Interview Haute-Fidélité Magazine
"Pleasure is most important"
During the launch of the outstanding Tango 2.5 converter, we had the pleasure to discuss with Audiomat designer, Norbert Clarisse and to reexamine the choices and values that have made Audiomat such an authentic and outstanding mark on the market.
High Fidelity: What is the true doctrine of the Audiomat?
Norbert Clarisse: We are craftsmen who manufacture products in a fashion that comes as close as possible to engineering quality. On the other hand, as manufacturers we steer clear of «sensational» marketing. Our goal is not aimed at flooding the market, but primarily to reach demanding music lovers eager to acquire irreproachable products. The notion or craftsmanship is of outmost importance to us because the craftsman scrupulously takes care of each detail of his work, no matter how small. Having a complete overview of a project, he leaves nothing aside. His experience and knowledge are put to work until the product comes to full completion. He constantly seeks ways to improve it. Time, duration, patience is an essential part of our approach. It has been our guiding light since the creation of Audiomat in 1985. May I ad without being offensive, that without passion, all this would not even exist.
H. F: How do you apply these principles in the manufacturing process of a product like the Tango 2.5?
N. C.: It is first and foremost based on experience. In relation to production costs, for example, one needs to take into account the fact that we are dealing with ten years of testing, supplier’s turnover, developments and improvements of the circuits. Then comes the optimization phase, where we improve the quality of the components by ultra fine, ultra precise adjustments. For example, the polarization tuning of the output transistors. We have spent several days on this adjustment, since the slightest alteration can be heard.
The same goes for the adjustment of the negative feedback rate on the amplifiers. It is tuned to a quarter of a decibel, taking into account the disparity of the gain between the tubes, as well as the evolution of the gain of the tubes. Because a new tube has a weaker gain than a broken-in tube, it is taken into consideration during tuning.
H. F.: Why is some of your equipment built with tubes (amplifiers) and others with transistors (converters)?
N. C.: Our position is quite simple: using the right technology at the right place. For example, we don’t know how to build a truly performing tube converter at an accessible price point.
Adding a layer of tubes to a typical converter makes no sense to us. Quite simply because it is an additional stage that will have two direct consequences: initially the loss of information and then the addition of a more or less enjoyable "tube type" musical tone on all the discs.
In our opinion this is not what a tube converter consists of. It requires a diagram specific to tubes, developed for a converter's output level. I will not hide the fact that this project is in full gear at Audiomat, and that it will obviously be more expensive than a standard transistor converter.
As with regards to amplifiers, we made several "all transistor " attempts, but compared to a Prélude or a Solfège, it lacked «soul» which is really what makes the difference, this lively side of the well mastered tube.
We started out fifteen years ago without the preconceived idea that tube is better, that our ancestors had understood everything and that we should go on building amps in the same fashion. We are not sold to «tube». We actually hate the caricatured tube sound, round, lacking extreme low and extreme high frequencies, and sounding excessively warm.
With a Solfège Référence, for example, the dynamics are evenly distributed on the entire spectrum, contrarily to certain "transistors" where they are concentrated on the medium. Even in terms of detail and transparency, the Solfège Référence goes a long way. A "transistor" requires huge upload capacity in order to work well. For the same price, a tube has a better chance to perform correctly.
H. F.: Contrarily to what some may say, tube technology is not totally obsolete?
N. C.: No, not at all. It all depends on the way in which technology is applied. The evolution of the components and the improvement of our diagram have opened perspectives on how to design tube amplifiers. As a result, with the quality of the power supply, the total absence of negative feedback and with the mechanical work executed on our amplifiers, we are able to obtain the transparency of the best "transistors", while preserving the fluidity and the harmonic richness of the tube.
H. F.: How do you position the Audiomat line of products?
N. C.: Quite simply, the price difference between each component is always justified in relation with their musicality. We call it the «sphere» principle. As we go higher in the product line hierarchy, the sphere grows. All parameters go further.
The more important the scale, the wider the spectrum becomes. All parameters are thus amplified.
