Today, Farad Azima heads up netScientific, which funds and commercialises industry-driven research in bio-med fields. Among many other activities, he is a director of the Menuhin International Violin Competition and a trustee of the Iran Heritage Foundation.
But Farad will always be known to hi-fi enthusiasts as the charismatic founder of Mission Electronics. And to those with long memories, he'll always be recalled as the designer and irresistible promoter of the classic original Mission 770s.
In its short and controversial life, the Mission 770 loudspeaker seemed to be being constantly redesigned, and it divided critical opinion. But it set the industry fashion for polypropylene cones, and gave Mission credibility as an innovator. Above all, it was trendy.
THE EARLY DAYS
In the mid-1970s, having come from Iran and studied at Leeds University, Farad entered the UK hi-fi business as an importer of American products with Webland International. But
'In the early days,' Farad recalls, 'Stan Curtis joined me and designed some amplifiers and stuff. Philip Swift and Derek Scotland, later of Audiolab, were involved in the first generation of Mission speakers, 710, 720 and 730. And Henry my brother joined, and he designed the Mission 700, which became a hallmark of the success of the company. When
Launched in the spring of 1977, the 710, 720 and 730 all used bass units by Peerless with Bextrene-like plastiflex cones along with Celestion soft-dome tweeters in sealed-box cabinets. Soon, while the new Mission factory unit in Huntingdon was busy turning out the official range, Farad was working at home to develop a completely different speaker. It would become the 770.
By now another talented designer had entered the Mission picture.
'John Bicht was doing his R&D stuff on the tonearm with me in my flat in Knightsbridge, believe it or not,' says Farad. 'And we had all the stuff on the floor everywhere...
we typically worked until four in the morning. And I started making my own loudspeaker. The 770 was very much my own baby. A number of people from the press visited us there, and found it quite amusing really. You know, in a posh area of London, we had our workshop in our living room.'
From the cabinet size and the port, you could guess that Farad's starting point was the Spendor BC1.
'It was, precisely. But also at the back of my mind, I wanted something that would be a few dB more efficient and lighter on its feet, and more dynamic. This was my ambition. Because when I'd go to the American shows and listen to some of the bigger JBLs and so on, or electrostatics like the KLH 9, or if you went to France and listened to the Cabasse and things like that, I would always come back with the memory that the whole thing was much more alive. I was inspired by some of this stuff, and I wanted to bring it to a reasonable price.
'And then another guy entered our lives, Yves Cochet. A Frenchman,
He did a big critique of Bextrene as a material for the cones of loudspeakers. He was convinced that it didn't work, and was incapable of producing very high dynamicrange sound. He was a great fan of pulp paper...
'I have very fond memories of him. How can I describe him? He was like the Che Guevara of the hi-fi industry. But if you listened to his designs, it really was very impressive.
He'd play a 78, ancient stuff, of Casals playing the cello, and so on,
Ironically, Farad's desire to create something more exciting than the 'BBC school' came to fruition through a company that had been set up in 1975 by an ex-BBC engineer, and a type of drive unit that had been developed at the BBC.
'I went to see David Stebbings at Chartwell. And we decided to have some collaboration with Chartwell, possibly buy them out or whatever, although that never happened. But I was exposed to work they were doing on polypropylene. So then I started working on some drive units, which I would design with them.'
Chartwell wasn't the originator
of polypropylene cones, and at this
in its own
speakers. It was
H D Harwood,
the senior BBC
been 'the father
of Bextrene' in
the late 1960s, who later worked
with polypropylene and in 1976
filed a patent covering its use as a
speaker cone material.
When Harwood, retiring from the BBC, set up his Harbeth speaker company in 1977, he didn't have manufacturing facilities of his own, and so turned to David Stebbings
Many other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon, as Harwood's patent turned out to be unenforceable. But paradoxically, Harwood himself decided in 1984 to switch to a different plastics material, Audax's TPX.
HAVING TO EXPERIMENT
So Farad Azima's Mission 770 was not the first speaker to use polypropylene, but it was probably the best publicised, and the one that did most to set the trend. By the time it was in full production the drive units were being made for Mission by SEAS.
'But I cannot tell you how much experimental work we did!' says Farad. 'Because it was early days for FFT analysers and stuff, the science wasn't really there. Well - if you moved the baffle board 3mm in, it could completely change the tweeter response, around the 3.5kHz region or whatever, because it would reflect off the edges. So then you bring it flush so as not to suffer that, but then you've got other problems. And then of course you've got the grille to go on.
'So I would spend a lot of time in Knightsbridge working on this, and a fair bit of time in Walthamstow with my cabinet maker. He would open his factory specially for me on Saturdays, so I could go and kind of play around with cabinets.
Different kinds of damping, different
thicknesses, different materials and
different baffle boards. Oh Cod! You
could on forever.
