Sitting on a sofa in Helsinki’s Kruununhaka district on a grey March morning, I was startled when Miles Davis and his late ‘60s quintet suddenly appeared in front of me.
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock hunched near the window in the modest flat that serves as Knif Audio’s headquarters. Drummer Tony Williams meditated behind a hulking Knif amp while the Prince of Darkness glowered a metre away, his trumpet slicing and electrifying the air.
This is the kind of high-end musical experience for which audiophiles pay astonishing sums. In this case, it was provided by a pair of 168cm-high wooden sculptures, the first pair of Knif Rauman Nº1 loudspeakers.
Since 2005, Knif Audio has attracted a stellar reputation – and long waiting lists – for its handcrafted pro studio components and a cult-favourite analogue synthesiser, the Knifonium [see sidebar].
Now founder Jonte Knif and designer Janne Rauman have set up a new firm, Knif Rauman, to enter the crowded high-end loudspeaker market. The towering No. 1 speakers will be launched internationally at High End Munich trade fair in May.
Like Knif Audio’s sought-after equalizers, they will be made to order, at a price tag of close to 50,000 euros a pair – “quite a competitive price in this market,” says Knif drily.
Knif Rauman joins the ranks of Finnish hi-fi loudspeaker exporters, including Aurelia, Gradient, two industry heavy-hitters, Genelec and Amphion.
In line with clichés about Finns, all three firms emphasise simplicity and no-nonsense honesty in their products – which can mean revealing the shortcomings in a musical recording.
“There’s a tendency to alter things to one’s liking, even in the professional field,” says Amphion’s founder and managing director, Anssi Hyvönen. “One can claim that Mona Lisa would look hotter with a bit of make-up on. But she would no longer be the Mona Lisa that Leonardo da Vinci painstakingly created. Our job is to reproduce what’s in the recording as faithfully as possible. For better or for worse; nothing more and nothing less.”
“We believe in simplicity,” Hyvönen goes on to say. “For us the loudspeaker is first and foremost an acoustic device. Whatever we can achieve acoustically, we don’t have to fix electrically. Whatever we can remove from the signal chain improves transparency and resolution and brings us closer to the music.”
Genelec takes a similar view.
“In our philosophy of sound reproduction, the key word is neutral,” says Senior Advisory Officer Lars-Olof Janflod. “Our speakers are designed to reproduce the original audio signal as truthfully as possible.”
“I also design Knif Audio equipment to be pretty close to neutral because I find strong colourations alien to my view about what mastering equipment is really about,” says Knif. “Aesthetic values come into the picture when we have to decide what kind of imperfections we will tolerate. If we talk about boring things like amplification and digital-to-analog conversions, they’re already close to perfection. But as soon as we start to talk about recording and loudspeakers, things get really, really complicated and imperfect. That’s where the magic lies – making the right compromises and combinations of choices.”
Home to studio – and back again
Genelec, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, is world-renowned among audio professionals for industry-standard studio monitor speakers, moving more recently into consumer and live-venue audio.
“Genelec’s core market is the professional market, as when the company was founded,” says Janflod. “However, we’ve spread our wings into other segments like home audio and AV installation.”
Amphion, established 20 years later, has gone the opposite route, first becoming known for its home speakers and only later gaining a reputation for professional studio monitors.
“Though we only launched the pro products five years ago, they already make up most of our turnover,” says Hyvönen. “Both pro and home speakers have clear roles in the chain of transferring the emotion present in the studio to the end listener. We should remember that music is not a frequency curve, but a transfer of emotion from one person or party to another.”
The biggest difference between studio and consumer usage is that “typically the professional products are used at a listening distance of 1-2 meters, which tends to be quite a bit shorter than at home,” he points out. “And the room acoustics also tend to be different” – a decisive factor.
“With the democratisation of music-making in recent years, music is made in literally any kind of environment,” notes Janflod. “Bedroom studios are now common. What you needed millions to do earlier can now be done for a few thousand. This fact has obviously set new demands for companies like Genelec. One way we’ve responded is with our Smart Active Monitor (SAM) software, which allows the user to optimize their monitors to the room.”
