Thorens is one of the grand names in audio. The company’s began making turntables almost back when the rest of the world first started making records. 1903 to be precise, and this wasn’t even Thorens first product The Swiss brand began life making music boxes and clock mechanisms back in 1883. Some of the best, most highly praised, and still most highly desirable turntables from the 1950s and 1960s came with the Thorens name on the plinth.
Recently, Thorens announced a range of turntables that hark back to those classic designs: the new 900 series. These are more than just retro-throwbacks, as they also use some extremely advanced concepts.
So, it seemed like a perfect time to speak to Thorens CEO Heinz Roher about the company, its plans, and the future of all things turntables…
AS: How did you join Thorens?
HR: Around the time the EEC started, I was active in Hong Kong and Singapore in a duty-free wholesale company. But, I wanted to be around as my kids grew up, so I came back from the Far East and moved back to Switzerland.
My auditors said there is an old (then German owned) Swiss brand that needs support, both financially and in terms of the whole export business. That was Thorens, in about 1999. I immediately realised that financially it was a catastrophe! They had about 20 people and a turnover of not more than the equivalent of about £135,000 per year at the time. I said that I would not invest in the company, but I would found Thorens Export and control the export business, and the other half of the manufacture would remain going to Germany.
The problem soon became one of money. For example, there was an OEM factory making Thorens products that would no longer continue to supply products without payment of old debts. I paid these bills personally, but the German owners of Thorens claimed to have no securities to honour my payment. “Of course you have security!” I said, “You have the Thorens brand” at which point we agreed to a mutual amount, paid in shares in the brand.
That went on for about half a year, but then the German-owned Thorens got into real financial difficulties. I only had automatic turntables at that time, but I decided to continue with Thorens, as I understood what the brand is. We continued our arrangement until I had about 75% of the shares.
When was that?
I effectively started Thorens from zero, back in 2004. I am a businessman, not a strategist or a tactician, but in a way that helped Thorens start up again, because we were only thinking from the commercial side. So, almost immediately we started up our export business (especially in the Far East) with 40-50 distributors.
Did that change the nature of Thorens turntables?
Yes. We began to make turntables with high mass and large platters. But, we burned through a lot of money to get these to market. We still had the automatic turntables, though. We then started to develop higher end automatic designs like the TD240. Then the breakthrough happened with the TD309.
It was also good to get our own developers back into the company.
How the TD309 come about?
It’s a nice story in fact; the designer came to me and showed me this shield form. I said at first, ‘would will never do that!” but then I was sleeping that night and realised it was exactly the turntable we need, to show we were not simply bound up by our own traditions. Sales-wise, the TD309 was not a great success (it was expensive), but it started Thorens down a path that led to the TD206 and TD350, and ultimately the TD550 and even the new 900 series, which is a classical Thorens subchassis layer with some unique modern touches.
How long from idea to final product?
I normally calculate depending on the product. If it’s an entry level product, and we are trying to make a smaller version of one of our bigger products, about 18 months to two years. With regard to the new 900 line, three years!
A lot comes down to listening and tuning. Even when you have the first idea, you need the right materials, and this is an iterative process. For example, with the original TD309, we evaluaged about six power supplies, eight platter materials, and several different tonearms before we were happy we got it right!
How is that assessment performed?
We do not have an in-house developer. The problem with any designer is just how modern he or she is nowadays. So, I look for developers. I have the same designer for the last six or seven years. My fight has always been against ‘old Thorens’. Not ‘classic’ Thorens, just ‘old for the sake of being old!’
How much of Thorens is now Chinese made?
I buy quite a few goods out of China: when I get a 309 chassis, it costs about twice as much when made in Germany as it does from China. PCBs right now are printed in China, and we’re working closely with the factories. Everything from dustcovers to screws are made there now! OK, by the time we get to the higher-end products like the new 900 series, almost 80% of the parts are sourced in Europe, but for the more entry-level products, we need to be competitive, so most of the parts are Chinese sourced.
How do you maintain quality control?
We have a strict quality control as the goods are coming out of the factory in China, before we get it! When we have plastic injection or PCBs, we get a sample from China. But when we get production runs, we cross-match to the original samples and speak to the factory about the results. The key element, here, is time. That back-and-forth conversation between our factory building the turntables and the Chinese factorires making the parts takes a lot of time to get right. Once you do get it right and the Chinese factory understands your tolerances and level of precision, things usually run smoothly.
But the turntables are still built in Switzerland?
The factory is a two-hour drive for me! Labour costs of not building in China are an important concern. Development wasn’t that complicated compared to putting them into production. It’s relatively easy to make one, but to make more and make them reliably and with consistency is a lot harder. Even getting the finish right is difficult, time-consuming, and costly to get consistent as a small manufacturer!
To this end, there is one small aspect of the design that I plan to improve. It is not an improvement that changes the performance or even the design of the arm, it is a more efficient way of construction, which becomes more important as demand increases. It’s not a cost-cutting exercise, it’s all about time!
Thorens had a reputation for long product shelf lives. Does that continue?
Luckily a turntable is not so much of a problem here. The development of a turntable is not passed over so quickly and they tend to stay in production for some years. The reputation is coming from old models, like the automatics, but the engineering required to remake them is too great for the returns.
It’s a project of mine to re-introduce a high-end automatic once more, but it’s an idea in my head, not on paper as yet!
How has the ‘vinyl revival’ changed the company?
It changed us in a good way – we have more money for development now! Before the revival, Thorens sold a little under half its products at its entry-level. Today it’s closer to 75%. I did see this, but we still don’t compete head on with the likes of Pro-Ject in this market.
The market for entry-level turntables is immense now compared to a few years ago.
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