Graeme Holland heads up Audion, a high-end valve amplifier manufacturer based in South West France, having traditional values and service, yet at the forefront of tube technologies. Now celebrating 25 years of supplying and creating high-end audio products, Audion goes from strength to strength.
My first foray into professional hi-fi was when I took over Audion in 2000, however my interests in Electronics and Hi-fi was kindled at a very young age. My father used to tinker with valve radios when I was a boy in the late 60’s and early 70’s , which started my interest in electronics. Furthermore I was extremely lucky that my next door neighbour was chief engineer at radio Brighton, who at the age of thirteen gave me a full Quad system and a pair of Celestion speakers for my birthday. Of course at that age I had no idea what I had and swapped the Quad 33 for a nice Transistor Trio amp. Oh well you live and learn. I worked in the computer industry for many years, and finally decided to get out of London’s square mile after I had made my fortune from the Millenium bug. I moved to an old farm house in France that needed heavy renovation. Two years in and my capital was dwindling and I was looking around for a business. My long standing friend, David Chessel was looking to leave his business and sell up, I was offered the business and along with the then senior Technician bought the business and moved it lock, stock and barrel to France along with some of its staff.
- Who or what was the biggest influence on your career?
So based on buying Audion back in 2000 the biggest influence on my career in the Audio Industry has to be my long time friend David Chessel, for selling me the business in the first place and for helping my understanding of tube electronics, where initially my expertise was in computers and RF electronics and I hate to admit it, but transistors from my boyhood experiments in the 70’s.
- Proudest moment/product you’re most proud of?
Not technically my original product, but our 845 Black Shadow Mk2 version. Its far quieter than the original Mk1, smoother and more enthusiastic in all performances . Failing that, winning a Diapason D’or for our Silver Night Anniversary 300B in 2009 and not knowing it until 3 months after the event.
You and your system
- What was your very first system?
Thats an easy One – Quad 33 pre and power, an old BSR turntable and a pair of celestion’s (Ditton I think)
- Tell us about your system history
Varied between tranny amps from my late teens until I rediscovered valve in the mid 90’s , my first valve amp in this period was a Rogers cadet, then a Leak TL12 and 20, and then an Audio Innovations 500 from my Friend David, after that I had various Audion amps before I took the company over.
- What component/product do you miss the most/wish you had never got rid of?
The ex Radio Brighton Quad system my neighbour gave me for my thirteenth birthday was my biggest loss, my second was a Revox tape recorder, I found at a car boot sale and while walking around got offered four times what I paid for it, so took the offer there and then and only regretted it years later when I found out what I’d missed.
- Best system (or single component) you have ever heard (no brands you represent please…!)
This is where it gets tricky, as I’m now talking about competitors systems and difficult as I have heard an awful lot of systems, some sounding good, some ok and some down right awful. I do like some of the AudioNote stuff, but again in tricky grounds here as Audion and AudioNote were the same company years ago (Audio Innovations), so ok best component has to be the Blue Pearl turntable with Lyra Titan cartridge, best system (overall) was at a photographers in Amsterdam, mainly Macintosh electronics with a pair of Alfred’s Acapella prototype horns, 8 foot tall and the most realistic sounding speakers I’ve heard, made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck . It was an expensive system in a very large room with a lot of room “gadgets” to get that just so sound, in reality more than most people would go to.
- Tell us about your current system(s)
I have two main systems that I listen to, The main system being our Audion Silver Night Stereo 2A3 with KR 2A3’s tubes, with a Cairn Ezo cd player, Audion premier line/phono pre-amp, Revolver replay deck with Clearaudio MM cartridge and a pair of Snell C loudspeakers and Audion Electron cables. The second system I listen to a lot is our prototyping system which currently is Audion Golden Dream Level 6 power amp, Audion Quattro MC/line pre- amp, Pink triangle turntable with AudioNote IO ltd cartridge and a pair of Prototype Revolver Cygnis Baby loudspeakers, again with Audion Electron cables.
The state of the industry
- What’s your view on the valve renaissance of the past 20 years or so?
The resurgence of the valve amp industry over the last 20 years, can only be a good thing. We see new demographic groups coming on board all the time. In the 80’s and 90’s it was mainly baby boomers who were buying valve gear for whatever reason, nostalgia is often quoted, but I believe that people knew what and how they wanted to listen. Nowadays the change has come that new generations are searching for HD music and not just video. They are finding that there is better quality around than just mp3’s or the likes and that with better sources they need better equipment to deliver that. Music for everyone is a very personal thing, a life journey if you like where personal events are dramatically remembered by a musical passage, song or chart hit at that time. Many people want to hear those songs or music as it was intended to be heard by the recording artist. Valve technology is at the cutting edge of fidelity and reproduction. People nowadays are far more knowledgeable about technology than they were 20 years ago and have better access to electronic research media to find out about “valves” and in some cases what they have been missing out on. Many of our customers send feedback to us to tell us how they have a new record collection (the same one) but hear things now that they’d never heard before.
- 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?
