Coffman Labs, located in the Pacific Northwest, has developed a loyal following, and for good reason. The products are handmade, designed and tested the old fashioned way, by ear, and they are works of art. I spent quite a bit of time with the Coffman G1-A tubed preamplifier and was smitten with it’s organic presentation, dead quiet operation, and fanatical build quality. It has found a permanent place in my reference system, and I plan a bit of tube rolling in due time.
Damon Coffman, the driving force behind Coffman Labs, graciously agreed to an interview in which we discuss his colorful background, design philosophy, his methodology, and what he has in store for the future. Coffman is a bit of a throwback in that he believes in trial and error, coupled with solid engineering, with industrial design taken into consideration.
Coffman’s motivation is clearly a passion for pursuing sonic beauty, producing artisanal products that are fairly priced. As Coffman notes, below, this may not be the road to riches, but there are higher callings. Please note the Coffman Labs website is being retooled, so in the interim, check out their Facebook page.
AVREV: Can you tell us about the role of music in your life?
DAMON COFFMAN: My father started college with a classical voice scholarship, thus we had music in our house from my earliest memories. By junior high I had memorized the librettos to Aida, Rioletto, La Boheme, and other operas—just from listening to them so many times. I would fall asleep replaying Beethoven’s 5th or “O mio bambino caro” or “Porgy & Bess” in my head. Our first large family purchase (those were poor years!!) was a 1955 Philco Stereo—which I took with me to college two decades later. In fourth grade I heard a classical quartet live, and begged my mother for violin lessons until she relented. That training later landed me scholarships in violin that paid for my first degree in Physics. I still play the violin and classical guitar and can’t imagine life without music—although now I listen to almost everything.
Can you give your professional and technical background, and how that led to the beginnings of Coffman Labs?
When I finished undergraduate school the country was in the midst of a depression—no jobs for physicists—so I started a consultant business building sound studios for churches (Mostly vacuum tubes in those days). That was fun, but slow going so I went into the Navy as a systems engineer where I received a graduate degree in Physics. After paying back the Navy for school, I worked in the Medical industry designing passive monitoring equipment (several patents) that was at the forefront of a series of revolutions in medical monitoring. In my spare time I designed vacuum tube amplifiers, archiving many reference designs. In 2005 I decided to take the knowledge learned from several medical start-ups and apply it to making vacuum tube amplifiers. Over the years I had acquired thousands of amazing vintage parts (Paper-in-Oil capacitors, military switches, silver-rhenium contact sockets, etc.) along with hundreds of thousands of vacuum tubes. I loved the sound of vintage vacuum tube amplifiers—especially with vintage tubes—so I started Coffman Labs with the concept that sound was always first, second, and third. My unique collections allow me to do things not possible in a high volume product line.