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Interview with Slawa Roschkow of SW1X from England

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Slawa Roschkow/SW1X: Valves/Tubes in the 21st century.

Were it not for my restlessness on one of my many excursions to London, England where I found with myself with free time, idle hands being dangerous, coupled with black diamond level curiosity and that could mean only one thing: GOOGLE. So, there I was searching the Greater London area for up and coming Hi-Fi companies and came upon SW1X, a tube/valve Hi-Fi gear designer and manufacturer

Now, being downright lazy, slothful even, I took it at face value that given the name it would be located in London’s SW1 post code. I was soon to learn that I’d be taking a train out to Essex, more specifically, Kelvedon. Was the trip longer than expected? Yes. Was the journey worthwhile? Yes. Somethings just are worth the wait.

So, turns out that the man behind SW1X’s line of valve/tube gear from the ground up is Slawa Roschkow, a Russian who made his way to Great Britain via Germany. I’ll let him explain this himself and how he found himself in the world of HiFi as he comes from a Finance background.

To get down to this and other matters I, David Blumenstein (DB) will be interviewing Slawa (SR), to find the answers to the questions and more.

 

DB: Who is Slawa Roschkow? How did you get here and why Hi-Fi after Finance?

SR:  My background is a bit unorthodox. I was born in the Soviet Union. Around the age of 11, my parents decided to move to East Germany, just about a year before the Iron Curtain and the Wall collapsed. In a way I was exposed to a social/economical/political/cultural shock that many people experienced who came from the other side of the Curtain. Those were quite interesting times and definitely something unique to remember. I was pretty much exposed to all sort of music, including a lot of western music from a very young age as my father is a big Beatles and Stevie Wonder fan. Also, when I was about 6 years old my father brought me regularly to mastering studious (the ones that copied and created cassettes from R2R tape recorders) and played recorded music in his cars from an imported all-Pioneer car hi-fi system. It is the first memory that has the strongest impact on our psyche and my first memory that reminds me of the emotional involvement i.e. calming or exciting effect music can provide. So for me emotional aspect is the integral part of music. Can you image music that does not stimulate one’s emotional state?

My personal journey into hi-fi started with nothing special but a turntable that I got as a present at the age of 8 and my first “ghetto blaster” double cassette deck at the age of 11, the time I first experienced the CD. In my family, playing musical instruments was pretty normal. My mother graduated from a music school and regularly played piano. The journey itself has been a relative straight line without much of running in circles- I guess I have been lucky unlike many people who have been on a journey for decades, spent absolute fortunes on equipment and still struggle to understand why their system does not play the music right.

After years working in the financial sector, I realized that financial services are not nearly as exciting as designing, experimenting and building audio systems. Do not get me wrong, I am still actively involved in many investment projects, which contribute to fulfillment of basic needs but it does not provide the level of happiness or satisfaction to personal development, at least in my case.

Slawa at home, his showroom.

 

DB: What led you into the world of valves/tubes?  How did you learn to design and build equipment?  Did you work for any audio companies? Apprentice?

SR: My second system that I purchased was when I moved to London to study Economics. It was a Rotel amplifier paired with a set of Wharfedale speakers. I bought it based on a recommendation from a Hi-Fi magazine. Very quickly I discovered that there was a huge discrepancy between my expectations and how the system components were advertised. Looking for a better sound as a student who is always short of cash, I decided to try a valve pre-amplifier from China to drive my HD650 headphones. I was immediately sold to the technology of tube amplification the first time I tried it. My first tube power amplifier followed relatively quickly and was a push-pull pentode power amplifier along with more sensitive speakers. From the beginning on when the CD was firstly introduced, I struggled to understand as why the CD format never sounded as good/close to tapes or vinyl.

Before I started my own audio business, I worked for a recording studio but I never worked in the hi-fi industry before. I also did not study electronic engineering at a university. Perhaps that gives me a certain advantage of “blank page” start approach to audio equipment design. The accumulation of my knowledge and the engineering skills resulted from a combination of my educational background, my general curiosity and the pleasure that I derive from experimentation of reproducing music while modifying/building audio equipment. Anyhow, I was always good in natural science such as Physics/Chemistry and Biology when I was in school. Credit is due to all the teachers who inspired me to enjoy those subjects.

The audio engineering journey started with natural curiosity and the desire to make things sound better. It turned out that I am a fast learner. The learning process progressed with DIY and ended up with a professional activity and my own brand that embodies everything that I gained in knowledge over the years of my DIY and professional journey into designing & building better sounding audio equipment. Everything else, the know-how, engineering skills, working with a variety of software etc. was just a by-product. One tends to learn those things very quickly if one has a goal and love of music.

