–by Norman Williams
This is my first ever tour to a high-end audio manufacturer and I must say it was a very interesting and informative experience. Yes, I had been to the offices of the Swiss-only brand ROWEN, but I only saw their demo rooms, CEO office and repair studio. I had a very fascinating conversation there, lasting about 90 minutes, but that is a subject better left for another day.
Switzerland is home to some notable high-end brands like Nagra, Goldmund, Soulution Audio, CH Precision, Weiss, Boenicke, LumenWhite, etc. True, the chocolates are superb, but there is more to this land than just that!
darTZEEL is a small boutique audio company owned and run by the very welcoming and engaging Herve Deletraz and I must say his accomplishments are amazing. I don’t expect that there are more than 20 people working directly for darTZeel (I saw only 4 or so in total at the main site, but I know he has at least 5 engineers working for him) and they have at least 2 sites. The main site is in an industrial complex in Petit Lancy, Geneva, about 2 miles from where I live (the other is less than an hour away in Morges, close to Lausanne). darTZEEL has a modest loft office space, a couple of warehouse spaces and an assembly/repair facility within a larger firm named PRO, which deals in high-voltage components. PRO employs a lot of physically and mentally handicapped people, laudably giving them validation through meaningful work.
Herve himself is an engineer by training and he has been passionate about audio since the age of 12 and he is middle age right now. His goal with darTZEEL was to make solid state amps that emulate the strong points of tube amps, yet still be neutral with a balanced frequency response and, most importantly, be emotionally involving.
I was indeed fortunate to have a tour at this time, as I was able to see the one time a year that they do a production batch run of their flagship mono-bloc power amps, which weigh 70kgs each and cost approximately $140K a pair! Take a look at the size of the transformer in this bad boy! The whole inner assembly rests on a shock absorber suspension system fixed to the rigid chassis. The really outstanding this is the absolute (perfectionist/obsessive/compulsive/meticulous) attention to detail involved with the milled aluminium casework. It is a joy to run your hand over it (no sharp edges anywhere) and it’s clear it built to last forever and a day. I was told that the rejection rate is high and the anodizing process involves a constant battle to maintain at that high standard. When complete, it fooled me into thinking the case was made of lacquered wood. The Perspex glass on the sides allows you to see the innards in all their glory and the beast run relatively cool to the touch, even when pumping out 1,000 watts at 4 ohms!
Take a look at pictures of the mono-blocs in their various states of readiness from almost complete to initial assembly. What I didn’t see is the tons of work in progress inventory and raw materials in storage on palettes supporting just the 15 units!
If you are planning on rushing out to get a pair, it is my sad duty to tell you the entire batch has already been pre-sold and it’s a build-to-order process anyway. Current batch size is 15 and hopefully next year it will be 20. Current wait time is 8 months on average, but they hope to shave the wait time for the next batch beginning in October. Asia is the commercial king here, outselling Europe 5 to 1 on the flagship line. Not sure how North America ranks on a relative basis.
This anally-retentive build quality is carried thru the entire range, even to the “entry level” integrated, costing a cool $20k each. A nice touch is the volume knob is labelled the “Pleasure Control”. I was able to see the stereo power amp as well as the current pre-amp and the prototype of the latest refresh of the pre, which will be end of life after that. I did not get prices for the Pre and the Stereo amp…sorry. The darTZEEL trademark cosmetic finish is a bronze/gold faceplate with red siding and trimmings. Curiously, they make an all-black version of the Integrated, but it only represents about 3% of the sales of the Integrated amp.
The really exciting news for the future is that darTZEEL hopes to introduce their cheapest product ever, next year, with an expected price of about $12K. It will be an integrated amp with built-in Ethernet-input DAC (likely to be a world’s first) that can play directly from a NAS. This ampli-DAC will play virtually everything from DSD64, DSD128 and DXD, so will be essentially future-proof. It will be implemented via a proprietary darTZEEL chipset. Herve was excited about this development and hinted at further extensions of this when he follows that up with a flagship standalone DAC likely in 2015 or so. I guess those R&D engineers in Morges are busy testing all kinds of exciting ideas!
To wrap up, I should note that Herve is also the European distributor of the highly regarded Evolution Acoustics loudspeakers and in part 2 of this expedition, I will be trekking to his dedicated listening room at his home in early August to hear what the amps can deliver thru these fabled speakers. If I recall correctly, he has the MM3s hooked up to his mono-blocs, the Pre-Power combo to the Minis and the integrated to one the Micros. I will take along my Gen4 Level 4 LampizatOr DAC and the Chord Qute (with outboard BoTWS Linear PSU) to see how they fare in his reference system (if we have enough time). Herve likes 1970s era music and jazz; he is not a classical music fan. There is enough overlap in our musical tastes for us to agree on a satisfying playlist.