Oliver Thomas, R&D manager at PMC

Interview with Oliver Thomas from British speaker pioneers PMC

PMC‘s R&D manager tells us about his move from Red Bull Racing to PMC and some exciting new developments in audio that we have to look forward to in the coming years.

Those that have followed this blog for a while will know that I have a background in music and still spend way too much of my time uncovering new bands over at our sister music site The Blue Walrus. So the music geek in me was thrilled when PMC’s Oliver Thomas agreed to have a chat about his story, the history behind PMC, and the exciting future of the audio world.

You joined Red Bull Racing straight after university, could you tell me how you got involved with them?

I actually did an industrial placement with them, effectively during university – a lot of engineering students do that kind of thing between second and third year. So, mid-way through you essentially spend a year in industry with any company you can get in with. And then I did a bit of work with them afterwards as well.

What drew you to red Bull rather than going into the audio/speaker trade after your Dad started up PMC?

I always have had, and still do have, an interest in motorsport as well as audio – they are two fun things to do! It took me quite a while to work out what I wanted to do engineering-wise, but I knew that enjoyed the engineering side of things more generally. I got drawn towards cars, my degree was specialising in that area, and it thrust me towards the whole motorsport thing. Also, the university I was at, Oxford Brookes, was right in the centre of “Motorsport Valley” where all the teams operate from – so the main thrust of the jobs around there are in the automotive side of things.

Did you always know that you would move back into the family business or were you thinking I’ve got motorsport, I’ve already got an exciting time building some very fast cars?

I didn’t know I wanted to go into the family business at all. F1 drew me in as it is the pinnacle of engineering, and everything is at the top of its game in terms of the parts you’re designing and how they are being used.

Coming back to PMC, it was never something that Dad tried to push on me, but I’m interested in all sorts of engineering. I’m interested in motorsports and F1, but I’ve been involved with PMC on-and-off since I was in college doing R&D and then design work, and I realised some time after university that really the acoustics and design work for PMC were more my thing.

You say that F1 is the “pinnacle of engineering” – do you see any overlap in the R&D work that you did for F1 and your work on speaker design?

There are loads of overlaps! The thing you realise in engineering is that all the core principles that you are talking about come down to the same engineering mathematics. Whether you are dealing with electrical or mechanical stuff or acoustics, the maths is quite similar for all of them and all the core principles are the same – you can borrow them across disciplines and industries. And that is quite a good way of creating innovation – taking what you have learned in one industry and applying it, in this case, to the audio industry.

Talking of innovation in the industry – PMC is famed for its studio monitors and the professional side, but it also makes some home audio products. Where do you see the innovation in the audio industry at the moment? Is it like the automotive space where a lot of the innovation is in F1 and it filters down to personal cars?

Much of the innovation at the moment is around DSP, digital signal processing, and using that to manipulate signals sent to drive units to improve their performance. That is in a lot of the small desktop Bluetooth speakers but also to an extent some studio monitors are using the unlimited customisability and functionality of DSP to correct the frequency response of drive units, improve them, and try and tailor some of the room acoustics as well.

What I’ve seen is that it is some of the smaller Bluetooth products, which don’t come under hifi necessarily, which do the best job of it. They do a pretty good job really, and get a much better performance for the size of speaker.

Another sector that is steering innovation is the home cinema custom install market. There’s quite a lot of manufacturers coming up with innovative solution to get high end audio into difficult to install areas, and you see some neat ways that they’ve gone about trying to do that.

You say that the smaller Bluetooth speakers are a large part of the innovation. A lot of people today listen to their music through the free headphones they get with their phone or their laptop speakers – do you feel that is having an impact on the speakers you’re making?

When you listen to music that way it takes away that level of realism and quality that audiophiles live for. It’s acceptable – you can still hear the music – but there is a definite and quite a clear level of realism that is removed. This is kind of a shame really because for the majority of people that are listening to audio that way, possibly without realising it, could be appreciating it much more and really enjoying the experience.

The mix and mastering engineers realise that this is the way people are listening to music, so naturally they will tailor their production on a track to come across better on laptop speakers or earbuds, which comes at the expense of overall accuracy if its reproduced on a larger hifi system.

Do you take into account that music is being mixed down for a different set of audio equipment when building your hifi speakers?

It can be tempting to, particularly with the design of hifi speakers, because you know that for a good quantity of tracks you can compensate for the way they are mixed, a little like the way an RAA in a phono stage works. You can almost steer the frequency response of your speakers to try and correct for where the mix and mastering engineers are tailoring to sound better on smaller speakers.

But we’ve never done that because I think that’s going down a slippery path of very inaccurate sounding speakers. And a lot of the people that buy our hifi speakers will be trying to find really nice sounding recording, and when you play them on a speaker that is accurate and true and performs the same as the studio monitors – it sounds fantastic!

In short, no we don’t we do anything to try and tailor the speakers!

Where do you see speaker technology progressing over the next 10-20 years?

As I said, a lot of innovation is in DSP. So at the moment it is all about the electronics controlling and powering the electro-mechanical drive units, which is constantly improving at the moment.

I think we could see passive speakers starting to be phased out. The hifi industry is changing a lot – a lot of studio monitors are all active now because there are a vast number of benefits to having fully active speakers, and that hasn’t been popular in the hifi trade for a while. That could change in the next 10-20 years.

We’re also close to getting new materials being developed that could improve drive unit technology, which you see lots of manufacturers dabble with. I think the driver for some people changing materials for things like drive unit cones from special plastics to reinforced carbon-fibre products is all about coming out with something sounds quite “sexy” without it actually offering any kind of performance increase.

I think the industry has had enough time so that larger manufacturers do actually spend the correct amounts on research into these materials to get the best out of them rather than just slapping a new material in their products. We have definitely seen that some of the big drive unit manufacturers are really upping their game with the performance of what they are making and you end up with drive units that have much higher excursion, so you can get better bass performance out of the same sized drive unit without compromising anything else. So without an increase in distortion or any other unwanted artefacts for a given drive unit – it is something we have definitely been trying to exploit.

If I was putting my futuristic hat on I’d be saying moving coil speakers – the technology is starting to get a bit long in the tooth – so we need to come up with a much better way of producing audio.

PMC is obviously a British company, and a lot of the high-end hifi manufacturers are British – do you see much of a threat from China? Is Britain still leading the pack?

I think so yeah, because of our history and heritage. It goes back to our universities that train people up on acoustics – it’s a fairly specialist area, particularly when you get into the phono-acoustics, loudspeakers, it’s quite niche. As far as I can tell, a lot of the larger far-east-owned companies are fairly dependent on engineers from the UK and other areas of Europe to bolster their design teams. So regardless of whether the companies are UK-based or located overseas – I think quite a lot of the engineers are coming from home.

In terms of the industry – with large companies getting bought out and possibly having a huge amount of resources pumped into them – it can be seen as a threat. But we seem to have quite a good business model with quite a healthy reinvestment of our profits into our own R&D, and we’ve got quite a good little team that has come up with lots of innovative ideas and seems to give us enough freedom to develop some interesting new kit.

And lastly, what has PMC got lined up for 2018?
Over the last two or three years, and part of why I love working with PMC, is we’ve been growing and investing in quite a aggressive development strategy of new products and new technology. So yes in 2018 there will be new things coming out, but that’s all I can say!

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