Movies, military and hi-fi – we visit audio specialist Nagra
What Hi-fi? visits Nagra HQ, deep in the Swiss mountains
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.
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.
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.
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”