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Jochen Räke

Occupation: owner

Räke Hifi/Vertrieb GmbH Irlenfelder Weg 43 | D-51467
Bergisch Gladbach Deutschland
tel.: +49 (0) 2202/31046 | +49 (0) 2202/36844

Country of origin: Germany

met Jochen Räke, the founder and owner of Transrotor, on an early Saturday morning in Kraków. An unforgettable view of the Wawel – the Polish royal castle – from the windows of Hotel Poleski, situated just across the Wisła river, corresponded really well with the slowly, almost lazily going story of Transrotor’s beginnings, its owner’s first steps in the audio world, and the role of destiny in his life. And not only his. I was sitting across from Dirk Räke and still had vivid memories of him moving the boxes and components of the Artus FMD turntable (see HERE).
Dirk comes to Poland quite often, but Jochen – his father and officially his boss – was visiting the country for the first time. He instantly said, however, that he must visit again soon to do some sight-seeing. This time it was strictly a business trip. He was invited to officially open a new Transrotor-dedicated room in Krakow’s Nautilus audio salon, Transrotor’s official Polish distributor. He handled his responsibility with grace and I had the chance to ask him a few questions I’d come up with long ago. Dirk Räke was also present to assist me, joining the conversation from time to time. Father and son – this is the story of their company.

Wojciech Pacuła: Do you still listen to music?
Jochen Räke: Yes. There are times when I won’t listen to anything for a week, and then while testing something I’ll sit down and listen to it for the whole night, sometimes up to four in the morning.

Do you have some wine with that? Dirk has already found out that the auditions on our Krakow Sonic Society meetings wouldn’t be the same without any wine.
Sometimes I like sipping on some fine red wine during my auditions. But I can’t imagine my life without music. When I’m listening to something interesting, the whole world seems to stop.

Do you only listen to music on vinyl?
No, although in our audition room we don’t have a CD player and I only listen to vinyl records. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to listen to all our discs before I turn a hundred. Sometimes I manage to find something new, but Dirk brings tons of new records, and we buy whole collections – 200 or 300 records – sometimes. I’m trying to get through it all slowly.

So you don’t really much care for new technologies and Hi-Res editions?
Not really. They’re not important to me. I like 20 to 30-year-old technology. Even my car is a 20-year-old Mercedes. I don’t feel compelled to use every technological novelty, and I can barely grasp some of them. I’ll be 72 soon, and my audio system is completely sufficient to me.

You look much younger. What kind of music do you listen to?
I like all kinds of music. I like classical music and opera, but I don’t mind pop, and sometimes one of the latest hits catches my ear.
Dirk Räke: I was looking for my Radiohead disc recently, and it turns out my father had it.

Really? It’s nice music... Two days ago, I went to a Portishead concert. It was really great. The concert was held at the tinning plant of ArcelorMittal Poland in Krakow. It’s the perfect venue for that type of music.
Portishead don’t tour much, you’re pretty lucky...

WP: That’s right. I also bought their LP single, of course. You must have noticed many people returning to LPs and vinyl? What could be the reasons for that? Do people listen to vinyl out of nostalgia, or because it’s trendy? Maybe there’s a completely different reason?
Jochen Räke: Perhaps fashion is part of it, but I think it’s mostly about the music itself, and the sound quality. Some of our customers buy all of the latest technological novelties and at the end, it turns out they return to LPs. I myself have a CD player in my car, I listen to CDs, and it’s OK. But at home I’ve only got vinyl and I only listen to LPs. When I’m driving my car I listen to my favourite albums from the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes very loudly, since I’m not disturbing anyone. But vinyl rules at home. There are always lots of albums in all sorts of genres appearing and, like I said, Dirk also gives me something new from time to time.

Do you think there’s a point in listening to LPs that were cut from a digital master? When it comes to an analogue master tape, everything is clear – we remain in the analogue domain. But what about digital masters?
I’ll admit I never thought about that. I pay more attention to the music than the technology behind it.

