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Cluster and the Polish Case - Or Ten Years of Polish September in High Fidelity

01-23-2019 | By Wojciech Pacuła | Issue 101

Today it is probably the standard - Polish products are quite often reviewed by audio magazines. Just check the High Fidelity issue from the previous month, and you will find there three devices from the home country of Chopin and Maria Skłodowska-Curie: Fezz Audio Lupi Omega headphone amplifier, Avatar Audio Number 3 Bamboo loudspeakers and Struss Audio DM 250 integrated amplifier (HF No. 172). For years we have been doing something more: the WHOLE September issue is devoted to Polish brands.


Already in 2008, in the 53rd issue of our monthly magazine, we presented three Polish devices: a linear preamplifier and a power amplifier Audiomatus PP03 + AM500R, an integrated amplifier JAG Audio 300 and loudspeakers called Sound&Line Enigma Mini. However, the premiere of POLISH ISSUE came a year later, in September 2009 (HF No. 65). Today you're reading the tenth Polish edition of the magazine. We would like to thank and congratulate all the companies that we had a chance to work with also for the pleasure of listening to their products—we are proud of that!

Looking at the list of contents of that issue, you will notice the brands that have been with us to this day, often despite a bumpy road they have gone through. These are: Struss Audio, Gigawatt and Avcon. Every year during the Audio Video Show, I meet Mr. Andrzej Zawada from ESA and his room often receives the Best Sound award from us. In turn, Ancient Audio underwent a metamorphosis and its main efforts have been directed to lower price ranges with the Fram brand. You can read (in Polish only, sorry…) the three-part interview prepared by Bartek Pacuła HERE, part two HERE, and the third one HERE . Let me remind you that it was his face that decorated this first, historical edition of "Polish Issue" of the High Fidelity.

Jarek Waszczyszyn – Ancient Audio – on High Fidelity cover, September 2009

Nine years have passed since then and the Polish audio industry has changed significantly. There haven't been any, it's probably obvious, technological and technical innovations there. We are more like the Japanese high-end market, with its attachment to the past and perfected but basic solutions. Exceptions, of course, happen, for example, the Yayuma Audio Awarness Line ASP-01 processor, but that's exactly what it is, an exception. Although many brands known back then, that is in 2009, are still here and are doing well, many new ones were founded since then, and the quality of Polish products is usually better than one of their foreign counterparts.

And this is one of the most important changes. However, there is also another one, which may have equally far-reaching effects—I mean the emergence of the idea of a "common cause." All sociological research indicate that Polish society is not particularly mature, that is, we do not like to cooperate with each other. You can see it at every step, and probably the most appealing case study come from audio industry—still today there is no industry, no consumer, no manufacturers, not even specialist magazines association. When I asked some journalists about it fifteen years ago, they laughed at me—literally. Nothing has changed since then.

Polish Audio Cluster

Therefore, with such interest, I followed what was happening among the manufacturers, at least some of them. They founded the first audio co-operative and named it: Polish Audio Cluster. It currently has ten members, brands whose products regularly appear in the High Fidelity reviews.

Let's list them in alphabetical order:

The people behind the success of the Cluster are Messrs. Karol Zieleźnik, the owner of the Bielsko-Biała Hi-Fi Studio Karol Zieleźnik, and Krzysztof Grabowski, one of the co-founders of Encore Seven. They are the ones, who bond together these often so different personalities. So together, we came up with an idea of an edition of a audio magazine, something I've never seen before, or at least I do not know about, with the entire issue dedicated to the products of one group, namely the Cluster. What's more, each test is accompanied by a separate interview with the owners and founders of these companies. Before we get to that, I will ask Mr. Grabowski some questions about the beginning of the Polish Audio Cluster and the present day.

Karol Zieleźnik and Krzysztof Grabowski

Wojciech Pacuła talks to KRZYSZTOF GRABOWSKI.

WOJCIECH PACUŁA: Tell us about yourself.

