Loudspeakers from the Netherlands that can compete with the international high-end top brands in every aspect? That almost sounds to good to be true, but this fast growing company from Brainport Eindhoven proves otherwise since 2012. First, with the remarkably stylish and technological ground-breaking Ensis, followed in 2018 by the stunning and beautiful Stilla. Because these models are mainly marketed abroad and therefor rarely possible to experience in the Netherlands, the company decided to open their creations for the Dutch market as well. To experience this first hand for an edition of the “Month of Hifi”, I travelled to the cradle of Aequo Audio in Eindhoven. It is here, in a beautifully spacious and cosy listening room, that a pair of Stillas is awaiting my arrival.
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Aequo Audio: much more than a beautiful exterior
To cut to the chase: building a new brand and creating brand awareness is not so easy. In this case, I am talking about local and national/regional brand awareness. How better to approach this than to actually introduce people with the products?
The beginning has been made, and both Ensis as Stilla have been seen and experienced on several Dutch audio shows in the past years. There have also been tests by colleges and myself of one or more loudspeaker models. Although this is the case, there are still a lot of people who are not aware of this brand. To change this, a new and powerful tool has been introduced: to experience them at the manufacturer itself!
With experiencing, I also mean getting to know the people behind this innovative brand. I would like to introduce both owner and chief-designer Ivo Sparidaens (picture to the right) and marketing and business development manager Paul Rassin. Together they determine the course of Aequo Audio, accompanied by a team of six. The brand is founded in 2012 by a group that shares a passion for music and hi-fi, all coming from different areas of expertise. The additional members to the team share this passion for music, play an instrument or are into music production. Don’t underestimate the level of professional expertise this group is operating on, when it comes to high-end loudspeaker development. As I mentioned in the introduction, this company is rooted deeply into Brainport Eindhoven, a coalition between 21 smaller regions that together create the metropolitan area of Eindhoven, where an intensive cooperation exists between the rich variety of high-tech companies and knowledge centers like ASML, Philips and the Technical University Eindhoven. Backed by these high-tech facilities and cooperation, Aequo Audio has the proper intellectual and practical leverage to walk at the technological vanguard.
Better sound because of unique design approach
Although this is a factory visit rather than product review, and it would be a bit too much do dive deep into the used technologies, it is important to explain some of them. Right from the start it becomes clear that this young team takes a unique approach when it comes to design, but is also using the newest technologies available.
At the core, each design has to meet eight specific parameters: size & form, room acoustics, soundstage & imaging, placement, cleanliness, precision, amplifier matching and dynamics. An important aspect is the advances in ideal cabinet materials. This begins with the dilemma of the two often opposing forces at work: stiffness and damping. In general: stiff materials are bad in damping while good damping materials are not stiff. In case of loudspeaker cabinets, stiffness helps to absorb energy without bending or vibrating, while damping converts the vibration’s energy into heat. Both are equally important to avoid unwanted resonances.
By investigating a large variety of materials on the highest technological level and following the latest developments in Nano technology, a new solution has been worked out. The developed Nano-materials by Ivo Sparidaens make use of Nano-technology (known from materials such as Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes) to realise a leap ahead when it comes to extreme damping and stiffness, which combined is an achievement that belongs to the absolute world’s top. Another intriguing design aspect is the fascinating CNC-milled interior, chosen from different materials that fit very precisely together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. A lot of clever details improve the reproduction even more, but are hidden from view.
However while writing, the first passive loudspeaker of this brand (Adamantis, red.) is approaching its completion, the secret behind the current hybrid configuration (active bass, passive mid and tweeter) is know as ARPEC. ARPEC is short for Analogue Roomsize (and) Placement Extension Control, which also makes it possible for the loudspeakers to remain their slim and compact appearance.
The beauty of this intelligent technology is that these models possess all the characteristics that make very big upper class loudspeakers so attractive. One of the important pitfalls that normally accompany active bass has been cleverly avoided. The ARPEC technology makes sure that the normally used DSP-processor, which causes delay, can be completely left out of the equation. Instead, they developed a clever speaker-individual and fully analogue system which takes a big variety of settings into account and adjust these accordingly. Because of this, Stilla is able to achieve perfect bass and room integration with its compact size, but it also reaches an impressive and dazzling 14 Hz(!). By relieving the amplifier of subwoofer duty, they also have a nice high sensitivity of 90 dB, making them easy to drive. Combine that with an impedance of around 8 Ohm, and the path is cleared for some nice tube amplifiers or small but high quality transistor amplifiers.
