Meet the designer
Ian Robinson – REDGUM Audio
Reprinted from Australian Hi-Fi Volume 30 Number 7 July 1999
In the US, the brand name Redgum conjures up a chewing confection: in the UK, it’s a colourful kind of adhesive. But to a growing cult of dollar-conscious audiophiles around the world, it means superbly faithful, bulletproof and affordable-and Australian-made-MOSFET amplification.
Redgum equipment is named for its stunning real-wood redgum fascia plates, and is lifted further out of the pack by using a unique user key as its on/off switch. The story of Redgum Audio’s birth and evolution reflects often uncannily, and not always favourably, on the ‘progress’ of massmarket audio over the past three decades.
Founder and principal of Redgum Audio, Ian Robinson, was born and bred in Melbourne and educated at technical college, where he studied electronic engineering. Like many a young hi-fi industry aspirant, he didn’t complete his studies because, as he puts it, “business got easier and study got harder”. From tech. he joined Victoria’s State Electricity Commission, and worked alongside Ralph Bridges who was soon to be Claybridge PA Systems. Ralph commissioned Ian to build his speaker boxes, and he registered his first venture, Chelsound Electronics, in 1967 at the age of only 20. He had already been trading for some time before that, giving him a strong claim to being one of Australia’s longest established audio and hi-fi manufacturers. Other more contentious claims for Redgum Audio include the first Australian-made CD player, and the first all Australian system from source to speakers.
PAs and Link
Ian recalls his early fascination with audio. “The first mucking about I had done was hooking up two radios and convincing myself I’d created stereo. This was after they stopped the experimental stereo broadcasts on the ABC and 3AR using two different frequencies. Back in those days I was just fiddling and didn’t know what direction to take. I worked full-time with the SEC until 1974, while carrying on my other businesses on the side. Hi-fi hadn’t really taken off yet, and back then if you ordered speaker boxes from a commercial manufacturer, they came with flimsy Masonite backs. Rather than teach them how to do it properly, we bought a cabinet factory called Recab Storage Cabinets in Parkdale, which we ran for four years making our own Link bookshelf loudspeakers, a fact we seem to have managed to keep secret from the public at large, and there are still lots of them out there giving stirling service today.”
At the Retail Front
In 1972, a retail customer of Ian’s went broke, owing him about $1,500. “That was a lot of money in those days, so he just handed over his keys and we started trading at his shop. This was the beginning of Contemporary Sound Centre: our first store, although I had been trading for a while from home. I used to buy all the trade-ins from Encel Stereo on Monday morning, work on them during the week, and then sell them in the Saturday classifieds. I did quite well for a number of years – back then when everybody was very keen on hi-fi. I was doing everything: replacing speaker surrounds, rewiring voice coils, upgrading electronics… Most of the gear we worked on back then was valve gear, which is perhaps why I am not very keen on valves nowadays.”
Contemporary Sound Centre started in 1972 in Beaumaris, and in 1976 Ian opened a second CSC store in a double shopfront in Hawthorn. “Back then there was only B&O and Brashs in the area,” Ian told us, “but Tivoli moved in soon after, then Absolute High End, and then Vince Testa. Our brands at the time included Rogers, RCF, NAD, EEI, Challenge, Perreaux, Bozak, Link, Thorens, Ariston, Stanton and Mission. We were the longest-serving Mission dealership outside the UK. We always concentrated on the upper middle range of hi-fi.”
Contemporary Sound Centre stayed open from 1972 until January 1998, when Redgum’s amplifier project looked set for success. “I enjoyed retailing,” said Ian, “especially in the early days when everyone was right into it, knew what they were doing and were looking to improve their sound. It was a very exciting time to be involved. My job was very much hands-on in those days. I did a lot of service work. As I told Australian HI-FI back in the early ’70s, service was the real backbone of the business. When I closed our computer database, I found we’d done more than 18,000 service jobs from around 1972. We were the first to use computers for keeping track of our customer base. Sure, it was a Tandy with 16KB of memory and you had to kick it twice to get it started every morning, but it really gave us an edge in the service business.”
CSC did warranty service on Perreaux and McLaren, which, says Ian, gave him an excellent grounding in MOSFET amplifier technology. “So now I make a MOSFET amp,” Ian says, “I can claim to have worked on more amplifiers than just about anybody in the country.”
