Interview: Christoph Katzer / be quiet! 7

Interview: Christoph Katzer / be quiet! Review

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During the last few days, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christoph Katzer, be quiet!'s head of business development. Well-known figure to PSU enthusiasts and market participants, Christoph is an industry veteran with more than 12 years spent in various positions across the entire industry spectrum. His involvement in the phenomenon ranges from editorial positions in the associated press, AnandTech might ring a bell for some, to business and product development at top vendors like Antec and be quiet! and major manufacturer and industry pylon FSP. Christoph has been with be quiet! since 2011, and I'll be talking to him about (you guessed it) be quiet! and the PSU industry in general.

A consumer PSU and PC-cooling expert, be quiet! is a German premium brand under the Listan umbrella. Their PSU portfolio spanning no less than ten product lines to cover every segment of the market, be quiet! reached the top position of Germany's PSU market in 2006, and they haven't left it since. In 2009, they also unveiled their first Silent Wings fans, marking their entrance into the cooling market, only to debut their first series of CPU coolers named Dark Rock two years later. Be quiet! has since expanded their cooling portfolio with additional fans, CPU coolers, and even a thermal grease.

Having continuously grown in their native market Germany, and receiving wider recognition with that as well, they proceeded to expand across the European market and to Taiwan, where they already have several staff taking care of worldwide logistics. A wide range of be quiet! products are currently available throughout Europe, and some have more recently reached the US as well. Below, you'll find myself and Christoph talking about that and much more.

TPU:Hi Chris! To open up, can you please tell me how long you have been with be quiet! and what exactly you do there?

Christoph: I have been with be quiet! for 1.5 years (again, I should say) and am responsible for general business development with a focus on North America, Asia, and ANZ, where I do sales, marketing, PR, and support. I am also active in most of the larger forums throughout the world, where I do general support or just argue about technology. You can find me under the nick Chris@bequiet!, or a similar versions if the special characters were forbidden.

I am also the worldwide PR manager for everything but Germany, France, Poland (and most Eastern European countries), Benelux, and the UK and am the country manager for Scandinavia, with the main market being Sweden, where I do everything to increase our market share.

TPU: I know be quiet! is an important name across European markets, with a great market presence and a wide product offering across every segment spanning the entirety of your product portfolio. What is your market focus and presence in the North American, Asian, and ANZ markets?

Christoph: Yes, we indeed have a wide span of products. These range from the System Power line, designed for system integration, to the Pure Power, Straight Power, and no-compromise Dark Power Pro series. And those are just our power supplies…we also expanded our portfolio to include cooling and case fan products a few years back and are growing that part of the business with great success.

As for my part, when we finally advanced into new territories, it would have been too complicated for the consumer to face all of our products at the same time, which is why we are introducing one series after another to keep everything in perspective. Right now, you can buy our Dark Power Pro 10 PSU series, the Dark Rock 2 CPU coolers, and the SilentWings 2 fan series in North America, for example. We are unfortunately not that far along in Asia. We were one of the best-selling brands in Taiwan a few years ago and are aiming to get that position back within a year. We renewed our portfolio in Taiwan recently; you can now buy the System Power 7 and Pure Power L8 line on the island. Other countries in Asia will follow very soon, as are Australia and New Zeland.

TPU: Your recent appearance on the North American market hasn't passed by unnoticed in enthusiast communities, and while it might be a couple months too early for such a question, can you tell me how your products were received there, and if, would you call the launch successful at such an early point?

Christoph: You know, there are always difficulties when you start a new country. You simply have to adapt to evolving situations. Nothing is ever easy, especially when we talk about PC power supplies, one of the most overlooked products in today's PC. We had reviews of our line-up with basically every large review site in the U.S. and Canada. We received numerous awards and the general opinion these professionals have of our products is very high.

