MY FIRST GLIMPSE of a set of Viganoni and Viganoni’s three-box Sachem monoblock power amplifiers was in a half page advert in the long defunct FFWD magazine, back in 2004 or 2005. Something about the minimalist design really worked for me, and the bold claims as to their performance got me intrigued. The excellent reviews in both FFWD and Tone magazines firmly planted the Sachem in my psyche as potentially being some kind of mythical power amp of the gods that just happened to be made in New Zealand. Unfortunately, they were exceedingly rare because they never went into mass production, so hearing one in the hinterlands (the Bay of Plenty where I was living at the time) just wasn’t happening.
Then in mid-2006, I started working at Tone magazine. Guess who was one of the first people I went to see? No less a luminary than Mr Franco Viganoni himself, designer of the Sachems, and perhaps the most outspoken man in New Zealand audio. I still vividly remember that day. The first time I heard a set of Sachems was also the first time I heard Nils Lofgren’s ‘Keith Don’t Go’ from his Acoustic Live CD. That encounter proved to be a major influence in my hi-fi path, because scale, dynamics and transparency were elevated right to the top of my must-have list. As they say, ‘I saw the light’ and I made up my mind then and there to own a set of Sachems one day. Given that only about 25 sets were ever made, it seemed that I might be waiting a while.
Occasionally however, things work out just right, and about 18 months later, a set of Sachems with the bling gold faceplates and black cases found their way into my hi-fi rack, where they’ve stayed ever since. In the same way that I eventually happened to end up owning the Sachems, I’ll eventually end up owning the perfect preamp for them. As anyone who has been following my blog for a while knows, I’ve been looking for the right preamp since I got these amps. I’ve been close, very close, but when I heard that Franco was designing a preamp, I put my search on hold until I could actually hear one.
The new preamp isn’t ready yet, but I headed up to Orewa to find out more about its design. It’s impossible to visit Franco without having an espresso and listening to his system, while discussing all things audio. I also got a chance to hear the new Sachem guitar amps played loud, and then LOUD! In the course of a lengthy session with Franco’s main hi-fi rig, two things occurred to me, as they always do when I hear this system:
1 – That Franco’s unorthodox approach to hi-fi makes an enormous amount of sense and it gets real results.
2 – That I’m very lucky indeed to own a set of Sachems
Unorthodox Equals Results
Looking at point number one, Franco is quite definitive about what makes a hi-fi system. As he says on his website: “Generally speaking, I highly recommend the use of a top quality sub-woofer with any type of speakers. Audiophiles often forget, or just do not know that, by definition, a hi-fi system must reproduce frequencies across the audible range, from 20Hz to 20kHz ± 3dB. So, if you want to use the term “hi-fi” for your sound system, you must have a dedicated sub-bass speaker, as NO traditional full-range speaker can achieve decent infra-bass.”
Many will argue this point with him, debating whether that 20Hz to 20kHz ± 3dB target is actually required or even relevant (every owner of bookshelf speakers in the world for example), but it’s tough to argue that if you actually want to get down to 20Hz, most speakers don’t have a snowball in hell’s chance of doing it without humungous cabinets housing big drivers, along with their associated costs. Even then, bass distortion is one of hi-fi’s white elephants and is hardly ever mentioned – when Hi-Fi World magazine started publishing bass distortion figures in their review measurements, some of the numbers were alarming. If an amplifier generated that amount of distortion, you’d leave the room in a hurry before the amp went bang!
So, if you want bass in your music, Franco would have you use a speaker that’s specifically been designed to reproduce bass frequencies, and that as we all know is what subwoofers do. According to him, you can’t use just any subwoofer though, no way! Only Audio Pro subs need apply, and only when they’re integrated very, very carefully with the main speakers by cutting the bass frequencies sent to the speakers. Franco designed the Sachems to have both flat and cut inputs, so they can be run into full range speakers like my Theophany M5’s or they can cut the bass. In the case of my original version 1 Sachems, they roll off the bass from 160Hz and down. The newer models have dip switches to allow the roll-off point to be changed.
My Home-Baked Attempts
I actually tried this approach a few years back after I bought an Audio Pro sub at the Stereo World closing down sale. Without Franco and his frequency analyzer on hand to set up the system, I did everything by ear, which he’ll say is stupid but the results were interesting. Cutting the bass to the M5s cleared up the midrange to a surprising degree, even in a speaker that I consider to be very transparent through the mids. In addition to that, there’s obviously no doubt that a big, high-quality subwoofer will put on an impressive showing when it comes to deep bass, running lower and tighter than the speakers with less boom once properly placed. Overall, even with my third-world audible setup methodology, I was very happy with what I was hearing, which was a fundamentally better system, exactly as Franco predicted – with enhanced dynamics, bigger scale and improved imaging. So what’s the problem then? Well, I didn’t really have space for the sub, so it went back into storage until I moved into a bigger place. Then I went overseas and sold the sub because it was taking up too much space in a storage locker that was now packed with everything I owned.
So this sub and mains method definitely works, and it works well. Because it frees the speakers to do only what they do best, they tend to rise beyond their limitations. Franco is currently running a pair of two driver Audio Pro centre speakers turned on their heads so they’re set up as tall, narrow stand-mounts with a D’Appolito or mid-high-mid configuration. They’re matched to his 33-year-old Audio Pro B2-50 subwoofer. I’ve heard that sub and Franco’s upgraded version 1 Sachems many times, with main speakers ranging from Audio Pro’s range toppers right down to tiny satellites and in every case, the result is much the same – impressive.
After a few tracks, I had to ask how much the main speakers cost. When I was told that they were $1199 each, I had to wonder if I was being taken for a ride or if I was perhaps hallucinating. In my experience, in the world of conventional (that is, non-Franco) hi-fi, $2400 worth of speakers does not sound this good. Hell, it doesn’t sound anywhere near this good.
Admittedly these low-cost (comparatively speaking) speakers are being paired with an old, but extremely capable subwoofer, an obscure but good preamp, and some of the best power amps (for less than silly money) that I’ve ever heard, but look at the overall layout of the system. A $1400 StyleAudio USB DAC run from an old laptop, Nordost’s cheapest Flatline speaker cable, similarly inexpensive interconnects and again, a pair of $2400 speakers. In all seriousness, I’ve heard some expensive systems over the years that in many ways just don’t compare.
Between the soundstaging, the detail levels, the transparency and the dynamics, it’s hard to come up with enough superlatives to do the sound any justice, so I’m not even going to try, except to say that this is an example of true high-end sound without a truly scary high-end price tag – those cables are probably the cheapest in any system that sounds this good, which for some reason I find utterly amusing.
The sound on offer in Franco’s lounge won’t please everyone though – it’s extremely revealing, to the point where modern pop can be painful, and even “well recorded” classical music can sound thin and flat. Play one of Franco’s own classical recordings however, and the differences are starkly apparent. Glossing over the flaws in a recording just isn’t happening here. I’m sure that many audiophiles will find the system to be fatiguing, but I don’t find that at all.
At some stage, I’ll have to take Franco up on his offer of a full set up at my place but unfortunately, time is running out. Audio Pro has embraced the doctrine that the future is wireless, so the company’s passive speakers as favoured by Franco are on the way out, and a new range of wireless powered and active speakers are on the way in. It’s going to be tough to hook a Sachem up to that lot. Audio Pro won’t be the last manufacturer to go this way and eventually, passive speakers will be a rarity, at least in mainstream terms.
The new preamp should be ready to run in a couple of months, which means I’ll be driving back up to Orewa, and will hopefully get one to audition. ASHLEY KRAMER