The Good Ol’ Amps
Ian watched with interest the progress of the hi-fi industry through the ’70s. “Pioneer was, believe it or not, one of the leaders,” he said. “Their best amplifier model around 1973 was the SA-6200. It was the first time they had gone over $200 for an amplifier. But the next year, they decided they wanted a bigger market share and decided to go back under $200. It was the first time I’d heard sound quality go backwards, but it was certainly not the last. The idea was that because it was cheaper, we’d sell a lot more of them. And of course, we did, and this prompted the multinational manufacturers to compete with each other on price alone. We changed over to Sansui, who had their 555s and 222s. But Sansui saw Pioneer’s sales figures and did the same thing. We moved into Hitachi -a good brand for a while -then into Optonica (Sharp) and Sanyo. Eventually we stopped jumping from one Japanese brand to another and went with Harman Kardon -then American -and we thought we’d be right for a while. But their ownership changed, so we moved on to NAD and then to Proton.”
You Do Better!
“In the ’90s, I found people trying to replace these good old amps, and there was nothing to replace them with. This is what inspired us to do our own thing. This bubbled up in the early ’90s, and by ’93 we had prototypes. Everybody told me it couldn’t be done. But I’d open up each new English amplifier as it came out and say, ‘I can do better than that!’ Too many people said, ‘Well why the hell don’t you?’, and after a while I had to say, ‘I will’. I realised that we’d have to be either a lot cheaper or a lot better than everyone else: we couldn’t get in with a ‘me too’ type of product. There was no way I could be cheaper than the Asians, who’d been working at just this for 20 years. So it would just have to sound really spectacular.”
At the time, Ian’s son was in a choir, and he began to be exposed, close-up, to a lot of unamplified orchestral music. “This awakened us to just how much information is out there that you’re not getting out of your hi-fi. And a lot of this is felt, not heard. This ’20 to 20′ stuff that you might get ignores the feelings and effects that are below and above that. So we set out to make sure that you could really feel these impacts. We had also looked at the phono equalisation on various cartridges and realised that a one or two dB difference in treble response made a lot of difference to the brightness of the sound. So we looked at how high up we’d have to go, and what we’d have to do to these frequencies to get that spectacular clarity. We concentrated on both ends of the spectrum that people hadn’t really worried about, It was a very broadband approach and very fast, with a lot of bypassing.”
“I have stood on the shoulders of many people doing this,” Ian admits readily. “Many people around Melbourne were doing special go-fast modifications: for $500 they’d make your amp sound better. Doing service work, I saw a lot of these kinds of modifications which had flambed themselves because they’d oscillated. Changing the coupling caps for Wonder Caps sounded great, but a lot of the English stuff was pretty close to oscillation anyway, due to it running at 240 volts instead of 220-volts. If you start fiddling with those things, the inductance changes to give you your sonic improvements, but stability is affected, and so the amp may fry itself. So we thought that if these modifications made things sound better, we should incorporate them into the original design in a way that it’s also stable.”
Mundrum, Not Humdrum
By ’93, Ian had operational prototypes of his designs. “They sounded pretty good to me. I was working with Vijayan Panikkar, who had worked with Noel Clooney in Ireland and had spent time at the Linn factory in Scotland. Vijayan was convinced that we had something quite workable. At this stage it was in a large black box and it sounded like magic, so I asked Vijayan to tell me a Tamil word that meant black magic. It was Mundrum. I liked it, but most Australians misheard it as ‘humdrum’ so it had to go. Just then we managed to get toroidal transformers that weren’t as bulky as before, so we could put the amp in a slimline case only 60-mm high. To get the heatsinking to fit, we commissioned Comalco to make a die that would take an internal chassis height of 60-mm and engineered a little 60-mm fan to create a totally internal, fan-forced heatsink. It took a lot of time and money to develop, but we can now make a 300-watt RMS model with a 600-watt transient capability.”
Black Box to Redgum
When the prototype was at ‘black box’ stage Ian began demonstrating it to his customers at Contemporary Sound Centre. “Most of them were knocked out of their trees,” he recalls. “This was great because we’d been listening to it for a year or so but were worried we’d got too close to it, and this really confirmed our enthusiasm. So then we improved the looks by adding a redgum front and we’d show it to people who came in looking for replacements for their old Pioneer amps and suchlike. They’d have a budget of around $400-which could usually be stretched to $750 at a pinch-so we demonstrated Proton and Onyx. At that stage of the demo, we’d tell them there was another option, but that it would cost quite a bit more. After we’d demonstrate the Redgum (at $1500), one of two things happened: they either found the $1500, or went away and came back when they had. No-one who was genuinely looking for a good amplifier ever turned it down.”
The Price is Right
Ian found the pricing process a difficult, but vital, one. “The first Redgum model was rated at 120-watts per channel and sold for $2500, but I wanted to bring it down below $2,000 which is a frightening price-point, and was particularly frightening in the early ’90s. And I really wanted to bring it down to under a thousand. So we made one with half the number of FETs, and cut the power supply back a little, which got us down to $1,495. The sound quality was virtually the same, because we used exactly the same board. I don’t think the smaller amplifier has quite the kick, but you have to listen very carefully to pick any difference. At first we were selling about one amp a month, to our Contemporary Sound Centre customers. This was far more than I thought I would, because I had only rarely sold amplifiers over $1000. Now I was doing it regularly, which was amazing.”
