ToolShed Amps: Meet Matt Formanek.
I discovered ToolShed Amps a year ago or so, during one of my online searches for amp builders. Initially, it was his cabinet design (dig it!) that stood out. Nicely finished wood bases married with artfully etched aluminum plates and vintage hardware. Matt Formanek hand builds these single-ended tube amps under the ToolShed Amp shingle in Greenfield, Wisconsin. I recently reached out to Matt to see if he was interested in my doing an in-depth report on his work. We chatted some about audio and music, and he graciously agreed.
I will follow up soon with a report on his latest stereo amplifier, the Euphoria.
I thought we’d start with a Q&A session. Matt’s responses are here, unedited.
Q: How long have you been building amps under the ToolShed Amps name?
A: Since September of 2014. Originally, the name had been ToolShed Audio, however, it came to my realization that there were a couple of guys in the U.K. mixing Rap Music under that name so I made a decision to change it. So, if my ideas for a speaker line ever come to fruition I’ll just have to call that segment of my company “ToolShed Speakers” or something to that effect. 🙂
Q: What do you want to share about your background?
A: Wow, that’s a tough question….beyond what I have published on my website, I really don’t want to bore your readers with some long-winded biography. One item of note though, I’m really not sure who coined the name “Audiophile”. These days it truly seems ostentatious and I might say “off-putting” to many. However, I grew up in the 70’s and early 80’s and literally “EVERYBODY” had a cool stereo…some better than others, but plenty fine listening experiences to be had pretty much everywhere. Audio salon’s and record stores all over the place…this was normal. Then personal listening systems started to kill everything, beginning with the “Walkman” eventually followed by the final coffin nail….the iPod and it’s earbuds. Obviously other disturbing trends also led to the downfall of listening to music as an “activity” as opposed to something that just happened in the background while doing something else. Surround sound, the Compact Disc, then Napster just to name a few. It seems to me in retrospect that although consumption of music increased, the quality of playback decreased. Those of us who still cared (or even knew) about quality playback were forced to grab on to the identity marker “Audiophile” for lack of an alternative label that could adequately convey our disdain for dynamically eviscerated, ultra-compressed recordings played back through transducers smaller than a pencil eraser. From that point, it has been a long, slow climb back to where we are now, heck, it’s even OK to own real speakers and a turntable again. 🙂 So, if the readers must know, I was born an “Audiophile”, and has absolutely nothing to do with social class or the perception that my ears work better than yours. 🙂
Q: What inspired you to build?
A: The feeling that I really had something to offer the audio community. Having ultimately been part of the self-propagating disillusionment of the “high-end”, having sold countless 200lb./350 watt mono-blocs (Hint: East Coast) required to drive the equally absurd 81db efficient (or should I say, inefficient) speakers (Hint: Utah) led me to re-think my commitment to the artists and the music itself. Also having been a dealer of the Klipsch Heritage series of speakers I began to consider my favorite pairing at the time, Klipsch Cornwalls being driven by the fantastic Cary Audio CAD-300SEI. By the time you added your source component/s, interconnects, speaker cable and line-conditioner we were still talking about a $10K system “out-the-door”. Although this was a move in the right direction (ie., lower cost/higher performance) it still represented a price-point that many, many music lovers just couldn’t justify. Hmm……ponder this I will. Fast forward, years later, “Holy Cow”!!! A few business models I could sink my teeth into; Steve Deckert, Mike Morrow, and the guys at Zu Audio and Schiit. This to me was a “game-changer”. No longer bound by the brick-and-mortar-dealer-dictate; I realized that it was now plausible to pursue the dream I have had for most of my adult life….to lovingly hand-craft, heirloom quality, music-machines that I could sell directly to people at a price that belies performance. Sweet! Let’s get to work…
Q: Which classic circuits are you using as your foundation?
A: All of my designs originated from the venerable circuits presented in the “RCA Tube Receiving Manual”. This is a primer that I believe ALL amplifier designers have read, and re-read exhaustively. To be more specific, my basic amplifier design is an evolution of the circuit listed as the “Intercommunication Set” listed as figure 29-8 of the Tube Receiving Manual. This basic circuit was really only the starting point. I realized early on that every single device in an amplifier this minimal was of paramount importance as regards the net sound quality achieved. So, many, many iterations of this circuit were built and empirically tested over the years using different input/driver tubes, output tubes, biasing topologies, plate-loading schema, resistor types, capacitor types, power supply designs, operating points, etc., leading to what I feel is the “ToolShed Amps” particular flavor of music reproduction. My focus has always been on maintaining as much of the emotional content of the music as possible, after all, isn’t this where the true essence of the artist’s intent resides?
Q: Are there specific vintage brands/amps you had in mind when designing yours?
