Howard Popeck speaks at length to people with interesting things to say: Mr. Dominique Mafrand, the driving force behind French audio maker l’enceintebleue

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

It began when I was very young. One of my four brothers studied electronics at school and found a job in a French company called Ferisol manufacturing professional electronics equipment for the industry. It was back in 1960/1965. It was the beginning of pop music with bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix Experience and so many others. You understand what kind of music I grew up with – right?

Yes indeed!

So anyway, he started making his own tube mono integrated amp and high-sensitivity loudspeakers with that typical warm sound. I remember staying alone in the room during hours listening to music. It is very likely the very beginning of my passion for music and the reason that led me to study electronics at school when I was 16. I thought that one day or another I would start playing with electronics and making audio equipments.

Nice story. So, were you encouraged by others?

We hadn't much money at home and we hadn't any serious audio system until my brother made his. But I kept secret my new passion for music because I knew my parents would have purchased one system for me even if they couldn't afford it. When I left home and lived by myself, I started talking with my friends about music reproduction but I felt people were not very concerned with high quality audio.

I had been reading a lot of magazines and everything became clear when I found out the French review L'Audiophile and the American audio fanzine Sound Practices. Tube electronics was the revelation, and I must say that my most fervent supporter was my wife who always encouraged me to start my company in year 2000.

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

To be honest, I’m very proud of my two latest designs i.e. L'Enceinte Bleue and the 304TL mono block amplifiers. These are prototypes only at the moment. But I will tell you a bit more about the amps. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the ETF European Triode Festival, an international meeting with audiophiles coming from all around the world bringing their own creations for talking about them, displaying them or demonstrating them. One French guy came with a monumental amplifier using a 2-stage topology with transmitting triodes in both gain/driver stage and output stage. Output power was an impressive 1000W in class AB under 4000VDC ! Unusual figures for a gorgeous building quality.

But the sound was the very biggest surprise of all. Extremely high-definition, so smooth, so accurate and so delicate at the same time, tremendous dynamics, well the kind of sound every one has always dreamed of without being able to listen to even once. I then decided to focus only on transmitting tubes and designed a first amplifier with Eimac 304TL triodes in 2007. Only 15W per channel in single ended mode but the feedback from the listeners was very positive and very enthusiastic.

Meanwhile …?

Meanwhile the amp was providing a relaxed reproduction that I noticed when I listened to the giant ETF amplifier, but it was far from the real thing to my taste. I did a second version two years later, with better quality components, an improved power supply in a separate chassis. It was sounding better, clearer, smoother and more dynamic. I attended an audio show in Paris in year 2010 and got a "Best Sound of Show" award from the Portuguese reviewer Jose Henriques. And I sold the amp to a visitor !

It was time for the third version and I wanted to consider simple schematics as I could imagine while using some of the most musical passive parts on the planet. It took some months to get the schematics ready, thinking and thinking again about simple solutions. That third version is still a 2-stage mono single-ended 304TL with an ultra simple and ultra short schematics.

The integrated power supplies, one per stage, stock extremely high energy i.e. 200 J for the input stage, 1100 J for the output stage. When connected to the granite-made Enceinte Bleue loudspeakers, the sound is extremely organic, lifelike, with tremendous dynamics.

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

When a designer is creating an audio product, he has to deal with several things like aesthetics i.e. size, weight, colour, shape and so on, costs or technical complexity for examples. Depending on what kind of product for what kind of end users, there must be some congruency between all those factors. A Magico loudspeaker is a perfect example of a cost-no-object product in every aspect. It gives an idea of what a designer can imagine when he doesn't have any kind of limitation. He’s a fortunate man. On the other hand, designing a good-sounding 1000 euros loudspeaker is a real challenge. It is a very hard task that requires even greater imagination.

So then, harder in the real world?

Precisely.

What about creativity, innovation and other ‘motivators?

As far as I’m concerned, I try to design in a different way. I mean that creativity is one of the most important part of all my designs in a way that I try to make musical things with old fashioned technologies i.e. full range driver or tube electronics.

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

Simplicity. I want a design as direct and straight as it can be without compromising the sonics. I do believe that this is the only way to reduce the subjective gap between real music and reproduced music as much as one can.

To what extent – if any – does marketing influence your designs?

When I start a new project, I don't think for a second about marketing. I’m only focusing on the technical aspects of the product and on the sound. The next step is more influenced by marketing, components choice or aesthetics are today priorities if an almost unknown company like mine wants to catch attention of everyday customers.

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

At the moment I haven't contacted any foreign distributors. The first product I would like to export is the Enceinte Bleue loudspeakers but I first want to get feedback in France i.e. end users and press people. However I think that my products are somewhat specific and they couldn’t meet every distributors requirements.

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?

Before I start writing equations or drawing the first schematics sketches, I try to imagine the project in my head. I think about solutions, topology of circuits, competition products, it takes several weeks sometimes as it did with the mono-block amplifiers. There I put all these thoughts on a sheet of paper then a second period of thinking begins with computer simulations and very often schematics modifications.

It this the same process for electronics and loudspeakers?

Yes.

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

I think it is a nonsense controversy.

Really?

Really!

Can you say more?

Sure. Both have positive and negative aspects – but they don't work one versus the other. The very latest and expensive digital designs prove to be very capable of generating goose bumps, as indeed the most exciting analog systems still can. That’s the positive side.

On the other "negative" side, such systems are very expensive and can't be afforded by the typical audiophile. In a more real life arena, the entry-level analog and digital products are now very similar in sound quality and any music lover can find interest in both technologies.

Thank you Dominique. This has been a pleasure.

http://lenceintebleue.com/

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EDITORIAL NOTE: The opinions expressed in the above post do not necessarily reflect those of our editorial team – just in case you wondered. Neil McCauley