KRZYSZTOF GRABOWSKI: So you want to start with the most difficult question ... All right. If it was an encyclopedia note, it would read as follows: Born in 1973, by education MSc.  of organization and management, from the experience a computer specialist (once even a programmer), working for 10 years as a manager in a large Katowice based corporation in the innovation and development division.

And privately a photographer, specializing in reportage, especially related to musical events. Permanently cooperating with Bielsko jazz club Metrum  and two top Polish jazz festivals: Bielska Zadymka Jazzowa  and Jazzowa Jesień—the late Tomasz Stańko was an artistic director of this one, as well as with some music magazines.

Cluster meeting and a listening session: Zeta Zero loudspeakers, EGG-SHELL and elinsAudio amplifiers,  J.Sikora turntable, Audiomica Laboratory cables, Yayuma processor and VAP racks

So I frequently attend concerts. These regular meetings with live music are reflected in what I have been doing with my brother for a few years as part of our company Encore Seven - we design and manufacture EGG-SHELL tube amplifiers, and within the Cluster we are looking for suitable components and building systems that bring us closer to what we remember from live concerts (more about me HERE).

Where did the idea for the Cluster come from? I mean how it all started, when and where.

The idea was born in the mind of Mr. Karol Zieleźnik—a man well-known in the Polish audio industry, who has been running the Hi-Fi Studio in Bielsko-Biała for almost 30 years. Karol is a person who does not yield to trends, he likes traditional solutions and he never despised Polish products, seeing a great potential in them. At the same time, he likes various novelties or niche products.

System with hORNS speakers, EGG-SHELL amp, Audiomica Laboratory cables and Shape of Sound turntable

This approach resulted in the willingness to help smaller manufacturers, who are often unable to break through the flood of popular brand equipment with strong marketing support, despite the fact, that they do offer high quality devices. At that time (2014), our Encore Seven company was at an early stage with EGG-SHELL amplifiers. Because we operate in the same city, so we know each other. So at some point we started to talk about an idea of a (yet unnamed) Cluster. Thanks to my IT experience, first we prepared the Cluster website and then we started to encourage companies to join our initiative.

Who joined first?

The first brand was obviously the EGG-SHELL with our amplifiers, but Paweł Bodnar quickly joined with his Bodnar Audio speakers (with single, full-range drivers) and another engineer from Bielsko, Jerzy Pona with his own idea of a sound processor (back then only a prototype, today known as Yayuma). The first Audio Show in Warsaw we participated in took place in 2014. The system was then incomplete, because we used Davis Acoustics speakers provided by our friend, distributor of this French brand as well as of the German AVM, Grzegorz Pardubicki. Our second exhibition, already with Bodnar Audio speakers, was a year later.

After that next companies joined: Łukasz Mika with his Audiomica Laboratory cables and the manufacturer of tangential turntables Pre-Audio. Finally, we had all components to build the first complete setup—a source, amplifier, speakers and cables. Each of these companies was open to adapt their products to the needs of one system and thus we were able to create the first system named by us Dream Reference # 001. We presented it for the first time during the ambient music festival in Gorlice - Ambient Festival in July 2016.

Cluster on Ambient Festival 2017 in Gorlice with its founder (from the left): Łukasz Mika (Audiomica Laboratory) | Przemysław Nieprzecki (Avcon) | Tadeusz Łuczejko (musician, graphic designer, Ambient Festival Gorlice director). Krzysztof Grabowski (Encore Seven). 

Avcon loudspeakers, EGG-SHELL amplifier, Shape of Sound turntable, Audiomica Laboratory cables

Later the hORNS brand (horn loudspeakers), Shape of Sound (turntables) and VAP (racks) joined our ranks. And that's how the beautiful white Dream Reference # 002 was born, and then there was a very successful presentation of both systems at AVS 2016. With the Dream Reference # 001 setup, we were chosen to the "Golden Seven" of the entire exhibition according to the audiolifestyle.pl portal. The white set was praised by many visitors for its design.

How do you choose new firms to join Cluster?

