Ken Kantor – ZT Amplifiers
Ken Kantor is the man behind the new, cutting-edge company, ZT Amplifiers of Berkeley, California. One of the first graduate student pioneers to emerge from MIT’s Art and Media Technology program in 1981, Kantor has earned over a dozen industry Design and Engineering awards, along with four “Grand Prix” product honors. His extensive professional history has led to media accolades proclaiming him “A genuine audio legend,” and “…one of the smartest designers ever to work in the field of audio.”
Kantor has co-founded several innovative companies, including Intelligent Audio Systems, Vergence Technology, NHT, and Tymphany, and has served as the Senior Technical Executive at International Jensen, Altec-Lansing and Teledyne Acoustic Research (AR). Over the years, he has created a long-line of groundbreaking audio products, but none as revolutionary as his latest invention, the ZT Lunchbox amplifier.
The Lunchbox amplifier is a perplexing little bugger and some players including myself are still trying to wrap our heads around it. It is small, portable, loud (really loud) and well designed. But the most amazing thing is that it sounds and feels fantastic! I have had the pleasure of meeting the man himself and his jovial enthusiasm shines every time someone plugs into his creation and is blown away. In this interview Ken talks about how he got started in audio, his passion for design and the mighty little Lunchbox Amplifier.
300guitars: Hi there Ken. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Ken Kantor: Hey, thanks for doing this! It’s nice to be able to put some of the background of ZT down on paper, so to speak. I feel a little like I’m writing a personals ad: “Lifelong gearhead and music lover seeks discerning players for special fun. Must have own cables.” Designing audio equipment has been both my passion and my career for over 30 years. I’ve built everything from custom studio stuff and PA, to MP3 players and home theater. If it makes sound, I’m there. I’d like to think I’m known within the biz for being obsessed with sound and tone, but also concerned with bringing practical and affordable products to market.
300guitars: When did you first get interested in the guitar and music?
Ken Kantor: Amateur music was very much a part of my family life, so my exposure to music probably started from Day One. I’ve seen baby pictures of me crawling obliviously on top of an acoustic guitar. I took music lessons when I was six, but I was almost 15 before I had saved up enough to buy my own second-hand electric guitar rig. That amp is still with me, although the guitar was rightfully smashed. A Framus Hollywood. It had a busted and poorly repaired headstock when I bought it. $15.
300guitars: Did you tinker around with guitar and amp projects when you were younger?
Ken Kantor: Sure! Developing an interest in amps is a natural for any semi-nerdy person who loves rock and roll and who has an affinity for science fairs. I soon found that technology and engineering came more naturally to me than musicianship. Messing around with amps and effects was the ultimate fun, and was my ticket into the world of music making. It didn’t take long before my musician friends stopped wanting to play music with me, but loved what I could do to their gear.
300guitars: At what point did you decide to start a guitar amp company and why?
Ken Kantor: Let me start with the “why.” There are a number of small amps out there that are affordable and easy to carry around. The problem is that none of these amps can really keep up in a live situation, especially if loud instruments are involved. I also suspect that, in recent years, many manufacturers have tended to sacrifice the tone of their smallest amps. On the flip side, there are plenty of amps that are big enough to gig or jam with, some of which sound damned good. Unfortunately, as a rule, these big amps are heavy, expensive and a lot harder to deal with all around.
A few years ago, 2007, I think, I decided to get serious about addressing this problem. I dusted off a few prototypes, added some new ideas, and started working with a core group of engineers, designers and musicians. We wanted to give players an option that was compact and simple, but had a no-compromise, fully professional approach to tone and build quality. The Lunchbox concept, and ZT itself, was born. Plus, as a small guy with a loud mouth, I can totally relate to the Lunchbox psychology.
300guitars: What was your inspiration to create the Lunchbox amp?
Ken Kantor: Many types of electronics product have been getting smaller and lighter over the last decade. TV’s, speakers, computers, media players, you name it. But, guitar amps have been strangely resistant to technological evolution. People still revere the designs of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and for good reason. The intent of ZT was to bring the guitar amp into the modern world technologically, but without losing any of the wonderful sonics and simplicity of the classic designs.
Beyond this, I just can’t think of anything cooler than an electric guitar plugged into an amp, or a harmonica and a mic, a violin with a pickup, a drum machine into a wah pedal. The emotional power and influence of amplified music is undeniable. How much more inspiration could I ask for?
300guitars: Was your intention with the design from the beginning meant to be a really small and loud amplifier?
