Matej Isak talks with legendary Slovenian turntable designer Franc Kuzma
How did all started for Franc Kuzma audio?
My love for rock music evolved into an appreciation for jazz and classical music and to listen your favourite records you needed a playback system. Soon I discovered that on a friend’s system the music sounded fuller, richer, more realistic than you could even imagine. That is how you get hooked and then you start exploring why there are these differences. Soon you start realising that there is more to it.
When did you get “hooked” to the music and hi-fi?
When I was about 13-14 I started listening to foreign radio stations, which played different music to what was then played around us. Records were expensive, so taping was the cheapest way to build a music library. For the price of one cassete (1968-1969) you could record two LPs which costs 3-4 times more. But to do this you needed to have a turntable, amplifiers........ So in 1971-1972 I discovered HIFI.
What made you move into creating fine machines for vinyl replay?
If you want to understand why some components sounded better than another you need to know what affects the differences. To know that you need to know some basic principles and, together with practical experience and theoretical thinking you try to get rid of as many compromises as you can in any design. My background is more mechanical than electrical so for me it was easier to understand mechanical principles in detail than electrical.
Was that your entry to high-end industry?
HIFI in a nutshell is music being reproduced in the best possible way. High-end is just a level which is trying to be above average HIFI and which became a very popular phrase in the mid seventies, when quality was defined by measuring, rather than by listening.
When and how did you present your turntables abroad?
By luck and various factors (visiting audio shops abroad, audio shows, knowing some people in the audio industry, audiophiles community). The tonearm was first introduced outside Yugoslavia in 1985 when a Stogi tonearm review was published in HIFI News magazine.
Would you consider yourself as an audiophile?
Absolutely and I simply do not understand some people who claim that they do not care about audio and that only music matters. I am not a musician and music is very personal. Good reproduction is a technical problem and audiophiles and designers are there to improve it.
Who were your inspirations, products and people, which made biggest impact on you (and still are)?
When you become interested in audio you come across cheaper and then more and more expensive products - not always in that order.
In the early 80’s there were a lot of good products around but the magazines, which started reviewing products by listening and not by measuring, had the greatest effect. This inspired a lot of good designs and new thinking about how to improve products or set up audio systems. Of course there were companies that were (and are) established and you try to measure against them. At that time the most talked about turntables were Linn and Oracle and when J.R.(the owner of Oracle) visited me to talk about buying our tonearms for their turntables, we knew we had proved that our product was good. At that time other good products were AR, CJ, Quad, ML, VDH,.....
Kindly list all of the present products from Kuzma?
We currently make three turntables and 9 tonearms. The turntables vary in mass and concept. The smallest turntable is Stabi S, which can be adapted to take two tonearms. Stabi Reference is a suspended turntable with two motors and is of an aluminium and acrylic sandwich construction. Our biggest turntable is Stabi XL with 4 motors, a 24 kg heavy platter and weighing in total 110 kg.
We produce standard, ball bearing (ABEC 7) tonearms called Stogi and Stogi Ref, including a 12 inch version with VTA towers. The cheapest is Stogi S tonearm with a unipivot bearing and a 12-inch version with optional VTA. Our more expensive tonearms are the 4Point tonerm with our unique four point bearing and a tangential air bearing tonearm called Air Line.
Stabi S, Stabi Reference and Stabi XL. What connects them and how they share the Kuzma DNA?
They use all the same drive belt and motors with different power supplies.
The bearings also have similar types of shafts and sliding material combined with the same finishing touches on the shafts. This gives a smooth uniform drive. The platter is either a combination of aluminium and acrylic, or aluminium internally damped with rubber foam. All runouts are below 0.02 mm. They also share the same mat.
A rigid connection between the platter bearing and tonearm mount is very important, altough Stabi XL has none. Here pure mass acts as a rigid fixed non resonant distance between the record and cartridge.
Insulation from the floor is minimal on Stabi S but, due its non resonant construction, the turntable is not sensitive, especially when used with properly constructed tonearms. The biggest turntable again uses its mass to be stable, while Stabi Ref uses a low resonance, damped filtering system ( 2.2 Hz), thus avoiding the need for special insulation platforms.
Please elaborate more on Stabi XL. This is you premium turntable. What makes it so special?
Beside the description above, all parts are designed in such way that they are inert, rigid, have minimal resonance and have a precise drive and bearing. Also its tonearm VTA tower allows simple but rigid and precise VTA adjustment as well as being able to accomodate any tonearm. It is possible to fit three towers in total.
Stabi S is well known turntable among audiophiles. Please tell us more about it’s unique design?