H. F.: Isn't Audiomat's attention to detail considered a little obsessive?
N. C.: Those details «are» our expertise. All those little details can be heard, especially now that the diagram has evolved, that the implementation has been mastered and that the product has reached full maturity. We need to constantly reevaluate everything.
The proper tuning at a given time, on a given component is not necessarily the proper tuning a year later. We must take into account the evolution and listen all over again.
H. F.: Is the basic diagram the same since the beginning?
N. C.: Yes, since 1985. My brother, Denis Clarisse, the designer of all the Audiomat products, created the original diagram fifteen years ago. It is a very unique and exclusive diagram, which we regularly improve as technology evolves and as new components surface.
H. F.: Which precautionary measures are taken?
N. C.: All the circuits are cleaned individually, meaning that all the welding are scraped, therefore any dried up welding is automatically detected prior to the assembly. All the components are assembled manually. The circuits are designed in CAD, with all the safety requirements applied (EC, etc.). We go great lengths to work with the best subcontractors, which proves to be far from easy to accomplish. Today, we do business with a highly conscientious sheet-metal worker. He goes as far as to verify the thickness of the paint when applying the 1st folding section of the frames. He works with less than one tenth of precision. Following his advice we now use a damping paint developed in Germany by Siemens for commercial consoles. All the specific devices that make up the apparatus add up to the quality of the sound. As a consequence, all our systems are equipped with cones mounted directly into the frame. Even the cone angle has an impact on sound reproduction and can be heard. At the beginning, we were using steel, today, we use brass. On the converters, the toroidal transformers are fixed on the axis of the cone for an optimal vibration flow. Every single tweak improves the dynamics. An aluminum chassis is not only attractive; it also provides a slightly more dazzling top end than a steel chassis, which slightly stiffens the top of the spectrum. Hence, the components react differently to an identical treatment. This is why we constantly conduct testing sessions. Anyhow, everything can be heard. And everyone positions themselves differently towards these phenomena.
H. F.: You mean that there are different "schools"?
N. C.: Absolutely. Some people think that the only thing that can be heard is the mechanical set up. Others think it’s the power supply. For our part, we believe that having a good circuit is essential. Without one, one is limited and one spends his time repairing the defects. Search for neutrality means refusing "defect-balancing" when it's possible. We are not at all convinced that the tubes have a clean sound. It is the diagram used that gives them a specific resonance. In fact, two amplifiers equipped with the same tubes can sound totally different.
H. F.: How do you explain the jump in performances of a Tango 2.5 in comparison to its predecessor? Is this linked to using the standard 24 bits/96 kHz?
N. C.: When you listen to a standard compact disc (16-bit/44.1 kHz), the standard 24-bit/96 kHz does not have great impact in itself. On the other hand, what people don't know is that, to meet the specifications of the standard 24bit/96 kHz requirements, designers had to improve the performances of their electronic components. Here is an example: to announce a 24-bit compatibility, Burr-Brown had to improve the signal/noise level of its converters, thus going from 120 to 130 dB. But, to improve it, they were forced to divide the distortion rate by ten. Therefore, this 24/96 specification required even more powerful components. And it is because of the latter that there is a difference and not the standard 24/96 in itself. Besides that, the Tango 2.5 uses an ultra fast numerical input level, which creates the difference, heard at the Jitter level. This one is considerably reduced. And I am not referring to the (optimization of the analog card of a listening session which took to us more than four months).
H. F.: Let's end all of this gracefully, what will be the next products?
N. C.: For converters, two top-of-the range products, the Tempo 2.5 and the Maestro will be on the market soon. The Maestro uses four 1704 K dacs, an analog card equipped with a Teflon circuit, virtually one (!) Farad in power supply, an alu/lead/brass/lead/alu top class mechanical treatment), and a symmetrical analog output. We will also be launching a large tube-integrated device equipped with eight EL34 tubes that will release 70 watts per channel. Then, we will release the reference Opus 2 preamp and the 90-watt mono blocks, then the 180 watts... In short, a lot of potential work and wonderful surprises for listening sessions. It is this combination that keeps our passion alive.
INTERVIEW BY LAURENT THORIN
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