Richard Bates works for Auralic. A relative newcomer to the World of streaming, based in Oregon USA with manufacturing in Bejing, Auralic have very quickly carved a niche for themselves with superbly built, well designed and fantastic sounding products. Founded in 2009, they develop innovative audiophile-grade components, including streamers and DACs.
Hello Richard, I'm pretty sure you've been in the Hi-Fi industry as long as Moorgate. Tell us where you started and a little about your career.
I started an apprenticeship in electronics late 70's learning how to repair audio equipment and then slipped in to 'Hifi' retail in the eightiesfor five years, which was great fun as youngster. I then progressed in to professional sound and lighting specification mid-eighties designing club sound & lighting systems and then joined Celestion Loudspeakers out on the road for three years (that's when I first met you and your dad, Paul).
Yes I have vivid memories of you from the Celestion and Meridian days.
I joined Meridian Audio in 1990 and started a nineteen year stint just at the time when separate DAC's came to market and Meridian introduced the worlds first DSP digital loudspeaker systems. That was a hard concept to introduce nearly thirty years ago and is just now becoming a bit more common. Meridian were somewhat ahead of their time, to say the least. Looking back, it was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time within a forward looking organisation producing really cool stuff. I've enormous respect for Bob Stuart and the late Allen Boothroyd. Big changes came when the company sought involvement and external investment from a luxury goods consortium - a new track in a different direction coinciding with the financial crash in 2008 resulted in my position being made redundant. I spent some time back in retail sales and marketing and was then approached by Auralic in 2015 who were looking for someone to build the brand in the UK and Europe.
I DJ'd in clubs for quite a while and always yearned for 'hifi' sound quality in big spaces. I think I had more fun setting up the gear than actually playing the records! - I can remember in the early eighties running a quite large mobile disco with a pair of SL1200's with Grado cartridges and a couple of original Marantz CD63 CD players, three-way actively crossed over big JBL / RCF loudspeaker system driven by multiple Quad 405.2 power amplifiers, all lugged around in a Transit van. Quite something back in the day and a complete pain to set up and move around, but it seemed worth it. And then everything shrunk and became smaller - eight Bose 802's and bass cabinets driven by a new breed of immensely powerful MosFet power amplifiers. I still DJ very occasionally today, but its so much easier with a MacBook, Traktor and a Nexosystem.
What changes have you seen during your time within the industry? Good and bad.
The biggest changes over four decades? To the good - despite the comings and goings of formats and the naysayers prophesying the death of audio for longer than I care to remember, great quality product at many levels & prices has never been so accessible. Its widely available and there really hasn't been a better time than now to enjoy music in great quality at an affordable price for youngsters and those with a bit of interest in sound beyond what comes out of an Amazon Echo or the TV.
Streaming high quality sound over the internet was the stuff of dreams up until just ten years ago - we shouldn't take any of that for granted. Computer audio justifiably received much criticism in the early days with the ubiquitous rise of the iPod and music derived from noisy PC's and dodgy web sites, all highly compressed. But that's all changed. Let's not forget the rise of internet radio - there are so many fantastic radio stations available globally and if you choose carefully, can be one of the best ways to find new music and the audio quality in many cases is very good . I also think its nice that records have re-emerged as a very engaging and fun way to enjoy an artists work - its good for the audio industry.
To the bad - well, that could be construed as negative in some quarters but a few things spring to mind. Product sold purely on price by internet vendors ultimately isn't good for the consumer. These companies could be selling hifi or bags of sand, it would make any difference to them. Bad buying decisions can be easily made. People interested in good quality audio should, where possible, hear a component, or system for themselves - its very personal. Then there's the rise of the 'expert' Hifi YouTubers who can put out all sorts of inaccurate and disruptive messages - it's like the 'wild west' out there! Retailers purporting to be distributors, when the majority simply buy the brand ( usually from smaller companies) and sell it through their own store. Distributors margins take in to account marketing, purchasing stocks, supporting and distributing products - that's a skilled, time consuming and costly exercise. Retailers operating this way can, and do, make significant profit on products sold to customers and may be some what biased when proffering their advice at the expense of other alternative products they may have in their store, which isn't good for the consumer.
Auralic (to our mind) have come along into a very established market and with little fanfare and managed to become a significant player in no time at all. Many others have tried and failed. It comes as a surprise to us that there are so few good players in the market. What's your take on this and what drew you to the company?
Designing and manufacturing a 'complete' streaming eco-system encompassing control, software and hardware and then deliver it consistently to a global market place is challenging. We design and manufacture our own hardware, our own 'Lightning' server and our own 'Lightning DS' control app with a real obsession for innovative design, style and the very best possible sound quality. Many other are reliant upon involving external designs for control. I like the fact that our guys are young, forward thinking with progressive ideas. Our brand has quite quickly developed a reputation for producing rock solid products at the forefront of the streaming revolution and we couldn't have wished for better coverage in the press and the commitment of our business partners to what we do - it's very humbling. We compete with the best on a global stage delivering well made products with cutting edge performance. There's a growing adoption of streaming by progressive audiophiles and music lovers alike of high resolution music streaming services such as Qobuz, Amazon Music HD and Tidal - this is now becoming prevalent all over the world where it has become the primary digital listening source.
As to what drew me to Auralic; it was following an introduction from an industry colleague. Auralic were relatively new, well financed and keen establish growing business in the UK - I took a long, hard look at the brand during the summer of 2015 and following meeting up with my then colleague Christian Rechenbach Xuanqian in the Netherlands and then checking out the companies credentials and testing several products in the UK, I signed contracts nine months later at the Munich Show in May 2016. I now oversee the EU, Scandinavian and Australian markets and working with my colleague Brent Hefley in the USA, take care of our PR, advertising and marketing activities in Europe.