That’s surprising – what you do is basically the “technology behind it”.
I’ve got my ways. I’ve done this for the past forty years and I know a few things. In 1983, 84 and 85 most of the turntable manufacturers were halting production, but the five of us didn’t give up. We pulled through, and it turns out there’s a return to vinyl and we moved forward. We could develop even more, but we didn’t want that. We’re continuing our tradition, there are currently fifteen of us, and we make turntables. I just remembered an interesting story. We had a great-sounding vinyl record from Manger – the speaker manufacturer. We listened to it and the sound quality was fantastic. Superb sound and production – that’s when we found out that album was a CD transfer. So sometimes I don’t know where I stand – why do we like the LP transferred from a CD more? I don’t understand that but we listened to that album yesterday, and the effect was the same – it’s absolutely superb.

Nobody knows how it works, because it’s the same signal – even more distorted, actually, because it’s additionally manipulated.
Dirk Räke: On one hand it’s okay to say that it’s distorted, but many people would take that wrong. If something’s distorted the meaning is totally negative – it’s the same story as with tube amplifiers. A little distortion of the right kind, with even harmonics, can make the sound very warm and natural. It’s the same deal as when you play the electric guitar on a transistor amp and a tube amp. Transistor distortion sounds very harsh and brutal, and the tube amplifier sounds warm and nice, and it’s all very similar. But we’re talking about very small distortions, less than a 2% distortion. To me, it’s also interesting to compare two different masters, one made for the CD and one for the LP. You’ve got the recording which then gets mastered – equalised and compressed – and then it’s put on a CD. The LP’s mastering is totally different, so normally a different specialist should do it. And normally, this person is more experienced and better-equipped than the person who takes care of the CD mastering.

It’s interesting, since you have to compress the dynamics for LPs, cutting off the lowest frequencies, and yet in the end the vinyl sounds better.
Sometimes limitations make things better.

I’m a sound engineering guy myself who worked with professional sound equipment for 15 years, and I know there’s a lot of compression used in studio recordings and live performances alike. If you play sound without any limiters or equalisation, it just sounds really bad. But changing the topic – how did you find out that you want to make turntables? How did you start? Why did you start? Was it for money, or some other reason?
Jochen Räke: No, it wasn’t about money. I was always interested in music, stereo and hi-fi. When I was fourteen years old, I was a radio amateur, we used to build speakers, radios and amplifiers. My father wanted me to go in that mechanical direction, to become a machine engineer. I didn’t really like it, but I did it in the end. My neighbour, a friend of mine who I saw every day, went in another direction – he became an electrical engineer. So we were always together, and it was my hobby. The first turntable I built was an English Connoisseur. It was a turntable set you could buy and assemble yourself. My next turntable was an old Dual, and the turntable was built into a music box. So I was always handling these things. My first record was Louis Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife”. I can remember that very clearly. I listened to a lot of music, and I was always fascinated by it, but unlike Dirk I never learned how to play any musical instrument. Then I went on to become a mechanic, and later I started going in the direction of becoming an engineer. And when I finished my studies, I ended up not following down that path – my father was really mad. I found a job at a hi-fi store, and soon afterwards, I had my own hi-fi shop inside a bigger store – and I really liked that. Then the management changed and I didn’t get on well with these new people. But at that time, Michell and Transcriptor opened their agency in Germany. I signed a contract with them, and I had to sell five of those turntables a month. It turned out I was really good at it, and in a few months I was working with about 70 hi-fi dealers in Germany. I owned an old Renault, and I drove from the North to the South, taking about 10 turntables into my car, driving to those dealers to set them up.

And when was that? Was Dirk already engaged in the business?
No, we’re talking about the early 1970s. I became a hi-fi, and particularly a turntable salesman. Later on I started noticing issues with the quality of the English products. The turntable manufacturers thought the electronics were the most important thing, not the mechanical parts. I was a mechanical engineer and I told John Michell (Ed. Note: the founder of Michell) – could you change this or that? Finally I thought we should try production in Germany. We made the first prototype in Germany, although production costs were half the price in England. Everything was cheaper in England than in Germany in the early 1970s. We used to buy hi-fi equipment, Quad amps and speakers, as well as shoes and clothes in England, because it was simply worth it. So in 1973 we already had our own name, Transrotor, and the patent, 40 years ago.
We sold everything that Michell made for us under our own name. The problem was that although everything was cheaper in England at the time, we weren’t getting the export price – we had to pay Michell the same money as English dealers. I needed to get a margin out of it, and that meant that the turntables that came from England were more expensive in Germany. So I said we have to do two things: first of all change the name, and second of all, we have to change the models. And from that time all the Transcriptor reference hydraulic turntables came from me. The first one was the Transrotor AC – AC means acrylic glass – and that was the first acrylic turntable in the world. I’m not saying that nobody did that before us, perhaps there were single units or prototypes. But we had a real production for seven years. They were only sold in Germany and Italy. Although I’m sure a few left out the English manufacturer’s back door…