“In a bad room the result is a mess, no matter how good the speakers are,” says Knif. “Typical boxed speakers need quite a good room to offer decent resolution, because they radiate sound all over the place.”
As rooms vary, so do listeners’ musical diets – which naturally shapes demands on speakers.
For instance, says Janflod, “some genres such as hip hop, rap and EDM require playback to be loud and deep in bass, so that calls for bigger monitors.”
According to Knif, “unfortunately some styles are not recorded and mixed to be enjoyed with a system which offers good resolution. Our Knif Rauman speakers offer such a clear window into the production that mainstream pop or heavy becomes mostly unlistenable. It’s just too compressed, too harsh. It’s often a big disappointment for people to hear for the first time how absolutely terrible their favourite recordings sound compared to good ones when listening to good speakers in a good room for the first time.”
“Other than that, the only real difference between excellent speakers for different styles of music is bass extension. If you only listen to classical guitar or harpsichord music, you don’t need bass extension. But great speakers are great for everything – except for bad recordings of course!” he says.
Photo by Amphion Loudspeakers Ltd.
Lars-Olof Janflod (right).
State-of-the-art live sound
Speakers include drivers that deliver bass, mid-range and treble frequencies, which are split up by crossovers, an area where Amphion takes a different approach than many other producers.
“For some reason a lot of speaker manufacturers put their crossover point in the area where human hearing is the most sensitive, around 2000-5000 Hz. Our approach is to move the crossover to the area where the ear’s sensitivity is lower, so we can create a seamless transition from one driver to another,” explains Hyvönen.
The speakers’ waveguide – which physically guides the sound waves – allows speakers to work better in different acoustic environments and “offers the possibility of ‘seeing’ the instruments in three-dimensional space,” he adds.
Virtually all Genelec speakers, meanwhile, have a trademark rounded shape, created with leading Finnish designer Harri Koskinen, also known for his similarly curved LP storage units. While the speakers look simple, they are quite complex.
“We make active speakers, which means we not only design the speaker but also the amplification driving it,” says Janflod. “This allows us to build in features to further enhance the reproduction, such as SAM.”
Genelec fine-tuned this system for Helsinki’s state-of-the-art music club, G Livelab (the “G” refers to the company name). In 2016, Genelec supplied the audio system for this intimate venue, including more than 70 speakers of various types.
“G Livelab has certainly opened people’s eyes to the fact that you can also use monitor loudspeakers in a live environment, although it’s limited to special projects like this,” he says.
“It’s the same concept but the room in Tampere is bigger so the audio rig will also have to be too – since the G Livelab concept revolves around having loudspeakers close to the audience,” says Janflod. (See also the FMQ article here.)
The clubs offer a showcase for Genelec, but how else do these relatively small Finnish audio firms manage to succeed on the crowded global market?
“The Finnish personality of listening more than talking seems to be a good foundation for development of audio products,” suggests Hyvönen. “Generally we Finns tend to be stronger with products than marketing, which is maybe why the companies tend to be more focused on the professional markets. Keeping in mind the tiny size of the country, Finnish audio has done well for itself in the highly competitive global market.”
Janflod points to “the amazing amount of research going on at Helsinki’s Aalto University, which certainly has an impact on the global market”. (See also Tapio Lokki's column.)
Both Amphion and Genelec estimate that close to 80 percent of their design and manufacturing is Finnish, though Hyvönen explains that the components for his firm’s relatively new line of amplifiers, which are assembled in-house, mostly come from abroad.
While the other firms, both based in eastern Finland, praise their local craftspeople’s work, the Helsinki-based Knif is more blunt.
“Finland might be the most liveable country in the world, but for subcontracting well-made stuff, this is a bad place to be. I finally found a good metal machining firm for Knif Audio components, but good surface treatment is very hard to find,” he says.
Still, all three also stress the role of old-school handicraft from design through manufacturing.
“Especially during development, the human ear cannot be replaced, as it senses things which the measurement microphones cannot pick up,” says Hyvönen. “Solid, correct measurement data is only a starting point for turning a good product into a magical one.”
Featured photo: Knif Rauman No.1 loudspeakers.
While none of these Finnish audio brands may yet be household names to average consumers abroad, they’re all revered by the top echelon of producers and engineers.
