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2018

October

National Album Day
11th October 2018

The United Kingdom is marking its first ever National Album Day. Held on Saturday 13th October, it’s said to be a celebration of, “all aspects of the UK’s love of the album.” There will be a host of events – including some live MQA streams – showcasing the joys of this time-honoured way of listening to music. Indeed, it is now seventy years since the first ever album was sold, with an estimated five billion albums thought to have been sold in Britain since the format’s advent in 1948, according to the British Phonographic Industry. Since then, it has proved amazingly resilient in a world of fast-changing fashions, but there are now concerns that it’s under threat. Although music sales are strong – increasingly so via streaming – there’s a sense that some recording artists are losing interest in the album format, while others only pay lip service to it. Some critics say that musicians are now releasing sequences of songs rather than a cohesive musical whole. Has the spirit of greats like The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon finally passed?

National Album Day is backed by the British Phonographic Industry, with the BBC giving it extensive coverage. At 3.33pm on the Saturday, everyone in the UK is being asked to stop what they’re doing, sit back, relax and play their album of choice in full from start to finish. There is much to be happy about, with the format still selling in sizeable numbers. For example, there were 135 million albums either purchased, downloaded or streamed in 2017 – a rise of 9.5 per cent year-on-year. 4.1 million of these were on vinyl, which is the highest level since the start of the nineteen nineties, incidentally. Whether you’re a vinyl junkie or not, this is good news for the music industry and in turn for music fans, because it makes recorded music more visible to younger audiences, or older ones who have got out of the habit of buying music at all.

Some have criticised the event, describing it as gimmicky. Yet still many young artists have a great regard for albums, with some talking about wanting to make their Never Mind the Bollocks or London Calling. They don’t, it seems, want to see the album format relegated to pop music’s past. Although revenues are holding up, actual album sales in units are half those of 2010, down last year to 45.8 million physical objects purchased and 13.8 million digital sales. The revenue increase came from streaming, which has contributed to the charts since 2015. Unlike the old days, when one person walking into a record shop and buying a vinyl copy of Hotel California would constitute a sale, there is now a complex formula that defines streamed album sales. It down-weighs the two most popular songs from any album to the average of the next ten, then divides the total plays from the twelve tracks by 1,000. Who knew?

It’s hard to get too judgemental about the future of albums. Media pundits have been declaring it dead for several years now, with some pretentiously talking about streaming singles as the new ‘lingua franca’ of modern music. Yet the idea of just buying singles is nothing new; seven inch, twelve inch and then CD singles were all hugely popular in their day, as many people’s physical disc collections – be they analogue or digital – attest. Albums are beloved by so-called super fans, for whom endless remastered box sets are being released, seemingly every week. Indeed, this is what some believe to be the problem, as the mainstream music industry continues to mine the seam of classic music reissues. It’s certainly true that £80 box sets of ten or so CDs that cost pennies to produce, tries the patience of some loyal collectors.

The upside to streaming is that it is now possible to get very high quality sound, providing you have a serious digital front end and network streamer of course. For example, MQA is collaborating with Pitchblack Playback and The Association of Independent Music to hold an all-day, fully immersive listening event to celebrate National Album Day 2018. Six albums, released on independent labels, will be played back in MQA to deliver what Pitchblack Playback calls “the original studio performance”; it’s certainly going to be a great sounding event. It is being held between 11.30am and 6pm in The Sensorium at Aures, London. It’s a free-to-attend occasion that should be a unique listening experience; full details can be found at:  http://www.pitchblackplayback.com/national-album-day/, and tickets are on a first come, first served basis.

The albums being played include Mogwai’s Every Countrys Sun (Rock Action Records), Gil Scott-Heron’s Im New Here (XL), The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet), Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race For Space (Test Card Recordings) and Young Fathers’ Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune). J. Willgoose Esq from Public Service Broadcasting said: “It is great to be a part of National Album Day. As a band we put a lot of thought and effort into producing albums rather than isolated songs, and trying to use our music to tell stories. Giving fans the opportunity to experience our album The Race For Space in the dark, focusing on nothing but the music, is a great idea and we hope people get something out of it.” MQA’s Mike Jbara added: “It’s inspiring to be involved in a project that puts artists and music fans at the centre of the experience. We’re proud to partner with AIM and Pitchblack Playback to deliver the ultimate listening event for National Album Day.”

Whichever direction album sales may go, many of us will treasure the format forever, as it is such an elegant way of packaging a diverse but interconnected range of moods and emotions from a band in a series of different but sequentially ordered songs. Long may albums play!

September

Softening Up
28th September 2018

Welcome to the future. Speak to music industry insiders and ask them for the big picture, and it all looks very different to ten years ago. The one thing that defines where we are now, compared to where we were then, is the change in people’s music buying habits. Most of the money made from music sales now comes from streaming. In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America reports that it now accounts for three quarters of industry revenues.

In the first half of 2018, total revenues from recorded music grew by 10% to $4.6 billion – and streaming accounts for most of that at $3.4 billion, a huge 28% year-on-year increase. This includes Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, TIDAL, along with internet radio services like Pandora, SiriusXM and ad-supported on-demand streaming services such as YouTube, Vevo, and ad-supported Spotify. The RIAA says that the most lucrative format for the music industry is paid subscriptions, with these growing by a third and bringing $2.5 billion into the industry coffers.

In other words, three quarters of recording industry revenue came from streaming, and three quarters of that from paid subscriptions. This is dramatically outperforming advertising-supported music streams, meaning that people want their own private world of music uninterrupted by commercial messages – even if it costs them money to get it. In other words, just as music buyers a generation ago would go to the music shop on the High Street to buy CDs, happy to pay money to get personal access to ‘their’ music, so the same thing is happening now online. It is interesting that this goes against the notion of free music that peer-to-peer sharing sites like Napster once promoted. The figures do show that advertising-supported services like YouTube, Vevo and the basic Spotify also grew, but nowhere near as fast as subscription services. Market research company Nielsen reports that the revenue from these made up only 11% of total streaming revenues.

Every time a new set of statistics comes out, people say “the writing is on the wall for Compact Disc”, and are then proved wrong. Yet in the United States at least, the venerable silver disc is now really taking a hit. The RIAA reports that shipments of physical products decreased by one quarter to $462 million in the first half of this year, which is a higher rate of decline than in recent years. Indeed revenues from CD specifically fell by 41% in this period, while vinyl LP sales crept up slightly by 13%. Physical music media made up just 10% of total industry sales. It’s hard to put a gloss on this, and shows that there’s a fundamental change in the way we consume music now taking place. Of course, CD still has a long life ahead of it, but it’s becoming more of a niche pursuit now – a status that it will have to get used to.

Further proof that streaming is now the only real game in town, is the decline of digital downloads – revenues fell 27% in the first half of this year to $562 million, which is the the lowest level in over a decade. The same pattern is apparent for individual track sales, down 28% year-over-year, and digital albums down 26%. This category now made up just 12% of total revenues for the first half of the year – nearly fifteen years or so later, the days of buying your favourite pop songs on iTunes Music Store are now fading away.

