The flight home from Rome to Toronto following my factory tours of Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, Gold Note, and Audia Flight and Alare was near-as-dammit ten hours. That gave me plenty of time to cogitate on what I’d experienced at each stop.
Steve Jain of Fidelity Imports, a US distributor of high-end audio products, had invited me and three other audio journalists on this series of factory tours, scheduled for the week following the High End show in Munich. The agenda sounded interesting but rather dry. Sure, it’d be a chance for me to visit Italy, but I’ve been on these sorts of expeditions before, and they tend to be rather corporate and very busy. But I happily signed on because this trip promised plenty for me to write about.
The author with improvised stemware
The big surprise was Jain and his crew, who turned out to be stellar traveling companions. Not ten minutes into the train ride from Munich to Venice, Jain pulled out a thick pipe of salami and a bottle of top-notch Brunello. I made myself useful, employing my Swiss Army knife to cut down some plastic water bottles to use as makeshift glasses.
Carlo Lo Raso of HomeTheaterHiFi.com then used the same knife to slice up that salami. Thus began a cooperative week: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. Also on the train with us were Bob Weissburg, director of business development, and Mark Eaton, content marketing manager, both from Fidelity.
Lo Raso slices while Eaton watches
Driving down parallel to the train were Eric Smith, Fidelity’s director of marketing and education, and Michael Hoatson, owner of The Listening Room, a retail shop out of Maryland. Eric and Michael would end up being our luggage mules. Mike is a very fast driver, and with Eric as his nerves-of-steel copilot, they’d most times beat the train and arrive at the hotels in our destinations of Venice, Florence, and Rome before we pulled in. Arriving in Treviso, on the outskirts of Venice, we picked up Julie Mullins and Rogier van Bakel of Stereophile.
All three of the companies we visited share an intense pride in their products. It was immediately evident that their representatives were deeply involved in their products and fully committed to making them the best they could be. Now this isn’t unique to Italy—not in any way.
What was a surprise was the consistent level of humility. Not once did any of the people I spoke with declare that their products were the best available, nor did they make extraordinary claims of any sort. Rather, they showed us around, explained their processes, and answered our questions. Perhaps stereotypically, I’d been expecting some Mediterranean hotheadedness—maybe some arm-waving and shouting. More passion, I suppose. If I could reverse engineer the Italian calm they exuded, I’d say the passion was definitely there, but it was directed inward, at the work they were doing and the components they were designing and building.
Alongside this humility was a consistent pride that their products were made in Italy by real Italians using Italian parts.
There were some important differences between these three facilities and the people behind the five brands produced at them. At our first stop, Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, we saw a medium-sized company with a decently sized warehouse and well-ordered manufacturing facilities. We got a bit deeper at this company than we did with our next two visits—we also visited the company that makes speaker cabinets for Opera products and the company that assembles the circuit boards. At both suppliers, we had a chance to meet the owners, and they also showed us around with pride and grace.
Barto and Riccardo Nasta, the principals of Unison and Opera, made us feel more than welcome. They even introduced us to their mother, Donatella Vigilate, who admittedly is still active in the company. But still . . . their mom!
Donatella Vigilate at bottom right
So in Unison and Opera, we have a well-ordered company, heavy on the family touch, producing stunning tube amplifiers and beautiful speakers loaded with wood and leather.
Gold Note was different. The family touch was replaced by modern high-tech efficiency combined with an incredible sense of style. As I mentioned in my coverage on SoundStage! Global, Gold Note’s facility is beyond stunning. Their emphasis on process flow highlighted how this fast-growing company has pulled itself firmly into the 2020s.
But this efficiency wasn’t a Moonbase Alpha flyaway separation from the company’s roots. Gold Note has always been headquartered in Tuscany, and there’s a vineyard across the street from their current location. Gold Note offered us wonderful hospitality. Rather than put us up at some slick boutique hotel, which would have seemed more in line with their modernist home base, we stayed at a beautiful villa at the end of a sketchy dirt road.
Morning in Tuscany
Le Fonti a San Giorgio looked like it had been there forever. The two nights I spent there may have been the most elegant experience of my life.
Gold Note offers an impressive range of products—pretty much everything you need to build a complete system, from the cartridge you mount on your Gold Note turntable to the amps you can display on your Gold Note stand to the speakers you’ll need to make music. Not one of these products is filler or seems in any way slapped together. No, each Gold Note component looks thoroughly engineered and designed to fit an appropriate niche in the company’s product line.
Breakfast at Le Fonti a San Giorgio
Audia Flight was by far the smallest of the three companies we visited, but in some ways it was the most ambitious. My focus was Audia Flight’s Strumento line of statement-level electronics and the equally ambitious loudspeakers from its offshoot brand, Alare. Audia Flight does offer the more reasonably priced FLS line of electronics, including the FLS10 integrated amplifier reviewed earlier this year by Hans Wetzel. But I was at the Audia Flight headquarters for only one day, and I found myself drawn, magpie-like, to the massive, exciting Strumento line.
The build quality of Audia Flight electronics is superb. The big Strumento N°4 stereo and N°8 mono amplifiers clock in at 210 pounds each. Their monstrous transformers, each potted and sealed in a steel box, account for much of that weight. These amplifiers at first struck me as overbuilt, but during our afternoon listening session, the results spoke for themselves. As I mentioned in my coverage, I was taken aback by the contrast between the small size of the company and the grand scale of the products they produce.
At the end of our tour and before we went out to dinner, Massimiliano Marzi, Andrea Nardini, and Massimo Costa, the principals of Audia Flight and Alare, took us on a short road trip to the National Etruscan Museum of Tarquinia, a 20-minute drive from their facility. I really enjoyed checking this place out. But here’s the thing: they didn’t really need to do this. We’d had a full day, and we were going out to dinner afterward. They could have skipped this activity and we’d have been none the wiser. But they wanted to share this place with us. They wanted to extend their hospitality as much as they could.
National Etruscan Museum of Tarquinia
This warm hospitality was consistent across all three companies. Jain had visited them before and he’d told us what to expect. Still, it was almost jarring to this Canadian chap. Toronto can be a cold place, inhabited as it is by reserved, private people. If you smile or wave at someone while walking down the street, they’ll regard you with suspicion. Try to strike up a conversation with a stranger and you’ll generally get a ten-word reply—at most. But here we were in Italy, with these folks going so far out of their way to be hospitable, it was almost disconcerting.
I don’t often get the chance to visit the facilities where the products I review are made, which means I don’t often get deep insight into what makes these companies tick. Of course, I often get to converse with a representative and maybe hop onto a Zoom call, or at minimum carry on an email exchange to find out more about a product and the company that makes it. But that’s it—an arms-length, cursory investigation is usually all I can manage at a distance. To see inside the soul of a company, you need to visit and break bread with the people who run the joint.
When you’re there, you can get your nose right into a component, stick your head right into a speaker, and poke around inside amplifiers in various states of undress. Now when I get a component from one of these companies in for review, I’ll have context that I would never have otherwise had.
So factory tours like these are wins for everyone involved. The distributor gets exposure for his brands, the companies get to show off how their products are made, and I get something to write about.
Left to right: Eric, Julie, Bob, Steve, Mark, Mike, Carlo
At this point, it’s important that I recognize just what a good ringleader Steve Jain is. His team is exceptionally good-natured. They’re well informed, supportive, and genuine. Add in three journalists, none of whom displayed the slightest bit of ego, and you’ve got a great crew. I learned a ton, ate a ton, and came home with loads to write about. Over the next few months, you can expect to see reviews of many of these companies’ products on SoundStage! Ultra.
. . . Jason Thorpe