Like what’s happening right now with production in China?
Yeah, I know something about that. We were making our AC model. If you wanted to buy one of them now, a 30-year-old unit would cost twice as much as a brand new one. They’re real collectibles.

Did you leave one for yourself?
We’ve got three or four. Sometimes when I see one of the models we’re missing in our museum, I ask: “Could I get it? I’ll give you a brand new one in return”. But coming back to the story, we introduced brand new ideas on turntable technology in the Classic and Connoisseur models. We had a range of new designs – we recently started making a catalogue of our products and we found out that we made about 140 different models over the last 40 years?

Including every design change?
Yeah. We have photos. We’ve got a really good service engineer, and if there’s something coming in for repairs or service, he takes photos of everything that comes in. So in the end we’ve gotten to 140 different models and modifications. I said that it’s too confusing, so we just kept the main models we produced – maybe 40 or 50, I really don’t know exactly. That’s the most important designs. At the moment, we’re making 20 different models.

That’s still a lot. I saw the newest Classic.3 model at the High End convention in Munich, the acrylic one with the small weight under the platter – it looks like the Transcriptor, doesn’t it?
Dirk Räke: Yes, exactly. We’re celebrating our 40th anniversary this year and we didn’t really make a big deal out of it. We made this one model, based on our Classic design from the 1980s, the one my father talked about earlier. It looks almost the same, although it’s all new technology, new bearings, and a new motor.

You should make a special logo for your 40th anniversary.
Yeah, we thought about that, actually. Something like this: we’d make 40 pieces each, and we’d attach a nice certificate, for example 40 chrome and 40 gold ones.

Jochen Räke: They don’t look very heavy, but they are, because everything’s made from brass, and we changed the diameters and weights. 40 years ago the platter had a different diameter than now. We used 6 weights, and now we’re using 5, and I like that better./p>

But they’re not the same, right? You’d have to weigh them.
The models look exactly the same, it’s hard to tell them apart. People keep saying, “Oh, it’s the same turntable!” But if you compare it to the one from 35 years ago, you’d notice the differences.

I have a question about tonearms. Why haven’t you ever made your own arms?
We’ve sold SMA arms for some 20 years. If we need a high quality arm, we use the SMA arms. We used Rega arms for a really long time. We’d buy the 250 arm model, really cheap. You could do anything for that price. But then Rega didn’t want to sell their arms to other companies, only their really expensive versions, so we said no to that. Then we bought Jelco arms from Japan for a good price. They’re a lot better than Rega arms – not sound-wise, because the sound you get from Rega arms is really good, but the mechanical quality is a little worse sometimes. So we had to modify every arm that came from England. Then we bought parts from Rega and tried to make something ourselves with them, changing the bearings, and this or that. And then we found out that when we assembled the parts together and polished them, many were made imprecisely, and 10 out of 100 had to be returned. Then we straightened things out with them. But then it turned out that the workload just didn’t pay off, and buying better Rega arms would raise our costs even more. So we decided to use Jelco arms. We travelled to Tokyo and talked to them, and found out that many top brand tonearms are actually Jelco’s.

Yes, I know.
Dirk Räke: For example the famous Grado arm.

Jelco is a huge company.
Yes, and they specialize in making bearings, including diamond bearings. Their main branch of business – although I don’t know if it’s still that way – is making electricity meters. Since they turn all the time, they need really good bearings. And they’re made by Jelco.

