COLIN WONFOR: Howard Popeck speaks at length to people with interesting things to say: Colin Wonfor (Inca Tech, Magnum, Proac-Magnum, T.O.C.A, Naim and Tellurium Q) sets the record straight (Part #1)

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Au CLAYMORE 1

The image above is one of just six gold plated issues.

Note: This was originally published here in April 2015

Neil McCauley (HFA editor in chief) writes an introduction:

Colin was and remains one of the UK audio industry’s gentlemen. No one in our office has heard a negative comment about him nor a negative observation re his innovative designs – and that’s a rarity these days. He’s had a rollercoaster ride during his many industry years, success and disappointments in perhaps equal measure and yet despite a few bitter experiences he exhibits an engaging character, amiable and courteous Howard tells me.

A life-threatening illness in December 2014 and business hassles with other people have not it seems diluted his enthusiasm and despite his more open-minded peers acknowledging his amplification design prowess he remains assertive without being arrogant and confident without being complacent.

The first in this series – conducted by  features editor Howard Popeck) is by common agreement an attempt to put the record straight about the history' and to confirm that he is alive despite at least two reports of his death. Subsequent interviews – if he agrees to them – will focus on his design philosophies, products under development, designs beyond the current horizon, reflections on the industry both past and present and more.

Howard told me that Colin was a dream to interview with enough experience for a series of follow-ups and as you’ll read, he answers direct questions in an unambiguous way.

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Hello Colin, and thank you for agreeing to the first in what we hope will be a series of interviews. Reports of your recent death are premature – so what’s the back story on this?

I suspect it was just nasty people with nothing better to do.

Or bored?

Yup – or bored.

And / or malicious?

Possibly.

But you know who they are – right?

Pretty sure, yes.

There’s a lot more to this, correct?

Wouldn’t say a lot more – but I've said enough …. for now.

Okay, so that covers the imaginary death but you had a few recent actual ‘deaths’ late last year I believe.

Well .......  it started on my son’s Scott’s birthday in Jan 2011 with a massive heart attack. I needed a few metal and carbon fiber parts to replace the bits that stopped working. I did die (sorry chaps) five times in ambulance on the way to Bristol Hospital. After a twelve and half hour operation the pain was bad. Nurses told me I could only have Paracetamol at I'm allergic to Morphine. It did'nt help much.

Then when I got home and started to recover I had stoke which left me with a right side system failure so now. I limp and use a stick to stop Newton getting his way.

Potential for an impact due to gravity?

That’s it.

You were awarded a degree in electrical engineering I believe and another in computer eng and this despite some form of dyslexia – right?

I left school with just two O levels; chemistry and physics and I got these because at 13yrs old we left Hornchurch and moved to Basildon with Dad’s job at STC. That’s where I got a much better education.

I started with C&G (ed: City & Guilds) Chemistry moved on to degree then found I hated the job I had and took up my hobby, electronics. I went back to school and a degree. At fifty I undertook a degree coarse in computer science. …..

And?

It was bloody hard work.

Dyslexia?

Hmm. My reading and writing are still crap and my spelling is garbage, but I read a lot of text books as I think it too hard to read fiction unless it’s Terry Pratchett or Arthur C, Clarke.

Your audiophile design history is extensive and can do with clarification I think you’ll agree. I knew you from the Magnum days but that wasn’t the first was it?

No …… my first nice sounding amp was a valve design at twelve years old, Granddad and Dad were both keen on electronics; so I had lots of help.

Then I built a few tuners and that's how I met Brian O’Rourke whilst I was collecting parts from Maplin’s at Southend on Sea. He had just started Diesis before Ruark Audio.

Next was M.I.H. 1000W/ch amps for Tom Fletcher of Dais.

The Proac Magnum Tri-amps, followed by A.C. Magnum Ltd with Tony Relph of Rega fame, I sold my shares of Magnum to Tony as I was just getting my family together and he did not want to expand from his home. To say it was a bad parting would be a understatement. He went on by what I've come to believe were unethical means to obtain some later designs of mine. We used the same PCB printing company!

