Linette Smith catches up with several Hifi Brands to see how they have coped and adapted during the times of Coronavirus.

To say it has been a very unusual few months would probably fall into the category of ‘massive understatements’. Hifi being a global industry meant that we were talking to friends over in Singapore and Hong Kong back in January and February who were warning about something called ‘The Coronovirus’, we were of course concerned, but it did seem a long way away, over the other side of the world, very exotic and probably not likely to bother us over in cold, wintery Northern Europe.

Are You Scared Enough Yet?

February saw what would usually be the start of the annual Hifi Show calendar, but actually ended up being the last couple of large, international Hifi Shows that we would see for a while…make that all of 2020 so far, and some shows have already cancelled for 2021.  To be honest, we debated if we should go to Bristol or not, but the fact that it was in the UK, we were driving/taking the ferry, not flying and, being brutally honest, Covid-19 hadn’t really touched the lives of anyone we knew…we weren’t scared enough yet. Bristol was great, we saw loads of friends, many of whom had been travelling recently, made the usual jokes about Hifi Show Flu, which everyone gets after a show, listened to music, ate out, had catch up drinks and meals with loads of people…then we all travelled back to our respective corners of the world.

Hifi Show Flu

And that’s when things began to hit home, we had what we first thought was the usual Hifi Show Flu, that got a lot worse and we had some very odd symptoms, like losing our sense of taste, having constantly itchy, dry eyes, chest pain, no appetite and no energy…all of which started to be noted as Covid-19 symptoms much later. We watched the world news constantly, looking at what was happening in Italy, and as France locked down firmly and swiftly, marvelled at how the UK authorities didn’t seem to be taking it as seriously. At first we didn’t know the people that they were naming on the news that had died of the virus, but that soon changed and very soon everyone we knew had been touched by it in some way.

Over the last few months life has changed considerably for everyone. There is now a sense of hope, tempered by a definite feeling that we are not ‘out of the woods yet’, and indeed, it looks like the UK and the rest of Europe are about to go into the second lockdown of varying degrees. People have been affected in different ways, for those who have lost family and friends we send our deepest condolences.

New Ways Of Working

For some it has been about adapting to new ways of working, in factories and shops there are a lot of changes to protect the health and safety of both colleagues and customers. Very positively, many of those in the Hifi industry that we have spoken with have not seen the downturn in demand for their products that has been seen in other industries.

One of the really heartwarming things that we saw from the Hifi Industry was the ability to step up and help in any way possible. Many brands and manufacturers turned their factories and workshops into production facilities for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help their local communities and there were some very inspirational fundraising campaigns too.

We thought that now was a good time to catch up with some of the people in the Hifi industry, from brands and manufacturers to dealers and shops, to see how the pandemic has affected them and how they see the future in Post-Covid times.

Cardas Audio

We spoke to the well known USA brand Cardas Audio’s Angela Cardas-Meredith. Cardas went into overdrive selling their much-coveted ‘show merch’ and special T-shirts, with every penny going to help their community.

“When Oregon went into lockdown, manufacturing facilities such as ours were allowed to remain in operation providing we adhered to certain safety guidelines. Our employees have always been separated by a distance that is now considered “proper social distancing”. But we started disinfecting door handles, light switches, and countertops several times a day, and running ozone generators for several hours every night.

We also re-purposed part of our manufacturing space for the sewing of cotton masks, which we’ve provided to members of the Bandon community. Our 3D printing station generated dozens of parts for respirators, which a local dentist takes from us and adds filtration and other components, and then distributes to local healthcare workers.

To raise money for the many service industry workers who found themselves unemployed during the lockdown, we printed and sold the “Stay Home And Listen To Music” t-shirt and poster, which we sold on our website. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, orders kept coming in, for which we’re all grateful. Things seem to be getting better around much of the world, and hopefully, that trend continues.

As for the future of the high-end audio industry, people spending more time at home listening to music would not be a bad thing. For business of course, but also for people’s well being. Listening to music is good for you, and families really should spend time listening to music together. I do worry about the future of audio shows. One of my favorite aspects of this industry is the show circuit, which has been thriving for the past few years. However, it’s hard to envision an audio show in which social distancing guidelines are possible, let alone followed. While everything else seems to be more or less normal for us, not traveling somewhere around the US or the rest of the world has sucked”.

GIK Acoustics

Back in the UK, we spoke to David Shevyn, Managing Director of GIK Europe. GIK adapted their skills to produce professionally sewn, multi-layered loop-masks cut made from their random coloured fabric off-cuts and lined with drill cotton inserts. David told us more about what the Bradford based manufacturer has been doing.

