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Matthias Lück
Co-owner, designer


Brinkmann Audio GmbH
Im Himmelreich 13 88147 Achberg


or many people, the Brinkmann brand is synonymous with the "analogue", understood as everything related to the playback of vinyl records. Not without a reason. This German manufacturer is mainly known for its turntables, tonearms and phono preamplifiers. Until recently, they also offered cartridges produced in cooperation with well-known brands - EMT and Benz Micro.

In fact, the story of Helmut Brinkmann's adventure with audio began with the preamplifier (that included also a phono stage), and after that he developed an amplifier. In quite a distant history, company's lineup included once a digital-to-analogue converter and even loudspeakers. Today, however, brands efforts are focused on the “analogue”, and the lineup is sort of complemented by a line preamplifier, power amplifier and integrated amp. Or at least it was until recently, until the company was joined by Dr. Matthias Lück, who specializes in ... digital audio (conversion). Together with Helmut Brinkmann, he created the Nyquist digital-to-analog converter, that I had a great pleasure to review for you (see HERE).

You could have met Matthias in the Soundclub's room during the last Audio Video Show and back then I also had an opportunity to talk to him briefly. A few days ago, he visited Poland again, invited by the Polish distributor, to meet Polish fans of good digital and analogue sound in Warsaw's and Katowice's showrooms. I took the opportunity to sit down with him and ask questions about him, his role in Brinkmann, and of course his beloved “child”, Nyquist. Below you will find a record of this conversation.

MAREK DYBA (MD): We had a chance to talk briefly during Audio Video Show, but this is the first „official” interview. So, let's start from the very beginning. How did you end up in the audio industry?

MATTHIAS LÜCK (ML): Well, I have been an audiophile for as long as I remember - I was probably 12 years old when I built my first speakers. Later, though still many years ago, around 1987, I met Helmut Brinkmann. It was the first step to getting to know and love his products and in fact I have been using this brand's system ever since. Helmut trusted me enough so that we listened to his products together when he introduced some changes to them and he always listened to what I had to say about them, although, of course, at the time these were only firendly suggestions.

Friendship lasted for many years. I was a user, among other components, of the only Brinkmann DAC ever manufactured by this brand, which was called Zenith, which was developed probably in 1986. I was using it over the years and was really happy about it. But a few years ago high resolution files came, streaming, and I wanted to use these (then) novelties, which Zenith did not allow. So I went to Helmut and told him that he must have a digital device in his lineup, one that would allow users to enjoy the advantages of hi-res files.

MD: OK, but Brinkmann has always been know for its analogue products - turntables, tonearms, phono preamplifiers, although they offered amplifiers too. When you said that he used Brinkmann's products, was it just the DAC, or was it also a turntable?

ML: I owned everything (laughing), I was addicted to Brinkmann's products. I was a great customer of a company, one who bought everything they offered. Of course, Brinkmann did not make loudspeakers, so for my system I had to get some from other brand, but that was the only exception. And a CD transport. As for the DAC - I went to Helmut with the idea maybe 7 years ago. At the beginning, we both decided to study the matter before we do anything else. I was able to offer my knowledge in the field of digital signal processing, Helmut knew very well how to make analog circuits.

MD: Your knowledge regarding signal processing comes from...?

ML: I am an electrical engineer by profession, and I did my doctorate in digital signal processing, actually a video signal, not audio, but still digital signal processing is my specialty.

MD: How did Helmut react to your proposal of developing a hi-tech DAC?

ML: It took a little time to convince him, not to the idea of developing a new product, but rather that it was possible to build a good sounding converter. I mean one that would meet his high standards that he always upholds for his analog products. I already back then assumed, that if we would actually develop a good sounding device, one that would have a chance of success on the market, I would give up my job and devote all my time to Brinkmann. Which ultimately happened in 2015.

MD: If I remember correctly, when we spoke during AVS, you told me you'd worked for Harman before, right?

