Bryston Limited Factory Tour
Nestled in the heart of the Kawartha Lakes region of southern Ontario is the city of Peterborough. This community is home to many things: the 2006 Ontario Hockey League Champion Peterborough Petes; a museum dedicated to the history of one of Canadas earliest forms of transportation, the canoe; and the largest independent high-end electronics manufacturer in the country, Bryston Limited. Although most residents of Peterborough are familiar with the Petes and the canoe museum, not many know Bryston. This is surprising given the reputation Bryston has earned from audiophiles around the globe.
A few months ago, I visited the Bryston factory and spoke with Brian Russell, company president, as well as James Tanner, vice president of sales. I got the chance to walk through the factory and see the products being assembled, as well as Bryston's research and testing facilities. Before I expound on my experience that day, I need to say what an eye-opener my visit was. I saw the attention to detail that goes into making and essentially bomb-proofing Bryston products. The care taken in building and testing Bryston gear is remarkable, and is obviously one of the reasons for the company's enormous success over the past 40 years.
I was surprised to learn that when Bryston started in 1962, the company was based in the US and had nothing to do with audio. Brystons three founders, Tony Bower, Stan Rybb, and John Stoneborough (their last names form the acronym from which Bryston takes its name), made blood-analysis equipment. This continued until 1968, when NASA engineer John Russell, Sr. bought the company. John had worked with NASA during the 1960s, but found himself out of work following the layoffs that accompanied termination of the Apollo missions later that decade. At this time, John moved his family to Canada and re-launched the company there. Once his son Chris had finished college, John hired him to work for Bryston, and Chris set to work designing the first Bryston amplifier.
This amplifier was completed in 1973 and became known as the Pro 3. It boasted 100Wpc, used a dual-mono power supply, and featured high slew rates. Chris brought a prototype of the Pro 3 to a recording studio in Toronto, Eastern Sound, for an amplifier shoot-out. Chriss amplifier won, and Eastern Sound was so impressed by the prototype that they ordered two production units. Chris immediately set to work building these. At that time the engineer in charge of sound equipment at the studio was Stuart Taylor. Bryston hired him ten years later, and he still works there today.
The Pro 3 earned its name because its earliest buyers were mainly professional sound studios. As a result, Bryston developed a reputation for making pro-audio gear. Today many people still associate the brand with professional audio, although this has changed considerably. As James Tanner told me, Brystons market was split 50/50 between pro and consumer audio a decade ago, but it has since shifted to a 70/30 split in favor of the consumer market.
The next amplifier Chris built was the now-legendary 4B. It was first assembled in 1976 and has stayed in production (with subsequent modifications) ever since. (Bryston has a showcase in their front entrance that features a number of the original '70s designs.) In the 1980s, Bryston was in the process of building an amplifier that would eventually become the 8B. Stuart Taylor did a complete overhaul of the 8B, and in the end came up with an amplifier that featured lower noise and distortion than anything Bryston had previously made. Among Taylor's many contributions to Brystons line of amplifiers was his inclusion of a highly linear Motorola output transistor that improved high-frequency response. This was first used for the 14B ST ("ST" for the designer's initials), although it eventually found its way into all Bryston models.
Brystons newest line of amplifiers is the SST C-Series. All circuitry in these amps is fully discrete to avoid the phase shifts and non-linearities inherent to integrated circuits. In addition, as with all of Brystons previous amplifiers, the company has paid a great deal of attention to the power supply. Each channel in all SST C-Series amplifiers utilizes a completely separate and independent power supply with its own custom-wound toroidal transformer. The result has been amplifiers whose signal-to-noise ratios comfortably exceed 100dB. Upon listening to one of the new amplifiers, one is immediately aware of its transparency and quietness.
Today Bryston continues to build high-quality amplifiers, although the company has expanded production to include a range of preamplifiers, two integrated amplifiers, a home-theater processor, several crossovers, a phono stage, speaker cables, and interconnects.
To my knowledge, there are no electronics manufacturers that offer a 20-year warranty on their products -- except Bryston. When I asked James Tanner how this was possible, he told me that the warranty was introduced in 1990 when Bryston realized that some of its amplifiers were 17 or 18 years old and still measured within the same specifications as the day they were manufactured. In fact, James told me that a Bryston amplifier typically remains within spec for about 30 years. The warranty was made retroactive, so that people who had bought Bryston amplifiers prior to 1990 had an extension added to their pre-existing warranties. Suddenly an amplifier bought in 1987 was fully guaranteed until 2007 rather than 1992.
