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Welcome to the Bottlehead blog

16 Jan

Welcome to the Bottlehead blog

2014/01/16 by Doc B.

We’ve been talking about doing a blog for years but it took our recent web site overhaul to get us off dead center. The plan is to use the Bottlehead blog as a place to share some of the philosophy behind why we do this audio kit thing and some of the thought process involved in development of the products we offer.

It seems appropriate for this new soapbox to start with the cast of characters. We’ll get the old timer out of the way first.

Dan “Doc B.” Schmalle

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-photo by David Robinson

I’m the President For Life of Bottlehead Corporation. A DIY kinda guy since childhood when I would routinely take things apart to learn how they worked, and not nearly as often be able to put them back together. I got a degree in Physics at UC Berkeley a long time ago (way back even before Bosons were discovered). During the Reagan era the job market upon leaving college was such that it was easy to get employment as long as you were willing to work on stuff that killed people.

So I chose what seemed a logical alternative at the time and became a pastry chef. Stints with various small and medium sized food businesses, seasoned with the gritty reality of occasional work in multinational corporations here and there made me realize a couple of things. One was that I would not last long in the corporate world where my defective personality led to shooting off of mouth which often as not led to severance. The other was that with enough naiveté and a willingness to go long stretches with little money I could enjoy all the privileges of self employment.

The start of the obsession

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-remnants of my radio collecting days, a 1934 Philco tombstone radio atop a 1956 Telefuken Salzburg console

While the germ of self employment was fermenting like Red Star Yeast in a bowl on top of the fridge my fascination with audio seemed to focus on vacuum tubes. This was initiated by my playing with the push-pull 6BQ5 amp pulled from my dad’s old Magnavox console. One fateful day of dumpster diving at a local Value Village yielded the tipping point – a 1950’s vintage Telefunken Gavotte vacuum tube table radio. With that acquisition began a rather crazed period of the acquisition of many more antique radios, which eventually turned into a gig restoring radios for others. A repeating theme in my life has been the ruination of perfectly good hobbies by turning them into a business. In the end that business (called Classic Radio Of Liberty Bay) turned out to be a lot of work for too little money, but during its development I would pick also up various pieces of Golden Age tube audio gear to play with along with old radios, thus setting the stage for the next act.

I kept running across the same wacky group of local guys who would be competing with me to snag the latest Dynaco or McIntosh or Eico amp to be unearthed in the Seattle area. And so I decided test the waters of this newly found vintage audio collector’s craze by forming a club for these like minded loonies. From that club emerged VALVE, a paper newsletter (this was back in the final days of photocopy machines and real paper newsletters arriving in the mail) for Vintage Audio Listeners and Valve Enthusiasts. Looking back, I see VALVE as a monument to my lack of knowledge on the subject. But it seems to be an entertaining read for DIY audio types and we have a VALVE newsletter archive in the Bottlehead Forum database.

The kit business begins

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–an ad for the original S.E.X. kit

The next stage in propulsion to the apex of vacuum tube dabbling occurred at one of the local VALVE club meetings. My earliest acquaintance in the local vintage audio scene was Dave Dintenfass. Dave brought to a VALVE meeting the hand drawn schematic and some parts to make a tube amplifier from a single tube per channel, a “one tuber”, nomenclature which eventually evolved into what is referred to these days as a spud amp. The idea still holds merit; check out our Mainline headphone amp for a prime example.

The parts Dave brought combined with others from my rather out of control parts stash came together into a listenable circuit in about 45 minutes. Another newly found friend, Paul Joppa, worked with me to put together a single driver speaker mounted in a heavy cardboard box that housed a recent kitchen sink purchase – thusly named the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-speaker. Hooking this hasty pudding together resulted in about a dozen dropped jaws. There was a natural skin tone, a realistic texture, a lifelike appearance and a warm tingle from this single ended amplified single driver lash up that had everyone looking at each other, shrugging shoulders and scratching balding heads.

I couldn’t shake this experience and decided to cook up a kit for the local gang to try this concept out. Called the Single Ended eXperimenter’s kit (S.E.X.), the pair of monoblocks cost $275 and even included the metal cone drivers that had been used at the meet. Word seemed to travel quickly and thus in early 1994 began a backlog on kit orders that continues to this day. More kits came soon thereafter including the best selling Foreplay preamp, a design inspired by George Wright. George named the preamp – “What comes before S.E.X.? Foreplay!” Afterglow, B-Glow, Straight 8 speakers, etc, followed over the next few years. Paul Joppa retired from his career in acoustics at Boeing and became the head designer for Bottlehead. Working closely together PJ and I cooked up kits like Paramour, Seduction and Foreplay 2 and 3, and that working relationship continues to bear fruit like Paramount and Eros, and nowadays with the help of another Paul (Birkeland, aka PB), unique and exceptional products like BeePre and Mainline.

