A conversation with Frank Ng, head of Canada’s Triode Lab and Finale Audio.
Thanks for doing this, Frank. First of all, is every one in good health, and how are you managing through the pandemic at this stage?
Thanks for asking, Noam. Like most Canadians, the family is sheltering at home, and family, friends and colleagues are all in good health. That said, as with many small business owners, we have noticed a sharp decrease in orders. We have also been challenged with supply chain disruptions, especially custom transformers from Japan, as well many other brand name parts and bits. Fortunately, many of our amplifier designs utilize Canadian-based Hammond transformers, located in Guelph, who are up and running.
When did you get involved in building tube amplifiers and more to the point, what gave you the confidence to start Finale Audio/Triode Labs?
The short answer is that it is my Uncle Daniel who caught my interest back in the old days when I was young. At the time, he was an engineer working under contract for several large electronic companies, designing circuits for both solid state and tube amplifiers. So I was fortunate to be exposed to a wide variety of brands from an early age. At home, we always had a good sound system and this definitely helped “train” my ears to appreciate good sound from a good system.
As for the confidence to start on my own, this would not have happened without the help and encouragement of my uncle, and his vast experience. I knew what we were capable of achieving and also knew we had to be exceptionally good to compete with world brands. I also felt that to succeed we needed to focus on the sonic qualities of our amps, and not focus on the expensive cosmetics of a custom chassis. Combining the two at an affordable price? It is quite a challenge to achieve this in a Canadian-based brand and I know our clients accept the trade off.
From the very beginning, I felt a focus on delivering the emotional sincerity of the music was the road I wanted to travel. The classic tube designs could not deliver this and were not going to become our route to success. Brands based on these classic designs come with a higher than acceptable noise floor (persistent hum), highs always seem to be rolled off, and deep, musical bass tends to be missing. Dynamics and speed are also missing, resulting in flat and uninvolving music. Our circuit designs are all original, to optimize today’s speakers and sources – capable of transmitting a much wider frequency band – to reduce audible distortion and allow much greater detail. In other words, to develop tube amplifiers that deliver what today’s customers are looking for: a deep and wide soundstage, pinpoint imaging, live timing/speed, startling dynamics and transient attacks, and most importantly, to recreate the emotional realism of well recorded music.
To sum up, I’ve always been convinced that there is a large customer base looking for sound quality that delivers these attributes and who are not seduced by the costs of the “high end” trophy brand. This conviction is the foundation that drives my confidence.
To what extent are you “the one guy doing it all”? What role do your partners play?
Running a small company sometimes feels like a one-man show. I am very fortunate to have surrounded myself with a few key people who share a common vision and who have a contribution to make. As mentioned, my uncle continues to play a primary role in the company. I rely on and work with him to develop new amp designs and to improve existing designs.
The marketing and sales function is in collaboration with Peter Wolter and his deep background in sales and marketing. He constantly asks the tough questions and makes me focus on “why should anyone buy this amp from us”?
Of course – all the good friends and dealers helping and supporting me are very important – without them, Finale would not be doing well. I also have to take a deep bow to those who trust me and supported me in the past. You are one of the very important people who helped this industry too, and help us keep alive this soon to be obsolete ancient machine (tube amps).
How many amps have you built, and are in use today?
I introduced the Finale brand around 20 years ago and I would say we currently sell about 50 units a year—so you can see we really are a niche player. Of course, it’s been a slow but steady increase with customers from around the world. And I’m pleased to say we have earned a reputation for quality and value and have developed a significant “fan club” that is helping to spread the word for us. I believe we are on the right track because very few come up on the used market. This tells me that for many of our customers the purchase represents the “end of the line” in their quest for “better”.
Let’s talk about reliability. What’s the failure rate with one of your amps – say in the first few years of use?
Good question. Right off the bat, we need to separate failure due to the tubes and failure of the amplifier circuitry/power supply. Tubes do fail, either quite early on, or later due to longevity or misuse.
As for a failure that is non-tube related, I must say this is actually uncommon—in fact, let me say, rather rare. Our amps are self-biasing and built to be reliable, with safeguards in place to assure reliable, daily use. For example, several of our amps are used in a retail environment-where they are turned on at the start of the day, then off at the end of a 10-12 hour day-6 days a week. No issues, except the power tubes needed to be changed after about 2 years.
In a nutshell, our amps are extremely reliable – I can’t recall warranty repair other than those caused by a bad tube.
Obviously you have competitors, be they made in the US, the EU, China or elsewhere. Some brands have become quite successful. Are there any lessons to be learned?
Thanks Noam. We’d be crazy if we didn’t learn from our competitors.
I’d have to say the most important lesson is how expensive and difficult it is to reach the base of customers I know is open to our brand. And of course, this takes serious money – reviews and advertising, presence at key audio shows around the world, and a major dealer presence.
Secondly, we underestimated the need and costs of inventory—and more importantly, the extra costs associated with small, custom orders – for transformers as a particular example.
We are proud of the branding work we’ve done to date, with a good base of strong reviews. Where we’ve come up short is advertising and dealer presence. Early on, I would have to say we had too many “entry” models. We’ve also learned to focus our efforts on a few key products, particularly single-ended triode designs.
