Re-Tales #31: Tektonics Design Group, a Continuing Education

Probably the biggest group of audiophiles right now are still "Boomers": members of the "Baby Boom" generation, which by most definitions puts their minimum age at close to 60. Boomers are aging and won't be around forever. So bringing new blood into the hobby is more important than ever.

Younger people (post-Boomer generations) listen to a ton of music—but are they really listening? Are they paying close attention, or, as the cliché goes, is it, for them, all background music? Generational clichés are rarely accurate. Of course they actually listen. Enough of them are, anyway. And they hear more; their hearing is better.

There are differences, though, for sure. Many of them listen to headphones, often very good ones. When not listening on headphones, they're likely to be listening in their main living area, not in a dedicated listening room. I'm generalizing, but many seek hi-fi that's pleasant to live with, that fits their aesthetic sensibility. They choose artisan products made from natural materials, like wood, with warmth and nice textures. It's a better fit for their spaces and lifestyles than utilitarian, pro-inspired gear.

It is, again, a generalization: Every generation has diverse tastes. That artisan sensibility, though, is Christopher Hildebrand's sweet spot. Hildebrand—whose age, 48, puts him solidly in Generation X—has for 20 years owned Tektonics Design Group. Its main facility is a 20,000ft2 machine shop in the Manchester area of Richmond, Virginia. Tektonics does OEM work and manufactures equipment branded Fern & Roby, which Hildebrand launched nine years ago. (The Fern & Roby Montrose turntable, pictured above, costs $8500 including tonearm.) Fern & Roby is also the name of his dealership, with an e-commerce site, a listening room, and soon a dedicated retail space in the factory.

Few of Hildebrand's customers think of themselves as audiophiles. "They're people who love music and design, and they want a great system," he told me in a recent interview: About 90% of Fern & Roby's inquiries, he estimates, come from people without much hi-fi experience. Hildebrand's own early hi-fi experiences have helped inform his approach to sales, selecting the equipment he sells, and educating customers. He calls his approach "high-touch."

Hildebrand recalled how opaque audiophilia and its technology seemed when he was new to the hobby. "I was seeing a lot of contradictory information out there.

I wasn't going to go dive into forums. I wanted to connect with one or two people directly to learn about what works well with what. You can waste a lot of time and money getting it wrong while you're on your own."

Too many dealers—and manufacturers—take it for granted that prospective customers are well-informed. Sometimes they are. But dealers should avoid making new customers feel foolish or awkward for not being among the cognoscenti. Customer education is important. So is dealer education: asking the right questions about the customer's wants and needs and listening to the answers. Hildebrand wants to meet customers "where they are" in their hi-fi journey.

Fern & Roby has always had an analog focus, so Hildebrand searched out other brands to fill out his retail offerings; he wanted to be able to offer complete systems. At first he felt unsure about selling products he didn't make, but he quickly realized it made sense: "When we said 'we're a dealer,' it was empowering. If I was stuck on making everything, I think it would limit what we could provide our clientele."

In deciding which digital sources to sell, he again looked to his own hi-fi experiences. He'd built his own NUC from a kit; it wasn't a good experience. "It was really hard—not mechanically but from an IT standpoint. It was always crashing. It was frustrating. I didn't want to become a client's IT person." He considered not just sonics but also user-friendliness: "With digital, it's a hidden gap people don't talk a lot about when you're selling to people who want to enjoy their music and not necessarily become IT people." He ended up selling the Weiss Engineering DAC501 DAC/streamer (footnote 1) and the Roon Nucleus.

The other products Fern & Roby sells fit within their analog-focused ecosystem. He's been selling Schröder tonearms as upgrades for his Fern & Roby 'tables from the very beginning. He carries equipment by ModWright Instruments, AudioQuest, Black Cat Cable, and Soundsmith. Sometimes he collaborates with the companies whose products he sells: He designed a chassis for Linear Tube Audio, for example.

The website sells equipment, but mainly it's where customers can research his products before they make contact. Most call before buying. Hours at the factory dealership are by appointment, for now anyway. That's partly because Fern & Roby exists within the factory space he operates, and he wants to be able to give customers proper attention. Also, many of his customers are out of state, some international. If people drop by, he can make time for them. While most of his customers never visit the Fern & Roby dealership, most do talk to him on the phone first.

Hildebrand is in the process of building out a new retail showroom so that he can display more systems and accessories. He plans to sell records, too. He hopes the new showroom will be finished by the summer. Once it opens, he's hoping to host events, maybe with musicians: "We're trying to educate the public about music and manufacturing." Customers within visiting distance can schedule tours of the shop, to see how their products are made.

