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The Show Must Go On

The history of audiophile brands AMR and iFi-Audio expressed through the eyes of Thorsten Loesch, while serving as Head of Design and Chief Designer.

High End Audio is dying a quiet and dignified (I hope) death— Thorsten Loesch
Former Head of Design and Chief Designer at AMR and iFi-Audio

I still remember when three Audiophiles and aspiring business men sat around a table outside on the terrace of London’s famous Old Thameside Inn, next to the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s “Golden Hind”, quite a bit younger at that time than now, and started AMR Audio. Started with one vision, to make excellent and high end audio for a fair price and to get rich while doing that.

London’s Old Thameside Inn

14 Years later and after a protracted process of disengaging from AMR/iFi I look back, kinda to close a chapter…

In those years of my tenure as Director of Technology and for the last year external consultant, AMR released 7 major Super High end products, blending tubes, digital and advanced tech way ahead of it’s time, when when released, in what I now see as the swan song of high end audio.

Thorsten Loesch

High End Audio is dying a quiet and dignified (I hope) death, as for many years it has failed to connect with younger generations. At each show we used to see the same exhibitors (perhaps with a new venture) and the same customers, just a trifle older and rougher looking, swapping their energetic walk of the 90’s for walking sticks in the 00’ties and zimmer frames in the 10’eens and I don’t expect to see many of the regulars again, when, that is if ever, the High End Show’s go back to real world after the epidemic and quarantines have passed.

AMR is still going, but it’s not in what I’d call strong state and in rude health. The product lineup has been limited to minor refreshes, X.1, X.2 revisions. In some ways the fact that these Products with their over 10 Year old DNA have remained relevant and are still purchased is a testament to the quality of design, to the quality of sound – still unique and the forward looking feature set, that at the time they were introduced at, was ages ahead of fashion. But the world has long moved on.

Reading the Mene Tekel AMR established a “Computer Audio, Lifestyle Audio” Brand called ifi in 2008, with “MFI” (Made For iPhone) Licencing and other strong Apple tie ins and with a then revolutionary, never released product and a very ambitious but realistic marketing and sales plan. Initially our product and pitch attracted serious funding. Sadly all of it fell through thanks to the 2008 Financial Crisis and nearly killed the company.

I no longer even have the design sketches and renders or photos of the prototypes. I guess the prototypes are somewhere in a set of nondescript boxes hidden in the “Wherehouse” in china, to be eventually send to a landfill.

The original “iFi” (a british pronunciation of HiFi) was a hugely ambitious lifestyle audio system meant to stack with a Mac Mini. It is best seen as “mini 77” system (the AMR 777 line did not exist at the time). Not only did it include docking for iPhone/iPad in the DAC and Alu enclosure Speakers using cone bass-mid and planar tweeter all derived from the AMR LS-77.

Present in the Amplifier were my special “3D Matrix” that corrects for spatial distortion in the recording process for both Speaker and Headphone replay, my tubed hybrid circuitry, my super-fast (1.4MHz) Class D Amplifiers with multiple loops, the nowadays rather famous “Standard Phono” which became the ifi iPhono, now in revision 3 on the same basic design and many other bit’s of tech that slowly made into various ifi & AMR products over the next decade. In many ways, what iFi released later as the Retro System and the Aurora “Wireless Speaker” are spiritual successors of the original ‘ifi.

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Original iFi System

It would take until 2012 to launch iFi as a brand with products that were a lot less ambitious, more down to earth and put small chunks of the tech of the original ifi system into small boxes. Small boxes I still like to think of as “Headache Pills” to solve a problem where you have two things that need something in the middle to work together at their best. It is this “middleware” where iFi made it’s mark.

Over the next 8 Years iFi released a staggering 44 products on my count, not counting minor revisions. Spanning simple inexpensive DAC’s below 150 USD and even less expensive accessories to 2,500 USD Network Streamer/DAC/Tube Preamp… whatever box, all these products broke new ground and included major R&D effort. A further substantial number of products were developed, but for a variety of reasons never released and joined the original ifi system prototype’s in the “Wherehouse”.

Most of the released products attracted many industry awards, I long lost count. Just as I lost count of the many very positive, if not to say rave review. Being at the helm and often at the actual product development effort, writing technical notes and articles for social media and other promotion, being the company “face” at many a show, all take energy out of you, lots of energy. Looking back, I’m proud of every product we released, I would buy each and every one myself and own a fair few, but some really stand out for me.

I am still proudest of the iFi Retro System and the fairly recent Aurora, as they are closest to the original ideas and represent something I believe my Mentors and Inspirations Hiroyaso Kondo (Audio Note) and Jim “The Father of LOUD” Marshall would greatly approve of. I feel these are products they themselves would have been proud of having made them. 

Well they almost did, I remember back in 99 when a partnership between the two would combines Kondo San’s ability to make Hifi sound like Music and the amazing production power of the Marshall Milton Keynes Factory were to combine to bring “Tube Sound” to mass market hifi, great days with a great vision, but eventually a failure before even shipping the first item.

By comparison you were able to find the Retro System in HMV Causewaybay Hong Kong, Yodobashi Camera’s Tokyo Akihabara Megastore while the Aurora is found in Harrods London, beside many other retailers. 

iFi Retro System

The Retro system did all that Kondo and Marshall wanted to achieve and then some, nah a lot, on top. It is still what plays daily in my living room. It is THAT GOOD.

Aurora Wireless Speaker

The Aurora in turn took on the seemingly impossible task to make a modest size single box system, that would offer the sound quality, dynamic range, bass AND size of the sound image a conventional hifi system produce. Did we succeed? I think so.

And products kept rolling out at a relentless pace. This does takes it’s toll, I often feel my products have aged better than their creator. So I have been progressively stepping back from my active roles in iFi & AMR and have been concentrating on other projects, trying to realise more of the many ideas still in my head, many of which are not related to audio or best applied in more mainstream products than ifi’s.

Oh you might ask, did I get rich? Nope, not yet. Thankfully I’m no poorer than before either, seeing how many more people lost a fortune in high audio than actually making one.

Where to now? To paraphrase one of my favourite Anime’s:

“And where does the road go from here? The world is vast and infinite.”

by Thorsten Loesch

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Former Head of Design and Chief Designer at AMR and iFi-Audio from 2006 to 2019. Now an Independent Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the consumer electronics industry.

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