AUDIOPHILE INTERVIEW: Jim Hagerman of Hagerman Labs

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Introduction:

“Hagerman Audio Labs is a small shop where we design and build heirloom quality audio products the old fashioned way. By hand. Sure, we use the latest technologies and processes, but never forget that extra level of care that can only be achieved through the human equation. All our designs are unique and innovative, pushing the state-of-the-art in audio reproduction. They are timeless and built to last.”

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Hello Jim. How did your interest in music reproduction start?

I guess it was always there, even as a child, listening to a tubed "console" at my grandparents, our KLH Model 88, etc. Then I played trumpet in school (which I got fairly good at) and was introduced to the world of classical music. But my true "aha" moment came at an audio showroom in 1976 when the salesman cued up Crime of the Century on a pair of Klipschorns. Our jaws hit the floor. We had become part of the music.

There was a second coming, so to speak, when I started up my own business. My original intent was to design a tubed guitar preamp. I was already well-versed and experienced as an electronics designer, so learning tubes was really not that difficult. Somehow I ended up diverted into phono preamp design and came up with the iRIAA Filter. After that things started taking off.

Were you encouraged by others?

Not really. This was completely a lone venture. I had no outside support or mentorship whatsoever. I'm not complaining – that's just the way it went down. Fortunately I had the grit and perseverance to see things through. Now that I've achieved some success, my customers offer up the most encouragement. I'm happy when they are happy.

Can you tell us a little or a lot if you wish about the design you are most proud of?

I've done a lot of great things since, but my favourite is still the original Trumpet phono stage. It is my "piece de resistance". I broke a lot of new ground with it, did things nobody else had done, and came up with a revolutionary machine that really stood out from the crowd. It still holds its own today in all manners of regard.

What are the current design and materials limitations that confront all intelligent skilled audio designers today?

Good question. All designers have pretty much the same components and technology at their disposal. That is not what sets us apart! The big difference is in topology. You can have a "regular" circuit and just keep throwing money at it - better and better components - but you can only take it so far. This is what most designers do. They brute force it. I don't follow that approach at all. I take a path of elegance. That is, I find a circuit or topology change that goes around the barrier, rather than trying to push through it. It's working smarter, not harder.

This sort of thing happens all the time in product development. A designer gets stuck into a corner and just keeps pushing. They absolutely refuse to do the obvious, which is to take a step back, turn sideways, and find a new path. No, they just keep banging their head against the wall resorting to brute force methods. This is usually out of fear. I see this time and time again. One clear example is when you see rows and rows of electrolytic capacitors. Or a dozen voltage regulators. Dead giveaways. That's not being clever. That's trading one problem for another, not actually moving anything forward.

What about creativity, innovation and other motivators?

I guess I sort of answered that in the last question. My motivations come from trying to move things forward in a way that hasn't been done before. I ask myself, what can I do to break the mould? How can I do this better?

Innovation is about thinking outside the box; breaking rules, not following them.

I'm lucky in that respect, being right-brained as opposed to the typical left-brained engineer / scientist. I find that "illogic" can really pay dividends and have learned to embrace it. It's a way of injecting art into engineering to find solutions that are just plain non-obvious. Clearly there is no magic "formula" to follow, or everyone would be doing it.

Do you have any particular priorities, other than the obvious one of sound quality, when you approach the design of audio components?

Yes, as a designer I approach the "whole". Not just sonics, but packaging, features, reliability, and most importantly, value. My goal for each product is to set a new benchmark in terms of performance-per-dollar. In that sense, sonics are of utmost importance.

I see you are a firm believer in burning-in cables and equipment. How did that come about?

It started back in 2002 when I needed a better way to burn-in my phonostages. I thought about it for awhile, realizing cables had similar properties to capacitors, and needed some way to "work" the dielectric and conductors. But how? I did some research and realized the answer was in the extremes - you need both very low and very high frequencies to do the job. Low for magnetic issues, and high for the dielectric. So I developed an all-analog circuit that synthesizes a very unique waveform that is always changing, producing a broadband noise that is swept in both amplitude and frequency. It sort of sounds like an old steam train speeding up and slowing down. No cheap square waves for me. That was the birth of the FryKleaner series.

Again, the answer was not brute force, but elegance. I can burn-in your power cord a hundred times faster with a few volts of my signal compared to 120V at 60Hz.

Recently I added the FryBaby and FryCorder models. The FryBaby is a very versatile unit that does cables, electronics, and also has a built-in inverse RIAA filter such that it can directly burn-in phonostages too. Power cords have always been a problem, but in a flash of inspiration I came up with the FryCorder concept, where the burn-in signal is sent back out the same power cord that powers the unit. It is deceptively simple. No switches or controls. It has the added advantage that the signal continues on throughout the house wiring, helping to burn that in too.

I realize there are non-believers out there. All I can say is that out of perhaps a thousand generators shipped, not a single one has come back because of ineffectiveness.

To what extent if any does marketing influence your designs?

Well, I have to admit I'm really bad with marketing and sales. Having said that, I do pay a lot of attention to what other companies are producing, what's actually selling, and what are the latest trends. By keeping my eyes open I hope to find new market areas or those that are underserved. I do not make copycat products nor do I try to jump on any bandwagons. I strive to be unique, to push the envelope, and to produce equipment that people will be happy with for a long time.

To what extent does marketing into your home market differ from marketing to your foreign distributors?

Unfortunately, I still employ a "one size fits all" approach to marketing. At the moment the best I can do is to offer free shipping worldwide. It sort of removes one barrier to a customer's buying decision. That, plus the 30-day trial period. It takes a lot of the risk away from the buyer.

I’m curious about the gestation process you go through designing a new product. How do you normally operate from, say, a clean sheet of paper?

I begin with a clean slate when possible. The original Trumpet was that way start to finish. Custom chassis, circuits, everything. Of course, now that I have a large portfolio of tweaked audio circuits and tricks, it makes sense to re-use what works. Most of my recent products fall into this category; improvements upon past successes. The Trumpet Reference, for example, employs circuits based on the original, which I then took to the next level, addressing customer issues (too tall, no MC capability).

I started from the inside out, estimating new board sizes first, then building an enclosure around them. This sort of development follows a circular pattern. You make a change in one part, dominoes fall, and some parameter elsewhere needs to change. It's a lot of give and take, back and forth, until a very nice solution results. This can take months and several rounds of prototypes. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so nothing gets released as a product until it reaches a level refinement I am proud to put my name on.

There are other times where the path is completely different. An idea may gestate in your head for years. It just keeps getting worked over in that virtual space until the light bulb goes off.

What are your feelings about the whole digital / analog controversy?

My feeling is that there is no controversy whatsoever.

Thank you Jim. This has been a pleasure

END

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