This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

A syndicated factory tour originally published in German by in their October 2009 issue.

This big-city ignoramus had no idea about an airport close to Baden-Baden. And why would he? Too young to retire, with the first €1,000,000 in the bank still far off, he has a casino just a few bus stops away from his Berlin residence on the Potsdamer Platz. But the destination of this trip wouldn’t be the famous spa resort. It would be Karlsbad, home to Octave Audio whose boss Andreas Hoffmann had invited us a while back – since last year in fact when he’d visited us to assure himself perhaps that his V80 valve integrated was properly served by our fairaudio audition room.

Well, the Berlin/Ittersbach stretch does clock in at just shy of 700 kilometers. This made the small airport in Karlsbad/Baden-Baden very convenient particularly with a direct connection and a plane where only each forth seat was occupied. Very nice. Ditto the short car trip from the airport towards the industrial area of Ittersbach. Rather than getting more and more gray as expected, it turned greener and greener. Once at company headquarters, it certainly didn’t look very industrial either.

After quick greetings and while fumbling for my to-do list, I asked Herr Hoffmann how to most efficiently spend the few hours at my disposal. He duly informed me that the two most important action items were to be lunch, then coffee and cake. In-between we might take a cruise through the premises. Stress clearly wasn’t on the menu and unexpectedly, the day commenced in quite relaxed fashion despite the constant camera work, note taking and limited time…

Octave: History, biographicals …
For nearly a quarter century here at the northern point of the Black Forest, Octave have produced valve electronics of a different sort while actual roots date back even farther to 1968 when Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, the father of Andreas, founded a transformer firm specialized in ultrasound applications. The core customer at that time was the car industry. If so inclined, one could say that Hoffmann Junior grew up with transformers in the crib, a highly fortuitous beginning for a would-be valve amp designer particularly in matters of output iron.

After an electronics education with Harman-Kardon during the 1970s and various stops in the industry, Hoffmann seemed to get bored or at least not fully challenged. He returned to the family business where he’d enjoy a greater freedom to pursue his real passion – the development of hifi components.

Naturally a few years passed between those first experiments and final and formal production but in the mid 80s, the time was ripe and the HP500 preamp entered the market followed by the matching RE280 power amp to garner a warm reception.

At left, today's HP500 followed by the RE280 stereo amp, then the integrateds V40SE, V70 and V80

The final breakthrough occurred at the hands of a later smaller model, the HP200 preamp which sold for ca. 3,000 Deutsch Marks. By 1992, over-the-top reviews in the press— so Hoffmann’s wife Frau Speidel—caused a premature ending of their Greek vacation to fill back orders for 200s. Slowly but surely, the transition from transformer expert to high-end audio supplier solidified.

Today Octave Audio is well established and a known quantity in the market yet continues on as a specialty provider—one employs nine collaborators —rather than mass producer. Consequently, there's solid support for existing models rather than novelties every six months. The portfolio is tidy and includes three preamps (HP300, HP500, Jubilee), three power amps (RE280 stereo, MRE130 monos, Jubilee monos) and three integrateds (V40, V70, V80). A phono preamp is due shortly. That’s it.

Asked about market penetration, the answer was quite typical for ‘German industry’, i.e. export plays a very significant role. For Octave, Asia is very successful, particularly Japan but also Hong Kong and China. Europe merely makes the N°.3 spot. Russia traditionally was a strong player for them but the current economic crisis slowed them down. The US and Canadian markets are only now being pursued seriously through new importer Dynaudio North America.

Each Octave amp is developed, designed and manufactured in Karlsbad to involve plenty of hand crafting. One naturally relies on certain specialty suppliers and does not handle everything in-house. Hence there’s no CNC router for chassis parts on the premises nor a circuit board insertion machine. Still, one is adamant to deal with reasonably close-by firms. This isn’t merely essential to guarantee the high Octave standards which, so Hoffmann, the Far East & Co. plainly can’t cope with but one also enjoys the more convenient infrastructure of remaining centralized around Ittersbach.

The premises:

Occasionally the gent below is also drafted into chauffeur duty, for example when curious reporters from Berlin fly in. Certain bought-in parts naturally remain on site such as wire and iron. That ends up in custom transformers compliments of Herr Hoffmann Senior who fabricates the power and output transformers for our Baden-Württemberg valve smiths.

Other parts move on to sub contractors. Face plates need machining, circuit boards stuffing before they return to Octave for assembly and testing. Hoffmann explained that they have gotten used to in-house QC inspections at every single stage of the process. This has certain bits bounce back and forth multiple times between their subcontractors and Octave. Once all electrical and mechanical ingredients are at the ready, pre-production commences followed by security checks, QC including itemized check lists for each model, then final assembly. Here the work load is divided by product category.