"We're selling an experience. We're helping [customers] craft a system. You have more control over that—and it's a lot of fun.

Footnote 1: Stereophile's review of the similar but more-fully-featured Weiss DAC502 can be found here.—Ed.

Glotz's picture

I love Hildebrand's approach. Getting folks excited for music in general is the key. I am seeing free local events provide new interest for neophytes to get involved. I do think Boomers scare off a few of them, though it's a generalization.

Looking at Qobuz's Top Releases / Still Trending tabs, or even within Acoustic Sounds' Best Sellers, it's largely canted to old classics everyone owns and provides little inspiration for generations below Gen X to get inspired about our hobby. I feel this disconnects new converts to hifi.

If there would be more ways to to have hybrid events for vinyl lovers, for both audiophiles and record collectors, I think the two can coexist and inspire each other in their own ways; one with deeper knowledge of hifi and the other with new music. An open mind will be required by both.

I really think more rock / pop reviews need more exposure in Sterophile, despite the complete, fervid resistance to that by largely Boomers. I know it would be fraught with finding an audience, but finding a way to bring in new music lovers has to have an answer.

PS- Sleaford Mods - UK Grim... Fun AF.

thethanimal's picture

You won’t see old classics in top billing. New artists and pop/urban styles dominate, many offered in high-res (please, no one bother trying to tell me MQA isn’t high-res).

Glotz's picture

Tidal is excellent for that.

And MQA is most certainly High-Res!

(Never mind the bullocks.)

dkhirons's picture

Been a Sleaford M0ds fan since the Austerity Dogs EP, great stuff!

David Harper's picture

It has always seemed to that there's a misconception involved in the idea of "critical listening" and it is this; the enjoyment of music is not "critical". A good song is just as good whether one is listening in their car or on an expensive home audio system. Audiophiles listen to their gear. This has nothing to do with enjoyment of music. Is a great movie more or less great depending on the picture quality of the TV you're watching it on? No it isn't. I'm a boomer and we're the last of a dying breed as audiophiles. I've played music on my home audiophile system for my daughters and they just don't get it. They acknowledge that the sound quality is good and then they ask me "so what"? The sound quality has NOTHING TO DO with their enjoyment of the song."critical listening" robs music of it's primary quality: visceral emotional effect. Young people don't want to listen to equipment they want to enjoy the music. The first thing is completely unrelated to the second.

ok's picture

..with a pair of appropriate headphones attached actually sounds better than most audiophile systems available irrespective of price. That's the real reason youngsters don't give a dime about our "hobby" although they can hear way better than us.

MBMax's picture

A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent part of my sabbatical in Paris. While there, we visited Musee D'Orsay, in particular to enjoy the fabulous impressionist painting collection.

Upon entering the hall, we found the lights down low and window screens over all the pieces. We were stunned and quickly found a docent asking him: "Why the screens and low lighting?" He replied: "Why does it matter? Great art is great art. You don't need bright light and a clear view to appreciate the work of these master artists. The greatness is apparent regardless."

Audiophiles listen to their gear?


Audiophiles love great gear that brings clarity and "light" to great music.

Fortunately, the above anecdote did not really happen. We enjoyed the entire visit with terrific lighting and unobstructed views.

I suspect you get my point.

Glotz's picture

Black & white generalizations have grip on this hobby, and forces many to regurgitating tropes, falsehoods and garbage (above). Worse yet, most do not have the desire to have an open mind.

Simply, critical listening can be turned off to listen for pleasure. Every audiophile can do it. One form of listening is assessing and another is a just enjoyment. It does take a small degree of willpower.

One without the other is just that- HALF of the picture. We need critical listening to improve our pleasure listening time. They are interrelated utterly and totally. Sound quality brings out MORE of music's emotion, as most audiophiles know.

How to convey that to a younger generation is a confusing proposition to Boomers who generally have no desire to understand their younger generational counterparts. Why should they understand you if you won't try to understand them?

Gen X friends of mine and millions of others used to listen to stereos collectively in the 80's and 90's while in a college apartment, dorm or any other congregation of music lovers, without phones or tv, for hours and hours.

Yes, Gen Y and Z people don't give a flip of audiophiles' knowledge that we purport brings us closer to music, but they do recognize it subtly when it is stealthily presented. I suggest that route when inviting others to listen to our music (and not our rigs).

funambulistic's picture

ESPECIALLY the first paragraph...

dkhirons's picture

As much as we say it's all about the music, a lot of us are just gear obsessed. It's not a bad thing but seems to be an admission most avoid. I stand proudly and say I care about as much for my gear as the music it reproduces!