What’s most frustrating for you in the day-to-day of your business? If you could, what would you change?
As you know, Noam, we started out selling exclusively online. We’ve found that it’s impossible to build a relationship or a brand using this channel exclusively. Communicating with potential clients and answering their numerous e-mails often leads nowhere, or if it does, to a low-ball offer. Very discouraging.
So ideally, a small, dedicated group of passionate dealers is very high on my wish list.
Your amps don’t look expensive and they are certainly not inexpensive. How do you compete?
We’re quite aware of the perceived cost issue. They want how much for this amp? Peter and I deal with this issue every day and essentially, this is what we basically say to our customers:
Our amplifiers compete sonically with amplifiers that can cost much, much more. By this we mean tonal accuracy, superb transient speed, bass control and a sense of palpable realism. We do not compete on “fit and finish”. While we could create a beautiful chassis, we have found (by making our own prototypes (the Niagara for example) that this adds upward of 40% to the manufacturing cost and of course reflected in a much higher retail cost. We could have these built in China and do the final assembly here. We have decided that Made in Canada is part of our motivation. Why not have everything done to specification in China. This sets up a series of problems that again does not fit our business model. So, a major part of who we are is to own “Made in Canada” and where possible, rely on Canadian parts manufacturers like Hammond (for transformers). Canadian customers always cite this as a positive for their purchase. That said, there are higher costs associated with a Made in Canada commitment – for example, overhead, labor, taxes, currency weakness.
- We also speak directly to the savings that an open architecture, simple chassis provides. Given the aesthetic limitations of an “off the shelf” chassis, we do offer a wide variety of colours, beautifully executed. The customers who buy our amps are attracted to the open architecture and the exposed tubes.
- World class sonic qualities at an affordable price is our primary focus. In preparing for this interview, I did re-read the various reviews of our amplifiers. There were several common threads, including how quiet our amps are, their ability to create a remarkable realism, their build quality, and yes, their affordability and overall value. Our clients appreciate the value and as a result you see very few of our amps on the used market. Rather than sell their amp, many of our clients have chosen to upgrade – particularly the transformers. I think this speaks highly to the quality of our brand.
- Our amps test well and we use reliable, tested name brand parts to ensure compliance to specification. We believe the quality of the transformers is important to the sound quality and they definitely contribute to the low noise floor of all our amps. So we only use audiophile quality custom transformers from Hammond and Hashimoto. And for the same reasons we use name brand audiophile quality capacitors (for example Mundorf Oil Capacitors) as needed to make a sonic difference.
To sum up, that’s how we compete and while not a household name, Finale Audio and Triode Labs have earned an excellent reputation in audio circles, here in Canada certainly.
Given the current environment, can a small company such as yours actually grow and make money?
This is the question of the day – and I’m certainly not alone – all Canadian companies large or small are asking not just how to survive, but how to thrive. Making money has always been a challenge. Given the tremendous uncertainties brought on by Covid-19 it may well be difficult to make money in the next year or so. I do believe our survival will rest on the execution of the following strategy:
1) We stick to our niche – if anything, we focus on even fewer models for the retail market and also focus on SET amplifiers
2) Expand our offerings. We know from our introduction of the Vivace Mini (a full-range single driver speaker designed by Robert Gaboury/ Arteluthe) that there are advantages to offering a tube amplifier/speaker combination – so we remain niche, but expand beyond amps/preamps. So we are looking at this very seriously with Robert.
3) A renewed focus on a few dealers committed to offering Canadians world-class affordable tube amplifiers and matching speakers. Audio dealers are the last fortresses of our industry. They’re the only place left for audiophiles to meet up, to chat, to relax, to listen, and to see and learn. At the end of the day, support translates into a healthy margin for the retailer.
What is your current outlook for the audio market over the next 2-3 years, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic?
That’s one of the big unknowns. On the one hand I see a long contraction for retail – particularly with “non essential” luxury items. On the other hand, I sense there are many potential clients who will focus more on their “in-home experiences”, and for those who really enjoy music, a good sound system becomes essential to them. And given the current economic uncertainty, quality and affordability become increasingly intertwined.
And I also believe our Made in Canada focus will become even more relevant to our potential customers. Just recently our Prime Minister urged Canadians to support Made in Canada. Finally, the Canadian dollar weakness is definitely helpful in the short to medium term for our US and global clients.
So to answer your question, I remain cautiously optimistic for our viability and that of our industry.
Lastly, do you have any advice for younger people who want to build a good system, or who may even have the bug to find a career opportunity in the business?
My advice is based on a saying my mother had-“we’re too poor to buy cheap”. So my advice to both young and old is to buy quality and if possible, buy once. As for a career, I think starting out in sales would be a great education that you could build on.
Noam, thank you for the opportunity to make our case to your readership. The very best to you and you family.
Disclaimer: Noam Bronstein, owner of Wall of Sound, also owns Stereo Untypical, a Finale/Triode Lab dealer since Nov.2018.
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