Time travel through sound immersion
Nagra has acquired a special status in the audio world. Its first vinyl turntable, in production, is the embodiment of an obsessive quest launched 70 years ago. Visit and listen where all the Nagra are being designed.
Eyes shut ; we are listening to a passing storm. Raindrops crashing on the ground, thunder rumbling in the distance, its vibrations all around us. Suddenly, a bass guitar hits the beat of a heady melody. From behind, to the right, discrete percussions. Close to us, to the left, Ray Manzarek’s keyboard enters with light, jazzy notes. Finally, Jim Morrison, slightly set back, adds his eerie vocals : “ Riders on the storm, riders on the storm... ”
The Doors are right around us ; the ceremony is about to begin.
Created by extraordinarily clear and tangible sound, the illusion is fascinating. It is quite normal, as we are in the studio of Audio Technology Switzerland (ATS), the company that designs the products of the legendary Nagra brand. The hi-fi equipment around us must be worth almost half a million dollars.
Nagra’s latest creation is displayed at the side of the room: the Reference Anniversary vinyl turntable announced in December. Only a few customers have already received it. It will only be produced in a limited edition of 70 units, to celebrate the brand’s 70th anniversary.
It took four years’ R&D to develop these 80 kilos of precision and pureness. The turntable, latest embodiment of ATS’ perfectionism, proudly displays its origins. Aluminium case, timeless design, the red-bar button and the modulometer’s pointer already used on the Nagra I back in 1951.
In view of the limited edition, it also displays certain unique refined features. “We wanted to honour Swiss horological expertise, which is part of our identity”, explains Mathieu Latour, ATS Audio director. Like on certain timepieces, a transparent “skeleton” case back makes the superb mechanics movement visible, some of them its parts decorated by typically watchmaking finishing (Geneva waves). In its own way, the jewel’s price – 175,000 dollars – also reminds of Swiss luxury watchmaking.
Why a vinyl turntable, a first for Nagra? “We were wondering what new product we could launch for this anniversary”, answers Mathieu Latour. “We decided to come back to an analogue system and show our know-how in mechanics.” The idea had been around for a while. “Stefan Kudelski, founder of the brand, had already considered launching a turntable. He went even as far as depositing a patent for a tonearm. The 70th anniversary was a good opportunity to go ahead with the idea.”
The fact is however that a turntable is technically more distant from the original recorders than the amps and preamps produced by the brand so far. ATS has therefore started from a blank page, more than usual. The first challenge met by the engineers was to objectify: “There is a fair amount of fantasy, exotism and esoterism linked with audiophile turntables. We first had to identify the elements that make a genuine contribution to good sound. Then define how we could improve them.”
ATS quickly realised that it had to tackle a multi-layer project. “Power supply was a project on its own. Each mechanical element was also a separate project. Every decision taken had an impact on the others …” Mathieu Latour compares working on a turntable of such precision to metrology. “Audio signals are so weak and sensitive, mechanical ranges so small, that anything can disturb them. Even the smallest factors may be crucial.”
70 years of high-fidelity
It was back in 1951 that Stefan Kudelski invented the first portable high-quality recorder. The Nagra brand (« I will record » in Polish, the founder’s native language) was thus born. It quickly became a key reference. A Nagra slung simply around the shoulder replaced a team loaded with heavy material. Robust and capturing sound with unprecedented fidelity, it has accompanied TV and movie sound engineers, radio reporters, astronauts, and scientists on all terrain. From the depth of the oceans to the Moon, over the peaks of the Everest.
This technological revolution brought a multitude of rewards, including several Oscars and Emmy awards.
Since the late nineties, the Nagra brand has also made its way to the obsessional world of audiophiles. At first, it proposed preamps, amps and converters – all of them high-end – which brought further success from critics and markets alike. The hi-fi sector currently represents two thirds of its turnover.
For instance, it required to combine skills in mechanics, electronics, material sciences and applied physiques to control sound quality’s number one enemy, parasitic vibrations. Multiple solutions were applied: an alternation of aircraft grade aluminium and polymer layers for the chassis and the sub-chassis as well as a combined mechanical and hydraulic suspension. The 6.5kg platter is made of EXIUM® AM, an alloy that is 60% more dense than the titanium developed for space and used in the Insight Martian probe mission. The surface of the platter is made of antistatic methacrylate. The carbon fibre tonearm wand includes a layer of wood with a silicone damping system. The motor drive system was designed to be at the source of demand and not permanent unlike certain competitors’ solutions. The power supply is in a 20kg external housing.