ML: Yes. I was the head of the automotive software development department for Europe and Asia. We developed software for car manufacturers, navigation systems, car audio systems, etc., for high-end cars. So I worked for a big company, but I did something that was not in line with my private interest in audio equipment. The decision to move to Brinkmann was a big change for me – this is a small company but finally I could do what I love and realize my passion for high quality sound.

MD: Lets for a moment go back to the beginning of this passion - this is a subject that I am always interested in. Do you remember any particular moment in the past that inspired your passion for music?

ML: My interest in music began very early, because I was surrounded by it from an early age thanks to my parents. Especially my father, who not only listened to music a lot, but also played instruments. And he listened to music, especially classical, whenever he could, even during lunch breaks. Inspired by his example, I started playing in different bands when I was 11-12 years old.

There was also one moment that I remember well, which in a way led me to Brinkmann. At that time, I was developing audio products for a company that made products for guitarist. One day I visited one of the company's employees in his home and it turned out that he owned Brinkmann audio system. We listened to Horowitz's concert from Moscow, from 1985 or 1986, from a CD. Later I thought about it all the time because I heard something amazing, real emotions. It was clear to me that instead of loudspeakers and other components I'd built myself, I had to get a truly audiophile system, preferably from Brinkmann.

MD: But at the time you were already building your own components.

ML: Yes, but that was just a hobby.

MD: Knowing stories of many other designers who have succeeded in this industry, I can see several common denominators. Most of them started building devices at an early age, many of them also played some instruments, which is important because it gives a designer an idea about how instruments really sound like.

ML: I'm still playing my Hammonds - it's my instrument, and I'm also singing in a church choir - so I have the most direct contact with music one can have. My first commercial product, created probably in 1984, was also for audio industry - it was a midi sampler. It was on the market for 10 years or so.

MD: Let's get back to Brinkmann. You came to the company to develop Nyquist. Or to be more precise, its digital section, because Helmut created the analogue one.

ML: Yes, that's correct.

MD: A new DAC was needed, because requirements of the market changed, especially for the digital section. On the other hand requirement towards analogue part haven't really changed over the years. Does it mean that the Nyquist's analogue stage is based on the one used in Zenith?

ML: The sound signature is similar. That's what Helmut wanted from the very beginning, he assumed that the sound of the new DAC should not be significantly different from the Zenith's, because even today despite being created many years ago, it still sounds very good. The only problem with old DAC was compatibility with with formats. So to achive a similar sound signature also in our new DAC we use transformers (Lundhal) in the output stage – that's a solution taken from Zenith. We tried different ones but it was the „old” one, although with different transformers, that turned out to be the best – you could say it's something inherited from the old design.

Yet, we did realized that 30 years passed and even Helmut learned a thing or two during this time. He decided that the output stage from the Edison phono preamplifier would be a great base for Nyquist - they are quite similar. In fact, he chose a number of proven solutions and this is how the first version of Nyquist came into being. Of course, the process was not over. I would even say that the hard part only began, that is experimenting, learning, finding the best solutions.

In the case of DAC, the power supply plays a huge role. In our DAC we used 12 power supplies. This is the most important change compared to the first version (currently, MK II is offered) - we added one more PS in the oscillator circuit, because as it turned out it brought a huge positive change. Another important element in the power supply of the audio device are capacitors. Usually there are quite a lot of them and they always have an impact on the sound, you can even say that it is an "suboptimal" effect - they are an indispensable element, but it would be really better if you did not have to use them.

However, the designer has to make some decisions and find an optimal balance, the right combination. Finding the one was one of Helmut's many great contributions to the project. Of course, it is a process. You have to try out some combinations of DAC chips, capacitors, etc. to finally find the one that results in the desired sound. Then the prototype of the device is built, which is supposed to be already a lot like the final product. And then the tedious process of fine-tuning the system and sound begins using small changes.

