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Science fiction aesthetics applied to loudspeakers design? Vivid Audio may be one of the strangest business cases in the global hifi industry. Who could have imagined a short 10 years ago that it was possible to manufacture some of the most technically advanced loudspeakers in South Africa?

Philip Guttentag & Laurence Dickie
  In the South African city of Durban, Philip Guttentag would seem a bit removed from the kind of handcrafter's tradition expected for most prestigious speaker manufacturers. If someone asked Philip about the handcraft heritage in this field, he might actually pun that in some ways it operates more like a golden jail - pretty but without real freedom.

Vivid Audio's goal for design is different. They never had any interest to compete for the glossiest enclosures with Sonus Faber or Triangle. The design of Vivid loudspeaker cabinets first and foremost serves acoustic functions with few concessions to glib style and aesthetics even though the final appearance is most assuredly compelling. South Africa it seems posed no problems to provide Vivid Audio with the qualified employees who'd prove capable to handcraft very complex enclosures and assemble proprietary high-tech drivers. Vivid Audio today employs a staff of about thirty in their Durban factory. Of course South Africa is full of contrasts. It is at once the most advanced African nation but also one with the lowest life expectancies for the entire continent. Very modern areas are built up daily but a big part of the population still lives in townships. South African economy practices deregulation yet black empowerment laws are without doubt the most constrained in the continent's industrial sectors. In one sense Vivid Audio is part of the diversity of this land of stark contrasts and paradoxes.

But "white papers in black hands" can in a short phrase summarize what Vivid Audio is on about. Their multicultural association results in a signature futurist cosmetic that shows no evidence of ethnic African identity. The roots of Vivid’s designs are really not African but far more closely associated with B&W's most striking Nautilus product ever. That's not surprising given Laurence Dickie's contributions who used to design B&W's drivers at their R&D facility in Steyning, England and now co-owns Vivid.

When the former B&W president Robert Trunz left the company in 1996, he emigrated to South Africa. Here he met Philip Guttentag who had been in the hifi retail business but hoped to transition to building high-end loudspeakers in South Africa. He suggested to Guttentag that they bring on board Dickie to design their drivers instead of relying on OEM suppliers. This became the foundation for Vivid's approach.

Joining forces with Philip Guttentag was an ideal career move for Laurence Dickie who could finally be involved in the design and engineering of products from beginning to end. It meant having his say at every stage of the development cycle from the acoustics to the aesthetics - and consistently for each and every model.

Dickie’s involvement with Vivid Audio occurred in 2000 after he'd set out to create a range of drivers for professional monitors based on his previous Nautilus work but with beefier power handling. When he was introduced to the other members of Vivid's expanding team two years prior, it quickly became clear that these same drivers would be eminently suitable for a new range of groundbreaking consumer designs they were already developing.

Vivid’s goal from the onset was to apply innovative engineering to loudspeakers that would visually stand out from the rank and file in dealer showrooms but deliver acoustic performance that would render them virtually invisible. Dickie still lives in the UK where he does most of the design work but he visits his business partner Philip Guttentag at the factory in South Africa every four months.

Over the course of the first four long years Dickie and Guttentag developed the products that would become the B1, K1 and C1. Because everything was done in-house, a lot of time flowed into learning how to do things at the foundation level like mould cabinets and design/build driver assembly jigs. One of the main challenges for Laurence Dickie was learning how to apply computer-aided modeling to the acoustic production issues and industrial design.

Vivid’s most singular feature is clearly its technical awakening. By contrast it is quite difficult to comprehend why speaker manufacturers today continue to design traditional parallel-walled enclosures when the technology clearly exists to design more advanced acoustically efficient cabinets. Is this linked to conservative consumerism, distributors stuck in the last century, lack of manufacturing expertise or an overall absence of vision and ambition?

Who knows? It's probably fair and accurate to posit that the high-end segment at large is incapable of financing and supporting aggressive research & development amongst its surfeit of assembly shops but few properly trained acousticians. This is particularly so in the loudspeaker sector. There most manufacturers play legos with OEM goods. Dealing in boxy cabinet permutations with one or more drivers represents untold combinations of possibilities already. But there are ways to do things differently and transcend this self-perpetuating golden jail process. That one pioneer should operate out of South Africa ought to give those pause who work in 'more advanced' industrialized nations.

Vivid Audio from the onset wanted to explore innovative technologies to transcend existing forms, structures and materials but not at just any price. Guttentag and Dickie were not particularly interested in authoring monstrosities like Kef's Muon which primarily serves as technological showcase concept. They wanted to deliver to the consumer market a full range of relatively affordable products. That’s why they invested untold efforts to extract the best possible performance from each of their components, using custom materials wherever applicable. It explains why there are no standard parts to be found in any of their loudspeakers. Every component had to first fulfil Vivid’s own demanding specifications and as the old saw has it, if you want something done right you best do it yourself.

The enclosure designs benefit from the development of cutting edge analysis and manufacturing methods. The goal nevertheless was to move toward overall simplification by merging enclosures with integral stands around a complex spine into singular organic forms. The research on form factors and their relationship to surrounding space is one of the most distinctive features of Vivid’s production. Though reactions to cosmetics are always personal, with Vivid it's mainly in the service of sound. Dickie’s efforts in large part focus on the cancellation of resonances and reflections that often drastically compromise the overall sonic performance. As a result of these efforts to keep such effects out of band, Vivid Audio early on determined specific design rules which largely dictated the outcome of all subsequent models.