When we walked through the factory, I began to understand how Bryston could offer such a lengthy warranty. Upon entering the factory, you are greeted by the sight of a number of people seated at workstations performing all assembly by hand. Bryston estimates that between 30 and 35 person-hours are spent building a single product. Components are hand selected and installed, and each connection is hand soldered. Wave-soldering machines are not used because they would expose the circuit boards to extraordinarily high temperatures that could potentially result in long-term-reliability problems.
Each amplifier is subject to three testing stages. Individual components are all tested prior to being soldered to the circuit board and then tested again once this connection has been made. Finally, once the circuit board is complete, it is installed into the unit, where it is again tested to ensure that it still operates properly. Following this, Bryston uses a unique burn-in procedure to reduce the chance of the amplifiers failing in the field. A 3kHz square wave driven into a capacitive load is applied just below full power output. The load is applied to each channel for one hour on and one hour off for 100 hours. Obviously this burn-in period is very rigorous, making it useful for detecting problems before each amplifier leaves the factory.
The final testing stage for all Brystons amplifiers is a comprehensive check of all functions. Among other parameters, this assesses peak power output (when clipping is reached) and total harmonic distortion for each channel. The results are recorded on a data sheet that is packed with the amplifier and sent to the customer. In addition, a copy of the results is kept on file so that if a customer encounters a problem with his amplifier, Bryston can call up its file and see how the product performed prior to leaving the factory. I think the most impressive thing about this last analysis is that an amplifier must not only exceed the specifications that Bryston advertises for its products, but also exceed a more rigorous set of internal standards as well. In fact, the company claims that all of its products measure at least twice as well as their advertised specifications.
For a company to be successful in the audio industry for over 40 years, it has to have a strong sense of its place in the market. Bryston does not identify a specific price point for a product and then set about building it to meet that price. Nor do Bryston engineers look for shortcuts to save money. Bryston's is a cost-no-object philosophy when it comes to how its products will perform. Without placing price constraints on products, Bryston actually makes things easier by setting out to build the best products possible. In this way, the company is only limited by its ideas, not cost constraints. Of course, time is spent surveying the market and trying to identify what is available and what can be made better.
James Tanner was eager in this regard. He asked me what I based my decisions on when purchasing audio equipment. On other audio-related topics, he wanted to get my opinion. For example, he let me know that Bryston is developing a digital source that will play Red Book CDs only. However he wanted to know what I thought of the SACD and DVD-Audio formats. Following our conversation, I discovered that James posts questions to a Bryston online user group. He asks audio- and videophiles similar questions to get a sense of what they want to see in future Bryston products. Obviously this is a good way to find out if there is a niche for a new product. If word of mouth is the best way to advertise, Bryston has definitely capitalized on it. An unusually long warranty combined with a genuine interest in how customers use their products is a good way to ensure loyalty.
Although Bryston has expanded its consumer clientele, the company's experience in professional audio has served it well. James explained that getting the chance to spend time in both recording studios and home environments allows him to see the market from two different sides. As he pointed out, it is an enormous benefit to hear work in the recording studio as well as after it has been recorded. Working closely with those who use Bryston products helps staff identify what the products do well, but also what they might do better.
As I mentioned, Bryston is currently designing its first CD player. The company already offers an onboard DAC as an option with preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers. Bryston's next step is to make an outboard DAC for those who already have a CD transport, a dedicated transport for who those who have the onboard DAC, and an integrated CD player. At the time of our interview, James indicated that he hoped Bryston would have these items ready for sale sometime later this year.
Aside from manufacturing electronics, Bryston is also the distributor for the British speaker maker Professional Monitor Company (PMC). Bryston took over as the Canadian distributor of PMC in 1994. Today the company handles PMC pro and consumer speakers in Canada. More recently, the engineers at Bryston have begun a partnership with Energy speakers to design amplifiers for the new line of Energy Pro studio monitors. Finally, Bryston has also started to distribute a series of power-line conditioners from Torus Power. The conditioners feature large toroidal transformers from Plitron and are aimed at both the pro and audiophile markets.
In the end
Bryston has carved out an impressive niche for itself in a business that has evolved steadily since the company began. What I found during my visit to Bryston's factory is that there is no real secret to the company's success. Bryston combines excellent products with customer service that is unbeaten in the audio industry. Almost as important is the fact that Bryston is not the sort of company to be persuaded by fads. Bryston products are only updated when the company feels that an improvement goes beyond anything achieved in the past.
Bryston has enjoyed success for several decades, and, based on the sound and build quality of the company's current product line, it will enjoy more success in the decades to come. Hockey and canoes are primary in the Canadian consciousness, but, thanks to Bryston, audio amplifiers are finding a place as well.
To find out more about Bryston Limited, visit www.bryston.ca.
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