These include US producer Jacquire King, who’s won Grammy Awards for his work with Tom Waits, Buddy Guy and Kings of Leon, and swears by Amphion.
“Amphion finds the balance between the pleasure of listening to music on a precisely matched home hi-fi system and the focused, no-nonsense needs of studio monitoring,” he says. “The speakers focus on mid-range detail, which is essential in making recordings and mixes that translate to other playback systems.”
Another top US producer, Jack Joseph Puig, who’s worked with U2 and the Black Crowes, stresses that “studio monitors are our most important pieces of equipment. Amphion speakers and their matching amplifier produce the best clarity and resolution I’ve been able to find. They create pinpoint accuracy.”
Like King, he underlines the importance of the mid-range, which is crucial as even the cheapest speaker or earbud has mid-range.
“Every listening environment in the world has mid-range. That band must be perfectly balanced. It's where the soul of music lives.”
Meanwhile the UK’s Simon Climie, who’s written hits for Aretha Franklin and George Michael and produced albums for Eric Clapton, ‘loves’ Genelec speakers.
“I’ve made so many albums relying on them and they’ve never let me down. They’re fun to write and record with, and also translate really well into other rooms or mastering. From my old school 1031s which we recorded all the Michael McDonald Motown albums with, to the huge monitors at Olympic 1 where we recorded Eric Clapton’s Pilgrim, the 8020s for songwriting and lovely 8351s. It’s hard to describe, but they always give me a full, true accurate sound.”
Climie also appreciates Genelec’s Smart Active Monitor (SAM) technology, which automatically adapts monitors to the acoustic environment.
Closer to home, Helsinki’s Henkka Niemistö is one of the Nordic region’s most sought-after mastering engineers, and a dedicated Amphion user.
“They help me work efficiently and make the right decisions time after time, regardless of the musical style,” says Niemistö, whose mastering work includes hits by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Finnish Chisu and Darude as well as Nokia ringtones and Angry Birds games.“My favourite setup is the Two18’s paired with BaseTwo25’s, which allows for good frequency response from about 10Hz” – far lower than most people can hear.
Featured photo: Room of Mastering Engineer Henkka Niemistö, Helsinki Finland.
Photo by H. Niemistö.
The importance of cables – myth or reality?
In Finland there has been some public discussion lately on the role of cables for sound systems – as well as their cost. What should one know about cables?
“For any affordable set, one should not spend a penny on exotic cables. Good quality studio cabling and good quality connectors for mechanical stability and years of carefree use are enough. Exotic cables make a very small difference, if any, and the resolution of the whole system including the room has to be on a very high level for those minute differences to be audible. I use cables which I wind together from Teflon insulated wire, which is of very high quality in mechanical and electrical properties. I spend no more that 150 euros to make a pair of very high quality loudspeaker cables. (-) It’s important to understand that loudspeakers are the most important part and should get more of the budget than anything else.“
- Jonte Knif
“Of course it’s better to use a quality cable than one of poor quality. As long as one chooses a cable from a well-known manufacturer, one is on the safe side. There are also very expensive, esoteric cables but for a normal setup it’s not necessary to spend that kind of money.”
- Lars-Olof Janflod
“Cables must be taken into consideration in a high performance system. As tire choice affects the performance of a car, all cables are not the same. But just as tire choices are more important in a F1 racer and not as critical in a family car, most normal systems perform well with a wide range of cables. Room acoustics and how speakers are positioned play far greater roles than cables. The sad part of the hi-fi market is that people spend substantial amount of money on their systems but do not think about their listening rooms one bit.
– Anssi Hyvönen
Featured photo: Room of recording, mixing engineer Alan Vukelic, Germany.
Photo by Denis Kotscherow.
Besides his sought-after pro studio components, Jonte Knif has created a more unusual product: the Knifonium, a synthesizer with only traditional vacuum tubes. Here he performs Cadenza of the 1st movement "Fat & Filth" from Olli Virtaperko's Concerto for Knifonium and Chamber Orchestra, 2013/2015 (Ondine).
HIGH END 2019, the world's biggest Hi-Fi trade fair, takes place in Munich 9-12 May.