Solen Electronics Visit

[Solen Front Door]

Much more than capacitors

[Italian version here]

Manufacturer: Solen Electronics - Canada
Reviewer: Roger McCuaig - TNT Canada
Host: Christian Ouellet
Visit: August, 2019
Published: October, 2019


I visited Solen Electronics in St. Hubert, Quebec on August 21, 2019. Solen is known world-wide for their audio grade capacitors however my experience with them has always been for other DIY parts. Solen today is a much more diversified company. They offer speaker drivers, crossovers and kits; audio electronics kits, DIY components including resistors, inductors, capacitors, tubes, and much more. They also represent several audio manufacturers such as Bryston, Dynaudio, NAD and others. I intend to spend a few hours digging around in their web site to discover all of the audio electronics kits available. I met with the President / Owner, Christian Ouellet. We toured the facility and then sat down to talk about their business. Here is the report on that very interesting visit.

The Tour

Stepping in the front door of the Solen facility one is immediately greeted by the smiling faces of the in the reception staff. One finds here a large glass display case containing some of the smaller items that Solen sells such as tubes, connectors, headphone amps, and some kit products.

[Solen display case]

The listening room has multiple functions, primarily as a test area for new products, experimentation and breaking in equipment before delivery. It also serves as a showroom for demonstrating products to clients. The photo below only shows half of the equipment in this room as the other half was in use by clients at the time. The speakers shown were built by Solen.

[solen listening room]

The largest part of the facility is the warehouse and shipping area. With shelves that are 6 meters high there are about 4000 different items in stock here. Adjacent to the warehouse, Litz wire is wound on a machine that was designed and built by Christian's grandfather. This wire is used at the inductor winding station (see photo). There is also a CNC machine that is used for cutting custom speaker enclosures.

[solen coil winding] [solen cnc machine]

A very large crossover assembly built using Solen-made coils and capacitors is being prepared for shipment. This Solen designed unit is for a 4-Way second order crossover application and will be externally mounted.

[solen crossover]

One thing that is obviously missing from this tour is capacitor manufacturing. In the past, capacitors were manufactured in two locations, one local facility and one in France. The Canadian capacitor plant is no longer in operation and all Solen capacitors are manufactured in France. It is important to note that the Solen capacitors are in stock in the St. Hubert warehouse.

My conversation with Christian Ouellet

I guess we can do this in any order so let's talk about capacitors, could you explain a little bit about your products?
Christian: well actually Solen started from an idea from my dad in the early 80s, (he) started making, he wanted to make perfectly air core inductors which were not available at the time. Solen started with that product and a few years after that we introduced a high-quality film capacitor, polypropylene film capacitor, which were not really used in the audio market at that time, so this is how it started in the 80's . After that (Solen) started distributing raw drivers, mainly Dynaudio and Vifa at that time which were the two biggest brands, after that (Solen) started to add more brands, more types of products, that's how we started.

Do you make a range of capacitors? Different types?
Christian: It all started with, it's called the PV series, which is a polypropylene film capacitor, mettalized, after that we expanded, those were 400 volt, then we added the 250 volt line and the 630 volt line and after that we added some film and foil capacitors which are better for tube applications, better transients. Then we added the teflon capacitors, metalized film and foil, and our latest series is silver metalized capacitors which we are the only one to do in the dry form. There is other silver capacitors but they are either foil type or impregnated with oil. We are the only one to do a dry silver capacitor which is faster than an oil impregnated capacitor. So, that's our main lines, we also added some less expensive electrolytic capacitors, polyester capacitors, we also added some polarized capacitors for amplification and electronics applications.

How about the popularity and the longevity of your capacitor business. Other companies have been in that sector and have not survived.
Christian: Well our name is known well and we have a lot of big OEM manufacturers like Dynaudio, Wilson Audio, Avalon, and we even sell to Yamaha and the subcontractors in China, so we sell our capacitors in China for manufacturing for other bigger OEMs. Our name has been around and people like our products, that's good quality products at a good price. Competitors will have a similar product at a lot higher price and that's probably why they're not around any more. If we only sold capacitors to DIY's we probably would not be there any more. So we need the big OEM manufacturers to make our industry move.

