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Paragon Audio: Bringing the High End to an Audiophile Desert

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.

 

Sidebar: A Glimpse of Saudi Arabia
When you travel to a truly foreign land, sometimes it’s the little things that take you aback. In Saudi Arabia, the big things, of course, are the dress—women sheathed in black from head to toe, men often similarly robed in white—the unintelligible spoken word and inscrutable written characters, the arid climate, and the desert backdrop wherever you go. These are constant elements. But little things pop up at unexpected moments. Such as when visiting a fast-food joint in a shopping mall.

I had made it a point to eat at the number-one-rated (per TripAdvisor) food purveyor in the entire country: Al Baik, a fried chicken chain that turned out to be extremely yummy. During my visit to an outlet in the mall attached to my hotel, I noticed a “Ladies Only” ordering line; a reminder that the mingling of men and women is carefully controlled in the Kingdom. (A further reminder was the “Family Only” areas of the mall itself.) There was also an electric sign letting Al Baik’s patrons know when they could expect their order to be ready—to two decimals of precision. The sign informed me that I’d be enjoying my chicken in 8.19 minutes.

That was actually my second attempt to eat at Al Baik. On my first try, I was greeted by lines outside a locked door. Why, I wondered, would people be waiting if the place was closed? Soon I learned that I had arrived at one of the five daily prayer breaks, during which most businesses shut down for about forty-five minutes while the bulk of workers and patrons pray. At shopping centers, right below the signs directing shoppers to restrooms, there are signs pointing to enormous prayer rooms.

Another abnormality for Westerners is surely the lack of alcohol. One knows this intellectually when traveling to Saudi Arabia, but being in the midst of it is another story. It took me quite some time to stop looking for the wine menu at restaurants. When I first arrived at my hotel room, I was delighted to be greeted with a chilled bottle of “Champagne,” which turned out to be sparkling grape juice. The room service menu offered a selection of beer—all non-alcoholic. Night clubs serve “mocktails,” which can be quite intricate but never spirited. Eventually you get used to it.    

The streets are different, too. While being driven by my hosts from the hotel to Paragon, I noticed that the broad, immaculate boulevards had no disruptive stop-lights or unsightly overpasses. So how does one make a left turn? Every 1000 meters or so there’s a U-turn lane. You simply start going the other direction, then turn right. The system has some drawbacks—the U-turn lanes can get backed up in peak periods—but it nonetheless struck me as quite ingenious.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Saudi people. As it turns out, they were incredibly friendly. There is no such thing as foreign tourism in Saudi Arabia; the country doesn’t even offer tourist visas. Consequently, my presence was something of a curiosity to the average man on the street. Yet rather than being cautious, everyone I met was open and warm in an unforced way. Gabi Rijnveld of Crystal Cable, who has visited the country many times now, tells me that with each trip she develops a deeper fondness for the place and its people. Despite its strangeness, I could definitely see Saudi Arabia having that effect on me.

Paragon: Room by Room
Entry Gallery: When you first walk into Paragon, you find yourself in an open area so expansive you wonder if it’s the entire store. That impression is furthered by the fact that from here you can’t see any other rooms. This space houses one full system—during my visit it was anchored by KEF Blades—multiple desktop options (none of them Bose), and a swath of top-notch portable gear from Astell&Kern, Ultrasone, and others. As it turns out, the entry gallery is just the tip of the iceberg.


Room 1. This room is long enough that it can house two completely separate systems, one on each end. During my visit, the end intended for more compact systems, such as entry-level gear from Naim, Arcam, and KEF, has been cleared and given over to seating for the grand opening event. The other end contains a system composed almost entirely of Crystal Cable and Siltech product. Crystal provides the Arabesque speakers and, of course, the wiring, while Siltech’s beguiling SAGA supplies amplification. The source is a dCS Rossini. This system is notable in that the wiring from source to speakers—including the interconnects, speaker wire, and even the SAGA and Arabesque internal wiring—is all exactly the same monocrystal cable.

