Avoiding jail proves sound idea
Music to Thorsten Loesch is a bitter-sweet love story. Before crafting a name for himself as one of the founders of acclaimed British luxury audio company Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), Loesch took refuge in the music industry in East Germany in the tumultuous 1980s out of necessity. The alternative would have been to go to jail.
'Imprisonment was the risk you took if you offended the government by making some constructive criticism,' said Loesch, who studied electronics related to industrial and military applications in East Germany.
However, his boisterous and rebellious spirit led him into trouble with the law and blocked from pursuing a career in his chosen field of study. Faced with the choice of going to jail for 'anti-social behaviour' - a charge arising from his being unemployed for six months - or taking a job with a small, privately run sound-mixing company, Loesch opted to take the job.
From this humble beginning, mixing sound for television and radio, he was drawn into an audio career; he took evening courses in sound-mixing technology and later got work with groups and musicians from all over the world as the Berlin Wall was torn down.
Yet the benefits from having chosen a career in sound mixing did not end there, for Loesch had developed a keen sense of cutting through what he called 'textbook standards' that do not reflect the reality - a quality that he says inspired the core values of AMR.
Loesch, who is now the director of technology for AMR, is the only one of the three business partners in the group that has any professional training or work experience in audio technology. His partners work in the information technology and finance sectors in Hong Kong and the UK.
The three met during an internet forum on audio technology and music in the 1990s and their business idea was conceived in 2001 when they got together in London.
Their approach to creating a new technology audio system was to dismiss the commonly pursued imperatives of pure sound quality as being irrelevant to the audience, and instead seek to sacrifice market share for greater individuality and variety in sonic taste.
'I am not saying that great 'textbook standard' performance is a bad thing to have,' said Loesch, who conceded that many audio companies pursued technical precision in their products, which often became the focus of their marketing campaigns in the cut-throat industry.
'But my experience is, in order to do this often, you have to make things more complex, and so more things can go wrong. Often I find it is not as good as something simpler, where you allow a little more distortion.'
Another of the pitfalls found in the high-end audio industry that they tried to avoid was the elitist attitude. The high-end audio industry tends to dictate what is good and bad, based on the authoritative opinions of the technocrats and sound experts.
Yet Loesch said what mattered most was the music itself, rather than the equipment, and that audiences should be given a 'voice' to express what they thought was good music. In business that means making different CD player and amplifier components to allow customers to mix and match, although this approach does add to production costs.
Using up its funds was easy to do when the business first started; Loesch smiled ruefully as he recounted how the three partners 'burned cash' when they spent three years designing the AMR products before finally launching the range in 2006 at a London hi-fi fair.
Many hours each day were spent running expensive tests - mixing and matching the parts of more than 60brands of audio equipment, building circuits, and listening to thousands of CDs, he said.
'We try our best to make good things without being silly,' Loesch said. This aim meant, for example, testing more than 50 brands of capacitors to find out which gave the best sound quality, while rejecting capacitors made of silver (a 'crazy' Japanese invention, he said) - costing several thousand US dollars each - because using them did not make business sense.
Within reasonable cost limits, the team still goes for unconventional designs; its CD player, CD-77, for example, weighing 28kg, is an unusually heavy piece of equipment, and is almost 500cm in width and depth. Its solid, thick aluminium housing for the player was sourced from the aerospace industry to maximise vibration control and reduce resonance. Launching its luxury audio business in 2006 was a challenging time for the company because the subprime-mortgage crisis in the United States was starting to evolve into the financial crisis that shook the world.
For AMR, which sells amplifiers and CD players costing an average of Euro7,000 (HK$80,600) to Euro8,000 each, it became apparent that it needed to diversify its pool of clients, which was then based mainly in the US and Europe. So the company designed more affordable lines of audio equipment to cater to Asian tastes.
'Asia is very brand-conscious, while Europe and the US are more about the equipment itself, instead of brands,' said Loesch.
His company has focused its manufacturing in China and in Europe, and sources it electronic parts from around the world, but mainly from Europe and Japan.
Europe would remain the company's major manufacturing base for AMR's premium products because its level of technology was more sophisticated than that of the mainland, he said.
'The audio market is all about subtle differences,' Loesch said.
'In an age when you can play music from your mobile phone or from the iPad, you have to give people a reason to spend on a CD player.
'And AMR is here to provide a good reason.'