Q&A with Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio
What got you started in Computer Audio?
In the early years of Empirical Audio I modified other manufacturers gear for customers, mostly DACs and transports. During this period TI developed the first USB interface chips for audio and the M-Audio Transit, which utilized these became available. The Transit was one of the first inexpensive USB digital audio interfaces. There were several customers that asked me to do mods to the Transit to improve the sound quality, so I improved the clock and the power delivery etc. I like the results so much that I offered my own hot-rodded Transit called the Off-Ramp that used the Transit board.
"...I realized that this was the perfect melding of my 25-year digital design background in the computer industry (Intel and Sperry Unisys) with my passion for music and stereo playback."
After doing this, I realized that this was the perfect melding of my 25-year digital design background in the computer industry (Intel and Sperry Unisys) with my passion for music and stereo playback.
After much prodding from my customers, I finally stopped modding things in 2009 and launched my own product designs. I knew there would always be limitations in other manufacturers designs that mods would not rectify. I could finally have full control of the hardware designs, enabling me to optimize everything.
What do you think sets you apart from other designers?
Several things set me apart. My extensive experience in the computer industry as a digital designer gives me a leg-up on most high-end audio companies. I have designed everything from massively parallel supercomputers to portions of the Pentium 2. In addition to the digital design experience, I was fortunate in my computer career to learn about many of the more esoteric areas of design, such as grounding, shielding, EMI, ESD, power delivery and transmission-lines. I apply all of this knowledge in every design.
Modding other manufacturers products for almost 10 years was extremely beneficial. I learned what not to do, as well as how to do it right. I was frankly disappointed to see so many design mistakes repeated over and over. Modding also allowed me to identify quality parts like op-amps, capacitors, resistors and inductors that can make a substantial difference in performance. Most designers don’t have time to experiment with these to determine the best ones and how to use them effectively.
My experience designing digital and analog cables in the early years of Empirical Audio is also helpful. I used to have a full-line of cables with several patents issued on the technology. It is striking how much of my cable technology actually goes into my component products. Most audiophiles focus on cabling outside of their components, but the cabling inside is every bit as important.
"Most audiophiles focus on cabling outside of their components, but the cabling inside is every bit as important."
Another thing that sets me apart is my design philosophy. I learned by modding so many devices that more is not less. More is bad. What I mean is that signal paths, both digital and analog should be minimized as much as possible. It is tempting in a DAC for instance to use an active stage, whether Op-Amp, tube or discrete, for each function including I/V conversion, filtering, gain, volume and output drive. Separating these functions makes the designing easier, but ultimately adds distortion, noise and most of all compression. If you want to suck the life out of the music, compression is the way to do it.
I am also one of the engineers that you hear about that must be taken out back behind the shed and shot in order to actually ship the product. I never really stop engineering and optimizing it. It's a blessing and a curse. But since my company is small and nimble, it allows me to take advantage of the latest technology and technical breakthroughs, offering the best performance to my customers.
After so many years on this planet I have also learned another important lesson, and that is to leave the ego outside and leverage the best minds on the planet whenever possible. Most designers are reluctant to incorporate other third-party designs into their own, but I freely admit that I am not an expert in every single area of the design. I would rather leverage others that are experts in these areas. That way, I can combine my strengths with theirs to make a fully optimized product.