Dropping In on Bob Carver

Whenever I drive the stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, I feel like Luke Skywalker sensing a powerful presence nearby. That’s because I know that just north of Seattle lives one of the true legends of the audio industry: Bob Carver, founder of Phase Linear, Carver Corporation, and Sunfire, and the pioneer of numerous audio technologies during his four-plus decades in the industry.

A chat with Carver is sheer delight, both for the chance to tap into his vast knowledge and to enjoy his casual, freewheeling personality. (The first time I met with him, he gave me a lengthy demo of how he measures amplifiers, the whole while cradling his dog Zeus in one arm.) It had been three or four years since I had a chance to hang out with Carver, so before I headed down I-5 after a recent visit to Vancouver’s Innovative Audio, I sent him an e-mail to see if he had time for lunch. As luck would have it, he did — and he promised to show me what he had cooking in the lab for his new company, BobCarver.com, whose first product is the Cherry 180 tube amp.

Before digging into the gear, though, we got caught up.

BB: How did your new company get started?

BC: A few years ago, I was in my lab at Sunfire and someone got through to me on the phone and asked if I wanted to sell the company. They were deadly serious and just the nicest guys, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Shortly after that, the company, Nortek, collapsed because they were in the housing business. They hired a hotshot to fix everything and he was good. He collapsed all of the audio companies into one and moved it all to California. I was still working for the company, but I didn’t want to move. Neither did Bob Farinelli, who was running Elan and Sunfire. So we started another company. I wanted to call it “Bob and Bob’s Audio Company,” but it evolved into BobCarver.com.

BB: So what’s the general direction of the company?

BC: I don’t know! But as a physicist I would say that’s a more sophisticated answer than it seems on the surface. Basically, we’re building amps, speakers, eventually a smaller version of the speakers, and eventually a preamp. I design ’em, Bob builds ’em.

BB: Where do you build the amps?

BC: They’re made in Kentucky — not China. We also have a guy named “Tubular” Joe Bonin who hand-wires some of the tube amps for us here in Seattle.

BB: Since the name of the company is a dot-com, are you selling online?

BC: No. We actually did that for a while, but we decided to go back to the old-fashioned way, with dealers and reps. We have probably 30 dealers now. We’re using a lot of the old Carver and Sunfire reps.

BB: Why tubes?

BC: Because I love ’em! Because they glow in the dark! And because a tube amp gives you a wider and deeper soundstage that is more delicious and more enveloping.

BB: What keeps you interested in audio after all this time?

BC: I just want to design fun vacuum-tube stuff. I love it when the world gets to hear my designs. I loved show and tell in kindergarten and I still do.

With that, he invited me up to his listening room, which is an open area upstairs. A spare bedroom holds his test bench and some equipment he uses for prototyping.

Check out the photo essay for more info on BobCarver.com’s new products.