[SoundStage!]Factory Tour
Feature Article

October 1997

Sonic Frontiers Factory Tour

Please Note: Clik4Pik spots will show you additional pictures

Sonic Frontiers is a large company in terms of factory size, employees and sales figures - at least by High End Audio standards. No, not the largest company in any of these three areas, but they are large enough to be considered a formidable force in the high end audio scene. This is no small feat considering that the company was born about ten years ago as, quite literally, a basement run, parts supplying operation with sales in the low tens of thousands of dollars. From those small beginnings they have grown to become one of the industry's key manufacturers, specializing in tube-based, audio electronics.

The Past

Sonic Frontiers was originally owned and run by Chris Johnson and John Sloan. Their business was dedicated to providing high grade component parts for audio Do-It-Yourselfers. Chris proudly proclaims that, yes, his mother was their first employee...but that was a long time ago - 1988 to be exact. During this infancy period, Chris also worked for a year or so as an IBM Sales Rep for their AS/400 mini-computers - he was a blue suit, so to speak. However, the entrepreneur inside got the best of him and he decided it was time to go full-time with the fledgling company he started. His gamble paid off. Sonic Frontiers grew in all directions and took a giant leap from being a basement operation into a small business with employees and an office. Success was on the horizon.

In 1989, Chris and John decided it was time to go beyond parts, so they began creating kits for Do-It-Yourself audio enthusiasts. Since there were no major kit manufacturers based in North America at the time, it looked like a niche worth exploiting. Their first product was a Joe Curcio designed mono amplifier that they dubbed the Sonic Frontiers SFM-75. Though somewhat industrial in appearance, the SFM-75 was an instant hit due to thoughtful design, high quality parts and attractive pricing. Chris is still proud of what the SFM-75 offered, even by today's standards.

With parts and kits providing at least decent revenue, Chris and John decided that it was time to go beyond kits and into full OEM component production of their own. By building on the design of the SFM-75, they produced the SFM-75 mk. II amplifier. Despite the similar foundation, the older SFM-75 kit bore only a passing resemblance to the stainless steel and aluminum clad SFM-75 mk.II. The product was introduced at WCES ‘91 and once again they had a hit single on their hands - it was time for more products.

Soon after the SFM-75 mk.II came the SFS-50 stereo amplifier. However, it was their SFL-1 preamplifier that put them on the map. The SFL-1 was again inspired by a Joe Curcio design. At its introductory price of $1295 US, the SFL-1 became a benchmark for performance and quality in its price range. Pretty soon the SFM-75 and SFS-50 were out of the line up and the SFS-40, SFS-80, and SFM-160 amplifiers were introduced. The SFL-1 stayed around, garnered more rave reviews (Doug Schneider got excited and bought one) and gave birth to an SFL-1 Signature with even more impressive parts quality and a higher price tag. The use of high quality parts had become synonymous with the Sonic Frontiers name -- not surprising given the company's beginnings.

[CHRIS AND CHRIS]In 1991, Chris Jensen entered the picture as Vice President of Marketing. Chris and Chris were both friends and Commerce graduates from The University of Toronto -- now they were business partners. Many in the industry will attest to the fact that they could not have picked a better way to confuse people than by the similarity of names. "I know I was talking to one of them but I can't remeber which one" and "there are two, right?" are some of the comments we've heard over the years.

Despite being a Canadian company, in the early 90’s they found that a large part of their business was in the Far East. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are still their top three, non North America markets to this day. Their business took off in North America in 1993 when they released the SFL-2 preamplifier. Where Sonic had previously produced high performing products at a relatively low price point, this was their first attempt at "cost-no-object" performance. This is usually the point at which many companies fail -- they succeeded. Stereophile dubbed the SFL-2 a "Class A" Recommended Component and that was that.

Seeing the rapid developments in high end digital, they next set their eyes on the big players of the day. Contrary to the strategy used for their preamplifiers, they decided to try to build their best first - a formidable challenge considering Theta, Wadia and Krell had a good head start and a barrage of fine players. Furthermore, Madrigal had the much heralded No. 30 DAC which was being touted as simply the best. Being the shrewd businessmen that the Chris squared are, they decided not to go into the bit-wars alone, so they employed the top-notch digital engineering help of Ultra Analog. Sonic struck gold again when they released the SFD-2 digital processor. No, it was not necessarily the best to everyone - but it garnered enough universal praise to be considered a top contender. Again Stereophile pronounced the result "Class A" and Sonic Frontiers was on the road to becoming one of the high end audio manufacturers, playing second fiddle to no one. Other products followed. With the success of the manufactured products one area did fall by the wayside – the DIY products - but as you will see, they now have a plan for that too.

