MEET THE DESIGNER SERIES: ALEKSEI TJURIN OF AUDES
When one speaks about hifi with Aleksei Tjurin (right), loudspeaker design engineer at Audes LLC, one gets a sense of a man who knows how to be in the moment. While the rest of the world marches on relentlessly in technology and our lives get increasingly entangled with gadgets that ironically promise to make life simpler, many people like Aleksei feel that the art of being in the moment has been all but lost. And being in the moment is what listening to a high-fidelity system is all about.
“Now mostly people listen to music in a car or use portable devices on the way or while doing something,” he muses. “[I would love a] return of the culture, when people gathered to listen music together at home. Whether it can be achieved depends on how humanity will develop. If the lifestyle continues to accelerate, then people will have no time to listen music.”
Listening to music is becoming an increasingly anachronistic activity in itself. The way we “use” music – as Aleksei recognizes – lowers it from being an art form, to be enjoyed for what it is, to being a utilitarian lubricant for our other daily activities. This is reflected in the price of hi-fi equipment. “The worst thing is that even medium-quality audio equipment is unfortunately unavailable to the majority of people unless audio becomes a serious hobby,” Aleksei sighs. “In general obtaining a stereo system is much lower on the priority list than a new car, a smartphone, or a holiday trip.”
Aleksei is right to worry about the creeping up-trend of hi-fi prices. Just three decades ago, USD$10,000 would have bought a state of the art speaker from a famous marque and been considered a lot of money to pay. The same ticket price will now probably grace only an entry level product from that same marque and it is not just due to economic inflation. It is a sobering scenario, and one that does not bode well for the future of hi-fi. Which is why the philosophy of Audes in coming up with extremely high-quality yet value-for-money products, thereby deliberately bucking this vicious trend, is so laudable.
AN OLD COMPANY, AN UNFAMILIAR NAME
For those who are not familiar with Audes, Aleksei gives a potted version of its history and offerings. “The company’s history traces to year 1935,” he announces proudly. “The current factory has been at its premises (in a town called Johvi in north-eastern Estonia, a mere 50km from the Russian border) since 1959. Some years ago based on the feedback from the market a fairly wide range of products was designed. Now approximately 40 models are available.” If that sounds like a lot, it is. Even Aleksei acknowledges that. “Currently only either reimagining or unification of some models can be considered”, he admits.
That is the humble version. What he did not say is that Audes is also original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to not a few world-famous loudspeaker brands who recognize the supreme quality and attention to detail that Audes is able to bring to their products, but whose names cannot be revealed due understandably to restrictive non-disclosure agreements. Building and designing loudspeakers for these companies is good for both parties – the loudspeaker brand is able to lower their cost of production by outsourcing to a country like Estonia without compromising on quality, and in turn Audes engineers and designers absorb the spirit and ethos of their clients, incorporating and bringing them to bear in their own designs. In that sense, you could say that an Audes loudspeaker is the result of more than the collective experience of their own designers.
And speaking of other designers, Aleksei is quick to acknowledge that Audes is, at the end of the day, a team effort. He singles out Igor Tjurin (the managing director and owner) and Nikolai Shushkevich (Audes primary amplifier designer) as the rest of this core team that makes Audes so unique. Aleksei also remembers fondly the positive contributions by made previous employees of Audes (who have since moved on to other things) whose efforts add up to make the company what it is today.
Yet, for all his flair and love of nostalgia, Aleksei remains firmly grounded in modern principles of loudspeaker design. A Masters degree holder in Acoustical Engineering from the University of Southampton, Aleksei’s adherence to solid laws of physics is unwavering. He does not mince his words when it comes to the rigour of his own design practice. “The measurements are very important,” he stresses. “If somebody strongly disregards them, then either that person cannot do the measurements correctly or cannot interpret them.”
