Read the first part of “Interview with Trent Suggs, Owner of Audio Research” here. All prices indicated in $US.
Do you think the audio industry is dying? I asked Trent.
“Oh, gosh, no,” he said. “If anything, there’s a giant resurgence.”
And I thought only the old baby boomers like me were still interested in hi-fi.
“You’re mostly right,” said Trent. “Typically, historically, our customer has been 60 plus years old, obviously financially successful, and that’s fine. But why should twenty- or thirty-year-olds with less money be prevented from owning an Audio Research product? The answer was that we had to create a product whose essential circuits would be assembled by hand, it would deliver the Audio Research sound, and it would retail in that $5,000 range. It’s still fairly expensive, but it had to have the hand-built quality of an Audio Research product. If we could capture that customer with good service, with build quality, with responsiveness, with great sound, why would the customer ever deviate and go with another brand as they move up in their professional career? If we don’t give them a reason to go anywhere else, they’re going to stay with us. When they turn 40, maybe they’ll get a Foundation series product, then later, when they’re more comfortable financially, they might upgrade to the Reference series.”
Hence, the introduction of the company’s I/50 integrated amplifier. What was the response to it so far?
“It’s been wildly successful, and I thank everyone in the world for being patient with us. We are consistently backordered at least 400 units. It’s a blessing and a curse. I think one of the reasons the l/50 is proving this successful is because although it may be less expensive than our other products, it has the Audio Research standards of quality. Our designer, Warren Gehl, has final say on the sonics of all our products. Nothing leaves the factory without his final approval.”
Does Warren work alone?
“There’s a big team,” said Trent. “We also have an apprentice working under Warren because Warren is getting a little older. His name is Evan Skucius and we’re fortunate to have him because he has extraordinary hearing. He’s been working for Warren for almost a year, so when Warren is ready to retire, we won’t miss a beat.
“In fact, our entire engineering department, which is about seven to eight people strong, has really good hearing. Dave Gordon’s hearing is wonderful. Brandon Lauer is a great listener and a great setup person. I have pretty good hearing, but I’ve surrounded myself with people better than me.
“The I/50 is a product that’s been necessary for Audio Research for a long time. In the early 2000s, we had a preamplifier in the $3,000 range. Well, it wasn’t profitable enough. So some European sellers kept increasing its price to where it became only aspirational. I thought, ‘let’s wrangle this back in.’
“Frankly, the I/50 should be priced higher than it is. We’re working hard to maintain that $5000 price point, even when shipping costs have increased by 30%, tubes are subject to a 35% import tax, and Homeland Security charges us a 25% embargo tax on every shipment that comes from outside the US, and which has to be paid within ten days. It’s unbelievable!
“The 50 series was an idea I came up with years ago. The first product in that series is the I/50, a 50Wpc integrated amp with optional phono stage. And the DAC card for that product should be available at the end of this summer. The DAC card will increase our sales. Not that we need to increase sales, but a DAC is certainly the way the younger generation listens to music. And, with the resurgence of vinyl, why not include a phono stage? The l/50 is a labor of love and by far one of the most difficult products to develop because we want it to be able to include a preamplifier, an amplifier, a phono stage, and a DAC in one box that we’re trying to keep under $6,000.
“We’re very excited about the l/50. We offer six different finishes because we’ve invested in our own paint lab and painter. If we didn’t, it would have been an inventory nightmare trying to figure out how many pieces of this or that color we would need to keep in stock to meet demand.
