Matej Isak interviews Ricardo Franassovici from Absolute Sounds. You're invited to read about high-end audio from a completely different and seminal perspective.

M: Tell us about your first encounters with music. 

Ricardo: Music has always been uppermost in my life. Although like every young boy, I was ‘into’ the pop and rock music of the time, I was also fascinated by jazz and classical music, and that love of music of all kinds has been a life-long passion and regular personal re-energiser.

My first enterprise in the music world was importing records from USA to Portugal and France and selling them to local shops and discotheques. Later, I travelled to Brazil to run a jazz club and a couple of discotheques, and I discovered a lot of great local jazz acts during those late Rio nights.

While in Brazil I also pioneered the use of what I call ‘short sampling’ records (playing little bits of records) and teaching my DJs how to fade these mixes. This style of DJing hadn’t reached Europe yet, so I returned to Portugal to develop it, but also began promoting some wonderful rock concerts with an American pianist partner. Even working under a very hostile fascist regime, it was lot of fun to be involved with these live music events!

M: What happened next? 

R: I moved back to France to work for a number of major record labels such as Ariola, Asylum, Atlantic, Chrysalis, Elektra, RCA and Warner, working with musicians in the studios and promoting them through the media and of course in concerts. However, working in London was the natural progression since so much of the 1970s music scene was based there and I had a track record of promoting British bands in Europe. I was offered a job with Ariola, then the biggest German rock record company, but the company’s dreams were not exactly in line with reality! 

I very quickly took my redundancy and decided to go into ‘high fidelity’, which had been a home and office companion since… well, since forever! I've always been surrounded with great sound systems to the point where – in my record label days – some directors wondered why the price of my office playback systems put such strain on my department’s budget!

M: Absolute Sounds was created in a very closed and protected market. How did you manage to be successful in such environment?

R: The UK audio environment was incredibly provincial at the time. The UK was still quite insular in the 1970s; to get to England from Continental Europe by road meant you had to take the ferry and it made the island extremely charming but extremely parochial. In audio, the UK ‘scene’ was dominated by two British companies that were ruling the market with almost religious zeal. The ripple effect of that was it offered the music lover very little choice, and that religion had little or no reference to live music. I felt that sound had none of the enchantment and excitement that live music gives you and I wanted to bring the live sound back into the home. 

I decided to start importing my own line of products then in a very small way. This was in 1977, and that also was around the time that high-end audio in America was both flourishing and looking to develop internationally. Absolute Sounds was then incorporated in 1978. 

M: You mention live music. How has live music influenced the development of your audio systems?

R: It was part of the trip that led me to audio! Music can be both a relaxing pleasure and a stimulant. Many audio systems can reproduce the ‘relaxing pleasure’ part but fail to elicit that ‘stimulant’ effect; I think a good system should be capable of reproducing both. Going to live concerts shows just how much of a stimulant music can be and I’ve always created audio systems that better reproduce that exciting and stimulating live experience. 

But I wouldn’t say live music has influenced that system development; rather, it has made me learn more about how music sounds, and how it sounds live. The energy and the scale of live music of all kinds is hard to achieve in the home, and I try to get us closer to that exciting goal.

M: Duke Ellington once said, “If it sounds good it is good.” Should high-end audio differentiate systems in this way too?

R: Yes, but it is slightly different because Duke is the act. And we are at the receiving end of the act. Duke Ellington took on those criteria that make music sound good; great instrumentation, excellent recordings, and expert engineers of course, but it's more from the artist's point of view. 

On the playback side, I would say it's very similar; an audio system has to sound good! But not only that, it has to sound like ‘music’ because ‘good’ can sometimes be misleading. And this is what I don't like about most so-called ‘high-end’ audio, when its playing with a palette of colours to artificially create a ‘good’ sound. 

It’s what I call a “Nat ‘King’ Cole” type of sound when everything sounds sweet and wonderful. There’s nothing wrong with Nat ‘King’ Cole, but not all music sounds like that. Music can be hard. Music can be aggressive depending on the composer, the act or the recording. So, I want to really say that ‘yes’, Duke Ellington was right, but it takes a little more to bring that musical sound back into the home. 

M: Does the ‘audiophile in his man-cave’ still exist? 

R: I believe that kind of audiophile is slowly fading away and being replaced by true music lovers. This is a good thing, as many ‘old school’ audiophiles tended to embrace trendy brands without any thought to component matching. I think that component matching is an art, built on a set of skills that you only gain with years of professional experience. Music is a companion to one’s soul and good systems let you forget about the devices leaving you to enjoy the music… they are only a means to an end.

M: What is the difference between ‘hi-fi’ and ‘high-end’ audio systems?

R: It’s the same difference between Mars and Neptune! And those are two different planets. Unfortunately, a lot of people still love ‘hi-fi’ for the equipment, not what that equipment can do for music. In part, it’s because many never get to hear the difference between ‘electronicity’ audio equipment and the sort of audio instruments that bring out the passion in music. 

It's two different worlds! 

M. Is it right to compare the design process to gourmet cooking? Where the skill of the artisan is more important that the ingredients?

R. I think a lot of audio components that populate the high-end audio industry suffer from what I call ‘Electronicity’; products driven by the engineers themselves, which end up sounding over engineered because they are not auditioned by music lovers during the design process. A small percentage of companies instead specialise in just one part of the chain, with great engineers who are either genuine music lovers in their own right or who build a strong listening team to assist them, and therefore removing that ‘electronicity’ within the components, creating a superb first-hand experience of the live event as a result.

M: Does a high-end sound need to have to high-end price tag?

