Paragon Audio: Bringing the High End to an Audiophile Desert

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Paragon Audio: Bringing the High End to an Audiophile Desert

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA. Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem like it’d be a tough place to start a high-end audio dealership. After all, the population is far better off than most, so the prices for which our industry is notorious aren’t nearly as high a barrier. Other luxury goods—from Porches to Pateks—do very well here. And while the Saudis have grown accustomed to extremely high levels of product quality and service, high-end manufacturers are hardly unfamiliar with a demanding clientele.

And yet the high end’s presence in this promising land has been virtually non-existent. There have been a few fits and starts, but nothing took hold. So what’s the problem? As it turns out, the Saudi market is unique in unexpected ways. If the high end is going to flourish here, it will have to adapt to Saudi Arabia. Yet that won’t be enough. A converse process must also take place: Saudi Arabia will have to adapt to the high end. Until now, no one has the made the investment in either of these prerequisites for success. But that is changing.

Prince Abdullah, one of the country’s most forward thinkers, is on a mission to bring high-end audio to his country—and to bring his country to high-end audio. For the past three years, Abdullah, who shuns being called “Prince,” has focused on the first step. During that period, he has built and populated an audio showroom in Jeddah, the Kingdom’s most modern city, that would be the envy of the industry no matter where it was located. The result, appropriately, is called Paragon.

Imagine an architecturally stunning space consisting of four huge, well-isolated listening areas, plus an equally spacious main gallery showing off smaller systems and personal audio products. Now picture these rooms filled not merely with mid-range components but with the flagships from brands such as dCS, Magico, Rockport, Dan D’Agostino, and Crystal Cable. (See sidebar: “Paragon: Room by Room”) Every listening area is comfortably furnished, painted a serene, non-distracting dove grey, and adorned with carefully-considered, fully-configurable acoustic treatments.

This was Abdullah’s original vision and now, three years hence, it’s complete. Yet building out the physical space, lining up the manufacturers, and getting all this gear through Saudi Arabia’s exacting customs process—all lengthy and complicated tasks—was only the beginning. Abdullah wanted the rooms set up perfectly, the store run professionally, and the sales staff trained thoroughly. Because post-sales support is crucial in the Saudi market, and since shipping equipment roundtrip to manufacturers for repairs won’t be a speedy process, Abdullah foresaw the need for a service loaner program—just like the one Mercedes dealers offer. Knowing that he didn’t personally possess the time or skills to make all that happen, he brought in reinforcements.

The first step was a consulting agreement with Roy Gregory, who may be familiar to TAS readers from his reviews in this and many another audio journal. Danni Rosa, Abdullah’s partner in multiple businesses and a Paragon co-founder, met Roy in Munich and subsequently asked him to create a set of recommendations for transitioning the store from a partially-complete concept—a large space stocked with countless boxes of costly gear—to a fully functional enterprise. Roy’s first recommendation was to bring on board two experienced hands.

Enter Stirling Trayle, formerly of Sumiko and currently running his own company that provides set-up services to consumers and show exhibitors. Stirling was contracted to do what he does best: to put each listening space through a pre-defined, rigorous, and repeatable set-up process. Stirling was also tasked with indoctrinating the sales staff in his set-up methodology. That way, they can replicate it at customers’ homes.

Running the whole operation on a day-to-day basis is Chris Tuck. A veteran of the industry, Chris’ thirty-year career spans both brick-and-mortar and online retail, as well as a long stint with KEF. When offered the position, Chris was all in. He moved from England to take over managing Paragon.

Over the past six months, this team has labored mightily to realize Abdullah’s vision. By mid-March, Paragon was ready for its debut. To mark the occasion, Abdullah invited twenty-five guests—all of whom were in some way related to the royal family, and all of whom could afford any system in the place—to an evening of live music, upscale hors d’oeuvres, “mocktails” (remember: the entire country is dry), and listening to audio systems. Just two members of the international audio press, myself and George Chung of Hong Kong’s Audio Technique, were on hand to witness the event.

In most of the world, a dealer event like this might start off with the least expensive system on offer and move up from there; a sort of progressive listening party. And so it was at the Paragon reception—with one big difference. When I arrived just prior to the official guests, I was surprised to learn that the evening would begin with everyone listening to something that was decidedly not for sale: a Bose Wave system. I asked Danni why, and he explained that when it comes to audio, this is what the Saudis are accustomed to. Playing the Bose unit was, he elucidated, necessary to establish a familiar baseline for the audience.

