EDITOR’S NOTE: The judging of minute repeaters, as our intrepid contributor David Chokron states below, is an intensely subjective process, and conclusions will vary from person to person. The following opinions are extrapolated from real-time testing of actual boutique timepieces, but are by no means a definitive reflection of a brand’s entire body of work. To join our discussion, we invite you to view the full videos of the Minute Repeater Sound Off by downloading REVOLUTION Digital at www.revo-online.com/digital, and then chiming in on our forums at www.revo-online.com
Minute repeaters are among the most sophisticated and impressive watches. Hundreds of components are put together in order to produce tiny sounds that tell time. The amount of skilled and dedicated work that is put into them inspires awe, but their sound is never loud and they cost enormous amounts of money. Therefore, the brands which are able to manufacture (or buy) such a complication all claim theirs have the best tone. On the rare occasions that we come across a minute repeater, it’s generally in a busy exhibition hall, or at a brand’s presentation. The air conditioning and crowd create intense background noise; these are awful conditions for such a tenuous sound.
Since a minute repeater is both a mechanical watch and a musical instrument, we’ve decided to give these watches a treatment on par with their dual nature. But sound properties are very subjective. Much like wine tasting, one needs to recall tiny details, brushstrokes that end up creating the big picture. These bearings are hard to find, especially when the environment varies. We are emotional creatures and our senses are influenced by our surroundings and representations. So how do we remain objective and consistent when listening sessions are often poor and few and far between? We’ve devised a protocol to record the sounds of minute repeaters, analyze them and rank them according to objective criteria. We’ve designed and built a portable recording studio, a soundproofed box in which a high-end microphone is linked to a high-quality digital recorder. Our five contestants gave us their own version of that famous tune called “11 hours and 59 minutes”. We’ve then translated the sound into graphs, which mercilessly depict each watch’s chiming.
The first and most important rating criterion is sound intensity. How good is a minute repeater if you can’t hear it? Or if you have to take it off your wrist and place it against your ear? This is fine when evaluating a sound, but in everyday life, the watch becomes irrelevant. Which is why we’ve recorded the watches while on a wrist. Second criterion: sound quality. This comprises the harmonic richness of the sound and the number of notes that resonate with the original one. It also pertains to grain. The same note from a trumpet or from a cello does not sound the same. Third criterion: homogeneity. Both hammers should sound equally loud for the minute and the hour chimes. And last but not least, background noise. The pieces that regulate the speed at which the hammers strike the gongs are, by essence, noisy. It’s like having someone sawing wood during a concert: if you can’t help it, keep it to a minimum.
Listening sessions and graphs both placed the Vacheron Constantin ahead of the pack. The caliber 2755 is of classical construction and the watch is made of platinum, which doesn’t help its sounding loud. But loud it is, and this intensity is supported by a full, long and warm sound. It also stands out because of its staggering price. The Jaeger is even louder — incredibly so — and the graphs proved it. But it came a close second, mostly due to the background regulator noise. While rich and intense, its music is slightly less full and delicate than the Vacheron’s. In third place, the Bulgari Carillon Tourbillon shows that intensity isn’t everything. Actually, with more power, it would probably have won the contest. It’s got three hammers that strike in turn at every quarter. Its sound is rich, long lasting and full of harmonic resonances, soft but clear. And the movement is perfectly silent. It is a great surprise, especially considering the lenient price tag. The Girard-Perregaux came just behind, and largely ahead of the Corum, even though the latter is made of titanium, supposedly a great propagator of sound. Both their movements are made by specialist La Fabrique du Temps. Their hammers strike with enormous power on the gongs, but the cases fail to keep the sound alive; it drops rapidly and lacks gentleness. Also, the regulator noise is too audible. This proves that a manufacture approach, where case and movement are intertwined, is superior.
The results are full of surprises. A classical construction like the Vacheron’s can perform as well as Jaeger’s intense innovation. The same goes for prejudices concerning metals. Platinum has a reputation for being too dense and heavy to resonate well. Conversely, titanium’s lightness is supposed to make it sound better, which was not enough for the Corum. But most of all, it was a relief to witness the great achievements watchmakers are capable of. Because these watches are indeed capable of evoking genuine and powerful emotions.