Although hi-fi buyers might feel more than a little nostalgic for the demise of Compact Disc, the US music industry doesn’t seem too saddened by it. Revenues were up strongly in the first half of the year and paid subscription streaming seems to be rebalancing the dynamics of the industry. Mitch Glazier, President of the RIAA, thinks this is a great opportunity, saying that record companies are helping to foster “a diverse streaming marketplace”, meaning there’s a good deal of choice for consumers in how they get their streamed music.

He points out that there is still work to do on music licensing legislation in the USA, but the basic picture is rosy. The challenge is of course to increase the number of artists available on streaming services, and to improve the breadth and depth of music – rather in the same way that even by the early nineteen nineties, there were still vast numbers of albums that had not yet gained a CD release. As streaming services improve, choice will get better and the take-up of streaming services should in turn increase even more.

August

dCS LAUNCHES NEW BARTÓK UPSAMPLING NETWORK DAC WITH HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER
10th August 2018

dCS proudly announces its Bartók network DAC and headphone amplifier – a single-box, state-of-the-art digital-to-analogue converter with full network streaming functionality and Class A headphone amplifier.

Retailing at £9,999 for the streaming DAC and £11,999 for the streaming DAC with integrated headphone amplifier, the new dCS Bartók DAC brings together dCS’s past, present and future.

Replacing Debussy as the most affordable DAC in the illustrious dCS range Bartók shares the same DNA as its bigger Rossini brother, featuring the Rossini Ring DAC™, custom high performance UPnP music streamer and dCS digital processing platform inside a simplified chassis that uses only one power supply. As with all dCS DACs Bartók measures best in class across all technical dimensions.

Bartók plays music through an array of industry-standard USB, AES or S/PDIF digital inputs. It can stream over Ethernet from a NAS drive or online music services such as TIDAL™ or Spotify™, and from Apple devices via Airplay™. The network interface can perform full MQA™ decoding and rendering.

The DAC section is equipped with independent balanced and unbalanced line outputs that can drive power amplifiers directly, avoiding the need for a separate preamplifier.

The Bartók Headphone DAC features a custom designed headphone amplifier that works extremely well with both high and low impedance headphones in balanced or unbalanced formats. Taking the dCS analogue output stage as a starting point Bartók maintains that level of analogue performance at the same time as being optimized for a range of headphone impedances.

Bartók supports all major codecs including high resolution PCM and DSD, with user-selectable upsampling. There is a suite of DSP filters to tailor the sound to suit individual taste, and great care has been taken to minimise jitter at all stages with the dCS ‘auto clocking’ architecture. The network streaming section currently runs at up to 24-bit, 384kS/s and DSD128, supporting all major lossless codecs, plus DSD in DoP format and native DSD.

As with all dCS products, Bartók is designed and built in Great Britain to the highest standards, with aerospace-grade machined aluminium casework damped by internal sound deadening panels to reduce resonance. Multi-stage power regulation is employed, with twin mains transformers to isolate the DAC circuitry from the headphone amplifier. A choice of silver and black finishes is offered.

Firmware can be easily updated via CD, USB or the new automated download and update facility. This lets dCS add new features and improve the performance of Bartók over its lifetime – keeping it contemporary years after its rivals have become obsolete.

Bartók delivers an immersive experience with precision and detail captured inside a panoramic soundstage. Bartók plays music from any source in a vibrant and musically engaging way, with great dynamics and inky-black silences. This open window and faithfulness to the original recording is now available to headphone lovers too.

Summary:

  • dCS Bartók network DAC with Class A headphone output (£11,999)
  • dCS Bartók network DAC (£9,999)
  • latest generation dCS Digital Processing Platform and Ring DAC™
  • Supports UPnP™, asynchronous USB and Apple AirplayTM sources, plus AES and S/PDIF digital audio streams.
  • Class A headphone amplifier stage drives low and high impedance phones
  • Streaming services supported include TIDAL™ and Spotify Connect™
  • Built in Roon Ready™
  • multi-stage oversampling design, optional DSD upsampling; selectable filters
  • auto-clocking system improves ease of use and minimises jitter
  • Accepts encrypted SACD data from dCS Transports via Dual AES inputs.
  • multi-stage power regulation and twin mains transformers
  • firmware-upgradeable for future functionality and performance upgrades

Availability:

Late October 2018

About dCS:

Since 1987 dCS has been at the forefront of digital audio design, building world-beating hi-fi equipment in the UK to the highest possible standard. Each dCS product is first in class for technical excellence and musical performance, thanks to ground-breaking innovation. Designed like no other, dCS products deliver a natural musicality and faithfulness to the original recording.

See full product details here.

 

Copyright © 2018 Data Conversion Systems Limited. All rights reserved. dCS, dCS logo, Ring DAC are trademarks or registered trademarks of Data Conversion Systems Limited. Data Conversion Systems Limited disclaims any proprietary interest in trademarks and trade names other than its own. All specifications are subject to change and, whilst they are checked for accuracy, no liabilities can be accepted for errors or omissions.

July

End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product
13th July 2018

Martin Reynolds, dCS Technical Support Specialist

Originally from North West London, Martin Reynolds proved a bit of a boffin at Harrow County Grammar School. He won the school chemistry prize, and took a great interest in science. “I loved electronics and hi-fi too,” he says. “Things were very tight in those days, back in the nineteen seventies. I used to buy Wireless World magazine and from the age of around fifteen began to cobble together enough money to buy parts for an amplifier. It sounded great, but only because I made it myself!”

Martin continues, “I took my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels a year early, then found I was too young to go straight on to university. I spent most of 1975 with the Post Office Research Department, where I was put in charge of an experimental facility making lasers for telecommunications applications. It was interesting stuff, and involved a mix of chemistry and electronics, which suited me down to the ground. Then I went to the University of Kent, and studied electronics. I graduated about third in my class, so knew my way around a circuit diagram better than many…”

“I dived in with both feet”, says Martin. “I loved my specialist subjects, and spent the summer vacations at GEC Research Centre in Wembley. They had some interesting things to throw at me – I was hand-wiring experimental computer boards using the old 8086 processors. It was absolutely cutting-edge stuff at the time, but incredibly slow by today’s standards, of course. Although they were only 8-bit, when you had to wire every bus by hand it took some time. These days you’d put a circuit on an auto-router and it would route the board for you by magic. Then in 1976, I was tasked with prototyping one of the world’s first digital closed circuit television cameras, which had a staggering 9 kilopixel resolution!”

.It was only a matter of time before Martin joined the hi-fi industry. “An opportunity came my way, and I was roped in by Bill Beard of Beard Audio Systems. He started up as a cottage industry producing premium tube power amplifiers which sounded really, really good. Compared to anything I could afford to make at the time, they were amazing. Of course, they were quite easy to design, with standard tubes such as KT88s, ECC83s ECC81s and so on. We got some great reviews at the time, but they were too big for my digs in Clapham so I never owned any, sadly. It was the first incarnation of the valve revival – even in the late seventies they were considered antique, and most people had abandoned them. But some great tube amps came out back then and blew the market’s ears off. A large part of this was their Class A operation…”

It was fun working with Bill Beard, remembers Martin. “Being a so-called cottage industry you had to do pretty much everything yourself. Initially there were two of us and it grew up to about five. I loved it, but after five years I decided it was time to move on. I got married, got a new job and found myself at Neve Electronics designing high end studio mixing consoles. Like dCS now, this was a highly prestigious company to work for. Although I joined as a design engineer, they discovered my talent for taking things that weren’t working properly and modifying them so they did. So I found myself in charge of the Product Support department, in addition to designing new consoles from scratch, eventually to lead the analogue R&D department. I was there for a decade, leaving not long after we had won The Queen’s Award for Industry.”

