ReMusic Visits Audio Consulting of Switzerland
Why I am here
In the Swiss lucid determination of getting a smooth result, without any roughness, lasting and not re-thinkable, I recognize a bit of myself. There is a sort of affinity between “Swissness” – yes, it does exist – and the subalpine-Piedmontese productive peevishness that I immodestly represent and which I recognise myself in. They have in common a wonderful craziness, sometimes a little worrying, though. Strange people at times, indeed, but with a precise aim in their mind. And with their mind striving to get it. I am very interested in the achievements and the personal stories of those manufacturers who have followed their instinct and their credo, for intuition or in reason. Independently from their commercial success.
When you start seeing everywhere advertising billboards of watches and private banking, you realize you have got in Geneva. And here, in the rich Swiss region of Vaud, since 2000 Audio Consulting has been operating: one of the dearest and sought-after brands of the sector.
Actually, Audio Consulting is Serge Schmidlin: owner and designer. Besides his technical competences, he can speak French, German, English, Russian and Chinese...A one man band that rolls over part of his proceeds in "research and development" of products. He is an experienced chemist with about thirty years of audiophile passion behind his back and for about twelve years he has been living on his passion: a small artisan enterprise which, in reality, is a great high-end esoteric brand. As I told in a previous article, in Switzerland there are plenty of extra quality electronic and mechanical manufacturing companies.
N.B. It is obvious, but I have to remark that. Serge relays on several technical competences, but the last choice depends always on his ear. That explains how some planning and production choices go beyond the productive logics or the good sense of the market: we are beyond theesotericism, for many, we are already in the pure irrationality...
Audio Consulting/Serge Schmidlin has defined in few but significant points his designing philosophy:
First | the mains
The common mains is inadequate for a high-end system. On the other side, the battery supply needs a great designing work. This is the only way that leads to a real independence of the sound outcome from the variability of the mains conditioning.
Second | the heat
An audio device that develops too much heat, cannot offer time-constant performances. I remember, several years ago, during a Gran Galà by Giulio Cesare Ricci in Tuscany, Serge demonstrating the worth of his direct-drive turntable, cooled by a conditioner. The turntable was performing differently after having reached the right temperature. A palpable, significant and incredible difference. With the conditioner off, the impoverishment of the sound was as well evident.
The aim of Audio Consulting is to produce audio circuits with very high thermal efficiency, in order to contain the impact of the heat on the sound performances. This is also important in terms of ecological sensitivity: less consumption, less heat loss, less waste of energy, less pollution.
Third | the silver cables
Many people think that silver cables trouble the sound, but for Serge only if they use teflon or non-insulating materials, and when they have such characteristics and are also multi-wiring. For Serge, a silver small-size mono-wire cable, covered with a sheath in natural unbleached cotton, is the best solution for amplifiers with not exuberating power.
Fourth | the transformers
Serge is deeply convinced that transformers well realized and of high quality are the best devices to couple, both in input and output, with the machines, and can be used like: preamps and power amps inter stages, potentiometers, in the counter-phasing, in balanced systems and for the voltage ratio, in MC step-ups. In conclusion, everywhere...
Fifth | the wood
Since always the wood has been used to make loudspeakers cabinets, although many people agree with its unique properties but also think it introduces resonances and is unpredictable in its "scientific" use. On the contrary, for Serge wood is the "election material" for the electronic equipments, the turntables, even for their platters. The only important thing is choosing the right wood. The question is: OK for its magnetic, electromagnetic and vibrational features, but why the wood can make us hear a "good sound?" It makes us hear a good sound in every way: when it sounds in an instrument or, simply because, we are near.
Sixth | the manual labour
Switzerland does not have many raw material. Therefore, it has developed its own high electronic technology, micro mechanics, generally industrial, in particular clock-making. So the suppliers of Audio consulting are excellence in high-tech, with cutting-edge competences.
