Coffee. Champagne. Coffee. Russian liqueur. Coffee. Tequila. Coffee. Whiskey. Coffee. Red wine. Coffee… I lost track of the actual number of drinks, and coffees I had during my first day visiting Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK at his home in Brighton. It was my own fault. I had forgotten a fistful of sleep aids on the kitchen counter at home in my dash for the airport, and as a result hadn’t gotten a wink on the 10-hour flight from Vancouver, Canada. By the time I sat down with Qvortrup to start a late lunch at a lovely club in the British countryside I’d been up for more than 24 hours straight. Champagne during the meal led to drinks afterward during an epic listening session at Qvortrup’s home with his friends T.H., and Ronnie, but I kept almost nodding off between rounds – hence the espresso train Qvortrup continued to inject me with.
We had made our way to his home from the club to spin vinyl, and CDs after checking out the Audio Note UK facility in Hove, a short, picturesque drive away on heavily treed-in, winding British country roads speckled with sheep, cottages, and dappled by sunlight. The whole area presents like a filthy pastiche of gorgeous landscape paintings by 18th, and 19th-century icons like George Lambert or John Varley which looked to have been propped up along the pavement’s verge to sedate passing motorists from thoughts of Brexit.
I’d arrived early on a Monday morning, and been met at Gatwick by the affable Mickey Seaton who kindly guided me around Southern England during my stay when I wasn’t being pushed back into the big leather seats of one of Qvortrup’s many coveted, and rare Mercedes Benz as we hurtled at Formula-Three speeds from one destination to another. It was late May, and I was in the UK to start a 10-day marathon with Qvortrup through four countries with the High End Show in Munich thrown in for good measure.
Qvortrup’s office at the factory is dominated by a massive desk overflowing with books, and files, and has the look of having just been sacked by thieves. Coffee mugs dot the paper-strewn landscape as Qvortrup discusses his plans for our visit while seeming to simultaneously handle a number of emails, and employee matters – all without breaking his train of conversation. He seems to operate on multiple levels of problem-solving, coming up with wireless attenuator-circuit ideas, relating 18th-century politics to current continental Conservative agendas, and describing new metallurgic formulas for resistors all in a stream-of-consciousness, matter-of-fact charm that puts one at instant ease.
I’ve heard some describe the Audio Note UK orbit as one of a cult of a personality revolving around Qvortrup – which is a point of view I think one could adhere to without rocking the boat. There is a sense that Qvortrup is AN UK. Having spent some time with him, what strikes you most is his intellectual capacity, and fierce drive to create the most musical high-fidelity components possible. I don’t think a company like Audio Note UK could have become what it is (a sought-after, bespoke hifi manufacturer with an unyieldingly-loyal customer base) without the sheer willpower, intelligence, and conviction of Qvortrup, and those in his inner circle including Andy Whittle, Andy Grove, and his daughter – and heir apparent – Emily Qvortrup. This is a company – a group of engineers – that designs, and builds (in-house, in almost its entirety) every component in the audio-signal path, yet who steadfastly hammers away at you in conversations that ultimately everything they do is in service of the music.
The factory itself is modern, bright, and bustling with the air of a laboratory about it, especially where transformers are being wound, testing is going on, circuit-design implementation is occurring, or prototypes are being built. The vibe is very relaxed overall with staff laughing, and listening to music everywhere you go. The obvious skill, and craftsmanship on display from those executing this level of bespoke component construction gives everything an artisanal quality. A commitment to excellence in attitude toward their jobs was shared by everyone I spoke with over the course of my two days in Hove, and strengthened the tight-knit feeling about the company that had formed in my mind.
With High End in Munich rapidly approaching, Qvortrup had been making arrangements for us to travel in one of his favourite touring saloons culled from the collection of Mercedes Benz he stores in a local warehouse. Many of the senior staff at Audio Note UK have company cars – a mix of MB wagons for the most part – so Qvortrup employs a full-time mechanic to service the vehicles, and it was this gentleman who was in the midst of prepping the four-door Mercedes we’d be hoovering-up pavement in for our trip.
The next day’s dawn broke grey, rainy, and windy with clouds scudding across the horizon of the English Channel like a black & white WWII film on the BBC as we struggled outside our beachfront Brighton hotel to pack the car with all our luggage, and gear (Peter, T.H., Ronnie, and myself) for the Chunnel train to the Continent, and from there through France, and Germany to Munich. Qvortrup’s daughter Emily met us en route to the crossing in her car to join in. Having never taken the Chunnel before, I was curious to see how it worked. In my mind we would park the vehicles on a lower train deck, and then make our way to a “passenger” deck above – I was wrong.
The train itself reminded me of a large New York subway, but instead of bench seating along the sides, there’s nothing, and the cars simply slot into the middle, and there you can sit. We chose to get out, stretch, and joke with one another, and the ride was over before I knew it. We came out of the darkness into a beautiful, almost blindingly-sunny French countryside dotted with wind farms everywhere the eye wandered. I rode with Emily for the first couple hundred of kilometres, and quickly found out that she shares her father’s black humour, quick wit, intelligence, and well-honed driving skills– along with a predilection for drum ‘n bass played at inordinate volume levels.
