Known initially for their varied turntable designs, Paul Rigby visits AVID HIFI and finds out how a hobby can turn into an obsession
Based in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, AVID HIFI has had a deserved reputation for producing an array of quite superb turntables. I can say this now without fear of accusations of pandering to an all powerful hi-fi manufacturer because I actually have one, the company’s Avid Acutus turntable. To prove my veracity in the matter, I must also say that I didn’t grab if for free in return for shady and underhand reviewing favours, nor have I kept one on long term loan. Oh no, I plunged my hand into my wallet and paid my hard earned cash for this baby. The decision was taken after studious and careful research too. The Acutus is and remains one of the top turntables in the world. That’s the reason for this factory visit, in fact. I’d been listening to this turntable for many years and thought it long overdue to see who was responsible for this beauty bathed in chrome, bouncing suggestively on a sprung chassis.
“The Acutus turntable was AVID’s first product. It spawned a range of other turntables,” said owner and designer, Conrad Mas. “There’s not enough space here to explain the design in full but, in simple terms, turntables have a sound because of vibration within the structure, from within and externally and how it affects the cartridge. AVID’s way of dealing with this vibration is why our products sound different to others.”
Remarkably, the gestation of the Acutus was largely trouble free but did require a heap of research and development, “I did have one major issue with the original sub-chassis design but this was not only overcome but improved to its current form,” said Mas.
AVID has an intriguing design philosophy that makes perfect sense when you think about. The idea is to design and produce the best turntable that you can think of then work downwards from there. In my own opinion, this is a much better approach than creating designs the other way around, as many other companies do. With the latter, for example, you tend to see a great little budget deck that receives all the plaudits. Then that company ups the ante and builds a mid-priced deck, believing that it’s on a roll. The company invariably either bolts extra bits and pieces to the original design or scraps the budget design and starts from scratch. What often happens is that the mid-priced deck either sounds sluggish, off pace or lacking in certain sonic areas or the sound signature is so different than it sounds as if it was built by a completely different company. Building up from a cheap deck often means that you lose those features that made the budget deck so great in the first place.
Building turntables, top down, means that you spend time and lots of effort coming up with a superb but expensive deck (the Acutus is priced at around 10k). From there, all you have to do is, well, take bits off or simplify the expensive components. As you strip, you lower the price and streamline the design. This is how AVID’s Sequel, Volvere and Diva have been created. I’ve listened to all of these decks and all retain the essential design elements of the Acutus while all sound like an ‘AVID’, “The design philosophy is executed by the Acutus but not everyone is in the position to afford such a luxury. Evolving a range of products wasn’t actually difficult, especially by keeping faithfully to the same template philosophy but it is more challenging as the manufacturing budget is reduced. But we know our philosophy is right so we keep to it,” said Mas.
So how did the Acutus begin? How did Avid begin? For that matter, how did Mas become involved in hi-fi in the first place?
“Actually a friend invited me to his house to listen to his self build turntable, a kit Connoisseur BD1. It was a huge mass loaded design and straight away I knew it wasn’t right and I proved it with a simple test. He became despondent and he asked if I wanted to buy it and this started my obsession to develop the best possible turntable.”
Mas has always been a music fan. His earliest memories tell of listening to a small transistor radio with an earpiece, tuning into the pirate radio station of the 60s, Radio Caroline but he sees differences from being a music fan and a fan of hi-fi, “I saw some people who were more interested in the equipment than the music itself. To me I wanted to make something so I could hear the music more realistically, almost as if they were in the room. I remember my first system being the Connoisseur turntable, JVC JAS22 amplifier and the big Chris Rogers Pro9TL speakers all in a 5x10ft bedroom, thank goodness I also had some Micro Seiki electrostatic headphones.”
The inner challenge of finding a turntable design that he could be happy with was set which meant much tinkering and opening his mind to new and sometimes different ideas, “I didn’t excel at school and certainly didn’t have an education in engineering or design but looked at the issues with a common sense approach and learned what I needed to know regarding the subject. This took me off in all directions, exploring all manner of subjects, accepting nothing as gosple and even drilling right down to the molecular level rather than just the basics of making something turn,” said Mas.