[BUILDING]The Present

Today, Chris Johnson remains as company President and Chris Jensen the Vice President of Marketing. John Sloan left the company in 1995. As a result, Chris and Chris are the only two shareholders of the firm and the company's sales revenues are now in the many millions. Sonic Frontiers is presently located about 20 minutues west of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada in a large 22,000 square foot complex. The building allots about 4,000 square feet for office space and the rest for manufacturing and warehousing. In all, they directly employ about 65 people.

On Wednesday, August 27, 1997 John and Doug found themselves battling post-rush hour traffic through Toronto's downtown core on a pilgrimage to the facility.

"I know where they are – I think," John would say in an attempt to reassure both of us.

"Are you sure?" Doug kept saying, "we are waaaay the heck out here! I think you're lost"

"I'm not lost, I'm not lost, I'm not lost...," were John's words stuck on auto-repeat for the next 15 minutes

After a number of break neck corners and stomach churning turns, sure enough John found his way to the end of a dead-end street – on the right was the large brown building with one lone Sonic Frontiers sign out front. We had arrived.

We stepped into the smallish entrance/waiting room and were assured that, "Chris would be right with us." As we sat in the waiting room we peered in amazement at the number of awards, plaques and displays of recognition from the audio press that hung proudly on their walls. "They sure have done a lot," Doug muttered. Chris Johnson arrived lickety split, led us through the maze of tightly spaced offices and took us into the boardroom to give us a lowdown on the Sonic Frontiers past, present and future. It was an interesting conversation mainly because of Chris Johnson's candor. He is a frank, down to earth person who is open about the company's goals with their products and where he thinks Sonic Frontiers fits into the high end marketplace. We also learned later (later, over lunch) that he feels, like us, that one of the main problems with high end audio is that it's "too expensive" - plain and simple. Despite owning a large high end audio company that does sell some very expensive products, Chris is a regular guy at heart. His rational thinking is something that helps guide the Sonic Frontiers product strategy.

Chris first talked to us about their product design goals. Among many things, we found out that despite the current trends they do not build any single-ended amplifiers, and don't plan to - at least in the Sonic Frontiers and Anthem line. Chris cites incompatibilities with many speakers (i.e. difficulty driving tougher loads) and poor technical performance as a couple of the reasons. "We don’t believe a single ended amp is much more than a haphazard tone control," says Chris. A design goal of Sonic Frontiers is to produce amplifiers that will work flawlessly in the widest ranges of systems. Singled ended, he feels feel, doesn't cut it in that regard.

He went on to explain that all Sonic Frontiers amps are measured wide band (i.e. 20 Hz to 20 kHz) and achieve at least their full power ratings. Many of the single ended (and other tube amps for that matter), he says, are measured across a smaller window or allow much higher distortion figures in the specs. Chris doesn't deny that some of the single ended amps do sound good with the right speakers, he just feels that Sonic Frontiers can get fabulous results by putting great efforts into top notch engineering.

It was at this point that we nailed him with, "does a designer have to be an audiophile?" Chris responded that although being an audiophile doesn't hurt, first rate engineering skills are what's the most important and that's the focus at Sonic Frontiers. Chris classifies himself as a "recovering audiophile."

As for future products, Chris indicated they are looking into "analogous activities." Seeing the confused look on our faces he resorted to plain English – home theater. Only two days before the tour, it had dawned on us – Sonic Frontiers produces no home theater products! With this startling revelation from the Presidential mouth, things may change in tubeland. Chris said that they have been watching the market, evaluating how well companies were doing and ultimately deciding what products they would offer. When we asked, "has anyone ever produced a 3 channel tube amplifier?" Chris responded that it would be solid state if they did it! "Gasp," went Doug, "Sonic Frontiers offering solid state!" It does make more sense on the home theater side where high power is mandatory and musical refinement becomes secondary. Fear not, music lovers, Sonic Frontiers is committed to tubes for two channel, high end audio.