Ah. Okay. Moving on then ….

Next, on to Inca Tech and Inca Design and not forgetting the very first Gold plated power/main connectors.

Inca Tech first products were Gold Plated mains plugs and socket, thousands were sold even to Harrods and Subjective Audio. And then after the legal hassles with Relph I went on to amps and my dreams of good sounding music.

Whilst at Magnum I also did work for Plessey at Ilford and won lots of awards on their award scheme for apprentices. This enabled me to buy my first home on Canvey Island. I specialized in power supplies and had a flair for the big ones. Then on to Harman and Simmons in Hainault to design large power supplies typically 55V DC at 100K Amps. This helped when ICL employed me to work on computers in the late 1970’s on large Switch Mode Power Supplies.

At the same time as Inca Tech my friend Alan Elsdon and I built and designed the Dreadnought range of large power amps.

As the reign of terror headed up by Thatcher destroyed many small companies we at Inca Tech closed down. But not before producing the Claymore and the ID series of A Class amps.

Were you migrating toward being and audiophile designer gun-for-hire?

Prefer the term ‘contract hire’.

Okay. Fine. So …?

Now on contract work designing power supplies I had chance to go to Somerset. While there, I developed the range of T.O.C.A. amplifiers.

This followed a call from a old friend Gordon Strachan from Scotland wanting me to design a monster P.S.U. 150KV at 1A for a X Ray generator, then a low noise amplifier for a ophthalmoscope looking at noise level of 15fA.

Whilst in Scotland I got head hunted by Hugh Micro Electronics to solve odd problems including PSU’s for NASA now this was great fun and I met some fantastic people. I also did some more contract work on centrifuges and LED lighting. Then a phone call from Seamap interested me. This company was based again in Somerset. Off I went, back to my beloved Somerset and old friends.

And then Naim?

Back on contract work and Naim called. I enjoyed working for them. I learnt a helluva lot about what other people thought was good sound but ……

But?

It was not my taste. Great lads at NAIM; miss them.

Which led to TQ I guess

Now whilst my friend Simon Lomax was opening his new recording studio in Somerton I was invited to the open party. And saw the cables on the speakers. At this point I met Geoff Meriggan and told Simon the cable was not performing as well as his music. Geoff bet me 10p I could not make something better so I did and Tellurium Q Black was created from duck tape and some lovely wire I had in stock. I won the bet. Yippee and TQ was born.

There’s more, right?

Yes. all I've said here is a brief CV but I'm a bit bored re the past.

Did you really build an amp you named Geranium?

Nope. You might mean a design called Deadly Nightshade or Bella for short.

So …. Magnum. I sold lots of it back in the Subjective Audio days. It was well-built but lacked cosmetic finesse. The designs always sounded great and we never had a failure. Moreover despite 28-day sale or return we never had one returned. Assuming my experiences weren’t unique it seems you had it all on a plate. So what when wrong, and why?

I am sorry to say …. given the passage of time ……. it was greed by others, ego-trips, others desire for total control.

I guess from this that you aren’t that comfortable being a businessman, running a business and stuff like that. Design work is your thing – am I right?

Along those lines, yes.

Are you too trusting perhaps; not ruthless enough maybe?

Possibly, probably, don’t know for sure.

So that leads us neatly to Inca Tech. What’s the story there?

The Claymore was the first designed for production. There was a few others before including a push button version the same spec as the Claymore called the Sabre. We used the name later in a smaller model. It was designed to order for a USA company but they died before it was completed. Two had been sent to them and that when I found out they’d gone. So after making Gold Plugs as joke having seeing my friend Chris clean his 15A round pin plugs with Brass Cleaner and I called them “ Goldunmains” he came up with the name Inca Tech. He was right they did sound better; I lost a bet there I had to buy the curry.

