The Audiophile's Take: Ulysse Nardin Hourstriker PhantomBy Ken Kessler
Unbeknownst to most of you, I lead another life as a reviewer of high-end audio equipment, and the two worlds of hi-fi and horology rarely intersect. You can thus imagine my surprise and delight upon learning of a collaboration between Ulysse Nardin – a name familiar to all of you – and Devialet, which may not ring any bells. And ringing bells is precisely what their joint venture is all about.
For some time now, watch brands have been pursuing the goal of “loudest” repeater, alarm or striking watch. They, however, have been coy about the numbers, in that they never reveal quantitatively how loud their watches can go. This is not unlike a car maker telling you they have the fastest car in production without revealing the actual speed.
Watch manufacturers have gotten away with this little omission because, with some justification, they have assumed that 99.99 per cent of watch enthusiasts neither know nor care about such concepts or terms as “sound pressure levels,” “decibels,” “frequency response” or other qualifications directly related to sound. Ulysse Nardin, which I am sure is not bothered about nor motivated by the remaining, pedantic 0.01 per cent (of which I am proudly a member), has chosen to be proactive in turning to a specialist audio brand both to help “tune” the sound of their Hourstriker and make it louder. And they are not shying away from the numbers.
A Family Affair
By pure coincidence, the founder of Devialet – which makes costly, advanced amplifiers and wireless loudspeakers – happens to be Emmanuel Nardin. Yes, of the same family that founded Ulysse Nardin. As Ulysse Nardin is happy to point out, “You couldn’t make it up,” and it makes for a great marketing coup.
Quite incidental to this, but almost as remarkable as Devialet’s founder being a Nardin, is a less well-known footnote to the relationship. Those in the hi-fi industry know that Devialet is connected to the luxury watch world by another, completely separate route beyond ancestry because one of its main investors happens to be part of the watch industry. The sublime beauty of this is that the backer owns a rival to the group which owns Ulysse Nardin, and I tell you this only because it teaches us an object lesson about Swiss and French mentalities: rivalries are buried when both sides benefit. Politicians, take note.
With a founder named Nardin, this natural pairing empowered Devialet to help improve the watch’s striking mechanism, addressing both sound quality and output level, or “how loud it goes”. The resultant Hourstriker Phantom, the last part of the name shared with a Devialet speaker, is therefore the first striking wristwatch to provide specific measurements, ensuring that hi-fi geeks like me have to shut the f*** up.
The Hourstriker Phantom rings on the hour and half-hour on command, and it is the latest in a long line of striking watches embodying a speciality that Ulysse Nardin has perfected for the better part of 30 years, with earlier models such as the San Marco Striking Watch.
With Devialet’s engineers, Ulysse Nardin’s watchmakers have redefined each step in the audio signal chain sent from Ulysse Nardin’s striking mechanisms to what emanates from the watch case – just like the path in a hi-fi system from LP, CD or streamer to the loudspeakers. The goal was to deliver the best performance ever recorded on a striking watch, which turns out to be 85dB @ 100mm.
Before you get out your ear protectors or Google the specs, let me explain. The dB in “85dB” stands “decibels,” which is the measurement of sound levels, or loudness. The number after the “@” is the distance of the test microphone from the item being measured – usually a loudspeaker, but in this case the Hourstriker Phantom. But here’s where it gets a bit cloudy.
“85dB @ 100mm” is not the same as the audio industry standard of measuring, which usually occurs at 1m. Rather, this is 1/10th of the gap between the sound source (the watch) and the measuring microphone, simply because no repeater, striker or alarm watch puts out sufficient sound levels to be measured at that distance. So, Ulysse Nardin and Devialet chose 100mm (or 10cm) because that’s not unlike the space between a watch owner and his or her striker or repeater when it is held up to one’s ear.
Now we come to a reality check: nobody in his or her right mind expects a mechanical device the size of a wristwatch to be audible across a room. We are not talking about a small music instrument like a triangle, or even a tuning fork, but an enclosed device 43mm across. And to tell you just how different the Hourstriker Phantom’s 85dB @ 100mm is from 85dB at 1m, the latter is the same level of noise you would hear in a rowdy restaurant where it would be too loud to hear the other diners at your table. So, no, the Hourstriker Phantom is not going to drown out Metallica at Reading, or annoy your neighbours.
As one expects, both Ulysse Nardin and Devialet experimented with the case materials and that of the resonating disc which is under the case back. The underside of the watch is perforated with eight openings under this vibrating membrane, to allow the sound to travel. With Devialet’s assistance, Ulysse Nardin devised a complex transmission system that connects the hammers to the membrane, housed the lot in a titanium case and ended up with an arrangement which is certainly – and most important of all, audibly – louder than your typical striking watch.
As for the rest of the timepiece, it contains the UN-610 automatic manufacture movement, showing only hours and minutes. The link to Devialet is acknowledged through the pattern on the dial, which is also found on the front of Devialet’s Phantom speaker in the form of a grille to protect the tweeter (the small speaker the delivers the high notes) and it is not a random design. The pattern, called a “Chladni figure,” is that which is formed by sound waves when a material like sand is placed on a resonant material, such as a thin metal sheet, and sound passes through it. That it is geometrically perfect is merely one of the wonders of science.
This is finished in satin-brushed anthracite dial, the grille resting above tinted glass that covers the watch’s movement. Rose gold-coloured “Breguet” hands indicate the time through Arabic numerals, which are, unusually, “all tilted outwards, in single file and in a clockwise direction, just like a navy compass.”
At three o’clock, there’s a teensy rose gold dot that disappears and reappears depending on whether the wearer wants to activate or deactivate the striking mechanism via the pusher “ON/OFF” buttons. The watch is fitted with a black alligator strap with pin buckle. Price is CHF 72,500, and the production is limited to 85 pieces, wittily reminding you of the sound level in decibels at 85dB. But only at 100mm…
UN-610 automatic movement, power reserve 42 hours
43mm polished titanium
Black alligator strap fastened with a pin buckle