The main feature is a very rigid non-resonant connection between the platter bearing and tonearm support. Most turntables have a plate of a certain thickness and if you knock on it it will resonate , thus making unwanted movements between the record and needle. In Stabi S there is a brass rod of 50 mm - just knock on it - it will not resonate. The rest is all the same, all parts are made with this aproach in mind. A precise drive with minimal resonance and disturbance gives tonearms a chance to show how good they are.
Why do you think Stabi S found so many happy homes?
It is the simplest possible, good non-compromise turntable. Its design follows its function and, as a result, it has even been exhibited in a few shows of industrial design.
Would you say that greatly designed turntable as Stabi S can perform very well with the state of the art tonearm and cartridge?
Absolutely, that is how it was designed and only then can you see how good the turntable is.
Stabi S and Stabi XL share brass as a main material for their construction. This is no coincidence right?
Brass is a heavy, dense low resonant material and although it is easy to machine, it is not easy to keep a good finish.
High mass in turntable design. Fetish or working principle?
Mass must be properly distributed to gain structual rigidity where it is needed. I cannot imagine any precise machine being flimsily made whether it is a grinding machine, microscope, a high quality camera or even hand tools.
Did you ever consider any other principle then belt driven one?
Yes, but there is always a compromise between bringing uniform momentum onto the platter from a motor and at the same time avoiding bringing motor vibration onto the platter. The compromise is to use as rigid belt as possible with low vibration and low cooging motor. But if you use a heavy platter, then you need to bring enough momentum onto the platter.
What would be the ultimate dream turntable design?
It would be very expensive, but I had a glimpse of what is possible when we try a very heavy platter (50kg) with no bearing friction and without any drive at all.
Tangential vs regular tonearm?
If the tangential tonearm compromises bearing and structural rigidity, you are better off with the best pivoted arms.
A tangential tonearm’s zero point in flimsy bearings is a compromise and the cartridge cannot read the grooves properly, especially in heavily modulated grooves, which is not a problem with best pivoted arms. So it is a matter of design rather then principle.
Do you think that both designs can be used in ultimate playback?
4Point caught a lot of attention. What sets it apart?
We use a similar approcah in all our products, but in 4Point we managed to make bearings with very low friction and noise and, at the same time is this novel bearing system stable and rigid, giving cartridge to simply be above record and needle can move only as groove requires.
Any plans to re-introduce Kuzma cartridges?
Yes, but it is too soon to elaborate - it might be our own brand made in Japan.
Best cartridges on the market in your view?
All the best models from the best cartridge makers.
Best buy regardless the price and budget ones?
I don’t have much experience lately in this area.
Many found great synergy with legendary Denon DL-103 and Stabi S. What do you think about this combination?
I hear it is very good, but Stabi S &Stogi S would perform even better with Denon’s best cartridge.
Upcoming Stabi M is another stand out. What was the goal and inspiration behind this design?
To make a classic looking turntable with a lid, able to take 12 inch tonearms and being the best possible turntable. It will weigh 60 kg with a 12 kg heavy platter and novel drive belt.
Can you kindly tell us more about benedictions of 12” tone arms?
I believe that lower tangential distortion is not a main factor. If so, then all tonearms would play wonderfully at zero points (66 or 110mm), but they do not. The tonearm behaves with more stability due to a smaller impact of bias forces on the tonearm and lower resonance frequency. Also bearing vibrations are further away from the cartridge.
How important is VTA for the ultimate replay?
Very, but not always.
It seems there is no universal setting for VTA. There are so many factors affecting this. Is on the fly adjustment a must for ultimate reproduction?
I set up VTA (taking into account that tracking force changes VTA) within less then 0.1mm and then leave it there for most of the records. If you have an easy VTA adjustment you can easy change it if, for example the record is screaming at you, you lower the VTA for few 0.1mm and that makes the sound more pleasant. Of course VTA and azimuth are both important!
Your view on magnetic bearing, which is used by some companies?
Most companies do not use a magnetic bearing, but only magnetic force to minimise platter trust on the bearing. A passive magnetic bearing act like a spring and the platter will go up and down. An air bearing is a much better ultimate solution.
I tried a Furutech demagnetising machine for LPs, which works by eliminating tiny magnetic forces which are in the vinyl - and the resulting sound is remarkable. So personally I am trying to avoid any magnetic forces as much as possible.
Kuzma Audio products are well known worldwide. How does it feel to be an ambassador of high-end society?
When we discover something which improves the sound from records and knowing that this will be another step towards our ultimate goal, it does feel good, for a while.
