Friday, June 20, 2014

Nelson Pass, Audio Amplifier Designer, Founder of Pass Labs and DIY Audio

Nelson Pass loves physics, electronics, and designing high-end audio amplifiers.  A founder of several small businesses in the high-end audio amplifier space, and a revered figure in the DIY audio community, he credits his physics education as essential to his commercial success and personal satisfaction.  He is also one of our most fervent champions of having "the nerve to do what you really want and the willingness to work toward that.

We interviewed Nelson by email to capture some of the wisdom gained in the almost 40 years since graduating with a BS in physics from UC Davis.  Given his broad interest in physics, we also asked for his recommendations of popular books.  I'm now enjoying the biography of Einstein he recommended, written by Steve Jobs's biographer Walter Isaacson.

Q: Could you tell me about your time here at UC Davis, about how you decided to major in physics, and what you see as particularly influential interactions you had with other students or faculty?

There was no question that I was going to study Physics. I entered UC Davis in 1969, having spent two summers working for the Atmospheric Sciences department (thanks to the Jastro program), and received a BS in 1974. Besides the appeal of the subject, I found the Physics department the most interesting and friendly on campus. I liked all of the staff in the department, and they were always helpful, especially when I ran out of money in my third year.


Three professors in the Physics department stood out: Doctors Greider, Cahill and McColm.

Dr. Kenneth Greider was the premier campus example of the great teacher – engaged, innovative and hard working. Those of you who have read The Feynman Lectures will have a sense of Greider's style. He was really concerned that students could internalize what he had for them, not just pass the test. One quarter he told a class of a couple hundred that that each of them could decide their own grade – he trusted them to know what it should be. At the end he found that no student had overestimated their grade, but he intervened to raise a few.

Dr. Thomas Cahill was the kind of guy who could reduce esoteric material to its essentials and create a more easily understood picture. He had a little class, something like “electronics for physicists” and taught me more in a few hours than all my time with Engineering. This knowledge and his practical approach boosted electronic design as a career for me.

Dr. Douglas McColm was the kind of teacher who would support an off-topic independent class or project. He enjoyed nurturing enthusiasm in students and generously gave his support and valuable time.

I am influenced by their examples beyond my commercial efforts. As a hobby I have been writing tutorial projects and articles for “diy audio” enthusiasts for the last forty years, with about 70 published pieces, and when I write I try to think like them, expressing myself clearly and with some sympathy for those struggling to learn something.

Q: How did you come around to launching a business? What were the challenges you faced in doing so? What were some lessons learned? Can you make connections between your success and your training in physics?

Most likely I “inherited” my entrepreneurial bent from my adoptive father, who started and ran a number of successful businesses. I had an interest in music which also became an interest in audio equipment.

At Davis I fell in with engineering types who were designing and building their own equipment. I had some talent for it, and as a junior I got a job doing R&D for an audio company (a full-time job on top of 17 units). After graduation I got a job with another audio company, and after a year I was convinced that “If these guys can do it, so can I.” I started manufacturing power amplifiers. It was not as hard as you might think – I had a smart business partner with a little money and a wife with a job.

Of course the big challenge is to have the nerve to do what you really want and the willingness to work toward that. Joseph Campbell would tell you to “Follow your bliss, and doors will open where you didn't know there were doors.” 


Q: What do you wish you knew during your time at UC Davis, that you know now?

Besides the IPO date of Microsoft and accelerating expansion of the universe, I would like to have known more members of the faculty and staff. Those I managed to have adult conversations with had valuable insights and advice. Most of the time in school the demands of your chosen study don't leave much for exploring the others, but it is worth making the extra effort.

Q: Given that the world has changed since your time here, what advice would you want to pass on to current students?

I have no new advice. I don't know how to work my new phone either.

The old advice is still good – figure out what you enjoy doing and pursue that. If you don't, then later on even if you are making good money you will probably regret it. Also, people are the most important component to success in any field, so learn to deal with them. Spend some time reading history, biographies, old novels and such.


Q: Could you elaborate on this statement from your testimonial, potentially grounding it in some specifics:

“Physics was the place to be, and likely still is – the fractal zone between the applied science of something like Engineering and the total abstraction of Mathematics. I look around at successful people in all sorts of fields and I see that a remarkable number of them have degrees in Physics.”

Bracketed by Mathematics and Applied Science, Physics is a good place to practice critical thinking and creativity moderated by the touchstone of physical reality. This is useful in a wide range of career possibilities.

Q: Given your extensive reading of popular books on physics, including biographies, do you have a few you would particularly recommend?

Yes, starting with my favorite:
-       The End of Science by John Horgan (lots of interviews with famous scientists and such)
-       Genius by James Gleick (about Feynman)
-       any book by Richard Feynman
-       American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (about Oppenheimer)
-       Einstein by Walter Isaacson

Q: How did you find the most exciting opportunities that you have pursued?

If you have a little patience, they find you. You just keep doing what interests you until they show up. As the years go by, it becomes more a matter of knowing what not to pursue.

Q: Was it ever scary to pursue them?

In retrospect, it doesn't seem so. Doing what you want tends to carry some risk, but I think the bigger risk comes with doing what somebody else wants.


Q: What have you found most fulfilling about your work?

For the most part I get to work on what I want at the pace I want. In addition to that I have great communication with my business partners, distributors, vendors, and a large community of DIY audio enthusiasts (largely to be found at

And the money's pretty good.

Q: What doors did a degree in physics open for you?

Since I did not attempt to work for a large institution the education was the big thing - the diploma did not make a difference. UCD helped to prepare me for the opportunities that came my way. Without that education it certainly would have been different.

Q: How important is it to love your work, and how do you balance work with the rest of life?

It is the sine qua non. You want to be happy? Do the work you want. If you're happy with your work, the balance will tend to work out. It won't be any easier if you hate your job.

Here's a helpful hint: I married a fine woman who worked at the same company, so she had some idea of what she was in for – lots of audio equipment in the living room.