HiFi Pig Interview: Behind The Brands with Mark Fenlon of Markaudio-SOTA

hifi-pigINTERVIEW: HIFI PG MAGAZINE

Mark Fenlon is the founder of Markaudio (raw drivers) and development Director of Markaudio-Sota (finished product using Markaudio raw drivers) tells us all about his industry past, his systems and what he listens to whilst free-fall skydiving.

How did you get into the industry?

untitled-13I built my first pair of loudspeakers in my late teens, a near penniless student. I bought a second hand turntable and amplifier, then turned my hand to making a pair of boxes and bought the drivers from Radio-Shack. I’ve been based in Hong Kong from 1999 and began making parts for various audio companies, mostly in China and Japan. In addition, from 2002 to 2005, I worked with Doreen Bance (Bandor) and Ted Jordan (E.J. Jordan) on a project basis. E. J. Jordan was sold to a Swedish interest, giving me the “push” to go-it alone and make my own driver designs.

Who or/and what was the biggest influence on your career?

Who is: Matsubara San and Matsumoto San. The former is the father designer of the Fostex FE series drivers. The latter is a fellow mechanical engineer from Honda F1 engine development. We’ve spent the last several years swopping ideas on my concepts from our respective professional viewpoints. Along with Dr Scott Lindgren, Evan Yue Steve Cheng, Norio Nakajima and several more, I simply couldn’t have got this far without all these guys.

The “what” is my many years of mechanical design/engineering experience. 

Proudest moment/product you’re most proud of?

Producing the Pluvia 11 and the Alpair 5 Gen 2.

What product do you wish you had never conceived/launched?

None come to mind, each product has its own story. They all share input and influence from end- users. Let’s remind ourselves that we’re talking about simple electro-mechanical devices (transducers) located into sound chambers (boxes). They can all be measured anechoically, however, how the products perform is in the ears of preference for each listener.

Tell Hifi Pig readers about your next project and what they can expect in the future from you and your company.

Health permitting, new Alpair single suspension drivers (7 and 11). New 10”, 12”and 15” wide-band drivers. New negative camber cone technology. I’m sure HiFi Pig readers would like to know more about the latter. Watch out for more news once I’ve completed all my tests and certain legal matters are processed. marksota_btb_4_online

You and your system

What was your very first system?

From my memory, it was a solid state amp made by Amstrad, hitched to a compact tape deck, along with a turntable and a pair of second hand loudspeakers (can’t remember the make)

Tell us about your system history and the way it has developed to the system you have today.

I regularly mix and match my system, part of the experimental and working process. Primarily, I’m a devotee of Japanese Mofset amps and loudspeakers. Sansui, Victor (SX Spirit 500 loudspeakers) and Accuphase. For the valve side, a custom built 6V6 single-end, while a Luxman MQ68 sits in my living room astride the Accuphase DP65. I’m starting to thin out my collection (sadly).

What component/product do you miss the most/wish you had never got rid of?

My Accuphase E308 integrated and its matched CD player DP67. Alas for health reasons, physically lugging this gear, swopping them in and out got too much for me.

How often do you listen to music?

Virtually all the week daytimes, it’s my job, my life.

Best system (or single component) you have ever heard (no brands you represent please…!)

Accuphase DP65 CD player with its internal Sony R1 transport. They’ll bury it with me. marksota_btb_5jpg_online

The state of the industry

What’s your view on the valve renaissance of the past 20 years or so? 

I’m looking at my Luxman MQ68 Custom amp as I type, what more can I say. 

Vinyl resurgence… what are your thoughts?

Glad to see Vinyl remains alive and kicking. Too many wonderful record collections were lost in the rush to CD. 

Is CD a dying format?

Hopefully not, like vinyl, there’s a great volume of wonderful music out there, pity to see it vanish. 

What are you views on the state of the industry/where is it going/what will it look like in 5 years/what will typical systems look like?/What will happen to prices?/What will happen to the high end – will it carry on regardless?

More compact and mobile systems, lossless downloading will increase along with content streaming. A “typical” system will change the most at the source end (already happening). On pricing, difficult to assess and it depends on growth in the world economies and the demand for raw materials, currency artificially depressed. The high-end will likely carry on regardless, always a market for the “posh stuff”.

Digital downloads, what do you think their impact has been on the way people listen to music?

From the Sony Walkman to the current mobile phones, access to music has never been this good, that’s the upside. The down-side is poor quality reproduction for many years, dumbing down younger listener’s ears from learning what High Fidelity is all about.

How do we engage young people, the audiophiles of the future?

By making sure publications like HiFi Pig and “alternative” product makers are supported. The more choice, the better.

Online shopping’s effect on the retail industry?

Massive at the lifestyle end of the business. Headphones are the latest example. Most traditional retail is taking a hit from on-line business. But there will likely be a continuing need for A/V high street retail in most markets. When it comes time to make a substantial A/V component purchase, purchasers like to hear and see what they’re buying.

What are the industry’s biggest con(s)?

Too much waffle from some makers using overworked superlatives when describing their products. I’d like to see more attention to basic working/operational detail, but I’m an engineer, by nature I’m bound to view the industry from a different perspective.

The way you work

Presuming the measurements are fine, what do you listen for when assessing products?

Depends what it understood by the term “measurements”. Most decent loudspeaker makers will have their own in-house anechoic chambers (we’ve just built a new chamber, second in 3 years). Great for total isolation assessment but near useless for in-room operational observation. Markaudio-Sota spends a lot of its time with end-users and the trade demonstrating prototypes, gaining feedback before going to production. Long may it continue with such a discourse.

Your sound preference -‘Smooth, listenable musicality’, ‘forward, driving, ‘foot-tapping’, involving sound’ or ‘detailed neutrality and transparency’?

Me personally…Smooth, listenable musicality. I’m a regular concert attender with little interest in highly coloured or overly-filtered systems.

Turntable preferences…direct drive, belts, Idlers or what?

Haven’t owned a turntable in years…alas the wrong person to ask on this one.

Your preference – Full-range floorstanders or freestanding mini monitors with a sub?

Depends upon the room size, environment and listening tastes. My living space is best suited to Stand-Mounts (Viotti One’s currently) plus I regularly use my 5.0 surround sound system. It’s too small for descent floor standers.

It’s all about the music, man…

What is your favourite recording?

Tough question and it depends on my mood. Not one, there are several. Górecki’s third (second movement Dawn Upshaw – absolutely stunning and kills most tweeters. Solaris 2002 film sound track – Cliff Martinez – mesmerising. I Only Have Eyes For You, Flamingo’s 1959 (Solid gold Soul) simply fab. The Whale and also Mr Blue Sky- Electric Light Orchestra – Out Of The Blue Album. Vangelis, Chung Kou (Polydor) best listen to it while free-fall sky-diving. Finally Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon – long version.

Tell us about your 3 most trusted test recordings

Only 1 really trusted: Henryk Górecki symphony No 3, David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw Nonsuch 79282.

What are your most embarrassing recordings/guilty musical pleasures.

In my youth, I was a regular attendee at the Ministry Of Sound in London, not quite so cool now, was then.

Having safely ushered  your loved ones out of the house as it is burning down to the ground, you ignore all standard safety advice and dash back inside to grab just one recording – what is it?

No recordings as I can replace them. However, My Luxman MQ 68 custom amp (with its spare valves)  is too good to leave behind.

The Future

What do you as a company have in the pipeline and what new products can we expect to see?

More Single suspension drivers, negative camber cone technology and larger flagship loudspeakers, if the gods smile upon me.

Thanks for speaking to Hifi Pig, Mark.