I think the key to this success is that be quiet! basically does the opposite of many other brands. In times where markets are stagnating or decreasing, companies tend to cheapen their products to make them attractive to the next user group. Be quiet! has never undercut a certain degree of quality and never will. I mean, take the Dark Power Pro 10 series, for example. Performance-wise, it is at the same level as any other high-end PSU and even better than most, and in comparison with other brands, you have numerous additional features, like fan control, rubber isolation, a huge amount of cables and connectors, the choice between single and multi-rail 12V, and above that, one of the quietest power supplies on the market. Even our more inexpensive lines have decent features, are not loud, and come with great quality.

To come back to your original question: I think there is always something you can do better. I am never satisfied enough to claim success, but, yes, we had a great start.

TPU: Keeping in mind your recently launched Shadow Rock 2 cooler, which hints at a lucrative cooling market, and also following up on one of your previous statements about successfully growing the cooling side of the business, should we expect further expansion of your product portfolio in the cooling segment? And if so, are there any particular products you could mention, fanless tech maybe, or, why not, the usual suspect, the AIO liquid cooler?

Christoph: Oh yes, the highly anticipated Shadow Rock 2. It's an affordable cooler, but its performance is still topnotch, and its brushed aluminum plate on top creates a cool aesthetic. We are looking into all directions, of course, but would always want to include our SilentWings Technology on the fan side of things, no matter how the cooling is finally done. But that is sometimes a limitation as well because our primary goal is to deliver some of the quietest products possible in any state of load, making it difficult if you also want to have high performing products. These AIO water-cooling kits, for example, are nice, but are they really silent under a high CPU load? You will need to ramp up the RPM, which will in return result in a high noise level. We have tested several AIO cooling kits and can reach good performance, but not under to our standard acceptable noise levels.

If you compare our cooling selection to that of others, you will find our coolers to always be somewhere near the top but not necessarily at THE top. We can of course produce ultra-high performance products, let it be air coolers or AIO water-cooling loops, but they will be as noisy as the rest out there, and a product that runs quietly only at lower loads is simply not something we can accept. You will of course see AIO loops from us once we resolve this issue. We have a few more CPU air-coolers coming out this and next year, and I am personally very excited about the Shadow Rock Slim we showed at Computex this year.

As for passive cooling, I don't think you will see it from us anytime soon. Our fans are really so quiet that a little airflow is always better than none.

TPU: Interesting. While I also find the vast majority of AIOs lacking in many respects, I do know a couple that perform beautifully under very reasonable noise levels. However, I do applaud the refusal to jump on the AIO bandwagon already bursting with virtually identical, unimpressive, off-the-shelf products.

You mentioned the Shadow Rock Slim, a cooler which I do find rather interesting, particularly at the price point announced during its presentation at Computex the previous month, which was, if I remember correctly, below US$40. Can you tell us when it will become available?

Christoph: Yes. The Shadow Rock 2 and Shadow Rock Slim will both sell for around US$40 in shops. The Shadow Rock 2 will arrive over the summer in North America and is already available in Europe. The Slim will come to all markets at the same time towards the end of the year.

TPU: On the topic of markets, be quiet!'s core business is Power Supplies followed by the more recent endeavor in the cooling ecosystem, which, judging by the continuous expansion of your cooling portfolio and your above statements, is evolving beautifully; so then, should we expect further expansion into other markets as well? One would think the next natural, obvious step for a PSU and Cooling specialist like be quiet! to be a venture into computer cases, but there are other markets with far superior growth prospects, prospects that didn't pass some of your toughest competitors by unnoticed, Desktop audio and head-fi being the thing to get into right now. Do your plans follow any of those directions?

Christoph: It would be difficult to market speakers or headsets with the name "be quiet!" on them, I think. You probably won't see those kinds of products from us. And even if, it's funny to see more and more companies taking that route. I actually don't think it's for the better if a company suddenly comes up with 20 different fields of operation. You lose focus and won't be really good in all of the fields put together. But cases? Yes, cases sound interesting…

TPU: Oh, I could think of a few hilarious and catchy marketing single-liners for be quiet! speakers...but getting back to these interesting-sounding cases, could you please elaborate on that? Are you planning on entering the PC-case market?

