66-year-old Basil Martion has some 40-odd years of loudspeaker manufacturing experience under his belt. He was raised in a small village in West Germany and describes himself as "not really a good businessman. I'm more a crazy technician." Primarily a one-man operation, although he has some help in the workshop, his success has been almost entirely through word of mouth—excepting the odd adulatory feature in publications like Germany's Audiophile or a "best in show" win at high-end audio exhibitions every few years. His warm, open demeanor and expert ear have helped Martion forge a lot of friendships along the way, which have likely served him better than any advertising.
With such clear, powerful and nuanced horns, Martion seems to have access to some secret of technology, but he insists his success is down to a holistic approach. "If you look at advertising for technical products, they point out one special feature and tell you, 'This is made from titanium found by NASA, blah blah blah, and this is the diamond-dome tweeter, blah blah blah.' Fine. Speakers are like human beings: they have of a lot of little components. It is not so that you are the best if you have one strong arm. It is best if you have total good health and a functioning body. The whole thing has to be fine, not just one feature." It's a simple concept, but a painstaking process he's been refining over the decades—plenty of time to perfect each step. "Inner damping is important," Martion says. "The cone should be itself silent inside. It should only reproduce the sound it gets from the moving coil. There are specialists who are able to make cones with special coating, with special paper, air-dried paper, with special fibers from special trees, all this stuff. So, step by step, you go to all these little features, and every little feature which goes in the right direction gives you in the end a better sound."
Martion credits his tinkering nature to growing up on a farm in a village with few children as playmates. He spent a lot of time playing with his grandfather's tools. Falling in love with jazz and rock and playing in bands led to his early experiments as a teenager, constructing his first loudspeaker/homemade guitar amp—with no training and no instructions—out of discarded radios from his village. (The result? All ten or so of the tiny speakers blew simultaneously.) Dodging Germany's mandatory military service, Martion moved to West Berlin in 1972, studying literature at university and exploring the city's nightlife, where word quickly spread that he was the go-to man for party PAs. This accidental side-gig meant more than financial freedom—once he did undertake an audio engineering course at the technical university, his professor was interviewing him about the new developments in loudspeakers.
"My speakers lasted for more than ten years under the tropic conditions there," Martion says. "The other technical stuff—the lights, the air conditioning—they had to change about four or five times in this time. Because, for instance, I closed up any open cones of speakers with very narrow grills, so no bees could creep in to eat up the cones and this. You cannot imagine what kinds of bees and beetles are around there. And also I needed fans for cooling the amplifiers, but I knew that sometimes fans quit their work, so I made it that by natural airflow the amplifiers were also cooled, so they did not break. So all these things which were sensible, I did there. And so I got a good experience and a nice reputation. Then people here in Germany came also to me and said, 'Hey, we are planning a discotheque, would you make the sound for it?' And so in the '80s, I was responsible for a lot of discotheques."
If the '80s brought some kind of fortune for Martion, it also signified a paradigm shift in his industry with the arrival of CDs. "The first CDs were really weird in sound," he remembers. "I listened to the CD and said, 'This is development? This is going backward in sound.' I was regularly an exhibitor at the hi-fi exhibition in Frankfurt where nearly the whole world gathered together with new developments. All my colleagues had CD players and nobody had a vinyl record player, and they were looking round the corner going, 'Oh Mr. Martion, no money for a CD player?' I said, 'It's not a question of money, the sound is so weird.' And they said, 'Yeah, but this is the new area. Nobody will ever have any more vinyl records because this is really old stuff.' And I said, 'OK, fuck you.' So I quit. I will do something totally different, so I started therapist training."
Martion doesn't regret his six years in therapist training, but it forced him to realize that his true calling was making loudspeakers. As he recalls, in this period, "I started with new ideas and new products, because at this time a lot of little companies grew up and made very sophisticated stuff in very tiny corners. So I had the connections and had my ideas how to combine, so I developed the Orgon, which came out in 2000."
With an 18-inch horn housed in layers of pressed wood—the same kind of material used as bulletproofing, which also encases the Orgon corner horns—the cubic shape of the Bullfrog has a different elegance from the Orgon, and also comes in a newly completed passive design. "The Bullfrog was in the beginning created to be only a party box. A DJ came to me and said, 'I need some speakers which are really good-sounding, tough for party music, and they both should go in the back of a [Volkswagen] Golf car, and my girlfriend should be able to carry one speaker up into the second story of a house.' So I constructed this cube, and in the cube, a big 18-inch [speaker]. And step by step—and this is also how I work—slowly, slowly, things grow and get better. In this moment, I am for the first time really satisfied with this Bullfrog sound and that means [it's good enough for] a passive speaker. If you make active speakers then you can depress some problems here or lift some things there with electronic stuff. But to make a passive speaker is just that you have a linear amplifier and sometimes only a vinyl record player, and then it goes directly to the speaker, and there is not much to fiddle around and to change. So this is a high-grade development. You have a total linear response in frequency, you have a fantastic phase response, which is very necessary in the crossover point—when the bass is stopped and the horn begins—because at this point, very often you have some turbulence. Here, you couldn't find it on the measurement, 'Where is the crossover point? Oh it's not there? Oh this is crazy.' [laughs] This is just the result of a lot of experience, not like, 'I found out something which is a secret.' All that is bullshit. It's just knowledge and listening and testing, working and having experience with a lot of things before."
However, all of this experience does not mean a fetishization of analog, and it was one of his favorite customers who helped him see digital light: "With digital stuff, in the very beginning, the CD was really not a thing I appreciated, and therefore I stopped the whole business. But after round about 15 years of development, the CD and digital grew also. And then a famous, but insider famous, company for converters made a perfect converter—AD and DA, both in the same cabinet. The tip was from Ricardo [Villalobos], who told me, 'Try to get one of those converters.' I put the converter in [to a totally analog line], so with one button, I could change from direct sound to going double through the converter: from analog to digital and to digital to analog again, and then to the speakers. And I was shocked. It wasn't that it sounded good, it sounded the same. If you really listened carefully it was not really the same, but you had to listen very tight. It was really a shock, because up to this day, I was convinced that analog was the only one. But now digital catches up. What is sure, the future is digital.
With Martion's usual listening habits leaning towards jazz and classical, he didn't know much about Villalobos when the producer and DJ first bought a pair of Bullfrogs sometime in the mid-'00s. Connected initially through Thomas Brinkmann—who bought Exodus speakers around 30 years ago and was quick to pick up a set of Orgons when they were released—after Villalobos had them, "Bullfrogs really began to explode. We sold sometimes five pairs a week. For a little company, it was really great." Bullfrog owners also include, but are not limited to, Richie Hawtin, Luciano, Zip and Moritz von Oswald. And at this point, Villalobos has upgraded to Orgons. Twice.
At around €6,000 a pair, Bullfrogs aren't cheap, and at €52,000 a pair, Orgons are merely a pipe dream for most. But the price also includes a visit from Martion himself to tune the speakers to your room. Within Europe, his most likely method of delivery will be with his Volkswagen bus. New technologies mean that remote tuning will be an option in the future, but however high-scale boutique it may sound from the price tag, it's still a small, independent business run by a craftsman. "If I do a new product, I don't step back," Martion says. "It has to be better or it makes no sense. Everything is custom built. Sometimes it happens that I have something in stock, but mostly people have to wait a little. My handicap is that they have to wait mostly longer than expected. But it's great when in the end, everybody is happy."