Sounding Off: A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater vs. Kari Voutilainen Masterpiece 8
Here Gary, Elizabeth, and Ian compare and discuss six areas of these two rare and very technical timepieces: design, innovation, operation, finishing, sound, and overall impression.
Our participants are:
Ian Skellern (IS), co-founder and technical director of Quill & Pad
Elizabeth Doerr (ED), co-founder and editor-in-chief of Quill & Pad
GaryG (GG), resident collector
IS: First of all I’d like to start with a disclaimer: please take these comments with a large pinch of salt as none of the three of us comparing these two decimal repeaters have listened to both of these watches side by side in the metal (not yet, anyway).
For my own tastes, the look of Voutilainen’s Masterpiece 8 is just about as perfect as I could possibly desire. The handcrafted guilloche looks impeccably executed; the gold and blued-steel pomme hands are both elegant and very legible; the 39.5 mm case is just right for my small wrists (and the right size for the movement as evidenced by the fact that the small seconds dial fills the space between the center and 6 o’clock); and those teardrop lugs are simply sublime.
And turning the watch over it’s nice to see that there is generous space (air) around the gongs to maximize sound transmission.
It’s difficult for me to think of a better traditionally designed and finished timepiece than the Masterpiece 8, but luckily I don’t have to because the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is anything but a traditionally designed timepiece.
Even before we get to the repeater functionality, a cursory glance is enough to convey the fact that the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is anything but traditional. Okay, it has a round case. But that’s it: there are no hands displaying hours and minutes as those indications are jumping and digitally displayed.
But as unconventional as the dial layout is, it is nicely balanced with the hour and minute apertures offering horizontal equilibrium and the power reserve indicator and small seconds balancing the dial vertically.
What I don’t particularly like about the Zeitwerk, although I can see that it’s in keeping with bling-free German aesthetics, is that there is little color. The A. Lange & Söhne decimal repeater is a variety of shades of gray. There is nothing bad about these colors, but they don’t add anything for me either.
And then there are those unusually contorted gongs orbiting the dial and bending sharply around their respective hammers. If you are going to successfully get off the traditional path when it comes to design, then you need to get right off the path. Way off. And the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater has found an ideal balance between shock and awe.
My traditionalist’s heart yearns for the Voutilainen, but my contemporary longing cries Zeitwerk. Design-wise I’ll have to call it a tie.
ED: I agree with you on the heart-splitting, Ian. However, the Voutilainen has the edge for me in terms of size, while the Zeitwerk kills it for me in terms of design. If the Zeitwerk were the size of the Voutilainen, it would be the hands-down winner for me.
Also, as I said in my review of the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, I think that the digital format works incredibly well with the decimal repeating technology.
GG: I agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth that the idea of combining the “decimal” display of the Zeitwerk with a tens-based minute chime was inspired, and as this is the central principle of both the visual and auditory designs of the Zeitwerk, I have to appreciate its coherence.
The basic appearance of the Zeitwerk is, however, one of those love-it-or-not propositions. And for whatever reason, it has never been my favorite among A. Lange & Söhne’s dial-side display schemes.
At the end of the day, I’m voting “classic” over “modern” on this criterion. I also have great admiration for the Masterpiece 8 as the first watch to display the full set of design cues that have become the hallmarks of Voutilainen’s distinctive and lovely style as I explained in my review of it.
IS: This is a comparison between two great decimal repeaters, so when it comes to innovation what matters most is the decimal repeater. And here, at least for me, the facts are clear-cut: Voutilainen made the first minute repeater wristwatch (the first that we know about, anyway). And while that may well be the only significant innovation in the otherwise very classical Masterpiece 8, it’s a big one.
While the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater wasn’t the first decimal repeater, it has a list of impressive technical innovations longer than an unwound mainspring. Here are just a few: ergonomic push-button repeater activation instead of the traditional case band slide; repeater will not strike if insufficient power to complete the full panoply of chimes required (security feature); crown cannot be pulled out while chiming (security feature); and if the time changes after the repeater starts chiming then the jump/change is delayed until the strikes finish.
Minute and decimal repeater mechanisms can be easily − and expensively − damaged if the time is set or adjusted while in operation, and A. Lange & Söhne’s safety features will surely be appreciated by many experienced collectors.
However, while the Zeitwerk’s innovations are (very welcome) improvements to the decimal repeater, I’ll give this round to Voutilainen for coming up with the decimal repeater in the first place.
To be honest I’m still surprised why anyone is making or buying standard minute repeaters these days as the decimal repeater is just so much more useful for aurally chiming the time in a way that can easily be understood.
ED: There is a surprising dearth of decimal repeaters in the history of horology – and the present of horology for that matter – which is really rather remarkable given the logical way that they chime the time.
However, Kari wasn’t the first to put a decimal repeater in a portable timepiece. It would seem that both John Arnold and John Ellicott each made one decimal repeating watch in their lifetimes. So while Voutilainen wasn’t the first overall, he was certainly and unequivocally the first to put this idea into a wristwatch.
GG: Just reading Tony de Haas’ description to Elizabeth of what it took to combine the Zeitwerk display and decimal chiming into a reasonably sized movement left me deeply impressed. And doing so in a way that allows the hammers and gongs to be seen from the “dial” side of the watch as they do their magic is particularly sweet.
I’ve said it before, however: some of the elements of the Zeitwerk’s mechanics that A. Lange & Söhne presents as features seem more like workarounds to me. For example, there’s that red dot on the power reserve that tells the wearer that with 12 hours of the 36-hour reserve remaining, the watch can no longer chime.
