A Tale of Tube City
Andrew Chasin and Anthony Kershaw
take a tour of Sonic Frontiers' design and manufacturing facility
For months we'd been planning on making
the short road trip out to Sonic Frontiers' Oakville, Ontario
stomping grounds, but the day to day operation of the upstart
audio magazine we call Audiophilia simply kept getting in the
way. Upon taking delivery of a review sample of Sonic Frontiers'
new Line 1 linestage preamplifier, we finally decided it was time
to put the daily grind on hold and head out to see what makes
Canada's foremost manufacturer of tube audio gear tick.
Sonic Frontiers Headquarters
Frontiers' design and manufacturing facility is housed in an attractive
but unassuming 22,000 square foot building in Oakville, Ontario,
about forty minutes west of our suburban Toronto office. This
facility houses all of the company's sixty-eight full-time technical
and administrative staff. Only a barely-noticeable sign bearing
Sonic Frontiers' logo distinguishes their building from the multitude
of other such buildings occupying the Oakville business park in
which they're located. No pretentious glass mega-structure for
these darlings of the Canadian high-end industry.
Once inside the small but inviting lobby,
our attentions were drawn to the multitude of wall-mounted plaques
and awards for excellence in audio design and engineering presented
to Sonic Frontiers by members of the audio press. The sheer number
of such awards made quite clear the reasons behind Sonic Frontiers'
meteoric rise to the top of the high-end audio heap.
After a brief wait, we were greeted
by Sonic Frontiers' personable thirtysomething president, Chris
Johnson, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and deck shoes. Thankfully,
the last-minute decision to leave our suits and ties at home turned
out to be the right one! Once we had all become acquainted, Chris
led us into the main manufacturing and testing area. This large
airplane hangar-like area, packed with the latest electronics
manufacturing and test equipment, contains the main assembly,
test, and burn-in stations at which Sonic Frontiers' many innovative
designs are transformed into the final products shipped to customers.
It was interesting to find that most of Sonic Frontiers' design
and technical personnel were quite young with an average age that
appeared to be somewhere in the low thirties. This no doubt contributes
to the number of fresh product and design ideas that have emerged
from Sonic Frontiers in the recent past.
Before proceeding to the tour proper,
we had a chance to talk to Chris Johnson about Sonic Frontiers
the company, and the challenges that face a high-end audio manufacturer
located in Canada. Johnson, the company's president and strategic marketer,
described Sonic Frontiers as a "marketing-driven company with
excellent engineering in order to execute its products/ideas/definitions." Despite his lack
of any formal training in electronics or engineering, Chris displayed
an impressive level of technical expertise regarding Sonic Frontiers'
product line. He was just as comfortable discussing power supplies
and remote-controlled volume pots as he was discussing the marketing
philosophies behind the Sonic Frontiers and Anthem product lines,
philosophies he summarized this way: "Sonic Frontiers is
based on the Lexus model - produce an excellent product at about
forty percent less than the competition and offer a better warranty.
On the other hand, Anthem is based on the Toyota model - produce
a high-quality product which is based on good parts and provides
great value, but which is designed to meet a lower price point." Judging from the current lineup of Sonic Frontiers and Anthem
products, it would appear that Johnson, along with partner and head of sales Chris Jensen, have successfully
executed on both philosophies.
Being a Canadian company, Sonic Frontiers
must deal with all of the impediments and costs associated with
cross-border shipping to the U.S., although the gradual phase-in
of NAFTA is slowly easing such burdens. Chris Johnson made it
clear that while customs and import duties on electronic equipment
are still in effect, Sonic Frontiers is committed to absorbing
all such costs on behalf of their U.S. customers. In effect, U.S.
customers will be oblivious to the fact that Sonic Frontiers is
based in Canada. Being located in Canada ourselves, I certainly
wish U.S. audio companies would adopt a similar policy.
Further demonstrating their commitment
to long-term customer satisfaction, Sonic Frontiers has a unique
policy regarding equipment repair - a product sent in for service
which has, since its original introduction, had its parts specifications
modified by Sonic Frontiers in order to improve product reliability,
will be similarly modified at no extra charge before being returned
to the customer. This proactive approach to customer service sets
Sonic Frontiers apart from much of the high-end pack.
Heads-down assembly of a Power 1 amplifier
After discussing Sonic Frontiers' business
model and customer policies, it was time to head out onto the
assembly and test floor. Our first stop was a station at which
a technician was assembling the new Anthem CD-1 CD player (US$1595).
