Playing it by ear
Boenicke Audio’s solid wooden speakers were developed by gut instinct and trial and error
“The beauty of sound,” enthuses Sven Boenicke, the founder of Boenicke Audio, “is that it can’t be measured by technology.” Really, he continues, it’s an art. A craft. Something honed through years of trial and error. “I gauge with my ears and I compare my speakers to concerts. Science can't describe whether something sounds good or not. That’s not possible, unfortunately.”
It’s this gut instinct that led Boenicke, eight years ago, to forego industry norms and switch to manufacturing his products from solid woods, such as walnut, oak, ash and cherry. Of course, there were practical reasons. The material has innate acoustic properties that make it ideal for his needs. It’s dense, stiff, non-resonant, evens out damping and amplifies sound. But there are other factors harder to convey. “Wood gives you a warmth and connection to the music. It’s a material mankind has lived with for millions of years. To our hearing, it’s just natural.”
But there are challenges. Solid wood is expensive and difficult to produce because using mass manufacturing processes can cause it to warp or crack. So hard is it to find suitable staff, that for most of the past two decades, Sven personally handmade up to 200 items a year, carefully carving out the maze of chasms that house the drivers and wires. In fact, he only hired two helpers in the last 12 months.
The passion began when Boenicke was just 13. “I always wondered how a whole orchestra could go through a thin piece of wire,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand how it was possible.” Two years later, he manufactured his first speaker – “It was completely nothing” – before setting up shop in 1999 in Basle, Switzerland. His frustrating pursuit for perfection saw him test out all manner of different materials for building the enclosure while experimenting with an array of different shapes. Starting with MDF, he moved on to elaborate and heavy sandwich constructions, before trying out layers of steel with damping materials in between. “When I discovered solid wood, I realised it blew everything else away. It became pretty obvious I would not have to look any further. What we sell now has nothing to do with what we sold previously. There has been a very deep transformation.”
Today, the company produces just four models: from the book-sized W5 to the 40kg, metre-tall W13. Aesthetically, form follows function, but he does design them to be as narrow as possible. “Our customers are typically people who are tired of changing their hi-fi system constantly, looking for something they couldn’t find. They don’t desire background music for cooking – they crave sound that touches their hearts.”
It is, perhaps, for this reason Boenicke insists the company will never grow too big and unwieldy. He doesn’t want to transition away from being a boutique manufacturer and has set a limit on producing no more than 300 pairs a year. Instead, the plan is to offer a more complete service so he can also create full systems, everything from amplifiers to cables and power supply distribution solutions.
“I have a very honest approach,” he concludes. “What you see is what you get.”