Inside Track: Estelon Loudspeakers
David Price tells the story behind one of the most interesting high-end loudspeaker companies around…
There is no shortage of high-end loudspeakers on sale, but most of them are from companies that have been going for many years, sometimes half a century or more. What sets Estonian-based Estelon apart is that it's a relatively new brand, and that its designs are both visually striking to look at, and to listen to. From the flagship Extreme floorstander to the more modest XC standmounter, the speakers are quite different to anything else on sale. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, though, as it has an interesting and unusual backstory, one that's unique amongst its peers.
Although very much a family affair, the company is the brainchild of the founder and chief designer Alfred Vassilkov. A decade or so on from launching Estelon in 2010, he tells me that he wouldn't change a thing if he could have the time again.
Of course it's necessary to make mistakes, but we are very happy that we are where we are now. If I was repeating something from that time, I would end up creating new problems!
Estelon has indelibly stamped itself on the high-end loudspeaker market, something that's not famous for being open and accessible to newcomers. Yet, the quality of the designs and their relative uniqueness have built a space in the market for Alfred's company. “Today, the challenge is to listen to good quality music”, he says. “We have so much cheap equipment that's not enough to understand it, there's a lack of emotional richness in much hi-fi. I'd like to see more people in the industry who understand music deeper.”
I put it to him that the proliferation of new technology, especially digital streaming, finally makes music more accessible. “I hope so, yes. On one hand this cheaper equipment will bring people to us, but it's important that they don't stop with this. I guess that getting into music is a process. We are very happy to have customers who deeply understand it. Audiophile demands get higher and higher every year, in terms of sound quality, design, build quality and service. This needs to be at an ever higher level.”
Alfred comes from a musical family and vividly remembers hearing his father playing the accordion. “I used to listen to him with pleasure, and my sisters were good singers too. But then I became interested in radios, and began to take them apart to find out how they worked. I later began listening to loudspeakers critically, and became interested in their design. This lead to me studying electroacoustics and ultrasound at St. Petersburg university.”
Around 1985, Alfred started designing his own loudspeakers while working for an Estonian engineering bureau. “I worked on a high end speaker, which we kept making after the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia opened up. Then I moved to another company that sold a wide range of models, and began to grow my experience of speaker design. I was looking at different materials, technologies and ideas. Yet I still wanted to build something better and more interesting.”
Alissa Vassilkova (L), Alfred Vassilkov (M) and Kristiina Vassilkova (R)
After a quarter of a century of design work, he finally decided to start his own company. He did so together with his daughters, Alissa and Kristiina, who found out about his ambition in a rather unusual way. Alissa remembers: “In 2010 my father announced his secret project to our family, on a Sunday morning while we were all sitting around the breakfast table. While we were having pancakes, he disappeared to the basement and emerged minutes later with the very first prototype of the very first Estelon XA model!”
The decision was made to put the speaker into commercial production because it was so different to what was on the market. “It required different production technologies, so we felt we could do this ourselves. My sister Christina also joined the company, and Alfred's brother who is a very good mechanical engineer. Some months later in October 2010, we launched our very first speaker at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and later in 2011 our very first international show was CES in Las Vegas. It's been a very interesting ten years since we launched! Today we have ten different models, all of which have subsequently been upgraded to Mk 2 specification, except the original XA.”
Right from the start, the company set out to manufacture its speakers in its native Estonia, as locally as possible. The factory is based in Tallinn, and the speaker enclosures are manufactured on the island of Saaremaa, in the Baltic Sea. “We have a unique process for manufacturing cabinets, it's not possible to make them anywhere else”, Alissa explains. “Not everything can be made in-house, but all the assembly is done here in the factory. Estelon buys in drive units from respected specialists such as Accuton. Mostly in the X-series we have these, and for the flagship series models – Extreme and Forza – they produce drivers specially for us, to our specification. Accuton has excellent production facilities and technologies, so they can produce for us exactly what we need. For the entry-level YB model we use SEAS and Scanspeak drivers.”
Alfred talks about loudspeaker design with the nuance of someone who's studied the subject for many decades. “Do you design speakers to sound nice, or accurate?”, I ask him. He replies that in his life, he has built both types, but it's very difficult to combine the two aims. “For high end loudspeakers, we have to reproduce all parts of the recording, good and bad, and that's very difficult to achieve. My philosophy is that neither the driver not the cabinet is more important, they must both be of a high level. And cables, crossovers, connectors and spikes – all of these are also vital. Of course we have to compromise, but the question is where?”
As with any commercial loudspeaker, you have to draw a line in the sand where you make your compromises. For Estelon, Alfred is clear that the company is doing products for domestic customers, speakers that must have a degree of practicality in real-world home listening rooms. “We start with engineering inside out, and after this we see that we end up with good design. I can explain every square centimetre of why we build our speakers this way, and not another way!”
