Written by McIntosh Group Co-CEO, Jeff Poggi
It was a perfectly timed high-school-aged anthem to celebrate the power of youth. Yes, I was in my ‘glory days’ when I first started listening to “Glory Days” – it was fantastic! Now, being just a few years older and approaching another wonderful milestone – the big five-oh, I find myself reminiscing with friends and colleagues about our glory days. Ah, I love what music can do for you. Put on a song and ‘bam’ you are right back in a memory – an emotion – an experience. All the passion comes flooding back to you – even if it is 25 years past. Fantastic. There are many amazing memories and stories of my immortal youth, yet, I am struck by the longing of many industry colleagues toward the 80s. It seems that the Hi-End audio industry can’t get away from this era. They can’t seem to escape what they believe was the “Glory Days of Hi-Fi”.
One of the benefits of being part of the audio industry is that I have the opportunity to participate in many of the amazing hi-end audio shows around the world – Munich Hi-End, AXPONA, Rocky Mountain, Tokyo International Audio Show, Hong Kong Hi-End AV Show, and many more. Attending these shows over the past few years, I have had a sense of déjà vu, a bit like Bill Murray in “Ground Hog Day”. I find myself in a conversation – it could be in the morning over a cup of hot black coffee or in the evening when there is a clear, cool adult beverage in hand (ok, yes, Hendricks and tonic) – but regardless of the time of day, the conversation goes something like this – an older colleague (yes, at 50, I am one of the young guys in Hi-Fi) says, “Remember the 80s, more people were interested in hi-fi, the gear was great, the music was great, there were more people at the shows, sales were fast and easy –those were the Glory Days.”
For me, I don’t remember the 80s from the perspective of the hi-fi industry. I was in middle/high school, an amazing time, and my first hi-fi system was a Sony Walkman. I was an avid collector of tapes thanks to the Columbia Record and Tape Club (CR&TC). My big stereo upgrade came in 1986 when I installed a Pioneer tape deck and 6×9 coaxials in my 1974 Chevy Malibu Classic—it was awesome! The thrill was all about the music – the emotion – the feeling – the memories shared between friends driving around with Led Zepplin and AC/DC blaring. Yes, glory days for sure.
However, looking back, was it easy and accessible to enjoy my music? Not really. It took 4-6 weeks to receive those 10 free tapes from CR&TC, and then I had to purchase five more tapes over three years for a ridiculously high price – a good lesson in finance learned as a kid. Then I had to pack them into my 30-tape luggage case to move them back and forth from the house to the car—making sure we had curated the right 30 tapes for any given road trip and remember to remove the tapes from the car in warmer weather or they would melt! And, how many times did we need to scramble to find the $&@# pencil needed to re-roll the tape when they got loose. Ugh!
Fast forward to 2020, access to music has never been easier and more convenient. Tidal (or Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Quboz…your choice) has replaced the Columbia Record and Tape Club. With one button press, I can now open an app and have access to any album, any artist, and any song from any genre – immediately and on any device that I own. I can connect to my headphones, my car, my portable speaker, or my home hi-fi system. And, I don’t have to go through the pain, complexity, and expense of joining the Columbia CD Club and re-buying all my music on CD after tapes faded away. I’d have to say that it feels like 2020 are the Glory Days for music accessibility.
Music accessibility aside, let’s reminisce about the music sharing experience of the 80s – the joy and excitement of making mix tapes! I do fondly remember spending hours with my Pioneer dual tape deck making the perfect mix tape – yes, everyone flash to the image of John Cusack holding his boom box above his head in “Say Anything” – as we say in Boston, that was wicked cool! Now, let’s compare that experience to sharing music in 2020. In a few seconds or a few hours for more refined curation, I can build a playlist from any song on the planet and share it with my friends, colleagues, or the entire userbase of the streaming service. Streaming services have made music truly social. No longer is it my music, but rather it is our music. It is so easy to share, to discover, and to get lost in the amazing universe of music. The ‘social’ music connection streaming services offer is a key driver to increased music consumption.
Music consumption is on the rise – and this is a key indicator that the ‘Glory Days’ are here and now. According to the IFPI Music Listening Report, the average consumer is listening to 17.8 hours of music a week with 89% listening through streaming music services. What’s most exciting is that 54% of those surveyed say they ‘love or are fanatical’ about music. A great sign for all of us in hi-fi!
