One of the most respected digital designers around, in some ways John Westlake is the archetypal definition of a geek – but is highly creative and amazingly fluent talking about his specialist area of knowledge. From Pink Triangle and Cambridge Audio in the nineties to Audiolab and Westlake Audio in the recent past, he has designed a string of excellent sounding CD players and streamers, and few know how to do it better. I spoke to him from his house in the Czech Republic on a grey September day…
Tell me about your childhood…
I was born in the UK in 1970, but grew up in Czech for a five or so years. When I came back here I could hardly speak English. My mother escaped from the Communist regime, when they invaded in 1968. She was in Ireland at that time working, and was told not to go back. I then lived in South London, and my father had a job at Imperial College. He was a physicist, and completely unable to relate to any human being – he had no idea how many children he had! I remember, maybe for seven or eight years he never even said hello to me, he just looked at me with a blank stare and went to his lab! I think I inherited some of this character, and also a lot of his knowledge. He never actually taught me anything, I just watched him as much as I could and when he was away and work at the university and I would go into the lab and kind of look around. So I was self-taught in electronics, and for me it’s just something I feel. Even today, when people ask me how I design, I say that I don’t know. I just close my eyes and visualise everything, how the circuit works. Then I find it actually quite difficult to explain to other people, to put my mind’s visualisation into words.”
Did you then study electronics at university?
I didn’t go. I left school at seventeen. The headmaster of the school told me I would never last. He was right – I thought there’s no way I was going to spend three years studying something I already knew. So I started a computer repair company, and it grew like crazy. I soon had twenty people working for me. There was no way I could manage those people, I am not a people person as such, so someone bought my company. Then I got into hi-fi professionally; I had always been building it as a hobby. I think formal academic education takes away a lot of the creativity. When I came across problems at that age I genuinely had no idea of how to solve them – so I made my own way, visualising it. I see a lot of my young engineers come to me out of university and are very constrained by their education, but after a year or so working you can see that they are thinking in a more creative way.
Who gave your you first break?
I met a gentleman called Alex Rafael, who was distributing of Deltec products, and he introduced me to Pink Triangle, and I ended up doing the Da Capo with them, followed by the Ordinal It was great to work with those guys – they were free thinkers, going against the industry just as much as I was. I learnt an awful lot about the industry for better and for worse [laughs]!
The Da Capo was superb, back in its day…
Yes! It still sounds great, although obviously it doesn’t do hi-res. It was a fascinating time developing it. Even back then, it was near impossible for small scale manufacturing in the UK, the cost of doing anything was crazy. I understand and admire why people do it, but the component prices, lead times and so make life so difficult. Also, the British banks are dreadful; you just don’t get support from them, but I digress…
I got a DaCapo in for repair recently and was amazed at how good it is. It was shocking. In some ways we have gone backwards, because the Pink sounds more natural, more organic, more like vinyl. I love LP – we are human beings and used to hearing analogue sound, and despite the clicks and pops we relate to it as something real. One reason it was so good was the Pacific Microsonics HDCD digital filter chip – those guys were so clever. It is the filtering that ruins PCM audio, but these guys knew how to mitigate it. They were on the ball in those days!
When I started designing the Da Capo, I was unaware of the the importance of jitter. Any modulation of jitter is a modulation of time. The more I looked into this, the more I’ve realised it’s about the time domain. Because the Da Capo was a discrete one-bit DAC in order to get perfect performance out of it you literally had to have a perfect clock – because any modulation of the clock was a direct modulation of the audio output. There was a direct correlation with clock phase noise with noise on the output of the DAC. So I had to design an incredibly good clock, not realising the importance of that on audio quality – so it was a great lesson to design it. It was basically a massive clock circuit, a massive clock cleaner circuit. If you’re designing a chip, all the logic is switching about and the modulation with cross modulate on the silicon; you effectively generate jitter on the chip. One thing about the Da Capo was that it was a discrete DAC, it was just purely the final signal being processed by the DAC array – so it was a very pure design. That was its secret – it was a discrete DAC, with a simple modulator design and a superb digital filter!
Then it was on to Cambridge Audio?
Yes. I sort of designed the DACmagic before I started working with them, but as soon as I did begin we went out to China to put things into production. It was so frustrating working there. In many ways it’s brilliant but as soon as you leave the premises of the factory everything stops. I found out the only way I could get things done was to live there. Being in the UK was hell – in those days we had faxes and there was a twenty four hour delay to do anything. The Chinese never say no to you, they never lose face, so you never understood what was going on unless you were there. Back in the early nineties, China was at the bottom of the ladder in terms of the electronic manufacturing experience, so much of my time was spent production engineering and so on. I am a creative person but I wasn’t being creative – I was asking them “why is this not done”, and explain that we weren’t going to hold up 20,000 pieces of production before Christmas because we haven’t got the right colour of gold paint for the remote control!
Those early Cambridge Audio products were superb, weren’t they?
