No one would ever accuse me of being an optimist. While neither am I so pessimistic as to be suicidal, I try to be a realist. This has resulted in me being, for example, less than ecstatic about the so-called “Vinyl Revolution.” Then again, I haven’t made a career of tracking the sale of every LP as if it heralded the death of digital and cured cancer. With this in mind, I am being ultra-cautious about a trend so tiny that it may not even justify this column. (See? I am a pessimist.)
Four days after I write this, in mid-November, assorted members of the world’s hi-fi press will converge in New York for the opening of the World of McIntosh boutique, to be duly covered on SoundStage! Global in an upcoming report by our own Doug Schneider. I am not attempting to pre-empt his account, which is precisely why I am writing this now: I have no idea what to expect.
Upon mentioning this possible phenomenon, another audio writer pointed out to me that London alone has seen the opening in the last few years of two or three ultra-exclusive, high-end-only audio salons. This is in a city in the world’s permanent top ten for high rents and obscene taxation. But these are still traditional and wholly independent retailers, and they have the freedom to stock whatever brands meet their requirements.
More in keeping with what World of McIntosh will offer -- and which are what the jewelry, watch, luggage, and fashion industries would call “mono-brand boutiques” -- are similar efforts from Harman in New York, with all of its brands; Meridian (London, Kuwait, etc.); and Devialet (everywhere). Note, however, that World of McIntosh isn't a home solely for McIntosh, but also for the other brands in the same group, which include the products of Sonus Faber, Wadia, Audio Research, and Sumiko Subwoofers.
Ken Kessler with World of McIntosh CEO Mauro Grange
Pedantically, then, World of McIntosh is not a “mono-brand boutique” so much as it is a “boutique selling products from one parent corporation.” As an analogy, imagine that the Volkswagen Group had mega-showrooms which also sold Audi, Bugatti, Lamborghini, SEAT, etc., or GM offered all of its brands in a single superstore per locale. Not that car brands need company: they’re all big enough to stand on their own, with dedicated showrooms.
What’s so remarkable about this mini-trend of high-end audio brands opening their own dedicated stores is that, aside from mass-market makers Bose, Sony, B&O, Cambridge SoundWorks, and a few others, no high-end, or so-called “specialty audio” producers enjoy the brand awareness, catalogue size, fame, global scale, nor even mere chutzpah to become “destination” stores.
And chutzpah -- or pure ego -- is at the base of all this. I could rattle off half a dozen mono-brand boutiques from the fashion, watch, and jewelry industries with their own dedicated stores in the world’s highest-net-income locations, and you would show the same non-recognition of their names as a non-audiophile would if you mentioned the brands that we find as familiar as Coca-Cola. But is Devialet that convinced of its own greatness, enough to act like it’s Montblanc or Cartier or Dior?
Let's be blunt: ask any group of, oh, 100,000,000 people if they’ve ever heard of Bose, B&O, or Sony, and the reaction would be gigantic. Then ask if they know Koetsu, Vertere, Magico, PrimaLuna, Transparent, Octave, or one of the many hundreds of “stars” in our universe. Out of the 100,000,000, there might be four audiophiles at the back, furiously waving their arms. Or actually, it would only be two, waving both arms.
So much for the global fame of the brands we know intimately. If I had a dollar for every time a non-audiophile asked me, upon learning what I do for a living, “What is the best system?” or “What do you use at home?” and who react with a blank look of total incomprehension, I could buy a couple of TechDAS Air Force Ones.
This, however, prompts a question if such focused sales premises as mono-brand boutiques truly add credence and prestige and therefore greater sales, or even if brands benefit from strength in numbers. It doubly prompts the question for manufacturers that, unlike Bose, have zero recognition outside of the audio community. And I’m asking this question because I would love to know the answer:
Why haven’t the D+M Group (Marantz, Denon, Boston Acoustics, etc.), Voxx International (Klipsch, Jamo, Mirage, and others), Gibson Brands, Inc. (Onkyo, Cerwin-Vega, TEAC, Stanton, etc.), Vervent Audio Group (Focal and Naim), or any other multi-brand organization I might have missed, opened their own dedicated megastores? Are they just more realistic than Devialet or Meridian? They’re certainly not without the funds to do it.
It’s a complex issue. Every time, say, an exclusive watch brand opens its own boutique, the traditional independent dealers in the same city suffer -- despite the brands always insisting, “Oh, no, our boutique didn't hurt our independent dealers! No, no, no! It raised brand awareness in the area!” To add insult to injury, the mono-brand boutiques get exclusive models that the independent retailers -- no matter how many years they have loyally stocked the brand -- are denied.
Now that excuse might work if you’re talking about a brand that turns over $500 million plus, let alone €10 billion plus per year, and sells 600,000 expensive watches a year, and with a name that graces NASCAR or F1 vehicles at every race, or has Oscar winners as “ambassadors” and spends $25m per year, just to advertise its perfume. But will it work for audio? Trust me: opening a boutique in New York or London is a huge investment -- even if your biggest investor is the richest man in Europe.
I will watch the performance of these boutiques closely, because I want to see if -- no, because I hope -- they can enjoy even a modicum of the success of the clothes, luggage, and watch brands that seem to have boutiques in every shopping plaza and airport terminal and wealth center in every major city on the planet.
Because I tell you this, vinyl revolution or not, and with the ageing of the audio community: If glamorous boutiques and luxury sales techniques can't convince the seriously wealthy that they ought to buy something better than a Bluetooth all-in-one speaker for $399, the specialty audio industry is completely screwed.
. . . Ken Kessler