“The Coronavirus Pandemic has thrown up uncertain times for the entire industry and we have been no exception. After the initial shock of European wide lockdowns subsided we found ourselves providing services to a very different-looking industry. Part of our business was unaffected but a lot of our business to business contracts were severely affected and what we found instead was a shift to a working from home model, so we have been super busy helping people transfer to a new style of working. Workwise we are lucky that our premises already allowed us to socially distance, but we have been taking extra measures to ensure our staff, customers and key workers safety.

During the height of the lockdown in the UK we also started providing cotton masks made from our waste and with all profits going directly to the NHS Charities.

The future is entirely uncertain, as we do not really know what the new future will look like, but we will continue to adapt to help provide the acoustics for the home, office, studio, business as and wherever you need our expertise, help and products”.

Naim Audio

Charlie Henderson, MD of Naim Audio chatted to us about how the British brand has fared over the last few months.

‘We live in interesting times’ is an oft-used phrase, but it has rarely felt as appropriate as over the last few months. Over 47 years, we’ve seen a few changes in the world around us, but it is fair to say that this has possibly been one of the most ‘interesting’. Early on in the international emergence of the pandemic we took steps to reduce our exposure, preparing contingency plans, remote working protocols and building up component levels. And as soon as it became clear that lockdown was coming, we took the step of relocating all office staff to home working, and production was paused for just under a month during April and May. Our priority was, and always remains, straightforward – to maintain the health of our incredible team, while also managing the health of the business to ensure continuity. Some long hours, and a lot of hard work later, and it’s great to see Naim is fully back at 100%, maintaining strict social distancing on site, and a remote working approach continuing for others. Business remains strong, with buoyant global demand, and the initial focus has been on covering the backlog of orders that developed over the site closure.

It’s not always been easy: we’ve had to adapt to changes on an almost daily basis at the height of the pandemic. However, at the same time, we’ve seen our customers spending more time than ever with their systems under lockdown. With Naim’s upgrade philosophy tempting many people into finding ways to further enhance the musicality of their systems, we’ve also seen a surge in demand that carries right up to our flagship 500 series range, and even Statement – with orders there at an all-time high. A desire for achieving the best musical experience has certainly not diminished during this period – quite the opposite.

We’ve worked hard to keep in touch too, from getting up to speed quickly with video calls, chatting with our retailers and distributors around the world, as well as spending more time than ever on managing the Naim Forum, which has proved especially popular during lockdown. We’ve even found time to launch significant software updates, such as the recent Qobuz updates to our streaming platform. One final mention, with our Naim Records artists unable to gig as normal, we’ve launched a series of live-streams, bringing performances direct from the artists’ homes to yours. So, yes, interesting times indeed, but far from quiet!”.

AV Industry

Meanwhile, over in Paris, France, AV Industry which is the parent company of audio brands including Elipson and Tangent, are supporting the French Health Service by manufacturing and supplying protective hand gel to hospitals throughout the country.

Since the risk level of Covid 19 was announced as a global pandemic, Entrepreneur/Owner of AV Industry, Philippe Carre took the decision to transform one of their production facilities near Paris. This involved installation of state-of-the-art infrastructure and equipment to accommodate the production of chemical-based solutions within optimum hygiene and safety conditions.

In collaboration with medical teams from a leading Parisian hospital and using latest specialist ingredients, a hydro-alcoholic gel was formulated, approved and certified for production. Marketed under their ‘Purity’ brand, Gel 65 was designed to meet the needs of health professionals in all medical environments and is now supplied to all hospitals and surgeries throughout France. The alcohol-based antibacterial solution allows regular use without risk of damage to skin tissue and is composed as 65% Ethanol, water, glycerin and carbon neutralised with triethanolamine.

Titan Audio

Titan Audio, who manufacture cables and associated products in Belfast, Northern Ireland, put their 3D printers to work making NHS approved face shields and also face masks, Gary Campbell told us more.

“Lockdown has undoubtedly been a very strange and unprecedented time for all of us. During this time it put into light many of the things which are truly important. We have seen a lot of difficulties for many people, and it was for that reason during lockdown, we temporarily forgot about R&D and focused on how we could put our efforts and machinery in helping those battling through COVID 19. To this end, we began to produce both full-face shields, as well as masks. We built our face shields to full NHS specifications and used the same materials that are used by the NHS, to make sure our masks and shields offered the best possible protection. We offered these out to anyone totally free of charge. This was a small gesture, which if helped to stop the spread of COVID, we were happy to help in any way we could. We have now restarted production and we are looking forward to putting Titan products back out on the shelves and in our customers systems”.

MidlandAudio Xchange

MidlandAudio Xchange are a long standing UK distributor and dealer, based in the Midlands, UK. During the UK lock-down, Hifi Shops were classed as ‘non-essential’ and therefore had to close. MAX however, continued a brisk online trade, with the help of couriers DPD and UPS. MAX is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and although plans for celebrations have been put on hold, the showroom is now open again as restrictions have been eased in the UK since June the 15th. Demonstrations are strictly by appointment only, and comply with social distancing rules, only one customer at a time is allowed in unless from the same household. John Roberts from MidlandAudio Xchange told us after the reopening: “the first days takings were very encouraging, also the amount interest we had the rest of the week was more than normal for June. We hope it continues and we can start to get back to normal trading”.

