Ikonoklast: Linn's Ivor Tiefenbrun Page 2
Tiefenbrun: Because I was involved in controversy, people saw me as controversial. Because the industry is about personalities, people thought Linn was about personalities. I set out by challenging conventional wisdom. They said the turntable didn't matter; I said it was critical. They said the speaker was the most important thing; I said it was the last thing to worry about. So I started off in conflict in an industry where few people understood the mechanical things and the recording aspects of the business. My objective was to build a great company; and the company was going to be about great products; and the products were to do with bringing music to people and improving their lives.
The only way to judge what we do is to listen to our products and to see how they stand the test of time. To understand Linn, pick up an LP12 or look at a Klimax amplifier or listen to a Komri loudspeaker. To see that we have an open approach to technology, look at the Kivor system. Of all the specialists, I believe we were the first into Dolby Digital. At the time, people thought, "They've gone off the rails." And when we introduced the Knekt multi-room system, people said, "Oh, you're not interested in music anymore." Not at all. I want music when I shave in the morning.
Lander: How committed are you to doing—insofar as you can—your own manufacturing?
Tiefenbrun: When everyone else goes offshore to China or Eastern Europe, we take more in-house. Our country, our society believes that manufacturing is where you add value and create wealth. And it's how you learn. Most innovative design and development, and a lot of research, come out of manufacturing. I believe, if you're in the audio business, you have to master and control all the key processes. I know that's not everyone's view, but it's my view. And that's why we make our own sheet metal and machine our own parts. We paint our own casings. People say, "Why? You can buy it cheaper elsewhere." I'm not interested in buying it cheaper elsewhere. I would go elsewhere if I could get it better.
Lander: Are you currently producing more of the content that goes into your products than you did previously, or less?
Tiefenbrun: More. We're doing more of the chip design. We're doing more software. We're doing more of the board loading. We do all our own boards. We're doing more, and our capabilities are increasing. And as we can do more and have more control and understanding, we can learn more and create more. And we can get more cross-fertilization—because we're a multidiscipline company.
Lander: You've said that the wellspring of the precision-engineering expertise you brought to audio was Castle Precision Engineering, the company your late father founded 50 years ago and which your brother, Marcus, now runs.
Tiefenbrun: They're masters of it. They make moving parts for Rolls-Royce airplane engines. And we have a long engineering tradition in Scotland.
Lander: Both you and your father were trained as mechanical engineers. Turntables tend to incorporate fewer mechanical elements than newer audio products do. How does that evolution make you feel?
Tiefenbrun: There's a big difference between mechanical and electronic engineering, but a lot of the principles are common to both disciplines. It is true that the role of mechanical engineering in products is diminishing, but it still exists, in loudspeakers and CD transports and so on. It can also take on a slightly different nature. The Klimax amplifier employs the finest precision mechanical engineering, but it's more to do with machining to a very high standard, encapsulating the circuitry to preclude any possibility of microphony. And it's about heat dissipation, heat flow; there's more thermodynamics involved than there is traditional engineering, even if, at the end of the day, you can drive a truck over it without damaging it. In the CD12, we're also encapsulating different elements of the circuitry and isolating them from each other.
Lander: How many people does Linn now employ?
Tiefenbrun: About 320. We have our main assembly and design facility, and we have a training center, where we also do machining, painting, finishing. Linn Records are based there. We also have people working in Linn's retail outlet in Glasgow. We have Linn, Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, our American headquarters; we've just built a new retailer-training facility there. We also have an office in Fort Lauderdale and people based around the country.
Lander: So Linn is now a sizable company, with a product line so broad that you joked earlier about coming up with enough designations incorporating the letter k, which has been turning up in your product names since you christened the Sondek LP12. Plus, as you suggested earlier when you referred to your "open approach to technology," the line has become very varied. The Knekt is a multi-room music-distribution system. The Kivor is an archival and retrieval system designed to store and access thousands of CDs and radio broadcasts without subjecting them to compression. How did all this happen?
Tiefenbrun: I made one product; I wanted to make a system. Once I'd made a system, I wanted to spread the sound of these sources throughout a home. Once I'd done that, I wanted to integrate audio with video. Once I did that, I wanted to integrate with a computer. What do I want to do next? Well, the company's getting more and more involved with commercial [installations] and performance.
Lander: As an example of your commercial installations, you equipped the public spaces on the Queen Elizabeth II, the ocean liner. Are there many cruise lines, hotel companies, and the like willing to pay the price of Linn quality?
Tiefenbrun: Sometimes Linn is the lowest-cost solution. Not just because it lasts longer—it's more cost-effective to take Linn to 128 zones or whatever on a liner than it is to put the most rubbish standalone system in every cabin. Linn can deliver a power amplifier the size of a car radio that puts out over 1000W and weighs less than 2kg. It sounds fantastic. The competition might weigh 100kg and not sound as good.
Lander: So you see your future linked, in some degree, to the high end of the commercial market.
Tiefenbrun: I believe that, in the future, there's going to be less and less distinction between professional, domestic, commercial, mobile, and so on. I think that there are going to be more and more common elements, [due to] size, integration, interconnectivity between products. Wouldn't it be nice to access all your music, any which way you wanted, and make any selection you want, and take it with you when you go on a hike or go in your car? That is exciting. I see that as more music, better music, for more people.
Lander: Some Stereophile readers might see it as Linn's abandonment of its traditional market.
Tiefenbrun: When I had my first child, I thought, "This kid's so perfect, just the way I planned it." When the second one was going to come along, I thought, "How could I love another one?" Of course, you do. You can love as many children as you're lucky enough to have.
Lander: Can you love as many customers?
Tiefenbrun: Yes. I think you can.
Lander: We're talking in May, at the New York Hilton. This is the first day of Home Entertainment 2001 and, in just a short time, two people have approached you to say they've been using the LP12 for 30 years, and a third, clearly delighted to be sharing an elevator with you, called you Sir Ivor. He had to be referring to your MBE, which Queen Elizabeth conferred on you in 1992, 20 years after you founded Linn. Now an MBE doesn't entitle you to be called "Sir," but you do get to use those very prestigious initials after your name. ["MBE" stands for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an Order created by King George V in 1917 to honor Commonwealth subjects for conspicuous service.] I'm sure our readers would be interested in your reflections on the journey that led to that honor.
Tiefenbrun: I'm the kind of person who's almost never satisfied. I'm always on a quest; the journey is the interesting thing. I'm always trying to improve. I'm intensely self-critical. I can be very argumentative. I'm results-driven. But as I've got older, I've probably become more tolerant, more understanding. I hope I've learned things. I'm still quite pushy, I suppose.
Lander: You can take the boy out of the Gorbals, but you can't take the Gorbals out of the boy. You had to be that way or you'd have gotten knocked on your behind.
Tiefenbrun: Well, I did, frequently. [laughs] You know, I'm not any better, I suppose, at understanding myself than anyone else. It took me 'til about 50 to understand what I really enjoy. I realized that the essence of what I enjoy is cracking a problem and taking an idea through to a solution, to a design or something. That's the core of what excites me.
We're building a new factory. We just got news that I got the final bit of land I needed; we're already ordering steel and cutting the ground; construction's full-blown in a couple of weeks. We hope to double our capacity by the end of this summer, but the interesting bit for me is over. It was solving the conundrum—how, where, the design. That's the thing, I discovered, that I enjoy most.