Name: Patrick Miller / Managing Director
Company: Sugden Audio
Product: A21 Amp
Sugden was the first company to produce a commercial Pure Class A solid-state amplifier. What prompted Sugden to develop the A21 amp?
Yes, the design was conceived in 1966 with full production in 1967, we're celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. At this time valve amplifiers were the only choice for serious audio enthusiasts, good ones were expensive and required maintenance. The idea of the A21 was to produce a less expensive product but with long term reliability and an excellent sound that competed with valves.
What was the development process for the A21 like? What was the creator James E Sugden's own background in engineering prior to beginning the project?
James studied electronics at E.M.I and subsequently obtained a degree. He then became a project engineer for them before moving to Granada TV. In 1960 he started his own company called Research Electronics developing scientific instruments, which included products for the nuclear industry and colleges. The process of developing the A21 was the combination of a love of music and a scientific mind that loved inventing. James had experience with transistors through his work with E.M.I and Granada TV, so he was aware of their potential and limitation for use in quality audio equipment. By developing a pure class A circuit he was able to eliminate crossover distortion so the transistors only worked at their absolute optimum.
Describe the ergonomic, aesthetic and practical considerations that went into the design of the A21.
As the A21 was for a domestic environment, it had to be an acceptable piece of furniture, like radios and all-in-one music-centres of the time, it was therefore housed in a wooden case. The options were either teak or walnut to cover light and dark options. The front facia was quite unique, it had a two-tone combination of black and silver with silver control knobs and black push buttons with silver inserts. Front panel facilities were easy to identify and use with rotary control knobs for bass, treble, balance and volume. Chunky push buttons selected the inputs for phono, radio and tape and there was a filter to cut rumble from a record player and stereo/mono selection. A silver and black headphone jack socket and large green power lamp completed the front panel functions. Apart from the wooden case all other chassis components were manufactured in house out of plated steel to stop corrosion.
Sugden hand-makes the amps in-house to this day. What are the most challenging aspects of this process and why do you still operate this way?
The raw materials we use are one of our biggest headaches. After machining case components, it’s not until we process them that we find any problems. By that time we have already committed labour and money into the product. We have no doubt that our skilled workforce is the company’s most important asset, finding and training new people is difficult. Manufacturing is not something the majority of people want to get involved with as a career nowadays. The challenges however, are also part of the reason we continue to manufacture like we do, if it was easy everybody would be doing it. In a world of mass-production this makes Sugden Audio fairly unique. There are a lot of people who still value this philosophy and enjoy the extra dimension of ownership you get from a handmade product.
With long periods between design changes, and in a marketplace where 'newness' is currency, can you tell us why and how this works for your business?
I think people like to have reassurance when making any purchase that requires a reasonable level of investment. Most larger companies need the momentum of new products to keep sales going and maintain turnover. This is always the case in competitive markets. We do not feel this pressure being a niche company; our customers know that we are continuously improving the products we have. They also like the fact that the product they purchased isn’t going to be out of date in a short period of time. This helps the product retain a lot of its original purchase value.
How is the A21 different than other similar A-class amps today? What are some of the characteristics that set it apart from what's already out there?
There are very few Pure Class A amplifiers in the market, those that do exist tend to be significantly more expensive. This is mainly due to the fact that we have more input into our products having a custom engineering department and we build all our own circuit boards. The fact that a lot of so-called Class A amplifiers are actually Class AB designs in disguise, gives us an advantage over most of our ‘competitors’. People know they are getting the genuine article with us.
The A21 might be your signature product, but it is part of a small range including loudspeakers and cables. How does it fit into the larger picture and what are the benefits of using only Sugden equipment?
Our main concern is electronics, not just amplifiers but CD Players, headphone and phono amplifiers. The cables we make are designed to match exactly with our equipment, they contain the same components as our electronics so allow the continuity and purity of the signal. Loudspeakers are only a small part of our production but we wanted to be able to offer a complete system and produce a loudspeaker that was designed specifically for our amplifiers.
Your tagline is 'Rescuing Music from Technology'? Can you tell us what this means to you?
We have always been a no-nonsense company and want to produce the best sound possible. Just because a new technology comes along does not mean it improves sound quality. A good example of this is an amplification design called Class D. This is an efficient circuit that is cheap and easy to put in to production. Although it’s very popular at the moment, it does not have the sound quality of a Pure Class A amplifier. This has also been the case with our digital development, high resolution music files are being pushed a lot by the music industry and the media. The digital to analogue converters we use do not use high resolution technology, instead we developed our own circuits that provide a more natural sound.
In what scenarios does the A21 shine the brightest? Is there a particular set-up or media that it works the best with?
One of the reasons the A21 has been popular for so long is its ability to play all types of music and recordings in an enjoyable and fatigue-free way. All our listening tests are carried out with acoustic music, you cannot get a better reference than this. A piano needs to sound like a piano and then everything else will fall into place. We love vinyl and the full analogue experience, but a CD can sound as good depending on the recording. Ideally a loudspeaker that is easy to drive and dynamic usually makes the best combination with our amplifiers. Streaming we use for background listening only.
What do you like the best about the A21?
It has a unique sound that makes you forget about the hi-fi system and allows you to fully enjoy the music. They seem to last forever with many of them getting passed on to relatives. People often talk about the A21 as if it’s part of the family, helping create the sound track of their life; university, job, marriage and children. What more could our company want?