Alfred says his company's approach is to make high-end hi-fi loudspeakers that people want to have in their homes but aren't compromised in engineering terms. “For example, the reason we use cabinets with quite narrow front baffles is that they sound better. This is good for dispersion, and we have a special cabinet profile with no rear corners. This is very important to work with the acoustics in the room, and makes for more flexible positioning. The form follows the function.”
He continues: “Our approach is always from an engineering point of view. I have built enough speakers with flat panels and wide baffles, but choose not to because of the compromises needed. Although for hi-fi applications we do have to design speakers for middle size rooms, and thus have to start with mid-size drivers and cabinets. For me it's important to get as wide a frequency range as possible, but also as high sensitivity as is practical. This comes down to very good drivers and crossovers, such as the Accuton ceramic drivers we use. We try to design products for mainstream audiences, to work with most rooms and conditions – but of course at a very high market level.”
The design of Estelon's speaker enclosures is a closely guarded secret, and Alfred and Alissa are – understandably perhaps – only happy to talk about these in broad-brush terms. “The cabinet surfaces are not parallel, straight or flat, so we had to use a moulding technology because they're complicated to make in wood. It's also important that this material is very strong, with excellent internal damping. The material we use is very dead; tap it and you don't feel any resonances”, says Alfred.
Alissa points out that it took them years to find this recipe. “In the beginning, our engineers said it is not possible to create this shape. But when they say something isn't possible they will go home and think about it, and come up with a solution. We tested many types and came up with the right answer, and today we use this material on all our speakers. It's a crushed marble-based composite, with other ingredients to make it sound dead. It's so neutral that we don't need much damping inside. It's very strong and stable, so there's no need to have a lot of internal bracing; we do use some though. We've been using this material since the company started, it's one of the main pillars of our design approach.”
“We go for quite minimalist crossovers”, adds Alfred. “With complex designs with many components, it's very difficult to have good phase characteristics. We use only the best components; it's very important that every piece is the best; resistors, capacitors, coils or connectors; we test each component, and use the best for each application. In the high end it's not possible to exclude top quality components. We use Kubala-Sosna, a very expensive copper internal cabling; it's very neutral and we've been using it since the beginning of Estelon.”
Voicing is an absolutely critical process for Alfred. “It takes up to half a year for an expensive speaker, and is done step-by-step”, says Alissa. “We use very different types of music – everything basically – and compare it to real live concerts. We use many recordings, because they're made differently. Our philosophy is that a speaker has to play every type of music well, otherwise it's no good. You can enter the testing room and you can hear Alfred listening to modern electronic music, the next second it's maybe a choral piece, then it's classical music. One very important criterion is that we select good recordings.”
“We're not currently using vinyl for voicing,” says Alfred, “but I'd like to bring this in, as I have got so many good records – and of course I enjoy listening to it with customers and at shows. Of course the digital world has developed very quickly, and we are getting very good results from streaming these days. Now we have very high resolution and a high level of musicality that wasn't possible not so long ago…”
Alfred says that voicing loudspeakers gets easier with age and experience. “You get a better understanding of the processes involved. For example knowing when to change the damping or crossover. We use both empirical measurements and subjective listening when designing our loudspeakers. Measuring is useful for the basics, such as checking phase and getting the right balance. But for the final sound, it's important to use your own ears; things like stereo soundstage are not measurable, how do you measure stage depth or localisation, or musicality or emotions in the music? We need to feel this.”
He continues: “We have so many parameters to listening. It's the same with damping materials, whether we need a faster sound, how we get rid of small resonances, and so on. I guess it is like cooking – you can get different results from the same ingredients, if you do the process differently. It's a science meets art moment. First of all you need a deep understanding of the music, and then secondly you need a technical understanding – and you need to put this together correctly!”
After a decade of manufacturing successful, high-end speakers – and winning countless plaudits in the process, such as the CES Innovation Award and a Red Dot Design Award – Estelon has established itself as an important company on the high-end audio scene. Indeed you could even argue that the market has moved towards the company, during this time. It has always taken the aesthetics of its designs very seriously, something that cannot be said for all manufacturers. Indeed, I put it to Alissa that there's been an odd kind of snobbery against beautiful design until quite recently…
“Design is becoming more and more important, and people are caring more about how speakers look”, she says. “I would say that a typical Estelon customer appreciates the finer things in life. Of course, there is a pretty wide range of people buying our products but they all love music and appreciate design. And also if it looks nice in your home, then why not? When audiophiles hear it they understand immediately that there's serious engineering inside from a technical point of view, it's not just a designer speaker. The more shows that we have attended, the more people have realised that we make serious audiophile speakers that just happen to look good as well!”
Estelon is now sold in more than thirty countries, with Syndey-based Advance Audio being appointed as the exclusive Australian distributor earlier this year. If you're ever near Leichardt, Sydney, be sure to drop into Audio Connection for a demonstration.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.