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Interview with Joseph Dillon

Joseph Dillon is an electronics whiz with a love of building amplifiers for home and for a living.  He builds guitar amplifiers to customer specifications, so he knows a lot about how to engineer the amp to produce the exact sound his customer wants.  And it all started from humble beginning with a PA system in his native India.

This interview by Tom Waters was originally published in Sound Travels (reprinted with permission of nextmedia Pty Ltd).

Tom Waters: Do you have a first memory, a first unforgettable musical experience that left an impression?

JDs front endJoseph Dillon: My exposure to music, audio and sound started at my boarding school in India, probably when I was around 10 or 11 years’ old.  We had a boarding master who was a bit of a Ham Radio guy.  He had this huge valve console radio which he hooked up to a PA system and broadcast radio programs to listening areas around the school.  This was the time when bands like the Beatles, the Shadows, the Ventures, Dire Straits, Dave Grusin, Four Play, etc. burst on to the scene.  Every Saturday night around 8 pm a one-hour program called “The Binaca Hit Parade” was broadcast on radio where the latest hits of these and other bands were featured. 

This is still one of my unforgettable musical experiences and was one of the highlights of my boarding school experiences.

TW: And did that start you on the hi-fi journey, or did something else start you on the audio equipment quest?

JD: I remember somebody donating an old record player to the school which we hooked up to the PA system.  331/3 rpm and 45 rpm records were just beginning to surface at this time.  All we had were 78 rpm records of Big Band stuff, classical, opera, etc.  Anyway, during my final years at school, I ended up becoming the school disc jockey. 

After school, when I was in Technical College, I joined a band: electric guitars, bass guitars, drums and vocals.  Guitar amplifiers were not available in India at this time.  So we plugged everything into the PA system.  I remember during the first session, the high frequency horns blew up!

These experiences are what started me on the journey to high quality sound.

TW: Where do you think your system is going, or has it arrived?

JD: I chose my source components, my speakers and my cables after a lot of research and with great care.  I build all my phono stages, pre-amplifiers and amplifiers.  I do this with great attention to detail, choice of components, etc.  In spite of this, I hesitate to say, it has arrived.  A work in progress is a more suitable phrase.  I am continuously upgrading my amplifying equipment.  I also try to upgrade power supplies in some of my source equipment.  I experiment with speaker placement.  The list is endless.

TW: What’s your favourite piece of equipment at the moment, something that you wouldn’t sell?

JD: My McIntosh XLS360 main speakers which double as my 7.1 system front, left and right speakers are my favourite piece of equipment at the moment.  Also a favourite is my Project 6 Perspex turntable with Audio Technica AN50 moving coil cartridge (50th Anniversary Model).

Cambridge Audio multidisc playerTW: What do you see as your next hi-fi purchase or upgrade?

JD: I am always striving to bring my hi-fi and 7.1 surround system up to or close to the live concert sound experience.  To this end, I have invested in good quality Blu-ray players, surround sound pre-amp processors and individual valve amplifiers driving all 7 channels.  I am continuously researching higher quality displays, Blu-ray players, processors, etc.  There is a lot of top quality multi-channel content on Blu-ray, SACD and DVDs etc. which is capable of transporting you to the actual concert hall or arena.  For me this is a very satisfying experience.

TW: What’s the most memorable pair of speakers (or system as a whole) you’ve ever heard?

JD: That would have to be the McIntosh Reference System I was privileged to hear at a McIntosh Showroom in Europe.

TW: Is there any component you’ve owned and sold that you now regret selling?

JD:  I regret having sold some of my older equipment like my Technics SP10 turntable and a Nakamichi Z1000 tape deck.

TW: Do you use the same music for comparing components as you do for listening pleasure?

JD: I have up to 10 tracks on vinyl and CD which I listen to often and am familiar with.  I use these for comparison purposes.  There’s something about certain tracks that gets into my subconscious.  When I hear those tracks on different equipment then I look for “markers” or reference points – they set the expectation of how something should sound. 

TW: What genre of music do you listen to mostly and who are some of your favourite artists?

JD: I listen to a lot of classical, jazz, blues and pop/world music – about 25% of each.  I have some favourites in each of those categories.  Classical – Concert for Violin and Orchestra in D (OP61) Beethoven featuring Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  Jazz – Chie Ayado, Weather Report and Dave Grusin to name a few.

Project turntableTW: What would be your ‘desert island’ music albums if you could only choose, say, three works?

I would probably go for sound tracks of multiple artists on the same albums – a mix of classical, jazz and pop.

TW: How would you describe the sound you’re getting from your current system?

JD: My current system is very musical with individual components in the link from source to speakers blending smoothly with each other to give a very satisfying sound.  My limitation is my listening room – the sound is noticeably bright on certain pieces of music.

TW: Your room is fairly lively; have you tried or considered any room treatment?

JD: My 2 channel and 7.1 channel systems both share some of the same amplification equipment, speakers and cabling between them.  My source components are not shared.

