synergy_audio_aaav14_1

Synergy, Cambridge Audio bring affordability to AAAV ’14

With a total of seven systems each seeing randomly-timed turns in the William Pitt room of the Intercontinental Rialto, the Synergy Audio room was warm. Really warm. Each time I stopped by it was pretty much full to capacity, thus giving lie to claims that this year’s Australian Audio and AV Show was a bust.

Perhaps such consistent traffic was the result of a similar number of attendees as 2013 (unconfirmed) chasing fewer exhibitors? Or perhaps Synergy’s show stomping could be attributed to their roster of brands. For starters they marshal Fine Sounds’ product line down under. That means Wadia, Audio Research, Sonus Faber and McIntosh, all of which are draw cards for the aspirational buyer. They’re not cheap but their collective reputation nearly always precedes them.

I couldn’t get near the McIntosh and Sonus Faber system until my third attempt during Sunday lunchtime, at which point room host Philip Sawyer graciously let me spin a cut from a vinyl copy of the new Caribou album (Our Love) snatched from JB Hifi not half an hour earlier. Few attendees could likely afford this system but it’s represents a taste of what’s possible from much longer green. Not only do you require suitcases of cash for the hardware itself but also living quarters with a room to do the whole shebang proper justice (which may or may not entail serious room treatment).

To its left a visually stunning Rega rig, a brand best known for its turntables and – to a lesser extent – electronics; although, their DAC and Brio-R integrated made serious waves at the entry-level not that long ago. Odd then that the newer, full-width Elicit-R integrated has registered barely a blip outside of the UK. Perhaps this is all a function of price? The lower the entry fee the keener the interest? Such logic might not be water tight but it’s certainly compelling.

synergy_audio_aaav14_2

And yet, frustratingly there was very little affordable hifi on show in Melbourne. Ditto RMAF and New York Audio Show (also a Chester Group event). It’s common to hear pre-show talk from promoters promising appeal to a broader demographic and a determination to attract the next generation of audiophiles but of the three shows I attended last month, not one succeeded in this regard. The vast majority of attendees were white, middle-class males over 40. The vast majority of gear was anything but entry-level/affordable.

And we have to ask WHY?

I think it comes down to the nebulous interpretation of affordable. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. One might classify a $10K rig ‘affordable’. That $3K is ‘entry-level’. But put yourselves in the shoes of the average twenty-something graduate, only a few years into his or her first career and saddled with university debt. For these guys, even a grand is an enormous pile of money. Affordable for them is probably sub-$500, more likely sub-$300.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen non-audiophile pals recoil in horror at paying $400 for a pair of headphones or $700 for loudspeakers; a reaction that’s far from atypical among the 99.9% of the population who don’t have an amplifier and loudspeakers in their lounge room and who perhaps listen to music through a Bluetooth speaker and the earbuds that shipped with their smartphone.

Representation of two-channel systems that’ll run you less than even $2000 at shows are as rare as hen’s teeth; an issue that warrants discussion in a separate post.

Synergy Audio rank as one of my AAAV ’14 highlights because they weren’t just pandering to the soft bellies of high-end purchasers. They appeared to be just as serious about affordable systems from Cambridge Audio (CA). With CA products now being sold in Myer and the like, it’s easy to see why CA apparently constitutes fifty percent of Synergy’s annual balance sheet.

synergy_audio_aaav14_3

Cambridge Audio’s Gregg Chopper at AAAV ’14

For the 2014 Melbourne show, Daniel Poulton (International Sales Manager) and Gregg Chopper (Director of International Sales) flew in from Cambridge Audio HQ to assist with demos and background chit chat.

Poulton tells me there’s less of a reliance on domestic (Richer Sounds) outlets now that Cambridge Audio is selling ever-increasing numbers to overseas markets. 60% of CA’s annual revenue is now derived from domestic sales, 40% from exports.

Whilst Julian Richer still maintains a 51% stakehold in the company his sole operational input is rumoured to be an annual meet-and-greet at CA’s offices.

Stepping away from the heat and sound of the Synergy room and into the hallway, I took fifteen minutes to chat with Chopper about CA’s business strategies. After all, here was a brand on which I cut my audiophile teeth during the early nineties — with a hundred quid or so to drop on an integrated amplifier, Richer Sounds was one this fella’s go to destination for maximizing bang for buck.