We are not actively looking for them. Sometimes we get a call or email, sometimes we find an interesting manufacturer. The product they offer must be simply good, offering high quality make&finish, visually attractive and sounding good. It's an added bonus if the manufacturer is willing to prepare custom finish, is flexible and willing to act with us. We are looking for active people who will get involved in the activity of our group. First, we always want to listen to the device, meet the owner, get to know his/her expectations and present ours. If everything "clicks", they become a member of the Cluster.

I know that you organize presentations with Cluster devices—what are the conditions for you to prepare such a presentation in a given audio showroom?

So far, we organized presentations mainly on the occasion of some events (eg music festivals, fairs, etc.) and in Hi-Fi Studio in Bielsko-Biała. There are also several places around Poland, where a part of the Cluster's lineup is available—PEKA members have products of other member companies, so if you visit them usually you can familiarize yourself not only with their products, but also with Cluster sets. This is the case in Encore Seven, in Audiomica Laboratory headquarters in Gorlice, and in central Poland: at AVCON, Ciarry and Shape of Sound.

Cluster system: Ciarry loudspeakers, EGG-SHELL amplifier, Shape of Sound turntable, Audiomica Laboratory cables

Of course it is possible to organize our presentation elsewhere. If there is an audio salon that is willing to host such event with Polish Audio Cluster system, or to offer our products on daily basis, we encourage them to contact us. The aforementioned partner and distributor from Gołkowice also has some devices from the Cluster's offer (among others Audiomica cables and our amplifiers) at his place. As you can see, you can adapt only part of our offer and present it with other brands, even from outside the Cluster. We are open to all ideas. The most important thing for us is fair customer treatment—the set must be well prepared and good sounding, and not just assembled from available components even if they don't work well together.

Are you looking for more brands, or maybe what you already have is enough for you?

We want the cluster to grow, to expand. First of all, we need manufacturers of sources other than turntables. Probably soon one of the DAC manufacturers will join. We realize that our group is not and will never be permanent. The list of members is changing and not always expanding.

Some companies give up and want to go their own way. Then they remain friendly with the Cluster, we keep in touch and there is always possibility to do something together in the future, even a onetime event. Probably the newest member who will join us for the Audio Video Show will be Alpin-Line, a manufacturer of high-end audio furniture (racks, stands, accessories).

Cluster crew (from the left): Krzysztof Grabowski (Encore Seven) | Jarek Proksa (Yayuma) | Marek Fabian (actor, friend of J. Sikora) | Karol Zieleźnik (Hi-Fi Studio) | Janusz Sikora (J.Sikora Turntables) | Janusz Sendek (elinsAudio) | Jerzy Pona (Yayuma)

What are the biggest problems in the functioning of such a group?

The biggest challenges are: the individuality of business owners and a diverse approach to marketing and distribution methods. But the problem is also a different level of perception of a given brand by customers and positioning on the market. Some are at the beginning of their path, others are more advanced and it is difficult to reconcile all marketing needs and how much members are willing or able to spend for our activities

Also, the limits of personalization ("customization") of products do not always give us the possibility to create sets with a uniform appearance, and that's what we care about - the selection of set components in terms of sound quality in a given class is one thing, but we look also for a design coherence, even just the same color for all components. One of our main assumptions is that every manufacturer keeps doing what they specialize in, what they know best, and as a result a coherent system is created, as if it came from one factory.

What are the problems of the Polish market?

I guess it is still a lack of confidence in Polish products and often following blindly known western logos instead of trusting Polish ones. Already for a long time Polish products and not only the audio ones, can compete on equal level with well-known brands from the so-called "West." Sometimes they even have more to offer than the foreign competitors. More than one member of the Cluster told us the same story, that Polish market recognized them only after they built a distribution network abroad. Only then they may get noticed in our local market, but there is still not guaranty. My favorite example of this mechanism is the talented jazz pianist, Włodek Pawlik. He became known in his homeland only after he won the Grammy.

Thank you!


Hi-Fi Studio Karol Zieleźnik

  1. Cieszyńska 86

43-300 Bielsko-Biała

[email protected] | [email protected]

www: hifistudio.pl | klasteraudio.pl

fb: hifistudiobielsko | klasteraudio

Interviewer: Wojciech Pacuła

Images: Polish Audio Cluster

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