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Interview with Slawa Roschkow of SW1X from England

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DB: What aspect of the hardware physically drives you? Is it the circuitry? And when I met you in person I got the impression that you were/are somewhat obsessed with the quality and finish of parts and components? Curiously, am I right or wrong?

SR: I think it is the aspect that one should not ignore things that seem to be least important. What I am going to say may sound very paradoxical. Everything is not equally as important but not vice versa. In the top end of high end audio, everything matters! And sometimes those little things that seem to be least important matter more than the things that we think matter the most.

There are people who have acquired vast amount of knowledge but very limited understanding and paradoxically the less they understand the more they think they do. Though knowledge and understanding are related, they are not one and the same but rather two different things as knowledge does not always translate into understanding. Some people really believe that the circuit design is everything in audio and the rest is just a periphery. The logic goes like this, if the audio component does not sound right- something must be wrong with circuit design. Get the circuit right, sprinkle a couple of quality components on top and you will end up experiencing audio nirvana. However, that is a very short sighted approach, which unfortunately some have adopted. Electric circuit and materials & components which the circuit is made of, is more like the body & soul- they are inseparable. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish one aspect from another. Those few who experimented long enough will surely agree with me on that.  In my world a good circuit design (more about it later) is just a starting point. Even and especially the better designed circuits can sound awful if the choice of materials and components is random or sometimes unfortunate or worse, is ignored.

As a consequence materials & components are as equally as if not more important as the circuit design because they are integral to the sound. Its importance is routinely downplayed and swept under the carpet by mainstream brands because good materials are costly and the objective is to minimize costs by all means necessary. In order to make a product look desirable, one spends huge proportion of its profit on advertising and promotion (just try to count all those raving reviews) and only a small chunk goes into the R&D of sound in a product- that is just the business model of the mainstream hi-fi brands. In the end, the customer pays for advertising and not for the promised sound and that is a sad but true story.

We, on the hand, do exactly the opposite- most of resources and time go into R&D. Since all of the components & materials are far from perfect, we developed a proprietary approach that allows us to gain insight into how those components & materials sound when we routinely voice our products. Voicing is not some sort of auxiliary activity at the end of the product design but an ongoing process which is performed throughout the design and development of an audio product. How many times have I experienced the phenomena of having 2 identical products but completely different sound signatures? Another aspect that I wanted to bring to attention is not only the choice and combination of materials & components but their arrangement in the circuit.

 

DB: In this world, our world, the twenty-first century,  where the talk is of Hi-Res and DSD, why is SW1X mired in the realm of 16-bit? What’s the philosophy behind this?

SR: OK, that is a very sensitive subject. For us, for true music lovers and audiophiles it is about music & sound in the first place and how a recording turns out to sound in practice when it is reproduced, it is not about Hi-Res/DSD vs PCM/CD encoded formats or specs & numbers of theoretical resolution, those are just marketing related terms and buzz words. Every informed person knows that theory and practice are two different things. It is really not just about numbers that are supposed to represent the quality but the technology that is behind it.

The today’s trend in technology is to improve specified performance & convenience (from producer and consumer perspectives) and perhaps more importantly to reduce costs but not necessarily to improve quality or durability of a product. From this point of view one is easily seduced by the specs stated on paper and the convenience of all those products containing plenty of integrated circuit (ICs) solutions found in delta-Sigma type of DAC chips, switching power supplies, class D amplification (which do have technologically a lot in common) and op-amps. However, sound quality does not originate from how good the specs look on paper or how little the cost can be. On contrary, to me, the musicality in sound is rather an outcome of a labor-intensive and time-consuming experimentation with materials and circuit designs. The results of those multiple experiments have shown us that a newer technology (which offers better specs and lower cost) is not necessarily better sounding but usually quite on contrary for one reason (such as cost) or another. There are plenty of examples in history, perhaps tube (less convenient) being replaced by transistor (more convenient) technology is one of them. Sure, we could have dumped tubes (and vinyl like the majority did back in the days) and move with newer technologies but we would have done so only if they really improved the sound quality. The other question that I heard from somebody is how many great tube amps have out-survived so called great transistor amps?

We, at SW1X are not proponents of 16bit Red Book format over higher bit depth because we are old fashioned. More important to us is what the 16bit PCM technology offers in terms of sound quality relative to others. That may sound conservative but in fact we are indifferent to the number of bits or any measure of sampling quality as long the resulting sound sounds musical in the end. Ultimately, it is a question what sound quality can be achieved with what we have. In other words, if higher specified software & hardware sounded better we would have used it in our products by now.

Slawa’s work shop. The elves were given the day off.

 

DB: Looking at your gear and the bits and bobs all over your workshop there’s a certain timelessness to behold, as if it is the province of an artisan, a craftsman. Is this how you see yourself? Are you an anachronism?

