Q&A With Wavelength Audio's Gordon Rankin

Gordon Rankin. photo credit: Art Dudley

Gordon Rankin, the founder and designer of Wavelength Audio, is responsible for among other things the first consumer DAC to employ Asynchronous USB. You can find his Asynchronous USB Steamlength™ technology in a number of highly regarded DACs including his own Crimson, Cosecant, Brick, and Proton as well the Halide DAC HD, AudioQuest Dragonfly, Grace M903, Aesthetix USB products, Ayre DX-5, QA-9 and the Berkley Alpha USB. I'd like to thank Gordon for taking the time for this Q&A and I hope you enjoy this peak inside Wavelength Audio.

Wavelength HQ. "The Conference room is going to have recording on one end and system on the other. In here so far we have my mobile 500 series Purple recording system filled with 500 series microphone preamps, compressors, equalizers and my iKodek 32 bit stereo AD/24 bit DAC with headphone amplifier, Focal CMS65 monitors. Some notables are the Rob Fetters 25W head in for service before the fall tour starts. The ToneBank Silver EL84 Guitar Amplifier that won 2011 NAMM GP Award for best amplifier. Several custom hardwood cabinets including the 4x12 (2-Celestion Blue, 2-Celestion Green Back) and two of the 10" Cabinets one with a Gold Celestion and the other with a Celestion Green Back. Custom Shop Gibson L1 with K&K pickups and the Schneider Emerald Custom Silver Pickup Electric. And by popular demand, that's Reilly posing up front."

Can you talk about your background in the Computer Industry and how and when you decided to start Wavelength Audio?
Wavelength Audio was actually started when I was senior in College. After I graduated in Electronic Engineering (minor in Music-Percussion, Math and Physics) I had a job for 2 weeks designing loudspeakers. I had a rather good idea which my boss did not like and being a stupid kid went to his boss and got fired. A friend of mine at Ohio State had an interview in Cincinnati and could not go. So he told the employment agency to send me instead. This job was a hardware software position designing Compressor Controls for the Alaskan pipeline. At Ohio Northern I was told to work on a digital project. I designed a Z80 development system and programed it with toggle switches, yea major pain in the a***.

So I got the job and started working doing deep DSP type code and this unit had 3 processors, one for the algorithm, one for communications (local LAN and WAN ports) and one for analog and DSP functions. It was pretty forward thinking for 1981. Since it had to link to all the major oil companies the WAN port had to support protocols for a number of mainframe computers including IBM, DEC, Honeywell and Burroughs.

"I could only stand that job so much and when we had back stage passes to see The Who in Louisville and my boss didn't want me to go, I decided to leave."

We had two guys who laid out circuit boards so I paid one of them to lay tape (before computer layout) for my PH1, which was my first true Wavelength Audio product.

Wavelength Cardinal 300B Signature Series Monoblock Amplifier

I could only stand that job so much and when we had back stage passes to see The Who in Louisville and my boss didn't want me to go, I decided to leave.

My next job was stupid, about 4 hours of work required in a week so they told me I could do side jobs??? Coming from working 80 hours a week to less than 4 drove me nuts. One of the other guys and the PCB layout guy were doing work for a company called Intercomputer Communications Corp (ICC). So I did work for them, though had never met them. We had a party at our house and the ICC group showed up and talked me into working for them. ICC made IBM PC's communicate with mainframes and my work from my first job was just what they were looking for and I became employee #7. ICC was a really pretty cool place to work, it was a bunch of really high tech people working on cool stuff. We broke 50 employees in a couple months then we got asked to do a bunch of international and Government jobs which meant we started doing volume. Pretty soon we got bought out by Digital Communications Associates who made Crosstalk and the Irma PC to IBM mainframes products. By 1994 we had made a ton of hardware and software stuff but the coolest was a dial up network router. I had designed several intelligent serial and network adapters and we had our own UNIX OS that we made up. We merged with another company and I had enough.