But, no friends, that is not all. Let’s reflect on the quality and reliability of our music as well. I’ve never melted a digital music file in the heat of the summer. I have never sat on one and broke it. I don’t have to worry about scratching a disc or losing a tape between the seat cushions. And the digital file sounds as good on its 1000th playback as it did on its first. Yes, most of the streaming services offer lossy compressed formats, so many will argue that analog tapes in perfect condition with high-quality playback will sound better – I’ll give you that. But, comparing a tape played on an original Sony Walkman with those lovely orange headphones (made re-famous by Chris Pratt’s character Star-Lord in the Avengers movies) vs. Tidal streaming Hi-Fi (44kHz/16bit FLAC) via an iPhone with Airpods – I’ll take streaming any day. Today’s youth has access to more music; can share music more easily, can discover music faster, and have improved music quality – all at a touch of a button. Glory Days baby.
And, let’s not forget one of the best parts of 2020 – Turntables and LPs have made a triumphant return! According to RIAA, Vinyl sales were $498 million in 2019. We must go all the way back to those glory days of 1988 to find a year in which Vinyl had more sales. Millennials have been the driving force behind this resurgence, buying turntables in RECORD numbers (love the pun?) and turning Urban Outfitters into a big seller of starter turntables. Millennials have fueled the interest in Record Store Day and brought the cool back into hanging out at used record stores on a Saturday afternoon. Why is this happening? I think it goes right back to the basics, it’s emotional. Pulling out a record, placing it on the platter, and listening to the album is a more personal, intimate connection with your favorite artist. Now, for the first time in their life, Millennials are experiencing the joy of listening to an entire album! Music goes beyond the three-and-a-half-minute single. Going back to Bruce, “Born to Run” is not a collection of singles – it is an album – a story – enjoy it from cover to cover and you will never be the same. We are even seeing millennials drive this trend to extend LPs from the home to pubs and bars across the world – Vinyl bars are now all the rage. I invite you to visit the Tokyo Record Bar in NYC with their glowing Mcintosh MT5 turntable and Sonus faber speaker, fantastic.
Now, I can hear you crying foul – how can he celebrate streaming and digital music and at the same time celebrate the venerable, old analog playback as well? Because there is a common thread. Both streaming and LPs are enablers for consumers to enjoy their music more. Become more in touch with their favorite artists. Discover who their favorite artists’ influencers were. I can discover new music on Tidal and then go to Discogs and order the album- they go hand in hand. This is now a prerequisite to get anyone interested in hi-end audio. First, you must care about music. Then, and only then, does the gear becomes important. As soon as you hear your favorite music on a hi-end audio system – bam – you get goosebumps and realize the amazing emotional benefit that comes with great hi-fi.
And, what is all this talk about Walkman’s, tapes, Pioneer car audio decks? This is not hi-fi! This is not the “glory years” of hi-fi that the industry has been reminiscing about. Back when the likes of Audio Research, Infinity, JBL, Klipsch, Krell, Linn, Magnapan, Marantz, Mark Levinson, McIntosh, NAD, Rega, Snell, Thorns, Tannoy, VPI, Wilson, etc. (sorry to those omitted, too many brands to mention!) were young(er) brands with dynamic engineering leaders. Back when CES was about hi-end audio not autonomous cars, mobile phones, and drones. No, you’re correct. My youth was not about hi-fi. It was about building my love affair with music. The emotion. My perspective is different. I could never afford the hi-fi gear in the 80s because I was too young, and, I really didn’t know it existed at the time. But, fast forward 30 years and here I am, deep into hi-end audio professionally and personally.
My house has been graced by Infinity, JBL, Harman/Kardon, Bowers & Wilkins, Arcam, Mark Levinson, Revel, Pro-Ject, Sonus faber, and McIntosh. I fell in love with hi-fi because I loved music. It all started with the emotion, memories of listening to music with friends on mediocre audio gear – still fun and emotional and carries the same vivid memories all these years later. And, then the big bang hit – I got exposed to hi-end audio post-college in my 20s. Thank you, Neal House, Roger Shively, Mike Burke, Ron Czapla, Dr. Floyd Tool, Dr. Sean Olive, and all the other early influencers that brought me into this wonderful, wild world.
