Russellmania: Bryston & the Brothers Russell

Although the term "professional" is often used as part of model designations in consumer electronics, the actual overlap between the audiophile consumer market and the real pro market is quite small. There are speakers in common use as studio monitors that no self-respecting audiophile would want to be caught dead listening to, and the typical audiophile loudspeaker would go up in smoke if asked to pump out the kind of volume that pro application routinely demands. To a lesser extent, the same applies to amplifiers: pro is pro and consumer is consumer, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Except for Bryston, Ltd. In the past 20 years this Canadian company has been almost unique in being equally successful in marketing their products to professionals and audiophiles. Their amplifiers are used by recording and broadcast studios, clubs, and a major movie-theater chain. Their products have also done well with audiophiles, earning positive reviews from magazines like Stereophile. (See Larry Greenhill's review of the Bryston 3B-ST, 7B-ST, and BP-25 elsewhere in this issue.)

To get the scoop on the secret of Bryston's success, I visited their factory in Peterborough, Ontario (about an hour's drive from Toronto), and talked to Brian Russell (President), Chris Russell (Vice President, Engineering), James Tanner (Vice President, Sales), and Stuart Taylor (the engineer responsible for the latest Bryston amplifiers, designated, not coincidentally, the "ST Series"). I asked them how the company had got started:

Chris Russell: It was started in 1962 by three men whose names are incorporated into the company name: Tony Bower, was the "B," a guy named Stan Rybb, was the "ry," and a fellow named John Stoneborough was where the "ston" comes from. They were making medical equipment and industrial electronics. My father had been a NASA engineer and was involved in the large NASA layoff in the late 1960s when the Apollo missions were terminated. He bought Bryston, Ltd. in late '67...and that was my first job out of college. I started thinking about what would interest me, and sound equipment is what immediately came to mind. I started learning as much as I could about it.

Robert Deutsch: You were a fledgling audiophile?

Chris Russell: I've been an audiophile all my life. I've always loved good sound systems and accurate portrayal of music.

Deutsch: What was your first audio product?

Chris Russell: The first product we made was an amplifier we called the Pro 3, which was in 1973. I took a prototype of it to Eastern Sound, a recording studio. Interestingly enough, at that time the engineer in charge of sound equipment at Eastern Sound was Stuart Taylor. They did a number of listening tests, and, somewhat to my surprise, they said they really liked the prototype and ordered two of them. The prototype was just in a utility box, so I figured we'd better get started on designing this thing for sale. It took a few months.

Deutsch: So your first consumer product was probably the 3B?

Chris Russell: Yes. The Pro 3 was called that because the first customers were professional sound studios. Very soon after that we started exploring the market, including the audiophile industry. So we took it to some stores in Toronto, and my brother John loaded a few of them in the back of his Honda and drove down to the States and got some dealers interested there. And things have expanded from there.

The 4B was the very next piece. The first one that got made I put together myself, having never [even] breadboarded the thing—I just laid out the circuit boards with a circuit that I sort of had in my mind and never even put on paper. The pieces all came in and we put them together, and, believe it or not, it actually worked the first time. It went into production in 1976 and [has] stayed in production ever since. Of course, we've made continuing changes and improvements.

Deutsch: When you design a product, do you have an ideal that you aspire to?

Chris Russell: I think the real crucial issue to us is accuracy. What we're looking for is a product that takes an input signal and transforms it in whatever way that product is called upon to do—in the case of an amplifier, for example, to make it bigger in both voltage and current and to change it in no other way; to change the frequency response as little as possible, to restrict the dynamic range as little as possible, to add harmonics to a degree that's almost immeasurable with the best equipment available. When we can do that and can take it home and can actually hear that it's performing in a way that we want it to in terms of accurately rendering the music, then we call it a successful product. We're also concerned with reliability and value.

Deutsch: What would be a typical design process, from conception to execution?

Stuart Taylor: I've designed several new products for this company, starting with a Dolby system for Nagra analog tape recorders, which we still sell. That was actually brought to us by an outside party who wanted to have it built, and I designed it.

Brian Russell: There would normally be a number of discussions over time—from three days to three years—about what a particular product has to do and what the industry is looking for. We ask a number of dealers and investigate other products to see what they offer in terms of features. Then we sit around and discuss what features we want to put on it. We tell the engineering department, "This is what we need." They then say, "If we do that, we can do this, too." Eventually, over a period of time, it evolves into a workable design. Then the sales department typically starts asking the engineering department every day if it's been done yet. That goes on for six or seven months. Then we get a prototype, then listening samples, and then production samples.