Martin joined dCS in 1996, managing the development of the company’s first hi-fi product – the Elgar DAC, which itself was a ‘domestic’ version of the pro market 952. “We kept the pro-business going as that was one iron in the fire and then developed the consumer audio business. We got great reviews for Elgar and then started developing products to go around it. We discovered the upsampling effect because one of the next projects I managed was the 972 digital-to-digital converter, which was sort of digital audio Swiss army knife. It allowed studios to convert almost anything into almost anything else. There was just nothing like it at the time.”

“The basic design of the Ring DAC was very sound, and every generation sounds quite noticeably better than the last. I was surprised by how much better the Scarlatti sounded than the classic stack, and the Vivaldi just blew me away. That’s the way it works, you make the design as clean and as sanitary as you can and it responds with sonic improvements. Digital technology keeps on moving in leaps and bounds and you get the knock-on effect of processing power that is available in mobile phones. Every time we get more power, we have more scope for adding new features. The classic range ended up with an awful lot of extra functionality compared to the initial release. We are doing our level best with the new capacity, keeping the design as streamlined as possible. Rossini is a perfect example with just one huge FPGA that does nearly everything, with the DSP and micro controller piled into that huge chip.”

These days Martin concentrates on technical customer support. “Well, I have been writing the user manuals for the last twenty odd years so I’m probably the one person in the company who knows the whole product range best,” he confesses. “Most folk I deal with are lovely, and make me feel like I have made the world a better place. What I love most is when people I’ve advised end up even happier about the product than they were before – especially if you show them something that they weren’t even aware that it could do.”

June

Computer Audiophile – dCS Network Bridge
18th June 2018

“The dCS Network Bridge is second to none with respect to the sound quality of products that I’ve heard in this category.”

Read the full article here

End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product
15th June 2018

Ben Ashcroft, dCS Service Technician

“I am massively grateful for my opportunity”, says Ben Ashcroft. “Some people say that they hate their job, but I just wouldn’t know what that feels like. I’m genuinely content at dCS. I joined as a Production Technician, putting units together, getting it out of the door, learning the new products inside out as I did my apprenticeship. But from the start of this year I am now a Service Technician. I’m working with another technician and learning from him the ins and outs of the products themselves. If faults do occur then I fix them, which is a great learning process for me.”

Ben admits that he “fell on his feet” with his job at dCS – something he hopes and intends to make a career of. He says that he was in the right place at the right time to get hired by the Cambridge company, and isn’t looking that gift horse in the mouth. “I don’t take it for granted. That’s why, when I go to college on day release from the company, I don’t just settle for passes – I do my absolute best. I fully appreciate the extent of the opportunity I’ve got here, and because it’s a relatively small company everything that you do is noticed. I really like that. If I had a job elsewhere then I would be more of a number than a person; I might have just settled for passes because no one would really notice. But at dCS I get a lot of encouragement from my peers, and that’s great.”

Ben remembers his first interview. “I went in and openly said that I have no experience in engineering, and that all I can tell you is that I’m a blank page, I’ve got a good work ethic and I am willing to learn and to grow into any role you desire of me. They must have believed in me and trusted me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I explained that I was massively into music, and everyone who works here is too – I think they could see that I would fit in. It’s a pretty tight knit group of people here with – at the very least – one shared interest!”

Unlike some staff who have travelled from far and wide to work at dCS, Ben is a local guy. He followed a pretty typical path through school, although did very well. “My first full time job was at Sainsburys, something I continued with for a few years while I grew up. I’ve always been very academic, but also very sporty. I used to play football a lot, but got increasingly into music and technology. I started off liking indie bands but started getting into techno around the age of eighteen. It was initially stuff like dubstep and drum’n’bass, but nowadays it’s broadened to the whole spectrum. So, I do DJ-ing and create music myself too. I am so picky, I am very clued up on a lot of it.”

With his love of electronic music, he’s almost in a gang of one at dCS. “No one here shares my music taste I’m afraid, so trying to explain why I love it so much is hard because no one ever really agrees with me. Some people say it’s really repetitive and there is nothing to it. Perhaps I listen differently – I have got an ear for rhythm – it’s hard to describe. When you listen to electronic music it is little tiny details and the intricate things that people put in that just sound incredible, there’s a lot more to it than many think. It’s really layered, and introspective. Still, I am open to music like jazz and enjoy it.”

Don’t ask him to name his favourite artist, for there are so many. He was quite uncomfortable giving just one example because he’s so intense about it. “Well – Floating Points, Four Tet, Bicep – but there’s so much more”, he says. “Many of the people who buy dCS equipment probably won’t listen to the same things as me. But I guess it adds an extra dimension, and this type of music does sound great on our products! I also love making it, and going out to listen in clubs in the early hours at weekends. My friends and I know the DJs we’re going to listen to, we know the music to expect, we’re always on Shazam trying to recognise tracks, things like that. It is all just part of the culture, so to speak…”

Back on to the subject of his career, and Ben elaborates. “I had a good time at Sainsburys, and got recognised for my work ethic. But then it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, so I searched for engineering jobs. When dCS offered me my position here I did a three-year apprenticeship in electronic engineering, and passed with the best grade. I’m now doing my Level 4 HNC on day release, which is another two years. I’ve not dropped any marks, I’m smashing it basically! When I was at Sainsburys I enjoyed the customer-facing side and going forward that’s something I hope to be doing at dCS. I went to Norway at the end of last year to perform an upgrade for one of our customers, and it went really well – the job was done perfectly and the guy was really happy. It was incredibly satisfying.”

Ben’s definitely a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, with an irrepressible optimism about life and his future in a company he loves. It seems to have reflected back on him, because dCS Managing Director David Steven has been very supportive and given him a lot of freedom to go his own way. “They are never going to hold me back in that respect, I am always grateful for that”, he adds. Meanwhile, he’s just taking in everything he can from his colleagues. “Just because I get good grades doesn’t mean I’m actually good at anything. Actually I’m lucky because I work with so many experienced people, learn a lot from everyone and am always respectful to them. It’s a great place to get trained up – a kind of masterclass, really!”

