The SF16 Experience
I thought I’d close out this recap with a tour of the mini “Experience Center” that the McIntosh Group set up for us in Sardinia.
The “venue” was actually a cabana, tucked into a corner of the Forte Village resort hosting their sales meeting. The cabana was nice — very tasteful, a little home-away-from-home, and the crew had it set up to entertain — and to show off their newest “lifestyle” product, the SF16 from Sonus Faber.
The SF16, which we saw the day before, is an astonishing little piece of kit. Priced at around $8k or so, the system includes a pair of 2″ midrange drivers and tweeters mounted on “stalks” that can extend or retract at the touch of a button. The main “housing” encloses the bass driver, the 1,400 watts of tri-amping amplification, the DSP system, as well as all of the Play-Fi and control circuitry. The SF16 stands on a very hefty platform (with a small down-firing “ambience” light), and the stalks smoothly extend out (there are two stops, apparently) at about a 30°-or-so angle from the base cabinet.
The design of the cabinet is worth more than a few moments to linger on. First, there’s the shaped wood enclosure. It’s done in a matte finish, which is very fine to the touch. And that’s good, because it’s going to get touched. It’s also not squared off — yes, the corners are all gently eased, and there’s this fine metal tracery following the wood, but what I mean is that there isn’t a paralleled surface anywhere. The top is longer than the bottom, so the “face” slopes in and down. The top, bottom, and sides, are all curved. It’s complicated. Looking at it, you’re forced to just look at it. Your eye is just drawn to all the little features — like the carbon-fiber inlay on the off-set stalks. Like the matte finish of the metal. The shape of the stalk, the shape of the speaker on the stalk (it’s pointy!), the grain of the wood. Little visual tickles are everywhere. It really is an extremely fine piece of audio jewelry.
I’m not quite convinced that I could actually use an SF16, and I honestly have no idea where I’d want to put one. And I’ve really thought about it. A lot. It really isn’t meant for me, I suppose — this is far more lifestyle than I need or want — but I still want one. I’m sure I can figure out something.
The sound quality was extremely hard to judge (it was crowded, and the room was just stuffed), so I won’t bother. I will say that it is able to play clearly and loudly — there was one unit set up on the patio overlooking the pool, and another in the dining room; they were synched via Play-Fi, and they both filled their spaces pretty effortlessly. Anything more than that will have to wait for some more concentrated one-on-one time, if that’s ever possible.
In the meantime, I’m dreaming about it.
Life and style
But let me zoom in on that bit about lifestyle.
The McIntosh Group has made quite a bit of to-do about lifestyle, and taken some serious steps to rescuing that term — and then taking it forward. Not too long ago, “lifestyle audio” was more about “being seen and not heard” — and that one notion has done more harm to the idea of quality sound than any one other. That’s how we got mini-spheres-on-stalks from Bose or B&O, and quite frankly, the industry as a whole has yet to recover from this catastrophically bad idea.
The McIntosh group, by contrast, has a different approach. Instead of audio fitting you, why don’t you try you, fitting into audio. “Pshaw”, you say. “Never happen,” you say. “No one would do that,” you say. You would be wrong, but in all fairness, you’d be wrong in a rather cliched way, so perhaps that’s understandable.
Instead of imagining your home invaded by alien mushrooms with a War Of The Worlds chic, try thinking about Ethan Allen. That is, don’t start with you. Start with something sharp, something smart, something comprehensive. Start with a whole new world — one you can step into. And if you like, you could take part of that home with you.
The idea is hardly new. High-end furniture sales have done this for pretty much forever. As I mentioned, Ethan Allen and others — like Crate and Barrel on one end, but Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, even REI, and many more stores — aren’t selling products so much as they’re attempting to sell you on a life. “This could be you,” they’re saying. Come in, try it out ….
This is the future of high-end audio sales.
To wit, the McIntosh Group now has a World of McIntosh townhouse all tricked out in Manhattan that a very lucky few can visit. Over the next year, McIntosh will open several more — in Los Angeles, Paris, Milan, Berlin, and Hong Kong. In these venues, the well-heeled — or simply, the upwardly mobile — can come (or be taken) to a world not their own, one where music is built-in. Where a wall of McIntosh electronics is just part of the decor. Where lovely Sonus Faber loudspeakers are “just” furniture. An entire livable home — with gorgeous and inter-related furniture, art, sound. A world of experience — similar to, but not, your own. But it could be … your new life, in style.