The Products

Sonic Frontiers manufactures the Anthem brand of components -- "best within boundaries" their literature proclaims. Chris sees the Anthem line applicable to budget audiophiles or those assembling a second system. The lineup includes the Pre 1L and Pre 1 preamplifiers (the 1L is linestage only and the 1 has a phono stage), the Integrated 1 rated at 25 watts per channel with optional phono stage available, the Amp 1 - 40 watt stereo power amp, and CD 1 cd player with HDCD. Chris was quick to point out that although these are their entry level products, there is trickle down technology from the Sonic Frontiers product line. Subsequently, these products are designed to beat out competitor's product anywhere near their price (of course, that's the goal of all manufacturers). Chris feels that a complete Anthem system with appropriately matched speakers and cables can be had for a hair under $5,000. He even mentioned that they toyed with the idea of selling a complete system by bundling their products with speakers and cables from other manufacturers. They ditched the idea since they know that audiophiles like to mix and match their components. As well, this all-in-the-box system may not fit in well with their dealers' product mix. Chris noted one new addition to the Anthem lineup - a separate phono stage for about $795 ("right on," we whispered among ourselves).

Chris used the Toyota/Lexus analogy to distinguish the Anthem/Sonic Frontiers brands. The Sonic Frontiers lineup now includes the Power 1, 2, and 3 power amplifiers and the Line 1, 2, and 3 linestage preamplifiers. The SFD-1 mk.II and SFD-2 mk.II digital processors are nixed in favor of the introduction of the Processor 3, which promises to outperform everything in the market – for now. We hope to see a Processor 1 and 2 in short order. There is also going to be the matching Transport 3 with the snazzy ‘Iris’ door. There is still the single box CD player, the SFCD-1, as well as a new phono stage called the Phono 1 that will retail at $1,995.

And finally, there is a third business under the umbrella - The Parts Connection. As DIYer's know, almost any high quality capacitor, inductor, resistor, connector or what have you can be had from their extensive catalogue. Furthermore, they have been doing kits, in a limited way, for a couple years. Their Assemblage DAC-1, DAC-1.5 and DAC–2 are favorites among audiophiles who wish to try their hand at rolling their own. SoundStage!'s own Pete Goudreau is well-known in the Internet circles for producing DAC-1 mods that reportedly rival some of the best DACs on the market! [Please note that Pete Goudreau does not perform these modifications commercially, they are only for his personal use] What we learned today that will interest many is that they are coming out with some new products including a $499 linestage preamp based on the SFL-1 topology with some updates, an EL-34 based 40 watt stereo amp for $699 (no, it is not an unassembled Amp 1, it is a new design.), a DAC-3 for a yet to be determined price, and get this, a 300B based single ended tube amp capable of, yes, about 8 watts per channel (we didn't ask if this was a wide-band measurement). John Stewart, main Parts Connection design guy, said that the new kits will not be as easy as the current DACs. They are somewhat more challenging and may take a few days to assemble. With this degree of added complexity, Doug's hopes of assembling a kit of his own were immediately axed.

The Production

[CJ, GD, JS]The office area houses all the sales, administrative and support staff and is a fairly crowded area. In contrast, the facility for producing products is one huge 18,000 square foot room (Clik4Pik). When walking out from the office area into the factory you end up looking out to about five very wide rows where technicians prepare (Clik4Pik), assemble (Clik4Pik), test and package equipment. Along the wall behind from which we had just emerged are a number of offices for the designers. We happened upon one office where John Stewart and Glenn Dolick were doing the final main board design for the new Parts Connection kit amplifier mentioned earlier. Opposite the designers' offices, at the far back center of the factory area, is a large caged area that locks up and houses all the precious parts (Clik4Pik). Just to the left of that, again along the back wall, is a separate area enclosing The Parts Connection. Chris first took us through the assembly areas.

Sonic Frontiers contracts out all their chassis and faceplate building. Therefore, no metal fabrication is done on premises. This, in turn, makes for a bright and clean work area. Compared to the office area (which seems a little cramped), the production area is fairly spacious. In truth, it seemed a quite a bit more fun to be out here.

Sonic Frontiers produces their products on a monthly basis based on sales quotas. This means that potentially every product is built every month. At the end of the month, all products are ready to be shipped out the door. Next month, it all starts again. This is in contrast to some companies who, for example, may produce a run of amplifiers, then a run of preamplifiers, etc. and there may be months between production of each (or perhaps days if they are really quick - but it usually doesn't work like that).