All the above contributes to detach the turntable from external vibration - bass from the speakers or someone’s steps next doors. If you are watching it turn with surreal stability, you get the impression that even the end of the world wouldn’t make it tremble.
To make it possible, ATS covered every detail with a “no matter what it costs” approach. Not at all excessive “since every option has an influence on the sound”, swears Matthieu Latour. “Everything is audible.”
Everything is audible.
This is why, regardless of the time spent on engineering, it is listening that represents the most important and most time-consuming part of development. “The technical part is not the end of our work, since sound is always emotional.” In this world of sophisticated materials and objective measurement units (Hertz, Ohms …), the most precious tool is still the highly subjective human ear.
Correct, listen, reset and start it all over again and again.
This “tuning” – which makes ATS reputation as much as its products – targets the aim of the “hi-fi” formula: to reproduce the instrument or the voice as close to reality as possible. A quest claimed of course by many other audiophile brands. Nagra makes the difference by its experience from its origins, highlights Latour. “We are the heirs of the Nagra recorder sound, which, by definition, must be transparent. High fidelity is in our DNA.”
ATS experts participate in a multitude of listening, individually or in groups. These expert “golden ears” are often musicians themselves, just like Matthieu Latour. “It is important to stay immersed in genuine sound, to keep in touch with the source – a symphonic orchestra, a jazz guitarist … source is our reference, our tuning fork. It helps us recognise and respect the tone, the original colour.” Various, regular cooperation with for instance the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Stradivarius Foundation also contribute to the projects.
In spite of ATS experience and know-how, there is no shortage of pitfalls.
First of all, the very human tendency to embellish. “Am I listening to the original piano or am I adding a little bit of sugar and vanilla to sweeten the sound?” Such “improvements” are often chosen by popular loudspeakers and headphones. For audiophile brands, “they are “capital sins”.
Back and forth between listening and engineering corrections are multiple – this is the second trap. Choosing the viscosity of fluid contained in the chassis suspensions took weeks. Identifying the material and form of the record weight (finally pure copper) took months.
“Accepting to stop finetuning is our greatest challenge!”, admits Latour with a chuckle. “I’ve known passionate people who have been finetuning their loudspeakers for 40 years. We are just as crazy as they are, but we have to launch a product on the market.”
ATS employs around thirty such crazy people – sorry, staff – in the Lausanne area (Switzerland). A third of which in R&D. “We want to discard standard solutions, since they will not be able to assure the required quality or originality.” explains the director.
Recorders are still part of the Nagra offer, even if, just like hi-fi, another range has generated a larger turnover: security. ATS has been designing ultra-miniature solutions for a number of governmental agencies. They are the successors of recorders ordered by the CIA in the early sixties.
Those who revere Nagra’s very Swiss design (sober, aligned) will be surprised by the company premises. No white coats, nor neat laboratories. The 2000m2 occupied by the company make you think of the rather oversized and chaotic attic of a genius inventor. A maze of shelves covered with boxes overflowing with material. Worktables cluttered with equipment, parts and tools. Test & measurement done on one side, a large 3-axis CNC cutting the Nagra panels on the other. “We produce a maximum of components ourselves”, mentions the director, “and we control most of the production steps.” Further, in another space among the shelves: two female colleagues are assembling the turntables.
Manually, of course. Everything is handmade.
Many Reference Anniversary turntables have been delivered. Meanwhile, ATS engineers and designers have already been working on their next hi-fi products. Other turntables will be proposed. One for the HD range and another for the classic, more accessible range, “but not before a year or two!” Vinyl is in fact only the first step towards a return to analogue systems. Nagra will propose solutions using its iconic support, magnetic tapes. Between heritage and innovation, the brand has not finished perpetuating the myth.
In the ATS studio, “Riders on the Storm” comes to an end. The last notes go silent, thunder moves away, the rain calms down. For a brief moment, we were with The Doors and The Doors were with us. This deep emotion of “live music” is both the aim and the reward for Matthieu Latour: making it possible for a past performance to unleash its reality in the present. “What we make here are time machines” he concludes.