Using my first review of the Feliks-Audio product as a pretext I asked Mr. Łukasz Feliks, one of the co-owners of this Polish family company, a few questions to learn more about the brand and its lineup. Here is the record of our conversation which is also sort of an introduction to the review of the Arioso 300B integrated amplifier that is coming soon.
Marek Dyba (MD): Last year your company, Feliks-Audio, celebrated its 20th anniversary and its headquarters are located in Lubliniec, a city not far from my hometown, Gliwice. Yet, this is my first review of one of your product and the first one ever for the Readers of the HiFiKnights. So let’s start with a brief history of the company. Could you tell me how did it start? Setting up a company manufacturing tube-based audio components almost at the turn of the 20th and 21st century doesn’t seem so obvious.
Łukasz Feliks (ŁF): My father, Henryk Feliks, an electronic engineer and an avid fan of tube sound, had been involved for many years in a “production” of tube amplifiers, even before establishing the Feliks-Audio. At first, he built some devices for his own use, then for friends and local music bands. In the 1990-ties his hobby began to turn into a small business. The Feliks-Audio brand itself was founded around 20 years ago and it was then that for the first time its products were made available to a wider pool of potential customers – mainly through Allegro (Polish ebay; ed.).
A short film about the company, definitely worth watching (source: Feliks-Audio)
MD: What was the first commercial product introduced by the Feliks-Audio?
ŁF: The moment when the Feliks-Audio brand was established coincided with introduction of our first popular headphone amplifier, the Espressivo. It was this small OTL tube amp, which, by the way, we are still selling today in it’s a modified Mk 2 version, that became the first really popular product of our company.
MD: At what point did you, the three sons of the founder of the company, join the Senior in the family business and what each of you does for the company?
ŁF: All three sons decided to support their father by joining the company in 2014. We saw a great potential in Feliks-Audio. We recognized an opportunity at hand to expand our business especially on international markets and to scale it up. At the same time, it gave us a chance to work together and to help our father make his dreams come true. Currently, I am responsible for sales development, Piotr supervises production, and Michał is in charge of the design of our products and marketing. Our involvement in the family business allows our father to focus on what he is best at (and what he loves!) – on developing new products.
(From the left) Messrs. Henryk, Łukasz, Piotr and Michał Feliks – that’s a truly family business! (source: Feliks Audio)
MD: What is the sound philosophy of Feliks-Audio? Or, which sound qualities do you consider being the most important ones? Do these features have to be common to all products, or do your products differ significantly in sonic character depending on the design?
ŁF: There are some qualities that Feliks-Audio considers important for all of its products. We certainly want all of them to offer a neutral sound without even slightest traits of artificiality and “pomp”. Our father’s philosophy of limiting the number of components in the signal’s path for each product to the absolute minimum, is what largely helps us to achieve that goal. We apply this principle to all our amplifiers. Of course, each model has its own characteristic sonic features that are a result of intentional selection of components and tubes. For example, the Euphoria, due to the fully silver wiring, sounds more expressive and analytical than the warmer sounding Elise featuring copper wires.
MD: Let me ask you a bit tricky question – is it easy to run a business of manufacturing and selling tube devices in the modern, digital age?
ŁF: We do not want to compete with the entire pool of digital devices, but rather to complement our customers’ systems with tube amplifiers that offer their own unique sound. It is a niche that we are trying to fill. Interestingly, we’ve seen a continued growth in this market segment, especially in regard to headphone solutions. In many countries, due to the population density and costs of living, houses and apartments are getting smaller, so people are switching from hi-fi to head-fi. Importantly, this is not a mass-products sector, so our customers are true enthusiasts who fully appreciate good sound and high quality workmanship.
MD: How do you cope with challenges of manufacturing high quality audio components? I.e. first of all, how many of the components you use do you make yourself, and how many of them come from suppliers? I am asking mainly because I’ve heard it from many Polish manufacturers, especially the successful ones, that cooperation with suppliers is actually the most difficult challenge they have to face.