Deutsch: Do you send any pre-production prototypes to people such as dealers, asking them for feedback?

Brian Russell: No, we don't do that. Usually, Jim and Chris take the product home and listen to it for quite a while.

Chris Russell: There's an interesting story about how the model 8B came about. It was first designed by a different engineer than Stuart Taylor. Essentially, what we wanted to do was to combine two 3Bs into one box. We ran into problems with the four separate power supplies...We ended up with a product that had performance approximately equivalent to a pair of 3Bs. About the time that we were literally ready to go into production, Stuart and I sat down and were conferring about it, and to some extent we were disappointed that we hadn't made any forward strides. Stuart hadn't been involved in the design but had been involved in a lot of the testing. Somehow it wasn't enough to bring this product to the market, simply saying it's two 3Bs in one box.

Deutsch: Was the nature of your dissatisfaction with the technical performance, the lack of elegance in the design, or the sound quality?

Chris Russell: It was fraught with compromises.

Taylor: We had all sorts of problems getting the four power supplies to work together in close proximity with one another without causing all sorts of interference. It seemed to me that the amount of fiddling we had to do to make it work was going to be a nightmare down the road. I wanted to find some other way to do it that would clean the whole thing up.

Chris Russell: So Stuart asked if he could put his two cents' worth into this product.

Deutsch: You do pay him more than two cents, don't you?

Chris Russell: Actually, three. But he had to ask for the two cents first. [laughs]

Taylor: I suggested a few things that might reduce these problems.

Chris Russell: By that time, the engineer responsible for the design had left the company, so I asked Stuart if he wanted to take the project over. He agreed and asked how far he could go in redesigning the product. And I said, "Anything you want to do that would result in a product that would be a big step forward." I was dismayed to see him almost literally rip up the set of blueprints, including the chassis and the power-supply layout. He threw everything away and started from scratch. It took about six months to bring the product to the position that Stuart was happy with, and he came up with something that was quite a bit better—significantly lower noise and lower distortion—than what we had previously.

Deutsch: Can you hear these improvements with source materials and other associated electronics that don't have super-low noise levels themselves?

Chris Russell: The new digital formats have extremely low noise levels.

Deutsch: But how about the more traditional sources?

Chris Russell: The quick answer is that the better the source and the better the ancillary equipment, the more you'll hear the differences. But, interestingly enough, the first time I became really aware of the improvement in the new ST Series amplifier was when I was called to give a presentation at an Audiophile Society meeting in New York. I took the new 8B and the new BP-20 preamp, having not had much time to sit down and listen to them in my own home. We hooked them up to a sound system that I had no familiarity with, speakers I had never heard of before, and yet I immediately realized that there was something very different about these pieces of equipment, that they were doing a whole lot better job of giving an accurate signal than what I had been used to in our own products before. I remember thinking that I'd better get back to Bryston as soon as I can and do the same thing to the rest of the line.

Deutsch: How do you see the role of the kind of decision you made at that time, based on what you were hearing, compared to looking at what the measurements tell you?

Chris Russell: The measurements are a tool—just a tool. The listening quality is what we go by. Without that, there's no reason for us to struggle through this process. Being able to advertise a better number, especially in today's climate, is not a convincing argument. The difference is that it actually sounds better. It's difficult to prove in double-blind listening tests. Unfortunately, double-blind listening tests often result in guesswork, and you'll find that you've guessed wrong as often as you've guessed right.

Deutsch: Some people—although probably not most Stereophile readers—are no differences.

Chris Russell: There is that attitude in parts of the industry.


Deutsch: But you don't agree with it?

Chris Russell: Well, we can't disprove it. If we set up double-blind listening tests, we'd probably wind up with the same guesswork results as everybody else, because we're trying to respond with our conscious perceptions. The thing we find, though, is that every time we make an improvement to a product and send it out to the field with no announcement, we get feedback from the field that people are hearing the difference and are responding to it.

Deutsch: How do you define what is an improvement? Is it technical performance?