We are talking of basic apparatus, deprived of superfluous. No plastics on the capacitors. Cabinet made of rare woody essences chosen "by ear". Integrated amplifiers soldered one above the other. No mains conditioning, only batteries or piles of capacitors. Battery chargers using solar panels: in Serge's opinion the best-audiophile-way to recharge our strategic power sources. And then, copper or, rather, silver transformers, reeled in by hand on wooden structures and without any shielding. Last, solid-core cables in pure silver, cryogenically treated and isolated by using simple 100% cottons sheaths. Maybe you remember Jean Hiraga's project, Le Monstre, an 8 watt Class-A amplifier supplied with car batteries, but here we are "beyond", definitely.
To avoid any useless technicalities, I will describe quickly all the gears - very famous - that I found in the Audio Consulting's demo room. The shape of the wooden cabinet of the battery-powered Evolution Stealth turntable has been thought to avoid catching the surrounding energy. Among the cartridges, what stands out is a hyper-modified Denon DL 103R with wooden shell. The phono preamp is the two chassis Silver Rock Phono Preamplifier, and the Silver Rock "Meteor" AVC with toroidal transformers and "stealth" shaped wooden cabinet: same reason of offering the less possible resistance to the sound in room and avoiding to charge any energy. Then the battery-charged MIPA Monoblocks, Mains Independent Power Amplifiers, 120 watt each.
Let's talk about the 103 dB Rubanoïde "Dvaijnoy" loudspeakers. The first name derives from the French word "ruban", that is "ribbon", with the suffix "oïde" as "quasi": a Latin construction meaning "quasi-ribbon" (or ribbon-like). The second is a name of one of his ancestors, an homage to his Rumanian roots. For me, it derives from the dragonoid destroyer covered by rubies of the Bakugan gameplay, where the spheres turn into monsters... I am kidding, but the fact is that these speakers want to approximate the concept of "spherical emission" of the sound. The surface of their membrane is rigorously in paper, Japanese paper. They have been completed with the 96dB Rubabass subwoofers, equivalent, as radiant surface, to a couple of woofers with 85 cm of diameter, and with an experimental ribbon tweeter, an AMT, Air Motion Transformer dipole, made to specifications, and active above 13 kHz. In the whole, a 100 dB system, which makes me describe these high dynamic speakers as the best and most interesting I have ever heard. Thank goodness! You will say. Their price is 85,000 CHF per pair...
The ceremony starts by switching off the mobiles, because Serge thinks that their frequencies are harmful not only for our health but for audio too.
In the Royal Listening Room, I sat and I was ready to play my reference CD but I could not see any CD player... There is no CD player - says Serge - because too noisy, approximate and inconsistent in the performances. Instead, an incredible mess of cards, silver wiring, lithium batteries and capacitors, many capacitors. Et voilà, let me introduce Serge's digital source, a prototype of player of... digital cards (like the ones used in the cameras). The reasons are the same: "cold" work, constancy in performances, operation reliability. So, cher Giuseppe, put up with it: no CD player, only high-res files directly from solid state data storages.
Since the first notes, I notice that the sound is never annoying and the "ears" can open more than with any other system I have heard before. This is normally one of the principle that indicates low distortion and low listening fatigue. With this kind of systems the listening experience is relaxing also with the full orchestra, as happens in the concerts.
The succession of tracks is a crescendo of dramatic alternation, because dramatic are the differences in the recordings. The system as an overall - since it is impossible to notice the contribution of the single elements - isextremely revealing.
To have some references we change over to the vinyls. Every record is demagnetized to eliminate the static charges and the nickel which tends to lay down in the grooves during the recording and affects the sounds for years, Serge says.
With Careless Love by Madeleine Peyroux, the mood of the small jazz band, that you imagine in a smoky setting, is given amazingly. The double bass is very plastic but never intrusive.
La Folia,1980, Gregorio Paniagua, Harmonia Mundi: the sense of spatiality and the presence of the performers in the room make you shivering. The sound is detailed, hence revelatory, so that the room echoes seem reveal themselves in our listening room.