Ken Kantor: Yes, definitely. First off, I wanted to do a product that wasn’t being done already; it has always seemed pointless to redo something that others are already doing really well. There were already are plenty of larger amps out there that I think are great.
I had been travelling frequently during the period of time leading up to the founding of ZT, interacting with many different musicians around the world. A big thing that I had started to notice was that live music was regaining vitality almost everywhere. Audiences and musicians were both rediscovering the value and energy of live performance. As I started to plan the Lunchbox’s design, I hoped to give players a tool to help them be heard, and sound great, in as wide a variety of live situations as possible.
Frankly, it was a nice surprise to see how many serious pros also started using the amp in the studio and on stage purely for its sound. A bunch of really top players, with a broad range of styles, (people who certainly do not have to move their own amps or worry about price), have started using the Lunchbox mainly for its tone. We didn’t go after this, it just happened on its own. But, we’ll take it!
300guitars: How many prototypes did you build before you got it exactly like you wanted it?
Ken Kantor: We went through four major platform development stages before we settle overall architecture. Within each of these stages, we experimented with perhaps five or six circuit revisions. In addition, the loudspeaker took about 10 tries to get what we wanted. That 6.5″ speaker is a very unique design, and a big part of what gives the amp its output capabilities. So, once all those circuit, enclosure and speaker questions were settled, we began the process of detailed “voicing” of the sound. This involves working with the tone stack, trying lots of different guitars and playing styles, different rooms, really trying to fine-tune the tone of the product. It’s a great deal of fun, but it takes a long time.
“Exactly” might be too strong a term. It was more like we reached a point where we knew it was as good as it was going to get. Some people like to portray every product as the ultimate and perfect solution to all the world’s problems, but I believe most engineers tend to have a somewhat more complicated perspective about the choices and tradeoffs going on underneath the hood. That’s what keeps us motivated.
300guitars: How long has the Lunchbox been available?
Ken Kantor: Since about March of 2009. There were pilot runs and beta test units available for a few months before that. I was just thinking: one of the really early prototypes was built into an actual metal lunchbox. I wonder if it will show up on Ebay someday?
300guitars: Can you explain the small/big sounding, loud technology?
Ken Kantor: I’m tempted to say, “it’s the ultra-high-purity Unobtainium that we use in our hand-wired Pulvatrons,” but some people would actually believe that. In reality, there are three things going on:
First of all, Synergy. All the major elements of the amp… the power supply, the preamp, the output stage, the cabinet and the speaker …are designed as one integral unit. If you compare the Lunchbox with a traditional amp, where each of these blocks are optimized separately, we can squeeze more out of the size.
Secondly, Signal Optimization. There is a processor in the Lunchbox that, in essence, is crunching numbers to constantly adapt the signal to the output capability. This goes way beyond conventional EQ or dynamics processing, and is more like a combination of the two. Again, the goal is to get more out of the circuit, the box and the speaker than other existing technology allows.
Finally, Overdesign. Anyone who picks up a Lunchbox immediately knows that its not a toy or a “practice amp.” There’s a serious output stage in there, a speaker with huge throw and power capability. The box itself is very inert, and wastes almost no energy in unwanted vibration. There are many elements to this overdesign, it is pervasive in the product. A Watt here, a dB there, pretty soon you are talking real output…
300guitars: What are some of your interests outside of the music industry?
Ken Kantor: I think I have forgotten. Hmmm. I guess I am not really a “hobby” kind of guy. I do like to travel and experience different humans and cultures. Political arguments. Strange food. But, really, I can’t imagine being too far from music for too long.
300guitars: What are your future plans for ZT Amplifiers? Are there any new products on the horizon?
Ken Kantor: Sure. We have several product designs in various stages of development. But, philosophically, ZT is not about lots of products and price points. New products will come out only when we are convinced we have a real solution to real need. Now that we are actually on the market, in the hands of players, we are getting very valuable input from our customers. While there is no shortage of ideas or inventions, I want to digest what we are learning, and come up with stuff that musicians can’t get elsewhere.
One thing you will be seeing soon is that our 1×12″ combo will hit the market later this year. We just put preliminary info up on our website: www.ztamplifiers.com. It’s very much a sibling to the Lunchbox, but the larger speaker brings advantages in bass output, and the somewhat larger size lets us add a few things.
300guitars: Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. The mighty little Lunchbox is a great piece of gear and I’m sure the world will be as amazed as I was when I first plugged one in!
Ken Kantor: You guys have been great supporters from the very beginning, and I really appreciate this chance to talk about ZT. Thanks!