And I'm not just talking just about different capacitors used in different spots of the circuit, but even about such seemingly small details as screws, which are used to fix the output transformers. Even they matter. Helmut introduced changes, then we listened together to assess how they affected the sound. Most often we agreed in our assessments, deciding whether the change was a positive or a negative one. You can't tweak the device endlessly though, and this part of the process must be completed with a finished product.

MD: Right. Often when I talk to designers they tell me, that it is maybe the most difficult moment in product's development – recognizing that it is finished and ready to hit the market.

ML: It's true, it's a really difficult decision. The countless hours spent listening to a new product for us are not only those in Brinkmann's room, that we do together checking whether some elements are working as we want them to, or not. Each of us also took the Nyquist home, to listen to it casually in our private systems. We needed to know if it could make listening enjoyable, if it offered a true, emotional contact with music, or simply put – if it was a device that we ourselves wanted to have in our systems for everyday listening.

When the answer is: yes, I enjoy the sound, it gives me a close, wonderful contact with music, then the answer to a question whether this product is ready to be introduced to the market is also: yes! Introducing product to the market does not mean that we move on and forget about it. We keep working on it, developing some element, because there is always some space for improvement. I'm not talking about some small detail, but about finding lot of them and finally reaching a point, when a cumulated progress in sound quality justifies bringing it to customers. That's why currently we offer Nyquist MK II.

MD: I have to ask you about DAC chip choice – why Sabre? I know that its specification is impressive, but these are just numbers. There are people who love Sabre chips and there are those who hate them. I'm asking also because I image, that Helmut, I suppose a huge fan of analogue sound, also had to approve this choice, and Sabres are rarely described as „analogue sounding”. Did you have to convince Helmut that this was the best choice for your project?

ML: No, I didn't have to. We tried several chips. In Zenith Helmut used good old TDI 1541 – it is still possible to buy it, but not in quantities sufficient to plan a continuos production. Choosing Sabre we didn't try to save money, as this is one of the most expensive chips on the market, especially considering that we don't use many of its features. I guess the wealth of the features of this DAC, ones that may or may not be used by different manufacturers, might be one of the reasons of such a polarized opinions about Sabre chips.

With most chips what you get is a D/A converter and a set of standard build-in digital filters and that's it. Often differences between consecutive versions of such chips are actually just different implementations of digital filters that do change the sound, while the chip itself is exactly the same. Sabre offers a lot of features, but we don't use them, except for 8 DACs inside the chip.

MD: And yet, you chose this particular model paying for all the features you don't need...

ML: Exactly. A great advantage of this chip is an easy access to all power supplies. There are almost no voltage regulators inside the chip. It offers a designer using this chip a lot of choices, and as I already said, the power supply is a key element of the DAC with a huge impact on its performance. Sabre fulfills also another of our requirements, it features a current output and is able to deliver quite a high current, which was crucial for us, because signal could be sent directly to transformer.

MD: Did you know from the very beginning that for DSD playback you would create a separate converter? After all many chips, including Sabre, are capable of processing DSD signal too.

ML: The beauty of DSD format is that to play it you need only a relatively simple circuit – simplifying you may say that all you need are analogue filters. This is one of the reasons this format was developed – you can play it using simple, hence cheap circuit. We wanted to try such a „simple” solution from the very beginning. All we needed was one listening session – we sat there with our eyes wide open, we couldn't believe how good it sounded in comparison to what, for example, Sabre DAC did with DSD signal. So it was a non-brainer – for our DAC we had to design such a „simple”, separate circuit to play DSD format.

MD: Some brands, for example PS Audio, convert even PCM signal to DSD, because they claim it sounds better this way. Did you try such solution?

ML: Yes, we did, but we found out that the best performance is achieved when both PCM and DSD are played in their native format, ie without any conversion. Many people claim that DSD sounds more „analogue”, but some recordings lack a bit of dynamics, punch – these elements usually sound better from PCM. I will not judge other brands' choices, like PS Audio's, or Nagra's. We did our listening tests and chose the solution that in our opinion offers better results.