Christoph: I mean, cases are a good product to have, but it's the same story as with AIO water-cooling. We wouldn't introduce a case until it’s absolutely perfect, and of course completely outfit it with our fans. As mentioned before, be quiet! is not your average company. We take pride in developing products until the end, until they are perfect for the task we developed them for. So, we will see. I can't really say anything about this yet. A case will come if we can make it great.

TPU: Moving forward to power supplies then, which constitute be quiet!'s main business, I would like to begin this part of the interview by asking about market conditions, specifically the situation in Europe, which is be quiet!'s main market by an overwhelming margin. How did Europe's precarious economic condition of the last few years affect you? Did you have to reconsider or postpone expansion plans targeting the Southern and Eastern European markets, and was the situations there a decisive factor in the decision and its timing to expand into the North American, Asian, and ANZ markets?

Christoph: That is a funny question; many friends in the industry asked me the same. It's funny because it's a difficult one to answer. Over its 11 years of existence, be quiet! has focused on Germany. Only a few years ago did we seriously start expanding into other countries. It's basically the same story as I have told you in the beginning about the USA and Canada. The users in Europe have seen our level of quality and the simply better offering we make with each of our products. Even if we've been active for just a few years in many of the different European markets, we're gaining market share everywhere, reaching top positions among PSU makers after only a short period of time. So, I can hardly speak of diminishing markets when we double our sales numbers each year. We have a great team at our headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, and things are running very smoothly.

We are definitely looking at Southern and Eastern European countries as well and will find ways to expand into those markets. But there are only 24 hours at the end of the day, and we can't do everything at once.

TPU: The PSU market and PSU industry have evolved tremendously during the last few years, on both sides of the spectrum. The level of knowledge and general understanding among buyers has surged, helped in large part by the higher and higher professionalism of reviewers (and the associated media), with some now investing tens of thousands of euros into their review equipment while continuously refining their review methods. The industry has, on the other hand, also picked up on this educated demand, delivering products that meet it.

If you would have asked for an electrically "perfect" product as early as two to three years back, the unanimous OEM/ODM answer would have been "not possible" or, at best, "doable, but it would cost a fortune". Currently, you can buy electrically "perfect" PSUs (0.x% voltage regulation, very low noise/ripple levels, very high conversion efficiency, etc.) for one hundred and some euros, which leads me to the following question: Under such circumstances, where literally everyone in the market can go to a top OEM for an off-the-shelf product that's equal to the best out there, printing its name on it, what differentiates products and brands, what is the difference between success and failure in such a market? Is it all marketing (and with that, marketing budgets) or is there something else?

Christoph: It's a generally wrong perception that nothing is different in today's products and that you buy one and the same product with a different name on it. Even if it is the same exact product, the companies that market them are still very much different. Today, consumers are not buying just the product itself anymore. I have worked for a manufacturer and two branding companies, and both branding companies had their own engineers change parts, making the product different from others by tweaking it. Sometimes more or less is changed, but you can be sure that many companies really do buy off-the-shelf without knowing smack about power supplies. Those companies come and go, and you won't find them in the high-end segment. They simply cover the mainstream where they anticipate the highest ROI.

So, let's talk about differences because there is so much more than a simply shopping list when you look behind the curtain. It all starts with the relationship between a branding company and the manufacturer. You need to get used to each other. It is just like a marriage, for example. Bringing the product to the market would turn into a painful venture without a working, functional relationship. Of course, the user won't really know anything of this. Today, it is common to buy platform-based. A manufacturer develops a platform and sells it to different companies. Each company changes small parts, like housing, the fan, maybe capacitors, and a few other features, but those changes only amount to some of the differences between companies buying the same platform, as one might offer a five year warranty while the other only offers three. One has good support when something goes wrong and the other does not. One might even go bankrupt or stop carrying power supplies. I saw it all within the last few years, which is why I would always recommend going for a brand that has been around for a while, one you can trust. There are too many companies that don't take this business seriously and are in it for a fast buck. You might get those for less, but you might want to look at more than the price. I, for my part, find support very important because you are often simply abandoned by such companies--nobody there to help with your questions, nobody to exchange your product.