It must be great feeling to know, that your creations helped connect so many music lovers to their bellowed artists?
I do got a lot of thank you letters (emails) from satisfied customers who appreciate what we do.
What product of yours you’re most proud of?
It is always the latest. Along with those which we’ve produce the longest.
Do you produce everything in house?
Yes, but of course machining, anodising and painting parts are done by our contractors with whom we have a close relationship. For example, just for the 4Point tonearm we need to have 200 parts.
What would you say is specific about stand out reproduction signature quality of your turntables?
Hopefully nothing! They let the records speak for themselves.
You don’t hide anything as far as I know. Just honest and clever engineering?
Most of our designs are open – you can see how is everything made- they do look simple.
Tubes vs Transistors?
I will ask this: What is better: a good tube vs a bad transistor or a bad tube vs. good transistor. It is a matter of execution - personally I use tubes at preamp level and transistors with a lot of quality power.
What would you say that sets Franc Kuzma turntables above other manufacturers?
What sets us above I do not know, but we do try to make the best, honest, reliable and simple as possible products.
Would you say, that ones love for music reflects in his product?
Love for music? I do not believe that a great composer or musician can make the best possible musical instruments because of a love for music. You do need to understand everything that affects the products and have the skills to make it better. But a combination of both can be beneficial.
Prices can go quite high within high-end. Where is the borderline between luxury and real high-end?
If all the expensive parts built into a product justify the quality of sound why not, if someone is prepared to buy it. It shows what is possible and usually trickles down to cheaper products. But today’s products seem to emphasise aesthetics. How it will look in the room is more important than how it performs. So there is more compromise on sound than on the looks.
There is the high-end and ultra high-end. What is the difference in you view?
None, but I presume that price is not the only criteria to be ultra! But there are always products, which move the boundaries of possible reproduction forwards. That we could call ultra.
Are high prices a must for some of the top class products?
Depends on what is built into it. But customers do not see all the cost involved in making a product ie research, tools, materials, small quantities of parts, expensive materials..... For example if you buy a tweeter which is mass produced for 10 EUR and build it into cheap speaker and another company spends 300 EUR on tweeter and the product is expensive and they look simliar. Maybe later company sells their speaker still too cheap despite high price to pay all the costs. But of course market will soon have final word if company stays in business over longer period of time.
How important is power supply in your view?
With turntable motors - very. Because a good PS gives the motor a chance to perfom with less vibration and a more uniform rotation. This gives the platter a more stable, quiet drive.
Speed stability seems of great importance. Do you constantly refine this part of turntable or you find a stable solution?
All electrical motors have vibration and rotate in pulses - yes I am constantly looking for a better drive.
How would you comment on direct drive turntables like legendary P3 from Pioneer?
To me Technics SP 10 is the legendary DD turntable.
Direct Drive vs belt driven?
DD brings smaller pulses on platter and electronic speed correction always corrects platter rotation.
Belt drive has another problem. Motor pulses are filtered via the belt and if there is not enough power and a heavy platter, there could be a delay in speed correction, especially with DC motors. But again - how matters are executed in practise matters more than just theorectical aspects.
Some say that pitch stability is non-existent with belt driven turntables?
Yes, hearsay. My friend (a musician) with perfect pitch hears this problem frequently, independent of the type of turntable - but he uses Stabi S without any problem.
Resonances. What is you view and approach in dealing with them?
Resonance is worst if it is single and very strong. In most cases it is better if it is broken (or damped) into more weak resonances . But that depends where, in what system, etc....... But this is a too simplistic view.
What importance do you give to the use built in elements? Is there a need of exotics parts?
We always try to use the best possible parts for price range in which the products will be placed. Another questions is exotic parts - are they just expensive because they are made in small quantities - like many audio products. If so, they are not exotic - the problem is that when built into a product they raise the end price a lot.
Form follows function in Kuzma audio?
I believe that good design must have all material used where it is mandatory and to avoid unnecessary parts which can only cause problems - so yes form does follow function.
Is classic music the top most test material for state of the art turntable design?
For me yes, but a Hendrix record can also tell you a lot about the sound. Maybe not the ultimate about how strings should be heard, but how the music flows definitively or what you hear in the music itself.
What is your opinion on digital music revolution and the birth of mp3?
In the past there were common cheap portable radios and cassettes to listen to music, now everything is digital and easily available - so more people can now listen to more music everywhere. But is there more, better music?
How to draw the line between, resolution, transparency and musicality when building the system?
