An Interview with Janusz Sikora
Adapted from HiFi Pig Quarterly
Based in Poland, Janusz Sikora is the founder and head of J. Sikora. His knowledge and experience of metallurgy has informed his life’s passion: building splendid-looking turntables that reproduce every nuance—and capture the very essence—of the original recording.
You were initially involved in the metallic industry in Poland. How did you come from that kind of engineering background to be involved in the manufacture of high-end turntables and tonearms?
Janusz Sikora: First of all, for more than 40 years now, I am an audiophile. This is my passion and the metallic trade was always simply a source of income to me. Experience and knowledge of materials in the field of non-ferrous metals allowed me to build my first turntables. Tonearms is a consistent next step in the development of J.Sikora’s brand.
Last time in Hifi Pig Quarterly, we published an article on the Polish DIY sector. Why do you think DIY is so big in Poland?
Janusz Sikora: This will, of course, be a pretty general diagnosis, but despite the thirty years since the fall of socialism, the differences in the prosperity of Polish and Western society, in general, are still significant. Poles have always been famous for their ability to cope alone in difficult, unfavorable conditions. In my opinion, the strong DIY sector is a great example of our national character which was somehow shaped by our history.
Tell us about some of the first DIY projects you built.
Janusz Sikora: I used to play the guitar when I was young, and my father was building stage amplifiers. I do not need to add that it was impossible to buy such stuff just like that in the store in those days. It was obviously DIY, and most importantly those were tube amps of course. It is a source of my passion for tubes, which in the future became the basis for my own creation of my first tube amplifiers.
After the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” life in Poland must have seemed very different, with lots of new possibilities and opportunities. How did this affect you and the metal business you were running?
Janusz Sikora: Of course, this was of great importance. Access to all kinds of machines, devices and the possibility of buying them created unlimited possibilities. Add to that increased internal demand for goods and services. These factors meant that most of the companies in Poland at that time made a quantum leap forward. The business we were running was a part of it, too.
In 1994, you met up with a Ukrainian, Oleg Burdjak, and began building tube amplifiers based on Soviet tubes. Tell us about the designs and how they were received by the public.
Janusz Sikora: I met Oleg in one of the Lublin’s audio stores. He had a family in our city, and I remember that he had a Polish father and tried to get Polish citizenship. In Ukraine, Burdjak was a musician and a friend of Vladimir Sushurin, later known to all the audio world for Lamm Industries. A long time ago, two gentlemen cooperated in building electronics in Ukraine. Because of my fascination with tubes, we have made a closer acquaintance with Oleg, and we decided to produce tube amplifiers in Poland together. By the way, if it is about tubes, during this period, the solutions behind the Iron Curtain were very innovative compared to the rest of the world. And so, in 1995, we made our first balanced tube amplifier, based on 6C33C-B tubes. Of course, the high-quality chassis were not a problem for us, as I was still running the metal business. The brand Burdjak & Sikora entered the Polish market collecting very good reviews and making their appearance at the Warsaw Audio Video Show 1997 with a big bang by running the Focal Utopia on its premiere there. The future was very promising but our cooperation did not last too long. Without going into details, our paths diverged. This was the end of my adventure with the production of tube amplifiers, but definitely not the end of my adventure with audio. In fact, in retrospect, it was just the beginning
HP: Where did the idea for building your own turntables come from?
Janusz Sikora: It’s a kind of funny story behind it. Funny when I am talking about it now, but back then I was completely crashed. I remember one of my big dreams coming true once I got myself my first hi-end turntable. It was a product from a worldwide well-known brand. Till that moment I was a CD listener, and I was quite satisfied with my audio system.
Buying such high-quality turntable, I expected a significant sound quality progression compared to what I had to deal with so far. It turned out that was not the case, and I did not experience the revelation I was hoping for, and there was no sonic progress at all. It was not a cheap turntable, and like I said before I was truly crashed with this conclusion. Despite constant attempts to improve the sound quality and continuous work on my entire system, in order to get the hidden potential out of this turntable, it was impossible to make a miracle. I began to wonder if there was any potential at all in this particular device. Resigned, I decided to check it personally and take apart the device. Only then it dawned on me that maybe using such and not other materials this turntable simply cannot play better. Then it came to me that I was able to make a turntable myself, eliminating all the things that in my opinion are responsible for this one’s failure and replacing them with materials that I know well and which, in my opinion, are much more suited to it. I burnt the plywood elements in the fireplace and decided to use something different instead. Material that will never get old and will always be constant in the way it affects the sound. I decided to use metal. The rest is history. A history of hundreds of experiments with different types of metals and the way they affect the sound and each other in different compositions and proportions. When I finally finished my first turntable, audiophile friends were delighted with its performance and sound capabilities. The first orders from them appeared. Then other orders from their friends. And that’s how it actually began.
You use primarily metals in the construction of your turntables, can you explain this philosophy to our readers?
Janusz Sikora: As I mentioned earlier, the first thing that affected my decision to use metals was that I knew a lot about them because of the industry in which I worked. The second thing is the consequence of the mentioned failed experiment with the first turntable I bought. The idea was to build a device from materials that will never grow old, do not grow dry, and their effect on the sound will never change and will be exactly the same as I intended it to be at the moment of designing the device and will stay like this forever.
HP: You mentioned that different kinds of metals and different combinations of metals and alloys has an effect on the sonic properties of a turntable, can you expand on this and explain your thoughts on why?
