Dr Richard Varey has a marathon session with a hi-fidelity maestro with a singular vision. Warning: this piece may change your whole perspective on hi-fi.
IN MY RECENT survey of hi-fi manufacturers in New Zealand for TNT-Audio, I inadvertently overlooked one small yet brightly shining star in the Aotearoa audio firmament. A certain Mr Franco Viganoni and his Sachém amplifiers and Audio Pro wireless range. I don’t meet many Italians in New Zealand, and Franco Viganoni is an instantly likeable and passionate outspoken artisan audiophile who makes a big impact when you meet him, with his charismatic personality and wealth of knowledge, and his great love of great music.
When I realised that his work was not listed in my survey I contacted him to find out about his range of products and services. He generously invited me to his base in the beautiful bay town of Orewa, on the romantic sounding Hibiscus Coast Highway, north of Auckland. I’m not the first to be wooed and wowed by the dynamics and clarity of music replayed on Franco’s home audio system, and charmed by his passion for great music. It was a privilege and an exhilarating pleasure to spend about 10 hours listening to much live recorded music and talking about hi-fi.
Franco doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about the performance vs. price of equipment offered by slick marketers, and on the quality of music recordings. I couldn’t help but learn a few truths from this extended immersion in exhilarating music reproduction. The fact-finding trip turned out to be an extraordinary experience – a tour-de-force education in listening to the sound of music.
He believes his challenging claims are substantiated and justified by his having been present at performances doing the recording of the music he loves and shares, so he knows what it is supposed to sound like. This puts special requirements on the audio system for correct playback, and was the genesis of his design and development work in recent years. Another interesting surprise is that Franco has been digitally recording classical music performances for many years, and has gone entirely down the digital path, with no analogue equipment in his home system or product range. All the music played came from a digitised disc of one format or another, much of it streamed across his home network. Franco is a fully digital man, having learned many years ago that “digital hides nothing” and that “close miking kills music”, and has applied this thinking in his extensive range of live recordings.
Franco’s experience good and bad has led him to the view that hi-fidelity music reproduction is all about the quality of the recording – GIGO is the truth! Then, if you don’t hear the natural character of real voices and instruments it’s the playback system that’s at fault. Sweet, agreeable sound that is pleasing to the ear is the goal. The key, says Franco, is the speed of transient rise and fall in circuits and transducers. This pursuit of fast, clean (low distortion) signal handling has led to the design incorporated in the Viganoni & Viganoni Sachém Pure preamplifier and Sachém v.2 monoblock power amplifiers, in production and development since 2003, and the Sachém guitar amplifier. The name Sachém (pronounced sa-kèm) was given to a chief in native American culture to honour prowess.
What I listened to was his own system, not a commercial showroom setup, and the music played was not what I would have chosen. We heard live recordings of castrato male vocal, orchestra, guitar, female jazz voice, opera, organ, and piano. I vividly can recall the powerful sensations of hearing Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ at full tilt on a large cathedral organ. Wow!
As we listened, I jotted down some questions. What am I hearing? Do I hear the music or the reproduction? Always the latter, but what of the recording, or even the composition, or the playback transducers? In the home, we ‘hear’ as a conscious situated perceiver and understander, the sound presented by the reproduction equipment, of a recording of a performance of constructed music, often with manipulation and processing, then media manufacture. Right through the chain of links, quality is at stake.
We played some ‘commercial’ recordings, including a selected Robbie Williams album. It was not a rich and enjoyable sound. Franco had invited me to take some of my favourite music and I had chosen a couple of albums that he might like – Lingomania’s Camminando (Italian jazz) and Hevia’s No Man’s Land (Spanish Celtic electronic bagpipes) – ironically my choice turned out to unwittingly take me walking straight into audio no-man’s land! My intention of sharing some culturally interesting music was thwarted by mediocre and downright poor recordings, mercilessly exposed by the ultra-revealing system Franco has made for himself. He wanted to demonstrate that poor recordings spoil musical engagement, and he was so right. His amplifiers and speakers revealed that the sound of the Hevia album particularly was messy, compacted, confused – the mistake of the studio engineers when recording, mixing and mastering the discs. I was quite shocked and disappointed to realise that production processing could so spoil the musical experience. Franco stopped the playback, saying that the sound was hurting him (he did tell me that the Italian recording was a little better)!
The reality of equipment performance is really only a matter of physics. Audio engineering is applied physics that is successful when the sound produced is realistic – euphonic with lightning-fast dynamics. His handclap test is very telling. In his live classical performance recordings, audience member handclaps come over explosively and discrete as you would hear them if you were in the auditorium audience, rather than as the cacophony that washes over the loudspeakers in many live recordings.
Franco strongly advises anyone who aspires to being a wise, discerning audiophile to always look inside the box to see if the design is serious and clever. And the pretty box oftens costs you more than the electronics! I picked out some special highlights from the Sachém design philosophy and practice. In the Pure preamplifier, to achieve neutral signal treatment, there are no capacitors in the circuits and no wiring, even in the power supply. The circuits are as small as possible to ensure short electrical signal tracks, and use mini-components. Bass response gets special attention, and Franco recommends the use of a suitable active sub-bass driver properly integrated into the system. His amplifiers have settings to accomplish that. The preamplifier is easily upgraded and adapted to personal taste through ‘chip rolling’. The Sachém v.2 mono-blocks are also wire-free, with just one carefully selected high quality capacitor in the signal path. His equipment design philosophy centres on the commitment to transducers not exhibiting sonic character from musical instruments. Few others accomplish this in practice!
There is no good reason for me to reproduce the extensively detailed explanations written by Franco. You can read it all on his web site, and a lot more. I especially recommend his School Of Sound. His website is packed with highly informative thinking on hi-fi which draws on his many years of experience, critique, and development work.
The Sachém amplifier may be, at least within my experience, the chief of realistic amplification, but the big chief – who conceived, designed, and produces the marvellous Sachém system with commitment and flair – is Franco Viganoni himself. He is a true inspiration and he knows the way to magical music mastery and loves to share his knowledge and his passion with anyone who is open to the learning experience.
In addition, Franco has been an agent with the Swedish Audio Pro brand since 1978 (in Italy) and has been the distributor for New Zealand since 2000. Nowadays, the production of Audio Pro is based on very innovative and incredibly good sounding wireless loudspeakers – I heard them! Franco also sells Styleaudio USB DACs (from South Korea) and a Sachém Guitar amplifier/speaker combo for discerning guitar players. A personal “hi-fi doctor” service is also provided.
Hot news from Franco as I write this article is that work is currently advanced on an updated version of the Pure with the preamplifier and power supply in a single new case. DR RICHARD VAREY
Sachém Pure Preamplifier $6950.
Sachém v.2 Monoblock Power Amplifier $4800 each