Every year I am told that valve amp sales are on the decline, that vinyl sales are steadily picking up and that valves have a finite lifespan in today’s market place, however year upon year my order book confirms things to the contrary. World recession too has played a part in things, but for Audion all we see is our mid range sales dropping off a little but replaced by better high end and entry level sales. Technology moves on as does the medium in which we listen to music on. When I was young the 45rpm 7″ single was king, when I DJ’d the 12″ single was where it was at, along came cassette tapes. dat tapes, cd, sacd, dvd a and then mpeg computer formats, I’m sure that these computer based formats will come of age along with newer compression ratios and even better algorithms for compressing the data. A good analogy I give to people about where we’re going is this ” an mp3 song – 3mb, a song on a cd – 30mb, a DVD a song 300mb and at present we are able to extract 12 – 18TB data from an analog 12″ single”. Ok the future will bring cheaper storage mediums which will make data holding capacity’s easier and we will probably see a new disc based medium on from Blu-ray, multi layered and able to give back performances closer to the original. For this we will of course need new readers/players and of course digital technology will develop new dacs etc. to bring realism to the digital arena that up until now analog sources have only been adept at. New technology and data extraction will come to the forefront and allow past media (i.e. vinyl) to be re-mastered to this new medium.
That said, there will be people who prefer pure analogue, both in recording and listening, you only have to look at the pro music scene to see how many valve based products are available – microphones, mixers, pre-amps – guitar head amps, power amps etc. etc. To me that succinctly tells me that people in general who know and understand music, that we as analogue human beings with analogue ears and brains prefer our music created and performed in an analogue environment. Technology will exponentially grow as it does year upon year, new manufacturing process will reduce costs for mass produced goods, however like a hand made race car, or bespoke suit /clothing there will still be a need for niche hand made quality products that will endure.
As manufacturers we have to stay abreast with technological changes, new processes and materials and continue to strive to give affordable high end products.
- What are the industry’s biggest con(s)?
Sadly there is a lot of “bullshit” in this industry, mostly written by salesmen trying to hype up very little or nothing to generate sales. The whole industry places a lot of relevance on “facts and figures” except these figures are quite often manipulated and taken out of context. I could go on and rave for an hour about this, but everyone knows that audio has a lot of hot air as mostly listening is subjective. I see a lot of people at shows and it never ceases to amaze me some of the utter nonsense spouted. Everyone knows glass rings, so why make stands, turntables or speakers with the stuff, everyone knows that silver is a better electrical conductor than copper, despite having its grain orientated in a certain way through anealling and having a wonderful silver plating putting on it. Cables are probably the biggest excuse for someone to print money, every Tom, Dick or Harry makes a cable that is better than the next. To me the saddest thing I see is people who walk into a show room, exhibition room or stand and “Listen with their eyes” they only see the equipment and don’t actually hear it, they are blinded by the hype a product carries, its glossy brochure and its expensive price tag, often missing out on how the system actually sounds. I’ve often heard at shows people extolling the virtues of XYZ system, hows its £x and doesn’t it look great, only to go in the room myself with a couple of Audion’s golden ears to confirm that it sounds non descript – but I guess listening is subjective.
The way you work
- Presuming the measurements are fine, what do you listen for when assessing products?
This is always a bone of contention, as for valve amps most measurements compared to transistor amps are off the scale and measure terribly, distortion here and there, at third order, high THD levels, on paper you’d never entertain a valve amp because they are so bad. They are pretty inefficient too, 160 watts in 7 watts out, it doesn’t sound very good in our eco friendly environment, but at the same time there is a depth and presence that cannot be denied with a valve amp that you just don’t get with solid state. Musicality for us is the key, we like our products to be musical above all else, speed and cohesiveness are incredibly important, plenty of headroom too.. When voicing an amp for the first time, we have noticed a certain feel, certain notes in test records we have will jump out to the fore and make themselves known. I personally look for sound stage, depth of stage, bass and top end, inky blackness in the quiet passages and sonic accuracy in the presentation. Musician placement and imaging and above all being able to listen for long periods without fatique.
- Your sound preference -‘Smooth, listenable musicality’, ‘forward, driving, ‘foot-tapping’, involving sound’ or ‘detailed neutrality and transparency’?
For me Jazz is king, I spent many years as a child being brainwashed by my parents with the likes of Miles Davies, Chet Baker, thelonious Monk et al. I like my music forward, as do pretty much all of my customers, detailed with fast transients and as above – musicality without fatique. That said being a night club DJ for over 20 years I also do like 80’s and 90’s jazz funk, soul rock and r&b – so pretty diverse tastes..
- Your preference – Full-range floorstanders or freestanding mini monitors with a sub?
Definitely floorstanders, and pretty specific too, I don’t particularly like horns as they tend to “honk”, electrostatics come from all over the place and plastic/metal cones seem unnatural and brittle. For me it has to be paper cones for their neutrality.
It’s all about the music, man…
- What is your favourite recording?
Miles Davies – MD Live at Carnegie Hall 1961 – CL1812 CS8612 (Before I was born)
- Tell us about your 3 most trusted test recordings
Sorry to say we have four: Bela Fleck – “Flight of the cosmic hippo”, Mike Oldfield – “tubular bells”, Yello – “The race/blenders for sale” and The mass – on an usher giveaway cd
- What are your most embarrassing recordings/guilty musical pleasures
Al Stewart – “Roads to Moscow”, BWO – “lay your love on me” – Very gay but catchy, Hazel Dean – pretty much all tracks (sorry goes back to my days in the disco’s)
- 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?
My copy of Neil Tenants Pet shop Boys west end girls, from way before they were known when Neil was a session musician in my club, their first white label pressing signed to me telling me “one day Graeme, One day”