We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Matthieu Latour, Audio Division Director Of Nagra Audio. In 1951, Stefan Kudelski, a gifted 22-year-old engineer, developed an extremely high quality, miniature, self-contained audio recorder which he named simply the "Nagra I". Nagra is a Polish word meaning "will record". The interest in his invention was immediate.
The Nagra II and III followed in the mid to late 1950s revolutionizing the world of radio broadcasting, cinema and music. In recognition of his contribution to culture and science, the Nagra Company received numerous awards including Oscars in 1978 and 1991. Today Nagra enjoys universal fame and the word "Nagra" describes either an authentic Nagra recorder or is a generic term for a sound recorder.
Audio Technology Switzerland was created in 2012 as a spin-off of the Audio division from the audio division from the Kudeski group. The members of the Kudelski family are the main shareholders of this new entity. Audio Technology Switzerland SA is present in three principal sectors: high-end Hi-Fi equipment, professional audio recorders, and devices destined for security and law enforcement.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. I was quite young, around three years old, and was blown away by music coming out of this black disk. I do not remember the piece, most probably classical music since my parents mostly had classical records. When I was maybe eight, I was fascinated by the sound of Hammond organ. I knew no one to guide me so it took me a long time to find out what this instrument was!
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. My Father had a Sony 1/4" tape he brought back from Japan. The recording and playback quality was extremely good and this is the first time I realize what "high-fidelity" meant. Later on, in High School, it was a life-quest to hear all my friend's set-up and try to find a decent one! At home, we had a modest system and I was very frustrated.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. I still own my first cassette deck. It is an Akai unit that I bought with my first set-up after saving money for almost two years. It had a dub function so you could duplicate tape from friends. It still works fine today, though of course I am now used to open reel quality with Nagra!
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. Nagra was already into high-end standards products but aiming at professional sound engineers or journalists. The first introduction into the high-end market came from a special request a customer made. He requested his portable reel to reel Nagra IV-S, to be customized with mini-tubes and a phono stage instead of a microphone preamplifier. Unfortunately, I never saw or heard this special Nagra IV-S, but it was probably very special! Then more interest grew for high-end products and a whole product range was created year after year.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. As a result of this special "phono" Nagra IV-S, the company created the Nagra PL-P, a unique phono, and line preamplifier, very similar in size and style to a portable reel to reel. It also ran on batteries and had connectors on its side like our recorders. It had a lot of success being of extremely high sound and built quality. Most of the Nagra PL-P from early 2000 works perfectly today and are still sought after by audiophiles.
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. I was not personally involved yet, but probably the hardest part was to transform a one-time success with the Nagra PL-P preamplifier, to offering a wider range of products. It was not easy to follow this promising start. In addition, the company had to adapt to a different market with a different ecosystem.
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. Our products have evolved from being a single component that had to be part of a system of different brands to a whole Nagra system. Today most of our customers chose to own a complete Nagra set-up from source to amplifier. So, we work now much more on global solutions rather than isolated products.
The biggest change however was the introduction of the HD Line a couple of years ago. The HD Line remains faithful to Nagra qualities: transparency, musicality, and build-quality but we have decided to use much larger casings to accommodate more electronics and push the performance to new heights. The results are phenomenal as the DNA, the style and sound are deeply "Nagraesque" but take you even further into realism and emotion.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. Looking at the 20 years that just passed, the CD players sold the most. Designed in 2005, it is still a top player today. If we look at the current market, it is hard to single out a product, it changes every month.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. We are just releasing a very exciting phono stage called Classic PHONO. It features an MC input designed around Nagra custom made transformers, as well as an MM input. It is a full tube, class A design with many features like RIAA, Columbia, and Teldec curves as well as different modes to play a real mono cartridge. The sound is absolutely gorgeous and we have a lot of fun rediscovering our LP collection.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. In a world of cloud and digital storage, I anticipate that real-life formats such as tape, LP, and CD will remain important for people to feel and touch. Though of course with new technologies such as 5G for wireless internet, we can expect a streaming quality of super high resolution such as DSD 256 so probably we will have both worlds co-existing in "hard" and "soft" formats. I hope the music industry finds a way to sell its music in a satisfying business model that can be fair to musicians and maintain creativity and ambitious projects to happen.