The Townhouse (as the McIntosh Group calls it) isn’t just a seller’s dreamhome showcase — it’s also a rentable venue, and it commands some seriously big-bucks for rentals — and yes, it’s rented out pretty much continuously. Said another way, the WoM Townhouse is a profit center for the company. Charity events, music launches, and more — and yes, apparently you can even schedule a visit. Assuming I’m lucky, I’ll have more to report on that score soon.
But the point of the digression — this SF16 is like a tiny slice of the WoM Townhouse, ready for delivery.
But is it a “product”? That is, is it something that the McIntosh Groups sees as a serious gap that needs to be addressed? If so, what is the niche, exactly? I love the look, love the functionality — heck, I love the idea — but it’s hard to see this toy as a general purpose engine of market dominance. It’s far more interesting than that, but it’s also got a rather limited appeal. Sure, there will only be 200 made per year — they’re hard and expensive to make, but that’s not the point. Sonus Faber is deliberately restricting production. They will be made exclusively in Italy and made exclusive by hand. After all, that’s part of the story, part of the mystique. But it’s artificial — they can make just as many of these as they want. They just don’t want. What they want is to make 200 per year. And that’s it. You want one? I do! Well, we’re both going to have to wait — the first year’s run was sold out by the end of the sales meeting. Boom. Gone. That’s $1.6M, folks. McIntosh Group sold $1.6M of product in less than 4 days.
A Trip to Sardinia
Which brings me to the trip to Sardinia.
Back in days of old, tech companies used to bring their sales teams out to some central location for brainwashing and boondoggling. That is, training and recognition. Okay, so that’s still the SOP for most tech companies — I’ve worked for a couple of very large Silicon Valley tech giants, and that’s how they did (and still do) it. You grab everyone, bring them somewhere, tell about what’s new, recognize past successes, tell everyone how we’re all gonna succeed in the next year, and then send ’em home with bellies full and maybe their wallets stuffed with bonus cash.
It’s actually more cost-effective than an executive roadshow — with a Global Sales Meeting, the “back office” teams of execs and techs only need to go one place, one time, instead of many places across the course of the year, which hopefully translates as more time focusing on making new stuff, doing new deals, and generally pushing the company forward. With a GSM, inside and outside sales team — along with the distributors and reselling channel partners — all can get to get together, put faces on names, shake hands, laugh and drink and eat and share and goof off. Don’t get me wrong, however, that’s not all they’re doing — there’s also a lot of working going on. This is sales, and in sales, the work never ends. So yes, these men and women are clearly here for a little bit of well-deserved fun and sun, but that all happens around the time they’re working to get themselves educated and up to speed on the latest tech, the latest pitch, and the latest solution-set, and that’s in addition to also getting their quotas reviewed, attempting to work a renegotiation, or maybe hammer out a new deal or unkink an old one, &c. And then, when it’s all over, they then go right back to work on Monday selling the snot out of the products, and hopefully, they’re still full of smiles and chuckles. Which they usually are. Even with the work and pressure, sales meetings are a hoot, and the whole shebang really is a quite clever hand-in-glove corporate two-fer.
But that’s for high-tech. GSMs seem to be alien in high-end audio, even large companies like the McIntosh Group — even if that first-run of the SF16 might have paid for a huge portion of the excursion.
In high-end audio, we don’t really hear about a high-end audio company actually investing — and investing heavily — in their distributors and resellers. Instead, we hear much more often about store closings. The McIntosh Group must have heard the same stories — but instead of going with the bean counters, and trimming fat to feed that mandate of ever-increasing shareholder value (pardon me while I throw up in my mouth a little bit), the McIntosh Group has deliberately and explicitly gone the other way. “This is my family,” Mauro Grange said in Sardinia. And looking around, that huge extended team having flown half-way ’round the world to join them on these beautiful Italian shores, I think they all believed it. Which is bananas. And awesome. And oh-so-welcome. I can only shake my head in wonder and wish them the best — in many ways, as the McIntosh Group goes, so go we all. Fingers crossed — and may we all go forward with this much style.
To Brandon Lauer of Audio Research, Buzz Goddard and Jeff Coates of Pro-Ject, Michael Fremer of AnalogPlanet, Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound, Matej Isak of Mono And Stereo, Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile, Alan Sircom of HiFi+, all those who I’ve thoughtlessly forgotten, as well as the entire team from the McIntosh Group, I offer a deep and heartfelt thanks for the hospitality, the kindness, the friendship and the generous opportunity to meet, learn and play in such spectacular fashion. Best wishes to all.