A Lifestyle Redefined
Even folks who are not audiophiles know about McIntosh. Well, maybe not know about, but McIntosh’s cool-blue power meters are an image embedded into the subconscious of multitudes of Americans. Although when consumers hear McIntosh they think Apple, when they see those blue meters, they think audio. Images of McIntosh gear speckle American culture, whether in the movies Pillow Talk (1960), 9 ½ Weeks (1986), or As Good as it Gets (1997) or as the official amplification for the Grateful Dead’s (THE American rock band) notorious Wall of Sound, which utilized forty-eight 300 watt per channel MC2300s to power the bastion of speakers. While the iconic “McIntosh Blue” meters hold symbolic prevalence within the audiophile community as quality American hi-fi and within the American cultural landscape as an emblem of stereo equipment, McIntosh wishes to extend their reach into the non-audiophile market even further. Backed by the slogan “Live Your Music”, McIntosh promises vicarious existence through great sound: the emotions felt in the music through one’s McIntosh gear translates to a definition of one’s lifestyle.
Lifestyle brand. Let me say it again: Lifestyle brand. Did you just shudder a little? This term terrifies many audiophiles, because for many audiophiles, calling a hi-fi brand a “lifestyle brand” equals a focus on marketing rather than sound. Yet, on the eve of Thursday, October 6th, in a presentation to members of the hi-fi press at the Savant House in the SOHO district of New York City, McIntosh President Charlie Randall comforted us with the news that this would not be the path for McIntosh. Like a proud and nervous father sending his child off to college, Randall, hands clasped and head forward, spoke with a painful inflection about letting his baby go but was affirmed with confidence by the skills with which he raised his child: McIntosh would carry on its legacy of great sound. While detailing McIntosh’s repositioning efforts, Randall assured his company would maintain their focus by continuing to provide high quality hand-crafted gear built in the United States.
Following Randall’s presentation, event participants circulated between three McIntosh listening experiences, each examples of the revived lifestyle approach for McIntosh. Room 1, the bedroom system, featured the C2300 Tube Preamplifier, an MCD1100 receiving tunes via USB from a Mac Powerbook playing out of the XR 50 bookshelf speakers, all powered by an original 1961 MC275 power amplifier. The bedroom system combined luxury and relaxation: the listener sits in a plushy chair against the back wall facing the bed; speakers on each side of the bed; McIntosh amplification and sources at the foot; a leather backgammon set to the left; and a Hennessy V.S. Side Car in the listener’s right hand. Midrange resolution and detail on a Muddy Waters HDTracks download was chilling through this system. Waters’ attacks his fretboard with both insightful delicacy and gritty digs into the strings, which this system represented with great detail and a special layer of tube lusciousness. Room 2 presented home theater by McIntosh: a private concert in your home. Room 3 was the party room, drinks overflowing, people dancing, and McIntosh “SOHO II Audio System” providing the entertainment. Room 3 also featured the new stunning gold-plated Limited Edition 50th Anniversary MC275 power amplifier ($6500). The MC275 is being offered in a very limited quantity, just 275 in the United States. It features new design innovations from McIntosh including the High Speed Sentry Monitor, which automatically shuts off your amp should a tube wear out. The LE 50th MC275 will be available December 2011.
The three rooms in combination were built to represent the mindset of the new McIntosh customer: one of aspiration, indulgence, and expression. There is little mention of technology or specifications. Dialogue about the company and their gear is based on the question: how will McIntosh gear best fit into your lifestyle? Maybe the MXA60 Integrated Audio system is all you can fit in your tiny Manhattan studio? Or maybe you need some towering XR200 loudspeakers to fill out your living room and impress your guests? What is important to McIntosh is that you as a consumer understand that all of their gear will get you to the same place: a life enlivened by music.
To McIntosh, listening to music on their gear will define your existence. Beethoven? Imagine your life glorified, intense, and inspirational. Serious and moving. Maybe the Bedroom System 1 dream is the best for you. Thin Lizzy? Welcome to a world of rock’n’roll excess: electric excitement at all moments, enriched through the universal passion and energy of rock music. Sounds like Room 3 to me. McIntosh’s desire to integrate their gear into a fantasy lifestyle was replicated at an earlier event, a celebration of their partnership with rock’n’roll fashion designer John Varvatos. The Varvatos partnership, which includes McIntosh products in Varvatos stores nationwide, solidifies McIntosh’s approach: McIntosh is not just about gear, it is about taking you places through your music, whether it be a life of excess or one of reserve and honor.
Audiophile reservations about replacing an emphasis on gear to an emphasis on emotion or marketing message abound. What about engineering excellence? Flat frequency response? Better sound? Don’t customers care about those things? In the end, this is no way to position a product to appeal to a consumer base outside of audiophiles. Customers need a bigger concept to attach to the brands they purchase in order to better define themselves.
Other hi-fi companies do an effective job of positioning themselves as more than technology and/or sound. Some examples that come to mind are Totem with their advertisements featuring landscapes and flying speakers, Emotiva promising simplicity and efficiency accompanied by bare images of their powerful black boxes, or the king of them all, Apple, a company which sells self-expression and personality as their product.
Of course, the fear of a product being over-branded and under produced is a legitimate concern. If more money is spent on distribution, branding, advertising, and market research, then there are less funds for R&D, quality parts, and hiring top engineers, but conceptual development and raw creativity are priceless virtues. Yet, allocation of financial resources to marketing may be necessary if the brand wishes to reach a larger consumer base. How McIntosh plans on pushing their lifestyle approach through imagery and copy in their advertisement has yet to be seen. Partnerships with brands that represent similar values are a solid starting point, and McIntosh is interested in making more. The partnership with Varvatos is strong and emphasizes their target: high-net worth 30 plus individuals who love music, entertaining, and being social leaders. These are people who have the money to continue living a lifestyle of dreams and support it with their social activities. Not only that, but in order to satisfy their own lives, they want the music to reflect their own social and individual ambitions. If McIntosh can reach this target with their message, hopefully they can break into the market.
Creativity and conceptual development do not have to cost a thing if you already have the right people, but advertising to reach a larger target sure can. Over the next year, if McIntosh wishes to continue increasing their reach and inviting new consumers while still providing quality products, there will be trade-offs. McIntosh should find innovative ways to reach their target without blowing their R&D budget on advertising. One can only hope that they continue to push their “Live Your Music” concept to the envelope without affecting the quality of their products.
If promising fantasy, a company must develop a fantasy related to the benefits of the product for consumers to believe. People will always dream, and it is the job of a hi-fi system to make those dreams come true.