Quick! What’s the second-largest hi-fi speaker manufacturer in the world? I’d say that you’ll never guess, but since this article is gonna tell you about my recent tour of the DALI factory in Nørager, Denmark, I think I may have given it away.
I’d never have guessed that DALI is so large, though. While I’ve been peripherally aware of DALI for a long while, the company hasn’t had a North American presence that mirrors its worldwide significance. But in Europe and Asia? DALI is huge.
So who are these guys? DALI has an interesting backstory. Founded in 1983 by Peter Lyngdorf, who’s kinda like the Elon Musk of hi-fi, DALI’s original mission was to build speakers for HiFi Klubben, a chain of stereo stores Lyngdorf owns that operates throughout Scandinavia. That direction quickly forked, and DALI became its own brand with worldwide distribution.
Today, DALI, which is an acronym for Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries, employs over 300 people worldwide and has factories in both Denmark and China. On this factory tour, which coincided with our walk-through of, and introduction to, the company’s new Kore loudspeaker, DALI had recruited seven journalists from Canada and USA, ostensibly to get a closer look at Kore, the company’s new statement speaker. Being a little crafty, though, our hosts also wanted us loutish North Americans to see just how much technology, craftsmanship, and passion DALI pours into all of its products.
From the outside, the DALI headquarters are an unassuming industrial building in a fairly remote, rural area. Once inside, I took immediate note of just how Scandinavian it felt. Throughout the building there were continuous skylights that brightened up the interior and made it feel much less like a factory and more like an open, welcoming clubhouse. Even the assembly and shipping areas had large, bright skylights.
We were welcomed by Nicolaj Løve Hansen, chief commercial officer, who gave us some background on the company and its direction. Right off the bat, Hansen seemed to really want to impress on us that DALI puts its own design goals and ideals into every product that it sells. “We at DALI do not,” he emphasized, “put our name on products built by other companies. We are not concerned with filling holes in our product line with other companies’ products.”
Hansen was also keen to point out—and this would become something of a refrain—that while DALI has a factory in China, the company is working hard to repatriate as much of its production as possible.
About that factory in China. Currently, only the Oberon range and below are manufactured overseas. The Opticon models and up are made in-house at DALI’s Nørager facility. The overseas factory is a facility that was purpose-built by DALI, and it’s not shared by other companies. DALI has full-time staff on site, and has full confidence in the products it builds there.
That said, the concept of repatriation of its products is something that DALI has been working on since 2019. While labor is significantly cheaper in China than in Denmark, all other components that go into building a speaker are statically priced, and once you factor in shipping costs and complications due to lead times, the differences shrink quite significantly. And this was back in 2019.
With the advent of COVID-19 and its related lockdowns and backlogs, DALI’s strategy of bringing manufacturing closer to home seems almost prescient.
We saw one of the fruits of this repatriation effort yesterday at Hudevard Furniture, a company into which DALI has invested. Hudevard manufactures the Kore’s cabinet, and although details weren’t available, Holm hinted that other products would emerge from this partnership. It turns out that prior to the rapidfire bugouts to the Far East in the initial globalization wave, there were a fairly large number of companies like Hudevard Furniture supplying cabinets to the various Danish speaker manufacturers. Not so much anymore. But according to the folks at DALI, Hudevard is the tip of the spear, and DALI plans to move more production back to Denmark in the coming year.
As an aside, this on-shoring trend pleases me greatly. Via my day gig in IT, I have watched many support and development groups move offshore, and it lowers my faith in humanity when I see a company laying off local staff in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere. I understand deep down that companies had to follow this trend in order to remain competitive, but that doesn’t mean I had to like it. Props to DALI for starting its move back on shore prior to it becoming an urgent need. I’ll get down off my soapbox now.
DALI has a number of principles that guide its speaker design. First off, it’s no surprise that DALI believes wide dispersion is essential for a speaker to sound good, and this is something I’ve heard before from a number of designers. You’ve likely read about it here at SoundStage! as a concept practiced by many major speaker manufacturers. The company also focuses on low loss in all aspects of the design. Two areas where we saw practical examples of this concept were in the omission of ferrofluid in the Kore’s tweeter, resulting in less drag on the voice coil, and the application of SMC in its drivers—a material that’s highly magnetic and at the same time extremely nonconductive. SMC reduces heat build-up in the voice coil, also helping to reduce mechanical loss.
In my mind, DALI’s most impressive principle is that of individual craftsmanship. Every single driver is tested prior to use and then hand-fitted into the cabinet. And at the end of its journey through the assembly process, each speaker is signed by the person who assembled it. As we walked around the factory, it was evident that the folks working on the assembly floor were focused, unrushed, and—near as I could tell—happy in their work.
DALI claims to make its own drivers. That said, it purchases the baskets, magnets, and cones, which are made to its specifications. Assembly of these components into completed drivers takes place at the DALI factory, along with a number of modifications, some of which are significant.
Interestingly, the folks at DALI have come to the realization that females have an advantage when it comes to assembling drivers. Thomas Martin Holm, DALI’s chief operating officer, explained that women seem to have a natural edge at this complex, precise task. Men can do it, but not as well, and don’t seem as happy in the role.
