As a classical violinist and physicist Damon Coffman founded Coffman Labs with one goal: creating products that reproduce the natural sound experienced during live performances. Coffman Labs builds all-analogue, vacuum tube-based products including the G1-A phono/line preamplifier and the H1-A headphone amplifier. All Coffman Labs’ products are hand-crafted in Oregon, USA using point-to-point wiring and custom parts. The G1-A is limited edition with only 500 numbered and signed pieces.
I’m fairly late to the audio industry. While Coffman Labs is a new venture for me, I have many years in developing and patenting specialized medical (passive monitoring) devices. I’ve been trained as both a classical violinist and a physicist, so I loved the idea of bringing both of those worlds together in a way that others can enjoy music as much as I have. I started building audio equipment for fun, but got very encouraging feedback on the design. Given my love for music, I decided to focus full time on Coffman Labs, take the leap of faith, and follow my passion. The wonderful feedback customers have given me makes this job feel incredibly rewarding.
- Who or what was the biggest influence on your career?
Even when I worked on things other than music creation or reproduction, the music hobby has remained a personal passion. So it has been wonderful to be building something I really care about personally. Probably the biggest influence on my career was the launch of Sputnik in 1957. That set my mind thinking about physics, and by the time I hit sixth grade, NASA scientists were my heroes and I knew I wanted to be a Physicist.
Music was always a love for me—by the fourth grade I knew and wanted to play the violin and begged my mother until she let me start lessons. The second major influence on my career came from my last violin teacher. It was from her that I gained a true passion for beautiful music, whether performing or listening. I remember her once playing for me an ancient scratchy 78 RPM record that had been recorded and cut on location in SE Asia in the rural hills of what is now Vietnam. It was the sound of two villages on adjoining hills playing wooden flutes back and forth—passing the melodies and variations to each other, with each embellishing every transition by adding a new theme or different variation. She commented to me on the rare and unbelievable beauty of this atonal sonnet—and it changed the way I looked at music from that moment on.
- Proudest moment/product you’re most proud of?
I participated in many advances in medical monitoring technology, but the one I’m most proud of is the last one. We created a visual stethoscope which brought the capability for cardiac care decision making to the rural 3rd world into the hand of simple medical assistant. Here in America we don’t have the problem of having to decide whether we should spend two weeks taking a train to a medical center to see if our heart is failing or not. But in Africa and India, this is a very real problem. The Indian company I co-founded created and tested this product in 2005-2008, and I still hope it will see world-wide distribution, even though I’m no longer a part of that company.
You and your system
- What was your very first system?
I’ve had a lot of pieces over the years. The first stereo in our home was a 1955 Philco console player. I was 5 years old when my Dad took the family to the music store to buy it brand new (he was a classical tenor and trumpet player). We spent an entire afternoon listening to different systems. The Philco had no radio, which was very rare in those days—just a turntable—but it had beautiful sound. It was a lot of money to a starting family in 1955–$100, but that system followed me through high school, college, and when I left home I took it with me. It had a single ended 6L6G driving a fairly high efficiency speaker. I wore out completely the Renta Tebaldi Aida and the Jan Peerce Rigoletto record sets by the 9th grade, but at that time was replacing records with money from my paper route.
- Tell us about your system history
It has evolved quite a bit over time. While I was playing violin, I had the wonderful fortune of my “system” being live performances. Even if I was not performing, I tried to see and hear as much live music as possible. Because of my preference for a live sound, I have done a lot of system shuffling, and because I’m an engineer at heart much of what I have changed has been built by myself. Originally, I would follow old designs from Popular Electronics or other magazines, but eventually I struck out on my own. What I found most pleasing was simplicity in design and execution. Complex designs can look good on paper, but the sound is often compromised. Today my system contains whatever is my latest product design—if it is not better than my previous design it gets recycled back for components.
- What component/product do you miss the most/wish you had never got rid of?
