The State of Sound

AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE

Atoll #1 – A place and its people

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The first episode of a short summer series dedicated to Atoll Electronics. A brand, but also a place, a company, and a team that I recently sought to uncover.

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Situated between Caen and Rennes, the town of Brécey is wedged between Normandy and Brittany. It is right next to Avranches and 25 km away from Mont Saint Michel. Immediately upon arriving in the town, I am struck by the active farming of the verdant countryside.

The town’s small business park is right next to the downtown and rubs shoulders with several beautiful farms. You would have to head all the way to the end of a road lined with wild cherry trees to discover a building that is a bit atypical. Its architecture is modern, and the large porthole window near its entrance is a remainder that the sea isn’t far away. The building gives the impression of being a flagship half-buried in a sea of grass, even if downtown Brécey is only 500 meters away.

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When I walk in, I immediately feel welcomed by the interior’s simplicity; there is a marked sense of being in a family-owned business. Framed by two small desks, a short hallway leads straight to the heart of the company: the workshop. The room is vast, well-lit, and I come face to face with an enormous assortment of Atoll faceplates, recognizable anywhere, and then an assembly line in which just fewer than ten amplifiers patiently wait, entrails revealed, to digest a multitude of components. Underneath the immense workbenches, I discover a small stash of diverse components. Near the windows are the soldering and control stations. In the recesses of the room, massive, heavy shelves hold motherboards that are waiting to be soldered. In an annex, assembled machines are tested, “an absolutely essential step,” according to Stephane Dubreuil, co-director of Atoll. He continues, “Even though general quantitative analyses are important, they do not reveal possible defects that only systematic audio tests can reveal.”

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Upon exiting the workshop, I find myself in a large listening room that offers up a range of the company’s products, including a selection of speakers; this small showroom regularly hosts suppliers and vendors. A few days ago, some of the members of the Atoll forum gathered here for an annual meeting that serves to solidify even further the relationship between the brand and its clients.

Stéphane and Emmanuel Dubreuil, the two co-founders of the company, welcome me; they are accompagnied by Laurent Mansion, the head of marketing. Our conversation is regularly interrupted by the foghorn that is none other than the ringing of the cordless telephone. In this company, the client comes first; they explain that their customers call them regularly even here. This local approach to customer relations is a key component of the company’s success. In 1997, Stéphane Dubreuil, a young electronic engineer, had gained some work experience in the field, notably at Triangle; his brother, Emmanuel Dubreuil, had recently graduated with his degree in administration. They came to a simple realization: there were no high fidelity systems available at a reasonable cost. “At that time, we couldn’t afford high fidelity sound systems. Atoll sprang from that realization,” remembers Emmanuel Dubreuil. He continues, “Our plan at the outset was to design machines of high quality and musicality at the lowest price possible, with the condition that they be built in France and use as many parts from French suppliers as possible.” They have succeeded more than admirably at this challenge, a fact I will come back to in a future post.

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Fifteen years later, Atoll is firmly implanted in the French high fidelity landscape. With its nearly 90 sales outlets in France and a rapidly growing presence in international markets, Atoll is a small company whose double figure growth, which is especially due to exports, remains unaffected by the financial crisis.

DSCF9755Atoll is more than a brand, it’s also a team!

Even if the work atmosphere here is studious and focused, it nonetheless remains friendly, as if to serve as a remainder that Atoll wants to remain a “local” business at all levels; this philosophy and its responsible implementation are the basis for the success of this attractive company.

Next episode: Atoll #2 – the real “Made in France”

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