You dont! But if you go to listen to few audio systems with your music, then you should decide for yourselves what is best for you.
Some people want to sit in the first row to “see the trees” and some people want to sit at the back to “see the forest” and they are both right.
What is the reference for your when designing any products?
Trying to avoid the shortcomings of previous designs or trying to find new solutions.
Would you say that master tape quality is possible with turntable?
Yes, very close I was told. It is even possible to hear more from an LP than from a tape. Who knows what signal is on a tape which goes into lathe and does not come to us via tape playback?
Is there a need for a high prices in high-end?
Need? If you look our best turntable Stabi XL it costs as much as a car. If it was produced by the car industry in a milion pieces it would probaby cost 10%. But are there millions of buyers to justify such high production?
Who is exactly an audiophile?
A person who likes music and cares to recreate musical events in his living room, especially of those musicians who cannot perform live anymore. Or is simply just another hobby.
What is a true meaning of high-end audio through the eyes of Franc Kuzma?
Two goals: trying to have musicians in my room and hear my choice of music at that time which suits me best.
Digital audio era is here and ever changing. How far did we come with it?
For most people it has been here for a long time and it sounds good. Only those who are not satisfied with digital sound will know how far we have got. I do not have much experience.
Do you think digital will ever come close to analog?
As with everything, there are always compromises in both technologies, which are improving all the time.
Best system ever heard in you life?
It is not simple to answer. It is how you measure the best. Do I talk of 30 years ago when a decent system sounded the best for me or today when I am more critical?
What do you think about products coming from East (China)?
The Quad ESL speaker is made in China and it is better than in the past. This says a lot. But in the long term, production costs there will go up. In practise High end is an individual approach to good sound and that is not for mass production.
Did you ever think to bring other components besides turntable oriented one?
Yes, but nothing has materialised yet.
Do you still believe in European quality and how world responds to this?
People’s approach to products makes high quality possible everywhere.
How important are the room acoustics in high-end audio set-up?
Minimal standards are mandatory; afterwards this depends on how problematic the room is and the system or, for example how to deal with too big speaker in a small room.
Einstein talked about simple, but not over simplified. When is it simple enough for you?
If you would understand everything ( but nowbody does) then it would be simple. But then it does not mean that you will find a simple solution to a specific problem.
What would you say, that is the secret of continuing presence in high-end audio society?
Whose? Mine? Just to make the best possible products and, at the same time, not getting lost in the search for good sound.
Does traditional High-end magazines still holds the value?
We have now two ways for reviewers to judge components. Via printed magazines and via the web. It is much cheaper and easier to have a web magazine - there are plenty of them. Today there are more companies than ever before and they find it easier to appear on the web than in print. But a lot of reviews - does this makes it easier for readers? A lot of new companies appear every year in mags and shows and they last usually few years. When the initial fun of having an audio company hits reality some customers are then left with “fantastic products” and no support behind.
I believe that traditional mags are here more selective.
How important is advertising?
The bigger the company the more important. But only if you can afford it. Short term advertising is not the way to achieve much.
Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?
If you look at non-expensive speakers I believe here was made the biggest improvement. The best cone speakers can today compete with the virtues of ELS.
What do you see the future of audio and Franc Kuzma in it?
We will stay in a small niche in vinyl replay and we will see what the future will bring.
It seems those physical mediums are not obsolete at all?
Probaby LPs and files will stay for now.
What is your opinion on rising sales of vinyl?
This can be due to the quality of sound, everchanging digital formats and nostalgia, at least for our generation. Let me give you an example. Imagine that you have a pill with the perfect taste of steak. Would you prefer to eat that or actually eat steak and risk eating poorly each time? What would you chose?
Do you think analog master tape quality can be matched withing digital domain?
The problem is that analogue tape is not evolving anymore, while Digital is.
Digital recording vs analogue masters. What are your experiences after all those years?
I would not know, because I do not buy those LPs. But once I was pleasantly surprised that an LP was originally made from a digital tape - or was it just a sticker to help sales in the mid 80ties?
Is it possible to achieve concert feeling with high-end audio?
I would say that with best systems, yes you could get such feeling.
Is there a place for mystics in audio or simply good and great engineering?
Well we still do not know why Stradivarius violins sound superb - is that mysticism or just forgotten great engineering.
What is your reference when designing and testing new products?
My growing knowledge and growing experience together with new technologies.
What is your opinion on SACD audio quality vs vinyl?
Who would you say typical Kuzma audio customers are?
I hope as varied as possible who appreciate good sound from LPs.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Enjoy your music in the comfort of your home.
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