So everybody has a ‘turntable’ at home, and we don’t even know about it!
Rzeczywiście… Nie chodzi mi o to, że jest źle, że one wszystkie są produkowane przez jedną firmę, ale ciekawe na przykład, że najnowsze ramiona Dr. Feickert Acoustics też są tam zrobione. Są również firmy, raczej niewielkie – nie chcę wymieniać nazwy, ale widziałem coś takiego w Chinach. Ramię od Jelco, lekko tylko zmodyfikowali kilka elementów i liczą sobie za to 20 tys. euro. Za 12-calowe ramię. Aż trudno w to uwierzyć.
Jochen Räke: We decided that we won’t use such tricks – we sell a standard arm at a good price, which is fair for the customers. Although one of the problems on our side is that we have to wait very long for these arms. Sometimes we’ll order 250 or 300, and we receive 30. So we’re thinking about making our own tonearm. Just to be independent.

It’s not an easy task.
Yes, but on the other hand, we’ve seen so many different designs and have a fantastic collection of tonearms, so we’re thinking about combining all these all ideas we’ve seen over the past 50 years, and creating an arm that’s not too expensive, because if we need expensive arms we just get them from SME. Nobody can really compare with their level of precision.

I’ve spoken with Konrad Maas from Avid and he’ll be visiting me in a month. He’s bringing some of his designs with him. He basically told me the same thing – that he makes turntables, without arms, because he can’t make them as well as SME does.
Dirk Räke: They have all the special machinery. They don’t only make hi-fi, but also turbine components for Rolls-Royce engines, and if you visit them it’s unbelievable. The production hall looks like a science lab, and they have a dedicated room with a big concrete stand where they make all the measurements.

But you don’t want to wear a lab coat at work – I think I can understand that.
I prefer a work jumpsuit.

Like Kraftwerk, one of my favourite bands.
They’re releasing a new album soon, from what I’ve heard.

Jochen Räke: The level of precision in SME is very difficult to copy. I think there are many other sophisticated ideas on the market, but they aren’t really focused on precision. You see, pivot arms need precision, in my opinion.

What do you think about Kuzma arms? They look great.
They’re very good quality. I like their products. It’s not quite SME’s level, but Kuzma has many good ideas, and they make everything really heavy. They’re a serious company, and I like them, so we tried to make a contract with them. We ordered ten arms…

I think we’ve been waiting ten years for the ten arms we ordered...
Dirk Räke: Kuzma is a well-known manufacturer, but there are so many small, new companies that have one nice design, but they aren’t really able to produce much, or keep the quality up for a long time. That’s the other side to engineering – having a good idea is one thing, but following it up is another.
Jochen Räke: Graham arms are very good, but it’s impossible to work with these people. We ordered some arms, and we got them. Then we ordered some more, and we didn’t receive anything. It’s impossible to work like that. We like working with Jelco or SME. We worked well with Rega, too, but they don’t want to sell the high-quality arms now, only the cheap plastic ones, so we finished working with them.

What is characteristic for your designs, what makes them stand out from the crowd is Free Magnetic Drive. How did you come up with that idea?
It started very simple – my wife is a teacher and her school had some joined project with an aerospace research centre which isn’t very far from us. One day she said they were having an open day and I should come if I liked, because there could be something interesting for me. So I went up and walked around looking at what’s new in aircraft systems, and then I found a gas pump. It was a tube you use when you need to pump the gas forward. There was a turbine inside the tube with magnets on the outside. It’s actually a very old design – you can even find aquarium pumps with that system.
Dirk Räke: Or you can think back to the chemistry lessons in school, when there was some liquid turning inside a glass container and a magnet underneath.
Jochen Räke: Or mixing color paints for cars. They put something in a pot, and there’s a magnet driving underneath, and that’s how they mix the colours. So, as soon as I saw it I thought – OK, it’s not that new, but it’s new for turntables. So I went to a company making magnets and I said: “I have an idea, so and so” and they said, “Right, that’s a magnetic coupling. No problem, we are making a new part for that”. And then our first prototype was made that later developed into Free Magnetic Drive. An aluminium plate, motor, flywheel, and the magnets on top. Just as in our Rondino. That was our first prototype that we showed at an audio show. A few months later, we started thinking how to apply that in our existing turntable designs. We came up with an idea how to swap the main bearing. We offered that as a 350 Euro upgrade and the bearing would be changed in about thirty seconds. We sold hundreds and hundreds of these.

