Doug Henderson, President, B&W Group North America

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Doug Henderson, President, B&W Group North America

What ignited your passion for the high end? Did it come from the music or the electronics side?
Definitely from the music side. I discovered music in a big way when I was a pre-teen. I still remember the first 45rpm single I bought: Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” in 1972. Not a bad place to start. Even before that, a friend in the neighborhood had an older sister with a nice record collection—The Beatles, The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Cream, among other 1960s bands—and we spent a lot of time at his home listening, all on very inexpensive record players. But the music was magic and I was drawn in.

What was your first high-end system?
I managed to convince my parents to buy me an inexpensive stereo for Christmas in 1972, which is to say I failed to convince them to buy me an expensive one! I found a pair of Electrovoice coaxial drivers and built an enclosure for them. I replaced the stock speakers with the EVs and the improvement was huge. Working a part-time job, caddying at the local golf course, plus a paper route put enough money in my bank account to buy a used SAE preamp and amp combo and an armless Technics SL-1200 turntable to which I fitted a Mayware Formula IV tonearm and an ADC cartridge. I was building my own increasingly larger speakers but finally settled on a pair of AR-3a’s for their compact size and musicality. That is the system I took to college, along with about 300 LPs. How we got it into the family station wagon is beyond me. But I had the best stereo on my dorm room floor.

Why did your interest in audio develop into a career?
I went to the University of Virginia, and graduated with an English degree. I probably don’t need to say more, but my interest in music and stereo led to a job in a local Charlottesville retailer—the only job I could find. An early mentor, Ed Woodard, had taken a position as marketing director for Dahlquist speakers and fortuitously for me, a customer service job opened up. At Dahlquist, I had the opportunity to really learn about high-end audio from Jon Dahlquist, Carl Marchisotto, and even Saul Marantz, Jon’s first partner. As a speaker maker, Dahlquist was often loaned some great electronics—Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, and Levinson products among others passed through, and I was able to borrow them and listen at home. This is when I met Harry Pearson in Sea Cliff and listened to his big IRS system. Until then, I had never thought that audio could be a career. I was thrilled—and amazed—to discover it could be. This was a great time in the high-end (the term Harry coined) audio business. Later, I was a principal in a manufacturer’s rep firm and we sold many of the greatest high-end brands from the 1980s through the 2000s, where I got to know many of the heads of these companies personally, before I moved to the B&W Group in 2007.

What is the difference between hi-fi and high-end audio?
I’d like to think high-end audio is about the honest pursuit of a musical experience and not the chasing of some pleasing coloration or effect. Hi-fi can have the latter connotation.

What is the greatest misunderstanding about our industry?
I think many people assume that audiophiles are hearing things that don’t exist, or that you need special hearing acuity to appreciate. Everyone can distinguish between a low-fi system and a high-end system, and even between high-end systems of different quality levels. How much we value the improvement is personal, but everyone can hear it clearly.

Are you strictly digital or do you still enjoy analog?
I have a couple of thousand LPs, more CDs than that (I stopped counting long ago), Tidal and Rhapsody subscriptions, a NAS drive stuffed with 1000s of uncompressed recordings…I’m a music addict, safe to say.

What is the biggest challenge facing the high end? 
The same as it’s always been: a lack of awareness and appreciation. Thirty years ago, I listened to Harry Pearson rail about how if people only knew how great this experience is, they would want it. After a few years of progress, the tidal wave of flat-panel TVs pushed high-end audio to the margins, commercially speaking. The good news is that people never lost interest in music. I think it’s fair to say that a generation of consumers missed out on a great music system because retailers were finding business easier elsewhere. The LP renaissance didn’t start in audio dealers, although many have embraced it now. These trends move in waves, but high-end audio has lasting appeal simply because music has lasting appeal.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?
I’m pretty consumed by my job, because it is also my love and I know I’m very fortunate to be where I am. I enjoy listening to music and playing my guitars. I’ve gotten back into photography in a pretty big way and, of course, I enjoy spending time with my wife and two grown children.

What still inspires you about your work?
The thrill of hearing amazing music in the highly connected way that a great music system can deliver it: one to one, the music you need at the moment you need it; that, and all the great people who create and sustain these products in the market.