And yes, you are right: the general quality of platforms increased a lot over the years. I remember when I started reviewing power supplies back in 2004. Not many units then survived the programmable loads. At least half of them failed testing, and years later, many still did. But it's better today. You can even buy decent quality off the shelf.

TPU: Sticking to the high end. Your current presence in this segment carries the name Dark Power Pro P10 and consists of six units spanning the 550W-1200W spectrum. This product line was launched a little over a year ago, and your competition has in the meantime launched newer products pushing the performance spectrum ever further. So, knowing of your focus on the premium segment and your desire to always be at the forefront, can you tell me what you are working on for the high end, maybe a refresh or a new product line altogether, and when can we expect such novelties from be quiet! in this segment?

Christoph: I mean, we just introduced a completely out of the ordinary series called PowerZone. The series is completely different from what we have done before, hence its different naming. The main focus with be quiet! is surely the silence of things. With the PowerZone, we aimed to create a more gaming-oriented series with cool looks, features, and the performance to make it count. We also sought to introduce features of the Dark Power Pro line to a more mainstream series, which is why we picked 80 PLUS Bronze efficiency for this series. We wanted a stable platform without problems for an affordable price.

We are, of course, also working on new revisions for our existing series, like the Straight Power and Dark Power Pro. But we are, more importantly, soon extending our lines into other countries, like the USA and Canada. I actually don’t think a newer PSU would be that much better than our Dark Power Pro 10. Its efficiency might be slightly better, by around 1%-2%, than our 80 PLUS Gold certification, but I don’t see how the rest of its electrical performance can be made much better with what technology exists today.

TPU: That's very interesting. The PowerZone line did draw my attention when it made its rounds in general Computex reports. These are, if I'm not mistaken, your first fully modular PSUs, a very welcome feature, I should say. I suspect you also anticipated my next question given you know of my interests in this area: Can you tell us what's inside the PowerZone units? Who is the OEM and what platform does it use?

Christoph: Yes, it is indeed our first fully modular power supply. The PowerZone series comes from FSP and is based on an Active Clamp topology paired with DC-DC.

TPU: We got to know the ACRF FSP topology of the Aurum series and all its variations and later iterations, but, correct me if I'm wrong, I think this would be the first time we see it with a DC-DC secondary. Looking forward to seeing it put through its paces by a competent reviewer.

Remaining on the topic of OEMs, be quiet! has worked exclusively with FSP up to the launch of the Pure Power CM L8 series back in Q4 2011, a series for which it switched to HEC. Since then, you also started collaborating with Seasonic to build the higher output units of the Dark Power Pro P10 series. Do you have plans for further diversification in this area? And if so, can you attach OEM names to those plans?

Christoph: Yes, this is indeed an interesting mixture. The DC-DC will help us stabilize the lower voltage rails a lot. Like I said before: It's important for companies to get used to each other for a perfect outcome of a product they develop together. We probably won't go to another OEM at this point since we have a very good working relationship with our current OEMs. Maybe and only if there is another company with technology our current OEMs couldn't offer in the long term, but that's highly unlikely.

TPU: Speaking of technology that none of your current OEMs offer at present, what do you make of DSP designs? We've seen it done by Corisair initially (Flextronics), followed by EVGA (Etasis), and brought to a far wider palette of vendors by High Power. The implementations do differ (fully digital vs partially digital), and the results differ as well, as some DSP units perform exceptionally well (not more so than top non-digital designs, though), while others are lacking in various ways. How do you see the technology evolve?

Christoph: In general, I don't think this technology brings the user a real advantage at the moment (partially or fully digital). I mean, as you just said, the performance isn't any better. It simply gives the user the chance to play around with options and adjust things here and there if you have software connecting your components, but do I really want to pay a at least US$50 premium for this? I wouldn't need it for my rig as I want my PSU to supply the system with clean power, save on some costs with higher efficiency, and protect it if there is a problem, but that's just me.