I'd like you to explain all of the services you offer in the speaker DIY area because I am not sure I understand. I know that you sell drivers and you sell kits. If I understand correctly the kits are just the internal components, not the boxes, is that right?
Christian: We also offer custom cabinets for our customers but the kits that are sold online are only the parts without the cabinet. The customer can choose whatever type of wood veneers or whatever type of finish painting, to match with his own design. He can also modify the design, have different shape respecting the original volume to get the same result. We also do a lot of custom work for customers. So basically we have the parts, we have the cabinets, we can sell him the parts and the cabinet's, you assemble them yourself. And we can do what we call clé en main, which means that the customer gives (tells) us what he wants and we build it for him and deliver it fully assembled. We also sell finished products, finished speakers from Dynaudio, Bryston, we also sell electronics from Bryston, NAD, Bluesound mainly. A good brand for us has been Dayton Audio which offers is multiple products from drivers, capacitors, to finished products, amplifiers, so this is something we offer also. We also have a CNC so we can cut the wood for the customer, cut their front baffle, cut the parts they need, send them the parts, so they can assemble themselves. We also offer CAD drawing assistance, if the customer has a basic drawing and he wants to put it in Autocad to have it cut on the CNC we can offer that service also.

So pretty much the whole range of possibilities?
Christian: Yes, and if there is something that we don't offer and the customer requests, we can look at it and if its possible for us we will expand and do it for him no problem.

So if I went on your website and I saw a speaker kit that I liked I could ask you to build the boxes too? I see on your web site that you have the drawings for the boxes too. I presume that's for the DIY guy who wants to buy the kit and build his own box, or you can offer to build the box for him.
Christian: Yes. We can build the box for them, we can assemble the crossovers for them, we can custom design enclosures also, custom design crossovers, so it doesn't have to be a kit, you can and come in with your idea and then we work with you and build something for you based on your needs.

We talked a little bit about the products from others (manufacturer's) that you offer, has that always been a part of your business?
Christian: No, its a new part of the business. When we moved or new location about 5 years ago, which is here, we had a lot more visibility being on this road. Before we were in among warehouses, now we are more accessible to customers so we needed some brand names and some finished product. Bryston approached us and they wanted a new dealer in the region so it started with Bryston and then we expanded to NAD, Blue Sound, Dynaudio, products like that to fill our showroom and have something to show to the customers when they come here and it's been working good for us. it's not a big part of the business, it's about 10% but it's growing each year.

The next question I have is about the audio market, what's happening with stereo in the world? Over the last few years there's been a pretty big change. I think two of the big changes I see is streaming digital music and the death of the CD and the other one is the decline of the number of audio shops, stores that sell audio equipment. A lot of it is on the line now so where do you think this is going in the next few years?
Christian: Well, its hard to say where it's going exactly but we've seen basically audio industry has divided into 2 section, the really inexpensive easy to access product in Best Buy and Costco and the extreme high end where the price went up, up, up, so you need to have a lot of budget to get it. It's the middle of those two that's not there any more. Basically, brick and mortar stores have a hard time working with that because they sell maybe one kit per months because its extremely expensive and they cannot compete with the larger stores to sell an inexpensive product because they cannot compete with that (type of store). In the past 2 or 3 years because of this and the inaccessibility of medium grade product, I have seen a lot of customers come back and say, well I want the quality of a $15,000 pair of speakers but I only have $3,000 budget, what can I do? This is where we come in. We can make a custom speaker that's has a high end sound for a lower-end price and I've seen a lot more people willing to go that way now because of this. As far as streaming the electronic files, I think it's a good thing. The CD was okay but the easy access and the the quality of streaming is there, so I would say I would go to vinyl or streaming, the CD is not needed any more.

Over the last couple of years there's been some new services with high definition audio streaming instead of very low quality MP3 that everyone was offering before that. Do you think that trend is going to continue?
Christian: Yes, that's the way to go I think. Its not fun for the artists because it's hard for them to get paid but for the end user its the way to go. The quality of the CD and the quality of the streaming now is equal or you can even get a better quality and streaming than with the CD.

Do you think that the manufacturers are going to more and more start building high end streaming boxes?
Christian: They are already there.