MD: You have created a D/A Converter that combines „old” solutions with cutting edge ones. On one hand there is a tube output, on the other it is compatible even with hi-res PCM files and DSD format. Plus, which is still not that common, you've added Ethernet input and RoonReady function. Do you treat LAN input as sort of marketing advantage over competitors, or you saw actual advantage of this input?

ML: Before I answer that let me quickly go back to the topic of DAC chip. As an engineer, I dare say that the choice of a particular chip has a much smaller impact on the sound than it is generally believed. From many people who listened to Nyquist, we heard that it does not sound like Sabre. We answered that no, it does not sound like Sabre, it sounds like a power supply system we designed and like some other elements we used in our device.

Now, referring to the question. Brinkmann believes that we need to offer our customers high quality products and top-class sound, but also our products must serve for a long time without causing any problems. Plus they should be future-proof in the sense that when something new comes up on the market in a few years, we should be able to offer an upgrade to existing device so that it would still be up to date. The third key issue is the ease of use. Hence the decision to add an Ethernet input. The owner does not need any complicated sources. All he needs is a Roon server in his home network and if he has one, playing music should be fairly simple.

There is also the question of the sound quality. The USB input really complicates things - you need a device that will send signal through a USB cable - usually it's a computer, if it is a PC you need proper drivers, the quality of the cable itself is an important factor, you need a also good receiver in the DAC. In other words, the complexity is far greater than when one uses Ethernet input. In this case we, as DAC's designers, have a greater influence on the final sound. Therefore DACs that feature both USB and Ethernet inputs, usually sound better using the latter.

Of course it is possible to optimize USB and to get a great sound from it, but it often requires a lot of knowledge from the user. The Ethernet input will be easy to use even for a person who does not have any special knowledge of computers. Another factor we took into consideration was a fact that this type of input is future-proof, same as RoonReady function, which our device supports – we don't think that in a foreseeable future there will be any major changes in these areas. In this way, we offer a product that after several years will not turn out to be obsolete, out of date.

MD: OK, so next question. Apart from all these up-to-date features you decided to include also MQA. Why? To be honest I don't see capability of playing lossy format as an advantage of a high-end device, that Nyquist is.

ML: We could talk about MQA for a long time, but we do not have time for that. First of all, MQA is just one more DAC functionality that has no effect on other features or sound quality. It's a piece of software, a bit of additional signal processing - in a word one of many small things that happen in DAC. This is one thing.

Before I go to the next one, I will only mention how I got interested in this format. At one of the shows we exhibited together with Richard Vandersteen and he told me that for the first time in his life he had goose bumps while listening to digital music. It was quite surprising because he's a 100 percent analogue guy. I asked him how it was even possible, was the room too cool, or what? (laughing). That's when I heard about MQA for the first time. I had never heard of it before. At this moment it was just another three-letter abbreviation for me, nothing more.

I was a bit curious though, so using my engineering knowledge I decided to study Bob Stuart's patents and I found that maybe there was something there. I decided that it was worth delving into this topic, especially since the support of this format does not require additional computing power and it was possible to add this functionality without making any changes to our design.

MD: But you had to pay for a license...

ML: Yes, sure. I won't tell you how much was it, but I can tell you that it did not influence the price of Nyquist in any way. I asked MQA guys why they sell license for using the format and they told me they had to because they were buying licenses from record labels they were working with.

From technical standpoint we can talk about three elements. One is the infamous „authentication” of musical material, that supposedly ensures the same quality that that of a master tape/file. Second element is compression that MQA uses, and the third is something they call minimizing temporal blurring, or something like that, that appears during A/D and D/A conversion. A separate discussion goes on about this format being or not being lossy. Actually there are many losses happening during the whole recording process...