At Sonic Frontiers, different areas are sectioned off for assembly of different products. Since it was the 27th of the month, Chris had said that much of their production had gone out the door already. When we walked through we mainly watched the final production of some Power 2 amplifiers (Clik4Pik), the Anthem CD-1 players, and a handful or other products still remaining.

Product assembly is done by a handful of technicians. The "parts bins" for the various products are readily visible among the different work areas, so it's easy to see what is being worked on at any given time (Clik4Pik). All parts are pre-counted at the beginning of the month so that the technicians will have everything they need at their fingertips. Also, at the beginning of production each unit is given a tag holder and a tag. The tag identifies each stage of production that the unit goes through. There is time allotted for exactly how long a unit stays at each stage. Once one understands the tagging convention, it is relatively easy to simply peer around the factory and know exactly what stage of production the units are at. Production efficiency on this monthly schedule is critical.

[CD-1]With a CD-1 displayed before our eyes (tagged and all), we took the opportunity to ask Chris some key questions including why the choice of the Sony drive mechanism? After all, a six CD changer did not seem all that audiophilesque. Chris said that he personally preferred the convenience of having multi disk play ability both for fun and critical listening. He also told us that jitter was the key to transport performance and reduction of jitter was the key focus of their transport designs.

While peering into a partially assembled Line-3, Doug told Chris about a dream feature that he would love to see on a preamp (many people look at him strange when he starts mentioning this, but rest assured, the results of NOT having this feature are real). The dream feature would be a volume limiter (i.e. something that stops the volume from going too loud – user settable of course). A real-life experience happened at an audio store where an experienced salesperson killed some very expensive tweeters in a very simple way. He did what everyone does – presses play and stares dumbfounded when there is no sound. What does he do? He immediately turns the volume up. He didn't hear anything again, so he turned it up louder and louder and louder until it was wide open - still no sound. With the volume on 11, he then fiddled with the switches until he found the culprit (normally a wrong source is selected) and BAM! The sound came on, at least for a while. Unfortunately, his reflexes were not quick enough to save the drivers. Innocent children do the same thing when they walk up to an easy turning volume control and CRANK IT! Chris immediately replied with, "we have something like that on our new preamps!." The Lines 1, 2, and 3, he says, all come with a 3 second delay where the volume increases gradually to the last setting. You have some time, then, to turn it down if it is going too loud. Nice feature! Not quite the limiter Doug wanted, but close.

Innovation in all of the Sonic Frontiers products is really what is setting this company apart. During the tour Chris made an interesting comment regarding the Power 1, 2 and 3. Credit for much of the Power series' innovative design goes to Mike Kerster. Chris said that the subsequent designs share the same circuit topology and parts quality. So, if you do not need higher power, don't buy the more expensive amplifier. For example, the $2,495 USD Power 1 produces 55 watts per channel into 8 Ohms (Clik4Pik). This will drive many reasonably efficient speakers quite well. According to Chris, sonic benefits won't be realized by going to the more expensive Power 2 or Power 3 unless there is a power requirement to do it (obviously, the Power 3 monoblocks would have lower crosstalk). Another subtle, but nice feature on the Power series of amps is the Mute button on the back. For a reviewer bent on switching endless amounts of speaker cables, it’s a definite bonus. There is also the ability to change phase by using the second set of supplied RCA jacks that are wired in reverse polarity.

The Line series preamps also have some nice features. For example, there are the free turning volume knobs on the Line preamps that can be set to different volume levels depending on source (with that 3 second delay we talked about earlier). The round, space-age remote controls are definitely flashy as well as practical - it sits in your hand nicely. "Very expensive, I bet," was the remark made to Chris who replied with a fast, "No!" He went on to explain that it is actually quite a bit cheaper to produce a remote like this than, say, out of a carved block of aluminum. John and Doug concurred that cool looks, innovation and a fair price can be had with some thought!

On the digital side of things, the most anticipated feature on a Sonic Frontiers product is the Iris door on the top loading Transport 3. Does it really do more than just open up and look cool? Perhaps it pressure seals a CD in? That’s doubtful – but we’ll be the first to admit that it sure looks neat and will undoubtedly be a crowd pleaser just for that reason alone. Are there going to be any knockoffs in the upcoming year? Probably.