And, that is the punch line. The Hi-Fi industry has found Glory Days in 2020 because we have more young people consuming music than ever before. They are getting exposed to music, discovering unknown artists – both young and old. Building playlists. Sharing. Posting. #Tagging. They are building their emotions – their memories – their musical connections that will last forever. They are living in their Glory Days with their artists – Billy Eilish, Lizzo, Khalid – and thankfully, some are discovering Bruce as well! With more people consuming more music, we have a huge potential market of future hi-end audio consumers. This is exciting!
So, what do we need to do to convert those young, passionate, music lovers into high-end audio consumers? It is simple. Give them a jaw-dropping demonstration of a hi-end audio system that brings goosebumps, tears, fist-pumping – some amazing emotional connection that they have never experienced from music. That’s it. That is all we need to do to have the 2020s be the Glory Days of Hi-end audio. If you don’t believe me, stop by the World of McIntosh townhouse in Soho, NYC. Ask for Josh. And, in 30 minutes he’s got you. You’ve got goosebumps. You’re now a high-end audio consumer. Glory Days.
1. How have your brands responded to the changing demographics of the high-end audio industry?
Our brands deliver the value proposition that made them strong in the first place, which I would argue is what makes brands great– consistently delivering a strong and everlasting message and mission, no matter the change in industry demographics. McIntosh will always be powerful, clean, reliable, and made-in-America with an iconic look. Sonus faber will always be about the most natural sound and natural materials made by Italian craftsmen with reverence to the woodworking and stringed instruments of the Veneto region. Audio Research will always be about the continuous pursuit of the absolute highest quality audio reproduction possible by refining every last detail in the product – made by hand in the USA. It is true, that the brands may develop new products to satisfy a wider range of needs for consumers, like McIntosh’s MTI100 Integrated Turntable or Sonus faber’s Palladio line of custom installation speakers. Or, they may bring new technologies and innovations to market to satisfy consumers’ desires – such as the Audio Research REF160M and REF160S with their switchable Pentode/Triode modes, proprietary auto-bias circuits, and innovative Ghostmeter®. However, each of these new products must first and foremost remain true to the brand DNA.
2. With the lack of shows this year, how are you announcing new products with the current COVID-19 situation?
Our most important priority is to ensure that all of our employees, colleagues, dealers, and customers are safe and healthy. All our companies are adhering to the wellness recommendations set by our nation’s leaders, including stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Over the past month, we have increased the use of virtual meetings and accelerated our launch of virtual training for our dealer partners and distributors. The team has done a great job adapting to the new constraints and I believe everyone is having a bit of fun along the way as we are pushed to do things that we have never done. Currently, our marketing efforts have been focused on the social aspects of music and entertainment. With people shut-in at home, it is a great time to re-discover lost artists and albums. We believe it’s important to help our community reconnect and bond with music. Music can be great therapy for stressful times and is proven to help us focus while we are working from home. With this in mind, we are not focusing on sales, purposely holding on advertising, and marketing of new products as this is not a priority for us right now. For the time being, we will be leveraging our social media platforms, our website, virtual training, e-mails, and our strong PR engine managed by Nike Communications to keep our community engaged and informed about new items.
3. Are there non-McIntosh Group audio products out there that interest you as an enthusiast?
Of course! One of the benefits of being able to attend many hi-end audio shows around the world is that I have the opportunity to experience many wonderful products. And, usually, there is never enough time to get a proper experience, leaving me wanting for more. I owned a used pair of the original JBL-L100 so I am very curious to hear what the guys in Northridge, CA have done to revive the new JBL L-100 Classic. Likewise, I still have a pair of Revel Performa F208 speakers in my house, so I’d like to hear the new F328Be with their Beryllium tweeters and enhanced tuning. And, I’ve heard a lot about the new Wilson Chronosonic XVX so I’d like to get some time with those as well.
4. What would your “desert island” (with a power outlet) Hi-Fi system consist of?
Ok, so this is a ‘fantasy question’? I would want Bruce Springsteen and the entire E-street band (with Clarence); Pink Floyd (before the breakup), Led Zeppelin, AC/DC (with Bon Scott), U2, Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Miles Davis, and countless others… Since this is a fantasy, I want the artists to perform live. No recordings and no gear. For me, it’s about the emotions and experience – everything else we do is just a means to that end.
Jeff Poggi is the Co-CEO of The McIntosh Group. From his position, Jeff oversees the operations of Audio Research, Sonus faber, and Sumiko. With previous stints at HARMAN International and the Bose Corporation, Jeff has over 20 years of experience in various areas of the audio industry.