Chris Russell: Exactly. If we can measure that the performance of the product has improved in every way—eg, dynamic transient capability, distortion, particularly intermodulation distortion—and hasn't restricted itself in any other way, then immediately we find that the marketplace responds positively. One of the earliest examples I have of this happening was an improvement in an early production run of the 4B. We were at that time using carbon-film resistors, and I was so naïve at the time that I didn't realize that the carbon-film resistor has a temperature-tracking mechanism of distortion. The resistance would actually change with voltage. The resistance of the feedback resistors was changing twice per cycle, adding a second harmonic. We only made a few amplifiers that way, and people were happy with the product. Then we made the change to metal-film resistors, and the measured improvement was only in the low frequencies, from 100Hz down. The difference was greatest at full power at 20Hz, and even then it was only a change from 0.005% with the carbon-fiber resistor to 0.003% with the metal-film resistor.

Deutsch: Most people would say that those distortion figures are already in the inaudible range.

Chris Russell: That's what we thought, too. And we made no announcement; it was just changing one resistor in the product. The funny thing is that, over the next month, we had at least 30 to 50 phone calls from all over North America, saying, "What did you do to the bottom end of the amplifier? It's much tighter, much more accurate." We discounted it at the time. How were they hearing that difference? We were talking about 0.002% difference at full power at 20Hz.

Deutsch: And how many speakers respond down to 20Hz?

Chris Russell: And if they did, it wouldn't be at full power anyway. And they were specifically identifying the improvement at the bottom end, not the midrange or the top.

Deutsch: Have you ever made a change that, at the technical level, seemed to be an improvement, but the feedback you got from the field was that it was sonically a step backward?

Chris Russell: We did make a change that didn't make a measurable difference; we thought we could save money on the product, which [still] measured the same. One of the criteria we have is that if we're going to make a change in production, it's to have the same quality at a lower price or a better quality for the same price. We're also not afraid to spend money to make the product better. In this case, we were making preamplifiers, and we started to use a different output device, a small power transistor. The only difference was that the new one had slightly higher leakage content, which represents response to DC; it supposedly had no effect and we couldn't measure any effect under AC conditions. We sent out a very few of these preamplifiers and immediately got back a negative response. We didn't tell anybody we'd made a change, yet people said that something was wrong: it's smeared, it's blurred. So we recalled all these preamplifiers and put the output stage back to what it had been before. This was something that we could not measure on an AC basis.

Brian Russell: On the other hand, we also had a case where we just changed the color of the on/off switch button from white to black, and we had a couple of people phoning to say that the new black-button amplifier sounded better than the white-button amplifier. When people think there's a change, they will spend more time listening.

Chris Russell: That's a complication. The reason that we were forced to take people's unsolicited response seriously was because they were noticing things when we hadn't made any announcement and there was no visible evidence.

Deutsch: One of the things that intrigues me about Bryston is that, from the very beginning, you've had a successful involvement in both the pro and audiophile markets, selling essentially the same amplifier in both markets.

James Tanner: The only difference in the amplifiers is that the pro models have a prominent Bryston logo that people can see from the audience, and they have a variable input sensitivity.

Deutsch: What are the similarities and differences in what people in the pro and audiophile markets look for?

Tanner: I think the pro market looks for something that isn't going to break.

Deutsch: So reliability is a major issue.

Tanner: Right. Can I count on it, and if it does go down, can it be fixed quickly? My experience in the last three or four years, going around to studios and experiencing it firsthand, is that they're looking for as accurate a tool as they can get. So I think the pros picked up on the product because, guess what, it sounds good, and, guess what, it's reliable. At the audiophile end, things like soundstaging and clarity are also present. So it's really a crossover product, fulfilling needs at both ends.

Deutsch: Roughly what proportion of your products go to the pro and consumer markets?

Tanner: It'll vary year-to-year. It can be 50:50 in some years; it can be 60:40 or 70:30.

Deutsch: The 70 being...

Tanner: Either or.

Chris Russell: Earlier in the game, we were more in the professional industry, but lately it's been about two-thirds in favor of the audiophile.

Brian Russell: The single biggest reason professionals like us—above and beyond that [we make] a great amplifier—is that they can make a lot of money with our product, because there's no down time. It lasts and lasts and lasts. And if they do have a problem, we typically solve it in less than 24 hours, which is highly unusual in the audio industry.

Deutsch: I know you supply bands, clubs, movie theaters, broadcast studios, and recording studios. Is any particular part of this pro marketplace more critical of sound quality?

Tanner: Recording studios.

Brian Russell: And, to some extent, the broadcast market.

Chris Russell: Recording studios are becoming amazingly sophisticated.

