An Interview With Our Founder: Stephen Nelson-Smith

In the past we have done a number of interviews with musicians, composers, recording engineers... anyone involved with the music industry in some way really! However, for this interview, we thought it might be nice for you to get to know our founder a little more, and learn about his own musical/HiFi journey.

So without further ado, let me pass the proverbial microphone to Expressive Audio's founder, Stephen Nelson-Smith.

Hi Stephen, for Expressive Audio customers unfamiliar with you, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hello! I'm Stephen, founder/owner of Expressive Audio, brother of our manager John, and father of reviewer extraordinaire Corin.  You might bump into me if you phone the shop or email us at humans@expressiveaudio (because I'm one of those humans), and I helped with our summer shows this year, and sometimes look after the shop when John's on holiday.   

I suppose the most obvious first question is: what ignited your passion for HiFi?

The first really expensive thing I ever bought as a young adult was a hifi system.  I didn't know any better at the time, and bought a Kenwood "stacking system" with graphics equalisers, twin tape decks, CD player, and radio.  I loved it, but after a while I started to trade it in for second-hand separates and a turntable.  I think my brother had become interested in hifi at a similar time.  What really gave me the bug was when one day my brother and I saw a Naim Nait amplifier for sale at a silly price, clearly the shop manager had no idea what it was.  I bought it, and it became the centre of my system.  I also had an older friend at university who had a valve amp, and we used to listen to music together.  So really, I think hifi and music has been a central part of my life for all my adult life.

And where did your career in the HiFi industry begin?

Having left Oxford with a degree in Theology, but probably not a good enough one to get funded for my PhD, I had decided to teach myself software engineering and system administration.  I did some freelance work, but work was hard to come by, and I was very junior, so I needed a way to pay the bills.  I was working as a chef and bar manager at a pub in Glasgow, but I hated it, and one day I walked out in the middle of my shift, and never returned.  When I told my brother, he said there was a job going in Audio-T, where he had been working for a couple of years.  He introduced me, and I went down to London for an interview, got the job, and moved the next week.

When did you decide to found Expressive Audio, and why?

Although I loved working in the hifi industry, and was able to so some software engineering and IT work both on the side, and as part of my role at Cornflake, designing and building multiroom systems, once children were on the horizon, and as I was becoming more experienced in computer work, I transitioned to working full time in IT, and my hifi work became part time.

However after a decade or so, during which time Helena and I founded and grew a consultancy, and after a particularly gruelling couple of years, I decided I needed a sabbatical.  I had remained active in the hifi industry, and felt it would be a fun change of scene.  I started out refurbishing, upgrading and reselling Rega turntables, and took on a few accounts, and gradually things grew from there.

Now seven years later, we have a full time employee, a wide customer base, a dedicated showroom, a thriving web shop, and an active blog and social media presence.  It's been quite a journey.

Expressive Audio wasn’t always based in Lincolnshire, in a purpose built showroom… What was our first premises like, and what are your favourite memories of early Expressive Audio days?

Our first "shop" was a little beach hut in an artisan's market in Chichester.  It was a lovely space - it sounded remarkably good, and we built up a loyal following of customers.

My memories of those times were how many people's lives we touched.  In fact I randomly bumped into an old customer today who remembered us.

What have been your best memories from your career in HiFi so far?

Gosh - there have been so many.  I remember my first ever big sale, and the excitement of putting it through the till.  I remember my first experience of seeing a home transform from a blank canvas and some plans to a fully automated space with music in every room.  I have fond memories of working alongside my brother in Audio T in Camberley.  I remember a wonderful few days that were spent in Mechelen, hosted by Joenit.  Dozens of UK industry folk went out, and we socialised and met the founder of Totem.

What are some of the best brand pairings you’ve heard throughout your career?

What a great question.  I think sometimes you come across some products that just work beautifully together, and they become a signature system for a while.

Perhaps my first real love was Primare and Proac - such a wonderfully open sound, uncoloured and spacious.

I did very well with Active ATC and Bryston and/or Mark Levinson, and of course Rega and Totem were a match made in heaven.

A classic Expressive Audio system was Parasound and AVI, and we were very sad when AVI stopped making their series of active speakers.

More recently, I would say Rega and Fyne work particularly well together.

Have you met anyone famous through the HiFi world?

I guess it depends what you mean by famous.  Of course, I've met some famous people from within the industry.  I've been lucky enough to stay the night at Roy Gandy (of Rega fame)'s home, and be treated to one of his intimate music nights, and it was an honour to work alongside A J Van Den Hul at a couple of shows.

But I have met a few famous people as customers too.  Robbie Williams is probably the most well-known, although we also worked with Arsenal and England footballer Ian Wright.

But for me I was most star-struck by two legends from the world of classical music.  Julius Drake, who wasn't my customer, but was looked after by my mentor John Oakman, and Sir Charles Mackerras, who was my customer, and with whom, together with his wife, I formed a friendship.
What is your current HiFi set up?

I'm in transition at the moment, as we've been reorganising how rooms are used in our home.  My amplification is an Audio Detail Chela pre-amp, with Ming Da Cavatina monoblocks, and Van Den Hul cables.  I have a Chord Qutest DAC and stream using Roon.  The new room needs small speakers, and I've not yet decided what they should be.  I'm currently using Dali Oberon 7s, but they're much too big for the space, both aesthetically and acoustically, so watch this space!

And if money were no object, what would be your dream HiFi set up?

I'd upgrade the Chela to one of Audio Detail's Directly Heated Triode pre-amps, and upgrade the Ming Da monos to Audio Detail as well.  Loudspeakers would have to be from the Fyne Audio Vintage range.  Classic styling with 21st century technology, and a perfect match for single-ended amplification.

I'd still stream using Roon, but I'd probably upgrade to the Chord Electronics DAVE.

To John's chagrin, I'd remain faithful to Van Den Hul for all interconnects.

Valve or solid state?

Valve all the way.  Once you've really connected to the music you love on a top quality valve system, you're spoiled for life.

Digital or analogue?

Both have their place.

For ease of use, and exploration, I think digital is hard to beat, and Roon makes consumption and curation of digital content a joy.

A brilliant turntable setup will probably have the edge, in audiophile terms, and for some people the whole ceremony around owning and playing a  record adds to the experience, but for me personally the additional cost, storage, maintenance, management overhead and inherent degradation of physical vinyl tips the scales in the favour of digital.
If someone were just starting to explore the world of HiFi, can you recommend a sub-£1000 system that will exceed expectations?

The Rega System One is absolutely incredible.  All you need in one box: a British-made turntable, amplifier and pair of speakers, from an iconic manufacturer.

What are your hobbies outside of Expressive Audio?

I'm a licenced radio amateur, particularly interested in communicating via morse code. I also play competitive table tennis at national level, in fact our Senior British League team is sponsored by Expressive Audio, and I enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons with some of my family members.

What are some of your earliest memories of music?

I remember Pink Floyd and Camel being played in the car when I was very young.  They're still among my favourite artists.

Has your taste in music evolved as you’ve grown up, or do you still enjoy the same genres you did as a child?

As a youngster I liked rock music, and large scale symphonic works.  As I grew older I learned to appreciate chamber music and lieder, and Sir Charles planted in my a passionate love of opera, especially Janacek.  I developed an interest in progressive rock, through some of the early music evenings we used to hold in Chichester.  I still appreciate rock and indie music, but most of my listening is modern jazz - anything on the ECM or ACT labels is likely to be up my street.

And, though possibly slightly less relevant, it’s always fun to ask, what is your go-to takeaway?

Oh definitely curry - Tarka Dal and Vegetable Dansak!

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