Movies, mil­i­tary and hi-fi – we visit au­dio spe­cial­ist Na­gra

What Hi-fi? vis­its Na­gra HQ, deep in the Swiss moun­tains

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

In high-end cir­cles, Na­gra is one of those brands peo­ple speak of in hushed tones. Its for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion is built on pre­mium record­ing equip­ment for the broad­cast and film in­dus­tries, and strength­ened by its range of do­mes­tic high-end dig­i­tal and am­pli­fi­ca­tion com­po­nents.

Ste­fan Kudel­ski founded Na­gra (a Pol­ish word that means “will record”) in Switzer­land in 1951. At just 22 years old, he de­vel­oped a small, high-qual­ity tape recorder and named it the Na­gra 1. It was a com­pact por­ta­ble unit, me­chan­i­cally driven by a spring, with bat­tery power for the valve elec­tron­ics. Noth­ing else avail­able to the broad­cast in­dus­try was so light and com­pact, let alone made such good record­ings. It was truly revo­lu­tion­ary – mak­ing au­dio record­ings in all sorts of re­mote lo­ca­tions a prac­ti­cal op­tion.

The early days

The Na­gra 1 was an im­me­di­ate hit, and was quickly fol­lowed by more de­vel­oped prod­ucts in the form of the Na­gra II and III recorders. These units es­tab­lished the brand as a ma­jor player on the au­dio side of the TV, ra­dio and film in­dus­tries. The movie in­dus­try has shown how much it val­ues Na­gra’s prod­ucts by award­ing the com­pany two Os­cars, in 1978 and 1991, for its con­tri­bu­tion to sound­tracks.

Na­gra also made equip­ment for the mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity in­dus­tries, along­side record­ing equip­ment and home au­dio. In the com­pany’s head­quar­ters, we saw early minia­ture tape recorders that will be fa­mil­iar to any­one who watched the 1960s Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble se­ries. Also on dis­play were a num­ber of pro­to­types, in­clud­ing an early por­ta­ble video recorder made long be­fore the likes of VHS and Be­ta­max.

Clever so­lu­tions

Na­gra’s head­quar­ters are on an unas­sum­ing in­dus­trial unit in Ro­manel-sur-lau­sanne, Switzer­land. We start our tour in the R&D depart­ment and are shown pro­to­types of the re­cently in­tro­duced range-top­ping HD pream­pli­fier and its part­ner­ing out­board power sup­ply (around £50k the pair).

The com­pany has come up with clever so­lu­tions to re­duce dis­tor­tion, drop the noise floor to be­low 160db and re­duce in­ter­fer­ence. There’s also an in­no­va­tive vol­ume con­trol cir­cuit that is claimed to avoid the short­com­ings of tra­di­tional po­ten­tiome­ters – namely that such com­po­nents de­grade trans­parency and dy­nam­ics. The mo­torised Alps Blue po­ten­tiome­ters used in the preamp sense move­ment in the front panel vol­ume con­trols and send a sig­nal to a trans­former-based cir­cuit that changes the level.

Na­gra is a small com­pany with around 25 staff. While all the cir­cuit boards are de­signed and en­gi­neered in-house, sub­con­trac­tors are used to build the sub-as­sem­blies and pop­u­late the boards. But Na­gra prefers to do many things it­self, to get the re­sults spot-on. We came across a very skilled and pa­tient worker adding tiny sur­face mount parts to a power sup­ply cir­cuit to fine–tune the re­sults.

Qual­ity mat­ters

The com­pany’s range is made up of a mix­ture of tran­sis­tor and valve-based prod­ucts. It takes great care to en­sure the con­sis­tency of the valves used, due to the vari­able qual­ity of man­u­fac­ture. More than half of the valves de­liv­ered fall short of Na­gra’s high stan­dards, de­spite the fact that it is buy­ing some of the best-made valves on the mar­ket.

Mak­ing trans­form­ers in-house

Na­gra prides it­self on the qual­ity of its trans­form­ers. These are all built in-house to meet the com­pany’s ex­act­ing stan­dards. We’re shown the trans­former wind­ing room and the im­pres­sive range of de­signs the com­pany makes. Each sub-as­sem­bly is tested and, once a prod­uct is com­pleted, it is heav­ily tested to en­sure ev­ery­thing is as it should be.

Com­plete records of ev­ery prod­uct it makes are kept, and ev­ery unit shipped in­cludes de­tailed doc­u­men­ta­tion and per­for­mance graphs of the ac­tual prod­uct bought. Once fully built, ev­ery item man­u­fac­tured is soak tested for a fur­ther four days to com­plete the ini­tial run­ning-in phase.

Na­gra prod­ucts tend to keep work­ing for decades thanks to care taken in man­u­fac­ture and the qual­ity of ma­te­ri­als used. The com­pany prides it­self on keep­ing as many spare parts as pos­si­ble – es­ti­mat­ing that its store­room has up­wards of 30,000 lines of parts.

Ref­er­ence sys­tem

We end the day by en­joy­ing the brand’s ref­er­ence set-up in a ded­i­cated lis­ten­ing room. The sys­tem uses a full range of the com­pany’s prod­ucts, in­clud­ing dig­i­tal recorders, the HD DAC, CD player and ref­er­ence pre/power com­bi­na­tion. The speak­ers are the Lo­hen­grin II by Cana­dian brand Ver­ity Au­dio. The to­tal sys­tem cost is around the £250k mark.

Lis­ten­ing to orig­i­nal mas­ter record­ings, made on Na­gra’s own prod­ucts, we’re struck by the clar­ity and real­ism. It’s an as­ton­ish­ingly ex­pen­sive set-up, but the per­for­mance is lit­tle short of breath­tak­ing. Such qual­ity has its price. MORE TOP TECH Turn the page for some more great hi-fi kit – we look at the five tech prod­ucts that have caught our eye this month… (see p35)

“The movie in­dus­try showed how much it val­ues Na­gra’s prod­ucts by award­ing the com­pany two Os­cars for its con­tri­bu­tion to sound­tracks”

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