Mas himself admits that he could sound rather arrogant in his assertion that all of the other turntable designers had been doing it wrong for all of those years, “The initial design was just a theory and I then spent many, many years using libraries, two local Universities, foundries, plastics and engineering companies to learn what I needed to know. I remember even getting a job in a foundry just to learn the limits of what could be achieved with a sand casting.”
There were ups and downs during this long research process. One idea was actually granted a Patent but Mas realised that the idea didn’t actually work as intended. Discouraged, Mas actually considered ending his research and his quest there and then. It was only after he checked, rechecked and was reassured that his basic concept findings were sound that he decided to persist in his research.
Mas didn’t really receive much help from friends or even family, “In fact especially about 10 years into it, even close friends thought I was off my trolley and wasting my life. But yes it was becoming an obsession but aren’t all hobbies that anyway?”
Avid itself was started for financial reasons in 1995 but the company didn’t release its first product until 1999. This wasn’t for the want of trying, “I’d shown some prototypes to some dealers and press in the early 90s and they said it would sell but when it came to the crunch dealers wouldn’t take it without press and magazines wouldn’t review with dealers in place. So I explored export and did a show which established us in America and Holland and so it begun.”
Before it ‘begun’ AVID…wasn’t. Initially, after bank loans were taken out during the 80s, the business was actually known as Master Audio Systems based on Mas’ surname and then it was changed to Acutus Audio (the original subchassis design had a series of acutely shaped pins cast into its form, hence Acutus), “Banks can be fickle, especially during a recession and in the 1980s they declared that they wanted their money back. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just do that so the company disappeared and I had to come up with a new name. AVID was the thought, simply meaning A Very Interesting Design.”
As AVID grew, so Mas had to do what all single entrepreneurs have to consider. Continue to micromanage every aspect of the company or delegate, “Like a lot of specialist audio companies, in the beginning that wasn’t a problem because I had to do everything and just manage myself. Everything: suppliers, assembly, test, pack, marketing, web design, VAT and Tax returns and it took a few years for Avid to expand. Then I had to employ and manage staff, choosing the right people who become an asset. That left me more time for product development and sales. Probably the hardest thing for some entrepreneurs to handle is finding people better than themselves but that’s what I look for, so improvements are made rather than our ceiling being limited by me.”
So does Mas believe that AVID has truly ‘arrived’? “We’ll I don’t think I’ve arrived yet and especially as its still my hobby, it’s what makes me get up in the mornings and stay late at night. Our first employee arrived in 2002. As a reflection of how we work, he’s still with us. For me, there’s not enough hours in the day, so you simply need more hands.”
Mas on…the move to electronics
“As a company you either grow, stagnate or fall behind so we took the growth path by venturing into associated electronics, notably phono-stages. But electronics was not something new to us as the turntable power supplies are essentially integrated amplifiers which we build in house from the ground up. We also felt that, sonically, electronic designs had progressively become bass light, bringing focus artificially on higher registers making them sound more detailed. We wanted to get back to real music, where bass punches you in the gut but still retains all the information and the Pulsare, our first phono stage did this perfectly. I’m pleased to say, after a short period of scepticism, all of our phono stages have been well received by the public and press alike.”
“Ask me what I did last week and I’d have a job to recall, ask me what’s happening the next six months and I’ll know in detail. As a business we’re very much centric focused, not looking at what others do or make. We design products as if for ourselves and never a box shifting exercise, so there’s a limit to how ‘budget’ we’ll go. So frankly there’s no time spent on looking back or regrets, especially as they’ll only eat away at you in time; so its move ahead full speed and enjoying the hobby that we get paid for. It’s only a few people that have that privilege of which I’m pleased to be one.”
Mas on…the future
“Strangely enough, we do look at acquisitions from time to time but from within the company I’m constantly told to focus on what we’re good at: designing and building quality audio equipment. As we attain growth year on year we must be doing something right. But as for the future of AVID we have immense product development and growth plans, so on the drawing board is our long awaited Pre and Mono amplifiers, naturally to be followed by a scaling down range finishing off with an integrated amplifier. We’re also working on a range of headphone electronics, even better turntable designs based on the last 20 years’ improved knowledge of the Acutus, some additional support shelving and you never know, perhaps even a tone-arm or two. Despite our time in the market, we’re still excited about the future and where we’re going.
Contact: AVID HIFI
Tel: +44(0)1480 869 900