At this point I inadvertently confessed—to the amusement of everyone else in the group—that I thought magnets were already magnetized when they were dug out of the ground. Apparently that’s not the case. You need a magnetizer!
And this big industrial machine with lots of warning stickers plastered all over it makes a big whomp! as it slams the charge into the magnet. The huge magnets of the Kore speaker necessitated the purchase of an additional, higher-capacity magnetizer.
Every driver that’s assembled at DALI is tested right there on the spot, which gives the company the ability to closely control the quality of what’s going into the speakers.
Back in 2018 DALI invested in a full cabinet-making facility, along with a state-of-the-art lacquering system. I stood there fascinated as I watched a robot spray lacquer on a Kore cabinet.
Of special note here is DALI’s use of a new water-based, UV-cured lacquer. This coating dries much faster than a traditional solvent-based lacquer, allowing more layers in a shorter time, which reduces the period required to finish a cabinet to one week, compared to many weeks for a solvent-based lacquer. Further bonuses from this advanced coating are increased hardness and lower toxicity. As of right now, DALI is using this lacquer only on the Kore speaker, but given the substantial investment it has made in the surrounding infrastructure, it will doubtless be using it on other speakers in the near future.
It was most satisfying watching the various steps in the process of polishing the Kore cabinet. This work is all done by hand, and it takes place in a dedicated area using specially designed stands and jigs.
Sanding is the first step.
Followed by polishing. According to Holm, there are very few people at DALI with sufficient skill to apply the final polish. “It’s far too easy to burn through the lacquer,” he said.
Just down the hall we found the quality-control area, where DALI stress-tests its speakers. There’s a climate chamber to simulate wide temperature swings, a vibration simulator, another booth that administers smoke and salt spray, and a nifty little padded room to crank through high power over long periods to ensure the products can survive serious abuse.
In discussing DALI’s design methodology, Holm explained that the focus isn’t on any one specific measurement. While measurements are of great importance to DALI, the company focuses the majority of its attention on listening tests. “Your foot must tap,” he said.
“We measure after we listen and make changes to make sure they haven’t done anything really bad,” added Lars Worre, DALI’s CEO. “Measurements will never be allowed to be the judge. Whenever you make changes, it changes something else. You always pay for your sins.”
Just when I thought we’d seen it all, our hosts herded us into a fairly large listening room where Inez Bukdahl, DALI’s head of music culture, informed us that the company has its own record label. My seat-of-the-pants reaction was, "Well, that’ll look good on their résumé.“ But it didn’t take long for my cynicism to be replaced by a keen feeling of admiration.
Bukdahl explained to us that the DALI label was a response to the ever-diminishing standards of today’s recorded music. Most egregious to DALI is the almost total lack of dynamics, followed by the over-processed nature of the vapid pop that’s squeezed out of today’s recording studios. Basically, the folks at DALI looked at the sorry state of the recording industry from the viewpoint of audiophiles and decided to do something about it. We had a chance to listen to several tracks from the label’s catalog, all of which were on LP, and sure enough, they sounded marvelous. A standout here was a track from Jacob Dinesen’s album Let the Hard Times Come. This blues singer sounded like he’d been smoking cigarettes and gargling with gravel for far longer than his 23 years.
And then we spent the evening in Aarhus, a medium-sized town about 150km outside of Copenhagen. In my life, I don’t think I have found myself so enamored with a town. The buildings were that harmonious architectural confusion of old and new that seems to define Denmark. Beyond that, though, it’s a university town, and this expedition was my first emergence from COVID. And here I was, wandering past bar after bar, and their attendant crowds of stunningly beautiful young people gathered together in an impossible conglomeration of their own demographic. Suddenly I felt older than my 59 years, and at the same time I found myself incredibly hopeful that this youth could carry the world on to a better future.
Dinner that night was at Kaiser Social, an Asian fusion restaurant, attended by the DALI folks with whom we’d spent the day. The food here was superb—lots of small dishes, heavy on the sushi, which was just fine by me.
Where it got really fun, though, was when Klara, our waitress, started working over the crowd. Her careful application of part performance art and part simple charm had this group of middle-aged men eating out of the palm of her hand. I foolishly made my presence known with a couple of wisecracks, and Klara zeroed in on me like a razor-sharp comedian picking off a hapless heckler. I did my best to keep up with her quick wit, and I could sense some of the DALI execs getting a bit worried that the chubby Canadian might be in over his head. It was all in good fun, though, and it was an extremely entertaining end to a very busy day.
The next day all seven of us journalists conferred, and we unanimously decided that if DALI were serious about really expanding its reach, the company should hire Klara as its North American sales representative.
As I said at the start, DALI doesn’t have nearly the reach into North America that it deserves. But DALI has slowly and carefully built its reputation over the past 40 years, and its combination of craft and passion, along with the Kore speaker, should raise its profile in this market. This should be an interesting show season—if you get a chance to listen to the Kore speaker and the rest of the DALI lineup, I strongly suggest you don’t miss out.
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!