Ian recalls the enthusiasm with which some of his customers greeted his new Redgum products. “There was an artist in Melbourne who was very excited about the amplifier and who used to come into the store spontaneously dancing around and raving about it in front of other customers who must have thought I’d paid him! Others who’d bought them convinced their friends to buy them. One said, ‘It’s one of the few products I have ever bought that I don’t look across the lounge at it and say, why the hell did I buy that?”
“Australians making amps back then included Peter Stein of ME, Vince Testa, Arthur Rappos and Jon De Sensi from Music Labs. But their amps were all over $2500 -a specialist area, whereas I was aiming at the mums and dads. I wanted to replace their good old amps, not aim at the ME kind of market at all. I was going for volume.”
When Ian realised that Redgum was going to require his full attention and he decided to close Contemporary Sound Centre, people thought he wouldn’t be around, and started buying up big. “We were selling around two or three Redgum amplifiers a day! My lovely lady Lindy does most of our circuit boards from the ground up, stuffing and soldering literally from the biscuit stage, and neither of us does anything else but make amplifiers nowadays. We work long hours but at least we don’t have the costs and hassles of employing somebody. Our throughput is currently around 50 a week on a long-term basis. But we could never sell that many per week in Australia so we had to export. Luckily with the currencies the way they are, we are internationally competitive.”
Off to the Shows
Redgum’s first international exposure was in Britain- “We took the amp to an English hi-fi show in 1997, and found that we were definitely competitive. Anything we saw that was comparable sonically was triple our selling price in England, largely because of our currency advantage. There’s still a lot of electronics out there that’s priced for the market, rather than for what it’s worth. At the show I saw a lovely-looking valve amp on a pedestal with two valves. Behind it stood three Italians in beautiful suits. I didn’t have the heart to ask what it cost, but I figured that if they sold one a year it would keep them in the manner to which they’d obviously become accustomed. I’m just not that sort of person. We created quite a deal of interest: no direct sales, but we knew we could do it. So we closed CSC when we went to CES the next January. There we signed up with a US distributor.”
“The wood panel gets us plenty of interest. So does the key that serves as the on/off switch. We think the name is good but the Americans think it’s something you chew. In England they think it’s some kind of glue. Some US reviewers have seen it and been very impressed. Rick Weiner from Bound for Sound has enthused a few dealers into looking at it. But there are so many amps on the market. At the Alexis Park CES venue there are 24 blocks of 40 units and every room has someone in it selling upmarket hi-fi. I had half a room amongst all this. You have to invite people specially: you can’t wait for them to discover you. On our second visits to the US and the UK we got a lot more interest, and we now have agents in England, US, Switzerland, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. We sent regular deliveries to Asia up until the currency crisis, after which they’ve not taken one since. But it will come back. Hong Kong has started to move again, taking units for selling into China, but ultimately, I think Redgum ‘s biggest markets will be in Asia, where the industry is based around old and known brands, especially English ones. One major player is importing beautiful wood-grain speakers from Germany, and is currently looking at Redgum amplifiers as a wood-finished product that would complement them beautifully. He loves the sound.”
Redgum Branches Out
Models have been breeding like flies around here,” says Ian. “We started with a 120-Watt model, then put in a 60-watter. Next came 175-watt three piece passive preamp and dual monoblocks, and a 300-watt model. There’s also a $6000.00 six-channel x 240-watts home theatre amplifier that was commissioned. We’re not sure how it’ll go, but there will definitely be a smaller six-channel model out in due course.
“We had a lot of resistance to the dual volume controls on the dual monoblocs, despite the fact that it’s easy to run your hand across both of them to adjust them. But we’ll be reluctantly making a single volume control model, though it means new circuit boards and faceplates. I wish they’d just read why I chose to use two volume controls in the first place.”
Attending international shows, Ian quickly tired of attention being distracted from his amplifiers by whatever loudspeakers he was using, and he decided to complete the range with some Redgum loudspeakers. Despite his extensive experience making commercial and domestic loudspeakers, Ian asked renowned Aussie speaker maker John Reilly of Axis to make them for him. “I told John he could either make them for me, or I’d make some that looked just like his. John being a good businessman, he made me the Redgum speakers, though I did some fiddling with the crossover design. Called the Redgum RGS28i, they’re based on the one of Axis’s bookshelf two-way models, are finished in real Redgum veneer over MDF, and use the Tonagen/Vifa 6.5 inch driver everybody’s using, and a soft-dome tweeter. They have biwirable gold-plated terminals, and sell for around $1500 a pair.” These have now been joined by a pair of floorstanding speakers (RGS38i) with a lead-shotfilled damping chamber, that sells for around $3000.
