Tony Federici: Accurate in the USA

I first met Tony Federici at a 1986 high-end show in Lucerne, Switzerland. He was at that time distributing Perreaux amplifiers in the US; the dem room Perreaux shared with KEF and McIntosh overlooked Lake Lucerne and Wagner's villa at Tribschen, perhaps the most idyllic setting for Show sound I have ever experienced. Tony was educated as a philosopher: In the 10 years I've known him, I have never known him at a loss for an opinion. It's all the more strange, therefore, that Stereophile has never asked him to submit to the ordeal of a formal interview.

I put this oversight right at HI-FI '95, our high-end show held last year in Los Angeles. Mondial Designs, the company Tony formed about nine years ago with his compare, guitarist and rag-trade refugee Paul Rosenberg, has become famous both for its policy of not exhibiting at Consumer Electronics Shows—they instead throw parties where audio journalists, reps, dealers, and designers make fools of themselves with impromptu jam sessions—and of manufacturing the Acurus and Aragon lines of high-value solid-state amplifiers ratcheer in the US of A. I asked Tony what had been his and Paul's original goals when they started Mondial...

Tony Federici: Basically, we wanted to have a good time. It sounds strange but it's true. Paul always loved audio, I always loved audio, and this is what we like to do. If you can have a business in which you're enjoying what you do, it's a lot better than having a business that you hate getting up for every morning. We love getting up every morning and we love going to work, and it's a lot of fun.

But we didn't want to be a garage operation. Instead, we used military contractors to build our products. And that was a major advantage...It kept the pricing in line while the quality remained real high. The contractors were building military and medical equipment, and we gave them a contract for a thousand units at a time. We didn't know it then, but when you give contracts for that many units at a time—which can then be renewed—you get excellent service. Because the contractor usually has to go out six months later and find a new contract, whereas we can give him steady business. The electrical construction from them is excellent.

John Atkinson: I know from talking to companies who subcontract overseas that one of the problems they face is that, having fine-tuned the design, it comes back different. The subcontractors have their own ideas about how a component should be designed and made. Did you get any surprises?

Federici: No. Military contractors are accustomed to following instructions right down to the letter. They're even accustomed to something being rejected by the customer if the label is placed on the box on the wrong location. Now, what they did do was inspect the design and make suggestions that would improve either the reliability or the performance of the product. For example, on the Aragon amplifier, they insisted on a slow-start circuit because they were concerned about the quarter-horsepower switch. This is a large switch, but given the inrush current due to the power supply being so large, a slow-start circuit was a good idea.

But to answer your question, no, they wouldn't tamper with any components used or anything of that nature. They can't do it with military contracts, they can't do it with medical contracts, so they didn't do it with us. It's a good marriage.

Atkinson: The other side of starting up a company is the designs themselves. What were you looking for? What sound did you want from an Aragon amplifier?

Federici: We always felt that it was possible for an amplifier to do power—musical power, real power—while maintaining smoothness and musicality, plus the ability to drive any speaker out there. The key was that we were the first ones to do this at a particular price point. And we liberated the speaker manufacturer.

I do want to make a point about the High End and loudspeakers. The problem in the mass audio market is, everybody's making 8 ohm speakers. Receivers can only drive 8 ohms. You vary the load, they go crazy. So once you do that, then no matter how good the speaker designer is, you've handcuffed him. But if you take the same designer and say, "Okay, it doesn't matter what the impedance is, it doesn't matter if the load is reactive, it doesn't matter what you do," that changes his ability to design product. The key is that if the customer has electronics that can drive any load, the speaker designer has the freedom to do whatever he wants in order to maximize the sound quality. That's why the speakers that the high-end dealers sell are clearly superior to mass-market speakers. There's no question about it; it's because of that.

Atkinson: The gap you saw in the market was an amplifier that wouldn't be fazed by awkward loads, but at a price that was not out of reach?