R: No, not at all. But building a good system is like buying a hand-made suit; the better the tailor, the better the end result. The best consultants have an ability to deliver a good system – regardless of price – as a result of their experience and knowledge. That consultant will evaluate the requirements and environment of the listener and supply a proportionally designed system that suits their budget.

I’ve never been a big fan of the A-B listening test, where one component is tested to be better or worse than another. To me, a system as a whole presses that live button inside all of us, or it doesn’t; and if it does… how well does it press that button? That’s the best way of judging good audio instruments.

Of course, if a consultant cannot build such a system because they don’t have the tools to create a system for a very low price, they will both say so and should advise where the music lover can get as good a result as possible for their budget. But you need experts, just as you need experts to guide you to the best wines, whether you are buying a €10 or a €100 bottle. In good audio, I would say for ten to fifteen thousand Euros, you can get a very high-performance system without what I call the sound of ‘eletronicity’.

M: You’ve mentioned ‘electronicity’ several times. What do you mean by that?

R: It’s a term I’ve coined to describe that veil that comes between you and the music; a little blanket of electronic noise that plays over the music itself. Whatever you do to the system, if that electronic sound is intrinsic to the components, you will not be able to alter that sound.

This is not simply a raising of the noise floor of a system; it’s the insertion of an electronic-sounding hash that is not present at all in the live event. You first notice it by its absence in live sound, and the way systems that have this ‘electronicity’ sound seem to keep you ‘on edge’ rather than make the musical experience more natural and pleasurable. You can’t relax ‘into the music’ to the same extent you can with either the live event or with systems that minimise or eliminate this ‘electronicity’. It’s like comparing the sound of real music being played live, to a recording of that live event played through the speaker of a smartphone; that’s an extreme example, of course, but it still applies to a lot of supposedly ‘good’ audio systems!

We intrinsically know this ‘electronicity’ sound to be wrong, but we lack the vocabulary to say ‘why’ it is wrong, so we put up with it as part of the audio experience. Again, like wine, we all know a nasty cheap wine, but only after years of careful wine-tasting can you quickly recognise and describe why a bad wine tastes the way it does. This is only something you can ‘pin down’ quickly after many years of expert listening to a wide range of systems, and a lot of the reason for ‘electronicity’ comes down to the intent of the audio designer. 

Over the years, I’ve been able to define what companies make ‘audio components’ and what companies make ‘musical instruments for audio’. The first come from companies that are generally more electronics engineer-driven, where the second is created out of passion by music-lovers, musicians and recording engineers. Many electronics engineers are simply obsessed by measurement and that’s a very different person than those who are passionate about music. The best audio companies are driven by that rare combination of electronics engineers who are keen listeners and music lovers in the deepest sense.

M: COVID-19 has forced many people to rediscover both their music collection and audio electronics. Do you think this will break the pattern of people treating music as ‘background’? 

R: Yes, I completely agree with that sort of statement.  It's true that COVID-19 has forced people to spend more time at home, and many have taken that time to explore what brings them joy. Some people have really got involved with cooking, some are learning to paint or speak a new language, some people rediscovered their love of reading, and more. And also people have realised that they had extract a tremendous amount of joy from even the smallest music collection by making it a bigger part of the home environment thanks to great sounding audio systems. And far from being a short-term ‘lockdown interest’, people rediscovering their love of music are finding it a sustaining pleasure and a source of wellbeing during this pandemic.

M:Speaking of wellbeing, many scientists and therapists are now recommending music not only for stress management but also for lasting wellbeing. What is your take on that?

R: It's always been my conviction and was confirmed to me by a neurosurgeon from New York City. Many years ago, he told me that good music triggers a very similar hormone in the brain to that associated with pleasure and euphoria. 

Recently my partner in life has been able to get a lot of scientific papers that support that theory. So yes, I am 100 per cent convinced that the therapeutic effects of music are a big thing and that a carefully selected collection of high-end audio instruments helps enhance that wellbeing and reduces stress. However, a great percentage of so-called high-end audio ‘machines’ cannot and do not create that musical therapeutic pleasure; to me, they just make a sound like an electronic device making music-flavoured noise. What Absolute Sounds does instead is create systems made up of audio musical instruments that trigger wellbeing, so that when you get home from a stressful condition or when you are dealing with difficult matters you play some music and suddenly your brain is engaged in a total focus and relaxation and makes you feel better.

Sure, drugs and alcohol can also do that, but although a good audio system can be very addictive, it doesn’t have the same chemical addiction and doesn’t damage your body and mind! Yogis can achieve this state too, but good high-end audio can do the same without needing to spend decades learning how to fold yourself in half!

M: What does the future of Absolute Sounds look like?

R: The roadmap has never looked better because obviously we have continued to develop over the years. I also live by Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim, “Only a fool learns by his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” While Absolute Sounds is one of the longest-serving names in high-end audio, living by those rules keep the company flexible. 

As you know, over the last four decade we've launched a few brands internationally, many of whom went on to become popular and well-known companies in their own right. We’ve done this by being the first to promote and discover them… well, we're going to carry on doing the same, discovering new audio artisans while continuing to support our portfolio of specialist bespoke brands.

But again, companies old and new have to live by our performance criteria, whether they be state-of-the art digital front-ends, classic cartridges, amplifiers or loudspeakers. And it seems that areas of expertise are important; I’m not interested in companies that produce vinyl front-ends, analogue and digital electronics and loudspeakers because each facet of audio equipment manufacture has its own demands and its own experts. A company that offers multiple solutions often has set its standards lower than the brand that strives to build the best amplifier in the world, and nothing else.