Analogue or digital?
It doesn't really matter as long as its done well. I've always had a very much 'live and let live' attitude to peoples preferences for analogue and digital music carriers and for different formats. During the years I've spent in the business, I've met many very opinionated characters who profess to know what is best for everyone. This seems to me to be rooted in a narrow perspective and personal experiences from the past. I think its really up to the 'informed' customer to decide what they like to use, play with or listen to - some like music, some like gear, some like both, some just like faffing about, some like attention, some are never satisfied, some need to belong to a club and some are mildly bonkers. I don't think anyone can say the end is nigh for a physical format and its highly unlikely that CD, vinyl or recorded quarter inch tape will disappear anytime soon. The natural shift toward music streaming is very encouraging in that it is this medium which ultimately will bring young people in to appreciating music, and some of those will seek good quality sound in their lives at home or on the move. It comes at just the right time with network infrastructures and mobile environments which readily support high quality streams. As I mentioned earlier, the LP record is good too in attracting a young audience - it's good for the attention span as it discourages hopping from one track to the next, and the whole experience playing a record can be alluring, making the process an event and something to spend time with. It can also be a complete faff depending on your mind set and point of view.
So I guess if I had to make a choice then digital is the way forward - its come on in leaps and bounds in recent years as A/D D/A convertors have become truer to source and high quality streaming music providers have come to the fore. Having said that, I still get a nice fuzzy feeling when I hear a familiar recording on an old Revox or a very nice LP on my record player. I don't think anyone should judge someone who chooses to collect records, tapes, CD's or streams music. Similarly speakers - panels, horns, passive, active or DSP - which is 'best' ? A person can surely decide based upon what they research or have a yearning for, and most importantly the advice of someone they can trust and are comfortable dealing with - someone like you, Paul! I guess I do get a little perplexed with folk who vehemently denounce one format or audio component over the other, all too often with limited experience of what music in different environments really sounds like, but i guess we're all different and its impossible to legislate for what happens beyond an individuals ear drum and that inner cerebral experience 🙂
Can you explain to our customers the reason behind Auralic offering an Aries and an Altair product?
'Aries' G series streamers purely have digital outputs so are designed for optimal performance when connected via USB or SPDIF to an external digital to analogue converter. 'Altair' G series models incorporate a digital to analogue converter. Both models offer many features including CD playback and ripping function when a suitable drive is connected, option internal music storage, wired & wireless connectivity and Auralic's native 'Lightning DS' IOS app. The internal music storage option offers the best audio performance, negating the need for off-board or attached network storage.
We also make a separate DAC called 'Vega'. We've developed our own Fusion DAC technology which uses a unique and proprietary combination of our own coding and partial use of an off-the-shelf ESS DAC chip. Our latest Vega G3 model uses a unique combination of FPGA device ( our Proteus platform) in conjunction with an ESS DAC.
We feel the lightning app is a very good one. How important do you see the app in the streaming experience?
Our designs are well thought out and well engineered, but all that means very little without a dedicated control app which is easy to navigate and pleasurable to use. Our customers must have an enjoyable experience in both selecting their music choices and enjoying the music. Lightning server is built into all streamers and its often overlooked just how important server technology is in contributing to the sound of a product.
What electronic brands and loudspeakers stimulate your interest? Are there any favourites that you "go to" at exhibitions?
I have a soft spot for L'Acoustic , ATC, Spendor, Hegel, Rega and T+A electronics. The people behind Innuos are really good people. DCS make some nicely engineered stuff too.
Can you give us a little insight into anything that Auralic might be working on for the future?
We've just launched new G2.2 and G3 Aries and Vega products at High end Munich. The response from press and consumers alike was incredible. A new platform and deployment of some proprietary technologies. 90% of the components in these models are all new.
How do you see the audio industry developing in the coming years?
Technology won't slow down. Streaming music and pictures will be dominant. Records and CD's will still be around. Hifi Shows will still be small and niche, and there will always be people drawn into and fascinated by audio gear.... and some of those might just like music! I don't think many forsee just how big a part AI and quantum computing will play in product development, consumer behaviour and how it will intersect with existing platforms and products, influencing consumers in how they think about music and how it fits into their lives. Truly it is hard to envisage exactly how AI will manifest itself, but for sure, it will play a part in the audio industry which may be quite disruptive for a while. As a consequence, there's good chance high quality audio may become increasingly homogenised - increasingly refined design techniques, differentiated by aesthetic and how loud a manufacturer shouts saying theirs is the best.
I completely agree about AI. I think it will turn things upside down and i am not sure all of it is going to be good for the World.
What equipment do you use at home?
Sonos throughout the house and in the garden for background radio. TV audio via ARC to a Sonos amp driving four B&WCCM682 in-ceiling speakers with a hidden Sonos sub - I like Sonos, it just works, offers reasonably good audio quality and has been instrumental in growing the music streaming business. My stereo system consists of an Aries G2 with Vega G2 DAC via XLR to a Hegel 590 Integrated amplifier and ATC HTS40's with subwoofer. I have a Rega P10 / Apheta 3 with Aria for records and a Nakamichi DR2 cassette deck for the odd 'rose tinted' stroll down memory lane. I've an all-in-one Auralic Polaris with a pair of small B&W686S2 in the office. If I'm travelling its iPhone streaming from Qobuz through my car system and wireless AirPods Pro for personal listening. I've a pair of Senheisser HD650's and Beyer DT150's headphones I use occasionally with an Auralic Taurus headphone amplifier running off the Hegel. I've always loved music, always loved great audio since I was a kid.
That much is evident Richard. Thanks very much for taking part and for sharing your experiences and insights with us.