'Another fond memory I have is of when we'd go to King's Langley. There was a BBC man who had a lab there, and he'd written for Gramophone - before our time.
Anyway, I would go to Kings Langley and he had a kind of hydraulic mast outside to raise the speakers up in midair, so we didn't need an anechoic chamber. I cannot tell you how much time I'd spend there, basically playing around, tuning the bass, with this very purist approach to crossover design.
'It's very unusual, because before and after the 770, we would make a design, and we'd put it in volume production and get on with it.
But with this, it was a living product. And the hours I spent running
In the hi-fi press, the 770 was championed by the late Paul Benson, the editor of Hi-Fi
The design was problematic for reviewers because of the continuing revisions. Its character depended on the bass tuning, and at one point it seemed that there might be a couple of different flavours in circulation, one light and agile in the bass and another more bass-heavy.
After listing the Mission as a recommendation in several issues, one magazine editor announced
And at least one reviewer moaned in print about the seemingly endless series of updates.
True, true!' admits Farad now. 'That all came from this neurosis of a living design. Because then I became very passionate. And it was the only thing I ever really personally designed! I was very passionate about it and I continued to refine it.
'And then of course it was the subject of controversy. But it became a very important and successful product for us, especially internationally. Also because the [clear polypropylene] material for the cone was totally novel, it would stand out in a showroom.'Whatever anyone thought of the sound, the Mission 770 certainly looked very special. It was marginally shorter than a Spendor BC1 or Rogers Export Monitor, with cabinet dimensions of 590x300x300mm, but unlike those, or almost any other speaker at the time, it was designed to look good with the grille off, witt ^ the special 210mm bass/mid unit
Above was the 25mm soft-dome Ferrofluid-damped SEAS tweeter, and below it the 55mm diameter tunnel port for bass-reflex loading. It had a fairly simple but high powerhandling crossover giving a 6dB/ octave rolloff for the bass unit and 12B/octave for the treble, around a crossover point of 2.7kHz.
During 1980, the 770 became the 770 II, the bass/mid unit revised with a larger voice-coil of 33mm diameter and giving higher power handling and reduced distortion at low frequencies, with slightly increased sensitivity. By the end of 1981, the 770 III offered another revision to the bass unit, now also using polypropylene for the central dustcap. A Hi-Fi Choice review of this version found the sound balance slightly richer than before, tonally more accurate and making for more relaxed listening.
At its launch, the 770 was priced at £365 a pair: slightly more than the Spendor BC1. On the other hand, it cost a lot less than the Linn Sara, then £550, or the B&W DM7 at £430. It was also slightly cheaper than the bigger Mission 730, now in Mk II form at around £380, but there was no doubt that the 770 was the Mission flagship. It would set the style for Mission speakers for years to come.HENRY AZIMA JOINS
Farad's brother Henry Azima had spent 15 years in the Iranian navy, leaving after the revolution in 1979. He then got a job at his old university, the University of Surrey, where he'd studied electronics, but Farad persuaded him to join Mission instead as an audio designer. By mid-1980, the 710 had been revised as the 710 11 with a polyprop bass unit, but Mission had also announced its first true budget speaker, the Mission 700, at £115 per pair.
design and it
was very successful.
It caused a stir because its 200mm papercone bass unit was mounted above the tweeter, while the smart white baffle with its confident Mission logo still echoed the 770 design.
Then came further, lower-cost variations on the 770 itself. The 737 used the same bass unit but combined this with a 19mm Vifa tweeter in a smaller, 540mm-high vinyl-wrap cabinet, at around £210. The 770S, at about £330 a pair, used a bass unit built by the French company Saire in a slightly taller, slightly narrower cabinet. Finally, the Mission 770 Freedom appeared, with a new type of SEAS tweeter. By now, although the bass cone was still polypropylene, it was conventionally opaque.
Mission would go from strength to strength in the 1980s, launching the electronics that would become the Cyrus range. There was even a short-lived excursion into computing, when Mission designed a high-speed, high-end PC. After that came many upheavals, culminating with a metamorphosis that created NXT, with Farad Azima eventually relinquishing brands he'd created.
Polypropylene, in the end, proved a less than ideal speaker cone material after all. Its advantage over Bextrene was that it was self-damping and did not need to be 'doped' to get rid of quacky colorations. Alan Shaw, who acquired Harbeth from its founder in 1985, explains that the very structure which makes polypropylene desirable also leads to a crippling loss of musical detail.
Today's Harbeth speakers use the company's patented Radial cone material instead, using injection moulding to overcome the compromises of vacuum forming, and can claim vastly superior results.
But those early Mission clear cones look as stunning now as they did then. And it's easy to see why Farad looks back affectionately on the buoyant, forward-looking early days of Mission, and the sheer enthusiasm that went into his original 770. As he says, 'What a beautiful era it was!'