your range of electronics?