Redgum CD Players
We hated to dampen Ian’s enthusiastic claim to being Australia’s first (and only) manufacturer of CD players, especially when we’re uncertain of the production status of Kostas Metaxas’ distinctive ‘Phos’ CD player that came out in some time back in 1993. “Rats”, said Ian. “But we are the first to create a high-performance domestic CD player which uses a CD-ROM drive that is easily replaceable by the customer.
The idea for the Redgum CD player arose while Ian was talking to Jon de Sensi of Music Labs whilst strap-hanging in a London ‘tube’ on the way to a hi-fi show. “Not being a digital man at all I’d asked Jon to make me a DAC that I could use with a CD-ROM transport to make a good CD player for under $1000. After he’d finished coughing and spluttering, he agreed that it should be able to deliver the same ones and zeroes as does a Philips drive. He spent a lot of time on it, and developed a really good DAC into which we simply dock the transport. We now have it all on the one circuit board with the CDROM power supply, and, sonically, it’s a stunningly good product that sells for $995 and is user-serviceable. Loosen some small screws underneath, unclip the power cord and the digital cable and you can slot in a new drive. A basic drive is only 50 bucks at the Sunday markets, which gets right up the nose of the majors who want to charge $600 for just an optic block. We started by calling it the ‘Ugly DACling’, but we now have a fold-down Redgum panel that comes up to cover the drawer front, so it’s called the Redgum CD2. After existing in prototype form for around 18 months, it went into full production at the end of 1998.
“When judged on sonics versus price, our amplifier is quite a leap up from other amplifiers, and our CD player is substantially better than its nearest competitors. What you will notice is that the hard edge on strings and brass is not there. I don’t know if it was Jon’s digital work or mine on the audio side, but we have a product that does it for not a lot of money. Since we’re dealing with jitter problems electronically, we can’t hear any definite improvement when we use a better transport. Jon de Sensi insisted on Burr-Brown converters, and they’d just produced a dual 20-bit DAC on a surface-mount chip. Normally this would have been a kit bag of ICs, but this is the size of a postage stamp, and very easy to incorporate. It’s almost impossible to service, so we will change the boards over if there’s any problem. Part of the deal with Jon de Sensi was that I would make an upmarket model with his top BurrBrown chips. It will sell for around $1500-1700 and be known as the Redgum CD5.”
Ian is asked regularly about the likelihood of a Redgum DVD player. “I have already investigated using computer DVDROM drives, but unfortunately they don’t (at the moment), have a digital output. But the back of the circuit boards show the holes where they ought to be, and I still want to find out whether digital output can be accessed somehow in order to use them. I’m still wondering whether DVD will be a goer. Like many manufacturers, I’m still waiting to see how it turns out.”
The ‘Indestructable’ Challenge
Going against another trend, Ian has set out to make his amplifiers virtually indestructible, and he has an interesting anecdote to bear him out. “Our warranties are for seven years, and that includes anything a customer can do to it. We had one customer buy our three-piece amplifier to power his difficult-to-drive Mageneplanars. I hooked them up to the amp for him, plus another set of leads for some speakers in another room, and told him to hook the speakers up when he got home. But I got a call to say that the amp sounded o.k, but that it kept stopping. When I got out there later in the day, I found the music playing away, but it suddenly stopped. I touched the amp and found it glowing a dull red. Looking in the other room, I found no speakers connected and the spare leads lying there, shorted out. The Redgum amp had been running like that all day. Its mains transformer is incapable of delivering enough fault current to fry the outputs, so the output stage and the mains transformer share the load and the dissipation. The 80 degree cut-off between the two means that whichever gets to 80 degrees first shuts the power off. I had no idea it would be able to do this all day, but it did … and it’s still working fine.
“I know dealers who advise biwiring but don’t warn of the dangers of frying the output stage by rotating the leads 90 degrees, which gives you two hard shorts at the end. People make wiring mistakes from time to time, and they shouldn’t have to repair their amps as a result of that.
“How do my amplifiers compare to other amplifiers? Well I always try to compare them to the original performance, not to other hi-fi.”
“As a teenager I was exposed to lots of live acoustic music associated with a band, exploring what instruments can and can’t do. When I got my Redgum amplifiers together, I felt like I was back in the room with the performers. It’s hard to measure in terms of frequency response. When you release a string that is plucked, the whole body of the instrument shakes and that impact you can only feel, not hear. I have a recording of an energetic Russian pianist and you can hear … or feel … him driving his piano right into the stage. So I was very pleased to see Bound for Sound’s Rich Weiner write [of the Redgum amplifier], ‘I have live musicians at the end of my room.’ I think he must have been paying attention.”