We’re a very niche-y little company,” admitted Blake Tovin, founder and creative director of Symbol Audio. At the company’s studio in Nyack, New York, its lineup of high-end hi-fi setups was on display: a tabletop loudspeaker, a stereo console, and the Modern Record Console, a grandiose $20,000, 300-pound all-in-one showpiece. The company sells custom entertainment cabinetry and record crates as well, and it’s all designed in Dieter Rams’s minimalist vision, fused with the look of classic audio equipment from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “This is not some giant consumer product company where it’s just making the best quality product at the lowest price point,” Tovin said. “We’re actually doing it sort of backward, building to the highest standard we can and then just letting it go price-wise.”
Symbol Audio launched in 2012 as a sort of sister company to Tovin’s design licensing company, Tovin Design Limited, whose clients included major specialty furniture retailers like Crate and Barrel. Tovin and Senior Designer Matt Richmond wanted to start a new company where they could create a product from the ground up instead of just licensing out designs. They were both into buying and playing vinyl, so the creation of Symbol Audio, a design-focused audio company, seemed natural. “All of our audio products are kind of based in furniture design,” Tovin said. “Our storage cabinets are basically furniture. Our Stereo Console and Tabletop HiFi are based off furniture construction and are solid wood. So we’re bringing in a different experience from what most other people in audio are doing.”
“We’re actually doing it sort of backward, building to the highest standard we can and then just letting it go price-wise.”
On the actual audio side, they wanted to create a true hi-fi listening experience, but also keep the design and experience simple. “If you listen to a record on our Modern Record Console,” Richmond explained, “you basically select turntable, select the volume and drop the needle — it can’t get any simpler.” And to keep up with modern times, each audio product — Tabletop HiFi, Stereo Console, Modern Record Console — has built-in streaming functionality. (They can also be configured to work with Airplay, Chromecast Audio or Sonos, and DACs can be integrated as well.)
Symbol Audio works with several partners who design and manufacture each product’s specific components. The speakers on the Modern Record Console, for example, were custom made by Omega Speaker Systems and hand built in Minnesota, according to Andrew Forseth, who as operations director is Symbol Audio’s third full-time employee. “That whole system is designed end-to-end to all work together cohesively as one unit in terms of sound,” Forseth said. “From the turntable to phono stage, to the amplifier to the speakers and subwoofer.”
The vintage aesthetic, along with vinyl itself, tucked seamlessly into the zeitgeist. Vinyl became hugely popular again and editorials published in Wired and Digital Trends heralded the Modern Record Console as the most beautiful console ever created. “[The trend] was driving our own internal interest in the project, and also everyone was interested in writing about it,” Tovin explained. “We were this sort of nice poster child.”
Vibrations on the Modern Record Console? No.
“Audio people often say, ‘How do you have a turntable in the cabinet where the speakers are? Because the vibrations should be picked up.’ And if somebody wants to get on our case, that’s the first thing that they claim.”
“But really, the thing weighs about 300 pounds; there’s nothing like weight to dampen vibrations. The cabinet is pretty heavy on its own. The base is all quarter-inch plate steel, so that thing is probably close to 100 pounds on its own — probably over a 100 pounds when you count the plates that are on these — and then the speakers themselves are probably another 75 pounds with their cabinets. We have a whole isolation system. The turntable is completely isolated from the system, so any vibrations are absorbed. That criticism is just not accurate.” – Blake Tovin, Founder of Symbol Audio
As for customers, the vinyl verve has hit at both generational ends, from younglings captivated by the magic of collecting records and discovering tangible music for the first time, to elders looking to recapture nostalgia. Others, just looking for an excuse to buy records, have bought something like a stereo console as a vehicle to inspire them.
Until now, Tovin explained, Symbol Audio has been in “Phase One,” continuing to build and sell its first generation of audio products. That’s going to change in spring/summer 2017. They’ve partnered with Morel, a large speaker manufacturer in Israel, who has helped them develop new custom and more sophisticated drivers. “They approached us because of the press that this stuff was getting,” Tovin said. “They just thought it was really cool — nobody was doing anything like it. They said, ‘You know, let us know what you want to do and we’ll see if we can engineer it using our laboratory.’” Thus, in “Phase Two,” Tovin assured, the sound quality out of the same-sized speakers would be even more phenomenal.
Also, expect a much more efficiently designed and reasonably-priced version of the Modern Record Console — in case $20,000 was just out of your reach.