British hi-fi companies seek sanctuary at audio's new high end
19th Jul 2013 | 10:30
British brands have taken their audiophile expertise up-market
One of the most iconic brands in British hi-fi is in fighting mood. Cambridge-based Arcam says the time is right for British brands to reclaim the performance high ground in hi-fi and home cinema.
As Arcam begins shipping its new £4,000 AVR750 home cinema receiver, managing director Charlie Brennan told TechRadar: "What we've seen in the home theatre and hi-fi market over the past few years is a race to the bottom. Japanese brands are putting more and more spec into their boxes as they go down in price. Sure, it's amazing what they can offer for the money but audio performance is definitely suffering."
The mainstream audio market is now more about features than fidelity, says Brennan – "and we're not in the business of trying to create a bigger PDF than anyone else. We're no longer going to try and do everything, but we are going to do what we do better than anybody else…"
Arcam's epiphany is typical of what's been happening throughout the UK hi-fi scene. British brands have taken their audiophile expertise up-market. But rather than retreat from the tumultuous technology changes which have reshaped the music industry, they've embraced them.
Scottish specialist Linn Records made headlines in 2009 when it announced it was calling time on CD players, but what was then a shocking move now seems astutely prescient.
Rather than bemoan the state of the business, Linn ploughed £2m into the research and development of its digital music systems, and created an audiophile music download label.
Today, the vast majority of sales from its Studio Master catalogue are better-than-CD quality 24bit 192Khz files. The label also pioneered DRM-free downloads. Today Linn Records distributes for 32 different labels, recently inking a deal with Universal to offer hi-rez editions of albums from the Rolling Stones and Mumford & Sons. Managing director Gilad Tiefenbrun says the brand's long term philosophy has just been to "make it simple for people to get the most from their music at home."
Another UK hi-fi brand which followed suit and now leads the world in audiophile streaming music hardware is Salisbury-based Naim. Steve Hopkins, the brand's Customer Service Manager, likens their engineering approach to that of a Formula 1 team. "Someone has an idea, then we develop it - but the last and most important part of the process is all the tweaking. That's where you get the last drop of performance out of a product. When we perfect a design we religiously follow it."
Like Linn, Naim has found sanctuary away from the mainstream - it's latest trio of amplifiers, the Nait 5Si, Nait XS2 and SuperNait 2 sell for £925, £1595 and £2750 respectively - and the Naim Label download store offers a wealth of (admittedly esoteric) hi-rez music.
Long time industry commentator Rob Follis says the rapid adoption of new media by British brands is also changing the face of UK hi-fi stores. "They've brought those dealers locked into the sound of Naim and others into new media faster than they might have moved otherwise."
Follis notes: "What we can now get off a high res download is better than anything we've had before," which in turn is fuelling a boom in DACs, another area where UK hi-fi is excelling. It's a sector where rival Japanese and Korean brands have been notable only by their absence.
"I genuinely believe that the very best audio video systems can change lives for the better. When you get a system right it's fantastic!"
"I think people don't appreciate just how successful streaming hi-fi has become," says Simon Byles, owner of speciality music store Infidelity and UK hi-fi industry veteran.
"Today we sell between 6-10 media streamers for every CD player." He adds that there's "a plethora" of high performance hi-fi now being made in UK.
"In terms of streaming audio technology, the UK is responsible for more product than any other country. While many of these high-end brands do a lot of their business aboard, they also do a significant amount of business in the UK, selling to a cognoscenti of customers that have adopted new media."
It's ironic, he notes, how some of the oldest names in the business, such as Naim and Linn, now represent the cutting edge of high performance electronics. "Another one of the UK's most venerable manufacturers, (turntable specialist) Rega, is still one of our most popular," he reveals. "Rega has a wide range of turntables but they're also now successfully digital devices."
Perhaps the ultimate UK example of precision engineering and hi-fi vision is Chord Electronics. The brand creates audio hardware more reminiscent of fine art than traditional hi-fi. Hand-built to order in the company's Kent factory, Chord's casework is machined from aircraft-grade aluminium billet by local specialists.
Electronics UK sales manager Colin Pratt told Tech Radar that sidestepping the commodity music market makes a lot of sense. "No one wants to be involved in a bun-fight over lower-priced goods. At the high end people are prepared to spend money, but buyers have become increasingly sophisticated – they want to be futureproofed."
He believes the hi-fi of tomorrow isn't just about technology; it's about the user interface. "People are less tolerant of having to deal with different source components these days, so we need to make it easier.
Currently we're doing a lot of work looking at how to deliver high resolution DSD music files over Ethernet. The user can then have all their music on a hard drive; they don't have to pick and choose how they play it." While audiophiles are increasingly falling in love with DSD as a format, it can currently only be played from a local USB device or connected laptop.
That has to change, says Pratt. "Not too along ago, audiophiles would have three separate high-end players just to play SACD, DVD Audio and CDs. If you can wrap all that technology up into one source component then you're just offering better value. This is the kind of technology that will bring in new hi-fi customers."