MD: Obviously, so why add even more?

ML: The question is really about compression and the right question is whether it is needed especially for streamed music. And whether it actually causes a degradation of sound quality compared to uncompressed material. In fact, you can use MQA without any compression - there are a lot of MQA files in 16/44 format where no compression is needed.

You can have a different opinion on this subject, but my experience is that I haven't heard a MQA recording that sounded worse than "normal" version, even hi-res one. I've heard quite a few that sounded even better than those without MQA. You can, based on my experience, say that even if MQA does not help sound quality, it certainly does not hurt it. And of course, if you buy Nyquist and have something against MQA, just don't use this feature.

MD: OK, let's leave it at that - it is one of many features of the device and hardly anyone uses all features of any device. We already know that it did not affect the price of the device, so some users might treat it as a bonus, other can just disregard it completely. Let me ask you now about another element that often surprises many people - granite slabs, which are always supplied in a set with Brinkmann devices.

ML: This is an element that is traditionally associated with Brinkmann. It came from the fact that in the past the components of this brand were much smaller than today - the height and depth were similar, but the width was clearly smaller. The device was also much lighter, so the granite was added because it would make the device less sensitive to resonances. The combination of aluminum casings and this particular type of granite has proved to be a very good solution.

And so it remained first as an element of "tuning" the sound of our devices, and secondly as an element of design. If you take one of our older devices and put them next to any of your current production visually they will match perfectly. There may be a difference in width, but the height, a granite slab, a glass top wall will be the same- in short Brinkmann devices from different generations will always look great together.

MD: The casings for many Brinkmann device are quite similar. It seems like a case of smart saving – you can order larger quantities, which lowers the unit price.

ML: I wish it were true, but it's not quite like that. On one hand, it is obviously a matter of using the same, recognizable design. But there is the other side, not necessarily allowing us to save money. If we took the Marconi preamplifier, which has been produced for perhaps 15 years, from one of the first batches and put next to a currently produced Nyquist, then the color, texture and finish of their casings would be identical.

This is, of course, a fully intended gesture towards our customers who often stay with our brand for many years. They can buy a new device, and it will not have a different color or texture of the front than the one(s) he or she already has, which means it will perfectly match the system. Maintaining such continuity of the appearance of our products is not cheap at all, on the contrary. However, we recognize this as one of our strengths appreciated by customers.

MD: How do you choose tubes for your products?

ML: I have one with me, I can show it to you. We use the same Telefunken tubes in all our products. Once they were used in color TVs, where the working conditions were much more challenging than in our devices, which guaranties it longevity. Helmut bought a large stock some time ago. Of course each tube is tested, undergoes initial break-in and after that it's measured, then we pair them and finally install in our devices. The longevity is not their only quality, they also deliver outstanding sound.

MD: How does the production look like in Brinkmann?

ML: It depends on particular product. Parts for turntables are manufactured by subcontractors. There are many really good metal workshops in South Germany, in the area where Brinkmann headquarters are located. They make parts, that later, already in Brinkmann facilities, are finished or fitted, and obviously the assembly is done in our company. Also, we don't make cartridges anymore...

MD: Right, I visited your website before we met and I saw cartridges in the “old products” tab.

ML: As you know we made our cartridges in cooperation with EMT and Micro Benz. At some point they stopped meeting our quality requirements. The styluses for EMT were made by Van den Hul and these were not available anymore, so we had no real choice and stopped making cartridges You will ask me now if we have any plans to offer different cartridges in the future. The answer is: never say never. Or, we want to, we try, but will it work? – time will tell.

As for the electronics in our lineup - some tasks, e.g. surface assembly, are carried out by sub-contractors - for this you need the right, expensive machines and it simply would not work for us to invest so much money for not so big scale production we need. The rest - through-hole mounting, assembly, etc., is carried out in our facilities. We are even seriously involved in the production of housings for our devices for reasons explained a moment ago.