I had some old 20’s era RCA amps which I think were remarkable. Even after sitting for 50 years, I dropped in some new 45 tubes, connected a pair of field coil speakers, and they sounded amazingly real and musical. I don’t know how many pieces of electronic gear today are created with that kind of life as a design goal. It inspired me a lot to make our G1-A preamp – something that could last for decades. There are no digital components that can fail and everything is point to point so service is very easy (if ever required).
- Best system (or single component) you have ever heard (no brands you represent please…!)
This is a hard question because I remember some wonderful systems from the past, like the Klipsh folded horn corner speaker in the mid-60’s. It would not get much press today, but then it was an amazing improvement over what was available. The original AR belt drive turntable was another great product for the cash constrained audiophile of the day. It was a significant improvement over what was reasonably available and I loved mine. And who can forget the Altec Lansing A5 horn driver system. From 50-100 feet back, they sounded wonderful.
But this doesn’t really answer the question of the best system I’ve ever heard. That prize would have to go the sound playback system in Benaroya Hall, Seattle WA. My college roommate and BFF is one of the sound masters at the hall and has taken me there to listen after a concert. The room acoustics are phenomenal with random bolt patterns on every wooden panel, no fly-overs on stage to affect acoustics, 600 pound doors to sound isolate the concert hall, and on and on. In this case it is a total experience of the room and the systems. It is amazing what $180 million can buy.
- Tell us about your current system(s)
When we test equipment in our lab, we try a lot of different pieces of equipment. But two of my favourite go-tos are my Sennheiser HD650 headphones and my hand-built speakers with Lowther drivers. The Lowthers do an amazing job of pinpoint-imaging and create a natural presence for classical music. But I use other types of speakers when I really want to get a full sense of bass portrayal. My amplifiers are, of course, my current products. I have the G1-A for phono/line/headphone, the H1-A for headphone only, a balanced line stage (not yet released), and several different power amps from 1W to 50W (not yet released).
The state of the industry
- What’s your view on the valve renaissance of the past 20 years or so?
I think people want to get as close to the real music as possible. They want to close their eyes and imagine Johnny Cash in their living room. While there have been many, many wonderful designs for components over the years, somehow the solid state designs, so my ears, are missing a level of organic sonic quality which tubes bring in spades. Newer technology brings many wonderful advancements, but is not always better than old technology. So I think the renaissance of valve gear is the realization that there are elements of tube magic that are not easily replaced. Setting aside for now the physics of why they sound better, I know subjectively there’s just a “rightness” about the sound vacuum tubes help generate. It just sounds correct to me.
- What are you views on the state of the industry/where is it going/what will it look like in 5 years/what will typical systems look like?/What will happen to prices?/What will happen to the high end – will it carry on regardless?
With iPods and MP3 players, a lot of people have encountered extraordinary convenience to carry their music library with them. Wireless streaming is another stellar development. At the same time, there are compromises. I love my iPhone, but listening to compressed music through it, the sonic limitations are evident. Even the very best digital has limitations. I have friends come over and listen to vinyl in my large system, and in many cases their eyes open wide and they realize how much “more” is there in a recording than they ever realized was there. I think the love of music is the driving force behind all audio equipment purchases. I think as long as there are true fans of music, there will always be hi-fi fans too.
Prices? I think we are seeing a split between mass production and hand-built that will continue. The mass production world will always chase lowest price points, but the hand-built and high quality market will probably continue have very wide variation. Some will charge based on hype and what the market will bear, others based on standard mark-up. My desire is to provide the absolute best quality at a reasonable price, relative to value. I would like to see more people have gear that makes listening to music a wonderful experience.
- What are the industry’s biggest con(s)?
