Design Foremost

Many people struggle with the vast range of equipment in the Hi Fi market. There are numerous claims regarding uniqueness and superiority. Of course not all live up to reality.

In spite of this, it’s worth highlighting the vital importance of genuine outstanding design. Some companies invest a great deal in marketing at the expense of design. We are not one of them. In fact we do the opposite and invest a huge proportion of our resources in the best talent to produce highly innovative products with extensive research and development.

As a manufacturer sourcing from over 300 different suppliers, experience has taught us the harsh reality that only around 1 in 10 will truly deliver outstanding value, quality and performance. The rest are at various positions down a scale. The same is true for Hi Fi products. You really want to find the exceptional and avoid the mediocre.

Apart from a great deal of trial and error, choosing the best products is primarily about finding a trustworthy cross section of expert recommendation.  Then listening to it in your own system – with a money back guarantee if not more than delighted.

3 insights are presented here:

  • Why design determines performance and value
  • Designing for High Sound Quality
  • Lessons from a design masterpiece

Why design determines performance and value

Factors such as build quality, technical measurements, specifications, high price, and expensive materials are often seen as indicators of high performance. These factors undoubtedly play a part, but they can also be highly misleading. For example, when selecting a camera, people are often told that a high megapixel count means superior performance. The truth is that a 12 megapixel camera can outperform a 24 megapixel rival simply by using a better lens.

There are innumerable examples like this where understanding performance hierarchy is the key to a great design.

Designing for High Sound Quality

Many people are puzzled when two products with identical specifications sound utterly different. How can this be? Part of the answer is that there are many aspects of music that technical measurements do not reveal. We design using thousands of listening tests as there is no better measuring instrument than the human ear with it’s incredible levels of sensitivity.

What do we listen for? The answer to this would take a book to explain fully but a short extract from Mark Baker’s audition of an Astute Loudspeaker prototype may help:

“Powerful, lightning fast and never found wanting. Notes perfectly shaped out of the box, that hang in space effortlessly. Leading edges well defined and decays not cut short by over-damping. Lyrics glide and soar evenly, just as they should with tangible presence. Drums keep time, injecting foundation, solidity and rhythm.

No obvious vices, no bass overhang, no searing treble to distract and prevent one entering right into the performance. No cone breakup or tweeter ringing. The perfect escape into music is not always easy but this makes it just that.

Bass drops satisfyingly and impossibly low with real weight – gut wrenching from the sheer dynamics but not in an unpleasant way – no distortion – easy to relax to this feeling of warmth and being carried along with effortless power. A welcome relief from the light weight balance that brings on listener fatigue in some systems, even some with massive cabinets.

The Bob Lind track is not shouty as it can be, all too easily. His voice comes over with great naturalness, I find I can sing along easily in my mind. Notes go deep when they should, he is articulate and there is tremendous presence and melody to the voice. Background instruments have timber and previously unheard textures…”

We believe it is these kind of values that yield lasting enjoyment when it comes to the experiencing high sound quality.

Everyone can differentiate a good sound from a poor one. However, the ability to analyse the aspects of realistic sound quality by ear, with a view to improving the design of a particular product is uncommon because it takes so many years of acquired experience. Audio is a complex mix of acoustics, mechanics, electronics, vibration, material science, musical ability and aesthetics. With over 30 years of dedicated research in all of these fields, Origin Live is well placed to develop the most advanced designs possible.

Lessons from a design masterpiece

Not everyone is familiar with the technicalities of audio reproduction so it’s easier if we relate a story from aircraft design that has done much to inspire and shape our philosophy.

A truly iconic design

The legendary Spitfire fighter plane is held by some as the most iconic design of all time and for good reason. Origin Live is based less than a mile from where the first Spitfire was designed and built. Our Industrial estate actually made Spitfire wings and the holes for the jigs still remain in the concrete. It’s therefore not surprising that we feel special pride and affinity for the part it played in history.

