Silverline Audio Factory Tour
I met Alan Yun for the first time in 1999 at what was then the Stereophile Show in Chicago. Listening to Alan's original Sonatina and Sonata speakers was a true highlight of that show, one that has stayed with me through countless hours spent listening to music on demo systems. Later that year Alan sent me a pair of his Sonatinas, and I was even more impressed with them in my room than in Chicago. They earned a Reviewers' Choice nod and later in the year won the inaugural SoundStage! Network award for best product debut.
Since then, I have heard and written about other Silverline speakers. While some speaker designers have been making infinitesimal updates to existing models every year or so, Alan has completely redesigned the Sonatina and Sonata twice and also introduced a number of new speakers, including my favorite of those I've heard in my system: the La Folia. Alan has remained one of the smiling faces of high-end audio, and one of its most committed and productive designers. My visit to his small factory located outside San Francisco underscored this and gave me a greater understanding of his enthusiasm for music and making audio products.
Alan began his audio career in Hong Kong, designing, manufacturing and selling literally thousands of speakers under the Classics One brand name. In 1996, he emigrated to the US, settling in the San Francisco area, and founded Silverline Audio, a name he cleverly took from the well-worn saying, "Every cloud has a silver lining." It fits! Alan is a silver-lining kind of guy. He has to be to run Silverline Audio the way he does -- as a one-man operation. Alan does everything from answering the phones to overseeing inventory, from designing the speakers to packing them for shipping. It appears that Alan could hire some help, but I suspect that his own finicky nature won't allow it. When you buy a Silverline speaker, you buy a product that Alan Yun has built. When you spend time around him, you realize that he's someone who does, not someone who delegates.
Take, for instance, his CD player. No, this is not a piece of production electronics, but, yes, Alan has built more than speakers. Alan bought a Denon CD player at a garage sale because "it has a very good transport." He then re-engineered it, adding a tubed output stage and a new case made of black acrylic. In the process, he transformed it from a front-loading player to one that loads from the top. Try that at home.
Why go through the bother when he could have simply bought a very good CD player or even borrowed one from another manufacturer? First, Alan's CD player sounds darned good, and it's a stable reference that he uses while voicing his speakers. Second, making a CD player is an interesting project for someone with a fertile audio mind, and this describes Alan. It's clear that he sincerely loves making things that reproduce music.
Over the last decade, while Silverline has grown in stature and exposure, Alan has expanded his speaker line. I count 13 current models, a number of which are improved versions of speakers he introduced years ago. Alan is a great believer in American craftsmanship -- all but one of his speaker cabinets are built locally, which allows him to maintain close contact with the cabinetmaker -- and Danish drivers, specifically those from Dynaudio. Alan's storage area was a shrine to Dynaudio, with pillars of drivers in boxes neatly stacked and ready to be put into speakers. Alan told me that he's one of the largest users of Dynaudio drivers in the US, and he maintains a close relationship with the company, even as he makes speakers to compete with theirs. His eyes light up when he mentions the 4" voice coil of the woofers he uses in a few of his speakers, although it's clear that his favorite driver is the famed Esotar tweeter, from which he gets consistently sweet sound.
The day of my visit, Alan had pairs of Sonata Mk IIIs ($7200 per pair) and Boleros ($8500 per pair) set up in his cluttered listening room. What drew all attention, however, were the big, beautiful Grande La Folias ($32,000 per pair), which were only a swap of the speaker cables away from producing sound. These nearly six-feet-tall, 300-pound brutes were on their way to Denmark following Alan's listening and general QA. The image of him packing such speakers in multiple boxes, one inside the other, made my head swim.
What was most impressive, sonically speaking, was the pair of pencil-thin Preludes ($1200 per pair) that almost went unnoticed in the presence of their much larger relatives After some listening to the Grand La Folias, Alan connected the Preludes. What big sound these little floorstanding speakers produced! I had to put my ear to them to ensure that Alan wasn't playing a joke on me. My mind simply couldn't compute the bass weight, depth and articulation that Alan was able to achieve from the Prelude's 4" woofer, but I quickly recognized the sonic signature of Alan's speakers: smooth and warm with plenty of airy detail. We listened late into the night, playing CDs for each other.
The next day, Alan twisted the arms of two local Silverline customers, Adrian and Mike, to give me a tour of the Bay area fit for a visiting head of state. After a day of sightseeing and great food, we went to Adrian's house to hear his system, which included a pair of original Silverline Grandeurs and two of Alan's amplifiers. A few years earlier, Alan had brought one of his integrated amps, a gleaming 805-based SET design, to CES. Alan built 20 of these integrateds and quickly sold them all to friends. They were never a real product, just something Alan built "for fun." Adrian is the very proud owner of one of them. He also has another of Alan's nonproducts -- an EL34-based integrated -- ready and waiting in his listening room.
The Grandeurs, which I've heard in the past at CES, produced a gargantuan soundstage, but were never overly crisp or excessively airy. Again, the trademark Silverline sweetness was obvious. What was surprising, though, was how well Alan's 7-watt 300B amp drove these very large speakers. There was no power shortage, no truncated bass, no sense of dynamic stunting. In contrast, Adrian's system sounded big and authoritative, even in his large listening room. In true San Francisco style, we drank wine, spun discs and had an audiophile-approved outing that I will never forget.
While some speaker makers chase one or more design goals as the means to producing a sonic end, Alan Yun makes speakers that please him. No, let me restate that: Alan makes speakers that please him and a lot of other people. He estimates that he has made and sold over 10,000 speakers in his lifetime, an unthinkable number until you consider that he has been in the audio biz for over two decades and on two continents. There is also the matter of his abilities. He is known as a speaker designer, and yet he could clearly make electronics. In fact, we'll see and hear his new Prestige amp at the CES in January.
Calling my visit to Silverline Audio a "factory tour" makes it sound far more staid and business-like than it was. Alan Yun was a gracious host who just happened to make speakers. Forget about going to audio shows -- this trip beat 'em all.
To find out more about Silverline Audio, visit www.silverlineaudio.com.
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