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In the wake of my show coverage for the Munich HighEnd Show 2008, I got a call. It was Aleksandar Radisavljevic of Raal Ribbon. How would I like to fly out to Serbia and sample his ambitious new omni speaker - and while at it, visit a number of fellow manufacturers too? He got an affirmative answer in a heart beat and took on organizing our RoadTour Serbia with friends and fellow manufacturers Dragan Solaja of Solaja Audio, Nenad Napijalo of N.N. Acoustics and Sasa Cokic & Milorad Despotovic of Trafomatic Audio. Orchestrated as a mixture of factory tours, informal auditions, sightseeing and audiophile socializing, I would format this visit into chapters or exits which the reader may access directly (presented in alphabetical sequence below) or read in the sequence of actual occurrence as one long narrative.

For those of us who forgot central Eastern European geography -- and much has changed since many of our readers went to school -- here's Wikipedia: "Serbia (Serbian: Србија, Srbija), officially the Republic of Serbia (Serbian: Република Србија, Republika Srbija), is a landlocked country in Central and Southeastern Europe, covering the southern part of the Pannonian Plain and the central part of the Balkans. Serbia is bordered by Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; the Republic of Macedonia and Albania to the south; and Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro to the west. The capital is Belgrade.

"For centuries located at and shaped by the cultural boundaries between the East and the West, a powerful medieval kingdom later renamed the Serbian Empire occupied much of the Balkans. The Serbian state disappeared by the mid-16th century, torn by domestic feuds, Ottoman, Venetian, Hungarian and later Austrian occupations. The success of the Serbian revolution in 1817 marked the birth of modern Serbia centered in the Šumadija region. Within a century it reacquired Kosovo and Metohija, Raška region and Vardar Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire. Likewise, in 1918 the former autonomous Habsburg crownland of Vojvodina proclaimed its secession from Austria-Hungary to unite with the Serbia preceded by the Syrmia region.

"The current borders of the country were established after World War II when Serbia became a federal unit within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Serbia became an independent state again in 2006 after Montenegro left the union that formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1990s. In February 2008, the parliament of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Serbia's government, as well as the UN Security Council, have not recognized Kosovo's independence. The response from the international community has been mixed. Serbia is a member of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Council of Europe, and is an associate member of the European Union."

In short, quite recent political changes in Serbia enforce an unusual degree of resourcefulness on anyone wishing to manufacture high-end audio goods there that will compete in the global market. Among others, this begs the question. When, exactly, should we consider someone a manufacturer rather than DIYer? How much turnover volume is required to be a manufacturer? How many pieces should one have sold after a year or two to be more than an enthusiast? Where, exactly, is the line that divides pro from amateur, bona fide manufacturer from DIYer?

While the answers to such questions are personal on many levels, I view Trafomatic Audio and Raal Ribbon as solid manufacturers. The former makes and sells transformers as a parts supplier and valve electronics as a vendor of completely assembled gear. The latter makes and sells OEM ribbon drivers and has now entered also the complete loudspeaker market with a new flagship model. Solaja Audio on the other hand appears to have sold very little to date. Ditto for N.N Acoustics. Prior to the events of 1998, Nenad Napijalo operated a highly successful electronics repair shop with eight employees, including one Alex Radisavljevic. N.N. Acoustics now is Nenad's third attempt at making a proper business out of designing and building very heavy, furniture-grade loudspeakers. Dragan Solaja's ongoing focus on circuitry over cosmetics handicaps him. He's presently a purveyor of plain black boxes which do very little to attract attention. As I told him and Nenad, "saving the world from bad sound" doesn't work. The world at large cares nothing about being saved. So making superior sound is at most 40% on the road to success. The other stuff -- appearance, reliability, visibility, distribution, profit margins, supplyability, website and press presence, personality, timing, story -- is as vital or more so. On that front, Solaja still suffers. Nenad Napijalo's handicap seems primarily the complexity and associated hand labor costs of his cabinets as well as the expensive Audio Technology mid/woofers he fancies. Today's market is ferociously competitive and subsidized by cheap Chinese labor. It remains to be seen how Nenad's low-volume, labor-intensive approach in Serbia can confront this reality.

Serbia's oldest audio manufacturer is apparently Korato. There's also NAT Audio and Karan Acoustics, both with seemingly stable foreign distribution to be considered 'established'. Raal has a solid reputation already in the pro markets. Consumer audio firms like Siltech and Crystal Cable are more recent additions which implement Raal ribbons in home audio speakers. Raal is thus established in the professional sector and presently crossing over also into consumer audio. Trafomatic is the eldest of the four companies visited. They're solidly entrenched in industrial transformer manufacture as well as OEM audio transformers. Their crossover into consumer audio electronics is more recent but slightly predates Raal's. Where our sector is concerned -- home audio -- all firms covered are newer entries, precisely the reason, appeal and motivation for this entire tour. I hope you enjoy learning about these companies and the people behind them as much as I did. Access specific chapters directly; or...
... proceed in one unbroken narrative in the order of occurrence by clicking 'next':