Great British Sound
British hi-fi brand Cambridge Audio is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Sean Hannam sounds out managing director Stuart George…
Cambridge Audio loves music.
On the ground floor of the brand’s UK headquarters in Borough, south-east London, there’s a stunning, shiny, purpose-built venue called Melomania.
Employees can attend live music events in the space – when ERT visits there are two unsigned acts due to perform there during the lunch hour – and one of the walls is covered by album sleeves. The LP artwork hasn’t just been selected at random – all of the albums include songs that Cambridge Audio staff have chosen as featuring their favourite musical moments.
ERT asks managing director, Stuart George, which album he chose to adorn the wall.
“Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. My favourite moment is four minutes and 40 seconds into Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, which is the fourth track on the album. There’s a bit in the song where Mick Taylor [guitarist] really takes off – it’s just brilliant.”
This year, the British hi-fi brand is celebrating its 50th birthday – it was born in 1968, in Cambridge, when a team of technology graduates developed the groundbreaking and iconic P40, the world’s first integrated amplifier to use a toroidal transformer.
In 1994, Audio Partnership – its current owner – acquired the brand. Audio Partnership was a company formed by entrepreneur and Richer Sounds founder Julian Richer and his business partner James Johnson-Flint, who is Cambridge Audio’s chief executive.
On the wall behind the stage in Melomania there’s a piece of art that’s a visual representation of the Rolling Stones song Jumpin’ Jack Flash – the track was released in the same year Cambridge Audio was founded.
There’s also a happy coincidence, as the initial letters of Jumpin’ Jack Flash are also the same as those of Mr Johnson-Flint’s – JJF.
Before ERT has even sat down to listen to any of the company’s products – we are later given a sneak preview of some new kit that’s still under wraps – it’s clear that Cambridge Audio is serious about hi-fi and capturing the ‘Great British Sound’, which is the brand’s marketing slogan.
It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but they like it…
Q: So how does it feel to be celebrating the brand’s 50th anniversary?
Stuart George: We’ve been around since 1968 – doing our thing and entertaining people. Our fiftieth year is a punctuation point between what we’ve done in the past and where we’re going in the future – it’s a really exciting year for us. We didn’t want a Wedgwood plate – what we wanted was a springboard into the future.
We have a Great British Sound logo [which features a Union Jack flag] – it started out as a concept, but then we dug into the story behind it and, over the course of the past three years, we’ve been pulling it together. Ultimately, there is a story to tell.
When we started doing it, there was a lot of debate internally about whether we wanted to go out and fly the flag, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. We’re no longer trying to be vanilla – we’re trying to be a bit bolder and really make a case for what Cambridge Audio is all about. It’s very rare for a British engineering company to be based in London.
Q: Fifty years is a milestone. Why has Cambridge Audio endured?
SG: One of the things that we’ve always done is democratise technology – we’re trying to be a democratic brand and we want to be able to take high-quality, high-fidelity audio to as many people as possible. We’re not in any way elitist – we’re very down-to-earth, we’re friendly and we’re inclusive. Those things – and being exceptional value for money – have manifested themselves in Cambridge Audio over the years and have helped us stand the test of time. We’re currently the UK’s best-selling amplifier brand, according to GfK stats.
Q: You’ve worked at Cambridge Audio for 22 years – almost half the life of the brand. How have you seen it change?
SG: It’s changed in many ways – we’ve always been changing. The business’s management team is very keen to learn and progress and take on new ideas, but, at the same time, the digital revolution that’s happened over the past two decades has had a massive impact on us.
From a technology point of view, it’s brought enormous complexity and, equally, it’s brought the information age, which has put the power into the hands of the consumer. All brands have needed to get to grips with that – we’ve been doing that over the past couple of years. A big part of that has been trying to solidify the brand’s personality and we think we’re in the right place with that.
We’ve been strengthening the brand identity and overhauled the company culture.
Q: In 1994, Audio Partnership acquired the business. What did that do for the company?
SG: Audio Partnership is the umbrella company for Cambridge Audio and it was founded on the ethos of establishing partnerships – with our supply base, factories and technology providers, but, equally, with the distribution network.