SR:  I am probably quite the contrary to an anachronism. On the one hand, I may be a bit old fashioned because I am a fan of old school technologies such as tube amplification, field coil speakers, vinyl, R2R DACs but not because I am reactionary and refuse to accept progress. On the other, there is the reason that older technologies were less focused on cost and more concerned with quality and durability. We can observe this phenomenon when older cars or other goods (or anything else that was before the mass production-consumption driven era) outlasts latest smart & high-tech versions. Needless to say we can observe trends in our lives where older technologies are becoming more appreciated. Examples include revival of interest in vinyl, CDs and R2R tapes. One can also observe this trend for older car models, which depending on the condition can cost more than the current model. I am pretty sure that with time more and more people will start to appreciate older technologies and stop dumping them simply because there is something new out there. When it comes to audio, designs focusing on valves, vinyl, CDs etc is what I consider classic or timeless, especially if they were made of finest materials back in the days.

 

DB: I want to get back to your preferences with respect to materials that go into your designs. You made it quite clear to me that you prefer silver over copper, and Germanium over Silicon semiconductor materials when I visited. What’s up with that?  Why?

SR: My choice for certain materials come from the preferences associated with the unique sound qualities such as copper and silver just to name a few. It is true that I do like the sound of fine silver materials but I equally like some feature from copper materials as well. Just like to remind some folks out there that we are speaking in general terms here. Silver tends to sound livelier, while offering more clarity and harmonic richness but at the cost of a colder character, thinner and lighter body. While copper tends to sound warmer and has more body it is a bit slower and less harmonically rich, silver does exactly the opposite. I like to use the features of both materials. In some circuits we have sometimes to use more of one material than the other for balancing the sound. The same applies to Silicon or Germanium. However, it is sometimes more difficult to generalize here. Germanium has a tendency to sound softer and warmer just like tubes, which I prefer over any solid state component.

 

DB:  Analogue over Digital? Is the world ready for your brand of design?  Is it ready to forsake the convenience of a solid-state design?

SR: Analogue of course ☺. We have not “invented a wheel”. It is very well known that all the musical signals are borne from the vibrations stemming from the analogue domain. Everything else is a derivative of it. Without going to much into transistors vs valves debate, I prefer valve technology over transistors for many reasons; sound quality being one of them and the other is a possibility to have a more elegantly simple circuit design, which brings many advantages not only in sound quality terms. When it comes to amplification, valves are natural voltage amplifiers and the therefore superior to the transistors in this aspect but also in terms of linearity, lacking therefore for a need for any type of negative feedback loops. Negative feedback as well as complexity of a circuit design can kill musicality and we actively try to avoid using any excessive complexity in circuits that are devastating to musicality. It is virtually impossible completely to avoid transistors in most low voltage circuits. However, personally, I would substitute every transistor with a tube whenever it is feasible and possible. Having mentioned the biggest drawback of transistors, is it perhaps worth mentioning that transistors have their merits too such as the ability handle higher loads, their compactness, etc.

One will not find many transistors in our products but if one finds them they all specially selected and are made of either Germanium or Silicon.

An SW1X system at home, in its own habitat

 

DB: Is SW1X the second coming of Audio Note? There’s no mistaking there’s a similarity in physical appearance? Are you paying homage to them? Are there lessons to be learned from them as a company?

SR: It is certainly a point of view that SW1X is related to Audio Note. There is SW1X and there is Audio Note. It is true that the design of Audio Note is an inspiration to me. There are overlaps in our philosophies but we all have different interpretations. We have many things in common like digital-filterless DAC designs, prefer valves over transistors, negative feedback-less circuit designs and utmost attention to component & material quality. I personally like the Audio Note approach when it comes to designing audio products, it is simply exemplary. I am aware that there many folks out there that disapprove the Audio Note approach but such is life. There is no perfection in anything in this life. All we do is to make the best of what we already have.

 

DB: I know that you have made some sales recently. Are these primarily in the UK/EU and/or have you gone truly global?

SR: There was never our intention to limit SW1X to the UK or EU market. We have had global outlook right from the start. As a matter of fact the first DAC ever was sold to a customer in Asia. Meanwhile we sold DACs and phono pre-preamplifiers to most continents of this planet. US, Russia and Asia are currently are most demanding markets. Having said that, SW1X Audio Design is still in a growing stage and we would welcome to have more exposure in the US and Asian markets, appoint new distributors and to form long term strategic partnerships.

 

I take the title of Dagogo’s International Correspondent very seriously. I take HiFi, its future very seriously as well. Without new up and coming designers/manufacturers willing, ready and able to pick up the mantle and grow new brands, HiFi’s future would be nothing but bleak. This interview with Slawa came about by chance, as do some of the best things in life, and when people ask me about the UK HiFi scene and who’s adding more than a little something to the mix, I want to be able to not only trumpet the news, but have the subject of my interviews motivate others to follow through on their ideas and designs. Promoting such is the only way.

In spending the day with Slawa, I got to hear so much of his gear, just about every piece at his home, in his showroom and in his workshop. Slawa’s kit is nothing with which to trifle. This is great sounding gear made with the care and devotion an audiophile would like to expect from a craftsman in the field.

 

Contact Slawa/SW1X through his website: http://sw1xad.co.uk

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