Q&A with Andreas Koch of Playback Designs

Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Q&A with Andreas Koch of Playback Designs

What ignited your interest in the high end? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side?
Both, but more from the electronics side, because my background is in digital signal processing, and at that time DSP for audio was a new frontier.

What gear made up your first high-end system? 
I had a Revox turntable, Revox speakers, and Luxman receiver.

When did audio develop from a hobby into a career?
Audio developed into a hobby after I started a career in it.

What education did you receive?
I have a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on digital signal processing (DSP) and computer technology from the Swiss Technical Institute.

How do you define the difference between hi-fi and high-end audio?
High-end audio took the place of hi-fi starting about 40 years ago. Today hi-fi is mainstream, just above portable MP3 players on the quality scale.

Are new digital formats adding confusion or helping the computer audio segment?
While they do certainly add confusion, they also help the industry in general, as some of those formats allow higher-quality recordings.

In your view, has digital audio finally equaled or surpassed analog?
In my own blind comparison tests with my own products (ADC and DAC) most listeners could not reliably tell the difference between analog and digital, but there are still a very few who can. Only five years ago there were many more who heard the difference. With that I conclude that we are getting very close to, or are already at the point where most people no longer can tell the difference between analog and digital.

What interesting fact or aspect about Playback Designs might surprise audiophiles?
Most of the technologies developed at Playback Designs are not the direct result of long listening tests, but rather from trying to understand what the fundamental purpose of our hearing mechanism is and how the psychology in our brain processes the audio signal from our ears. A listening test at the end only serves as confirmation or the final optimization.

The category of personal listening, headphones etc., is increasingly popular. What does this mean for the high end?
I assume we are talking about higher-quality systems than MP3 players with ear buds. On one side it is a good trend, because it means more people are listening to higher-quality audio, but on the other side it also means that fewer people are spending time with a home-based system that will always sound more natural and more realistic than headphone-based systems.

How will high-end systems change in the next ten years? 
Our lives seem to get busier and busier with ever less time to spend on hobbies. The audio hobby requires a lot of time, not only for listening, but also for researching recordings and managing your own library. Online streaming services can help reduce this “administrative” time by offering customized catalogs with preferred music ready to listen to instantly. Successful high-end systems will continue to integrate such higher-quality streaming services and to make it easier to use them and to find your preferred music via a graphic user interface on tablets.

Going forward, what are the greatest challenges confronting the high end?
Our industry has been dying during the last years and new, younger-generation audiophiles are not picking up the hobby as much. As they grew up with MP3 and were never exposed to higher-quality audio, an audio educational gap was created between younger and older generations. The challenge now is to educate the young generation and get them excited about audio again, the way the 7-inch-single vinyl disc did with teenagers more than 40 years ago. Hopefully, the recent trend toward higher-quality streaming services will expose younger generations to better-sounding audio enough so that they will start cultivating it as their new hobby again.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?
I have a deep admiration for nature and find it fascinating observing its complex mechanisms. As hearing is an important way of communicating with nature I find many explanations and inspirations by hiking through nature and observing it.