Thorens is one of the grand names in audio. The company’s began making turntables almost back when the rest of the world first started making records. 1903 to be precise, and this wasn’t even Thorens first product The Swiss brand began life making music boxes and clock mechanisms back in 1883. Some of the best, most highly praised, and still most highly desirable turntables from the 1950s and 1960s came with the Thorens name on the plinth.
Recently, Thorens announced a range of turntables that hark back to those classic designs: the new 900 series. These are more than just retro-throwbacks, as they also use some extremely advanced concepts.
So, it seemed like a perfect time to speak to Thorens CEO Heinz Roher about the company, its plans, and the future of all things turntables...
AS: How did you join Thorens?
HR: Around the time the EEC started, I was active in Hong Kong and Singapore in a duty-free wholesale company. But, I wanted to be around as my kids grew up, so I came back from the Far East and moved back to Switzerland.
My auditors said there is an old (then German owned) Swiss brand that needs support, both financially and in terms of the whole export business. That was Thorens, in about 1999. I immediately realised that financially it was a catastrophe! They had about 20 people and a turnover of not more than the equivalent of about £135,000 per year at the time. I said that I would not invest in the company, but I would found Thorens Export and control the export business, and the other half of the manufacture would remain going to Germany.
The problem soon became one of money. For example, there was an OEM factory making Thorens products that would no longer continue to supply products without payment of old debts. I paid these bills personally, but the German owners of Thorens claimed to have no securities to honour my payment. “Of course you have security!” I said, “You have the Thorens brand” at which point we agreed to a mutual amount, paid in shares in the brand.
That went on for about half a year, but then the German-owned Thorens got into real financial difficulties. I only had automatic turntables at that time, but I decided to continue with Thorens, as I understood what the brand is. We continued our arrangement until I had about 75% of the shares.
When was that?
I effectively started Thorens from zero, back in 2004. I am a businessman, not a strategist or a tactician, but in a way that helped Thorens start up again, because we were only thinking from the commercial side. So, almost immediately we started up our export business (especially in the Far East) with 40-50 distributors.
Did that change the nature of Thorens turntables?
Yes. We began to make turntables with high mass and large platters. But, we burned through a lot of money to get these to market. We still had the automatic turntables, though. We then started to develop higher end automatic designs like the TD240. Then the breakthrough happened with the TD309.
It was also good to get our own developers back into the company.
How the TD309 come about?
It’s a nice story in fact; the designer came to me and showed me this shield form. I said at first, ‘would will never do that!” but then I was sleeping that night and realised it was exactly the turntable we need, to show we were not simply bound up by our own traditions. Sales-wise, the TD309 was not a great success (it was expensive), but it started Thorens down a path that led to the TD206 and TD350, and ultimately the TD550 and even the new 900 series, which is a classical Thorens subchassis layer with some unique modern touches.