What do an Audio Research tube preamplifier, McIntosh’s latest A/V processor, and high-fashion headphones have in common? For one, they each represent a new product release, but more importantly they’re now all produced under the auspices of the Fine Sounds Group, the Italian holding company that in recent years has been steadily acquiring a collection of esteemed high-end audio brands: Audio Research Corporation, Sonus faber, McIntosh, Wadia, and Sumiko, among others.
On Thursday, November 19, Fine Sounds hosted a special event in NYC for select members of the hi-fi press and international distributors and marketers. The affair was held in a historic five-story townhouse on Lafayette Street in Soho near Nolita—prime downtown NYC real estate. Remodeled to the hilt and striking a perfect balance between industrial-style original details (such as exposed brick and pipes) and modern sumptuousness (such as an indoor swimming pool equipped with speakers and subs), the space screamed de luxe. As it turned out this taste of la dolce vita exemplified Fine Sounds’ new approach to selling high-end equipment, for in the midst of new product launches and technical and brand-related presentations the day’s most significant announcement was the birth of Fine Sounds’ World of McIntosh (WOM) Experience Centers—the first of which was the very townhouse in which the announcement was made. It seemed fitting that a hi-fi event was taking place in a circa 1890s building that once served as a power substation that provided current to nearby subway stations. Now the loft space was poised to power the sale of high-end audio gear.
The WOM concept is to tap into the broader luxury marketplace, extending the appeal of high-end audio beyond the usual audiophile demographic. Fine Sounds’ WOM centers will offer environments in which potential customers can experience the art of sound in a designer-home setting. (The NYC space has already been rented out for corporate events to Microsoft, Google, Vogue, and the Moschino Group, in an effort to introduce well-heeled consumers to the possibilities of high-end audio.) Other deluxe WOM digs are being planned for Berlin, Milan, Tokyo, etc.
“Lifestyle” has almost become a dirty word in some audiophile circles—and certainly within the old-guard high end. But embracing the notion of high-end audio equipment as de facto luxury goods might not be such a bad idea. While not exactly a groundbreaking approach (consider Bang & Olufson’s stores, for example), it may be time to usher older brands out of their predominantly man-cave domain and into the foreground of upscale, modern-day living rooms. Of course, high-end components should sound like high-end components, no matter what they look like or whom they are meant to appeal to. But if you’re paying top dollar (or euros or yen) for top-tier gear that you’re going to live with in your home, why shouldn’t it also look good and be a pleasure to use?
The risk of this approach, of course, is leaving an impression of style coming before substance. ARC and McIntosh are well-known, well-loved brands, virtually synonymous with the traditional high-end ethos. Can such marques stay as strong, authentic, and—more importantly—as technologically astute and great sounding with a reframed “lifestyle” sales approach?
Fine Sounds Group CEO Mauro Grange (previously CEO of Sonus faber) thinks they can. Addressing the audience of attendees as a friend might do—informally yet directly, conversationally, sans a PowerPoint deck—he spoke earnestly of wanting to maintain the integrity of these classic heritage brands and leveraging them to grow, while keeping their quality-based reputations intact. “We need to bring the fun, make audio sexy and cool.” Grange said. “How else can we bring new people along?”
Speaking of lifestyle products, one of the recent releases presented by WOM Chief Design Officer Livio Cucuzza (above photo, left) in NYC were fashion headphones made by Sonus faber under the Pryma brand. Handcrafted in Italy, decked out in fine Italian leather, and seriously designed to echo the shape of the ear, the Prymas are being marketed as unabashed luxury/fashion headphones. Featuring interchangeable headbands in a range of different colors and various metal finishes meant to appeal to both ladies and gents, these are no ordinary cans. At a price of $499 (that’s one or two Benjamins shy of Beats by Dr. Dre, mind you), they’re currently available online in the U.S. at pryma.com and are reportedly flying off the shelves in chic boutiques from Miami and Milan to Hong Kong and Paris (where they sold out in a week at Colette), and at other global retailers such as Barneys New York and Selfridges. For our readers, the tech side matters at least as much as (if not more than) the look. To that end, the Prymas sport a pair of 40mm dynamic drivers that feature Mylar diaphragms and neodymium magnets, plus an oversized voice coil made of 99.99% oxygen-free copper and a weight of about ¾ of a pound for comfort and easy portability. Impedance is 32 ohms at 1kHz, THD is 0.1% at a 90dB SPL, and frequency response extends from 10Hz to 25kHz with a 118dB sensitivity rating. Unfortunately, the Pryma headphones were only on static, albeit creative, display (see photo) at the World of McIntosh event in NYC, but with any luck I’ll be able to get my hands (and ears) on a review pair soon.
Another new product introduced and demo’d at the event was Audio Research Corporation’s Reference 6 linestage. This preamp represents a complete design overhaul of the References that preceded it. In fact, according to ARC CEO and Chief Technology Officer (and former TI guy) Michael Tsecouras, the only parts that haven’t changed are the feet. Mechanically and electrically, everything else has been reviewed, rethought, and updated through many iterations. Some of the notable design changes include new circuit boards, gold coupling capacitors, and a larger, more robust power transformer. In addition, six 6H30 tubes are now used in the linestage (as opposed to four in the Reference 5SE).
The company has also reevaluated and upgraded the ergonomic and user experiences—from the easy-to-read, vacuum fluorescent front-panel display and brushed, anodized aluminum chassis to the new stepped volume control knobs and refined handles. In his presentation, Tsecouras told the story of how, at the Munich High End Show, he went around to all the rooms doing a competitive audit of controls. He didn’t listen; he only wanted to feel the knobs. “I want everything about the [ARC] experience to be exceptional. We don’t want to rest on our laurels. We’re constantly raising the bar,” Tsecouras said. “Owning an ARC product should be a wonderful, rewarding experience from the time you take it out of the box to the moment when you begin to listen to music. A component should be almost like a favorite musical instrument, such as a piano—in the way it looks, sounds, and feels when you’re playing it.”
Attendees had the chance to listen to the new Reference 6 preamp in action paired with ARC’s GS150 driving Sonus faber Il Cremonese loudspeakers, with an Audio Research Reference CD9 compact disc player/DAC source. Companion products in the Reference 6 line are slated for debuts at CES 2016 and at the Munich show.
Also demo’d was the Sonus faber Venere S loudspeaker, which was launched at the end of August; at WOM it was driven by an Audio Research GS75 integrated amp with an ARC CD6 front end.
In the home-theater arena, the new McIntosh MX169 HT A/V processor was demonstrated with a various types of McIntosh speakers—seven on the floor, four on the back and side walls (ceiling and upfiring speakers), plus two subs—placed throughout a huge main room with a two-story ceiling. The heavily software-driven MX169 uses DTS for 3D sound and offers flexibility, but it’s a “designer piece” in the sense that it requires dealer expertise to set it up.
All told, with its high-style intentions, the WOM event may well have struck all the right luxurious chords—from the picture-window view into the pool’s depths to the lushly landscaped rooftop terrace, and even a promo poster for the classic Antonioni film Blow Up. The underlying message here, however, was less about how you approach high-end sound than about how you expose more people to it. After all, it was HP himself who once said that if more people could experience high-end audio, they would want it in their homes, too.