The Good Old Days

But just how good were they?

I was late to the party when I got involved in the High End business in the early eighties. Like most people in the business at that time - and even now - I was driven by my passion for Music and Hi Fi, basically looking for a way to make an expensive hobby more affordable. This story is pretty much the same for most manufacturers, dealers and distributors who got started in High End Audio.

I guess that my eyes were just a little bit bluer in those days. The fact was that one of the old hands in the business of imports to Denmark took me under his wing and over time showed me most of the ropes,. I had the energy and courage of the innocent and naive. Then again, it is easy to be courageous when you have no idea of what can happen to you...

At that time, American brands defined the High End. The Absolute Sound magazine was Caesar, giving thumps up or thumbs down to products. Heroes were created overnight and the blood in the ring was the only thing left of the losers. Maybe they had an inferior product or maybe they just didn't know how to play the game. Companies folded and savings were lost, all collateral damage, I suppose.

The industry was young, many products were unreliable and the designs were (ahem) interesting. In many ways, it was the dark ages and in the dark myths and unsubstantiated theories grew like mushrooms. It was a golden age for cable manufacturers and the fast and furious innovations were, well, innovative. It was often said that the better the product looked, the worse it sounded. Yeah, and all blondes are stupid.

Those were the good old days.

Moving forward on the timeline, we recognize manufacturers that had the sustaining power to stay in business and manufacture products that got better and better and managed to stay alive. The great digital versus analogue debate raged, supporting the US audio magazines in their exchange of fire.

CES was an exciting place with many new exhibitors displaying products that promised to change the audio world as we knew it. By the next CES, most of them were bankrupt and back at their old jobs paying off their debts.

But for every fallen warrior, there would be a new challenger seeking his fame in High End. And fame was the magic word. Given the extreme lack of even the most basic sense of business that most suffered from, they were mostly driven by the limelight and fame. Best sound at show was the Holy Grail for many. Peter Belt and prophets like him sold magic dots, magic brushes and bells. You could buy magic bricks and cryogenically frozen clocks. The default explanation was more often than not:"we cannot really explain the technology, but it sounds better".

European products began to make their presence felt. Burmester introduced balanced technology, old news in pro audio, but rocket science to High End Audio, starting a debate about balanced versus single-ended that was often, well, single-minded.

With European products came contemporary industrial design, slowly setting new standards for fit and finish, forcing US manufacturers to accept that the days of their monopoly were numbered. There was a new kid was on the block and the kitchen table workshop simply could not cut it anymore and speaker manufacturers moved out of the two-car garage and into old warehouses in low-rent neighbourhoods. Still, nobody made any real money, but the intensity of the limelight was stronger than ever. Harry Pearson was god.

Those were the good old days.

Bill Gates predicted that the internet would never fly - the misjudgement of the century. The World Wide Web took off like a rocket and changed everything.

Suddenly, information flowed literally at the speed of light with unprecedented easy access to knowledge. A new age of enlightenment ended the dark ages of High End Audio, as the old US magazines roamed like a T-Rex looking for its old habitat or just a mate, to confirm that he was not the last of his kind.

Internet-based magazines popped up everywhere. Energy was more evident than real writing talent or insight, but the editors and writers were younger, unbiased and unburdened by all the old baggage from the infancy of the High End. This young, fresh approach combined with a natural, unimpressed attitude towards technology was changing everything. The T-Rex was still roaming the forest, perhaps its time was not

The convergence of the PC and Audio was on the cards. Ebay, Audiogon and myriad web shops suddenly replaced the old sell out of the trunk dealers, wreaking havoc in distribution rights. Pragmatic manufacturers, less concerned with long-term brand value or brand devaluation, chanted a new simplistic mantra, every unit shifted is money in the bank, an attitude showing little understanding of the direction of the High End business.

The internet proved to be a two-edged sword. The possibility for a manufacturer to reach millions of readers for his press release within 24 hours is mind-boggling, but the downside is that bad news and misinformation flow just as fast and freely as good news and hard facts.

Online commerce made it clear that the winner of High End Audio sales is the entrepreneur who seizes the opportunity to sell a product with such a slim profit margin that his customer service is strictly limited to delivering a product in a box, reducing the traditional bricks and mortar dealer to an expensive showroom for internet operators and in the end leaving the buyer dismayed once the sweetness of the low price has faded.

Those were the good old days.

Today, High End Audio no longer has any excuse for unprofessional behaviour. As an industry, it has certainly come of age. However, sadly, in many ways everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. The products have changed, communication and the marketplace have changed, technology has changed. Basically, everything has changed except the names and faces. Essentially, the business is still in the hands of the same people, just older and in many ways deep in denial about just how much things have changed and refusing to accept that the good old days are not coming back.

The definition of High End Audio has changed completely, the upper limit for a High End system price tag is now in excess of seven figures in Euros, while entry level products, on the other hand, offer more value for money than ever.

In effect, the gap between the Ultra High End and a good audiophile hi fi system is rapidly widening, placing the best equipment well beyond the economic grasp of the Audiophile that was formerly the core High End consumer.

Effectively, the High End Industry found itself manufacturing equipment for a clientele that no longer could afford it, but certainly had the desire because the industry kept promoting it to them.

The industry failed to ask the most fundamental questions: Do we have the client? or Can we create the client? In some ways, High End Audio is a dog eating its own tail. Many systems are being sold to other manufacturers or to reviewers at accommodation prices or to members of the trade. So how does the business respond to this bleak picture of the future?

Because the High End business has no trade organization, it has no common platform to speak from. Instead, it continues to act like a group of poker players around a table, keeping their cards close to their chest. In stark contrast to the IT industry that is known to seek possible ways to work together and turn 1+1 into 3, our industry seems to prefer to fade away, too proud to realize that no individual has all the answers. Instead, we see respectable manufacturers in a state of panic, trying to jump on the bandwagon and act young by offering a pricey old school docking station for the iPhone, a statement of prostitution of the very essence of what High End Audio should stand for. It is also sad proof that High End manufacturers roll over to any trend, rather than try to create trends.

IMHO, the High End must realize that, unless the consumer has the money to purchase the product, he cannot enjoy the qualities that we put into our products. The great news is that there are many people out there who could afford our products, but simply have no idea that there is anything beyond Bose and B&O. We are very fortunate in the sense that we have a totally untapped potential consumer base who can afford our products.

The million dollar question is: How do we find them?They certainly are not out there looking for us. And if we do find them, what do we do then? We may not have all the answers, but asking the right questions is always a good start. In the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin, we may reflect on the fact that the High End as a species must adapt to changes in order to survive. I believe that if we first of all realize that we are not the audio Business, but the Ultra High End business with our own unique challenges and strategies. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can respond to it and begin the transformation. The clients are there, untouched and unbiased. We have incredible channels of communication, we have technology, we have style and we have heritage to support our names.

Currently, we are being bombarded with horrific doomsday economic scenarios and there are certainly serious problems to be addressed. However, there are people making money all the time and new fortunes are being generated. Gryphon have increased sales in USA, Pakistan, Russia and South Korea, despite the nay-sayers, who claim that it should not be possible. The situation is simply that there is still business to be made, new client segments open to us and most of all a huge need for optimism and contagious enthusiasm.

We can no longer afford to make the same mistakes as in the good old days. On the other hand, when no mistakes are allowed, is not that the time when we are most analytical and focused and move toward the target with precision and diligence?

I would not be the least bit surprised, if these days are remembered in some not too distant future as the good old days, IMHO.

As time and inspiration allow, I will expand on these topics and others in future installments.