Getting the word out

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-the Bottlehead room at VSAC 2008

About the same time as the kits took off a new thing called the Web started up. A great slippery wiggling handful, the Web made us learn how little we knew about civility and how tricky “type now, think later” communication can be. Along with the steep learning curve of the Web came an amazing access to the sharing of ideas and a truly easy way for a small group of individuals with like interests who might be spread around the globe to interact. And thus at some point about 1996 we went from being known to 600 people to being known to 6000 people, quite literally overnight. The trend continues to this day, we had over 6.4 million page views of the Bottlehead Forum in 2013.

In spite of the Web, face to face meeting was how a few million years of evolution designed us to interact most effectively. Queen Eileen and I discussed the idea of trying to get all these interesting individuals we had communicated with under one roof for a few days and the Vacuum State of the Art Conference was born in 1997. While it had some aspects of a trade show in that manufacturers of gear who fit into the whole “Ultra Fi” tube amp and efficient speaker philosophy showed their setups, it was primarily a bigass party at which hobbyists and manufacturers could approach each other and share ideas. DIYers got equal time with pros, we even had a room for them to demo their creations, called the Craftsman’s Room. And an equal number of hardcore DIYers and industry types shared the podium in the seminars.

We did four of those, 97,98,01,03 and we licensed the event to someone in 2008. Will there be more? Not sure, but the question certainly comes up every year. They really were fun, and you just don’t get the same vibe at any of the plethora of regional trade shows around the world these days. Meantime, being one who is always looking for something new and different, I started down another road in this wacky audio biz.

Building credibility

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–the Camellia Room, at 1340 Mission

I had made friends with Grammy winning mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine (aka PS, I know a lot of Pauls!) and his business partner at the time, Michael Romanowski in about 1997. After VSAC 2003 Paul invited me to listen to some speakers he was considering for a new mastering room, made by a fledgling company called Magico. After the session I was asked if I would be interested in doing the electronics for the complex four way system – an individual tube amp for each driver and an all tube electronic four way crossover. Duh, hell yes! And thus began my association with Paul, Michael and the facility known as 1340 Mission in San Francisco.

The project was rather involved and one of the critical lessons I learned in working with Paul is that a good room takes about two to three years to dial in. During the many listening and evaluation sessions that occurred in that time period we found that we tended to gravitate to Paul’s 1” two track tape deck as our source, playing material he had in his extensive library. Thus my love of the sound of tape began.

The Tape Project was born out of those listening sessions and thus I acquired my second job as one of the three managing directors of TP. With 24 titles released as of this writing TP has lead the way in a small but significant revival of albums recorded to high quality reel to reel tape. As the gear guy, I learned everything I could about tape as fast as possible and we developed both playback electronics like the Tube Repro and Eros tape head preamp, as well as mechanical upgrades to two of the more popular prosumer tape decks. As reviews declaring TP tapes the best sounding format available began to appear Bottlehead was invited to incorporate our gear into some Best Sound of Show winning rooms at the likes of CES and RMAF. It seemed that after 15 years of hard work trying to convince people that investing the time into building innovative designs was a better choice than buying and flipping a different Stereophile A list box with a half inch think aluminum faceplate every three months, Bottlehead became an overnight sensation.

New Markets

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–a headphone demo installation at Bottleheadquarters

So what next? In the early 2000s it was apparent to me that high end headphones would be a big thing very soon as the “headphone generation” who grew up listening to iPods headed to college and early careers. Unfortunately we were so busy with other projects that we didn’t get a tube headphone amp kit out for several more years. And when we finally did one it was by done creating a headphone output option to the latest version of our old friend the S.E.X. amp. It soon became clear that a dedicated headphone amp was something our customers wanted, and PB pitched an OTL headphone amp idea as his first design contribution to the Bottlehead line. Thus we came out with Crack, currently our biggest selling kit. The market seems insatiable and we continue to develop new designs like Mainline to work with the continually evolving high end headphone market.

Another direction that I have wanted to go for years was in the musical instrument and recording end of the business. The most obvious first step into this realm was a guitar amp. The resulting Tode was my first step back as lead designer in many years, and I have to say it was fun to be back scribbling notes, cutting wire and soldering components. Watch for increased exposure of Tode in the coming months along with some other music and recording related kits.

Well enough about me, how was your day?

Doc B.

Reduction phono preamp and BeePre preamp kits on sale this week! Dismiss