HiFi+ Rossini MQA Update 2018
6th June 2018

Review by Chris Thomas

Download

May

Show Time
24th May 2018

The Munich High End Show is the hi-fi show that all the others want to be. In the space of thirty seven years, it has grown from a group of hobbyists – Germany’s High End Society – to a large scale international event. For the past fifteen years it has been held in Munich at the large, spacious and very congenial M.O.C. exhibition centre. The HIGH END 2018 show took place from the 10th to the 13th of May – and of course, dCS was there…

The great attraction of this show is that – unlike so many other hi-fi events around the world – it is not held in a crowded, crammed hotel. Instead, the M.O.C. is a proper, purpose-designed exhibition space. Also, it takes place in the beautiful city of Munich – the jewel in Bavaria’s crown. It’s a picture-postcard German city – a tasteful mixture of classical and modern architecture, it is clean, orderly, efficient and polite. There’s great shopping, superb dining and the hotels range from good to excellent. What’s not to like?

The M.O.C. building is large, spacious and easily accessible, with a lovely outside courtyard food and beer garden at its heart. The show gets more crowded every year – with a large contingent of visitors now coming from the Far East. Yet still it’s possible to walk around and see what you want without endless queueing or the feeling of being crammed into rooms like sardines in a tin. The dCS room is traditionally up in one of the atriums – large by hi-fi show standards, it’s able to accommodate a serious sound system with which visitors can hear what a dCS front end is really capable of.

This year, a Dan D’Agostino Momentum stereo power amplifier and a pair of Wilson Audio Alexia 2 loudspeakers were pressed into service. This was driven by a dCS Rossini DAC and Rossini Clock, fed by the new Rossini SACD/CD transport. A range of music was played throughout the show, including recordings made by Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath. Some of these had been Master Quality Authenticated-encoded, and visitors were able to make direct A-B comparisons of the original recordings and their MQA equivalents. dCS also took part in an MQA livestream of six-piece London-based band Misha Mullov-Abbado, streamed direct to Munich from Miloco Studios in the UK’s capital city.

This is the great thing about hi-fi shows. Of course they’re relatively noisy environments, and no manufacturer is ever truly happy with the sound they achieve with the imperfect acoustics of their show space. Yet it’s possible to walk into a room and hear something that no amount of words on a page can describe. The dCS room gave one of the clearest and most immersive sounds of the show. Of course, given the calibre of both the equipment and source materials, anything less would have been a disappointment!

The muscular D’Agostino amplifier served up vast amounts of clean power, which in turn produced great results from Wilson’s big Alexia 2 loudspeakers; they delivered a strong central image with excellent stage depth. The system was able to reproduce the three dimensional recorded acoustic of an original musical event faithfully, and the room was large enough to let the speakers supply extended bass. Although the varying number of people present in the room actually changed the tonal balance slightly, the system always sounded highly realistic. The dCS Rossini is an excellent DAC, offering much of the flagship Vivaldi’s performance despite being dramatically less expensive. Although it doesn’t have the forensic clarity of the top dCS digital front end, it is still extremely revealing and one of the finest ways to make meaningful comparisons between recordings.

It was an exhilarating week for dCS. The logistics of setting up one of the finest sounding rooms – and indeed systems – of the show were formidable. Yet there was a profound feeling of satisfaction when all was said and done. The MQA livestream was a great crowd puller, while the MQA file comparisons fascinated many visitors who heard them. Yet the Rossini’s sheer breadth of capabilities meant that it also wowed people with its superb silver disc sound, as well as its ability to stream a wide variety of music via its built-in Tidal functionality, and play hi-res music from USB memory sticks. If you ever get the chance to visit Munich one May, make your way to this seriously special show and hear the difference for yourself.

 

Listen to our top tracks played in our room at Munich this year: https://listen.tidal.com/playlist/25c6f933-975f-4216-b308-bfd424cd00c6

End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product
23rd May 2018
Michael Evans, dCS Design Engineer
 

It wasn’t hi-fi that interested Michael Evans from an early age, but mechanical design. “I have always loved taking things apart to find out how they fit together and work”, he says. “From a young age I was fascinated by bikes and cars, so it wasn’t a complete surprise that I ended up at Brunel University reading Product Design, for which I got a BSc for my troubles! It was a four-year course, a really interesting one that covered all things from graphics and branding right up to CAD. We did engineering and the fundamentals of structures and electronics and mechatronics – it was a very good overview of the entire design process.”

Suffolk born Michael found himself on a six month placement in Winchester at a design consultancy. “It was very varied and we worked on everything from recycling units, household appliances to a small swimming aid for children. Then I spent the next six months at IDentity Consulting in East Sussex, who tended to work more in the automotive sector. I actually went back after graduating, and I was there for three years or more. We completed projects for Porsche and Dunlop in the UK, among others. Then I decided I wanted to work for a company that did all its design and manufacturing in-house, so I could gain an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes as a whole. I was designing parts and accessories for Evotech Performance – they’ve got dealers worldwide and grew quite considerably in the few years that I was there.”

 
“One of the interesting sides to that was the famous Isle of Man TT race,” says Michael. “The company designed products for both British and World Superbike racing teams, components that won the Isle of Man TT a couple of years running. There were very bespoke requirements from the teams who would come to us and say we want this component to survive a race – which is probably one of the most demanding courses in the world! I think we supported about five teams in British Superbikes, three in World Superbikes, three at the Isle of Man, and others. I loved being able to design products and walk right out into the factory and talk to the guys who were doing the machining, producing the actual parts. For me it was very beneficial career wise and it meant I designed my own components knowing exactly what was achievable, and what wasn’t.”

Michael was there for three or so years, after which he came to dCS. “That wasn’t before I took a bit of a break, because I wanted to spend a month in Australia and another in Canada, snowboarding. Making the move to this company was as simple as reading a job ad and thinking it sounded really interesting. It was different to what I’d been doing but was about applying very similar design principles. The main change was that – coming from the motorbike side of things – everyone wanted parts to be as stripped back and as lightweight as possible, whereas dCS is almost the opposite, as weight is a sign of quality. Put a unit in front of someone and if it weighs next to nothing, they’re going to question what’s inside. It’s a very different sort of functionality, but again it’s all based on the same sort of design principals just reapplied.”

Working at dCS has opened Michael’s eyes somewhat, he says. “Obviously high end audio is a very different industry to premium motorcycle accessories! The demands are different, and we aspire to a quality of finish that is second to none so that brings about its own challenges. The customisation side of the units such Vivaldi One is interesting, too. A ‘cost-no-object approach’ is strangely enough quite a challenge because it means you have to pretty much deliver absolute perfection! If a feature needs to be there, then it needs to be there, and that is the way it is. It is not throwing money at it, but applying costs where they’re really needed. With every part you question what you are designing, and if there is a better way of doing something…”
 
Michael was instrumental in the design of the newly released dCS Rossini SACD/CD Transport. “ I was handed the mechanical design for the RTT project around the time of the initial prototyping stage. From there on I refined a few details and re-structured the internal layout to make the assembly process more efficient whilst also allowing better serviceability of the unit. These designs were carried forwards and have since been signed off and moved into production.”
Michael says a project normally gets handed to him once it’s got a full market requirement. “It will be just a very simple image and a spec of what it needs to do and how it needs to look. Then myself and my colleagues effectively have to run all the mechanicals, sort the casing and the cladding and the aesthetic parts but also all the internals. I work very closely with the electronics engineers to house things correctly and make sure everything’s accessible. Also, I do a lot of work with the guys on the production side to make their lives easier; we want to make things as accessible and serviceable as possible too.”
 
