Henry Azima: A Mission to Succeed

In its first three years, UK hi-fi manufacturer Mission Electronics employed a number of engineers to reinforce the creative talents of founder and hi-fi enthusiast Farad Azima. The lineup included John Bicht, now with Versa Dynamics, and Stan Curtis, now heading up Cambridge Audio. But when Farad's brother Henry—"Henry" is actually a nickname and I am sure you can see the derivation—joined the company in 1979, he brought both a much-needed stability, and initiated a considerable degree of commercial success for the company's products. Now resident in Canada, he spends his time commuting between his laboratory in Toronto and the company's headquarters near Cambridge, England (footnote 1). Prior to joining Mission, however, Henry had served in the Iranian Navy for 15 years, an unusual training for an audio engineer. I asked him if this had been an appropriate preparation for the world of hi-fi.

1087azima.jpgHenry Azima: I had actually been a student in the UK, studying electronic engineering at the University of Surrey in Guildford. When I left the Navy in 1979 after the revolution in Iran, I moved to the UK and got a job with my previous University as an Assistant Lecturer and Researcher. However, Farad then asked me out of the blue to join Mission. I said, "Well, I have no idea about hi-fi, and stuff like that." He said, "You will learn, there's no problem!"

So my career as an audio designer really started quite by accident. Farad got me every bit of literature that he could lay his hands on, and within a couple of months I had read about 10,000 pages of technical papers on audio. I started to appreciate the problems involved, but I was very skeptical about most of the problems discussed. "Amplifiers sounding different?" "Wires sounding different?"—it was all very new to me. But it sort of clicked together and I started to work with Mission near the end of 1979. My first assignment was to design a new compact speaker, which I did with some hardship and difficulty. The result was the Mission 700.

John Atkinson: That speaker sold very well in the UK. In, fact, I think it fair to say that, as with Celestion's Ditton 15 in the early 1970s, it redefined the quality of loudspeaker the customer could expect at the important $l100 price point.

Henry Azima: It was very encouraging that, despite my being new to the industry, my first assignment was fairly successful. I felt more confident, therefore, when early in 1980, we started the project that would result in the 776 preamplifier and 777 power amplifier.

John Atkinson: In retrospect, though, and in the context of Mission's philosophy as set by the 700 loudspeaker—to combine good sound quality with an affordable price tag—weren't the 776 and 777 a bit of a detour? They were unashamedly high-end products; they were expensive; they were even esoteric, with the preamplifier being lead/acid battery-powered and the ergonomics being sacrificed to the distinctive styling. Was the design of these products a way of working out what you felt about amplifiers before getting into the Cyrus integrated amplifiers?

Henry Azima: Yes, I think the primary reason behind the introduction of those amplifiers was for Mission to get a foothold in the market and gain recognition as a serious manufacturer of electronic products. We wanted to prove, both to ourselves and to the industry, that we could do a good job. I think we were the first specialist manufacturer to use MOSFETs. We used them well, I think, and in places like West Germany the 777 was considered to be one of the best amplifiers in the world.

John Atkinson: The styling was pretty controversial.

Henry Azima: The styling was my idea, and as soon as I proposed it to Farad, he just snapped his fingers. Either you loved the look or you hated it. There was no inbetween.

John Atkinson: What do you think is important in power amplifier design?

Henry Azima: It may sound cliched, but obviously there are some basic and fundamental design aspects which must be correct, and which probably every amplifier manufacturer knows about nowadays. The power supply, for example, has to be adequate. You have to make sure that you don't have problems like transient intermodulation distortion, etc., which are fairly widely known now. Circuit layout we find more and more to be extremely important, as is choice of the components. But I think the most important aspect of any amplifier design is not the individual parameters; rather, it's a successful combination of the whole thing.

John Atkinson: You say that having an adequate power supply is important. But how do you define "adequate" for mass-market products like the Cyrus 1 and 2? On what basis do you make the necessary compromises between keeping the costs down and keeping within your definition of "adequate?"

Henry Azima: Well, the power supply is one of the costliest parts of any amplifier. So, given the cost restrictions, you have to learn to design the rest of the amplifier to suit. Obviously, for the same price you can buy a lousy transformer or a good transformer. We have learned how to source and to specify and design, in conjunction with our transformer manufacturer, who makes a good transformer. But putting that to one side, other aspects of the amplifier, especially the power-output specification, play a big role here. For the same power-supply cost, you can make a 200 watt per channel amplifier which would be lousy, but a fantastic 20Wpc amplifier. You have to balance sound quality against how much power you actually want to deliver.

John Atkinson: But surely the market comes into that choice? It's my impression that people always want more watts, perhaps to the extent that a lousy 200W amplifier would probably sell better than a really good 20W amplifier.

Footnote 1: Henry Azima was subsequently one of the progenitors of NXT loudspeaker technology.