The RIAA has released their midyear report, and for the first time since the 1980s, vinyl sales have surpassed CD sales. This news comes with no surprise as vinyl sales outpaced download sales back in 2017. In honor of the occasion, I connected with McIntosh Labs President and CEO Charlie Randall to get his perspective on the turntable side of hifi, how McIntosh connects with consumers, and how the Dead can inspire us all.
Interview by Nan Pincus
Nan Pincus: Vinyl sales have outpaced the sales of CDs for the first time in over thirty years, largely driven by millennial consumers. A lot of people ask why millennials and gen Z buy records, but that’s not something I wonder, because I’ve been combing through vinyl at thrift stores since I was in high school, and everyone I know in their 20s owns a turntable.
So I’m going to ask a different question: why do you think older generations are surprised that young people buy records?
Charlie Randall: I think it’s natural for any generation to think that the technology of their time will be replaced by future technology and go extinct. In large part I think that’s the case except with vinyl records. There is something romantic about records, something satisfying about opening the album jacket, seeing the fantastic artwork and studying the liner notes while listening to the album. That’s something that today’s digital files just can’t replace.
Nan Pincus: While the interest and engagement with turntables is high amongst young people, hi-fi can still be intimidating because of the set-up, cost, and the need to understand the technology enough to choose between not just products, but totally different types of systems. How does McIntosh try to educate the consumer?
Charlie Randall: We do extensive dealer training so that all of our dealers are well versed in McIntosh technology and can explain it to the consumer. In normal years that training would consist of 3-5 McMasters training sessions at our factory in Binghamton, NY, along with many trainings directly at the dealer. This has obviously been different this year and we are looking to implement virtual trainings until we can resume in-person trainings.
Nan Pincus: The MT1100 has an amp and preamp integrated into the turntable. Does McIntosh develop these types of products to help newer audiophiles get into the hobby or for another reason?
Charlie Randall: It’s designed for those who want maximum flexibility in their home audio system but don’t want or don’t have the space for a large audio system. We like to call it a modern home audio system for modern lifestyles. It could be for those new to the industry and looking for better sound, or those with strict space limitations but who still want the best sound they can get.
Nan Pincus: How does your engineering background inform your decision-making as President of McIntosh Labs?
Charlie Randall: It gives me a unique point of view to both the business side of what the market wants as well as the engineering side of what’s possible. Someone without the engineering background may be able to say a new product needs to do X, Y and Z but they wouldn’t know how to make it do any of that – or even if it’s possible. I can weigh in from both the business side and engineering side and help our engineering team make design decisions that are both technically sound and that make sense in the market.
Nan Pincus: Which McIntosh product are you the most excited about currently?
Charlie Randall: All of them! Seriously though, I’m excited about our just announced MC830 solid state amplifier and C8 vacuum tube preamp. They both have a lot of retro design features and are meant to be used together to build a system. And we still have a lot planned for the rest of the year so stay tuned!
Nan Pincus: McIntosh made the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. Would McIntosh be willing to do an audio architecture project of that scale in the future?
Charlie Randall: We actually did a few years ago called Despacio. It was designed in collaboration with LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy, renowned audio engineer John Klett, and our UK distributor Jordan Acoustics. It uses almost 40 McIntosh amplifiers to deliver nearly 50,000 Watts of power to 7 custom speakers set up in an ‘in-the-round’ configuration. James and his friends David and Stephen Dewaele of Soulwax play vinyl records for hours and hours in a kind of throwback disco party vibe. Despacio has toured extensively at European music festivals and has also been part of some US festivals.
Nan Pincus: The Grateful Dead is an example of a business model that didn’t rely on selling music but of developing passion and knowledge amongst enthusiasts. They encouraged bootlegged recordings of their concerts to be made and distributed, but by doing so they didn’t lose money or brand control, but rather built and supported their dedicated following.
How can hi-fi manufacturers use the Dead ethos to empower their enthusiasts to exchange knowledge about and excitement for the product?
Charlie Randall: For McIntosh, our products have such durability and high value retention that there’s a large used marketplace. So while some customers may not be able to acquire our new products yet, they can acquire older McIntosh products for the time being. This keeps them connected to the brand and maintains their affinity for it. Then when circumstances permit, they can sell their older products for a very good price – sometimes more than what they paid for it – and put that towards our current models.
Nan Pincus: Thank you so much for your time. Final question: What’s the next record you’ll put on?
Charlie Randall: There’s too many good choices. I can’t decide!
About the Interviewer, Nan Pincus
Nan is a graduate of The University of North Carolina and Duke University. She writes about audio culture and analog technology of all kinds. She DJs FM radio, operates ham radio, and got her first job in high school to save up for a belt-drive turntable. She works in classical music and theatre, but she often puts down her work to drop the needle on Scriabin’s Preludes and dream in technicolor.