Back in the days, my first experiments were modifications of tube amplifiers. Prior to that I have not had much of soldering skills or deep understanding how tube amplifications works. Tube technology turned out to be a much better way entering into amplification because of its circuit simplicity relative to the world of transistors. When there is a desire to do something such as to improve the sound, one has a natural boost and tends to learn everything relatively quickly. Any R&D is a costly, investment intensive and time consuming process. It has taken some time to fully pay off but the failures & first success taught me that one can improve anything as long as there is enough time and funding. It also taught me that there is virtually no end to how good the improvement can be if one puts his soul into it. Everything that I discovered, I aimed to implement in the products that we offer today and planning to release in the future. Another aspect is that one has to “live and to breathe” audio in order to successfully create musical sounding products, as one of the most important factors to improve sound is time.

One interesting angle that I discovered fairly quickly is that a musical & emotionally involving sound should not solely be attributed to some hardcore engineering from a die-hard electronics engineer (more about it later) but is rather a cumulative sum of contributing factors resulting from a deep philosophical approach, outside the box thinking and experimentation with materials that is actually neglected by the mainstream.

The interest of developing my own cost-no-object DIY system started somewhere around the time when I started my PhD. At that moment I already discovered that the digital playback is seriously flawed by complexity and over-engineering and that the music becomes much less restrained and more emotionally involving by using relatively simple, single ended tube amplification at the output of a CD player.

 

DB: Were there? Are there any brands with which you have an affinity? Have you ever thought to yourself ‘I’d like to build gear like that someday?

SR:  Absolutely, I think that the world of real high end audio is not such a huge place. I also firmly believe that nothing was ever created or invented by one person. Any innovation is a process, which is a cumulative result from many minds that inspired each other in one way or another.

Every time I looked inside audio equipment, it always seemed to me that the cosmetic looks did not correspond to the materials used inside regardless of the price, make or origin. I always questioned all the fancy and expensive cabling outside the equipment when the inside is made of such low cost conductors. The equipment inside always looked as if nobody really cared or as if one tried something to hide from the public. It was sort of hypocritical to me to expect improvements in sound when there is always something that is a compromise in between, such as all those low grade computer parts like ribbon wiring, motherboard caps, SMD components, etc. I learned that the bottleneck to the sound is not only the wiring outside but the wiring inside and all the materials used in the equipment itself.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised in a positive way when I saw how much attention was paid to details in higher performance level products of Audio Note and Kondo.  For the first time I thought that is the way I would like to build my equipment. So, yes, those are the companies whose approach to production & methodology in design I found inspirational.

There are of course individuals that also have had a similar approach but that is mostly in the DIY sector.

Some time ago I also discovered uniqueness of sound coming from vintage audio equipment, their materials and components. It turned out that older materials seem to do something to the sound that modern materials and technology do not. It all started with those vintage speakers from the 30s and the 50s that were originally made in Germany. It then slowly progressed into trying vintage paper in oil capacitors, carbon film resistors and other out of production materials & components.

 

DB: What does SW1X stand for? What differentiates SW1X Audio Design from the competition? What is special about it?

SR:  SW1X stands for my name. In fact, it embodies the first and last letters of my full name (SW) with the last bit encoded without oversampling (1X) if you like. SW1X stands for musical sounding, innovative high-end audio products and everything that should be addressed in real high-end audio. In a sense, SW1X is a “state of the art” brand not because we use the newest features or latest technology but because we like to implement all the best ideas and materials, etc. that are available today. This means that theoretically we could use an idea from a century ago and use some interesting ideas available today and combine them both if we have to. That is what it all about and that is what I call innovation.

There are several things we do differently than our competition. It starts with the fact that we neither race anywhere nor chase the newest technology. It is about the technology that makes music sound more natural & enjoyable and not what is currently in fashion. Regardless which technology is used, it has to be implemented in an elegantly-simple fashion- not only do elegant circuits designs sound at their best but also are easier to be optimized and tweaked for a better sound. And if it is about sound then I cannot imagine neglecting the aspect of materials & components, which are directly responsible for the sound, employed inside our products. Out of that reason we offer our products in several versions and currently on 3 different price-performance levels. We do not pretend that we design for the quality of sound like the majority does but saves every cent or penny on the components and materials inside their equipment. We do not follow any dogma like component X is better than component Y solely because X measures better than Y. Measurements are important but they are in no way an indicator of quality of sound. How many times did we experience the paradox of great measuring of an audio system and in the same time the headache provoking sound produced by it? Every science-oriented mind knows that measurements are very important input in empirical tools that represent a tiny fraction of a pre-defined characteristic. At the same time, they are useless without understanding what actually drives them. They do not provide a complete picture and are not the ultimate end but just one perspective. So, it would be foolish to rely solely on some measurements and use them as the main criteria for quality of sound. What matters in the end is the end result- that is how the equipment sounds and that one enjoys listening to music over prolonged periods of time- that is what really matters. After all one buys high-end audio equipment in order to enjoy listening to music and not just to demonstrate its looks to friends and relatives.

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