A: No, I had decided that the compromise made by early manufacturers by using “push-pull” circuits to increase power had, to my ears, “sucked the life” out of the music. The alternative, of course, was to recommend the use of more efficient speakers to allow the “Single-Ended” amplifier designers (myself included) a measure of validity. After all, wasn’t it the great Paul Klipsch who said “What the world needs is a great 5 watt amplifier!” Who am I to argue? This then has been my focus.
Q: Which tubes do you prefer?
A: Ah… this is a topic I could expound upon for a very, very long time as there have been many fantastic tubes produced over the years. However, I won’t here for the sake of brevity. Instead, lets just focus on the tubes compatible with the Euphoria Stereo Amplifier. The rectifier, either the 5Y3gt or 5R4gy. Both of these tube types sound far better (to my ears) than any sort of solid-state rectifier. The 5Y3gt drops more voltage than the 5R4gy allowing me to offer two different operating points available to the user of the amplifier which adds another layer to the variations possible when “tube-rolling”. I recommend the 5Y3gt be used when using the 6V6 family of output tubes and conversely, the 5R4gy be used when running the 6L6 family of output tubes. This allows the amplifier to produce more power when running the 6L6’s. To my taste, I prefer the “300b-like” silky mid-range that the 5Y3/6V6g combo provides at slightly less power. Can anyone say late-night jazz? Although, Saturday afternoon 102db peaks listening to Tool or Korn can be quite a bit of fun too! This squarely falls into the wheel-house of the 5R4gy/6L6-GB/GC combo. As far as the input/driver tubes go, any of the EF86 compatible tube types have their own flavor. My personal preference is for either the Telefunken “chrome-plate” EF86 or the Philips E80F. However, ALL EF86’s sound fantastic in this amplifier, partly because this tube was developed to be used in microphones and telecommunications it is intrinsically “low-noise” and long-life.
Q: You use point to point wiring – any comments you’d like to make on this?
A: The primary reason for using point to point wiring is that it allows for running changes in a more immediate manner than do circuit boards. Additionally, although I could to some extent be far more prolific by using circuit boards, I feel more of a connection to the amplifier, more of the hand-built nature of my work….more gestalt.
Q: Do you build the wood bases? What’s your background there?
A: Yes, all of the woodworking I do myself, in-house. Thirty years ago I had actually been a cabinetmaker employed by a company who provided the interior mill-work for custom conversion vans. It was my job to prototype burl walnut interior parts and inlays then to create the jigs and fixtures necessary to replicate these parts. In the years since I have built everything from furniture to complete dedicated home theaters with back-lit wood columns, prosceniums, and tiered seating. These days I limit my woodworking to crafting the bases of my amplifiers, fashioned of solid, finger-joined exotic and/or figured hardwood finished with 6 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer.
Q: Do you fabricate the metal parts?
A: Yes, I also do all of the metal working in-house as well. I lay-out all of the plates by hand, old-school with ruler and squares, center punch all of the holes and mill them on two drill-presses I have in the shop. I developed a means of etching the 3mm Aluminum plates with very little impact to the environment as no caustic chemicals are used (difficult to do if you understand metal-etching). Finally, I buff and polish all of the aluminum parts myself as well. I think that my metal-work is fairly unique amongst the proliferation of stamped-steel, silk-screened offerings of the majority of amplifier manufacturers today. Not just a visual consideration, 3mm (1/8″) Aluminum provides a far better ground-plane than does 20ga. sheet metal.
Q: I really dig the overall aesthetic – what inspired the look?
A: That’s the hardest question to answer…it really is just my interpretation of the perfect conjunction of form and function. Really, a lifetime of being a student of art, industrial design and architecture have imprinted on my soul deeply. Symmetry and Line dictate much in my designs. Scale, spatial relationships, texture and color also contribute to the overall aesthetic. I believe that my amplifiers couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything other than “Americana”. Certain hardware elements are used as an homage to the music itself, as an example, all of my pieces feature an indicator lamp and jewel featured prominently on the face-plate. These particular Fender guitar amplifier glass-jewels were sourced from a box of repair parts dated 1957. The Carling mechanical toggle-switches are another example of both the homage to the great American guitar amplifiers of the past, but also to the “Tactile” quality of my amplifiers, the switch makes a truly satisfying sound when switched either on or off. You won’t find any plastic, failure-prone parts on my amplifiers, they are built to last.
Q: Do you offer a trial period for your components? What kind of warranty do you offer?
A: Unfortunately I do not offer a trial period at this time. In the future I may consider something as an alternative to a trial period based on the idea of a “traveling demo unit” that a prospective customer could arrange to “babysit” for a week or two…I offer a limited Lifetime Labor Warranty to the original purchaser of my pieces. This warranty is non-transferable and does not apply to the tube-set shipped with the piece (30 days on tubes).