Phil Wannell has been in the industry for some time and is a well-known face at Hifi shows and events throughout the UK. Recently he has decided to take the leap into self-employment and has founded Audio Concierge, a bespoke service offering portable audio and headfi products to a discerning clientele.

HP: How did the idea for Audio Concierge come about?

PW: Believe it or not the idea began to develop once I had left the industry after 16 years. I was informing a few people that I was leaving and a number of them effectively called me stupid. It got me thinking, and the market was already covered by a great number of high-quality stores offering similar products so it would have been a little tricky to do the same thing and follow the standard bricks & mortar retail model. I had to differ from that type of business.

HP: What is your past experience in the audio industry and in particular the mobile market?

PW: I have always had a passion for music since listening to my Dads HiFi system as a young child. When I was 16 he managed to secure me a work experience place at a local, reputable HiFi store and I never left. I am now writing this at 33 and have thoroughly loved my time in the industry. In 2009 I immersed myself in everything e-commerce and began to run the company’s website, slowly growing it over a number of years. 2009 was the same year that Sennheiser launched their now “legendary” HD800 headphones and it was when my love for HiFi shifted to portable audio. It felt like many retailers didn’t really get the “high-end” headphone thing and I think many stores didn’t see much potential in it. I had seen how huge portable audio had become in Japan etc and thought that this could reach the UK. There was then a decision made to become a headphone specialist and I began looking into more technology and products such as Audeze. As portable players had just started to arrive on these shores (like the Astell&Kern products) I had also found the super cool Colorfly C4 portable that we started to import into the UK for our client base. The C4 sold amazingly in the UK and from there we continued to grow and expand into our market as a headphone specialist. During that time I have been in the very privileged position to have supported HeadFi’s CanJam shows on numerous occasions. I organised several dedicated headphone and portable audio shows at one of London’s leading mastering studios that then moved to a much larger venue. A highlight for me is being involved in a number of projects from some of the biggest brands in the industry. From the sound tuning, to the design and on through to the user experience, I have been lucky enough to be involved in it all in one way or another and it too is a great privilege.

HP: What do you feel sets Audio Concierge apart from other online retailers and how do you go about making the buying experience a positive one?

PW: Being in retail for a number of years I feel that sometimes the love is lost for products and they are just a commodity. This frustrates me a little to be honest as the bare bones of this industry revolves around the love for music. These items are trying to improve on that musical experience and as such should be carefully matched to the user, the users listening preferences and their individual use case. I also carefully select a range of products that are exclusively available via Audio Concierge, products that I feel are exceptional in performance and can offer something no other product on the market can. I will discuss this in more detail a bit later. In terms of making the buying experience a positive one, there are a number of things I like to do but that would be telling…….. ;-) I guess if you look at my brand name my service is a little more personal than others.

HP: Did you have a particular customer type in mind when you created the Audio concierge concept, and if so what would a typical customer look like?

PW: Yes, I did indeed; first and foremost I really enjoy helping the hobbyist and audiophile, however, they generally know what they want and are happy to take the plunge on items to match with their existing components without much, if any consultation. I also help clients whom perhaps have an existing HiFi system but want to venture into a portable solution, but perhaps they are not sure where to start. My other clients are currently not audiophiles, nor do they have an existing HiFi, they simply want to have a problem solved, such as a lack of amazing quality music whilst travelling or commuting. These clients are where Audio Concierge can provide a solution that fits the clients use case. This requires a more hands on approach and guidance on the entire solution that is able to solve the issue they have.

HP: You mention on your website that every product you have in stock must have “something special”, how do you define that “something special” and how do you go about selecting products to carry?

PW: That’s a tricky one to answer as to be honest it’s based on my own personal preference. I don’t stock products just because they have had an amazing review or won an award. Unfortunately, I also don’t stock every brand that approaches me. Again the “something special” is personal preference and it has a number of factors I guess. Sound quality and performance is high on the agenda, with build quality and user experience also something that I take into account and takes quite a high priority. I guess I like to pick what I feel is best in class. Something for instance is the best closed back headphone at a specific price point, or best portable player in terms of sound quality at a specific price bracket that offers the best functionality.
In regards to how I select what goes into the portfolio, I am exceptionally privileged to be able to hear many of the products before they are released to the public. This means that I can evaluate the product and see if it fits within the portfolio. I recently took on a brand called Lark Studios after being sent their LSX earphone to try. After listening to them, it was immediately clear that their sound, comfort and customisation options were something no other brand was capable of offering. I was subsequently proud to add them to the portfolio.

HP: The portable audio market has grown massively in recent years, what do you think the spark for that growth was, and where do you see the market going in coming years?

PW: Yes, the market has grown immensely over the last few years. The trouble is that the market is now flooded with different products, making it even harder for the consumer to choose what is best for them. I think the boom has been partly due to the rise in wireless technology to be honest, with a massive amount of sales going towards wireless companions for users’ mobile phones, it has enabled many more brands greater exposure within the industry. I also think a lack of time and the lack of space a reason for the growth. People can’t sit and dedicate time to listening to music these days, and they certainly don’t have the space for a HiFi system in their London flat with people above and below them, along with their neighbours all around them. It just isn’t convenient like a portable audio system. I believe that with the advent of CD quality streaming via 4G and 5G networks there will begin to be a shift back to wired earphones and headphones to get the best quality possible. There will be a number of people appreciating the different from their convenient wireless products to quality wired products for listening on-the-go.

HP: We speak with a lot of younger people who are happy with a pair of earbuds and their smart-phone, how do you think we as an industry can encourage these people to embrace high-end audio?

PW: Don’t underestimate the value of a smartphone. This will continue to be the future for the convenient listen. It does everything that’s required and more. The benefit is that you can simply add a higher quality pair of wired earphones to a smartphone and experience better quality audio. It’s an incredible first step for younger people to start appreciating a higher quality of music reproduction. From there they can weigh up if a dedicated DAP will then be a worthwhile purchase. Higher quality components, better battery life and massive storage are all positives of a dedicated portable player over a smartphone, however, I have heard “value” DAPs that sound very similar to a smartphone and offer nothing extra performance wise. We currently offer Astell&Kern as our preferred brand of portable players due to their performance and usability. For me personally, even their best value offering provides a greater experience than a mobile phone.

HP: What was your personal product of the year for 2018 and why?

PW: My personal selection for this only just made it into 2018 and began getting to clients in late November early December. Due to its incredible ability to successfully demonstrate an amazing sound regardless of what it’s attached to, I would have to say the Meze Audio Empyrean. The new flagship from Romania features unique technology, is super, super comfortable, comes with two different types of earpads and isn’t fatiguing in any way. The best bit though is the sound. It is incredibly fun to listen to and enables you to immediately begin enjoying your music without really having to worry about what you are using to drive it. A few other headphones at this level only seem to sound incredible with specific hardware but that isn’t the case with Empyrean. They are a great all-rounder and although they are not overly cheap they do provide an amazing amount of pride of ownership with their exquisite build quality.

HP: What innovations do you personally see on the horizon for portable hi-resolution audio?

PW: I see higher performance DACs such as ESS being used more in mobile phones and I hope to see the phone manufacturers spend more R&D on audio playback. To be honest smartphones are the future for the mass market of high-resolution audio. They will close the gap on dedicated portable audio players and will provide amazing sound quality. At the moment however, this is a little way off as the Android operating system is not best for audio playback. Android O is beginning to make moves towards a much cleaner signal path and I hope this development continues.

Initially published in Hifi Pig Quarterly January 2019. Download the whole E-Magazine here.

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