The enthusiast's audio webzine

Interview with Tony Rouget of miniDSP

In the last two years or so, HifiZine has run a number of tutorials on the miniDSP active crossover units. These are among our more popular DIY-related articles, with consistent traffic even to the older articles. I thought that perhaps it was about time to talk to the man behind the product, Tony Rouget, and get some insights into their genesis. Tony is currently resident in Hong Kong, where the miniDSP company is located.

JR: Hi Tony, thank you for speaking with HifiZine. Could you tell us first about how you got interested in hifi and audio reproduction? Was it an interest that you had as a child or did it come later in life?

TR: My passion for audio really stems from my parents who took me to concerts in the South of France well before I could walk. They got me to listen to Pink Floyd, the Who and Yellow, most likely against the pediatrician’s recommendation… I started working as a roadie in my teenage years and then as a system engineer for some large live concerts, audio was all around… Some electronic engineering studies and few years later, I couldn’t think doing another job other than being in the audio industry. I certainly enjoy the Hifi world as I feel surrounded by so many passionate people.

JR: How long have you been living in Hong Kong? What’s it like as a European?

TR: My wife and I been in Hong Kong for 7 years now and it’s such a great city! For those of you who never been, it’s an amazingly efficient city with a LOT of people, yet always a little surprise around the corner. For an expatriate like me, Hong Kong always have that touch of originality. One thing that never cease to amaze me is how much Chinese people love discounts and food. They’ll line up for hours in front of a stall to get the free egg tart. If there is a deal, they’re all after it!

JR: How is your Cantonese?

TR: I really tried all possible tapes and Anki Cards but nothing! I’m up to a whopping 20 to 50 words by now. Worse is that my 2-year old daughter is speaking better than me these days.. I’m just hoping I can catch up with her… Running two companies does keep you busy. I think that I should go to kindergarten with her, that might be my best bet!

JR: So, as I understand it, miniDSP is an offshoot of your main business developing DSP hardware and software on a consulting/contract basis? Could you tell us more about that and why you decided to start miniDSP?

TR: That’s indeed correct. miniDSP was started following the R&D work we do at DSP4YOU. Though these two companies are doing products for completely different markets, in the end, a lot of the work (firmware, software) is being shared. Basically, it all started as we were developing some neat technology for DSP4YOU, we thought that it would be great to share it to the passionate community of DIYers out there. That’s how miniDSP basically started almost 3 years ago now – trying to “bridge” the ProAV technology we work with to a more consumer-oriented field and at a lower price.

JR: Are you pleased with the progress of the miniDSP venture so far? What about the reception from audiophiles and audio DIYers?

TR: Well, we can never be 100% satisfied. We’re always looking for something else to please the community, though it might not be obvious to everybody thinking that we can spin new R&D in 2 weeks time. For the size of our team (and the low cost of our products), our R&D is actually already very aggressive.. We’ll keep working at releasing new innovative products to please the community. We’re certainly fortunate to hear the miniDSP word making some good waves… We just want to do more!

JR: Can you give us a rundown of the product development cycle? Who decides on what the next product will be? Is new software done in parallel or after hardware prototypes are available?

TR: Sure. Product development really starts from few avenues: Meeting our customers at trade shows, hearing feedback from the community members and browsing the web to see trends. Though I’m heavily involved in product dev, it’s certainly not a single person’s pet project but more of a concerted effort with the engineering team and even outside counsel from our Board of Advisors. We try to combine all these ideas to make a product that we can actually release. If we start a “wishlist” for everybody, we would never be able to release products since the perfect product fitting all needs doesn’t exist. Best that we focus to actually release a product knowing that hitting the right price is a concern…

Once the specs are finalized and on target for cost and development, the hardware and firmware development will be the first to go in. Finally the software dev starts. It’s basically similar to the core concept of the miniDSP. i.e. Once you have selected your I/O configuration from one of the DSP platform, it’s really the software (plug-in) that defines what the product will do in terms of processing. In general, that whole process from idea all the way to product certification is a 6-month story knowing we’re doing a lot of other projects in between.

JR: I gather from the way that miniDSP products are released that you don’t like to “spill the beans” about any product until it’s done and ready to be purchased. But in general terms, what can you tell use about the roadmap for the miniDSP product line? Will there be further SHARC-based products, or will you focus more on consolidating the IIR-based products?

TR: Hehehe… You’re right that we try to keep things very “low key” until we’re 100% sure we can release and ship a product. We basically try hard not to build a buzz about a product that’s still under R&D (i.e. nowhere near being shipped). I know that it’s the trend out there for many companies to talk of their products, trying to get traction and steal sales from the competition but we just feel that there are many elements in the product development cycle that we don’t have control over. We did it for one product and wish we had never talked about it!

As for how the future looks like, we feel that the IIR based product portfolio is starting to have quite a good range. There is a neat “baby plate amplifier” about to come this being said.. There’ll be more to see toward end of this year! The SHARC DSP products are only beginning. A lot more is to come, we just need more time since it’s more work. We’ll keep steady on our objective to please both DIYers and end users. Some of you are trying to really get down to electronic details (I2S, better API for custom software) while other end users just want a DSP box that works out of the box (e.g. OpenDRC). We want the right balance to please both worlds.

JR: What are your thoughts on computer-based processing versus embedded DSPs? Your current USBStreamer is a gateway for those who wish to do multi-channel processing in-computer and output up to 8 I2S channels to their own DIY DACs. Do you see this type of thing expanding for miniDSP?

TR: I think that these are 2 completely different ways of thinking about DSP so it’s hard to compare them. To be honest, I like them both! I love the amount of power a PC/MAC can deliver. They are an amazing “power house”. I’m however really not a fan of having a PC running at all times, or required to be “maintained”. Even with all the fanless, pocket-size PCs coming up. From the point there is an OS of some sort running, I feel that it’s somewhat asking for trouble when it comes to maintenance. That’s why I prefer “outboard processing” like a miniDSP/OpenDRC. But that’s my 2 cents… In the end, it ultimately comes down to finding the product that fits your needs. The good news as you noticed John is that we’ll keep releasing products allowing end users to enjoy benefits of both worlds. The USB streamer is a step in that direction. Maybe you’ll see more…

JR: What does your own home audio system consist of? Any special favorites with regard to hifi gear – brands, types of component, etc?

TR: As I like to tinker and develop most of my setup, it’s not exactly a “branded” setup with lots of fancy names… When we do listening sessions on our products, we’re fortunate to have few friends in Hong Kong who have really fancy hifi setups. A great place to put the products to test. In our small apartment, my square-foot allocation by Wifey Inc. consists of a Squeezebox Transporter + OpenDRC-PW which is a custom dual Sharc DSP platform we built. I included some ICE power modules to the whole system and it’s driving a custom set of 3 way cabinets with dual subs. The whole setup is running various room correction algorithms we’ve been working with over the years. It’s no large system but it’s enough to make sure I don’t get in trouble with my neighbors!

JR: What about music? What’s on your current playlist?

TR: Apart from Canto-Pop, I really like all styles… My top playlist these days is Alt-J, Laurent Garnier (“It is what it is” radio show), Ludovico Einaudi, The Black Keys, Sigur Rós and Zenzile.

John, thanks again for giving me the opportunity to explain a bit more what’s behind the scenes @ miniDSP. The work that you guys are doing @ Hifizine is really valuable to the audio community. Keep it up!

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