“The most rewarding thing is when you come up with a very neat solution to an engineering problem,” says Michael. “It could be anything really, but it’s great when you spend most of your time working on 3D design packages, then get the thing back from the machinist and it fits and works as intended! I can spend so much time living in a virtual world these days, You’re continually trying to improve and make parts as functional and as easy to assemble as possible. Things are getting so much better now – we can do things that would have you laughed out of the machine shop ten years ago. These advancements in manufacturing are opening up the doors to what we can do at this end.”

When not living in a virtual world, Michael does the exact opposite and enjoys material challenges. “I do a lot of cycling – these days more on the road than off – and also running short to mid-distance races. I recently completed the Cambridge Half Marathon, and love snowboarding in the Alps, plus scuba diving and other outdoorsy stuff.”

MQA NETWORK BRIDGE UPDATE RELEASED
9th May 2018
dCS are very happy to announce the release of network firmware 373 for Network Bridge.

This update brings MQA compatibility to Network Bridge along with various bug fixes and stability improvements.

Version information:
dCS firmware version: 1.00
Network firmware: 373
iOS application: 1.4.8

To support this software release the Network Bridge iOS application has also been updated. This will update automatically (if allowed on your device) or manually updated via the App store.

We thank you for your continued support and patience.

The dCS Team

April

End to End Excellence, The People Behind The Product
20th April 2018

Dan Thomas, dCS Production Technician

“I didn’t enjoy school very much, I was in a hurry to learn by doing things,” says Dan Thomas. “I taught myself the practical way – everything from welding to playing the guitar. I’m not very good in a classroom, I much prefer real life! I loved music – and still do – but by the time I left school I was getting into marine tanks. It’s a pretty unusual hobby I admit, but I love building and running them. They’re a lot more delicate than a normal freshwater fish tank – there are more things that can go wrong very quickly. But there’s just nothing like having a piece of the ocean in your living room!”

Dan is originally from Swansea – which perhaps explains his interest in oceans and fish – but moved to Stevenage aged eleven. He commutes to dCS in Cam-bridge everyday, and after a hard day’s work there’s nothing he likes more than working on his very own barrier reef! “I have a pretty large tank, about eight feet by two-and-a-half feet by two-and-a-half – which translates to about 1500 litres – so it takes up the whole wall of my Dining Room. I try to be as environmentally friendly with it as I can, so instead of getting large corals out of the ocean I’ll get an aquacultured frag and put that in. It might only be an inch but within a few years you’ll have a football sized coral that you can then pass on frags to your friends.”

He has some very exotic fish, too. “I’ve got one called a Gold Flake Angel which is quite a rare and beautiful fish; my wife gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday. I’ve also got a Regal Angel which is also difficult to keep, and I also love Wrasse. They’re particularly interesting because they actually sleep under the sand. When the lights start dimming down they literally just shove their heads into the sand and then flip themselves underneath it to hide. Every so often you’ll walk past at night and they won’t have hid themselves so well! I have Yellow Tangs that go around eating the algae off the rocks, and crabs and snails that also keep the tank clean. My conches and starfish keep the sand bed turned over, so it’s partly self-maintaining if you get the balance of the sea creatures right. Still, I wouldn’t call it a peaceful pastime. It’s calming after being at dCS all day but I always end up working on it…”

 

Every man needs a hobby, but Dan has more than one – and there’s a pattern here as he takes them all really seriously. “Yes, you can tell I am quite OCD about everything. I love music so obviously I had to get a full four-box Vivaldi system”, he explains. “I was really lucky to be able to buy it, but it does sound fantastic. It’s not quite as good as what we’ve got in the dCS listening room, but it’s work in progress! I’ve managed to piece together things over the years. I’ve got Pass Labs amps and Audio Physic Tempo 2 speakers, which are pretty good. I’m fortunate with my job that I can borrow different bits and pieces from work, so I’m trying all kinds of exotic cables…”

Dan is one of the only people at dCS who owns the four-box Vivaldi, which betokens a certain seriousness in his nature. “I think most people have got Rossini Players, and some have Puccinis which they bought a while back. Actually I started off with one of these a good few years ago, and then I decided to upgrade the DAC, and it sort of escalated from there. You know, I thought I might as well go for it, if I am going to go for it. It just sounds incredible now.”

Dan “just kind of fell into” working for dCS, as he puts it. “I wanted to do something with my life. When I was about twenty years old, I wanted to get some skills because I wasn’t happy with my life. I had a friend who was working for the company and he said they were looking for someone, so I came for an interview and started when I was just twenty one as a trainee workshop technician, and I have been here for ten years now. Because it’s obviously an expensive product, everything has to be perfect. So I have been trained very well and have got a good eye for detail – which also helps with the fish tanks! I suppose I am pretty meticulous about everything, really. I like to think of every product we make as being mine. I want it to be as good as the one I’ve got at home – I don’t want to see anything that would upset me. I’d love to say that my one at home is put together extra specially, but they really are all the same. They have all got to be perfect, we won’t let anything go that isn’t.”

A keen guitarist, one of his favourite albums is Guns N’Roses Appetite For Destruction. “There’s some intense playing on that; everything on there is very difficult to play. It makes me feel a little bit sick that all the guys in the band were about seventeen when they wrote that. So, it’s crazy how good they are. That Slash had been playing guitar for maybe three or four years while it takes me months to learn one of their songs drives me crazy. I went to see them live last year when they played in London, and it was pretty spectacular. Best gig I have ever been to.”

“I tend to take everything that I do very seriously. For example, I’m really into fitness too. I started that off because I used to be overweight when I was in my late teens. I began to research a lot about nutrition, and started going to a gym. I’ve done lots of research and nowadays I actually weigh all my food – I record everything that I’m eating, and record my training. If it is something I am passionate about, then I go all out!”

MQA Vivaldi One update released
13th April 2018
dCS are pleased to announce the availability of the MQA update for Vivaldi One Software version 1.10, network version 368, iOS application 1.4.8

Updates can be performed from the internet using the app. Tap, Configuration > Version > Check for Updates

To support this software release the Vivaldi 2.0 iOS application has also been updated. The update is automatic (if allowed on your device) or can be manually updated via the App store.

MQA update for the Network Bridge, Vivaldi DAC & Upsampler are to follow. Please bear with us.
Our development team has been hard at work on our MQA implementation for some time (as you know!). We are determined to ensure that our MQA offering is executed to the expected dCS standard. However this has caused our development efforts to take longer than initially planned. We are currently scheduling release in May 2018. This is of course tentative and subject to change.

We thank you for your continued support and patience.

