"We Don't Do Features, We Do Simplicity"
Sutherland announces the new TZ Direct
The All-New TZ Direct transimpedance phonostage uses current instead of voltage for the music signal.
People describe a transimpedance phonostage as presenting "music in every square inch of the room".
Hearing Ron Sutherland (Sutherland Engineering) speak of his circuits is like listening to a sculptor speak of stone. Decades of practice lead artists into a relationship with their medium, and they see the material almost as a living being.
"I don't force myself on a circuit board," says Ron. "It's an interaction, and the circuit board speaks back to me."
Now, if you hadn't heard the humility with which that line was delivered, you could roll your eyes and dismiss it as artsy pretentiousness. But look at those circuit boards in the image above. There's a distilled essence to them that's so visually pleasing, that you might actually wonder, 'Are they being made to be beautiful?'
We at Upscale enjoyed an afternoon training with Ron and the Sutherland team this week, and one of us asked this question; diplomatically wondering about the relationship between the search for visual perfection and sonic perfection. Ron immediately and non-defensively understood the unspoken: Do you create nice layouts at the expense of sound?
"The layout is driven by the circuit," he said. His is an endless quest for simplicity, and this translates literally to designs with the shortest possible signal paths, almost a direct recreation of the schematic. This automatically leads to the stunning haiku-shaped circuits you see. "It's just a natural orderliness. The traces are very short." In all of the Sutherland circuits, you can clearly follow the signal path from one end of the board to the other, with nothing disrupted by the demands of the latest features, or even user convenience.
The Sutherland Inconvenience
Power connector and gain loading location. Those are the two big customer complaints about Sutherland. On most Sutherland products, the power connectors are inconveniently located underneath and towards the front of the unit (see photo below). As for gain loading, while many manufacturers offer it on the front panel, and even remote controlled, Sutherland products require users to remove the cover and physically move jumpers from one set of pins to another.
The power connector of the KC Vibe located underneath and towards the front of the unit.
This is because Ron insists that these connectors be exactly where they are needed for ultimate signal integrity. The power jack is directly on the PCB right where current needs to enter the circuit, not on the end of a long line running to the back panel. The gain loading settings are bang in the signal path, again, not run out to some other location.
"Where do you want gain loading?" asks Ron. "Back panel? Remote control? Sure I can do that, but only by making great compromises to the circuit. The signal path would go to hell for a remote control feature. It will be like throwing a bomb in there."
And anyway, as Ron observes, many of these so-called conveniences aren't really that. DIP switches on the back of a unit are not easy to manipulate, plus, he says, "DIP switches are designed for computer environments, not the low-level signals in a phonostage. Rocker switches, as some manufacturers use, are totally inappropriate for these low-level signals."
Ron radiates great love for customers, even the ones, or perhaps particularly the ones, who complain about this. With a twinkle in his eye, he says, "I'm very comfortable telling people that Sutherland is not for everybody, and that's fine. I'm going to do the best job I can at this and I'm not going to let the consumer do the engineering. People who want features should go to something with features."
The Transimpedance Imperative
Most phonostages read the musical signal from the voltage generated by a cartridge and then amplify that to line level. A transimpedance design instead takes the musical signal from the cartridge's current.
This flip sounds simple enough, but requires an extremely complex and hard-to-design circuit. And certainly, a difficult circuit to execute with the Sutherland trademark simplicity. Chad Stelly, the Sutherland rep, had heard a transimpedance design from Germany, and loved how it seemed to "make music come from every square inch of the room." So he pushed Ron to develop a Sutherland version, and once he figured out a simple way to do it, it was blowing minds from the first prototype onwards. Today, in spite of his initial trepidation about the design, Ron says, "If you can afford the TZ Direct, you should buy it."
Sound and Selection
Transimpedance or no, all of Sutherland's clean circuits and heavily filtered power supplies result in the sonic signature for which they're renowned: none at all. Josh Phelps, our service manager, uses a Sutherland 20/20 in his system, and loves how transparent it is, allowing him to worry instead about the sound and setup of the other components in the chain.
Sutherland's first transimpedance phonostage is the famed LittleLOCO, now in the Mk2 edition. Then came the result of what Ron calls "design splicing" where the LittleLOCO Mk2 met the KC Vibe, resulting in a small-chassis transimpedance phonostage called the TZ Vibe. This is Sutherland's entry point into transimpedance world. The all-new TZ Direct expresses the idea in its full glory, offering even greater attention to simplicity of signal path, quality of components, and as always with Sutherland, extreme design and filtering on the external power supply. The TZ Direct will cost $8,500 and we'll let you know as soon as they're here!
Sutherland TZ Vibe
Sutherland Little LOCO MKII
Matching a Transparent Phonostage
Since it uses the musical signal conveyed by the current and not the voltage of a cartridge, a transimpedance phonostage is meant for cartridges that offer a stable and linear current signal. This means, low-impedance, low-output moving coil only. This circuit design presents a virtual short (0 ohm) as the cartridge load, thus eliminating the need for gain loading.
Sean-Paul Williams, one of our expert analog salespeople and a setup specialist, loves Sutherland, and makes it one of his top recommendations to solid-state customers. He has compiled a selection of our cartridges that work beautifully with the Sutherland transimpedance designs. As always, reach out to our team for expert advice before buying!
New Video: Kevin Deal and Andrew Jones on the New MoFi Loudspeaker
We all know Andrew Jones from KEF or Infinity or TAD or Pioneer or ELAC. Now he's with MoFi and has been working out of a studio in LA developing the new SourcePoint 10 loudspeaker. He came in to shoot a video with Kevin, so we sat down with him and asked him a few questions about this speaker we are all so excited about.
Upscale Audio: You've been given a clean-sheet design brief at previous companies too... how did you find inspiration for the SourcePoint 10 given that sometimes a blank piece of paper is the hardest brief of all?
Andrew Jones: The briefs were the bass, and mid-century modern design, with a throwback to the 70s big woofers and studio systems. It was these that got my mind thinking about appropriate solutions, and working on design ideas I hadn't had the chance to explore in the past. I thrive on challenges.
UA: You've been working with concentric drivers for many years now. Is there anything about them that still surprises you?
AJ: They are very challenging to get right. The interface from tweeter to cone is critical, so is the transition from cone to surround to baffle.
Long before I built a driver, I was building different waveguides with interchangeable parts to see how well I could match my chosen tweeter into the waveguide. Once you get that right, you get both excellent on-axis responses as well as really good off-axis and directivity responses. The room response becomes very consistent.
The trick is then taking those results and making a real driver that performs just as well as the waveguide model.
UA: What would you say is all Andrew Jones about this MoFi speaker?
AJ: I've always been in the enviable position of being allowed to solely determine the sound that I want. This sound is not fixed. My thinking has evolved over the years, but it means I can exercise my vision of what I want to hear from any particular design. This is both empowering and frightening, particularly if I get it wrong!
I was sought out by MoFi because they trusted what I can do, so why mess with that? If you try too hard to please other people by sacrificing yourself, it's a path to disappointment (in sound and in life!)
UA: This was, effectively, your first two-way concentric design. What are you liking about the two-way over previous three-way designs, and what are you missing?
AJ: There is clearly a simplicity in a two-way. I have never been afraid of designing three ways, but it can be very challenging to get it right, with more scope to get it wrong. I'm on record as saying the best two-way is a three-way! But that still applies when one is under particular constraints, such as bandwidth or box size. This design does sound different from my previous ones, but not all of that is because it's a two-way. I've put a lot of work into optimizing the drive motor, and this plays a large part in the resultant performance.