So I gave Chris a Claymore to try. It was bright orange not black. In a day or two he called me up very excited and wanting to write a review on it. Yikes I said it the only one I said, he said “Get of your bum Wonf’ and make more; it’s going to be big”.

He was right. There is over 12,500 of them out hiding in lofts and sheds I suspect. Only six Gold Plated were ever made for show in Europe, other colours and fluffy one were also made, many review have been done on the Claymore and one or two compared it with Magnum amps, sorry (not) Relph but …the Claymore won.

Inca Tech made many products, Claymore, Claymore “S” Claymore 2, Sabre (2), IT1X, IT50, IT100, IT200, ID1P, ID25, ID50, ID75, MSB, FMT and many more I had a great team working for Inca Tech all retired now I suspect.

So Inca Tech came and went. The next I heard of you was via Kog Audio re your Tellurium Q designs. Were there other ventures in between or shall we go straight into the Tellurium Q story?

Adventures in Hi-fi. Yes T.O.C.A, Inca Tech Design; I.T.D. became T.O.C.A. Touch of Class A. The name was from Alan Elsdon to be honest. All the amps were either single ended A Class or based on the ITD Oberon - a design which turned up elsewhere without my permission; an integrated amp.

The 300W Mono SECA amp was 1.8M tall and a mere 180Kgs with 1.5Farrads on each power rail and 3KW PSU 80 FET’s. It was not eco friendly …. sinking 1.8KW just by switching each channel ON. So 20W,50W mono (my favorite) 100W mono, 200W mono, 300W mono were all used to promote at Penta the TOCA kit.

Tellurium Q Ltd, started with Black and Blue were first shown to a London dealer who said it they crap, then on to Rayleigh Hi-fi. We left a sample there and the Focal lads now Kog listen to them and approached us to become distributors for the UK.

Okay, so Tellurium Q. Are you still involved and if so how?

Issues with the Tellurium Q Ltd directors forced me to resign in July 2014 as director.

Why?

Because I believe they saw no need for me anymore and Geoff and co did not understand electronics and the complex way some designs are put together. This caused me great pain as I trusted them. It also helped to end my marriage, and forced me into a homeless situation and I became very ill in December – having just recovered in June from septicemia

I still on paper own 45% of TQ but I suspect I will never see any income or returns on that. Strange I wonder if he was related to Relph as Geoff never wanted the company to move from his home, but TQ grew far too big for a workshop in a large garden in Langport. So we got a large unit in Somerton were I was shipped out to be forgotten.

Bitter or better or both?

Both. Yes I do feel bitter what was done was very wrong and bloody stupid once all the designs for new cables are used up.

Better because I've survived and I'm back. Success is the finest form of revenge.

I guess you’re gonna tell me that Tellurium Q can be improved on and that you are designing a new series under a different brand; am I correct?

Yes Tellurium Q cables can be improved on with better materials and construction techniques.

When?

I'm now thinking of doing a new range of cable designs and I will not be marketing them as building costs will be silly prices.

I'm unclear what that means?

I might bring them to the market by unconventional means. Not finalised yet.

Was there / is there a Tellurium headphone/phono amp and/or a preamp or have I got that wrong?

There was a A Class Pre, a Listen Pre/headphone Amp and a nice Phono Amp …….. but these will now never see the light of day.

Anything else re the above?

There was also SECA 18W amp and a new Claymore, all set to rot in hell.

Let’s retrace a bit of history again. Am I correct in remembering you did work for Oxford Acoustics. Not on their turntables surely?

Dr. Frazer Shaw from O.A. was a good and kind friend and when his company was struggling – like many small companies – he took me on and we redesigned the Inca Tech Quattra; a 4 channel integrated amp for Bi-Amping. I also helped to design a speed controller for his lovely turntable. A real gent and a kind friend.

Thanks Colin. I guess that’s enough for now. Can we pick up next month where we’ve left off today?

If there is any more to say then ... why not? Thanks Howard for giving me a pubic opportunity to set the record straight.

END

Part 2 HERE

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