Of course, there is a lot more to discover about this brand, its people and their products. To discover this I head to Eindhoven on a beautiful sunny day in October, nicely before the November “Month of Hifi”. A first lovely contradiction appears at the moment I arrive at the facility. Because if you have seen these minimalistic and super elegant “form follows function” loudspeakers on their website or in real life, you would not expect that their listening room would be situated in a century old farmhouse. Arriving at the right time, Paul and Ivo are already waiting outside the building to welcome me. It is an especially warm welcome, which is something that would remain throughout the whole visit at Aequo Audio. This is a proud company with passionate people that put their heart and soul into a beautiful and high technological Dutch product. The fact that everybody is so proud, makes the visit even more exciting.
Back to the building, where a staircase unfolds right after the front door, leading to a very spacious and cosy top floor. Natural light is entering through several windows, and thanks to the preserved old wooden construction beams and white sealing elements, a beautiful characteristic listening room has been made. Before settling in one of the comfortable couches, we first explore the rest of the facility. A tour which shows that the building is divided into a large number of separate spaces. Right next the listening room on the top floor, we enter a room where a large number of acoustical driver units are found. “This”, sighs Ivo with a grin on his face, “is a nice example of the numerous experiments we have been doing on driver units. Although we work with the legendary Skaaning family to realise my specific requirements, components and precise parameters to come to a proper driver unit, we still need to do further detailed and specific testing and experimentation to realise mechanical and electrotechnical improvements we want, to great detail. To get there, mutual patience and a good relation is needed to get from first prototype to a finalised and perfected unit.”
Continuing on this exiting Aequo Audio exploration, we head down on a staircase at the other side of the floor where we head back to ground level. It becomes clear that every room in this building has its unique purpose, and we almost literally walk into a giant 3D-printer.
“This huge 3D-printer is our latest asset in production, which in now being used to print cast molds used to cast our own Nanotech cabinet material. At this moment we still use thermo-forming by heating carefully milled pre-poured plates in a large industrial oven. After being in the oven for a while, it is bendable enough to be shaped in a mold and pressed into the right form. We now implemented a new method where the final shape is directly molded from liquid composites. Because we had to purchase a very costly new mold at every adjustment, we decided to take matters into our own hands and print complete molds in house. At this moment, the new passive Adamantis loudspeaker will be the first model that is produced using this method. All future models will be produced in a similar way.
To suit the action to the word, Ivo opens the protective hood of the printer and I see the beautiful shape and contours of the new Adamantis. I immediately see the wow-factor of this new design and this sight immediately makes one greedy to have them but fortunately, we quickly continue and enter a room where the filters and ARPEC systems are being made. Not an easy job to fit all these components the compact enclosure of Stilla!
The next room contains the earlier mentioned industrial oven and shaping molds. After this we enter the large production area with in the back a large sealed milling room with among other milling table and CNC-machine(s). Here I see the intricate framework of Stilla for the first time. First, I don’t recognize it as such because it looks so strangely complex. Since some loudspeaker units are slightly visible, it still caught my attention. What I now understand even more clearly, is the extremely high level of difficulty of getting all these different wood types, large components and other materials formed into a compact inner cocoon! “Of course our employees have attained the necessary skillset, but it remains an incredibly laborious and difficult concept. If we could reach the same or better result with less actions, (by going to direct casting, red.) that would be an absolute win-win. On the one side by its high speed and efficiency in production, ensuring we can produce future models with the same production facilities. On the other side to improve the quality even more. The future looks very promising.”
Driving the speakers
With all these nice words in the back of my mind, we walk back to the big listening room and take a seat in the strategically placed couches, accompanied by a nice cup of steaming hot tea. The hybrid Elemental Stilla in the showcased setup (standard in white, wood veneers and coloured lacquers are optional) costs € 17.999,-, while for a fully active version you spend € 19.999,-. A lot of money for a beautiful and, in this room especially, compact structure. Would they be capable of filling this large and spacious room?
