The new RESERVOIR collection takes its inspiration from measuring instruments widely used in the world of sound or Hi-Fi. The two retrograde hands of the new RESERVOIR Sonomaster Chronograph faithfully reproduce the hands of power measurements or VU meters from analog stereo amplifiers. This strong milestone for RESERVOIR celebrates the human quest to create pure sound, a musical exploration full of audacity and intensity.
This bi-retrograde (date and seconds at 120°) watch inaugurates the first chronograph model from RESERVOIR (central second, 30-minute counter at 12, hour counter at 6). The watch is powered by the new watchmaking caliber RSV-Bi120: a manufacture bi-retrograde chronograph movement, automatic mechanical winding, and column wheel (base LJP-L1C0).
THE DILEMMA OF DIGITAL OR ANALOG READING OF MEASURING INTRUMENTS
Retrograde hands – RESERVOIR’s preferred and distinctive means of display offers a plethora of practical advantages, along with that frisson of visual delight as it flies back to zero after completing its arc. It is the most “analogue” of techniques, almost a poster child for traditionalists who prefer such meters to digital read-outs. And “analogue vs digital” is a battle that has raged concurrently in at least three industries.
Car makers were among the first to realise that drivers found both speedometers and tachometers could communicate more swiftly with a needle traversing a scale than plain digits. LCD bars which read “70kph” or “4500rpm” lack the instant impact of a dial, whether round, crescent-shaped or rectangular. Even the most advanced of today’s hypercars feature analogue speedometers and tachometers, though they may be representations on a screen rather than “real” gauges.
For the watch industry, the analogue vs digital chasm is less clear-cut, because a couple of generations of consumers weaned on digital clocks and now smart watches are non-committal, content with either. This explains why makers of smart watches also offer dials that look like traditional analogue watch faces. It tells you that even “pretend” analogue images have retained much of the appeal of physical hands-and-dials. For serious collectors of mechanical watches, dials and hands remain the rule.
As for the third industry which has retained analogue metering, even as it embraced digital technology, it’s the music business – both the professional sector and home users. Since the beginning of radio broadcasts and performances that were recorded electronically for playback in the home, both arriving in the 1920s, there has been a need for the engineers to measure the signal. The object was to avoid overloading the recording device, which would lead to distortion – the unpleasant sonic artefacts which make a recording sound artificial.
BACK TO THE ORIGINS OF THE VU METER
Like speed, engine revolutions and time, sound levels are best measured and presented by a slim needle against a scale. The recording and broadcast industries had been using mechanical meters which were not as “fast” as sound itself, so the peaks – the maximum levels at which the sound remains undistorted and which shouldn’t be exceeded – were not captured accurately in real time. Seasoned engineers knew how to read the meters, aided by their trained hearing, but there was a need for something faster, more precise, and more revealing. It would serve as an industry standard. Above all, it had to be easy to read, as quickly as the signals it was representing.
Through the combined efforts of a number of organisations in the USA, including the Institute of Radio Engineers, Bell Telephone Laboratories and broadcasters NBC and CBS, a device called a “VU” meter arrived in 1940. The letters stand for “Volume Unit”, and it was developed to measure all manner of electronic signals, including the sounds going into a mixing desk or tape deck in a recording studio, the strength of a radio broadcast signal, the power output of an amplifier or the sound pressure levels in the listening space (also referred to as “volume” or “loudness”).
By 1942, the VU meter had been standardised for telephone installation and radio broadcast stations, ultimately appearing on every type of audio equipment, up to and including one model of modern headphones which has them on each earpiece. Clearly, the mere appearance of a VU meter creates a tech-y aesthetic, a functional “cool” but with retro overtones. After all, a VU meter is an electromechanical device, unlike digital displays, which are entirely electronic, and all VU meters evoke the pre-digital age.
A SIMILAR OPERATION BETWEEN THE RETROGRADE WATCH HAND AND THE VU METER
VU meters have appeared in countless forms, but all share the basic elements of a slim needle pivoting against a scale drawn in an arc or a straight line. VU meters using the latter are reminiscent of horizontal speedometers found in American cars of the 1950s and 1960s. The action of a VU meter’s needle is the same as a retrograde hand in a watch: the needles do not ascribe a 360 circle, as do conventional watch hands, but swing back-and-forth.