You have the Bryston product.
Christian: The Bryston products are very good, they are expensive but there are comparable products that are a lot more expensive. They are in a good price range, very good products, easy to work with. Even NAD offers high quality streaming, they have a new model, its called the M10. It all in one, streaming, DAC, amplifier, pre-amplifier, everything in 1 box. Its not inexpensive but you have everything.

There seems to be 2 direction one can take; streaming from dedicated devices or streaming from a PC. There are some new software that people are claiming are audiophile-grade software that you can run on a PC. Do you have any thoughts on on what's going to happen there?
Christian: I think both are going to continue. Most people have a PC so its just installing a program that costs you maybe $100 per year to maintain and works just fine because the conversion is done in the DAC anyway. The player will give you a little bit better overall quality but its a standalone unit and you need to pay for that. I would say that it depends on the budget of the customer. People will always start with a PC and then upgrade later.

The problem of course with a lot of PCs is that you get fan noise which the players typically don't have.
Christian: Yes, but laptop computers don't make that much noise, you can also use a MiniMac Pro, I have some customers using some Rasberry Pi products, easy to work with and doesn't make any noise. There is some plus and some minus in both.

I have a Rasberry Pi at home, maybe I should try it?
Christian: Yes, with the HifiBerry products, add a DAC on it. Its inexpensive, easy to work with.

Let's switch to another topic. I'm a big fan of tube amps, especially low power tube amps coupled with high efficiency speakers and I am curious about how much demand you see. How big a part of your speaker business is that domain?
Christian: Well tube (products) is fairly new to us, under 3 years now. but it's always expanding, selling more and more. Its mainly to replace an existing product that people have. We have plans to start selling some tube amp kits. This is something we're working on but its not there yet. Its an industry that's growing more and more. Tubes are back, high efficiency speakers also. but most of my tube amp customers don't have really high efficiency speakers, okay efficiency but not the extremely 100 dB efficiency. Not often that we see that. People have 94 - 92 dB speakers that work with small tube amps. We also have a tube amp upgrade service, we call it Pimp Your Tubes. We can repair, verify and upgrade tube amps.

Do you have anything specific you'd like to talk about?
Christian: Well, you saw the CNC machine that we have up there and we're getting ready to start production with it. it's not up and running for now but we are going to start production. We have something in mind, its going to be custom cabinets. People can make up (design) their own cabinets with the parts, modular cabinets. That's something we have in the plans. Also, we came out last year with our own the speaker cables, interconnected and AC cables based on Litz wire that we designed ourselves. You saw the winding machine, now we are up to 49 strands, those are super, super cables and we are going to being show them at the Toronto Audio Show.

Let's talk a bit about your speaker cables. A lot of speaker cables that are offered by different company are very expensive and often do not give a great deal of performance for the money so I would like you to explain what direction you took with your design.
Christian: Well, I tried to make the best cable and not be too expensive at the same time. There's a lot of labour that goes into making a nice looking cable. It has to sound good but it has to look nice also. People won't buy a crappy looking cable. So, most of the money that goes in making the cable is not the actual conductor, the conductor is only 10 percent of the price. The connectors are expensive and the labour is expensive. So we try to have a minimum amount of profit and have a good product but sometimes it's not seen, because its only an $800 product, but compare it to a $4,000 pair of speaker cables and you will see that our $800. pair will beat the crap out of it. So people need to listen to them, so most of the time what we do to try and convince our customers to buy the cables is we say buy the pair, try it at home, and if you don't like it bring it back for full credit, we'll give you back your money. Now we have been selling for over a year, none have come back. Everybody kept their cables.

How does your design deal with lowering the inductance because the key to a good speaker cable is very low inductance.
Christian: The key in our Litz cable is the conductor itself, the 49 strand Litz wire. By definition, this takes all the inductance, all the capacitance and practically no resistance because its number 8 gauge. You measure the cable and it has no inductance, no capacitance and no resistance. Electrically-wise its the best cable that you can do. It would have to be a superconductor at minus 200 degrees to be better than that.

Well, I built my own as I was not interested in paying thousands of dollars for speaker cables.
Christian: We also sells the 49 strand cable in bulk so the customer can make their own cable.

End of Interview. I would like to thank Christian Ouellet for the invitation to visit the Solen facilities.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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