The dCS Team

March

HiFi News – Vivaldi One Review, February 2018
29th March 2018

by Paul Miller & David Price

Download
Testing Times
29th March 2018

dCS products are purchased by music lovers, audio aficionados and people simply wanting the best that money can buy. All three types of buyer go through a process of selection that leads them to arrive at the same conclusion; they may apply slightly different criteria, but all end up being proud dCS owners. Any dCS owner knows that they are not inexpensive; even the Network Bridge or Debussy DAC costs more than most would ever contemplate spending on hi-fi. So to get to the point of considering such a purchase requires prospective purchasers to have been on a journey of sorts. Given that you won’t see a Vivaldi four-box stack system in your local electrical discount shop front window, the marque needs a degree of seeking out. The premium price and limited availability of dCS products means – in effect – that people who discover the brand are actively seeking something very special.

Often customers ‘find’ dCS by personal recommendation; friends enthuse about their new purchase to others. Others discover the brand by visiting a high end hi-fi dealer, or by attending live events or hi-fi shows. Some read about dCS in magazines or periodicals, and/or arrive at the dCS website and want to know more. In all cases, at this point anyone who’s even curious about this enigmatic brand, needs to know why dCS products are different, and what it is that justifies the price.

Listening is the only true litmus test. It’s hard to explain in words just what the feeling of hearing right into a recording is like – the eerie sense of being there at the studio desk as the final multi-track is mixed down to stereo. Many people have the confidence to trust their ears; reading hi-fi magazine reviews is a good way to get people to listen to dCS equipment, but ultimately it isn’t other people’s opinions that count, but your own…

That’s not to say that technical performance isn’t key. People often talk about things in terms of, ‘which is more important – measurements or listening?’ To dCS, this is a false opposition. The company ethos is that technical correctness is essential; there’s no getting around the fact that if a product scores poorly in terms of distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, stereo separation and so on, then it simply cannot deliver the musical goods. Yet that’s just the start; dCS products are carefully – and repeatedly – auditioned during the development process. The senior design engineers know how technical measurements correlate to subjective sound quality; there’s a very complex relationship there and it requires great skill and experience to get the balance right.

Understandably, there’s a lot of confusion over this. Many hi-fi magazines don’t measure products they review, arguing that technical measurements are at best partial and don’t tell the whole story. Others might agree with the latter part of that statement, but still do and often find measurements instructive in understanding how a product performs. Historically, fashion has veered from one extreme to the other over the years. Five or so decades ago – long before dCS started – British hi-fi magazines were totally preoccupied with measurements. It was possible to read reviews where four fifths of the text discussed the product’s relative merits in terms of signal-to-noise ratio or stereo separation, with just a perfunctory summary of the subjective sound quality at the end.
By the late nineteen eighties however, the UK hi-fi press tended to do long essays about the subjective sound of products, with many omitting technical specifications completely. It was as if there was a backlash against how those earlier reviews had been written, with some people actively deriding anyone who took measured performance seriously. It was fashionable to draw attention to hi-fi products that measured well but sounded bad. Compact Disc itself was used as an example of something that had startling technical performance for its time, yet could often sound very mediocre indeed.

The starting point for dCS products is technical performance. Be it in the digital or analogue circuitry, distortion, noise and other characteristics are carefully analysed on the company’s state-of-the-art test equipment so problems can be designed out wherever possible. The sound is then fine tuned by a combination of listening and measurement; this ensures that improvements are not ‘happy accidents’; every change is repeatable and demonstrable to the development team. After the design phase, dCS products have to be made the same every time, so rigorous testing is essential here too. A highly sophisticated, custom-made, automated test facility is used to ensure that each individual product comes out right. Done this way, prospective purchasers can both hear the difference and be reassured that they will own something with exemplary technical performance that delivers consistently high performance for decades to come.

End to End Excellence: Chris Hales, dCS Director of Product Development
16th March 2018

“Back in the early nineteen seventies,” says Chris Hales, “electronics was very much the future – and that proved to be strangely prophetic. It was really exciting, because back then not so many people were taking an interest in the subject. When I was a teenager I used to tinker about at home and was also an aspiring musician at the time. I loved playing with effects units, making strange noises. I went to the grammar school in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where I was born, and did fairly well in science and mathematics, though not as well as the school’s most famous pupil, Isaac Newton, who was a couple of years above me…”

Speak to Chris about music and he radiates energy. “I loved progressive rock at that time. Pink Floyd was one of the first bands that I really started listening to, and then Genesis and their contemporaries. Then I began to develop an interest in jazz fusion – being a bass guitar player it was very interesting what was going on. My hero is Jeff Berlin, an American electric bass player who is just phenomenal. He played with Bill Bruford – a founder member of Yes, who was a great, very musical, drummer. He released a few albums out on his own. To my ears, even now, that is the pinnacle of sophisticated fusion music.”

Chris suddenly gets very animated. “My favourite album of his is Feels Good To Me, which has got pretty some weird stuff on it. It has Annette Peacock on vocals, Dave Stewart on keyboards and synths, the great Allan Holdsworth on guitar and Kenny Wheeler on the flugelhorn. It’s a bit odd in places but unlike a lot of fusion music it never disappears up its own… It always seems to have a kind of structure to it and a purpose beyond clever soloing. That really got me at the time. I ended up listening to a lot of jazz for quite a few years after…”

He’s also a fan of Brand X, which was his first foray into this genre of music. “Their bass player Percy Jones was one of the first guys to play fretless. For someone who is learning an instrument and trying to make an impression, you tend to gravitate towards those people. In actual fact, I went to see Brand X on tour but it was Bill Bruford’s band, who were supporting, that really won me over. His band had much more focus and – in a way – a pop sensibility. All their songs had tune and structure, a start, middle and an end. That music was so innovative to my ears back then, and it didn’t suffer the somewhat aimless noodling Brand X’s tunes sometimes suffered from”

When Chris wasn’t playing fretless bass guitar, he managed to work hard enough to win a place at York University reading Electronic Engineering. “I studied drinking” he confesses, “and proved myself to be pretty good at it! I did also learn some electronics, but in a way a university education is as much about learning how to approach problems – particularly in an engineering subject. I learned some techniques that I still use today, but equally the attitude of not being daunted by a problem and just figuring out what is going on and sorting it, was the real thing I took from it. Even though I spent too much time in the pub and not enough hours in the lecture theatre, it was still hugely beneficial for me.”

His first proper job was HH Electronics, a large musical instrument amplification manufacturer. “I joined them as a junior design engineer and this lasted nine months, then moved to another company designing power amps and PA systems. I was learning on the job and it was very interesting. Then I went to Neve as an analogue designer, and this was one of the best companies I have ever worked for – they do excellent engineering and it’s very professional. Getting things right is important to me, so that suited me well. I did quite a lot of work on their big recording console at the time. I suppose that was my first exposure to proper, disciplined engineering. Until then I’d made it up as I went along when I was calling the shots, but here was a company with structure and procedures, and it was great to work in an environment like that. Interestingly, several dCS staff are ex-Neve…”

Chris then moved to C Audio, doing big power amplifiers for sound reinforcement. “They had a strong client base in the UK with touring companies – I think U2’s Adam Clayton used our power amps”, he recalls. “After that, I joined dCS as a Test and Verification Engineer. My job was to get things running smoothly; I spent an awful lot of time in my early years testing software, thinking up systems and regimes for testing both hardware and software. This was my first exposure to digital audio so I had no idea about S/PDIFs or similar, so it proved quite a challenge at first! I loved working with some of the great brains of the industry, such as dCS founder Mike Story – he’s a tremendously talented guy, and it was a privilege to work with him. Mike has a highly idiosyncratic approach to things, and his single-mindedness when it comes to observing an issue and doggedly fixing it, is quite inspirational.”