ŁF: At the present stage, the entire final assembly and some sub-assemblies are performed by us in house. We also have Polish suppliers of such parts as transformers and chassis, ones that had proven reliable over the years. We tend to use more than one source of required components in order to reduce the risk of delivery delays. Therefore, production planning is one of the most important tasks in our company, especially with the high sales dynamics. The transition from a scale of several dozens to several hundreds amplifiers per year was certainly a big challenge for our production. The amplifiers are still handmade and it is not a mass production, each unit is individually broken in and tested, as this is the approach expected by the customers who purchase premium products.
MD: How does the process of developing a new product look like? If, of course, you want to reveal it to our readers? Where does an idea for a new model come from? How long does it take to develop it from the first concept to the finished product stage? Does each of you contribute to the final version, or in other words – is there a democracy in your company, or is it the Feliks Senior who has the final vote?
ŁF: In fact, we are constantly talking to our customers and distributors around the world asking for their comments and feedback regarding our portfolio. Usually this is where the initial idea comes from. Later, we discuss it with the “Senior”. I mean, how to convert such an idea into a specific technical solution. Of course, there are design, production process and financial issues that we need to consider as well. If all this makes sense, then we move to the stage of preparing prototypes – there may be several of them. We often conduct listening tests together and also send such prototypes to trusted customers and journalists to receive their feedback. At each stage, many, often very heated, internal discussions take place. It takes up to two years to develop a new model with full marketing and logistic support.
MD: It seems that the core products of your lineup are headphone amplifiers, they are what Feliks-Audio is best known of. Why exactly them? Are any of you a true headphones aficionado, or maybe you just saw your chance in the booming headphones market, which we have been observing for over a dozen years now?
ŁF: Yes, we have sort of a fondness for headphones and headphone amplifiers, after all, the first Feliks-Audio product was Espressivo! But more seriously – our father likes challenges very much and believes that designing and manufacturing a good headphone amplifier is more difficult, or more unique, than a stereo amplifier. Currently, we are known mainly thanks to our headphone amplifiers, particularly abroad. Our amplifiers, such as the Euforia and Echo, have won many awards in recognized media around the world. Of course, we also offer classic stereo amplifiers, such as the new Arioso, based on the iconic 300B tubes used in a Single Ended configuration.
MD: Do you have your favorite headphone models, or at least ones that you frequently use to test your new amplifiers while developing them?
ŁF: Considering the multitude of headphones available on the market, we try to test our amplifiers using the most popular (and some less popular) models. We use over 15 different types of cans and there are always some changes within this pool. This approach guaranties that our amplifiers perform well with both, dynamic and planar-magnetic headphones. As for my personal preferences, I really like the Focal Utopia (it seems that Focal crew also liked our amplifier, because the Euforia was their reference tube amplifier for some time) and Meze Empyrean (for the lightness of listening). We often work with headphone manufacturers, such as Focal, ZMF, Meze, Spirit Torino or Grado, which gives us access to current trends and provides a very useful feedback.
MD: I have to ask also about speakers, because you need to use some when testing your own amplifiers. So, what loudspeakers do you use?
ŁF: We have several models at our disposal and use them in turns. We often use various models, both from Polish and foreign manufacturers, looking for models that differ significantly in terms of sound and ease of drive. An interesting fact: Senior Feliks built several sets of his own speakers.
MD: What are proportions between your domestic sales and exports? Obviously, I am asking only for some indicative data. And where do you sell most of your products to, or which countries are your biggest markets?
ŁF: We ship the vast majority of our product abroad, mainly in the USA and Western Europe. We currently have distributors in more than 20 countries and we are constantly adding new ones, for example starting last month our products have become available in India. We sell directly to other countries via the Internet. We are always happy when a Polish brand is appreciated in demanding markets, and the latter “force” us to further improve our products.