But who knows, I am sure the manufacturers are developing it further, and the price may come down sometimes soon to make it more mainstream. It will remain a marketing gimmick until then.

TPU: Returning for a moment to the question concerning product development and future launches: There is talk in relevant circles about the upcoming ECOVA 80 Plus Titanium certification, as there is a general consensus in the same circles, following the recent Computex unveiling of such products, that a number of top market and industry players are waiting for the 80 Plus Titanium certification to launch their qualifying products. Is be quiet! among those who mean to bring 80 Plus Titanium products to the market immediately after ECOVA goes live with it? Are you preparing such products right now? And since we're at it, there is little information about the actual launching date of this new certification. Some industry voices say it will launch Q3-Q4 of this year, but others mention 2014. Do you happen to have more specific information you could share with us?

Christoph: It's funny, be quiet! is and always was one of the first companies with early compliance to new certifications. Take the new ATX12V 2.4, for example, which we comply with already, or the "Haswell compatibility" compliance we already had a year ago for most of our products, but we are always a bit late with efficiency certifications when compared to other companies, which brings us back to a point I mentioned earlier. We simply take our time with new topologies and bring them to the market only if they are truly meeting our standards, while there are a lot of other companies that throw everything out immediately, beta testing on the end user. Even many of the 80 PLUS Gold platforms on sale today are not retail ready yet, still showing numerous problems, such as coil noise, which should have been taken care of a long time ago. So, to answer your question, I don't think we will be one of the first to bring out 80 PLUS Titanium-certified products. We might jump on the certification with our next Dark Power Pro evolution, but it currently only exists on paper.

Regarding your second question, I unfortunately don't know of a release date. I have heard that manufacturers are talking to the company behind the certification to postpone a release since nobody can mass produce the efficiency yet. Only a few samples to certify, but not a single unit in mass production. So I think it is highly unlikely to come out this year.

TPU: For the final question, I would like to remain with PSUs but change perspective. I want to appeal to your experience and depth of knowledge and ask what follows, what's next in PSUs?

As stated previously, we've seen PSUs come a long way, to the point where the law of diminishing returns hits hard, where the premiums are no longer justified by the incremental upgrades new product generations introduce. Taking voltage regulation below 0.5% at full load on a 1000 W unit makes little sense, as does fighting 10 mV electrical ripple/noise at full load on the same 1000 W unit. Efficiency has reached levels where increases might make marketing sense when talking in percentages, but moving from 93% to 95% efficiency makes no difference whatsoever in absolute values. Where do you see the industry going? How will the PSU landscape look in three or four years?

Christoph: You know, I was working for be quiet! in 2003 already, and my boss asked me what we could do with our power supplies to make them better or at least more attractive. We didn't have cable management at that time, nor did we have cable sleeving, larger fans, or even different colors for our housing. I answered that I had no idea what we could do, actually thinking there is not much more we could do. But you see, numerous trends made every aspect of the power supply better from back then to today. So never think there is nothing more we could do today. Think back on 2003. Trust me, something will always come up to change things all over again.

But I think the next big thing is rather a change in the ATX norm. What about the 12V-only PSU, for example, that has been in the air for such a long time already? I think the general direction of PSUs is to make them simpler, more energy efficient, and, frankly, more boring than ever. At some point, a new standard will change this over-complicated product into a very simple one because its current composition simply doesn't make sense right now. It only makes sense to move all of the lower voltages onto the motherboard. I mean, right now, motherboards already regulate most of the voltages on their own (CPU, memory, etc.). Doesn't matter what comes from the PSU or how tight the voltage regulation is. So, why not leave it all to the motherboard and let the PSU deliver only the 12V or whatever other voltage makes more sense.

TPU: Following that, I want to thank you, Chris, for taking the time to do this. It was a real pleasure!

Christoph: Thank you as well!
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