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Thales Factory Visit
6/21/2017

 

Simple Is As Simple Does: Visiting HiFiction AG, Manufacturer of Thales Tonearms and Turntables

 

by Roy Gregory | June 21, 2017

n a world that values simplicity and where less is generally considered to deliver more, where unipivot tonearms and SET amplifiers exist at least in part because their very simplicity makes it hard to get them really wrong (even if it’s so much harder to get them really right), calling something as intricate, complex, delicately interleaved and plain complicated as the Thales (pronounced tal-ez) Simplicity II tonearm seems obtuse to say the least.

Visually and mechanically so complex it’s difficult to figure out at first glance just how it works, it’s a marvel of micro engineering, multiple parts and subassemblies. Even a second glance leaves you scrabbling for understanding. If you want a model of precision Swiss manufacturing and assembly, an audio analog for the country’s reputation as a builder of the world’s finest watches, an industry in which movements are referred to as complications, then look no further than the Thales Simplicity II. Of course, there’s nothing new about precision tonearms hailing from Switzerland; witness the Breuer Dynamic tonearms, perhaps the most beautifully crafted of all.

Even so, there’s something special and different about the Thales 'arms -- and not just the names. Micha Huber, the man behind the Thales products, has an unusual history, studying music at a private academy and machine engineering at the University of Applied Sciences, taking a post in the design and prototyping side of the watch industry upon graduation. Like so many before him, he was a hi-fi lover from childhood, but he fell into audio manufacturing almost by accident, designing his first tonearm to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and creating a pivoted 'arm that corrected for tangential error.

It’s only when you see the Thales Original tonearm that you begin to understand why the subsequent design is called the Simplicity. Nevertheless (perhaps not surprisingly), it attracted attention and a dedicated cadre of customers sufficient for Huber to establish HiFiction AG ten years ago, moving to full-time audio production as well as high-quality engineering design work for the medical-mechanics sector. Indeed, one of the first things you notice about Huber and the company that he has created is his utter dedication to documentation and process. Just as with his tonearms, simplicity means as simple as the process can be in order to get it done properly -- and no simpler.

The key to such complex engineering projects is the quality of the drawings that detail the parts and processes involved. Huber’s drawings aren’t just comprehensive; they are genuine works of art. Take a look at the exploded views of the TTT-Compact’s drive system, with its dual-flywheel setup built into an impossibly small motor block that incorporates its own leaf-spring suspension and it’s easy to understand why such meticulous specifications and instructions are necessary. Likewise, if you broke bones and they needed pinning together with plates and screws, you’d want the doctor to use something a little more sophisticated than the drills you find at Home Depot. It’s no surprise that the design of autoclave-able, precision medical power tools are another string to HiFiction’s bow.

Handling that drive system in all its stages of construction is an object lesson in just how many tiny parts, each a carefully honed design in its own right, can fit into such a dense, compact and intricate piece. But then that drive system is itself a metaphor for everything that HiFiction and Thales do.

Currently the company offers four core products: the previously mentioned Simplicity II tonearm ($9200) and TTT-Compact II turntable ($14,500), along with the more affordable and less complex Easy tonearm ($5800) and TTT-Slim deck ($7200). There’s also a pneumatic support platform and a range of tonearm leads and interconnects -- and that’s your lot. It’s the very model of a concise product range, with easily appreciated differences between products and steps in price.

As with the Original 'arm, the operational principle for both the Simplicity II and the Easy tonearms involves the use of a pivoted headshell to correct for tangency, although the actual details of the mechanism differ. Look closely at the Simplicity II and you’ll see that it has two independent armtubes that diverge slightly and are independently pivoted in the horizontal plane but contained within a single vertical gimbal. As the headshell crosses the disc, the differential pivots at each end cause it to rotate, compensating for and reducing the tracing error to 0.006 degrees. Such a complex, multi-pivoted assembly requires incredibly precise tolerances and assembly if it isn’t to introduce mechanical losses or spurious resonance into the 'arm, yet handle a Simplicity II and you feel action that is silky smooth and utterly free of play. The "II" in the nomenclature refers to the adoption of zero-stiction bearings where the tiny axles that meet the precision ball races are machined and polished to a barrel profile to prevent galling or angular friction (an arrangement also found on the flywheels in the TTT-Compact II drive system).

This is typical of the lengths to which Huber goes to ensure that the performance of the finished products matches their conceptual elegance. Also typical is the separate cartridge carrier, a removable sledge that fits into a precision jig for mounting and aligning the pickup before it is in turn attached to the business end of the 'arm. It is visible as the lozenge-shaped plate between the 'arm and cartridge: smart, simple and practical. Perhaps the name isn’t so wide of the mark after all.

Anything that involves as many moving parts as the Simplicity II will be unavoidably expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. The Easy sets out to counteract that with a simpler construction, reminiscent of the Garrard Zero 100 'arm of yesteryear, in which a single pushrod is used to pivot the headshell mounted centrally on the main armtube. This streamlined construction results in a maximum 0.4-degree tracing error and a maximum headshell offset angle of only 12 degrees, this latter figure being significantly lower than for a conventional 9" 'arm, resulting in reduced bias force. There’s a remarkable elegance to the slender Easy’s appearance, a svelte aesthetic that extends to both of the Thales turntables.