I don’t get a lot of time to think about this, because Ivo continues with great enthusiasm about the equipment currently used. As power amplifiers, the unknown to me and compact CAAS Elysium 100 mono blocks from England are used. A big mouthful for beauties imported/distributed by Aequo Audio, costing € 10.000,- per pair and are playing without any global or local feedback, with the first 20 Watts in class A. And also the relatively affordable KR P-135 pre-amp (€ 5.590,-) with two direct heated KR45 triodes, is similarly special. Both combine virtues like purity and realism to a healthy dose of musicality. The Antipodes CX is used as an audio streamer (€ 6.895,-). Cabling is experimental because a new cable portfolio is in the making. In the near future the brand will introduce these as well.
Now all additional information has been provided, it is finally time for the purpose of my visit. Listening to the Aequo Audio Stilla loudspeakers in their own listening room, connected to fitting electronics. The team wants to add that it is possible for visitors to connect their own amplifiers or electronics and that all Covid measurements are taken into account. In an unknown room with unknown electronics and loudspeakers, there is always a period of ‘getting used to’. Not strange of course, since everybody is used to their own environment and system. My experience tells me that the better a system delivers, the shorter this period of getting used to is. As is the case at this location in Eindhoven, where the soft and flowing timbres of the reproduction grab me straight from the beginning.
The good thing about steaming services like Qobuz and Tidal, is that you have an easy access to your own music without being at home. For this reason, it was very easy to pop-up my own favorite tracks at Aequo Audio. Because I experience his music as incredibly layered and atmospheric, I start with David Helpling and his debut album “Between Green and Blue” from 1996. Helpling is an American guitarist, pianist and composer of movie music, and on this first album it is clear that he has been inspired by the somewhat older, but from the same country originating, Patrick O’Hearn. Where O’Hearn often chooses a more heavy and melodramatic approach, Helpling chooses a more softer and sparkling approach in this first work. “End of an Era” shows me that the compact floorstanding Stilla loudspeakers are very full-range and exceptionally spacious. The speakers fully disappear without the slightest of notion of them being the source of sound, and never sound sharp or harsh while very precisely displaying the several analogue synthesiser details in the immense stereo image.
With acoustical music, like for instance the wonderful album “Magnificat” for choir and organ of the Norwegian 2L label, Stilla shows that they not only play beautiful, spaciously layered and full range, they can also play extremely realistic and naturally. The song “Quia Fecit” starts with a long note played by the church organ. With small speakers this note is not heard at all, while large speakers often have difficulty reproducing it as an actual organ note. Not with these Aequo Audio speakers, where the lows are not only deep and full of pressure, even the contour and air circulation of the organ pipes is audible! When the choir starts and the whole listening room fills with virtual people, the enjoyment comes to a climax and delivers a natural placement of organ and choir members and correct energy transfer for a real transportation to the actual place of recording.
As a finale to this listening-fest, I chose the beautiful and abstract live album called “Night” from the Ukranian pianist and composer Misha Alperin. Recorded on the Norwegian VossaJazz Festival, together with Anja Lechner on the Cello and Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen on percussion, a beautiful production on the ECM label was created. The track “Tango” that takes at least 7 minutes, has a mystical start with soft but increasingly louder drums, which end in an amazing dynamic eruption that will separate the boys from the men. This is not only very deep but also very difficult music to reproduce. And then I realise these small Stilla’s are standing freely in a large spacious room which I estimate to be about 6 x 15 meters… But it delivers, and how! Apart from the needed quantity to fill the room with at such a high level, there is also an enormous quality at every volume. So, I take a deep bow for designer Ivo Sparidaens and his team to deliver so much versatility in a beautiful and elegant enclosure which will fit excellent in any interior possible.
A beautiful pair of prime-Dutch loudspeakers by which our country shows in an impressive way that we can easily match the worlds’ top high-end audio brands. The beautiful addition to this Dutch brand, is that as Dutch people, we can also meet the designer and his team in person. But the real cherry on top is of course the fact that you can go and experience Stilla for yourself. Maybe the gentlemen would like to demonstrate some of their own tracks, but you can listen to the music of your choosing as much as you like, and if you want, you can even bring your own electronics! The only thing you have to do is make an appointment with the sympathetic people of this brand and be open for an experience that you would probably never expect from loudspeakers of this size.