Testing is a large part of the production process. An equal amount of technicians performing quality control were scurrying around testing and doing final work on a number of the products (Clik4Pik). At total of six Audio Precision testing machines are used at Sonic Frontiers. One is used in R&D and the rest are used in testing (Clik4Pik). Chris informed us that every product goes through different phases of testing regarding measured performance. After assembly, each is tested and is subsequently burned in for a time. At the time of our visit, the burn-in bench was loaded with Line-3's (Clik4Pik). After burn-in, they are all tested again and readjusted if necessary and then burned in again and tested.

The Packages

Final stage of production is the packaging. After receiving a set of Anthem products for SoundStage! review and now able to see the packaged goods at the factory, we must commend Sonic Frontiers for doing possibly the finest job of packaging their products that we've seen any company do. Not only do they arrive in sturdy, oversized boxes with properly fitted padding, they also come with a separate box housing the tubes and with gloves for handling them (oils from your hands can cause long term tube damage). A Fuller screw driver is supplied for the chassis screws and a copy of A Taste of Tubes - The Tube Coinnoiseur's Cookbook is also included. They even supply two sharp looking Anthem posters that you can frame and hang on the wall if you really love your products! Attention to detail is a must in the high end audio business. In an industry where $1,000 individual components are deemed budget, a company should take an equal amount of care in presenting the product as consumers took purchasing it.

The Parts (Connection)

"The original business," as Chris calls it, is The Parts Connection. Not only is it their original business, they run it as if it were a separate business. It is tucked away, completely enclosed, in the back corner of the factory. It even looks different inside! The area is brightly colored with movie posters adorning the walls (somebody's a film-fanatic) and, as expected, there is a wall full of parts (Clik4Pik). Most everything to do with The Parts Connection business such as order taking, technical support, etc. happens here. As previously mentioned, The Parts Connection will soon be coming out with new kits that we know many people will be looking forward to (us too, as we pried Chris for commitment on the review samples).

The Pagemakers

We had left The Parts Connection, took a final walk across the assembly area and were about to re-enter the front office section when we spied a dimly lit office in the corner. Chris took us over to view the inhabitants inside. Lo and behold, we found the computer guy in the corner cliché come to life! Matt Jones and Daniel Saunders are housed in a small, dimly lit office stuck way off in a corner that is just the perfect size for care and feeding of computer guys (images of Terry Gilliam's Brazil swept through ours heads - Clik4Pik). We understand that this work space was their own choosing! At least there weren't bars on the doors.

To be able to react more quickly to changing product needs, Sonic Frontiers has elected to bring most of their graphics, brochure, booklet and web-site development in house. It seems worth the effort. What these guys churn out from this little space, like the Sonic Frontiers products, is first class. If you haven't visited the new Sonic Frontiers web-site at www.sonicfrontiers.com, we insist that you do. The old Sonic Frontiers site was OK, but it got stale pretty quickly and ended up feeling like somebody yelled, "abandon shiiiiiiiiip" midway on its journey. Proper web representation is obviously an important marketing tool for Sonic Frontiers and they have put the manpower behind them to do it right. The result? One of the finest audio manufacturer's sites on the net. Its only flaw? The flashy graphics can be a little too slow, so you will either have to gear up your modem and connection speed or log on and go grab a coffee. Other than that, it is an excellent display and well worth a visit.


The discussion with Chris and subsequent tour was non-stop for 3 hours. Some relaxation was in order. Chris Johnson and John Stewart treated us to lunch at their favorite Dim Sum restaurant. During our lengthy conversation (what do four audio fanatics talk about? Nothing but audio, of course), we SoundStagers had each realized that we had gained a newfound respect for the people at Sonic Frontiers. We had both known their company name for years and even owned some product. However, it was during this tour that we realized that despite its growing size, Sonic Frontiers has not neglected the average audiophile. Rather, it has become the audiophile's audio company. There are few, if any other companies, that offer the range of products that Sonic Frontiers does. One wire manufacturer said, "the new Sonic Frontiers amplifiers are going to be some of the classics of the 21st century." He's probably right. Furthermore, Sonic Frontiers is showing a strong commitment to all audiophiles. By branching more heavily than ever into DIY kits, they are showing responsiveness to that growing market. The Anthem gear addresses the need for having good products for all budgets. We hope that they will be able to continue their string of successes in home theater. All in all, we walked away more than impressed. Sonic Frontiers' commitment to high-end audio and high quality products makes these two Canadians downright proud!

…John Stafford

...Doug Schneider

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