A Wee Dram of Scotch: Linn Products' Ivor Tiefenbrun Page 4

Harley: What do you consider important in music reproduction?

Tiefenbrun: Oh, God. That's a great question. The cop-out answer is to say "fidelity."

Music is an international language of feeling and emotion. And all people respond to music in the same way—hard as that is to believe. To me, what's important is to communicate the emotional message. A hi-fi system above a certain threshold can begin to do that, and enable the listener to respond to the merits of a performance and the message of the composer. That's the goal.

Music does so many things, doesn't it? It's therapeutic, educational, stimulating—it changes your mood. I think it's essential for human well-being.

I don't regard being in the hi-fi industry as merely being in the entertainment business. Music at home or anywhere can be entertaining, but it can be more than that—and often is more than that. To exist, we probably only need water and food, but for human well-being we need even more. We need shelter, we need clothes, we need sex, we need love, we need music, we need song, we need to dance. And we need a wee dram occasionally!

Harley: You have some strong ideas about how hi-fi should be sold. What's wrong with the way it's sold now?

Tiefenbrun: I don't think there's much wrong with the way hi-fi's sold now in the sense that the people who sell it and the people who buy it are quite happy with that program. But hi-fi is falling down people's lists of priorities. Our customers are changing, and we recognize that the world has changed from the time of the classic enthusiast hobbyist like myself 20 years ago. There are more products and more issues competing for those individuals' attention.

That traditional kind of approach is inadequate to sustain growth in our industry. And retailers who want to build a business, or who want to grow with their customers, have got to meet their changing requirements.

The retailer expertise, in my view, should relate far more to criteria for stock selection, standards of demonstration, installation expertise, and service and support. And also the ability to interface a hi-fi system with other existing and imagined technologies, whether it's Home Theater, multi-room, home automation, multimedia, computing, home recording, synthesizing, music synthesis, and so on. Forward-looking retailers will recognize that.

The retailer is missing out on what he, uniquely, can offer. And that is to understand his community—know how they live, be familiar with the type of homes, construction methods, acoustics, lifestyle, and so on. If the retailer is prepared with real installation expertise, he's prepared to go to a customer's home and spend the time required to find the best position for the loudspeakers, make sure that they're not rocking, secure the cable connections, make sure the solder joints are done to a high standard, and then hide and disguise the cables. That kind of expertise is undervalued.

The customer is going to get a result that's far superior to the result they'll get from another retailer. The better the systems become, the more crucial system setup is. If the retailer doesn't have the expertise, or know how to effectively judge the system's performance, he can't optimize it. I see that as a big challenge for our industry. That's why we've committed so much resource to retailer training and education.

Atkinson: A lot of what you're saying appears to be common sense. But if a retailer can't compete on price, he has to be able to show that he adds value to what he's selling. It seems awkward, your having to go to so much trouble training people in this kind of attitude.

Tiefenbrun: I don't think we're training them in attitudes. I think we're training them how to judge the system, how to adjust the system, and how to set the system up. How to configure it. How to position it in the customer's home. How to interface with other technologies.

If no one trains the retailer, he'll have no knowledge of that, because the bulk of products are manufactured not for delivery, but for collection in a box. Now, in my view, that's utterly inconsistent with maintaining a high standard for everything that we do. Ultimately, what matters is the delivered, installed performance in the customer's home. The only way we can be sure that we're meeting the standards that we apply to other aspects of our business is to manage the circumstances that determine how it's used in the customer's home. That will become more and more crucial.

Atkinson: Perhaps some retailers will say, yes, they'll do that for very expensive sales; but why should we do it for someone buying their very first system?

Tiefenbrun: I say treat the customer the way you want to be treated yourself. What does that mean? Treat everyone like a millionaire. Because if you buy a Linn, we don't have second-class customers. We don't make a range of products. In every product category, we make the best product we can. And we also make an entry-level product that has the key attributes of the top-performing product, with the ability to expand the functionality so that, even if a customer buys an entry-level product, he can expand it, and build up from that position to the very best.

We've escaped from the traditional "range" view. In the traditional setup, you go into the shop and the shop qualifies you and sells the middle-of-the-range preamp, the middle-of-the-range power amp, the middle-of-the-range cassette deck—whatever. Then, the next time you come into the shop, both parties are kind of embarrassed and uncomfortable. What happens now?

Whereas if you buy a Linn product, such as the Magik I control amplifier, the next time you come into the shop it should be to add more processing controls, functionality, or a room control unit. Or you might want a tuner module. Or you might want to deliver the sound from that system to four other rooms, or use that product in your bedroom and access your main system downstairs, and switch on your video recorder from your bed when you're watching television. We've escaped this range confusion, which is the bane of everyone's life.

A lot of people have a very extreme view that we're selling out—that we're more interested in mid-fi and price. If that's the case, we sold out before we started. There's no significant change in what we are trying to do. It's that we think our customers are changing, and we have to adapt to their changing needs.