I understand that this is a natural consequence of the single-barrel design imposed by spatial constraints, but as an owner I’d spend more time thinking about the 12 hours of silence (or the need to re-wind the watch prematurely) than the 24 hours of sound.
As for the Masterpiece 8: while it’s based on a LeCoultre ébauche, it is the direct descendant of Kari’s Masterpiece 6, the first decimal repeating wristwatch – ever.
I think of the Zeitwerk as a triumph of problem-solving within constraints and the Masterpiece 8 as a triumph of vision: different, yet each highly admirable in its own way.
IS: While both the Masterpiece 8 and Zeitwerk Minute Repeater are quite easy to use, I’ll give this one to the Zeitwerk – not so much for its ease of use, but for the difficulty in breaking it thanks to the security features A. Lange & Söhne has built in. A jammed repeater mechanism is not a thing of sublime beauty.
GG: The safety interlocks that make the Zeitwerk foolproof give it a leg up on the more traditional, and potentially more fragile, design of the Voutilainen, although I’m not completely convinced that the steps taken to immobilize the Zeitwerk’s visual display during chiming aren’t part of another workaround, this time to conserve power during chiming.
As for button vs. slider-actuation, I’m fairly agnostic; so for me the A. Lange & Söhne gets my nod on overall ease – and safety – of operation.
ED: Not much left to add, guys.
IS: Both of these movements are beautifully, though differently, finished. And while my gut whispers Voutilainen, without being able to compare these two watches side by side it is extremely difficult to pick a winner. I’m going to have to ask for a pass here, however I will say that both are superlatively hand-finished and I would be extremely happy to own either.
ED: In my opinion the quality of the finishing is a dead tie. I did mention in my review of the Zeitwerk, though, that I am of the opinion that this brand’s watches are the most finely finished large-series pieces offered today. And, yes, I know that “large series” is relative here.
GG: With the possible exception of a select set of Patek Philippe’s ultra-complicated pieces, A. Lange & Söhne watches are to me, and many others, the most finely finished serially produced timepieces made today. Kari Voutilainen, on the other hand, is one of the two or three greatest finishers of his generation; and overall I prefer the more subtle Swiss-inspired approach to finishing to the more assertive Saxon style.
IS: While we can debate the pros and cons of each watch’s aesthetics until the cows come home, in the world of chiming watches one thing matters way above all else: no matter how innovative, well designed, or finely finished a repeater may be, it will be judged first and foremost on the quality − tone, tempo, and volume − of its sound.
And not surprisingly for two watches with different movements, position of gongs, shape of gongs, case materials, case sizes, and designs, the sounds of the chimes are also quite distinctly different.
Again, please bear in mind that we did not hear these two watches striking at the same time in the same conditions, so the following comments are at best a guesstimate. But that said, I think that the Masterpiece 8 has a significant edge on volume, while the Zeitwerk wins on both tone and tempo. And persistence of tone in that the sound fades away for longer after each strike. The A. Lange & Söhne also has an advantage in using a relatively silent inertia-style regulator to govern the speed of the strikes, while the Voutilainen uses a quite audible, and quite traditional, air regulator.
ED: The extraneous noise that air regulators generate is something that has always really niggled at me. I dislike them.
I far prefer trading that off for a quieter gong – even if the Voutilainen gongs sound almost cathedral-like in their resonance!
GG: Now we’re getting down to it!
Full disclosure: I haven’t heard the finalized version of the Zeitwerk chime in person, so I am depending on the same video that our readers are. And I like it!
I find the chiming to be very clean, and while the sound of the higher gong is perhaps a tiny bit thin, that may be a matter of very subtle tuning required or even the recording technique used.
Voutilainen’s watch has volume and resonance going for it, and I’m a big fan of big, round sound. On the other hand, at least from the video, it seems that the A. Lange & Söhne’s regulator is more muted, allowing us to focus on the sound of the chimes.
Where the Zeitwerk shines for me is in the spacing of the tones of the two chimes: when you listen to the gongs together, you hear a perfectly spaced “do” and “mi” of the “do-re-mi” musical third.
I’ll have to hear the Lange in person, but when I do I expect that it will give the Masterpiece 8 a real run for its money.
IS: I’m giving the gold medal for sound quality to the Zeitwerk, at least until I get a chance to hear these two watches side by side.
IS: While these two timepieces do share the very significant fact that they are both rare decimal repeaters, that is also the only thing that the A. Lange & Söhne and Voutilainen share as they are very different watches in so many different ways.
When you buy a watch from an independent you are investing in the watchmaker as much as the watch itself, and the Masterpiece 8 is a virtually seamless extension of the man. And Voutilainen was first with the decimal repeater wristwatch, the Masterpiece 8 is beautifully and traditionally designed and executed, and it sounds fantastic.
On the other hand, the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is a modern movement with attractive, contemporary design and state-of-the-art safety features. The Zeitwerk sounds better (except perhaps for volume) and is in my opinion technically the better watch. But that said, if I was choosing a decimal repeater for my own wrist, I’d go for the Voutilainen Masterpiece 8.
ED: If I had to choose one of these two for my own wrist, I would take the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater – but only if the case size could somehow be reduced to something a tad more manageable for my small wrist.
As that is not likely to happen any time soon, I’d also happily wear the classically beautiful and beautifully proportioned (for any wrist size) Voutilainen Masterpiece 8, which is both an ingenious watch and one that has cleared a technical path for others to come behind.
GG: So similar and yet so different! While at the end of the day I would pick the Voutilainen for my personal collection, the A. Lange & Söhne team has made that choice considerably harder than I would have expected with its mechanical tour de force.
If you missed them please check out Kari Voutilainen Masterpiece 8 Decimal Repeater and A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater: A Decimal Repeater With Attitude!
Also published on Medium.