“Soon, we’ll add another product to the 50 series—the P/50, a preamplifier with an optional MM/MC phono stage that will be a bit more advanced than the l/50’s. Then will come the A/50, a 50Wpc amplifier that can output 100Wpc bridged. So, the idea is, a young customer starts out with an I/50. A few years later, he opts for separates and buys a P/50 and an A/50. Years later, he moves into a new home, where his listening room is bigger, so he buys bigger speakers. He buys a second A/50 and finds himself with one 100Wpc monoblock for the right speaker and one for the left. He now has 100Wpc monoblocks from Audio Research. The preliminary retail price for the P/50 will be between $4000 to $4500, and $4995 for the A/50. Do you see what I’m getting at? We’re getting back into affordable separates from Audio Research that will give similar performance to that of a LS28SE, or a Reference 6, or even a Reference Phono 10 or a Reference 10 preamp. As the customer moves up, the sonics improve as they should because price levels increase. So we’re very excited about that.
“When we discuss the development of a new product, it’s a blank page and we throw out ideas. If, during our design discussions, we determine that a feature is important to people, why not do it? The company motto is not why do it, but why not? Does the device have a DAC? Yes. DSP? Yes. Does it have Bluetooth? Yes. These are important features to people. If we can do it, let’s say yes. Let’s try to give people what they want. And this way of thinking has been very positive with our dealer distributor network and, obviously, with the end user, because now we’re opening up Audio Research to a much larger demographic.”
During my visit to High End Munich 2022, I was struck by how increasingly expensive demoed products had become. I wondered if, to some extent, this wasn’t a sign that the audio market was declining, and to compensate for lower sales, manufacturers were resorting to selling more extravagant products with higher profit margins. I asked Trent what he thought of this trend of making hi-fi products less and less accessible to people.
“There are a couple of problems in the industry,” he said. “One, there are simply too many brands now, and let’s be frank, very few are viable. I don’t want to downplay anyone, but this situation creates confusion for the consumer. If I want to buy a product and there are 1000 different choices, which one do I pick? But here’s the good news I see in the industry. When I attended Axpona 2022 in Chicago, I saw a much more diverse demographic than I’ve seen at any show since 2012. I saw couples, not just single men. I also saw a younger population—teenagers and people in their twenties. I think they understand, more than ever, what can be experienced with quality audio.”
Was the MP3-earbuds generation finally coming around?
“Absolutely! They’re abandoning crappy buds for better headphones and better electronics. I think the global lockdown from Covid-19 played an important role for our industry. It caused people to listen to music more at home, and couples to spend more time together. I learned how to cook with my wife. It sort of forced us to become better people, and better life companions. It’s why, I think, there were so many couples at Axpona. It was refreshing to see. And then there’s the younger population. We had a very nice room at Axpona with Quintessence Audio Video, with a very expensive setup. A young man visited every day to listen to music for about twenty minutes. Could this young man afford to buy this system? Likely not, but it made no difference. He got the bug. Now he’s in our industry. That’s why it’s so important for us as a manufacturer to build less expensive products—as gateway products.
“Every l/50 is auditioned before it ever ships,” Trent said. “Every repaired service unit has to go through Evan or Warren. If these two guys do not sign off on that product, it goes back to Quality Assurance (QA). They will tell them what they hear and how to fix this or effectively point them in the right direction. And then it goes back to QA and it might sit there for an hour or a week until it is absolutely perfect before they send it back to either Evan or Warren, because they know if it isn’t perfect, it’s just going to be declined again. So let’s do it right the first time. That sort of QA has been an intrinsic part of Audio Research culture. It’s what we’ve done for decades. Why would we deviate from something so effective?
“I would invite you, and anyone else, to come visit our factory to see how we operate. Everyone who tours the factory understands our philosophy better afterwards.
“I discovered something remarkable when I worked at Audio Research between 2015 and 2017. I’d never seen anything like it. And that’s the loyalty customers had to the brand. They didn’t deviate. Typically, a customer owned a Reference 5 preamp and as soon as the 5 SE came out, they’d go to that model, and then the Reference 6 would come out, and they’d go to that model. And I thought, ‘The company must be doing something right!’. It’s one of the reasons I was so passionate about the brand, and why, with the l/50, I wanted to capture that love of the brand earlier in people’s lives.”
Read Part 3 here.