Interview with Nicholas Chua of Promitheus Audio

May 5, in Features

HFR-What is your background?

NC-My background is actually engineering, mechatronics to be exact. Mechatronics is where the synergy of different disciplines of engineering converges to create simpler, more economical, and versatile systems. I currently lecture in an ex-Motorola semiconductor company On-Semiconductor in the areas of electronics for their in-house program.

HFR-Why did you start Promitheus Audio?

NC-The main reason I started doing this was simple “hi-fi prices.” I wanted to give people a chance to own high end music at a price the common Joe (like me) could afford. Just like the Greek mythological figure Prometheus, he was a brave mortal who stole fire from the gods and gave it humans for the benefit of mankind. This something I strive to do. So I started doing audio as a hobby, a passion for me.

The Promitheus TVC was developed because I wanted the public to enjoy the sound of a “good” passive after S&B launch their passive. Being an audio user I felt left out of the good sound because I couldn’t even afford the S&B trannies in kit form. So I said to myself, “If they can do it, so can I.” Thus, the TVC was born to fill my own needs, at first, and then the rest of the world.

HFR-What is your design philosophy?

NC-Our design philosophy is simple, Good sound, low price, lots of transformers in it, team effort, and mostly handmade. I stress team effort as this is what I believe creates synergy of components. When you have good synergy, you can get good sound at a low price. But to get the synergy of sound, it requires lots of listening and tweaking, and I don’t pass this cost down to the customer. After all, it’s fun finding out how to tweak the sound.

Lastly, handmade when you put lots of love into the unit, it will always sound good. I don’t believe in factory produced stuff. Even our transformers are made by hand cranking the spindle and guiding the wire. Nothing is automated in the workshop, unlike my specialization field. It’s ironic.

HFR-When did you first become interested in designing and manufacturing audio gear?

NC-Eight years ago, we started small doing custom orders. Back then, nothing big mainly tube gear and transformers. I always strongly believe in vintage stuff, both valve and vinyl.

HFR-Please elaborate on how your technical background has been beneficial in designing audio gear.

NC-Designing is not as simple as it seems. The technical side is not the most important factor, but it’s the sharpest tool in the shed. The most important is the ability to hear the music, and then realize what to do next. Once the problem is identified, then the technical part kicks in. Knowing what to do to make the sound better comes from technical design and knowledge of what parts to use.

I believe an electronic design, no matter how superior makes up 60-70% of the sound of the final product. The remaining 30-40% comes from knowing which part to change (and listen again after break in) and what mechanical parts to use. So our R&D period is very long because we try to get the best sound we can within that price break.

In short, I believe good technical design is necessary because you can achieve more with it. With my technical background it certainly helps, but most of the time I spend reading books and papers on how to make our products sound better. These books are not the modern reading material but the lost history audio books of 1930-1950 because, back then, the best engineers were always audio engineers.

HFR-Where do you see the audio industry headed in the next 5 – 10 years?

NC-I foresee good sound equals unaffordable prices. Even now we find high end companies asking for more and more. There are amplifiers which cost more than a fancy sports car. This, in turn, kills the hobby as it makes the hobby exclusive for the rich.

In 5-10 years time there will be media changes from CD to SACD to Computer. But frankly I feel we should just stick to CD and LP and Analogue Reel. I am old fashioned. I like the feel of removing the vinyl out of the jacket, looking at it, keeping an eye out for dirt and scratches, slowly placing the disc on the platter, then dropping the needle and “presto,” there’s music. To me the process makes the music more pleasurable.

HFR-What are the challenges of catering to an international market?

NC-With an international market you have a wide range of people with different needs and sound expectations. That’s why we always accommodate our customers by doing custom designs where ever we can. We believe customers come first and getting their satisfaction is our utmost priority. For instance, because of the international market we will be moving towards offering various finishes to suite the taste of the customers, i.e. natural finish and black.

HFR-What is the vision for your company?

NC-What we envision is:

“High power amps, active pre based on TVC, CDP with transformer output in lieu of analog board, DA converter, phono stage, cable break in device, cables which match internal wiring and designed to synergize with component in mind, all with sophisticated power supplies.”

Actually every one of our audio components features a transformer. I remember a statement once,

“We love tube amps, not because of the tubes, but because we can use as many transformers as possible.”

I strongly believe this is the lost secret of the 1930s. Back then every thing was made with transformers, just that their transformer technology was not so good. Design was good but transformer technology was “so-so”. But now with the transformer material being so good it is right to return to this technology.

In my personal opinion, using transformers as a medium of transfer (over capacitor and direct connection) is the most important thing in audio. It makes the sound more organic, natural, and transparent.

One of the secrets my audio guru told me was the most important thing is to have impedance matching. Once you have the impedance match, things will start to fall into place. Transformers do just this, and that’s why we believe in transformers. It just sounds right!

HFR-What can we expect from Promitheus Audio in the near future?

NC-Soon, we plan to unveil a DAC, an active preamp, tube amps (single ended and push pull), and other stuff that everybody wants but can’t afford.

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