The enduring beauty of the Spitfire lies in it’s aesthetic form, technological perfection and performance appeal to flyers right up to the latest Jet fighter pilots, who even now regard it as the finest plane they have ever flown. It was loved beyond words by the famous “few” who won the battle of Britain and prevented the invasion of Britain. It was also revered by the enemy who made it a point of honour to say that they had been shot down by a Spitfire.

Only the Spitfire had the capability to outperform enemy fighters. In spite of constant development by the opposition, this superiority was maintained to the end of the war thanks to the brilliance of Mitchell who sadly died at 42 before he could see his creation rescue the nation.

The Spitfire was a marked contrast to the British tank designs which were plainly inferior and unable to knock out enemy tanks even at point blank range, not to mention a host of other problems. So what makes the difference?

The story behind this plane is fascinating and contains a great many design lessons that are worth summarising.

Practical experience and track record

It is not possible to do the Spitfire story justice in a few short paragraphs but when Origin Live’s MD Mark Baker first heard it at age 13, it was such an inspiration that it’s designer – RJ Mitchell has been one of his technical heroes ever since. Mitchell was unquestionably one of the world’s top designers long before he turned his attention to designing the revolutionary Spitfire. He and his team led the industry in aviation by winning the fiercely contested Schneider Trophy for the World Airspeed Record four times out of the 11 competitions. On the final occasion this was watched by 1.5 million onlookers along with Royalty aboard a number of battleships.

Looking at Mitchell’s history is enlightening. Firstly he had a passion for design from an early age. He was a brilliant mathematician but did not go to University. Instead, he served an engineering apprenticeship and became an expert mechanic whilst studying theory in evening classes. By the age of 25 he became head of the Supermarine aircraft design team in Southampton. He was highly practical, an intuitive genius, absolutely dedicated, and an inspirational team builder.

Designers who posses practical skills are prized very highly at Origin Live. We continue to manufacture most components in house, because we believe an intimate understanding of manufacturing results in far superior products.

Continuous and effective innovation is required

Winning the Schneider trophy race 3 times in succession to secure it permanently required constant innovation, and to use Mitchell’s own words on developing winning designs: “A very exact knowledge is therefore essential of the functioning of every detail, requiring an enormous amount of research and investigation. It is not good enough to follow conventional methods of design. It is essential to break new ground and to invent and involve new methods and new ideas.”

Most audio designs are “me too products” as precious few are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve genuine breakthroughs.

Conscientiousness and proper regard for the end user

Unlike other aircraft manufacturers, Mitchell’s safety record was spectacularly good. Some of his closest friends were test and fighter pilots. His concern for them, no doubt later motivated him to design a plane that gave pilots the best possible chance of surviving combat.

Understanding what really gives the “edge”

Knowing pilots closely, helped Mitchell understand how speed, good field of vision, ease of handling and manoeuvrability were the crucial elements of a good fighter plane. The Spitfire was not always quite as fast as the enemy but had superiority in the air due to its ability to out-manoeuvre other planes. The supreme importance of being able to hurl a fighter around in combat meant designing a much stronger wing than had ever been built before.

It’s best if Form Follows Function

The approach Mitchell used to achieve this outstanding performance has been copied ever since by all modern fighters. Much of the beauty of the Spitfire lies in its highly tapered elliptical wing (in other words it’s very wide at the fuselage and then tapered more than was usual to the tips). This alone gave the wings added strength. However what is not so obvious is that he went much further than most others at the time by making the wing construction incredibly strong using an outer skin of aluminium – This was so expensive that the Ministry of Defence had questions about the cost and nearly cancelled the project. The beautiful appearance of the Spitfire is not an accident or artistic whim, it is a fine example of the design principle that form should follow function.

Source only from the best

The most important component of the Spitfire was probably the Merlin Engine produced by Rolls-Royce. This was not an obvious choice at the time, and interestingly Rolls-Royce is now one the few companies in the world capable of producing highly advanced Jet engines.


We have always sought to apply the above lessons and many more within Origin Live.