Elite Audio

For the Scottish Hifi Shop and Showroom owners, things have been different to those in England, with regional restrictions and rules applying in the different regions of the UK and different dates for the opening of ‘Non Essential Shops’.

When we spoke to Mark and Connie Cargill, who run Elite Audio up near Fife in Scotland, they were waiting for dates to be announced for their reopening and were preparing accordingly. Mark Cargill told us.

“Like many businesses (not just Hifi) lockdown presents many challenges.  Connie and myself are extremely proud of how quickly and professionally our team adapted to a very fluid and restrictive situation. It is fair to say that our existing business model meant in the main, it was business as usual and with some technical adaptations, we were able to carry on pretty much as normal. As Scotland is working to an entirely different timetable, we faced (and still do) additional challenges, but once again, our team were ready and we are looking forward to re-opening our main showroom once our first minister, announces phase 3 of our gradual release from lockdown. We have invested in sanitising stations, made changes to our showroom layout and will work on an appointment-only basis to ensure that only a small number of people are ever-present. Thank you also for all our clients who have continued to support our business through this very difficult period for everyone”.

Hifi Lounge

Hifi Lounge, based in the South East of England, is a real destination Hifi Showroom, we dropped in at the start of the year when we were visiting that part of the world, just before the pandemic reached the UK and changed everything. Paul and Wendy are busy people, if they are not selling High End Hifi and organising events at the Hifi Lounge, then they are likely to be found at the race track indulging in their other passion, fast cars. We caught up with Paul as he told us a bit more about how things had been affected in the last few months.

“ It is so good to be open again to allow customers to come in but looking back at when lockdown was announced back in March, my initial reaction was that we were heading into a really tough trading period as I wondered who on earth would be willing to buy Hifi when the world was about to change like we’d never seen before, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not one to sit around and enjoy a bit of time off we adapted the business to take our showrooms on the road delivering equipment safely and observing social distancing guidelines, all over the country for our customers to enjoy and demo in the comfort of their own homes. We actually ended up being busier than we normally are when open, and it really helped keep the wolf from the door. All I can put it down to is people wanting things to enjoy at home and having time to do research online and, as long as still in employment, people had some disposable income thanks to holiday and social events being canceled”.

Hifi Lounge is now open by appointment only, with safety measures in place for clients and staff. Paul said: “We are open again and have changed to appointment only and two demo’s a day but we are now booked up for two weeks in advance and it is looking at the moment like an extremely busy summer, which is unusual but very welcome. What the future may hold though is anyone’s guess as I don’t think there will be anyone who won’t be affected but time will tell. One thing is for certain, people need their music now more than ever and we are always happy to help there”.

VPI Industries

Another company that has been very proactive as the pandemic struck, has been USA based VPI Industries. Better known for turntables and tonearms, VPI turned their hands to a very different kind of production early on in the crisis. They began with making and distributing hand sanitizer in their local area, then medical shields and soon followed by switching their 3D printing partners over from making tonearms, to making ventilator parts.

VPI also came up with the Safe Hand, which was produced by 3D printing to enable people to open doors, use ATMs and touch screens, without actually touching them with their hands, and the antimicrobial effects of the copper they are made from adds extra security.

The famous VPI House events also continued, but Mat and his family and the VPI team did them by live stream. TVPI house has recently been the venue for demonstrations observing strict social distancing protocols.

Mat Weisfeld of VPI told us: “In the beginning we had the same fears and concerns with the longevity of VPI as many companies have had. We were fortunate to be considered an essential company but felt it was our duty to go beyond the manufacturing of turntables and actually create essential items. We reconfigured our company to CDC safety standards and shifted our focus to sanitizer, face shields, intubation boxes and more. My team pushed through the fear and focused on the importance of supplying our frontline heroes.

Initially, turntable orders dropped off but we saw an increase in demand for accessories and upgrade components. We have now gotten a handle on the situation and have seen an increase in turntable sales. We continue to produce VPI products as well as medical supplies as needed and plan to continue as long as we have to.

I think this has changed how our industry will communicate with one another. With the cancellation of audio shows, we turned to social media for live stream audio events. We have had dealer training and educational videos through zoom, youtube, and all other impactful platforms. We have weekly live streams at the VPI House to keep people connected and involved. If there is a second wave we will be ready”.

Even as I write this, the situation is continually evolving, the world over, with some countries opening up more and others having to impose stricter measures again. We hope that all of our readers and Hifi and Audio Industry friends are safe and well, and stay that way, we are not out of the woods yet, so stay home where you can, stay safe and listen to music.

 

 

 

 

 

Linette Smith

 

 

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