The CD-1 appeared to be very well built, and included the Pacific
Microsonics PMD-100 HDCD decoder/filter, balanced inputs and outputs,
20-bit Burr Brown PCM-1702 DACs, a 6922-based tubed output stage
and a six-CD changer mechanism designed by Sony. While a CD changer
isn't typical high-end fare, Sonic Frontiers' market research
indicated that customers wanted the convenience of a multi-disc
player. Sonic Frontiers' market-driven but sound-conscious philosophy
led to the use of Sony's unique six-disc bay fed by a traditional
front drawer loader rather than the more common, but less robust,
A bevy of Power 2s awaiting burn-in
Chris next took us through the construction
of the Power series of tube amplifiers. The three amplifiers in
the Power series (the 55 Watt Power 1 and 110 Watt Power 2 stereo
amplifiers, and the 220 Watt Power 3 monoblocks) feature low-distortion,
high damping factor, fully-balanced circuitry, and individual
tube biasing via a two-color LED scheme. Other handy features
include a reviewer-friendly mute function, allowing speaker cables
to be swapped without the need to power down the amp, and a standby
mode (similar to that of the Line series of preamplifiers) which
keeps the tube filaments heated while reducing current to the
output tubes by about 90%. While Chris isn't in the "all
amps sound the same" camp, he does maintain that each of
the three amplifiers in the Power series "sound the same,
each successive step up in the series simply resulting in an amplifier
capable of driving more difficult loads." This refreshingly
honest admission is all too rare in the world of high-end audio.
In typical Sonic Frontiers fashion,
only the finest parts are used in the construction of the Power
series - MIT Multicap and Wima capacitors, Cardas binding posts,
Vishay resistors and Kimber internal wiring to mention but a few
names. Aside from looking good and being packed with high-quality
parts, my recent listening experiences with the Power 2 indicate
that the amps in the Power series are no slouches in the sound
A Line 1 preamplifier on the test bench
We next took a detailed look at what
goes into a Line series preamplifier, in this case a Line 2 (watch
for a full review of the Line 2's little brother, the Line 1,
coming soon). The Line series is the antithesis of the purist
no-frills preamplifier. Aside from a host of balanced and unbalanced
inputs, surround-sound loop, HeadRoom's headphone circuitry, mute,
phase reversal and standby functions, the Line series features
a very distinctive round, full-function, aluminum remote control
which should keep even the most potato-like audiophiles happily
glued to their listening chairs. The Line 2's beefy external power
supply also looked impressive. As with the Power series of amplifiers,
parts quality of the Line series is very high, with all of the
usual suspects from Wima, MIT and others being well represented.
Hard at work tweaking Sonic Frontiers' web site
For a change of
pace, we headed off to Sonic Frontiers' graphic design studio
where their web site is built and maintained, and where all of
their ad layouts are created. It was quite surprising to learn
that all of Sonic Frontiers' graphics and advertising work is
handled in-house rather than being out-sourced to a large advertising
firm. All photography is done by a local photographer/audiophile
who accepts audio equipment in lieu of payment - nice work if
you can get it! Handling all graphics and advertising duties in-house
must certainly keep Sonic Frontiers' promotional costs down and
hasn't had a negative impact on the quality or effectiveness of
their ad campaigns.
A prototype of the Phono 1 phono stage
Our next stop was the component design
and prototype workshop where we met two of Sonic Frontiers' chief
designers, one of which was working on a new power supply design,
the other working on a prototype of the new Phono 1 phono stage.
The Phono 1 is being designed to have enough gain for even the
lowest output moving coil cartridges (less than 0.2mV) and, according
to its designer, will have a vanishingly-low noise floor. A unique
aspect of the Phono 1's design is the use of Sorbothane pads to
damp vibration transmitted through the chassis to the main circuit
board. According to Chris Johnson, the Phono 1 should start shipping
sometime this fall and will retail for US$1995.
Chris Johnson proudly displays a model of the "Iris" well-cover from the Transport 3
Unfortunately, no working prototype
of the new no-holds-barred Transport 3 CD transport was available
for us to view, but Chris did demonstrate a working model of its
"Iris" well-cover, whose name, I presume, was borrowed
from that of the physically and operationally-similar adjustable
diaphragm of thin overlapping plates used in a camera lens to control the admission of light. This deceptively simple
apparatus gives the Transport 3 a very unique appearance and will
certainly appeal to those who demand aesthetic as well as musical
beauty from their audio components.
Surprisingly absent from Sonic Frontiers'
facility were listening rooms in which listening tests could be
performed on the latest designs and prototypes. Chris Johnson informed
us that their designers prefer to independently perform extended
listening tests on such prototypes in their home systems. In addition
to their own listening tests, Sonic Frontiers gathers input during
a product's design cycle from a select group of local audiophiles
in whose ears they trust.
"Let's see, we'll take one of those, and two of those..."
Throughout the remainder of the tour,
Chris continued to impress us with his technical knowledge of,
and boundless enthusiasm for, his product line. Being privy to
some of Sonic Frontiers' latest product developments, it was hard
not to share in his enthusiasm.
In a scant six years, Sonic Frontiers
has beaten the odds and become a real force to reckon with in
the world of high-end audio. If they stay their current course,
maintaining the level of innovation, customer service, and commitment
to sonic excellence that were much in evidence during our tour
of their factory, then there's every reason to believe that they
will continue in that role well into the future.
-- Andrew Chasin