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
Sonic Frontiers Building
Sonic 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
Assembling 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, carousel mechanism.

A bevy of Power 2s awaiting burn-in
Power 2 Amplifier
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 department either.

A Line 1 preamplifier on the test bench
Line 1 preamplifier on 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
Website designer
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
Prototype of 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
Chris Johnson demonstrating the Transport 3's Iris well-cover
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..."
A stack of SF gear waiting to be shipped
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