The TTT-Compact II is a spin-off from the company’s first deck, mating a moderate-mass composite platter (aluminum body machined to create a peripheral mass ring, mated to an inlaid, proprietary high-density disc interface) spinning on a conventional standing bearing mated to a battery-powered DC motor. The quality of the bearing shaft and its soft-iron outer housing give some indication of the low-noise aims of the design, while the exactly sprung motor housing maintains constant tension between the close-coupled belt and platter, which together with the battery supply helps explain the ‘table’s astonishingly low noise, something that’s immediately obvious as soon as you listen to it.

Just as the Easy tonearm represents a simplified but barely compromised version of the flagship design, the TTT-Slim shares the platter and battery power supply of the Compact II, mated to a less complex motor housing that adopts a more conventional approach to belt drive, while still spring-suspending the motor to prevent torsional loading. A simpler, slightly smaller plinth and more basic switches together with a parts count that drops from the 170 in the Compact II to only 70 in the Slim helps explain the 50% price cut, but, again, the standards of engineering and manufacturing match those found in many a flagship design, underlining that this is a thoughtfully simplified design rather than a cut-price version of the bigger deck.

Interestingly, when it comes to listening it should come as no surprise that Micha Huber’s system mirrors the very nature of and exacting practice behind his products. It, too, is understated and, in high-end terms, undersized compared to many manufacturers’ setups, but it soon becomes apparent that it is a carefully selected and constructed and beautifully balanced combination of less-than-obvious equipment, while its sound is full of the same precision, delicacy, detail and clarity that exemplify the Thales products. Micha Huber studied flute and developed an abiding interest in the original-instruments movement that was emerging at that time. The smaller forces, smaller instrumental voices and alternative tuning are perfectly served by his system, a vinyl-only setup that arguably sets a new standard for both high-end minimalism and conceptual elegance at the same time.

Not surprisingly, the front-end is a Thales TTT-Compact II ‘table and Simplicity II tonearm, carrying the current flagship EMT cartridge, the relatively modestly priced JSD P6 (€3900). This feeds a set of the rare Holborne electronics. These legendary Swiss minimalist hybrid designs seem to be produced in very limited numbers on an almost occasional basis. The line stage and power amp are still listed as "under development," although Huber obviously benefits from an inside track. Aside from source select (which is redundant in this particular system), the only control is the volume knob, making them pretty much as minimalist as things get. Both the turntable and all the electronics are supported on Thales Levi-Base pneumatic isolation platforms ($2600 each), essentially two slabs of machined MDF separated by a carefully arranged bicycle inner tube, although this is less than obvious, as the platforms have been sunk into the surface of the supporting 'table, keeping things visually neat.

Perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of this all-Swiss system is the speakers -- compact, two-way Pawel Acoustics Electras (15,000 Swiss francs per pair), the current version of a highly regarded design perhaps better known in its original form as the Ensemble PA1, a speaker that garnered a reputation for resolution, spatial coherence and transparency. The Electra might have lost the PA1’s piano-black finish and its striking driver lineup, including its aluminum-foil bass-mid unit and the B139AB racetrack passive radiator that used to occupy the entire rear baffle, but that’s because both front- and rear-facing drivers have been substantially upgraded and improved. The distinctive cabinet shape remains, as does the plywood construction -- and the lucid, agile and articulate sound.

On the end of the Thales/EMT turntable and Holborne electronics the little Pawel speakers simply disappeared, delivering a sound that was natural, unforced and engaging. Voices were particularly impressive and the patterns and structures of baroque music were effortlessly revealed. But what made this small system, situated in a small space, so impressive was the way in which it managed to bring the performances to life, re-creating the original acoustic, rendering the original instruments and singers independent of both the system and the room boundaries. That natural sense of timing and modulation, musical flow and phrasing made a compelling argument for the Thales approach to minimizing tracing error, the sound having all the hallmarks of the best passive parallel trackers, combined with the dynamic precision and rhythmic authority of the best gimbal 'arms. In fairness, you could overpower the system with dynamic rock or pop -- music it was never designed to play -- but even on larger-scale orchestral works it maintained its spatial coherence in all but the loudest passages, while the baroque and classical repertoire favored by Micha Huber rarely stretched it.

An extremely enjoyable morning’s listening left me wondering just how impressive the Thales turntables and tonearms might be on bigger systems, where their spatial and dynamic coherence might be exploited ever further. Micha Huber’s system is the very model of a nearfield setup, exploiting the strengths of the quick, uncluttered speakers and amplification to the full. Like any system, it needs to be matched to the space in which it has to work and the preferred program material, accommodations it has navigated with considerable skill.

But as far as this setup was from the systems I’d recently been listening to at home, besides the sheer musical satisfaction it delivered, one other thing stuck in my mind: the abiding memory of the silky-smooth operation of the Simplicity II. Every time I changed a record it was impossible not to marvel at the precision, feel and total freedom of the tonearm’s movement. The sheer musicality of the system’s performance rested firmly on the quality of the front-end, and this visit left me keen to hear a lot more from the Thales products, designs as beautifully judged as they are executed.

 

 
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Thales Factory Visit 6/21/2017

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