“These days, my primary role at dCS is circuit design, and that includes digital. Because my background has been so varied and multi-disciplinary, I have an interest in everything – still very much with the focus on the test and measurement side. Being able to manufacture something consistently is very important, as is the ability to understand exactly why you’re making it the same every time! Sometimes I think my job needs someone who is just a little bit ‘OCD’ about these things. As an engineer I intuitively know when something is wrong – and thanks to years of embarrassments in my earlier professional life, now realise how important it is to put it right as soon as one can.”

 

Computer Audiophile – dCS Rossini DAC Review
Computer Audiophile – dCS Rossini DAC Review
16th March 2018

“The dCS Rossini has made previously skipable tracks part of my must listen regimen. Yes, my listening regimen. The audio antidote to stress is a great HiFi system with great music. It’s capable of restoring one’s health after days and weeks we’d rather forget.”

Read the full article here

February

Network Bridge – Stereophile December 2017
23rd February 2018

By Jason Victor Serinus

Download
End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product
16th February 2018

Ray Wing, dCS Quality Manager

“Around one hundred and fifty years ago, I went to Hitchin Grammar School for Boys”, jokes Ray Wing. “I’m a local to this area, born in Royston. I’ve stayed in this area all my life, even with work. I couldn’t leave school soon enough and didn’t go to university. I probably should have done, but I wanted to be a musician as soon as I was old enough to pick up a musical instrument. I travelled around the country in a band for a couple of years, and then finally got a proper job.”

Ray is a dCS stalwart; he’s been at the company longer than most, and has seen it change dramatically over the years. Yet all throughout his life he has had an abiding interest in music, hi-fi and engineering. “I became a fully qualified vibration engineer. My first job had been shaking things until they self-destruct, and so it was good training for working at Neve Electronics, just down the road! They do audio mixers for high end studios and recording studios. I worked for everyone from the BBC to The Kinks, back in the day, designing mixing desks for them.”

It was a great job, but after a decade Ray moved on and ended up working for PA Technology. “They are one of the big consulting groups and they have all the different engineering disciplines in the same building. There are chemists in there, food technologists, mechanical engineers, electronic engineers, software engineers. I ran the electronics design office there for ten years. You could be working on a food mixer one day and a machine for making Mars Bars the next! It was one of those really interesting jobs in which I gained loads of experience. I worked on one of the first ever mobile phones; the team were the best guys in England working on radio technology…”

Ray’s next step was into mainstream hi-fi with Quad/Wharfedale. “I was head of development there for four years, with a team of thirty engineers. When they moved to China, I moved to dCS! All this time, I had been continuing my attempts to become a musician. In a way I succeeded because I am half-decent. I come from a musical family, especially my father who was a drummer in the Army and travelled all over the world. Early on I travelled around Britain supporting big acts like The Searchers, The Kinks and Status Quo – we supported them when they were at Number One in 1967. We were a three – or sometimes four – piece heavy rock band, loud and nasty. We were influenced by the rougher edge of rock, like The Stones and Led Zeppelin…”

Like his idols, Ray still plays today. “We are all of the age now where we’re in the midst of retiring or winding down, and our guitar player is seventy in February so we’re planning a gig. He wants to have a big party and we’re going to play at it. I’ve still got the enthusiasm to turn out on a cold night and actually play. We’ll be doing more middle of the road stuff, like The Eagles. We have three singers so there are a lot of vocal harmony type numbers we do, but I still sometimes play in a nasty rock band.”

Mostly Ray plays bass, but can play pretty much anything if pushed. “I’m fairly presentable on most instruments but love playing bass because you’re the powerhouse of the band, along with the drummer. I like that sort of responsibility. We make the band happen, and the singer and lead guitarist are basically posers! To be honest I love guitars, and have a large collection now – that’s what I spend the money that we make from gigging on. I buy a guitar every so often, and I have now have a nice collection of various Gibsons and Fenders and other things, about twenty in all…”

“My favourite guitar is the one I haven’t got! I want a red Gibson 335 before I finally hang up the boots. To get a nice one it’s about £2,500 to £3,000. This was the thing to play back in the sixties and seventies, most people have had one. Clapton always used to play a 335 and now he plays a Stratocaster. You either play a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Strat, a Fender Telecaster or a Gibson 335. They are the four guitars which people will have one or all of. The 335 is a semi acoustic, rather than a solid guitar. Originally it was designed more to be a Jazz guitar, which it is very good at, and Blues. The difference between a Gibson and a Fender is that Fenders have single coil pickups which give a piercing treble, while Gibsons have humbuckers which have a warmer and more growly sound.”

“I have a really nice Telecaster, a really old one that goes back to the eighties. Both the sound and feel are special. You can go along to a shop and go along a whole rack of guitars hanging on the wall, and one of them will feel better than all the rest. It is a personal thing really. I think any instrument is a bit like that, when you pick it up and it feels right somehow. Pick another one up and it is not. You know when you’ve got the right one. Some old guitars are just right, others terrible. I think it’s the variability of manufacturing back then. Modern manufacturing has taken out a lot of the wrinkles, and they’re more consistent. Some materials have changed though; they are not allowed to use some of those woods anymore. Gibson used to use mahogany from Brazil, but basically they’re still the same as the nineteen fifties…”

Although Ray likes everything from the Bee Gees to Billy Joel – and ELO’s Mr Blue Sky is a particular favourite too – it is Led Zep that sends shivers down his spine. “That is my era. That is when I grew up and the music I played and the sort of bands I saw as I was touring around. It is a lot of memories, really. I have had a huge amount of fun, in music and my professional life. Music has kept me sane for most of my life really – well, fairly…”

 

Talk is Cheap
14th February 2018

People’s understanding of technology comes retrospectively, with hindsight. For example, do you remember how fresh Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) felt, twenty or so years ago? Able to store several times the amount of data of conventional Compact Discs, early adopters of consumer technology were awe-struck. Now though, we donate DVDs to charity shops because they’re taking up too much storage space in our attics – and stream our movies and music direct, or at the very least experience them on old-fashioned Blu-Ray…

It’s sobering to think how DVD has gone from hero to zero in the past decade or so. Once the future not just of vision but also of sound, so many respectable industry watchers predicted that two-channel systems would be replaced with multichannel surround sound within just a few years. Yet by the end of the last decade the little silver disc was losing its lustre, as the shine wore off its high tech appeal. History now teaches us that it largely failed to impact the hi-fi world, which if anything has gone back to purist stereo systems, especially at the high end.

Because we are always right in the middle of technological change, it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees. Two decades ago DVD was all the range, whereas ten years ago music downloads were the thing that would transform our world. Now, it is streaming that we’re preoccupied with, but could it be that this too is something of a sideshow, and that the real driving force behind the next generation of video and music playback will be artificial intelligence via smart control?