Driving at high speeds (which became exponentially higher when we entered the German autobahn system), can be nerve wracking initially. As the speedometer started to creep upwards of 200k/ph so too did my stomach towards my throat. Sitting next to Peter while he casually navigated the huge, low-slung Benz through a miasma of pedantic cars, and giant lorries, coming just a foot or two away in many cases – all the while maintaining a perfectly charming conversation about German highway infrastructure – is something I hope to experience again, because I have to say: speed thrills. I quickly got used to the blurring of the countryside outside the air-conditioned, whisper-quiet interior of the car, and settled in for the long haul. About 15 hours after leaving Brighton we slid into two underground parking stalls at the Munich Marriott, and the growl of our car exhaust was finally silenced.
The next few days were spent in a blur of coverage for Part-Time Audiophile as I took in the High End Show at Munich’s massive MOC (convention centre), and struggled to stay social in the evenings between my writing schedule, and the doomsday call of jet lag. Ever the consummate host, Qvortrup invited me to join himself, and Emily for several dinners to meet with Audio Note UK dealers, and distributors so I could get a more clear picture of how the company really does resemble a large, loose-knit family: all with a serious ear towards enjoying music.
It was during one of these outings that I met Gerhard Kilzer, who is the chief engineer, craftsman, and artisan of Audio Note UK speaker, and turntable production in Frankenmarkt, Austria. Kilzer is an incredibly affable, genuine, and intelligent gentleman who takes immense pride in his family’s role in the Audio Note UK hierarchy of component production, having as they do the responsibility for building some of the most crucial designs in the company’s lineup.
During the light-speed mind boggle of High End I managed to carve out a few hours in downtown Munich, wander cobblestone streets, enjoy cocktails, and experience its highly-efficient train system firsthand: I wish I’d had more time, so I’m hoping for a repeat visit when I can schedule more R&R as the city is absolutely beautiful.
Sunday saw Peter, and I back on the road, this time pointing the big chrome snout of the Benz southeast towards Austria, and our next destination: lunch with Kilzer, some of his friends, and family at his beautiful home on the outskirts of Frankenmarkt in preparation for a tour of the speaker, and turntable factory. I was struck again by the beauty of the landscape as we motored through the Austrian countryside, and the fields started rising up into the mantle of deep-green forests, and stony-grey mountains. Lakes such as Attersee, and Mondsee sprang into view – dotted with pleasure craft – as locals prepared for another summer on the water left behind by glacial scarring millennia ago.
Kilzer hosted us to an amazing lunch at his place, with outstanding wine, beer, food, company, and conversation – and rounds of laughter that left me wiping tears from my eyes. I was still writing a story from High End when we first sat down, so I was grateful they all had patience/pity with my initial preoccupation as I worked at the table to file in a timely fashion. We then retired to dinner later that evening at a local country restaurant where I futilely tried to eat more schnitzel than humanly possible. After much food, laughter, and delicious wine, Peter, and I made our way to our own small inn where I discovered I would be sleeping under the same roof that Napoleon Bonaparte had snoozed centuries earlier.
The town is very small, and one can walk from one end to another in about 15 minutes, which makes for an enviable commute for Kilzer, and his right-hand man Martin Schwarz who oversee most of work in the small building which houses Audio Note’s loudspeaker, and turntable production. Situated just behind Frankenmarkt’s main street, the quaint facility is off-grid thanks to a generator powered by the trout-filled stream the building straddles: a plus in the company’s Green column.
Large windows let in tons of natural light where Kilzer, and Schwarz quietly, and affectionately craft, and test crossovers, drivers, cables, cabinets, turntables, tonearms, and cartridges. Nothing is pre-built for stock, everything is based on existing orders, and is bespoke. Mid-bass drivers, and tweeters are tested, and matched in numbered pairs approximately 50 at a time, same goes for crossovers.
Music plays from a small radio, and the air is rich with the smell of wood, solder, and coffee as espressos get made with regularity from a small machine in the corner of the workshop. The duo smiled, and chatted with me, and each other as they methodically worked through a batch of AN-E crossovers on the test bench during my visit.
A listening session at Kilzer’s home in the late afternoon following the factory tour was sublime with his all AN UK system a highlight of the trip as we spun LP after LP, talked, laughed, and imbibed superb Austrian craft beers. Qvortrup left for Italy the next day, so Kilzer very kindly gave me a tour of several Austrian lakes, and mountain areas en route to Salzburg where we had refreshments at a café perched high above the city preceding my return flight to the UK before jetting back to Canada the next morning.
Having the unique opportunity to see, and feel the passion that goes into building every Audio Note UK product was an experience – in my mind – akin to visiting the Philippe Patek or Maserati factory firsthand. There is an expectation of craftsmanship, of cultural heritage, and historical context inline with their respective, specific, luxury markets that one looks to have fulfilled, and mine was. The fact that I was able to travel, and embrace the stream-of-consciousness mindset of the man behind the marque, and the family, and associates who make the company what it is, was an immeasurable addition to the assignment, and not one one I will forget. My thanks to Peter, and Emily Qvortrup, Andy Whittle, Gerhard Kilzer, and his family, Mickey Seaton, and all the staff at Audio Note UK for allowing Part-Time Audiophile a glimpse into their lives.