Given this consistency, plus the engineered-in synergies between the Crystal and Siltech gear, it’s not surprising that the sound is unusually congruous. In keeping with the trademark SAGA sound, the presentation is absolutely ravishing, with effortlessly impressive transparency. This is an exquisite system that’s more personal in scale than those of the next rooms.

Room 2. I didn’t spend much time here as this room is still a work in progress. The components—Wilson Sashas, Soulution electronics, dCS source—are in place, but Stirling is still dialing in the setup. There are many variables, since both the position of the speakers and the acoustic treatments are movable. Still, even in its sub-optimal state, the room shows great promise, with the Wilsons strutting their pinpoint imaging and the Soulutions pumping out dynamic, extended sound. 


Room 3. Here is where we get into the big stuff, both physically and monetarily. The speakers are Rockport’s hulking Arakis. These transducers, which literally require a crane to assemble, each need four channels of amplification. That’s currently being provided by a pair of Dan D’Agostino stereo power amps. Still, the Rockports could use even more power, so plans are afoot to replace the stereo amps with a bank of monoblocks. The CD player is made by Origine, a company with which I’m not familiar but that earns raves from the Paragon staff.

Despite the price differential, Room 3 doesn’t strike me as categorically “better” than Room 1. Both are exceptional at conveying music the way only a top-notch system can. That said, Room 3 is a major step up in terms of sheer scale. It’s capable of producing a cavernous soundstage that extends forever in all directions, including height. The Arakis conjure core-of-the-earth bass solidity and extension. This room inspired me to play as many tracks as time permitted, just to hear how they sound on such a consummate rig.


Room 4. After Room 3 I wasn’t sure how much more bespoke an audio system could get. But Room 4 is meant to be the ultimate, which is why it is anchored by the rare and imposing Magico Ultimate horns. Behind these were a dCS Vivaldi, eight channels of Avantgarde Acoustic electronics, and what must be half the world’s supply of Crystal’s esoteric, extravagantly expensive Absolute Dream cables. If you’re keeping track, you’ve already calculated that this system costs well over a million dollars.

All of these components had been in place and wired for only three days when I arrived. Given the complexity of the Ultimates and their DSP-based active crossover, the multitude of setting options on the Vivaldi, and many other moving parts, it would take far longer than that to reach a fully-tuned state. However, the Paragon staff had some support in the form of Magico’s own Alon Wolf, who helped dial in the system. He did so without ever leaving his California office. Rather, Stirling and Roy had the system generate pink noise, which was picked up by a purpose-built mic, digitized, and transmitted to Alon over the Internet for analysis. Alon then used a software tool to arrive at optimal settings for the Ultimate’s crossover.


Unfortunately, when I heard the system the Ultimates were hampered by a glitch in the crossover—perhaps the result of a power spike—that effectively shut down bass response. Despite this impediment, I could still hear that the system is amazingly clean, tight, and fast. The noise floor is uncannily low. Horns are often chastised for being colored, but the Ultimates make it clear that an all-out, take-no-prisoners horn design can be even less colored than even the very best dynamic loudspeakers.

Fortunately, as I later learned, the crossover (and everything else) had been working perfectly during the grand opening demonstration. And the problem was diagnosed and corrected shortly after my visit. At some point, I’ll just have to go back to hear Room 4 as it is meant to sound.             


 

An Interview with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdullah
Before heading back to the U.S., I had an opportunity to sit down with Prince Abdullah in Paragon’s Room 1. He was generous with his time and candid with his thoughts. Normally, a picture would accompany an interview like this but Abdullah prefers not to be photographed. So just envision a tall, slim man in his early-30’s sporting a close-cropped beard.

