There are very few family businesses in audio. Brands rarely pass down father to son; they either disappear, or get bought out by a larger interest. Sometimes the next generation becomes more of a figurehead than an important part of the company. That’s not how it was with Manuel Podszus of Zellaton audio, and grandson of founder Dr Emil Podszus. He has continued to develop and continue the Zellaton concepts down to today.
Podszus (the grandfather) began working on loudspeaker drive units back in the early 1930s, back when electrical recording and replay were still in their infancy. Materials science of the 1930s was in its infancy too; materials we take for granted today, like PVC and polystyrene, were at the forefront of technological development at the time, and inter-war Germany was one of the great centres of excellence in plastics development. In this period of intense development, Dr Emil Podszus set himself the task of improving the performance of loudspeaker units, both in terms of high-performance audio, and the more pressing issue of loudspeakers within telephones.
His solution was to make a drive unit that coupled a very light diaphragm with a carefully optimised foam substrate, to produce a loudspeaker with the speed and stiffness required for audio reproduction. The difficulty faced with this design – it transpired – was that it doesn’t ‘scale’ well. Where pioneering plastics technologists in the 1930s quickly found a way to mass-produce their materials, the need to create a foam substrate of varying size across the driver meant Emil Podszus’ design remained essentially a bespoke design that could only be produced in tiny numbers. A very high performance design, undoubtedly, but one that precluded being supplied to the audio mass market. This kept the Podszus name out of the mainstream audio world, but the Zellaton brand that came out of this technology was resilient. Dr Emil handed the concepts down to his son Kurt, who then subsequently passed the baton down to his son Manuel. Beyond Zellaton, variants of the driver in Podszus-Görlich and Micro Precision guise have ‘form’ in the high-end, most notably as the drivers for the original – and extremely highly respected – Ensemble bookshelf loudspeakers.
The audio world is a very different place now. Where mass market has its place, now more than ever so too does bespoke, and Zellaton’s core concept fits well now; arguably better than ever before. Every loudspeaker is built by hand, and the drivers themselves are essentially ‘grown’ by Manuel over a period of several weeks. The process has a relatively high rejection rate, as the 0.006mm thick aluminium foil used in tweeter construction is not easy to work with, and the process of bonding foil to foam is not routine, even after nine decades of honing. Once completed though, the individual drivers are painstakingly pair-matched before being used in one of Zellaton’s range. The brand’s Reference models frequently win ‘best in show’ awards whenever they are exhibited, and more recently the little Legacy two-way standmount played to wowed listeners at the Bristol Sound & Vision show.
The brand has moved on past just making bespoke loudspeaker drivers now, and the cabinets made for the company’s loudspeaker range exhibit the same innovative and inherently bespoke nature. ‘Innovative’ where the loudspeaker cabinet has effectively free movement of air across the rear baffle, yet seemingly exhibits performance more akin to sealed box designs (think of it similar to Briggs’ sand-filled baffle, except folded in on itself and using constrained layer damping for airflow); ‘bespoke’ because all that brightwork on the loudspeaker is made by the people who make the shiny things on Rolls-Royce cars. These are inherently expensive loudspeakers, but the words ‘off the shelf’ have no meaning for Podszus or Zellaton, and the performance of the speakers reflects that change.
We had a unique chance to hear Zellaton’s current range at its Munich factory earlier this year, and the range is uniformly impressive in its detail delivery, speed, and freedom from the artifice that besets much of high-end audio. It’s one of those instinctively ‘right’ sounds that are as enjoyable as they are rare. Being the complete opposite of the ‘box of off-the-shelf drivers’ methods used by some high-end speaker brands, they are hard to come by, but worth seeking out.
And this year, at Munich High-End, Zellaton is expected to launch a flagship loudspeaker beyond even the performance of its Reference three-way, five driver floorstanders. This will not be cheap, but it just might be the best speaker at the show.
Watch this space…
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