SWISS turntable specialist Thorens has a history almost as ancient as the phonograph itself. The precursor to today’s turntables which played a rotating cylinder, was introduced by Thomas Edison in 1877, while Thorens was formed in 1883 to make music boxes and clock movements.
Thorens made its first phonograph in 1903, its first electrically-driven unit in 1928, and decades later in the 1950s and 1960s, went on to pioneer the early golden age of vinyl spinners in guise of the ground-breaking TD124 and TD150 turntables.
The company’s profile was diminished to a large extent from the 1970s to the 1990s, with the advent of modern-day turntable manufacturers from Britain, the USA and Japan, although Thorens continued to actively make turntables, tonearms and a limited range of electronics. Challenging times saw the company almost go into liquidation in the late 1990s.
However, fortunately, a new management took over to resurrect the company, and the past decade has seen a resurgent Thorens brand, taking on a wide range of the market with high-end suspended chassis models like the HD550 and HD350, and basic, fully automatic units like the TD-158. While the parts for the cheaper turntables are sourced from around the world, Thorens’ manufacturing operations remain firmly rooted in Germany these days.
We met with the company’s managing director/CEO Heinz Rohrer when he was in Kuala Lumpur recently. Rohrer was instrumental in turning around Thorens’ fortunes, taking over the company and reorganizing its structure, while reaching out to new market.
Here, he shares some insights into the company’s direction and plans, and reveals a little about a brand new flagship model due later in the year.
Tell us a little about your early involvement with Thorens.
I started in 1999 as the international sales manager for Thorens with the goal to re-organise sales to international destinations and open new/additional markets. Within half a year from my start, Thorens collapsed.
However, I realised in this short time that there was an international market as international sales recovered rather quickly. So I decided to gain ownership and start over with a slimmer structure, investments in new products and a re-organised international sale structure. With a lot of enthusiasm and patience, I was able to keep this traditional Swiss brand alive and build up trust again.
What was your vision for Thorens 10 years ago, and has it been fulfilled?
The vision was – and still is – to regain the important position Thorens had in the turntable market and to open undeveloped international markets. To achieve those visions and goals, we needed to gain the confidence of the market and build up trust again, which was lost due to the bankruptcy case in 2000.
Step-by-step, we regained this trust as with time, Thorens was acknowledged to be a stable brand and company again. To come back to the vision – we certainly improved our international position. While we sold the turntables to 20 countries only at the beginning, we managed to stretch the distribution network to currently 61.
Another figure which might help to illustrate this – in 2000, we sold 85% of the products in the home markets of Germany and Switzerland. Today it is vice-versa – 85% of our sales happen in international markets.
In the context of sound, design and built quality, what sets Thorens turntables apart from competition like, say, Rega and Pro-Ject?
Thorens was always a company known for mid- and high-end products. The brand name does not stand specifically for entry-level turntables but for solid construction and excellent sound.
Thorens’ goal remains fine workmanship, quality parts and high level sound. With our base of production in Germany, we do not have a chance to compete with cheap entry-level turntables produced in low-cost markets.
Tell us about the next big product Thorens will be launching.
At the occasion of the High End Munich show, we presented the prototypes of four new sub-chassis players. With this, we pay tribute to the brand’s tradition as sub-chassis players played a very important role in its past.
We could no longer ignore the desire of the customers for a sub-chassis player and so we used the traditional Thorens sub-chassis idea, modernised it in some parts and used modern materials.
We therefore hope to offer a modern turntable reaching today’s standards based on the sub-chassis idea. If all goes right, we will launch the line in October/November.
Being chiefly a turntable manufacturer, Thorens will rely on the sustained popularity of vinyl to survive the coming decades. How long do you think vinyl will continue to be popular and what is the Plan B if the trend does end?
It is obvious that we are operating in a booming market and it is also quite reasonable to assume that this boom will not last forever. However, it may not be forgotten that it is still a niche product. The vast majority of the people listening to music do not use vinyl. However, there is a significant number of people doing so and we think this will always be the case.
Vinyl has its estimated 25th revival! A lot of new technologies entered the music market but vinyl is still here. Analogue sound will always have its place also in the future but obviously in a limited – but for us significant – scope. Therefore, it is absolutely decisive that we use the full international potential of the market and do not limit ourselves geographically.
Of course, there is a plan B existing; however – for obvious reason – this has no priority at this time. And personally – anyway – I do not think that the vinyl disc will disappear completely.
How do you keep the prices of your basic turntables competitive, given that they are made in Germany?
It’s very difficult, to be honest. It needs constant contact and negotiations with the present suppliers. A constant overview and evaluation of the production process is also crucial.
In the last couple of years, we also screened the market for reliable companies for purchasing parts for turntables. Especially in Asia, we have found very good and reliable partners meeting our quality standards at a reasonable price.
That said, it is important to understand that it is not the goal of Thorens to offer a player based on plastic and sheet metal. While we want to offer entry-level products at a reasonable price – our customers need some baseline interest in quality.
Do you see Thorens move into other areas of manufacture, as in digital products?
At this moment, it is not our primary goal. We are an analogue company and will remain an analogue producer. Our knowledge lies within the field of analogue and turntables, phono preamps and accessories.
We also cooperate more and more with companies producing vinyl and we will launch one or two new albums a year. To come back to your question – never say never but at this moment, no plan exceeds the status of a thought experiment.
If you could describe the Thorens philosophy briefly, what would it be?
Tradition paired without fear of modern technologies. By using modern analogue approaches but still being aware of our 132-year-old company tradition, we want to keep the vinyl and Thorens experience alive. Take care of the brand every day and open new ears to the magic of analogue music.