It’s one of the more clever designs used in turntables. Clearaudio makes something similar to a magnetic bearing, although it’s of course not the same as your solution.
We’ve done many tests of these Clearaudio systems – it’s a very old design idea that comes from Japan and was used by many various manufacturers. Platine Verdier did that twenty years ago in France, using heavy magnets. Back then we didn’t have these small magnets that we use in our designs. Clearaudio does the same system with neodymium magnets that lift the platter. After lots of experiment we found that these strong magnets were never completely equal with each other. So we have one fixed magnet and a disc rotating over it. But it’s not hundred percent the same. There is wow and flutter, but that can be overcome with a heavy enough platter.

Pro-Ject solved this differently, using two round ferrite magnets. It’s better than using many smaller magnets. This system has been known for many, many years. But the people from Pro-Ject were very smart – they patented the material and its diameter, not the idea. That’s not a real patent to me, but they’re just very clever people.

You can patent anything these days.
Dirk Räke: Of course, if you’re smart. But the philosophy behind it is a little different. The reason for lifting it up is to make the platter lighter, so the bearing doesn’t have to carry so much of it weight. We just use big bearings that are capable of carrying the platter. When we’re testing the bearings, we put three platters on top of them and let them run.

What materials do you use in bearing production?
We use steel and ceramics. We also have a system that allows continuous oiling of the bearing from the inside.

Regarding your electronics – the preamplifier, to be exact – do you manufacture it on your own? Or do you get someone else make it for you?
Jochen Räke: No. The electronic engineer in our company works out what can be done, and then we have a specialist who also works in a recording studio and he does all the designing of our amplifiers.
Dirk Räke: We don’t have a set limit on the cost – we want to use the best parts we can find, and when you sum it up in the end it just costs a lot. We don’t set a budget for particular components, we say, do what you like, it’s not important to us. In the end, whether a part costs 2500 or 2800 Euro doesn’t make a difference.

Let me ask you about the materials you use in turntable manufacturing. It’s POM (polyoxymethylene), acrylic, aluminium and brass. Is the use of POM a way of reducing the costs? What makes you decide which material to use?
Jochen Räke: Our first material we chose to use was acrylic. Many years ago I learnt that acrylic is a surprisingly good material when it comes to loudspeaker cabinets, yet it’s way too costly. It provides a very good sound absorption and one of its leading characteristics is the lack of own resonances – hence the initial idea to use it in the production of turntables. Later on I experimented quite a lot with other materials, such as brass and aluminum. Every material has its own advantages and disadvantages, for example, when it comes to aluminum, one has to watch for the standing waves. If we are to build the Fat Bob, for instance, with a 300 mm aluminum chassis, a resonance induced ringing may occur. In such cases, the underside of the chassis is milled in order to eliminate the one-frequency resonance.

These milled out circles are there because of the resonance, then?
Dirk Räke: Various thickness of material results in various resonant frequencies. It really works. The chassis alone has a resonant frequency of, say, 700 Hz, that changes after milling out these rings. It’s because of differences in the chassis thickness.
Jochen Räke: We also did other experiments. If something rings and you put a coin on top of it, the ringing either stops, or becomes different. Then you can put a few coins in various places to eliminate the resonance, or move it in a desired direction. There are some manufacturers that offer fancy little things for 800 Euro to change the sound. There is nothing wrong with that and I know that you get fantastic results with very small accessories. Coming back to our Fat Bob chassis, on one side we have these rings, and to eliminate the rest of the resonance we have a tonearm board that is mounted to the chassis. It’s two different materials screwed together, and the resonance is gone.

Dirk Räke: We use the same design idea in our ZET 3, where the chassis is a three-layer sandwich of acrylic, metal and acrylic.

The last question is about the motors used in your designs. Who is their manufacturer?
Jochen Räke: We can’t tell that. I can say that it’s a European motor. Technically, two motors on one spindle.

Why two motors? Is it about increasing the torque?
Dirk Räke: It’s to even out the running speed and normalize it. The tow motors are angled at 45 degrees against each other to reduce wobble.

Is it your own idea?
It’s a design that was known before.
Jochen Räke: It’s been used in watches and things like that.

Thank you very much for the interview.
Jochen Räke, Dirk Räke: Thank you!