MD: How many people work in Brinkmann?

ML: Between 10 and 15 – depends how you count.

MD: I once read that Helmut personally checks every turntable before it is sent to distributors/customer, is that true?

ML: Yes, Helmut oversees turntables production. He even happens to do some things himself. It's an important elements of his job because it helps him to figure out what could be done even better.

MD: Can you tell us anything about new projects/product you're currently working on?

ML: Currently we are working on a few products, but I can't about it yet. I can tell you, that the production of the Marconi mk II preamplifier, that we introduced in Munich, just started.

MD: What changed in the new version?

ML: It's one of our oldest products. During development of Nyquist and new version of Edison, Helmut learned a lot and now he implemented this new findings in the tube output stage in Marconi. This is the main difference compared to previous version. An important information for older Marconi owners is that they can upgrade their units to MkII version.

MD: What changed in Edison mk II – I'm asking because I'm about to review it.

ML: One difference is the tube output stage. The change is not as huge as in Marconi, but still significant. The other difference is a completely re-designed RIAA circuit. Helmut felt he needed to upgrade Edison after he heard what Nyquist could do. He said then, that he had to do something about phonostage because the difference between it and our digital device became too small (laughing).

MD: Lets wrap it it up with some personal questions. What kind of music do you like?

ML: Mostly modern jazz, especially if it involves Hammonds. And classical music, of course.

MD: Do you prefer older recordings or ones produced at present?

ML: As far as jazz goes, considering the music itself I prefer contemporary recordings. Quality wise, I have to say there many good recording that have been done recently, but there also very good ones from many years before. Both then and today some good and some poor recordings were made. Anyway, the music is always more important than the quality of the recording.

MD: Do you know any Polish musicians?

ML: I am probably pronouncing it wrong but I know Leszek Możdżer, Komeda, Stańko. I also have quite an old record with Hammonds, it's from 1980ties – Piotr.... I don't remember the name, but I like to listen to this album. [Later Matthias emailed me about it – it was Piotr Figiel and the album was Piotr; ed.]

MD: Do you prefer digital media or, as a long time fan of Brinkmann, vinyl records?

ML: It's a tricky question. There is more music available in digital formats. If I have access to a good quality vinyl then sure, I prefer it, but you need to remember that many recordings are actually digital ones, and those often sound better when played from a digital format/medium. Plus there is the matter of costs – I listen to vinyl records using Balance turntable with longer tonearm, expensive cartridge and Edison so the whole system cost maybe three times more than my digital system (with Nyquist obviously).

You could say that high quality vinyl record sounds better, but you also need to realize, that any tonearm/cartridge system introduces something to the music, something that is very pleasant, enjoyable, but not necessarily means the highest possible fidelity. During the meeting in Katowice and here [we met in Warsaw, ed.] we did such comparisons – digital vs analogue. Obviously it is very difficult to do that properly, because you'd need exactly the same source material played from different mediums. Anyway – during these comparisons we got mixed opinions. It wasn't like everyone agreed that one version was better than the other – there was a lot of discussion and the same people in some cases preferred analogue versions and in others digital ones.

MD: You can't tell us anything concrete about future plans for Brinkmann, but maybe you could tell us if there is even a chance that your company will make loudspeakers in future, an element that would make your lineup complete?

ML: Never say never, but... no, we do not have such plans. Helmut once, long time ago created one model, but there are no such plans for future. Building loudspeakers is simply another kind of art, that for one thing requires quite large investment if you want to it right..

MD: So let me ask, whether the „digital” guy who joined very „analogue” company had to expand his knowledge and learn the „analogue” side of audio too?

ML: Yes, I've learned a lot from Helmut, although I have to also say that all electronic circuits are in fact analogue, so it's not a totally new world for me.

MD: OK, that you for sitting down with and I hope to see you here during Audio Video Show?

ML: Yes, tickets and hotel have been already booked, so see you there.