TAS has never done an in-depth examination of a geographic region that figures prominently in the world of audio, but it’s about time. America is fascinating for its entrepreneurial spirit and a business ecosystem that makes it easy for those entrepreneurs to pursue their visions. Japan takes advantage of its manufacturing prowess and synergistic inter-relationships. China, of course, is revolutionizing audio by dramatically reducing the cost of quality. All of these regions are worth exploring at greater length, but for our first feature on an audio region, we chose Switzerland.
Why examine Switzerland? For one thing, the country has a habit of hitting it out of the park in any industry it pursues. It has done this for watches, chocolate, and banking, among others. The country has long harbored a small, quiet audio industry, but recently it has turned into something of an audio Mecca, with over 100 companies turning out primarily high-end goods. That’s a lot of audio energy concentrated in a country you can drive through in two-and-a-half hours.
Switzerland’s cluster of audio activity is not only intense; it’s also pedigreed. Those hundred companies include veterans like Thorens, which was founded in the late 1800s, stalwarts such as Piega and Weiss Engineering, and brash newcomers like Soulution and CH Precision. Based on the results we at TAS have recently heard at shows and written about in these pages, there is little doubt the Swiss are doing it again: carving a flourishing niche in a premium category with world-class products.
The question is: just how are they doing it? Compared to the U.S., Japan, or China, the secret to Switzerland’s success is not obvious. It is a tiny country with limited natural resources and virtually no domestic market to support its industries. Yet the world universally recognizes “Swiss quality” and “Swiss precision” as ultimate accolades. How has this come to pass, and how has it translated to high-end audio? Indeed, why go into audio at all?
To find out, I ventured across the German-Swiss border immediately following the Munich High End Show. As the last oompahs faded, I boarded a TGV to Zurich, rented a car, and commenced a week-long tour that included four companies, a factory set at the foot of a famous ski slope, and a dealer in the middle of a cow pasture. I wish I could have visited many more than four Swiss audio icons and newcomers, but time and logistics relegated me to just two of each.
The icons were Weiss Engineering, the highly respected maker of professional-grade digital gear, and Nagra, known for its unique design aesthetic and skill at miniaturization. The newcomers were Soulution, the electronics builder familiar to any who read these pages, and CH Precision, another electronics firm that is less familiar in the States but well-established in Asia.
I realize, as will anyone perusing the above list, that I somehow neglected to include a single turntable or speaker company. That was not intentional; it just worked out that way. Nonetheless the cross-section of new and old hands I visited proved invaluable to my search for insights into what has given rise to this new force in audio. Those insights did not come all at once. Rather, they came piece by piece, conversation by conversation. It wasn’t until the end of the week that I felt I had a firm grasp on the unique nature of the Swiss audio industry.