Julian Richer is an incredible personality from a retail perspective – a brilliant guy who has put real value on customer service. He has put the customer at the centre of everything this business attempts to do.
They did a lot of great things right from the start. We’ve always invested in our own product engineering in the UK – from the outset, there was a big push to make sure that the brand was distinguished by its own technologies and designs.
We still have engineering in Cambridge and here in London we have 25 engineers. We also have sales offices in Hamburg and Chicago, logistics and sales in Hong Kong and quality assurance and some production engineering in Shenzhen, China. Our original R&D is in the UK and our manufacturing is in China and Taiwan.
We started working with third-party distributors over 20 years ago and our products are now available in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Q: What are your routes to market in retail?
SG: The hi-fi products are exclusively available in Richer Sounds [in the UK] and we also sell some of them through our own website.
That’s about customer choice – Richer Sounds has great coverage throughout the country and superb customer service, so it’s very difficult to exceed what they’re doing, but we do offer the products to people who want to buy them online directly from the brand.
Our ‘consumer’ products, like the Yoyo and Minx Go [wireless speakers] have been available in John Lewis – that was a deliberate decision to try to work with another retailer who we felt was compatible with Richer Sounds and who could offer something to a slightly different customer, but maintain a degree of high-quality customer service.
Our consumer products definitely have a younger audience. When we first started selling our Minx Air products, 80 per cent of those customers were new to the brand. The hi-fi audience has always been – and remains – a little bit more mature.
Q: Do you think it’s a challenge for independent electrical retailers to attract younger con-sumers into their stores?
SG: I would think it is, but I guess it depends on what they’re offering to them. If all you’re offering is a closed door, or ignoring them when they come through the door, then you’re probably not going to engage with them very effectively.
Q: Has there been a return to people wanting to listen to better-quality audio?
SG: I don’t think people are appreciating it quite yet – I think there’s an education process that anyone who is a real music fan needs to go through. There’s a good friend of mine who has lots of mates who are in bands and who are DJs. He asked me to recommend some headphones to him, so I suggested some that I thought he would enjoy. He bought them and said, ‘It’s your fault – I’d better like them’ – but he’s still listening to low-quality files on them.
There’s a massive process about the complexities of listening to quality audio that people need to understand.
Q: How’s the UK hi-fi market?
SG: I think the market is alive – there’s a great deal of interest, but people aren’t fully engaging or committing at this point in time. I think that’s the case around the world.
Richer Sounds has always done stuff to get people into their stores – they put on evening events in stores and communicate with their customer base.
All dealers need to engage with that, otherwise they’ve not got much of a chance. I bet there are some great dealers out there who are doing that and who are looking for something more meaningful than just a transactional relationship.
We want to be able to take high-quality, high-fidelity audio to as many people as possible. We’re not elitist – we’re very down-to-earth
Q: What are your aspirations for the Cambridge Audio brand?
SG: Our goal for the next five years is to double revenues around the world, but it’s not just about sales targets – becoming recognised as the best-loved and most talked-about British audio brand is an aspiration that we think is realistic. How are we going to go about that?
There are a number of different planks on which we’re going to rest – first and foremost, world-class products. What do I mean by that? World-class can’t be determined by us – it’s determined either by experts within the industry, like magazine reviewers, or by consumers. The fact that we’re the best-selling amplifier brand in the UK is a great endorsement. We want to get closer to dealers and customers – it’s really important that we can tell our story and help them understand what we’re about.
We’re trying to work with dealers around the world on engaging them in the digital domain, but also putting on events in stores. We’re re-evaluating our retail network throughout the world and we’re focusing on a number of key markets. We’re trying to evaluate whether a dealer is committed to our brand and values Cambridge Audio.
When we can find the ones who’ve got some commitment and understand the product range and what the brand’s about – and have some enthusiasm for offering that to their customers, because they can see the benefit – then we’ll really try and engage with them.
We want customers to experience what Cambridge Audio is about – we think we offer something that’s a little bit different from what other brands do.We feel like we’re a very well-kept secret, which isn’t a particularly interesting place to be. We think the products we’re making now are the best and most exciting that Cambridge Audio has ever made.