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The high-end audio scene is ever resilient and in the face of global economic cramps possessed, apparently, of rather unexpected regenerative powers if the latest crop of new company launches is any indication. When Joachim Gerhard left Audio Physic, he launched Sonics. That goes a few years back. More recent is Dan d'Agostino's reappearance as d'Agostino Inc. after leaving Krell; and Wolfgang Meletzky's departure at MBL leading to Music Culture.

But it doesn't merely seem scenarios of don't fire the boss or you'll create your own worst competition. Or does it? Gato Audio's lineup of principals reads like a who's who of numerous Nordic designers who previously worked for what since became the competition. HighEmotion Audio is Nearfield Acoustics reborn while looking nothing like the Pipedreams but everything like Linaeum.

There also are the seemingly endless launches of new boutique rather than corporate outfits. Arcadian Audio in Greece recently joined the ranks of horn-loaded single-driver speaker makers.

Dynamique Audio out of the UK covers a broad spectrum of, yes, more cables. This handful of mentions only counts what I became aware of over the last few weeks.

I've already forgotten five other cable companies or more which solicited us in the months prior and which I'd never crossed paths with before.

Did someone forget to tell these folks that our sector is shrinking? Are not many mainstay key players facing uncertain futures and present hardships? What then leads to this proliferation enthusiasm of new companies joining the high-end audio circus come what may? I'm frankly fresh out of rational rationales. It's an old question. Why do clearly successful individuals—successful in other disciplines and endeavours I mean—migrate to become hifi entrepreneurs? Even marginal due upfront diligence ought to have any accountant and banker say no, that's not a viable business proposition that'll see a fair return on investment anytime soon. If ever. To make a small fortune in audio, start with a very big one. That's the usual mantra.

Alas, with most of the above companies, it's not rosy-eyed newcomers. It's battle-scarred industry veterans. Does hope then simply spring eternal? Or were they unusually successful to want more? Were their careers prematurely cut short? Is it ego to now show up the other guys just left behind (voluntarily or not) to form a new venture? Or a surplus of bona fide revolutionary designs that haven't yet been made manifest to mandate a second or third tenure? Is it an addiction? Or is it a retirement way of creatively enjoying the sunset years rather than baking to a lobster on some Spanish beach?

Be that as it may, I'm constantly surprised. For those launches I learn of, there will be many more I miss. How many more companies can the global audiophile customer base support? How much more old wine in new bottles can we swallow? Not that I'm complaining. My particular job relies on a never-ending parade of newsworthy items to report on and review. I'm simply amazed that so often it's about folks who—rationally—ought to know better. If that's what it really is about. Cold reason. I think not.

Take a man I very much respect - Jim Smith, formerly with Magnepan and Audio Research, then owner of high-end store Audition in Birmingham Alabama, then highly visible importer for Avantgarde Acoustics, Audiopax and Zanden. After withdrawing from this level of hifi participation by working as behind-the-scenes marketing consultant and author of the Get Better Sound bible for a few years, Jim recently remounted the importer's saddle. The smart money would bet on some high-value groundbreaking technical invention likely connected to streaming media. Wouldn't it? Instead Jim banked on a $60.000 fully balanced push/pull 300B amplifier from Sweden's Engstrom & Engstrom company called The Lars2. These types of surprises just keep coming. Rather than trying to understand them, I should resign myself to just report on them. That seems a whole lot easier and less confusing. So there. 'nuff said.

Except that it reads a bit snarky when it isn't meant. At the end of the day, with all the very real mundane considerations of mammon and viability that have to be crossed off (everyone's gotta eat), it really must be about passion first and foremost. Mustn't it? What else is left - that professional audio types simply don't know how to do anything else so they're forced to plow these fields until the very end? Whatever it really is from individual to individual—addiction, stubbornness, destiny, passion—I'm glad to be working in a field that attracts this strange mix of governing qualities most of which would seem quite unreasonable and more rooted in creative artistic areas than those of crass commerce. Hey, I just answered my own question in a way I feel good about. I better stop while the sun still shines...
Postscript: A few days after publication, Jim Smith sent me this email which as one involved man's answer to my question seems perfect to amend here:


Hi Srajan,
I read your Oct. 2010 New Crops (circles?) column with great interest. It interested me especially because you raised some points that I have thought deeply about – points that go to the heart of why I—and apparently not a few others—have gone back to the high-end audio well for another drink. Of course I can’t answer for the others but since your column provoked me to consider the 'why' aspect yet again, I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts. I suspect that they might be similar for other 'veterans' as well.  Of course, I'd love to hear their viewpoints.

First, the last thing I was considering was another distributing gig. Wasn’t on my radar. For one thing, I tend to want to do everything myself—not too good at the delegating bit—as definitely a hands-on guy. So, if I have a line that’s broader, it will require a staff and other requirements that I tend to think of as necessary but no fun. So a statement-level effort suits me better these days. And it needs to be a statement-level effort that brings something significant to the table, from my viewpoint, or I can’t get enthused. For me, successful sales and marketing is based on 85% enthusiasm. If I don’t get excited by a product, if its performance doesn’t provide a compelling experience, I just can’t sell it.

That said, your comment about the US $60.000 The Lars 2 amplifiers and streaming media were right on target. First, the streaming media. I’ve begun to discuss computer audio in recent Quarter Notes newsletters (they are a part of the Get Better Sound purchase). I plan on having more guest experts to write articles. It’s definitely the digital future – the spinning disc is dead. I already get far higher performance from my MacBook Pro, Pure Music and an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC than I—or anyone that’s heard it—have ever heard from any disc spinning system at any price. I do not claim that mine is the best. There may well be other solutions in this arena that are better, maybe much better. Even so, this initial foray into computer audio has opened my eyes and ears.

But it’s still too much of a moving target. Updates are coming monthly and sometimes weekly. That's all great. But I don’t see a single product or category that has staked out a statement-level position for the next year or two, let alone the foreseeable future. And this category should enjoy huge broad-based appeal. It’ll require a level of effort and organizational skill that I don’t possess at this stage in my life. I look forward to reaping the benefits from it, but I am more than content staying on the sidelines, occasionally making a suggestion here and there when asked, but mostly it’s a spectator sport.

Now, for products like The Lars 2, the story is documented elsewhere but I think that this amp has a new and unique contribution to make. There’s no doubt that it uses some tried-and-true technologies, but there are some new angles that set it apart in my opinion. It’s fun to use and it’s fun to talk about. And it doesn’t require a huge staff to bring it to market.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, several more companies (fortunately, all are in different categories) have asked me to take a look at distributing their products, or consulting with them about marketing. As long as the user experience is compelling and it’s a statement-level product – I’m thinking I might be interested. Who knew? I’m probably more surprised than anyone. The question is - what’s not to like? Compelling products, interesting people, limited market, hands-on, and working in my twin hobbies audio & marketing. Guess I’m not ready to retire yet. Too boring – and I suspect some other 'veterans' have similar viewpoints.

Thanks for the thought-provoking column – I had many more thoughts, but there’s not room or time to discuss them here. Best regards,
Jim Smith