I think each buyer should have 100% confidence in their own ears to tell them what a great piece of equipment is. If they love it, and the music it produces, that’s all that matters. Like wines, everyone has a slightly different taste in the characteristics they prefer so I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all in audio. I believe gear is made to create music, and not the other way around. I also firmly believe that price is not an indicator of quality. There is definitely a price point for the quality of components that must be passed, but I would recommend that everyone think about what they actually listen to. Often, an expensive option or system piece is not required, or may not add value. For example, a top end digital room treatment analyzer/amplifier may help, but you may get a similar or even better performance with just a few well placed absorptive panels. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try your own solutions. I have made some great sound isolation tables out of marble slab and automotive radiator hose!
The way you work
- Presuming the measurements are fine, what do you listen for when assessing products?
My top goal is creating products I believe sound like live performances. After all the objective tests meet spec, most of my design changes resulted from things just not sounding as they “should”. In the final listening test, even if everything sounds great, I should feel glued to the couch. If after 30 minutes I don’t want to get up and change the recording, or twiddle with the settings, then the product has what I want. One should be drawn into just listening to the music and not thinking about any of the pieces in the playback system. Even test measurements must be taken as only an indication—your ear has to be the final arbiter.
- Your sound preference -‘Smooth, listenable musicality’, ‘forward, driving, ‘foot-tapping’, involving sound’ or ‘detailed neutrality and transparency’?
I prefer music to sound live – after my experience as a violinist I often know what an orchestral piece should sound like, so the word I like to use is “organic”. Those who have sat next to a saxophonist know it’s not always smooth and relaxing. At ten feet or less, a violin bow attack will have a kind of growl to it. Sometimes a violent crash of cymbals offers a very subtle and complex decay – a calm after the storm so to speak. But the sound is real and not all equipment can capture that. I think equipment should give a listener a clear window into the music and get out of the way. Then it’s not the equipment that matters anymore, it’s just about the listener and their music.
All music is not the same either. If I’m listening to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer or Albert King, I definitely want a driving edge. Solo classical guitar, violin, or voice want transparency and detail. With the Jaqcues Loussier Trio I want the sense of the live audience and overall musicality. One of the great things about vacuum tubes is that you can tune your amplifier to the music (if you are so inclined to tube rolling.) However, a good system should reproduce the artists’ intent faithfully, and any tweaking done should be for your preferences, not to fix any failing in the playback.
- Your preference – Full-range floorstanders or freestanding mini monitors with a sub?
I prefer a full range speaker. Because of my violin background, I prefer a point source (single driver) system if it can be built with enough bass in stereo. A sub-woofer adds a different coloration to music that is not my favourite. I will use subs for testing, I just don’t have them in my personal system.
It’s all about the music, man…
- What is your favourite recording?
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” recorded live in Belgrade, 1953 with a young Sviatoslav Richter. The audience’s excitement is palpable in this vinyl recording. My copy is scratched and used, but I still want to stand up and clap at the end of the piece.
- Tell us about your 3 most trusted test recordings
(Vinyl) William Russo, “Three pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra”. This piece of music will nakedly expose any weaknesses in a system. There are subtleties in the guitar/orchestra interaction that jump out in a superb system, but are completely masked in an inferior one.
(Vinyl) Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía., “Friday night in San Francisco”. The three guitar styles and picking differences show the response in system. If you can hear the every difference in the strikes and picks, then your system will also accurately reproduce bow attacks and horns.
(CD) Astor Piazzolla, various Collections. The varieties of percussion instruments and other sounds used by Piazzolla will tax any system to produce correctly. You can detect very subtle differences in design changes with this recording.
- What are your most embarrassing recordings/guilty musical pleasures
I don’t have any recordings I would be embarrassed to share, but I definitely get the guilty music pleasure by turning 60’s rock music up to ear deafening levels when no one is in the house.
Having safely ushered your loved ones out of the house as it is burning down to the ground, you ignore all standard safety advice and dash back inside to grab just one recording – what is it?
That would be the original (not a re-pressed version) Sir Malcolm Sargent recording of Handel’s Messiah with the Huddersfield Choral Society. If in good condition, this is a very rare vinyl recording. The Sargent interpretation, while utterly classical, is still the most musical and wonderful version that exists IMHO.