"Silence Please" by Jeffery Tan
Amidst the din of more power and dynamics, Jeff Rowland strives to restore some quiet in music reproduction. He talks to Jeffrey Tan.
IN MANY WAYS, JEFF ROWLAND amplifiers reflect the designer himself. After all, Rowland believes that designing audio equipment should be no different from any other creative activity. It must embody the spirit of the designer."High End should be the product of one man’s vision – how he experiences music. I build products to satisfy myself, not a market." Audio is an art, and like all art, an expression of the creator. Which is why Rowland doesn’t believe in the big corporation approach to collective design. It was precisely the need to get away from the corporate world which eventually gave birth to Jeff Rowland Design.
"We always have to follow our path ... I felt that this was really what I wanted to do very deep inside."I really felt I should reach out on myself and start a business. That was a real turning point – you’re on your own ... That’s when I think the more artistic appreciation came. I had a nice feeling for music, but I didn’t go deep into the music. It was more technical. And that was when I started getting really involved in the artistic value. It was almost like the parts ..." He recalls walking down the aisles of surplus stores, surveying the rows of electronic components, and having a deep appreciation for the parts. "I felt it was a pity that these parts were not doing something ... instead of sitting on the shelf by themselves, in a way dead. I wanted to animate them. I wanted to bring them together and make them sing." That was kind of the beginning for Rowland, when he started to really feel the potential of taking those parts and putting them in some whole that had life. This was in 1980.
Before that, by his own admission, Rowland spent a childhood doing not what a lot of younger people did. Instead, he was always going to the salvage yard and picking up old radios and TVs – "investigating" them. "My bedroom was like a laboratory," he laughs.
Rowland was fortunate to have worked with Ampex, an electronics firm which also manufactured tapes, as part of his work experience in high school. Later, he went to engineering school to back up his practical training with theory. He returned to work for Ampex for a number of years and remained in the electronics industry throughout the 70s, all the while building amplifiers on the side for friends.
Though massive, in line with existing superamp standards, Jeff Rowland amps nonetheless have a softness – a complete freedom from sharp industrial lines – and a jewel-like beauty. Rowland the man, as tall and imposing as he is (6ft 5in, maybe?), is nonetheless soft-spoken and gentle, some would say, not entirely out of character for a vegetarian.
Lest you think his amps extravagantly large, that has very much been dictated by High End speakers. "The speaker industry really drives the amplifier industry," he sighs. If we suddenly had a whole generation of High End speakers which required very little power, Rowland would see no need to produce a 300 watt amp. He welcomes the trend towards higher efficiency speakers.
"I would love to build smaller amplifiers. It’s easier to build something nonresonant if it is smaller." Rigidity is, of course, one Rowland design philosophy taken to its extreme. His amplifier chassis appear to be totally inert; like the Cardas wire inside, Rowland has applied the "golden ratio" to his chassis dimensions so that the result is a figure indivisible by any number, and according to theory, acoustically inert. Even the heatsinks on the Model 9T are of varying thicknesses, so that they don’t combine to ring like a xylophone. "Resonance control is very important ... ideally we want there to be no generation of excess noise through the movement which induces a current; in other words, moving current creates a moving field – those two are fixed expressions of the music. If there’s an outside movement which moves the component – the wire, the silicon chip – then that will generate an extra noise component that adds to the intimate expression of the field and the current."
The control of resonances is very important, especially in the preamplifier itself. Rowland takes a high-mass structure, which is very difficult to move, and further isolates the circuit board within, so that it is not influenced by any outside vibrations. Around 1985, he noticed that as he started putting more screws in the circuit board and tighten it down more, it would sound better, "more dimensional and quieter."
"Normally we don’t think of the contribution of microphonics on solid-state equipment, but as our circuit topologies become more perfect and ideal, then we have to start paying more attention to these other higher-order effects – the contribution of vibration and movement on the actual circuit itself."
But at the heart of Rowland’s personal befief is that we must strive for higher efficiency. Hence, though his first amp was a Class A design, even if only 20 watts, he has since moved away from that school, not just for the additional power. He believes that if we can find a more efficient equivalent of Class A sound, we should. "For me, efficiency and simplicity are very important. As a result, I was always looking for ways of achieving the performance (of Class A amps) but also being efficient. So I moved away from Class A technology and looked for other ways for achieving the same result, or possibly a more refined result without having the thermal management problem of Class A. There are many different approaches and there’s not one single approach that is responsible for the overall performance."
Rowland considers his circuits one of the most simple. "Maybe it looks complex by observation, but as far as what the musical signal, as expressed in electronics, actually sees is very simple. All the other componentry around that is just to support the one little thing that allows the circuit to be simple." But can a 300 watt amp be executed as simply as a 20 watt design’? "I can build a 300 watt amp that can sound just as delicate as a 20 watt amp, within my technology. You have to compare the apple with the apple and the orange with the orange."
Model 9T: Born from Rowland's childhood fascination with components. For Rowland, size is not necessarily a limitation. Just because an amp is big doesn’t mean it has to be all muscle and no intelligence. "There is a way in the overall execution of the design where I can still maintain the delicacy and the finesse – the intelligence value – as well as the muscle. But the whole amplifier has to be designed together all at one time. The entire symphony all plays at the same time."
He describes his designs, whether big or small, as having an integration of components. So regardless of power output, the actual circuit topology on all his amplifiers are the same. "All you would hear as a difference is that, in the larger amplifier, the presentation has more confidence ... If you’re only using 20% of the reserves, then that 20% is going to be very pure." different applications. According to the designer, it’s choosing the amplifier that’s appropriate to the needs of the speaker. Why needlessly waste resources driving a mini-monitor with the Model 9T? Rowland’s closer leanings towards the spirituality of the East is reflected in his design approach. While most hi-fi these days are preoccupied with reproducing the loud-to-very-loud scale of music, Jeff Rowland Design amplifiers may be big, but are not about playing loud. "A product embodies the qualities that are most dear to the designer. To look at the creation, you can kind of feel the creator. The apple comes from the apple tree, the mango comes from the mango tree.
"In the human species, the truth – the self-knowledge – is always the gap between the thoughts. And that is expressed in my designs where the truth in the music is in the silence between the notes. There’s the expression and the silence, or the activity and the rest; in the same way that music is just an activity – the expression – and then the silence, and then another activity and a rest.
"So the ability of the hardware to capture or preserve that quality of silence between the notes is, yes, I could say, a reflection of my relationship to life or to spirit ... basically that there is a thought, then there is a gap. It’s a model of what one’s experience is ... very philosophical, it is," he ponders before laughing. For him, an amplifier should provide an open window, and Rowland wants to be able to hear the silences between notes and instruments within an orchestra. From his experience, he likens single- ended triode amplification to Impressionist paintings. "You cannot compare it because it is so different. It’s almost surreal in its beauty," he describes. "There is a small band of magic on certain types of music, but such devices don’t reproduce everything. For me, the novelty would wear off after two or three songs."
"My design philosophy is always to extend the dynamic expression more towards silence instead of towards loudness. In a lot of systems, I only hear of dynamic expression of loud-to-louder, but there’s that rich velvety background that’s missing. And I think my equipment allows the attention to be drawn towards the finer dynamic expressions, which in reality is just extending the dynamic range; it’s just extending it in the opposite direction." In a world where bigger and louder means better, Rowland seeks some quiet in his music. In many ways, Jeff Rowland Design amplifiers reflect the gentleness of their soft-spoken creator.
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1st of May, 2014