sE Electronics founder Siwei Zou shows a sample of the condenser
microphone diaphragm material fitted with rings that will be
part of small diaphragm condenser mic capsules.
by Frank Wells.
Shanghai–sE Electronics was founded by Siwei Zou in the year 2000. The enthusiastic and energetic Zou has a diverse background as a successful classical musician, conductor and composer, as an educator (including serving on the music faculty of California Sonoma State University), as an entrepreneur and as a recording studio owner/engineer. All of these elements play together in sE Electronics as PSN learned on a visit to the sE headquarters and factory in Shanghai on the eve of the company’s 10th anniversary.
The history of sE is tied to the history of microphone production in China, which began nearly 50 years ago when East Germany sent microphone experts to provide training and education in manufacturing. Given the era and the source of expertise, it’s no surprise that initial designs were of the time period’s “Neumann-style” mics. According to Zou, very little progress was made in Chinese microphone design and production for several decades. When he started his own company, Zou brought in the most experienced individuals then working in Chinese microphone manufacturing, then hired, trained and educated the next generation of sE specialists.
For the first two to three years of operation, sE first used other Chinese OEM companies for manufacturing–a frustrating experience, as Zou could not completely control either quality or the manufacturing schedule. As he began adding manufacturing capability of his own, sE did some OEM manufacturing itself, as well as working on its own branded microphones. The turning point came when Zou brought in three British partners–James Young, Mitch Carey and Phil Smith–and made the deliberate decision to make and sell sE branded microphones exclusively—a painful decision financially, as it left lucrative OEM contracts on the table.
After several years of marketing and steady progress adding to and improving the product line, sE has established a unique identity among Chinese microphone manufacturers. Zou believes his company is the only manufacturer in China that conceives, designs and builds its microphones totally in house, and further, sE is unique because of his strong musical background and the philosophy of treating a microphone “as an instrument.” sE’s product line is diverse and affordable, far from another lookalike brand, helping separate the company’s products from the sometimes negative reputation of its Chinese manufacturing brethren through consistency, quality and innovation.
Sonic Distribution, the UK-based distribution company run by the British sE partners, has garnered a profitable marketshare of the European microphone market, and has made inroads into the U.S. as well. A more recent significant milestone for sE was the co-development with Rupert Neve of the Rupert Neve Signature Series microphones. The RNR1, the first product resulting from the collaboration, is an active ribbon mic pairing an sE transducer with Rupert Neve-designed electronics. The “buzz” surrounding the RNR1’s release and favorable reviews have bolstered sE’s reputation and visibility in the professional audio martketplace. The relationship led to the creation of the distribution company Fingerprint Audio, based out of the Rupert Neve Designs headquarters in Austin, TX, for U.S. distribution of sE microphones. sE Electronics also manufactures acoustic treatments, sold under the Ghost brand in Europe via Sonic Distribution, as well as building the Russ Berger co-designed materials for PartScience, distributed by Auralex. sE does not currently sell its microphones in China, producing just enough for the European and American markets, though plans are under development to sell acoustic products domestically.
Now occupying 3,000 square meters of space in Shanghai, the sE Electronics headquarters and manufacturing operation is a study contrasting modern science with manual labor. Unlike many of its European, Asian and U.S. competitors, sE builds all of its products by hand, including microphone cases. With the exception of metal plating, which has to be done outside of Shanghai for environmental reasons, design, prototyping and manufacturing is totally completed in-house by a staff of 120, from the manipulation of raw materials to transducer manufacturing to assembly and test. The only automation involved controls the CNC lathes turning out some of the mechanical parts.
The headquarters building, home to administration and the “clean room” portions of manufacturing, also is home to 10 engineers. Overall, the staff is young, with an average age of just 30. The HQ houses quality control, including an anechoic chamber, recording studio and a room that doubles as a 7.1 multimedia theater and recording space. This latter room is elegant and fully treated with sE developed acoustic materials. “If we don’t have a good recording room, if we don’t have a good playback system, how can we know the sound is good?” opines Zou, who adds, a “meter is just a meter, but ears….” The room is actively used for ear training, plus as a recording space where sE designs are evaluated against the wide range of other manufacturer’s microphones from Zou’s personal collection.
While in 2009, the Rupert Neve Signature Series was foremost in sE’s marketing, the company has “lots, lots of new ideas,” says Zou, and 2010 will see the release of several new sE Electronics-branded microphones, along with tube, FET and small diaphragm mics in the Rupert Neve Signature Series line–a tenth birthday present for sE and its customers from a company coming of age.