Taylor: They're spending big bucks on speakers; they're putting together $70,000 to $100,000 systems. The amplifiers are important and not the biggest expenditure.

Chris Russell: We're essentially dealing with audiophiles in the sound studios. They know exactly what they're looking for: they're looking for accuracy. That's not just a buzzword with them—it's their livelihood. If they can't put on the CD what they heard in the original live performance, they're not doing their job right. If the product is able to give an accurate rendition of the original signal, that's what they want, and they're willing to spend whatever they have to in order to get it. Fortunately, our product is not hugely expensive.

Deutsch: How did you come to implement your current 20-year warranty?

Brian Russell: The amplifiers don't break, so there's no point in having a short warranty.

Tanner: We had 18-year-old amplifiers that were still performing without any problems. At the time we had a five-year warranty, but we had an internal policy of doing free repairs on products no matter how long ago they were made.

Chris Russell: We used that internal policy as a marketing incentive. We wanted good word-of-mouth about the way we treat our customers.

Deutsch: Has that been costly to implement?

Chris Russell: It has made us more money than we could have believed. Usually the problems are minor, or there's no fault found. On some early preamps we used a nickel-plated input connector. If one of these preamps comes into our service department for any reason, all of those nickel-plated input connectors are replaced with gold-plated jacks, no charge. The effect of this policy is that they then go home and invariably tell their friends how well they've been treated. That became the word of mouth about Bryston. You can't buy that kind of advertising. So in 1990, we just defined that policy on paper.

Tanner: We did have someone who asked, "If I bridge the amp, do I get 40 years?" [laughs]

Deutsch: Yes, but only for half the amplifier.

Tanner: The front half or the back half? Let us know.

Deutsch: Is there an update program to convert an earlier version of an amplifier into an ST Series?

Chris Russell: We can do it on most of the NRB series. It's not inexpensive—about $500—but it can be done. Also, the 7B, for reasons of physical construction, is almost impossible to upgrade from the NRB series. The 3B and the 4B can be done.

Brian Russell: Part of the advantage of the 20-year warranty is that a 10-year-old Bryston is worth pretty close to its original retail price, so what we tell people is that there won't be a huge difference between what you can sell an old one for and what a new one will cost you.

Deutsch: What's ahead for Bryston? What direction do you see the company going?

Tanner: Single-ended tubes, for sure. [laughs]

Brian Russell: We get a lot of suggestions that we should come out with a line of marine and automotive amplifiers. We're considering it. I've also thought about coming out with an audiophile-quality sound card for computers. One of the other things we're thinking about doing in the future is a surround-sound processor. Jim comes in every morning begging the engineering department to design a D/A processor.

Taylor: Also a computer-controlled amplifier, for theater systems and stadiums.

Brian Russell: We're very close to coming out with that. Our newest product, which is just now being released, is the B-60 integrated amplifier.

Taylor: It's essentially a combination of the unbalanced version of the BP-20 preamp and the 2B amplifier.

Deutsch: Isn't it, in a way, a retro product? Integrated amps were popular in the '60s and '70s. How does the B-60 fit into the multichannel era?

Chris Russell: It has preamp-out and amp-in jacks, so that it can be used with a surround-sound processor and additional amplifiers. The built-in 60W amplifiers would probably be appropriate for the rear channels in a surround-sound system.

Brian Russell: There are two specific markets we intend this for: first, entry-level into real high-end, specifically in North America; second, virtually the rest of the world. Integrated amplifiers are very popular in Europe and the Pacific Rim countries, because their living spaces tend to be much smaller than North American living spaces. They don't want big amplifiers and big speakers. A couple of our European distributors heard a rumor about this product and wanted to order it immediately. We think this product will bring us a tremendous amount of business.

Chris Russell: I think the future of audio will partly involve multichannel sound, but not necessarily connected with video. I think that people will want to listen to music in the best, most accurate, most emotionally rewarding way, and that probably will involve more channels. The other thing I see happening—and I'm very pleased to see it happen—is greater accuracy in the storage media. Implementation of DVD with higher sampling rates and true 20-bit digital will allow much better signal/noise ratios. Sixteen-bit digital gives us about 96dB; 20-bit gives us another 20-24dB S/N ratio, up to 120dB. That's what we actually produce in some of the products we build now. The 8B, for instance, in the two-channel mode, is a 400Wpc amplifier with a S/N ratio in the range of 120dB. So we look at 20-bit digital as the true test of what that amplifier can do.