Subtle shifts in branding see CA more closely aligning their image with Britain’s potent musical heritage – note the Union Jack’s fresh presence on posters and packaging. This ain’t no facade: two of their software guys and the head of HR play in the company’s house band. Chopper tells me on more than occasion that he’s resolutely NOT an audiophile.

3-2-1-you’re-back-in-the-room. On top of shelving dedicated to Cambridge Audio’s entry-level offerings the G2 mini Bluetooth loudspeaker sat on static display. Hotel room listening aside, it’s not really my bag but we all have to start somewhere.

On the shelf below something a little more interesting: the One, an (err) all-in-one unit that sees Wolfson WM8728 D/A conversion and Class A/B amplification powered by an substantial toroidal transformer – no switching power here. That means juice aplenty for the Mini XL standmounts, which derive their technological smarts from Mordant Short — a brand acquired by Cambridge in order to develop their own range of loudspeakers.

synergy_audio_aaav14_4

On specs alone the One could rival the PS Audio Sprout. CA has included an all-important toslink digital input whilst opting for CD playback over phono staging. Both Sprout and One commit ~30wpc into 8 Ohms and both do Bluetooth streaming. I took the latter for a spin with an offline WiMP-d copy of Robyn Hitchcock’s cover the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” on my Samsung Galaxy S5 (“DarkoDroid”). With each of the more luxurious systems hushed the One powering Cambridge’s Minx XL combo held its own.

Check out the Cambridge Audio slick but informative web page about the One here. http://www.cambridgeaudio.com/products/hifi-and-home-cinema/one

At AU$899 for the entire package CA are moving I the right direction to minimise the wince factor amongst the 99.9%. Synergy deserves equally voluminous applause for treating this system as seriously as the higher end CA rigs in the diametrically opposite corner.

Chopper was keen to point out Cambridge’s long-term business stance: that if you can get ‘em in at the ground floor in their twenties then these customers are more likely to return in their thirties for higher end products as a greater percentage of their income becomes disposable. With three thousand ‘One’ units sold since the product’s May launch there exists proof in that pudding.

And we need more systems like this to attract younger folks to shows. Profit margins might not be as a great as the more deluxe gear but having proper budget offerings that sell for well below $1k serves the long-term health of the industry at large.

Further information: Synergy Audio | Cambridge Audio


Financial interests: DAR is funded by the banner advertising you see around you. Advertising revenue pays for the time taken to conduct the review but never the editorial commentary contained therein. Writers published in these pages are guaranteed to have no direct (or indirect) financial affiliation with any hi-fi or audio equipment manufacturer/retailer other than those specifically disclosed. Please consider supporting the companies who keep the DAR cogs turning.

Comments
  1. Angelo

    Many issues to canvas here including having stores remain accessible to all ages and affordability……. I remember selling a person a note taker when that was his only reason to venture into our store…… Over the following years as sales people we remained accessible to him and after numerous visits he ended up with Duntech princesses and associated equipment…….. So I can’t comment now on the viability of such a store model in today’s market. As a starting point if the specialist store isn’t getting significant new people visiting ultimately it is doomed………. I will stop here no point preaching to the converted…….

  2. Rob D.

    Again, I have to agree with you, John. The affordability claim by many manufacturers is just a silly attempt on creating a marketing magnet for people who do not know any better. Most of the time, they claim that an equipment in the $1,000 to $3,000 range is “affordable”. Affordable to whom? To, maybe, 50-60% of declared audiophiles, but certainly not to a member of a working class, or even to a fresh university graduate. So, as it is always the case, the greed prevents manufacturers from getting a wider/deeper exposure. And I’m talking ONLY about a crucial equipment, like amps and speakers – I don’t even mention cables and power conditioners.

    More and more companies in the audio industry think that they are the next Apple and that they have everything figured out in order to make a killing in the market. They don’t realize how absurd that notion is. While Apple worked for decades to achieve their current status, at times balancing at the edge of bankruptcy, pouring countless millions of dollars into ALL aspects of research, development, manufacturing, marketing and support, companies such as Devialet, Wilson, Burmester, etc., make their products only for the richest – with prices that have little to do with reality. While Apple makes their cutting edge technology more and more affordable, audio industry keeps bumping their prices up without any justification (with some rare and precious exceptions).