Defining the graduations on the scale is the role the meter serves, whether it’s measuring decibels to show the loudness of a signal, wattage to indicate the power of an amplifier, voltages, or other electronic information. Just as tachometers have a “red line” to warn a driver not to abuse an engine, so do VU meters have a red zone at the end of the scale to indicate the onset of distortion, overload or other ills.
VU meter shapes have evolved from round to rectangular, both remaining popular. The background can be any colour, provided the scale and the needle offer enough contrast. Most popular are black scales on white or cream dial surfaces, but white against black works, too, because most VU meters most are illuminated. Various hi-fi manufacturers have personalised their meters to render their equipment instantly recognisable, with veteran brand Luxman opting for a golden glow, EAR-Yoshino using kidney-shaped apertures over their meters, D’Agostino’s massive round meter features a Breguet-style hand, while McIntosh is world-famous for its blue-lit VU meters.
As mixing desk, tape deck, and amplifier designers will tell you, VU meters persist in all audio-related areas because they are as instinctive as an analogue watch dial. It’s not that record producers, engineers, or audiophiles are luddites. Mixing desks and tape decks have long been available with displays in the form of coloured bars of LEDs or via high-resolution LCDs, both of which react quickly to the changes in level. But – as with watches and cars – the communication of sound levels through parallel, horizontal bars, usually glowing green in the safe zone and red in overload, lacks the impact of a needle against a scale.
THE GENESIS OF THE RESERVOIR SONOMASTER CHRONOGRAPH AND ITS BI-RETROGRADE DISPLAY
For RESERVOIR, which has specialised in retrograde hands, the desire to imprint the company’s signature technique on the crowded dial of a chronograph presented a dilemma. How do you accommodate all of the sub-dials of a conventional chronograph without reverting to the usual cluster of round counters? How much space is left after allowing for bi-compax or tri-compax layouts?
For the Sonomaster Chronograph, the designers had to incorporate – in addition to real-time hours, minutes and seconds – the central sweep seconds hand for the stopwatch function, a 30-minute counter at 12 o’clock, a 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock, and the date. A window for the latter would add clutter, while the desire for symmetry, which is missing in chronographs with sub-dials at 6, 9 and 12 o’clock and a date window at 3 o’clock, remained paramount.
They started with a 43mm, 316L stainless steel case with brushed finish, crown inspired by amplifier control button, push buttons inspired by bass and treeble buttons. The hands are treated with Superluminova. The opened case-back reveals the automatic movement with column wheel, and a generous 60-hour power reserve. Up to this point, the defining element – a retrograde feature – was still to emerge.
RESERVOIR has carefully cultivated a unique, family look for its retrograde models. All employ retrograde minute hands completing an arc from what would be, on a conventional dial, 8 o’clock to 4 o’clock. The visual balance is assured by the hour appearing in a window above the 6 o’clock position, while below it is a retrograde power reserve. Despite the need to deal with more functions, the Sonomaster Chronograph could not depart from the established RESERVOIR design language.
TWO WATCH DIALS WITH RETROGRADE HANDS
With the hours and minutes of the Sonomaster Chronograph addressed by conventional hands, and with the 30-minute and 12-hour counters using traditional sub-dials, it was noted that there was ample “real estate” on either side of the divide. Two half-moon-shaped areas were free to accept the date and real-time seconds, creating what RESERVOIR has called a “Bi-Retrograde” display. For maximum readability and to create a fresh aesthetic in a horological context, RESERVOIR looked beyond the confines of the watch and automotive industries, the latter a much-favoured source of inspiration in horological circles.
Instead, they found the solution on the front panel of the iconic vintage hi-fi amplifier, such as the legendary Luxman M10 Mk II power amplifier, a much-coveted example of high-end audio equipment. This amplifier features two massive VU meters, with black needles against beige dials, accented with red segments to indicate the “danger zones”.
Thinking laterally, RESERVOIR turned the dials on their sides, to be read vertically. The dial on the left provided retrograde seconds, its scale marked 0-30, with the needle – or hand in this case – flying back every half-minute. The dial on the right was chosen for the date display, its indications marked 0-31, with a retrograde fly-back return at the end of the month.
Both counters feature red segments to respect their muse, though there is no danger present. The same background colour scheme employed by Luxman was retained as well for the Sonomaster Chronograph, the cream providing vivid contrast against the fine black scale. Both retrograde counters are sunken into the main dial, the added depth this creates further recalling the physical presence of VU meters set within an amplifier’s front panel.