AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE
In order to reach the charming, hillside village of Var, you have to take the freeway that heads towards Nice. You will pass through the small town of Carcès and drive along roads bordered by a lovely countryside covered in olive trees and grapevines. As you enter the village, you will see a small area in which the local businesses are to be found. One of the buildings, unassuming and modern, houses Waterfall, a company that I had the pleasure of visiting a few days ago when I was down in the south of France.
Once inside the building, I was warmly greeted by Cédric Aubriot, who is the chief executive officer and founder of Waterfall. Over coffee, we discussed the birth of his unique company and one of its extraordinary products. Waterfall’s story is above all the story of a man, passionate about acoutics, who embarked on an adventure. He remembers building his first speaker at the age of 12. As a young man, he continued to experiment and learn, he designed speakers, and he even had a few clients from time to time. Later on, he studied business and then specialized in management and innovation, always with the same goal in mind: to design speakers. Aubriot recalls that, in the 90s, the market was already saturated with a multitude of manufacturers: “I very quickly understood that I had to set myself apart in a definitive way. I was looking for ways in which to marry performance and design.”
Glass: a material that presents unique challenges
He was quickly seduced by the idea of glass as a medium because of its unique design features, but its use involved confronting an incredible challenge and getting around a large obstacle: the fact that it is a very reflective material, essentially a mirror. In short, glass is everything one should avoid when designing a speaker. From the beginning, it was out of the question to fill the inside of the speaker with the usual damping materials because it was precisely the aesthetics of the glass’ transparency that were desired. First affiliated with the manufacturer Triangle and then, starting in 2004, with Atohm, a well-respected French HIFI company that makes high-quality loudspeakers and speakers, Waterfall applied for its first patent for the “Acoustic Damping Tube”, a system that made it possible to have a fully functioning loudspeaker enclosed in an undamped structure, such as a glass speaker. The loudspeaker features a damping chamber that is attached to its back end; it works a bit like a valve and also behaves like a hydraulic damp at low frequencies. Glass has an undeniable advantage: it is a substance that cannot be deformed, it does not resonate, and it does not color sound (especially the bass frequencies) in the way that wood typically does.
Not only does this system work perfectly, but the resulting acoustics are so impressive that they leave breathless anyone who is willing to give these striking, perhaps even visually disturbing, speakers a listen. Aubriot says, “In the late 90s, I think we were ahead of our time in terms of our focus on product design. All it takes is seeing that, since then, all the speaker brands have undertaken many efforts aimed at making their products objects of desire.” However, this path was not always an easy one. Aubriot continues, “Using glass was such a novel idea. Even today, we still come up against snap judgments about our speakers, and sometimes people simply refuse to even give them a try. This is often due to ignorance. It is necessary to constantly remind people that a speaker requires, above all, an enclosed space, an ‘encircling material’, and although wood fits this role perfectly, it is not a material that, strictly speaking, has unique acoustic properties when it comes to making speakers. This contrasts, of course, with the properties that wood demonstrates when used in acoustic instruments.”
Over the years, the brand has made a name for itself even beyond the small world of high fidelity. The product has found admirers: 4,000 speakers are manufactured each year, and half of them are purchased by people living outside of France. For instance, Germany is at the top of the list when it comes to European clients.
A technologically advanced and high-quality approach to production
Waterfall has put in place a production process that is both simple and technologically advanced. Aubriot says, “The first step was finding high-quality suppliers. Our German glass supplier is excellent. Their factory employs technology that produces glass of exceptional quality in an extremely precise way. The speakers are manufactured according to Atohm’s standards and, although a few of the parts, in particular the aluminum parts, come from Asia, the elegant leather that finishes the high-end models comes from France. Even the cardboard boxes, reinforced with wood fibers, in which the speakers are packaged are made in France (at Saint Etienne, near Lyon).”
The workshop is found on the ground floor of the building, and it is there that two to three people assemble the products. When it comes to the floorstanding speakers, the most delicate step is the joining of the glass panels, which are glued together by hand. The loudspeakers are then set in the speaker’s face, and the elegant wires are run along the length of the speaker wall and into the aluminum base, which also houses the woofer. Custom-made machine tools ensure that the assembly process is efficient, clean, and faultless. On the same assembly line, other custom-made tools with an even higher level of performance are responsible for mechanically assembling certain parts and carrying out a test of the electronics. The organization of these tasks is highly optimized and yet often remains manual. The loudspeakers and the assembled speakers undergo multiple tests before being thoroughly cleaned and packaged up with care. Seven hours go into putting together a Victoria (the smallest floorstanding model of the line).
Over the years, the Victoria has become the line’s bestseller (a 2.5-way floorstanding speaker available for the reasonable price of 2,930 €). However, with ever an eye to making sound systems easy to integrate into the home, Waterfall has diversified its offerings with easy-to-mount on-wall speakers, which can potentially even be installed in the wall. In this case, the small glass panels only serve an aesthetic purpose, but their appearance means that they are a discrete addition to any room, regardless of that room’s design scheme.
The listening test
At the end of my visit, I had the pleasure of being able to audition a pair of Niagara speakers (the brand’s high-end speakers). This impressive floorstanding model includes a 21-cm passive subwoofer that is integrated into its base (just like the two lower-end models) and two 18-cm boomers mounted in its face. In a beautiful show of technical skill and aesthetics, the tweeter is separated from the main glass column, installed inside an elegant glass housing of its own.
As I listened, I was immediately struck by the very clear quality of the music, no pun intended. There was no coloration of the sound whatsoever, a feature that perfectly matches the characteristics of Athom’s products, which also demonstrate a high level of sound neutrality. I was definitely experiencing high-definition sound reproduction: the sound image was sublime, the clean lines of the timbre were particularly impressive, and the levels of the bass were quite simply exceptional without being excessively demonstrative. At the same time, Aubriot himself recognizes that although these speakers are high efficiency, they still require a lot of power (at least 200 watts, preferably 400 watts) to fully show off their best features.
My audition with the Niagaras remains one of the most memorable of the last few months. It is an additional reminder of how successfully Waterfall has managed to marry acoustic excellence with aesthetic purity in a long-lasting and unique way.
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