Yes. I did the DACMagic and then the CD4 SE. Being in China gave us incredible flexibility and we were able to make incredible products as a result – you just couldn’t believe it for the money. In those days transformers were $1.5 apiece so the DACmagic had three of them, when in the UK that would have cost three times as much. You know, XLR sockets cost us just 20 cents, so we got thick gold plated ones where UK manufacturers would have to specify plasticky things! China in those days is like a candy store for me, it was just such a different world to the suffering you have to working here in Europe. The CD4 SE used dual Crystal DACs, and was really musical. The ISOmagic was also superb, and had that Pacific Microsonics PMD100 digital filter chip in, too. They never really sold many, which is odd! What that chip had was a wonderful, innate correctness. It had superb timbre and an organic feel. For me it was a lot more listenable than many things that came later.
Why did you move back to Europe?
Well I got bored – I had become like a chicken lying eggs, with just another design after another design. So I moved back to Reims, France and did research into amplifiers. I became interested in Class D, which had a very bad reputation. In my view this was solely down to very poor implementation, and people not understudying the phase noise. I can now get better sound from Class D than from Class AB, but it’s not what people want. Anyway, then I found myself going back to China?
This time with IAG?
Yes. I had been working on a DAC for a long time and this became the M-DAC. IAG was interesting because they bought all those brands but did the typical Chinese thing of not appreciating them. When I went there Audiolab was essentially moribund, and it was a sort of open book because we could do anything. So I was left to my own devices. M-DAC was a huge undertaking, and we were very proud of the result. It was basically the DAC/analogue output stage of the 8200CDQ which I remember bringing over to your house in Wiltshire nearly a decade ago. I had been working closely with ESS, which I think is the best of the modern DACs, and we really pulled the stops out with that. There was a lot of transfer of knowledge between both parties – I felt that what they were doing was the correct thing. And because of the low cost of the components out in China, we were able to afford to really pull all the stops out and go for it!
Is China really that much cheaper?
Yes, but it’s not just the cost. Everything is done faster and there’s a far more pro-business attitude. When we went to China we’d see the government and just put our hand up and say we want to make audio, and they would be begin pumping in as much money as you needed – banks lend money without any serious guarantees. Contrast that to the UK where there’s six months worth of paperwork for a loan and by the time you get it your chance has passed!
Cost was another issue of course; in China it’s crazily cheap compared to the UK. You source a rear power connector in the UK and it’s £2 or £3, whereas in China it’s 15 cents for the same part. There is a electronic market in Shenzhen called Seg and you can buy FPGAs for $5, whereas in the EU it’s on 180 days’ lead time and costs £50. You just look at yourself and think how can any company in Europe manufacture audio? I would personally love to do it, but the business environment is dire for people like me here.
There’s a wonderful “can do” attitude in China – if people order a hundred new chassis at 10pm at night, they literally put CNC machines out on the street if they don’t have the room to run them inside the factories, and make them there and then. You have people outside under rain covers machining the things – come to Europe and you can forget it! This was all good fun, but on the other hand, my heart lies in design – not trying to get production issues sorted.
These days you’re officially retired, aren’t you?
Haha, well as much as that is possible! Actually I’m still very active from my lab here in Czech and we’re working on various things. A few years ago I started to do some tweaks on the Audiolab M-DAC; it was a labour of love shall we say. I offered some firmware updates which improved the functionality of the DAC, and also the sound. Then we came up with the idea of doing an M-DAC board, crowd funded and essentially getting the unit at cost price. It’s dual ESS-based using 9028 Pros, on a separate PCB so you can swap the DACs. We’re now thinking of a discrete DAC too. M-DAC 2 is going this way, and we’re also doing a streamer. I’m not really into streaming – it’s twenty percent hardware and eighty percent software – but it’s a great challenge. My idea is to make a media box, with an analogue-to-digital converter option so you can archive your vinyl.
We are also working on a twenty fifth anniversary Da Capo – well, sort of – and it’s going back to making a fully discrete DAC. It’s been on the go for five years now, in the background and will be great when it’s finished. It’s not really a Da Capo as such, but it’s my take on things twenty five years later. With the original Da Capo, I think it’s fair to say that I accidentally made a great DAC. I stumbled upon the importance of jitter. These days I think I have definitely massively improved as a designer, from understanding the circuit and also the scope of what I can do now is just vastly improved.
What do you think about DSD?
I am not a person who is considered to have golden ears, but now that my brain has been trained to identify certain things, I can spot them very quickly. For me, Direct Stream Digital is the way to go with digital – it can be transparent. Native DSD – where you get DSD recording, editing and replay – is wonderfully transparent. I can flip a switch between the analogue original signal and a DSD path and you simply can’t hear the difference, it’s a real eye-opener. This is not the case with Pulse Code Modulation, you can hear the problems with the digital filtering. The difference is night and day – all the troubles with digital are from PCM. The second you have FIR filtering you lose what is important for sound reproduction – the time domain. You can enjoy music the same if the frequency domain is difference, but not if there’s effectively an echo – time domain problems. And what DSD gives you is a perfect time domain.
Trouble is, it’s a pig of a format to handle, and difficult to keep it truly native without converting to PCM for mastering. So we’re designing an ADC and a streamer system which can record native DSD in order to archive vinyl, and then play it back in DSD too. If I can capture, say ninety nine percent of the quality of vinyl, then I’ll be happy – because it will be a damn sight better than the terrible sound of PCM! Even though people get older and the frequency response of our hearing changes, we can all still hear the time domain.