Barely a day goes by that SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider and I don’t have discussions about the daily workings of the business, and the long- and medium-range goals we have for the SoundStage! magazines. Doug is very much the visionary here, often seeing industry trends early and recognizing openings through which we can leverage our strengths. My role is different: I keep us on track. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change and other notable books, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Yes, we have expanded SoundStage! greatly over the past six years, but we’ve also remained true to our roots: solid reviews of high-end audio components, posted on the first and the fifteenth of every month. That last part is critical.
As much as I’d like to say that McIntosh Laboratory has followed our lead, Frank McIntosh founded his company in 1949. Clearly, we’re following his. But now, having myself surveyed the landscape of high-end audio for a good span of years, I’ve often admired McIntosh Lab’s apparently clear vision of the company’s goals, and the methodical approach they take to reach them. After 66 years in business, McIntosh is the rock of the high end. Their products are always competitive in terms of sound quality, they’re generally of above-average reliability, and their resale value is among the best in the business. Decades of those big, blue meters don’t hurt, either. McIntosh has kept the main thing the main thing for a long, long time. The management at Fine Sounds Group, which now owns the brand (along with Audio Research, Sonus Faber, Sumiko, and Wadia), are smart enough not to mess with a winning formula.
Other brands have had similar success. Although I’ve been attracted to other brands of loudspeaker over the past decade, there’s no question that Wilson Audio Specialties has remained true to founder Dave Wilson’s vision. A Wilson speaker is still a Wilson speaker, and it still has to earn Dave Wilson’s approval before it goes out the door. Another is Gryphon Audio Designs. Flemming E. Rasmussen, founder of the company, continues to guide the design of Gryphon’s products, and they still specialize in class-A amplifiers of beastly proportions. Gryphon’s Antileon amplifier is still in the line after some 20 years -- now named the Antileon Evo, it still runs hot as hell and sounds sweet as candy. I suspect there will be an Antileon in the Gryphon line ten years from now; if so, it will no doubt have been further refined, based on the strengths of Gryphon products past, present, and still to come.
There are just as many, if not more, examples of companies that have lost their way. Krell Industries is one. The other day, in an e-mail exchange with HiFiCritic editor and industry veteran Martin Colloms, I told him that his early reviews of Krell amplifiers were partly responsible for making me want to become an audio writer. Those amps, from the KSAs to the FPBs, were legendary. I can’t even name an amplifier model that Krell produces today. They all look the same, and as far as I can tell have no obviously distinguishing features. Another is Aperion Audio. For a while, Aperion released a steady string of new, affordably priced audiophile speakers. Regularly, there was a cool new Aperion model that normal folks could afford. I remember meeting with some Aperion reps several years ago, at a Consumer Electronics Show -- they were explaining something about a complex wireless protocol, how it interfaced with this and that, and how it would result in some complicated Aperion home-theater system that everybody would have to have. My eyes glazed over. How about a cool new speaker that people can actually afford? Remember that concept?
A large part of remaining true to a company’s vision is keeping the main thing the main thing. For us at SoundStage!, that means Doug Schneider leading the way into new territories, while I keep us on a steady, methodical course. Doug and I can’t imagine the scale of a company such as Apple, but we are not the only ones to have wondered how Apple will fare in the long term without Steve Jobs. Will Apple continue to innovate as it did under its founder, or will it settle into a more mundane and predictable existence? The Apple debate still rages, and the answer remains unclear. You could make the same case for Dan D’Agostino’s departure from Krell. When the visionary is gone, where does that leave a company?
And it’s not all about older companies. Alon Wolf has pissed off more people in the high end in the ten years his company, Magico, has been in business than anyone I can remember. Why? Because he absolutely refuses to compromise his vision for Magico and its products. That doesn’t sit well with some, but I can tell you this: I’d bet good money that the Magico of ten years from now will still be pursuing perfection with the relentless, uncompromising zeal that Wolf has shown to date -- and it will still bother some people.
Ultimately, McIntosh Laboratory is still the one to admire. High-end companies need to continue to chart a bold course, while sticking to the vision that brought them their first success. At any time, I know I can go out and, for a decent price, buy a tank of a McIntosh power amp that will drive anything and has some cool, big blue meters. Then, if I choose, I can pass that amp down to my son or daughter, because I know that it will keep working for decades. The same was true when Frank McIntosh led the company, it’s still true today, and the smart money says it will be true tomorrow.
. . . Jeff Fritz