How did all this get started?
I’ve loved music from a very young age. All kinds of music, from electronic dance music to new age to hip-hop to R&B. I never focus on one genre; if it appeals to me, that’s all I care about. In the mid-90s, I began writing and playing simple compositions. People asked, “Who’s that?” That’s when I decided to start recording what I was writing. So I built a small studio. Over the years I was constantly upgrading the pro audio gear in my studio, and every time I did I heard the difference. That’s how I discovered how much playback gear could affect the musical experience. So, in a way, this all stemmed from my interest in pro audio. 

How did that experience translate to home audio?
The transition began with a home theater project. I was trying to get service in my home from a U.S. company called Prima Cinema, which streams new films in studio quality. When I spoke with them, they said they wanted me not only as a customer but also as an investor and as their dealer in Jeddah. I was interested, and I knew if I was going to do that I would need a suitable sound system for demos and distribution. I wondered if the pro audio company ATC, whose gear I had in my studio, made a 5.1 or 7.1 system. They did, but they already had distribution in the region. Danni met with the distributor, who encouraged him to go to the Munich show to see the bigger picture. I went with him and that’s where I saw, for the first time, the full world of audio. I thought, why don’t we take this even further than home theater? People just have to experience what I’m experiencing here. It evolved from there.

Did you have any doubts along the way?
Not really. It’s an untapped market, so the probability of success is unknown. But I’ve always been very optimistic by nature. Plus, I had a strong gut feeling.

Wait, you did all this on a gut feeling?
You need to remember my passion for music and for what’s possible in the listening experience. I wanted to share that. I did ask many other people their thoughts. Without exception, all my friends and associates encouraged me to go ahead.

And now here we are in this extraordinary new store. Moving forward, are there challenges you face that are specific to the Saudi market?
Well, money isn’t normally an issue here, but the global financial situation may affect us. Some local economists and banks have advised their clients not to indulge in luxury products for the time being. It’s hard to know the actual effect this will have on the market because it’s a rare situation. There’s no telling how people will react to this advice. But as I said, I am a very positive person. Hopefully, it will be the same as in the U.S., where the economic downturn didn’t hurt luxury products. The other main challenge is education and awareness of what sound equipment is capable of delivering. Once people are aware of quality sound, everything else becomes easy.

How do you plan to create this awareness?
The first step is to build a professional team, which we’ve done. Another key will be social media. To generate buzz and raise awareness, we sponsored one of the showcases at the Emmys. We plan many events in the Kingdom. They won’t even necessarily be at the store, but they’ll be representative of the Paragon vision. All these activities are meant to teach people what a sound system can be. The next part will be to make the community comfortable with the prices; to show them that it’s worth spending the money if it’s a whole different experience. To me, it’s worth the challenge.

Why no analog?
We’ll get there. Right now, we’re just starting to expose and educate the market. That’s a big enough task even when the only source is digital. Later, we’ll introduce turntables. But you have to walk before you run.  

Besides the sonic quality of the music, are there other elements you consider part and parcel of the Paragon experience?
The environmental experience is very important. I believe that in order to achieve a goal, you can’t neglect other key factors, or they’ll detract from the focus. The environment is a contributing factor. I’ve tried to create a complementary surrounding, serene enough that you can experience sound in the best way. For some reason, grey and black is what I found most suitable to our identity. It’s elegant and solid, and it appeals to men, who are the dominant buyers here. Another element is to offer the highest level of professionalism and deliverance. Danni and I can’t ensure that, so those next steps can’t be taken without Chris, Roy, and Stirling.

Let’s say Paragon is a huge success. What then? Do you have longer-term plans?
If Paragon, as a company, remains as it is and meets my goals, then I am satisfied. Of course, expansion is something I would look forward to. The more I can expand, the more awareness I can bring. And the better we do here, the wider the expansion. If everything is done right, we can even expand beyond Saudi Arabia. But it has to be done the right way. As long as you can find and hire enough of the right people, then you can expand safely. I won’t expand if I can’t find the right people. I won’t open an inferior branch.

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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