My Cardinal Amplifier had just won TAS product of the year and I had 2 Class A rated products with Stereophile and Kelly my wonderful wife said go do Wavelength and if it doesn't work, just get another job.

johnnya's picture

michael, thanks for a fantastic q/a with gordon rankin; it cuts through the iusual written under brush, with concise, comprehensible information. now, if i could only afford one of his signature products :)


Michael Lavorgna's picture

And thanks for the kind words johnnya.

Steven Plaskin's picture

These were my first impressions of Gordon's asynchronous USB interface for the Crimson I posted at the Audio Asylum on 11/28/2007:

Wavelength Audio has just released Asynchronous USB function for the Crimson USB DAC. The Crimson can be easily updated as the code is on a removal EPROM. Jitter is reduced in this mode. I think that Gordon is the first to have successfully executed this USB function. I will leave it to him to explain the technical aspects of Async Iso USB mode.

The improvement in sound is quite noticeable. Detail, focus, and control are the most obvious changes. For example; listening to James Taylor's new album, One Man Band, JT is now in better focus. Previously, his image was more diffuse and less defined in space. The guitar strings have greater detail. Again, with the previous code, everything was softer sounding-less focused. This is not to say that the former sound was anything less than excellent, but the improvements I am hearing now are quite striking. I also noticed an improvement in the bass; better defined and tighter.

I'll be doing some more listening this weekend and report any other improvements I hear. For now, the Async code is really something else!

earwaxxer's picture

A very exciting time for DACs!

Charles Hansen's picture

Several years ago at Ayre we were interested in doing something with computer audio. There were a number of different approaches to take -- servers (with everything built into one box, including a simplified computer dedicated to audio playback), Ethernet (which the UK companies have focused on but require complex dedicated software, and a strong understanding of computer networking), and USB (which can use any music player software you prefer, and is trivial to hook up and use).

A mutual friend introduced me to Gordon when he was first starting work on the asynchronous USB code. Ayre had never built a separate DAC, because the only way to do it before (and maintain compatibility with other brands) was using S/PDIF, which inevitably adds a significant amount of jitter. When he told me what he was working on, the first words out of my mouth were, "What do we have to do to license your code?"

We hit it off very well, as we really have the same interests and goals -- it's just that he does it with tubes and we do it with solid-state. It took him over a year to work out all the wrinkles, but there was absolutely nobody else in the business who could have done it. Gordon has a super-strong background with the deep-down internals of computers, and he has a real high-end sensibility. Basically my role was to keep egging him on -- when he would get stuck, I would just tell him, "Gordon, you are the smartest guy I know. If you keep working on this, I know that you will figure it out."

And his asynchronous code changed the entire high-end audio industry. For the first time, a computer-based system could sound better than any other digital source. It meant the end of the format wars between DVD-Audio and SACD. Any computer built in the last five or ten years can do 192/24, and now with DoP (DSD over PCM), playback of DSD files are possible with a compatible software player and USB DAC. And as Gordon has since proven with the DragonFly he designed for AudioQuest, great sound doesn't have to cost a boat-load of money.

I've got a few inklings of what Gordon is working on now, and I think it has the potential to be even bigger than asynchronous USB. No wonder he has trouble sleeping at night! Hats off to Gordon for moving the entire industry forward, and thanks to Michael Lavorgna for a great interview. Exciting times, indeed...

Charles Hansen, Ayre Acoustics, Inc.

labjr's picture

I've had Wavelength gear for 20 years. People are still wowed when they hear it. Looks cool too! What impresses me about Gordon is that he goes all out to try new technologies and ideas to make products. Doesn't seem to be like a typical company with budget restraints etc.& trendy ideas.

Should be interesting to see (hear) what Gordon does with the Thunderbolt license. The optical cables would seem to be preferable for their obvious advantages like long length and galvanic isolation.