A Wee Dram of Scotch: Linn Products' Ivor Tiefenbrun Page 3

Harley: You were talking earlier about having a relationship with the customer rather than just making a sale. Was the upgradeability part of that?

Tiefenbrun: As I always say, it's the relationship that matters, not the sale. I don't believe there's any virtue in selling something to somebody when it doesn't meet any customer requirement. I never felt comfortable with the notion that people should buy our product without knowing actually why they bought it. In other words, personal experience.

I said from the beginning that we want a thrilled customer, not a happy one. We want him to be over the moon about the product. Because that's the only way that we, as a whole, can build a business. We rely on the customer's word of mouth to build the business.

We're not into the marginal advantages. We wanted an unarguable advantage, so it was absolutely clear to a customer whether they should buy this product or not. We've always felt that.

Harley: The conventional wisdom is that a quality hi-fi system gets about 96% of the way toward live music. You think it gets about 2% of the way.

Tiefenbrun: I've always said that we get 1% or 2% of the music off the recording. That sounds strange when people are told in the newspapers that they get perfection for $99 or something. It also seems to colleagues in the industry that this is putting the business down.

But if we were getting 99% of it, I think I'd have moved on to something else already. First of all, there'd be no real challenge or interest. Secondly, the perception that hi-fi follows the law of diminishing returns for increasing costs would actually be true. But it isn't true. The more you spend, the bigger the differences, and the more significant the benefit should become.

That's true because we actually achieve so little of what we set out to do. That gives us all a lot to work for. It doesn't diminish the value of what we can offer at this moment in time. When I go and listen to a system that I thought was good 20 years ago, I laugh now. I'm not saying that it was a joke, but I'm surprised that we were so excited by what we were achieving then. I'm quite sure that in 20 years' time, if I'm still around, we'll be surprised that we thought so highly of what we're achieving today. There's enormous possibility to increase the quality of reproduced music at home.

Atkinson: How do you cope, as a manufacturer, with selling an FM tuner [the Kremlin] that costs ten times what the average man or woman in the street expects to pay for a radio, when they've bought into the idea of perfect sound for $99?

Tiefenbrun: The first thing is you have to apologize, because we don't deliver perfect sound for $99—although that is obviously the objective.

I don't subscribe to the view that the cost of the equipment in some way has to be expensive so that we differentiate ourselves with price. There is a school for that in the fashion business, but I'm not interested in it. The fact is, it just costs us a lot of money to produce a tuner like the Kremlin. I wish it was a fraction of the cost. I believe it's the finest product that we make, actually—a sensational product. But, like the LP12, until you actually experience it, you have no understanding of what it'll do or the impact it will have.

The best route to quality music at home is a live stereo FM broadcast. It's really superb—totally involving. To me, a hi-fi system is a mechanism to explore and discover the world of music. And the radio is a beautiful way to do that. It's a free, cheap way to discover the joys of music. That's the miracle of hi-fi.

Doug Sax (footnote 3) once said to me that, a hundred years ago, a great new Brahms symphony would have been performed once for Franz Josef; and, typically, four years later, the second performance would have been for Queen Victoria in London; and five years later, it would have been performed once in Berlin for the Kaiser, and then the piece wouldn't have been played again for another 30 or 40 years. And yet today we take it for granted that we can access virtually the entire vocabulary of the world's music on our record player, in our own homes. That's what hi-fi is to me: It's a key to the world of music.

Atkinson: But how do you convince people that it's worth paying for good sound and good engineering?

Tiefenbrun: What is good engineering? I don't believe that tight budget limits reduce the merit of the product. If you've no price constraints in the design of an amplifier, and you can use whatever transformer you want, whatever the size and whatever kind of power supply, then nothing matters. If you have a tight financial constraint, and you recognize that your customers don't have infinite resources, then that forces you to define what the power supply does, how it works, and develop enough understanding to design a power supply that does what is required in that product.

I don't believe that value engineering—or cost constraints, or brutal, rigorous price targets—are in any way counter to engineering aspirations. Now, it doesn't feel like that when you're the engineer at the cutting edge. But afterward, once you've done the work, you've learned something.

The biggest factor in the price of a product is the volume. Basically, every time you double the volume, you can expect to reduce the cost by about 20%. So the argument for low-volume, exclusive manufacture is a self-defeating one. You can't deliver the kind of product performance and value that customers would want.

I don't subscribe to the view that the high-fidelity industry is a kind of Luddite craft activity. There's no future in that. It doesn't represent good value. What our customers want, above all, from us is that we're going to be around in the future to look after them and support their systems. To do that, we have to deliver ever-more-compatible, better-sounding, easier-to-use, more reliable, and more attractive products. The mechanism to do that is to learn more ourselves, and to benefit from other people's improved knowledge and expertise by employing the latest and highest-advanced technologies and manufacturing aids. It's not a question of sitting there polishing the stone for another ten years.

Footnote 3: Doug Sax is co-founder (with Lincoln Mayorga) of Sheffield Lab, and the father of the modern direct-to-disc recording. See my interview with him in December 1993 (Vol.12 No.10) as well as his CD article.—RH