All this attention to engineering means that Audes products not only measure extremely well, but are also imbued with a presence that only companies with decades of experience making their own – and other people’s – products can create. Take for example the Excellence 5 AMT loudspeaker I recently reviewed (read here). I have already made mention of the beauty and quality of its finishing, and how it belies its “mid-range” price. But what I did not mention, and only grew to appreciate as time wore on, is its stately proportions. The loudspeaker stands with utter authority. Every detail about it, every curve and every design feature, and where the drivers are placed, all work together to give that sense of timelessness. It’s as if the loudspeaker was not designed so much as “discovered”, and nothing appears to be superfluous, or out of place. Some speakers wow the listener at first sight, but gradually some design choices start to appear strange, or even unnecessary. You will never get this feeling with Audes loudspeakers.
A quick look around Audes’ factory will dispel the notion of a sweatshop operating in third-world conditions. All over the place, one finds state of the art computerized equipment such as precision veneer cutters, special membrane presses, and CNC routing machines to aid the production of world class loudspeakers. Everything is neat, clean and you could proverbially eat off the factory floor. While no expense is spared in finding the right tools, the Audes team know that the most important thing in loudspeaker design is the software – a deep understanding of the product itself, and how the materials selected will work to achieve the ultimate sound quality.
This deep understanding starts with the selection of the right raw ingredients. Audes uses only premium MDF, a material that ensures uniformity in every speaker and consistency in mechanical performance. The factory pays particular attention first to the cutting and matching of veneers, and then takes extra care in pressing it to the plate to avoid unevenness. The plate is then further sanded to remove any residual variations in thicknesses prior to gluing the cabinet together. The finished cabinet is then sanded once more, a step usually omitted in other production lines but which Audes considers to be crucial to ensure a perfect final finish. Only then is the cabinet sent for painting through three individual painting booths each applying a different coating. After the paint is suitably dried, the final step is to polish the surface for many hours until a beautiful mirror finish is obtained. When you really take stock of the number of man-hours to get from raw MDF to finished loudspeaker, and all that expertise and hard work that goes into each product, you begin to wonder how Audes manages to sell what is really a super-speaker at such an affordable price.
And super-speaker is really the only way to describe an Audes product when you then consider the other components such as the drivers and crossover, which are all manufactured in-house to tight uncompromising tolerances. All crossovers are wired point-to-point by hand, eschewing PCBs altogether in a quest for the best sound possible. In addition, the inductors are also wound in-house to specifications according to each speaker model. My own experience with inductors is that one cannot over-emphasise the importance of getting this right. While many manufacturers get by with much smaller ones, there is really no substitute for size and usage of high quality materials for the inductor coils. My previous reference speakers, the B&W Matrix 800s (the older ones with the triangular shaped cabinets) were transformed when I substituted the tiny little factory installed ones with after-market inductors each the size of a big Mac, custom made in accordance with the 800’s crossover requirements. Good conductors lower the pervasive effects of hysteresis and truly allow a speaker to sing to its fullest potential.
In the end, technical excellence counts for nothing if the end product does not sound good. I am glad to report that, after all this lavish attention, Audes speakers sound wonderful. You can read my report as well as other Stereo Times writers’ opinions on the various Audes models (just do a search on Audes here), or better still, find your nearest dealer and book a listening session. I guarantee that this will change your idea of what a super-speaker should sound like and how much you need to pay for that sound.
The best thing is that, if you do decide to buy an Audes speaker, you are buying into the philosophy of the company and its deeply experienced team of designers. You have thereby decided that life is not worth living in a blur, and that taking the time to smell the roses and enjoy a musical moment alone by yourself is not exactly an insane proposition. When you embrace that, you can be sure that Audes and the entire extended family of Stereo Times will warmly welcome you to the club.
It worries me how little people nowadays slow down enough to take stock of what is happening to them, and detach themselves from their network of ‘connectedness’ to connect with themselves and discover who they really are, which can really only be achieved in a state of true aloneness. That is why audiophiles are a breed apart. We realise that investing in ourselves is one of the best things we can do not only for ourselves, but also for our loved ones. I find it tremendously comforting that there are still designers, manufacturers and artisans out there like Aleksei, Igor and Nikolai, who buy into this philosophy and see perpetuity in a quiet minute, and value in things unseen. That selling hi-fi is not just about seeing how far one can push the price of an amplifier to find that willing buyer, but about sharing an experience that can change lives.
I leave my visit with Aleksei with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. Maybe this hobby of ours does have some hope after all.