Janusz Sikora: Of course. For example let’s take a turntable clamp. The J.Sikora clamp weighs 2 kg and is made of brass and bronze, both nickel-plated so you will not spot the difference by eyes alone. If you use hard bronze for it you’ll light up the sound. If you will use too soft one you will suppress and extinguish high tones. So, everything is a matter of choosing the right materials, using their properties, combining them and creating a new composition. Until you are fully satisfied. In the case of our J.Sikora clamp, only the combination of the appropriate brass and bronze grades gave the expected final result. Of course, there is no simple recipe for the proportions and species of these materials. Everything is a matter of long-lasting, arduous experiments with sound. The story behind the rest of the metal and alloy elements of our turntables is the same as the one behind a clamp.
When experimenting with different layers of metals, do you have an idea of what will be achieved sonically before you carry out the experiment?
Janusz Sikora: Yes, that is what we are talking about; we know what to expect. I know it because I have been in contact with these metals for 37 years, and I have an awareness of how each of them can affect the sound. But “can” is the key word in this case. Therefore, at J.Sikora, we never assume anything in advance, and experiments are a permanent part of our work and development.
You have three different lines of turntables in your portfolio (Initial, Standard, and Reference), how do they differ in philosophy and execution and what are their price points?
Janusz Sikora: The main philosophy behind our ‘tables, is to make a combination of a different types of metals, layers which are losing the resonances from the bottom to the top one by one. Our highest model, priced 23,800 EUR Reference Line, is a radical development of our philosophy. The use of suitable bronze alloys, brass, aluminum, cast iron and stainless steel makes it weigh 108 kg (238 pounds). Lack of compromise on any stage of this turntable’s building process makes the Reference a definite construction in every aspect. We achieved full control over rotation stability by using four DC motors and our special controller software with a quartz generator. The middle level is the Standard model. For a price of 12,770 EUR, the customer receives an 80kg turntable with two DC motors. The materials used for the production are aluminum and brass in this case. Compared to the Reference model, there is no bronze, cast iron, or stainless steel being used. On the other hand, there is the massive erlin and cast iron platter together with the bearing and the DC motor controller which remain unchanged.
The 28 kg Initial model is entirely made of aluminum, has one DC motor and a smaller platter made of Delrin.® The price is 6,000 EUR. This is the only model in which, due to the costs, we resigned from the loss of resonance through the metal layers. In this particular case, we used special cutouts in its base. I will add that their shapes are definitely not a coincidence. These are the result of many hours of sonic experiments, too. As you see in the case of our Initial line, we were also faithful to our philosophy. To stay at this price level, we have only chosen a different way to achieve our goal.
Summarizing: despite some differences, all our constructions are mass loaders, and the nature of their sound is a derivative of the use of metals and alloys as well as the use of the same high-quality bearings, motors and drivers in all three models.
Your slogan is “Uncompromising and Extreme Audio Solutions.” Your Reference Line is pretty extreme; do you see anything beyond this line in the future, or do you think you have taken it as far as possible?
Janusz Sikora: If it is about the construction itself, there can be absolutely nothing more beyond the Reference for this moment. We can only talk about developing the design itself. There are some exotic markets that expect this turntable to be even more luxurious and use for example some precious metals. But I cannot say anything more about this potential special project now. We will see what the future brings
Tell our readers about your recently introduced Kevlar® tonearm and what sets it apart, in your opinion, from the competition?
Janusz Sikora: The first and most important thing that distinguishes this tonearm among the competition is that, to our knowledge J.Sikora KV12 is the first ever tonearm in the world in which the conical tube is made of Kevlar.® Why aramid fibers? Why not?! Since their properties are, after all, ideal for such a purpose: lightweight, stiff, and energy-absorbing. What can be better for tonearms than the material used for the production of bulletproof vests? Okay, so why, if it is so obvious, has nobody done that before us? Well, problems I think appear in the technological process of creating such a tube. How did we manage to overcome those challenges? Let it be our sweet secret, but you have to take my word for it, that it is definitely more difficult to make than to cut off the finished aluminum or carbon tube and just use that instead. But I think this is all about that, too. Not to take shortcuts and to make something not only new, but special, too. There are many fantastic tonearms on the market, and my ambition was not only to make another great-sounding one, but to make it unique. Suitable resins, proper firing temperature, and special foam are components of this 15g, extremely rigid and perfectly-damped tube. The rest of the construction is our well-known philosophy: a combination of aluminum, bronze, and cast iron. They consist of a unipivot arm with oil damping in a housing resembling our characteristic turntable clamp. Last but not least: the one-of-a-kind monocrystalline silver cabling, made exclusively for us by our friends from Albedo.
Your initial exploits in the audio field come from a love of music, what music do you enjoy and if you were asked to give Hifi Pig readers your top five recordings (on vinyl of course) what would they be and why?
Janusz Sikora: When it comes to music. I only divide music into two genres: good music and bad music. It does not matter if it’s Jazz or pop, classics or rock; I can enjoy all kinds of good music.
- Let’s Start with Sarah Vaughn – It’s a Japanese 1974 mono pressing release. I love mono albums. This is one of my favourites. If it is about the music itself, in the context of this artist, do I have to explain why? Don’t think so!
- Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin – 1960 Live recording with the Symphony Orchestra in a National Philharmonic in Warsaw. Again, no words needed for such a great artist. This is one of the first Polish stereo recordings ever.
- Suzuki Isao Quartet “Blue City”. This album is the first one I reach when I want to show my guests the capabilities of my audio system. This 1974 release from the Three Blind Mice label is undoubtedly the reference album
- Doug MacLeod “There’s a time”. When it comes to the blues this is definitely one of my favorites. This half speed mastered, 200Gram, 45 rpm release from Reference Recordings is one of my reference albums as well.
5) Steely Dan “Gaucho”. In this case it’s less about the release or the particular pressing itself. It is simply all about music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. I just love these guys and this album of all of their works is the one closest to my heart.