This was my first inkling into how very different the Saudi market is. The assembled group, clearly no strangers to luxury, had never even heard of—let alone actually heard—high-end audio. The event, I realized, was not to expose guests to particular audio systems. Rather, the object was to introduce them to the entirely new and unfamiliar concept that music can sound a whole lot better than it does through a Bose.

In the main room, rows of chairs were arranged as they would be in any room at CES, RMAF, or Munich. Everyone faced forward as the narrator described what the audience was about to hear—the distinction being that here they were focused on a Bose. (I’d insert a photo at this point, but the Saudis are extremely private and no photography was allowed.) After the opening remarks, the little player sputtered and squawked its way through Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” The audience members nodded their heads approvingly in recognition of the familiar Bose sound. I, too, nodded my head, though rather less approvingly, in recognition of the familiar Bose sound. Boy, I thought, are these folks in for a treat! 

Off they went to the first of the rooms they would visit. There, in what is called Room 3, a pair of enormous Rockport Arakis speakers towered over the seated listeners. The glowing meters on the Dan D’Agostino electronics generated a veritable field of stars. This session was reserved exclusively for official guests, but even from outside the room I could hear the Dire Straits track being delivered not only with a whole new set of highs and lows, but with a whole new set of instruments. 

After listening to several more tracks, the group ambled to Room 4, which is dominated by the rare Magico Ultimate horns, then finally to Room 1, with its more modestly-sized Crystal Cable/Siltech system. At that point, the press and manufacturer reps were invited to join the guests to answer any questions they might have. Anywhere else, there would have been a flood of such questions. However, on this occasion the audience was mute. That being the case, Chris and company thanked the guests for coming, and the ensemble began to disperse.

As the crowd thinned I sought out Danni, who had spoken with many of the attendees on their way out. My first question was why no one had taken the opportunity to query the manufacturers. He explained that the reticence had been due to a fear of embarrassment by asking a question that might be considered stupid. I then asked Danni what the general reaction to the evening had been. I expected him to tell me the group had been overwhelmingly impressed. Instead, he related that the response was a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. Yes, the attendees thought the sound was amazing and like nothing they’d ever heard. But at the same time, they didn’t know quite what to make of audio systems so imposing and expensive.

I found this reaction so unexpected and foreign to my own sensibilities that I had to come up with an analogy to wrap my head around it. What if, I posited, I lived in a place where the only automobile was a VW Jetta. I owned one and was happy with it because it got me from A to B. As far as I knew, this was the definition of “car.” Then, what if someone invited me to come check out a Rolls-Royce. Naturally, I’d be bowled over. But after the shock of learning that such a vehicle existed, and despite being duly impressed, I’m sure I’d wonder, “Do people really buy such things?”

At that point, the magnitude of the challenge Abdullah has taken upon himself hit me full force. He has, to the best of his ability—and leveraging his intimate knowledge of the market—built a high-end audio dealer and distributor tailor-made for the Saudi market. Now, he must inculcate and win that market over to high-end audio.

Fortunately, Abdullah is well aware of this and takes the challenge seriously. (See the accompanying interview.) The March event was a carefully considered opening foray. The guests were selected not only because of their pedigree, but also because of their roles as tastemakers. The Saudi populace is among the world’s most ardent users of social media. If all goes well, the attendees will take to Facebook, Twitter, et al, and write about their experience. That will generate buzz, and that buzz will generate wider curiosity.

In a way, Abdullah faces many of the same challenges that audio dealers face the world over. All are striving to expose a broader audience to the glory of music well reproduced. All are seeking the best ways to do that within their respective and distinctive markets. Paragon’s market has inherent advantages for a push into high-end audio, but its challenges in the universal such areas of exposure and education are particularly extreme. If Paragon can succeed under those circumstances, it augers well for the industry at large.

As I winged out of Saudi Arabia, I found myself thinking not about the showroom or the event, but about Abdullah. He is an unpretentious, warm, and gracious man who from all appearances cares deeply about everyone he knows. He has invested a fortune in this enterprise, and has put himself personally on the line. All this due to his passion for music and good sound, and a searing desire to share the glory that they bring. Among the countless feelings conjured by this fascinating and exotic journey, more than anything else I found myself fervently wishing him success.