MD: Many Polish manufacturers, at least those who have achieved some level of success, for years have been selling most of their products abroad, because our own, local audiophiles sometimes do not appreciate domestic products as much as they should. Do you observe (still) such a tendency, or maybe we, Polish fans of good sound, have finally learned to appreciate Polish products?
ŁF: I think that the Polish market appreciates premium products more and more, including those from the local market. After the last AVS (Audio Video Show; ed.) in Warsaw, we were very impressed with how quickly the head-fi market in Poland had been growing. We are proud that, together with other Polish manufacturers of great amplifiers, speakers and cables, we can promote Poland around the world.
MD: Let’s talk about the reviewed Arioso 300B integrated amplifier. This is a classic SET featuring the magic 300B triodes. But until recently there was another Arioso amplifier in your lineup, and while it was also a SET design, it featured different fantastic triodes, the 2A3s. So where has this change come from?
ŁF: A few years ago we started with Arioso and back then it was called simply Arioso without any additional designations. It was a SET featuring the 2A3 power tubes. Later we made some prototypes using the 300Bs and they received a great feedback so we decided to go in that direction, especially since we also really like the 300B as a tube. By the end of last year, we finally premiered a new model, naming it the Arioso 300B. And since it coincided with the 20th anniversary of the company, several models (also the new Euforia headphone amplifier) were released in special versions with the designation “20th Anniversary edition”. Currently, the Arioso range is simplified and comes down to only one model – the Arioso 300B that you are currently testing.
MD: Are the layouts of the 300B version and its predecessor similar enough to justify keeping the same name?
ŁF: We decided to keep the name, Arioso, as the concept of the amplifier itself comes from the original Arioso 2A3. However, the switch to the 300B tubes resulted in a lot of technical changes. Taking into account the generally improved sonic performance and the bigger output of the 300B version, we decided to keep only the latter in our lineup.
MD: Could you share some information with us regarding the design of the Arioso 300B? I am not asking about any trade secrets, obviously, but about more general aspects of the design.
ŁF: The Arioso 300B amplifier is an integrated class A SET amplifier, featuring the Electro Harmonix Gold 300B power tubes (as a standard). The tube complement includes also the driver tubes, which are the CV 181-TII (“golden” PSVANE 6SN7) and a 5C3S (NOS) rectifier tube. The output tubes (300B) use stabilized DC current heater supply and we have used a special system that separates the tube heating circuit from the stabilizer system. The entire amplifier circuit, except for the remote control, was build using the point-to-point method. It features selected high-quality components, for example the motorized blue ALPS potentiometer (for remote control), Hi End class transformers from Mr. Ogonowski, “red Jantzen” coupling capacitors, Caddock and Carbon Film resistors. All these elements allowed us to achieve a very natural, incredibly detailed and musical sound, with well-controlled bass and a rich but not „emphasized” midrange. But maybe I should wait for your review to see whether what we think we’ve achieved agrees with how you perceive the performance of Arioso 300B.
MD: It reads on your website that you also offer custom amplifiers. Are we talking about completely different designs than those from your lineup, or rather about some modifications introduced to standard models to fulfill the needs of a specific user?
ŁF: It’s rather about completely “special” designs, where the customer tells us about his requirements and expectations, and we offer him an amplifier that meets them, both in terms of sound quality and external design. At the current scale of production we do not have much room to modify “standard” models.
MD: Could you reveal for us any of your plans for the future or, to put it another way, what can we expect from the Feliks-Audio in the coming years?
ŁF: We are currently working on a new flagship headphone amplifier, a fully balanced design at both, input and output, based on what we call a “high power tube”. It should be introduced to the market beginning 2021. We will also soon move to our new headquarters, because the current ones are simply not big enough any more.
MD: Thank you for your time. As for our Readers let me encourage you to look for the review of the excellent (!) 300B SET, the Feliks-Audio Arioso 300B, on HiFiKnights.com that will be available withing the next few days.