We venture into the World of Mcintosh
International expansion is the name of the game at Mcintosh Group, with a focus on high-end hi-fi
It has always been our mission on What Hi-fi? to keep things real-world and affordable, which is why we concentrate most of our reviews on products at the lower and middle part of the price spectrum.
Each month, we cover the high-end in our Temptation section, where price is not an issue. We appreciate most people won’t be able to afford those products but, like yearning for a Ferrari or Lamborghini, it’s nice to dream.
If you’re looking for a company that has made a splash for itself in high-end hi-fi in recent years, then World of Mcintosh is a good place to start.
Born out of the Fine Sounds Group, which bought Italian speaker specialist Sonus Faber in 2007, the companies that now come under the WOM umbrella read like a Who’s Who? of high-end hi-fi: Mcintosh, Audio Research, Sonus Faber, Wadia, Sumiko and most recently Pryma.
You can see the timeline of how the group came together in the panel on the left. Suffice to say that under the leadership of CEO Mauro Grange it has made a determined push to expand its portfolio, culminating in a management buyout with LBO France and Yarpa in 2014.
“We don’t want to change our DNA, but we do want to move forward,” says Grange. “In this journey we will never forget who we are.” That DNA is summed up as combining “history, craftsmanship and quality”.
Mcintosh Labs, which gives its name to the group as a whole, was founded in 1949 and Audio Research in 1970, so there’s plenty of heritage there. Sonus Faber was born in 1983 in Italy, while Wadia was formed more recently, in 1998, by a team of engineers from the 3M Corporation – and, like Mcintosh, is based in Binghamton, USA.
The latest addition to the portfolio is Pryma, a luxury headphone brand with sound by Sonus Faber, launched towards the end of last year.
It’s clear WOM is on an expansion drive and, more widespread economic challenges notwithstanding, the company is convinced the market for high-end hi-fi remains robust.
But it is not oblivious to changes in consumer behaviour, and the fact that for most people today their music is either streamed or stored on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. That led to the creation of the Pryma ‘lifestyle’ headphone range, and most recently the unveiling of the extraordinary-looking Sonus Faber SF16 all-in-one hi-res wireless music-streaming system. Even here though, the company drew on its heritage: the concept for the SF16 was derived from the famous Sonus Faber ‘snail’ speaker system from 1980. It’s a highly unusual design, and likely to remain rare, as only 200 will be handmade each year, selling for £9900 each.
“It was a huge challenge to develop this crazy idea, it was the tallest mountain to climb,” says Paolo Tezzon, head of R&D at Sonus Faber. “Initially I saw a large number of problems to solve. The real problem was to keep all the basic qualities of traditional hi-fi, but reduce the complexity of the product for the customer and make it a plug-and-play solution.” The result is the SF16.
Price is another area where the WOM brands do things differently: they are unashamedly expensive, luxury products and Audio Research’s recent release of a “more affordable” Foundation range of electronics, at just under £7000 each, gives a clear indication of where it sees its position in the hi-fi market. Given that AR’S Reference range runs from £12,000 up to £30,000, the term “more affordable” is relative here.
Mcintosh takes a similar approach: the forthcoming MVP901 Blu-ray player comes in at $5500 and its first phono preamp, the MP100, at $2000.
However, there are signs that WOM has its eye on products with real-world prices as well. New kid on the block Pryma unveiled its first range of headphones, with sound by Sonus Faber, last year with prices starting from £380.
“Pryma is a new brand, so the rules are different,” says Livio Cucuzza, who heads the WOM Design Lab.
“We are working in fashion, creating a luxury lifestyle product, it is something you wear. We need to build a new brand image, which is a big challenge for us.”
“By the end of 2016, sales of headphones globally will reach $30bn, and $70bn by 2022. We want to tap into that market,” adds Natascha Klein, VP of sales and marketing, lifestyle division.
Cucuzza and his team are also working on a range of Mcintosh lifestyle products, including headphones and smaller speakers. The Mcintosh RS1000, unveiled at CES 2016 and one of our Stars of CES, is a case in point: it is the company’s first small wireless speaker to feature DTS Play-fi technology, and can be used as part of a multi-room streaming system. A bigger version of the RS100 is on the cards too.
The adoption of DTS Play-fi is another sign of the times: Ron Cornelius, Mcintosh’s product manager, says the technology offers high-res streaming (up to 24-bit/192khz) that’s in keeping with the brand’s image.
Reaching new customers is about more than just new products, though. To that end, the firm has created its first World of Mcintosh flagship townhouse, in New York. More are planned in 2017, including one in London.
It doesn’t stop there. It has also built its first World of Mcintosh “experience centre” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and plans to roll out the concept elsewhere.
This is retailing at the high end, and a clear sign that WOM is selling a lifestyle as much as the technology it makes.
What’s next? Well, at a recent press launch there was a hint at new products to come from Wadia, but no specifics. There will be a new Foundation series power amp from Audio Research this autumn, followed by a Foundation stereo integrated amp in 2017. Whatever happens from here on, it’s clear the WOM group won’t be resting on its laurels.
“We don’t want to change our DNA, but we do want to move forward. In this journey we will never forget who we are”
The World of Mcintosh has kitted out a New York townhouse with its full range
Sonus Faber’s original ‘snail’ system (above) inspired the new SF16 (right) 4