The big technology players seem to think so, which is why many are now devoting considerable resources to new types of voice and screen-activated consumer tech. Amazon’s Alexa is now migrating from smart speakers to touchscreens, and doing to smartphones what they did to personal computers ten years ago. iPhone and Android have revolutionised information technology, but still have their limitations. It feels like you can’t make a phone call on smartphones without being assailed by social media apps trying to grab your attention. Nowadays there’s increasing evidence that many want to break free from such distractions; according to ComScore in the USA, more people are now deliberately not downloading apps than are downloading them.

We are seeing an increasing focus on smart, internet-connected devices that make direct communication with people via brief, purposeful interactions. An Amazon spokesman recently said that the company is, “trying to get people away from all the personal electronics and create more of a communal experience, so you’re not just looking down into your individual phones, and instead are actually collaborating with family members.” Amazon’s Echo speaker has proved a smash hit, and now Apple is muscling in on the action with the launch of its new Siri-based HomePod smart speaker, which some say will take music streaming to a whole new level.

Interestingly, while Amazon’s Echo is a kind of home assistant that happens to play music, Apple has chosen to position HomePod as a music device that can help out around the house. Its marketing in the US has focused on music, showing how a massive virtual library of tunes is just one voice command away. It’s a lot more expensive than Amazon’s Echo, but Apple has made an earnest attempt to make it sound good – for an audio product of its type, of course. The interesting thing is that Apple obviously thinks there’s a large, quality-aware, music loving market out there for it.

As is invariably the case for Apple products, it’s very easy to set up and soon gives you simple and direct access to Apple Music. Meanwhile Amazon is trying to make things even easier with Echo Show, which sports a small touchscreen in addition to its voice control via Alexa. The hope is that users will be able to accomplish many of the things they use a smartphone for right now (weather reports, checking the stockmarket, looking up travel information, etc.), without needing to reach for it.

Where does this leave us here in the hi-fi world? Well it’s too soon to say, but it is clear that innovators are now looking at a new generation of smart control devices designed to take the strain off your smartphone, and which offer a newer, fresher and more intuitive control interface. The obvious question is, when is all this going to reach specialist audio? Smartphone apps are now becoming common but we might soon begin to see other, more intuitive ways of interacting with our sound systems. In truth, it’s early days yet and not even the leading tech giants have figured out a roadmap – yet it’s something that’s going to become increasingly important to us all. As DVD showed us, what a difference a decade makes!

January

End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product, Colin Barker, dCS Production Manager
End to End Excellence: The People Behind The Product, Colin Barker, dCS Production Manager
19th January 2018

Ever wondered what type of people it takes to create a world-class product like dCS? In this new series we will be introducing our exceedingly talented team.

Our first introduction will definitely not disappoint if you are a dCS and Star Wars fan!

There aren’t many people in the hi-fi industry who started their careers as a trawler fisherman, but Colin Barker is one. “Believe or not, it’s true”, he says. “I left school from Kings Lynn in Norfolk, and that was the local trade. Although it wasn’t my dream job; as I child I was always passionate about model making. I always dreamed about designing creatures, working in the movies. Unfortunately in the nineteen eighties, career advice wasn’t very good so I followed some friends into fishing and chose that path. I did it for a few years but it collapsed, so I decided to dip my toes in electronics…”

Colin found himself doing all sorts of work in this field, and then got a call from an agent he was working for. A company called dCS was looking for someone. “I loved it. The company was great, the people were fantastic, the products were a pinnacle even then. It was like building Ferraris and Rolls Royces – really prestigious stuff! Being diligent and organised I have slowly made my way up from being effectively an assembler to now being Production Manager. It has been a case of sticking to the top and trying to be the best I can be, and being recognised by the company and being promoted as I have gone along.”

“Nowadays,” he continues, “my role entails keeping products flowing through the factory, keeping the team motivated and making sure we are getting what we should be getting out of the door. I’m also responsible for much of the inbound quality so am directly responsible for a lot of the suppliers – especially, currently, the special finishes, the nickels and golds that we are putting on Vivaldi One. I get to scrutinise a lot of these finishes out in the field with the suppliers and also when they arrive back at the factory. If they fail to meet our standard then they get rejected out and we put them through a rework loop. The results have to be one hundred percent perfect so it’s pretty hard work! Quality is absolutely key as far as we are concerned. We would never willingly or knowingly let something substandard leave the factory. That is unforgivable as far as we are concerned.”

Colin leads something of a double life, however. As well as being known for the quality of his work during office hours, he’s famous for the things he does out of hours too. “I love miniaturisation. I love small things. I have always enjoyed making my own – for want of a better word – toys. It gives me something to pour my creativity into. We all love our job, but sometimes it can be hard work and there is a lot of pressure there. So when I get home I switch on some music and depressurise, and then I feel the need to make something! I have made all sorts but a few years ago I decided to build an actual Star Wars R2D2 scale model from scratch. It took me about nine months to build the first one, and it got a great reception. I used to take it to conventions, hospitals, and so on for charity use.”

Colin took his R2D2 to a large Star Wars convention run by Lucasfilm, designed to promote the film franchise. “In a rather tongue-in-cheek way, our builders’ club approached a company representative, none other than Kathleen Kennedy, and offered to build some new R2s for the next Star Wars movie. To our total surprise we ended up doing this for The Force Awakens. In Spring 2015 I found myself signing a non-disclosure agreement, and they invited me to Pinewood Studios. I took my droids down and they absolutely loved them!”

Colin says it was very emotional because he met people there who – as a child – he had looked up to. “They were telling me how great they thought my builds were, and I was blown away. I was so humbled by that.” He spent the next couple of months doing various scenes and shots for the forthcoming film. “It was a completion of the full circle of my dream”, he says. “I dreamt as a boy, of wanting to work in creature effects and there I was. I spent a little bit of time working in the creature effects department of Star Wars, The Force Awakens!”

“Fast forward twelve months and I got another call to go back, and this time it was to go and work on Rogue One. Again, I was very lucky that I had made a good impression and subsequently I keep getting calls now – but unfortunately work is busy and my priority is always dCS. That is where I am really needed. But when it is calmer and I think I can sneak away for a few days then, well you never know! Maybe in the future I’ll go and help another movie, that would be great…”

So anyone who owns a dCS product will have had its final quality control and checking done by the same person who builds robots for Star Wars? “Yes, that’s right. I love building things and have always loved these films. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘superfan’ but I am a huge fan of modelling and electronics and like to push my limits. I love asking myself, from literally where do I start building one of these things? I go and do some research, and then get on the path never knowing if I’m going to have the skills to pull it off. You end up learning entirely new skill sets as you go along. I’ve learned about plastics, painting techniques and how to ‘age’ things to make them look like they’re really old and dirty – not something I will ever need at dCS, I hope!”

Colin does take his androids into the office every now and again. “I have actually got three of these things at home now. I did take one into work when we had the launch for Vivaldi One. Every now and again I bring things in to show the guys what I am up to, and it just so happened that a load of international distributors had turned up on one such day. They were absolutely blown away that a real, actual R2D2 was rolling around the factory before their very eyes!”