    In my experience, stretching for about 25 years, the bulk of most affordable (and reliable, at the same time) mid-range and hi-end audio comes from Canada. Then, US and Europe. That’s why I always consider Canadian products first (and I am a US citizen).

    • John H. Darko
      John H. Darko

      I’m not sure it’s greed that puts pricing where it is and I’ve certainly got no issue with manufacturers bringing products to market in the $1K – $3K price bracket. My concern is that unless the industry propagates a message that a sound starter hifi setup can be had for $300 then interest from the 99.9% will slowly dissolve.

      The other issue here is show organisers claiming to pitch at a younger demographic. Unless we see $300 systems in show rooms, they too will forever be preaching to the choir.

  3. H. Diaz

    Sadly, entry level gear $ for most average folks are the likes of Onkyo, Denon, Yamaha, Pioneer, etc all readily available at your nearby big box supermarket or electronics store. Maybe, just maybe, this entry level will lead to the next level $$$, and beyond $$$$$. Maybe not.

    • John H. Darko
      John H. Darko

      I don’t think it matters who makes it as much as seeing it represented at audio shows.

  4. W. A. Souza

    Been in and around consumer audio business since 1976 and have worked in consumer marketing and management consulting since 1982. Personally, I consider myself a quasi- audiophile (want good equipment that conveys sound and emotion and a sense of reality but all in service of music) and have been willing to gradually spend up to $10-15K US for my system, some of it in the secondary market since I like vintage McIntosh and Marantz equipment, but also new for the likes of CA, Moon, Creek, Spendor, Rega. Only got back into audio actively in the last 7 years. In that time, I have been fascinated to see that most quality audio manufacturers dont seem to do much in the way of consumer research. Or, stated more directly, they dont seem to talk to their customers directly about what they want today or aspirationally, what they are willing to pay for it, how it fits into their lifestyle, and what features matter to them. Nor do they seem to spend much time otherwise observing them in a way that would answer some of those questions? Research seems more to be something along the lines of “ask a couple of our young engineers what we should develop” or “what do your kids/grandkids do for music”? Marketing strategies seem to be for most companies what consultants call “follower strategies”, i.e. copy some company that seems to know whats going on. That mimics the same strategies used for years by US auto companies to their detriment as they were never or rarely first to market and usually did not execute as successfully as the Japanese, Germans or Koreans. I have done some of the kind of research I reference in support of a potential startup focused on the 20-30 year old music lover/potential hifi buyer. The feedback was interesting as it shows that a few of the more aggressive hifi companies (CA, NAD, Marantz) have some understanding of the consumer’s mindset or have guessed well. But, they dont seem to have some key points. Among them. First, provide me a product that I can buy that is around the same price as a good pc/laptop. The pc industry, essentially Apple for many users, has defined the cost of “quality entry level electronics” i.e. $1000-1500. If you can, make it modular or easily, cheaply upgradeable so I can build upon it over time. Make it easy to use with my PC, smartphone, tablet…(Bluetooth, etc). Make it as nice looking as my Apple laptop…especially important to women who are a key part of the market. Make it easy to buy and dont make me feel like a dunce when I go into a store…very similar to the auto industry which for years looked down on female buyers. From what I see with many of the young people (20-30) whom I work with on projects music is important to them. Quality is important to many although they may not know what quality is, i.e. they have not been exposed to both BEATS and Sennheiser headphones. BUT, when a good portion of them are, they recognize and respond to the exposure. I have seen this directly in the form of them asking me to suggest systems and equipment, to be directed to where they could learn for themselves and even to being asked what I thought of some of their purchases of 70s receivers and other equipment (for some reason they see this as the golden age and are looking for how to capture a piece of it. I actually think that Marantz has an opportunity if they ever offered a Limited Edition run of a semi-retro 22xx receiver with 70s looks and 201x features, inputs etc). I dont think audio has to die off with the dinosaurs like my peers but manufacturers need to use more modern methods to get a handle on what their consumer prospects want.