My system is installed in my main lounge.  Because of this, I have to juggle three main conflicting elements to achieve good sound quality:

  1. Optimum sound delivery to listening area
  2. Architecture
  3. Landscape

Optimising any one of those elements seems to always affect the other two adversely.  So, it is an exercise in balance and compromise.  To illustrate my point: When I acquired my Project 6 Perspex Turntable, I was forced to install this and the phono stage five metres away from my line stage pre-amp.  The sound was disastrous.  The phono stage was not able to drive this long cable.  I had to install another high current drive stage to the phono stage to solve this problem. 

And due to space limitations, I’ve had to place my main front speakers too high – the tweeters are well above ear level.  Most of the high frequencies probably bounce off the ceiling!  But even so, the sound is good.  Here are a few comments from some audiophiles that have heard my systems:

  • William – (an all-valve guy) “Sounds harsh in the mid-range, not the sound of valves?  [Could it be your room?]
  • Sudhir  – “Your system is surprisingly good even with the hard floor and all the glass reflecting surfaces without any treatment”.
  • Ray – at one of the Sydney Audio Club multichannel “Special Interest Group” meetings at my place:  “Your system is brilliant!  Imagine what it would sound like in a dedicated Home Theatre room”.

From the above, it is clear that the Achilles Heel in my system is my room.  I will have to explore methods to tame down room resonances – a major project.  Welcome to the world of the audiophile!  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

TW: With your DIY amplifiers, do you use known circuits off a plan, or do you design your own?

JD: I like the sound of valves, so all my hi-fi and surround sound amplification is valve-based.  My day job involves CCT Design (ie. circuit design tools), proto-typing, trouble-shooting – both solid state and valve-based equipment, where I come across hundreds of different circuits and designs.  My hi-fi and 7.1 systems are too application-specific to copy any of those designs.  So, I custom design and build from scratch, I don’t copy anything.  Different types of amplification require different types of valves.  If you want 300 watts in a power amplifier then you go for circuits that are high voltage, high current.  For guitar amplifiers I often use the 12AX7 valve as I can get high gain.  But for a hi-fi preamp I would go for medium or low gain, high current, low impedance valves such as the 12AU7, 6H30 or 6C45 valves.  [Refer to the equipment list for all DIY amplifiers in the 7.1 system.]

All my amplifiers are wired point-to-point.  I don’t use PCBs for the following reasons:

  • Since most of my amplifiers are either one-off or small manufacturing runs, designing PCB for them is too time-consuming.
  • When high temperatures are mixed with humidity plus high voltages in valve circuits or high currents in solid state circuits, this becomes a dangerous cocktail for PCBs.  The specialist PCB material is able to cope under these conditions, but such material is not readily available to the one-off DIY builder.
  • It is fairly simple to make any changes to CCT, etc.

ampTW: With Surround Sound, do you prefer the ambience of the event, or to be on the stage amongst the performers?

JD: I attend live concerts, some open and some in concert venues.  The ambience around the instruments, the concept of space, the rendition of voices, echo, reverb etc. are characteristics unique to each venue and to each recording.  I prefer to use surround sound to give a sense of space, to hear reflections off the back walls – I don’t want to be on the stage.  I try to tune or voice my system to duplicate the event, as near as possible, and capture these unique characteristics.

TW: In what way does music affect your life, your emotions and the way you feel?

JD: Music has orderliness, a mathematical correctness in the melody, the rhythm, the chord structure and the quality of silence between passages of music which I find intriguing.  These patterns influence and contribute in a subtle way to my everyday decision making, my emotions, and my life in general.

TW: Where do you see the high-end audio industry going in the future?

JD: Until recently, most of the music most people around the world listened to was on physical medium like CD, vinyl, etc.  The audio industry supported and financially survived on this demand base for years.  I would like to see the industry continue to support these physical mediums.  I don’t think the market will shift solely towards streaming only (ie. where we won’t have any physical media at all).  Instead, I think the market will shift to high resolution downloads – the download industry has established itself sufficiently to be a parallel medium to CD and vinyl.  And apart from the now ubiquitous DAC, the reproduction equipment required for good sound is common to all these mediums which makes the transition easier. 

TW: Where would you like the audio industry to go or to evolve to?

JD: I think the audio industry will embrace high resolution technology and will evolve to fully integrate this into mainstream Hi-End products.  This is also my hope.

Equipment List

Two-channel system
Turntables Project 6 Perspex with Audio Technica AN 50 Moving Coil
  Project Genie with Ortofon Rondo Red Moving Magnet
CD players Rotel RCD965
  Denon CDR 1000
Phono stage Valve based - DIY
Pre-amp Valve based - DIY
Integrated amplifier 300 x 300 Watt - valve based - DIY
Speakers McIntosh XLS360

 

Multichannel system
Blu-ray universal players Cambridge Audio 751.BD
  Marantz UD 7006
DVD player Rotel RDU 1050 E
Front L+R amp 300 + 300 Watt Integrated - valve based - DIY
Centre amp 50 Watt Integrated - valve based - DIY
Rear L+R amp 50 + 50 Watt Integrated - valve based - DIY

Surround L+R amp

50 + 50 Watt Integrated - valve based - DIY

Subwoofer amp 200 + 200 Watt with built-in low pass filtering and phase correction circuits - valve based - DIY
Front L+R speakers McIntosh XLS360
Centre speaker B&W C100
Rear L+R speakers Klipsch Forte II
Surround L+R speakers Mordaunt-Short
Subwoofers DIY