Re-Tales #42: Austin AudioWorks, "a Modestly Deep View of the Field"

Over a long career, thinker and audio designer Barry Thornton has carved his own paths and formed his own opinions, broad views about how the universe works and how one thing connects to another. He applies scientific principles broadly, too: From action comes reaction, though it may not always be predictable. "Do something, and everything else starts to occur," he said of his endeavors. Longtime readers and seasoned audiophiles will recognize Quintessence Audio Group, a maker of hi-fi electronics in the 1970s and '80s. Thornton founded the company and served as its main designer. He has worked with companies including SAE (where he became Chief Engineer), ESS, Parasound, and Monster Cable. His journey eventually led him to Austin, Texas, where he recently founded Austin AudioWorks.

Thornton's career has taken turns. He created ClearCube, a pioneering blade computer and mid-'90s precursor to the cloud, and worked in medical research making products for pain reduction. He has served stints in pro audio, designing and building "amps that wouldn't break" for guitars and PA systems for live music acts including Jethro Tull and other Chrysalis Records artists. He provided interior electronics designs for clients ranging from the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera to the Playboy Mansion. He is credited with at least 30 patents.

Thornton is a big-picture thinker with an inclination toward melding science with philosophy. His view of feedback is typical. His circuit designs used to use global feedback. His current designs are current-mode and use none. "Feedback sucks the life out of your music," he said.

His views on feedback are at least partly based in philosophy. Feedback and its "brother," feedforward, have enabled unprecedented advances. Feedback is critical for certain applications—but Thornton sees it as an effort to force conformity.

"Feedback is all about control, forcing something—in our case amplification—to conform to our desires and expectations," he said. "The field has chosen to look at two specific measurements: distortion, and linearity of frequency. To achieve the measurements, the designer looks to the past to correct the future. Feedback takes what has happened and applies it to what will happen. It forms a time loop of information which, again, is adjudicated by reference to the past input information.

"In a steady-state world, that process is fine and works exceptionally well. Information repeated exactly"—or information that is unchanging, such as a test tone—gets processed very articulately. When all the states are the same, time isn't an issue. But music is anything but static. Could any of man's artifacts be more chaotic, more dynamic?"

"In many ways—and depending on the application—feedback recycles the past in favor of present dynamic information required to make music sound natural." He described this "information entropy" as the loss of ultra-minute purity in the information stream, which listeners perceive as a loss of fidelity.

At Austin AudioWorks, Thornton is chief technical officer. He's had his hands on audio electronics since doing repair tech in the 1960s—even before, when he modded Heathkits during his early days. He attended Sacramento State University, where he studied physics and anthropology. He taught physics during his 30s, "half a century ago," he said in an email. "While I now mentor a couple of folks about my path to thinking, my focus generally is on doing rather than teaching."

According to longtime industry PR specialist Bill Leebens, "doing" is what Thornton does at Austin AudioWorks. Leebens is serving as Austin AudioWorks's president and handling marketing, press relations, and such. "Barry is an old hand at sourcing everything and setting up production," Leebens said. Austin AudioWorks sells its products direct and has picked up a couple of distributors, Leebens told me. The company recently increased production of their Black Series gear, including the Black Swan phono preamplifier and the Black Amp headphone amplifier. Two other "Black" products are forthcoming: a streaming DAC and a 100Wpc class-A stereo amplifier.

Thornton's Black-series creations are attractive in a minimalist, old-school way. Their chassis are austere, housed in diecast black boxes he chose to protect against outside energy and noise. "I must admit they can be dull to look at," he said. "But I didn't design it to be looked at; I did design it to be heard."

The Austin AudioWorks website describes the Black Amp as a "fully complementary-symmetrical class-A" circuit "configured as two truly balanced monoblock power amplifiers." It's current mode because a current-mode circuit "does not try to control the transducers, be they coil or planar technologies. It simply drives them in their natural current mode of operation so as not to 'force' the music out of them but rather let them render the music naturally."

"The how and why, the subtle tricks I learned about the electronic events acted out in the circuits to get them to act 'better,' was and is my passion," Thornton told me. His main sonic goal is realism, for music to sound like music.

Austin AudioWorks wants to keep pricing relatively affordable by current hi-fi industry standards, but that doesn't mean cutting corners. "I assure you that there is no necessity to cut corners. There is no satisfaction in creating schlock."

Electronic design, Thornton said, "requires a modestly deep view of the fields and the spacetime in which we play the game. ... I'm trying to cheat your mind. I'm trying to get your relationship to music to be better.

"Learning more and using this growing knowledge to create more natural-sounding music is my joy—and offering the results to friends is my pleasure."

cognoscente's picture

These types of people and companies make audio likable. True music and audio lovers. Not all those Bugattis, A. Lange & Söhne's and Château Lafleur's in the audio industry

bhkat's picture

Don't say anything bad about A. Lange & Sohne. Their Platinum Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is the right watch to wear while running over the peasants in my AMG G-63 SUV.

supamark's picture

Is NOT Austin y'all. It should be Bee Cave AudioWorks because that's where they actually are. It's a separate city, West of Austin.

Mark Phillips, actual resident of Austin, TX for almost 40 years.

Now, a video of another engineer from Bee Cave, TX:

nunhgrader's picture

I really enjoy reading about others in this field and my hobby - thank you!

Julie Mullins's picture

Glad to hear it. He was fun to interview. He clearly has an active mind full of interesting ideas and perspectives and some great stories.