FRENCH HI-FI: Ms. Nathalie Fougues, senior designer at newly emergent French audio maker Why Not

Hello Nathalie. How did your interest in music reproduction start?

My interest in music is natural; I am as thrilled by the music of nature as I am the sounds of people and their music. From birdsong and wind to industrial rhythms; all sounds interesting me. For a few years I studied music theory and played instruments. This gave me a good understanding of the basics, I also developed the habit of listening intensely to sounds in their natural environment.

When I was about 25 years old I took an interest in sound reproduction, in the context of both recording and playback. My curiosity was aroused as to why recorded music often failed to capture the reality. But I’ve always considered that production and reproduction follow the same rules – by which I mean focusing on the natural unforced musical acoustic.

Were you encouraged by other?

Yes, the origins of my professional interests came from the French distributor of Rogers, Beard, Helius Designs and others. He was a close friend, and through him I began to find answers to my questions about why recorded music sounded so different to the real thing.

By discussing such questions with technically minded people around me I learned so much. It was a period of great discovery for me. By speaking with all these people I learned they were all passionate about their crafts but often limited by the equipment they used. I see my role as helping to bridge the different pieces of equipment.

What are the current design and materials limitations that confront all intelligent skilled audio interconnect designers today?

Difficult question as the materials are not really the problem – as long as they are good quality, of course. Theory would say that there are no limitations except our imagination. Today, technology and science have a good understanding of the way materials behave, engineers can achieve many results that are all good, but still sound different. Improvements must be driven by the applications of materials science.

The main issue in cable design is that every make of speaker has its own electrical characteristics, and every amplifier reacts differently to the load it sees. Cables can make the problem worse by having their own personalities. The skill in cable design is to design something that makes the amplifier’s job easy but does not add or subtract from the music. Above all else, faithful reproduction is what this industry is all about.

Engineers have their ways of measuring audio signals, but the human ear listens to sounds in ways that can’t yet be measured. What is needed is a way of measuring music and sounds that emulates the human ear.

What about creativity, innovation and other ‘drivers’?

My creativity comes from my experiments in the construction of the cables, how they are twisted, which direction, what diameter of wire, the nature of the dielectric. Electric fields play with each as electrons pass through the wires.

The innovation comes from optimizing the construction properties so they best suit the various elements in the system; power amp to speakers, tonearm to preamp, etc. This is where imagination and craft works best, to fill in the gaps between empirical knowledge and the practical application.

Do you have any particular priorities, other than the obvious one of sound quality, when you approach the design of a interconnects?

Quality of sound could be a strong point to define!

As is every branch of engineering, cables are a compromise of conflicting requirements. My priority is to work with a wide range of equipment and to test, test, and test again. I spend much of my day listening to how my cables work in a wide variety of system applications. Of course we aim to achieve the best quality sound, but it is important not to design a product that works best with a specific set of equipment. No two customers will use the same components in a sound system and my cable design must reflect this.

Our systems are like partners, with us for a long time, so our criteria for selecting a sound system must be made on the basis we want to live with it.

What about the market?

You can classify me as a dedicated enthusiast more than anything. But concerning the result I work for, I am very self-critical. For this reason I don’t focus on marketing as much as I should, but people who hear my work have encouraged me to come out of my shell and make my products more generally available. Share with people if they like my work is enough for me.

Growing the business presents a drawback for me, what I do is not thought as mass-manufactured products as the construction is quite complex and needs to be handmade. For now, I just aim to grow quietly in the original mind. What is important for me is not to become part of the audio fashion. I am here for a long time and aim to please my friends and customers.

I’m curious about the gestation process you go through designing interconnects. How do you normally operate from, say, a clean sheet of paper? Though this is probably never the case because you’re always building on your previous efforts

This question amuses me because what I do is totally empirical; I listen, and listen and then listen some more. My primary tool is audio memory.

I have an electronics engineering friend who lives close by. He has a very open mind and offers me clues about what is technically possible; I listen to his reasoning and go further with new trials – later I present him with a prototype and he validates the qualities on a technical level.

I start by defining my design criteria – I aim for transparency, clarity, dynamics and purity of harmonics, I want no audible corruption of the original sound and no negative interaction with the equipment connected.

We can draw all the landscapes when a musical piece is played, this is what we do by choosing the sound of the instruments, but in reproduction if we begin to explore what ears would like to enjoy instead of what exists, we are diverted and ultimately we lose ourselves. So the discipline is never to forget that.

What makes me an artisan is that I balance the musical qualities to achieve what I feel is the best result for the widest audience. This could make me something between an artist and an engineer.

How do you apply this in your products?

Once I decide on the best combination of materials and construction I then work towards building a viable commercial version. The main difference between prototype and production is quality of finish, ruggedness and reliability. My formula is to improve step by step, always looking forward to improve. This can be hard as it relies much on audio memory, the most difficult is to identify the changes and what is "better" or not.

What’s your approach to design evolution?

The starting point is always to have a reference. Cables are like any other part field of engineering, nothing is beyond improvement. This is because the qualities of the other pieces of equipment in a system are subject to perpetual evolution as well. The danger becomes always prototyping and never launching a product. One has to get to a point with development costs where it is time to manufacture.

It is important to define a product and not change it for some time – every customer who buys a specific cable form me must know it is consistent. Only when I am convinced I have developed a better product do I think of making a change to the product range. I also make each interconnect specific to each part of the system. The requirements of power amps and speakers is different from tonearm to preamp.

So, regarding dynamics …?

There are only three characteristics a cable can have, resistance, capacitance and inductance, which both push the result more or less far from neutrality.

A resistive cable will kill dynamics in music, a capacitive cable sounds dynamic by artificially reducing the bass output and an inductive cable will make music sound more powerful by reducing midrange/treble output. None of these are natural, so the art is to progress without amplifying any subsequent effect, and work to re-create a sensation of natural sound. The paradox is that "natural" sensation needs more technique than any coloured result.

True dynamics are as much about the quiet parts of the music as it is the loud parts. And a cable must restitute all the relief between musical nuances. Personally . I look for very strong human presence in my music – I need to engage with the musician s and not to listen like a machine.

What are your feelings about the whole digital / analog controversy?

I think there is less controversy now than in the past two decades. A state-of-the-art DAC can reproduce music as well as analogue; it has the same characteristics of precision and spatial awareness as you get from a wonderful turntable... But you do need a wonderful DAC!

It is only a question of the thing itself, in the hands, in front of the eyes. But the ears only feel quality wherever it comes from. In HiFi I'd say it again, the only limit is our mind. Avoid erecting barriers is the best approach.

Whatever the technology, enjoyment of music is dependent on a recording of convincing quality. This is where the pleasure starts – the rest of it is just nuts and bolts. The art of designing good hi-fi that you shouldn’t hear the engineering artists in between your musical source and your ears.

Thank you Nathalie. This has been both a pleasure and a privilege.