Family Values: The Story of Estelon
Mark Gusew speaks to Alfred Vassilkov, founder of this illustrious high-end loudspeaker manufacturer…
I continue to be fascinated by how a brand from Estonia appeared on the hi-fi scene, seemingly going from nothing to one of the world's most prestigious loudspeaker marques in a reasonably short time. So I sat down at the recent StereoNET Hi-Fi & AV Show in Melbourne with Alfred Vassilkov, the company's founder and chief designer, and asked him to tell me the Estelon story…
Ilias Koutromanos, Marketing & Sales Director (L), Alfred Vassilkov, Estelon Founder (R) - StereoNET Hi-Fi & AV Show, Melbourne June 2022
He says: “It started many years ago. When I was young, my father played the accordion very well. He would play concerts, with bands in the evenings, and I remember it very well. I think that the memory stays inside us, and the love of music never goes away. Music gives me this feeling.”
“I would also listen to the radio and enjoy good music,” he continues, “but I was curious about the design of the radios and what was inside them. Why were different models almost the same internally, but with a different design sounding a different way? This was something that fascinated me. So, I tried to optimise some designs by changing components and observing the changes to the sound, to try and make them sound better.”
He began thinking about what he would do after school, which had to be something centred around music. “I was good with physics and mathematics, and at first thought that it may be a little boring to work on some very small problems, physics for example. But with so much new information available on the topic along with modern techniques, it suddenly became interesting and seemed like a good career path. Because I was interested in acoustics and electronics, I studied electro-acoustics at the University of St Petersburg, Russia. I felt this was an area where I could achieve something, that the door was wide open to opportunity.”
After university, Alfred didn't stay in Russia but reconnected with his family in Estonia, where he decided to remain. “Because of the influential Soviet regime, I felt that there was nothing for me in Russia,” he explains. “I was invited to work for a new division in a big Estonian Russian corporation. We were developing new speakers, new drivers and some new technologies which I really enjoyed. But as the Soviet Union collapsed this company was closed. We were permitted to start a small company to continue our work. At this time we felt like we had left the sinking Titanic and were paddling in small lifeboats. It seemed such a catastrophe because all our previous connections were lost. We had no suppliers and no customers. Another door was being opened to us but we were so new and inexperienced with the situation, and felt that we were starting from zero again.”
He continued by building electrical transformers and speakers using new suppliers, materials and technologies. “I worked as a contract designer, doing R&D for the speakers and designing the drivers. Back then despite living under Soviet influence, we were building our speakers to very high standards with precise characteristics. Yet, I found it interesting that some speakers with seemingly bad characteristics, would seem to play very well and still sound musical…”
Alfred says that initially, the company only manufactured for the local market. “We weren't exporting, but the situation changed closer to the end of the Millennium, as we created speakers for export and wanted to show them to the world. From around the year 2000, I started to regularly attend international hi-fi shows like Frankfurt, Munich and Las Vegas. I was trying to understand what loudspeakers could be produced for the market because we had accumulated the basic knowledge of speaker design, and had developed some technologies. I had already built more than one hundred different models of loudspeakers over the years.”
He continues: “I was a contractor, with my independent laboratory in Estonia. It gave me very good exposure to materials, manufacturing processes, technologies, electronics, components and skilled people. That experience and the associated skills were built up over a long period of time. The hi-fi shows were useful for the purpose of developing contacts, and understanding what elements are important. It was the first time I could see a world view of the audio trade, which was so very different to the old Soviet era thinking. All this exposure helped me understand what was happening around the world and I started to think that I wanted to make something new and better, because in the past I have seen and made many mistakes. I could see that most designs were not optimal…”
Alfred started to think about a totally new approach using alternative materials. “I had some ideas on how I could actually build it. So approximately five years before the start of Estelon I was developing these ideas of working with the materials and components that I would eventually use and refining the concept of how it could be built, wide at the bottom and extending upwards like a pyramid. It would have no compromises. Then one Sunday morning in April 2010, during a family breakfast I brought out from the basement of my house a prototype speaker, the accumulation of all my ideas. It was done as a secret project and hidden away because I didn't want any of my clients to find out about it, not even my family!”
After discussing it together, he and his family decided they would not sell the project to anyone else but would form their own company and make it themselves. “So we registered the name Estelon and it was the start. The founders are my two daughters, Alissa and Kristiina along with my brother, with many of our extended family members working for us. This way it's a very strong and flexible company. My daughter Alissa was learning business communication and business management which was perfect for the new company's needs. Frankly, I could not have done it without her. She is the CEO of Estelon. Kristiina is a valued partner. Family plays such an important role in my life and within the company.”
Alissa Vassilkova (L), Alfred Vassilkov (M) and Kristiina Vassilkova (R)
“Many of us were nervously thinking that because the high end audio market is so complicated, my idea may not get off the ground”, he confesses. “But all my earlier experience and research in learning the market told me that this would be worth doing. It was the culmination of all the ideas, my research and design development from the past twenty five or so years in creating maybe one of the best speakers in the world and certainly the most optimal speaker by design. The shape is quite logical and done for the benefit of physical and acoustical interactions and nuances. It is designed from the inside out.”
“It was designed and built with the home situation in mind, to sound accurate and realistic in real-life listening rooms,” Alfred tells me. “It also should look beautiful when it's not being played and have a high wife acceptance factor which is often overlooked but is so important… After we finished the first prototype we went to the Rocky Mountain International Audio Fest in Denver with it and it drew a lot of people's interest. We went to CES in Las Vegas and we won an Innovation Award. People were starting to take us seriously. I then realised that we need to build a proper company, not just a garage company.”
Estelon needed external financing to grow, Alfred explains. “When we spoke to the bank they naturally asked what we needed the money for. “It's to build the best speaker in the world”, we said, and you could see the look of disbelief on their faces. They eventually became convinced that we were an innovative company with a solid future ahead of us and we obtained financial support. It took a little while after we started production that we began selling to the United States, and Jonathan Valin from The Absolute Sound was very interested in reviewing the Estelon X Diamond. I visited him to make some adjustments to the speakers and received useful feedback. Soon afterwards he gave Estelon an important award, not only as a Recommend Component but also the 2012 Product of the Year award, and started using Estelon in his reference system.”
Alfred explains: “Since then we have received many more awards from around the world, including the prestigious Red Dot Design Award in 2017. We have enjoyed very positive reactions from press and audio reviewers who have heard our products, from our valued international distributors and most importantly lots of praise from our growing customer base. This makes me very happy.”
I enjoyed my time interviewing Alfred, who was softly spoken, down-to-earth and understated. In my view, he has pulled off a remarkable feat – designing and manufacturing one of the world's best loudspeakers. Although it wasn't strictly on his very first attempt; it was his decades of experience with speaker design, well before Estelon's first product was made, that was the basis for coming up with what he calls an “optimal” concept. His designs are highly innovative, which no doubt gives Estelon such a unique look and sound.
Alfred is unashamedly a perfectionist and told me that his speakers must be the best, or they wouldn't be made. “The best or nothing,” he says. Seeing a pair of Estelon loudspeakers in person speaks volumes – they look magnificent, and photographs don't do them justice. That continual striving for excellence, without shortcuts or compromises, puts Estelon in a small and rarefied group of manufacturers.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.
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