Hugh Masekela, Stimela (The Coal Train), Analogue Productions. This great classic strikes for dynamics and transparency. Masekela's voice reaches peaks of yells and shouts and goes deep in guttural grumbles. Indeed the system does justice to his performing ability.
Harry Belafonte, Live at Carnegie Hall, RCA Victor Living Stereo, 45rpm Box Set. Also here, an astounding and undistorted dynamics. Never heard a Belafonte so close to reality.
Clemencic Consort, Rene Clemencic, La fête de l’âne, Harmonia Mundi, andBach suite for solo cello by János Starker, Mercury, offer further starting points in a musical genre that better gives the effort of absolute truth of Audio Consulting's products and system. Here, where the sounds do not replicate amplified instruments, the system is incredibly convincing, practically holographic.
Synergy of intents, no-compromise integralism, chased and realized ideas: no ifs, ands, or buts.
I do not want to tell anything about manufacturing security, mechanical stability, insulation, grounding, masses efficacy and observance of the safety rules related to electric systems made in wood. I suppose they are exemplary.
I just want to let you know that a product from Audio Consulting is a "religion", not a plug and play device and that the fine tuning of the system should comprise Serge himself to get the best possible results. And that is what Serge does for most of his time, following his customers and optimizing their systems. Of course the price is very high, but it is due to the exclusivity of the realizations, under every aspect. Among all the products, I point out only the MITA, The Mains Independent Tube Amplifier with these features: stereo, single ended, battery charged,15 watt per channel, 150 kg of weight, 265.000,00 CHF (about 220.000,00 euro at the current exchange rate...).
Quick metaphors and final recap
This is a review about the pure listening experience because an Audio Consulting system can only be heard, not criticized.
I have not tested the components, just listened to a "system" that is extremely sensitive and revealing.
The sound was very natural, without any noise floor and this is a great result considering the 110 dB of efficiency.
The separation between the instruments and the depth of the interinstrumental "black" were so evident to result surreal.
The great "presence effect" was due to the sound borders inclined to brightness, as they were underlined by a white light.
Hence the system can be almost cutting without being annoying and does not excuse bad recordings. So the supports will play... as they have been recorded.
It is a paradoxical system in my opinion since it has undermined my listening principles/prejudices.
The percussion were touching with a remarkable and authoritative rise time, depth and articulation. It was very easy to distinguish the instruments appointed to give the low pitches. The Rubanoïde, in particular, disappear during the listening like many other dipole speakers, but can "sound loud", without that unpleasant feeling of useless pressure and distortion that are typical of the old high efficiency horns.
What I felt missing was that note of "warmth" that for me is determinant in the low range. Everything but the punch. Anyway, also if the components and the systems are millionaire, do not expect the power of a system that can get you to flip out with the AC/DC:
The sound of Serge is naturally dynamic, without effort, fresh, lively, very realistic but with clear and edgy nuances. The voice are somehow "electric", in a higher and totally different meaning than the worst digital sound.
The dimensions of voices and instruments were realistic and proportionate giving an unusual result for high efficiency speakers. They also seemed "small" because defined and stamped in the air, but this feeling was due, I think, to the small distance between the speakers, which give back a very precise soundstage, but forcedly contained in the short side of the room.
This paradox, due to the ability of joining extension and definition, is one of the most bright results that Serge has been able to accomplish.
He makes part of that fierce group of hardliner manufacturers who - Imai by Audio Tekne first - in order to take out what pollutes, spoils or alters the sound, to get to the pure sound, well, they spoil a bit the sound itself.
It is only my opinion in an alchemic field. Serge himself is a man of science who "plays and jokes" with science. Here we are beyond. In good and bad. Whether right or wrong. His approach is no compromise, romantic and a step before being like Don Quixotte.
In this sense, I can define Audio Consulting devices and systems designed by Serge Schmidlin as the most live, vivid and close to give back "the air" of the original sound event, through an audio reproduction, than I have ever had the lucky and the honour to listen to.
And the air, if you notice that, is the element into which the music spread.