Asian Tour: Just As Tracy Sang

by Roy Gregory | June 1, 2012

f Bangkok introduced me to the notion of well-stocked stores, nothing quite prepared me for the visual and sensory onslaught of Hong Kong’s hi-fi scene. Not only are you dealing with the sheer bustle and energy of Hong Kong itself, but the pressures of real estate prices colliding head on with the most rapacious consumers on the planet. This makes for an extremely focused -- actually, let’s make that intense -- retail environment. The equivalent of High Street dealers, often secreted down narrow alleys or in multilevel malls, bring new meaning to the terms "stack it high"; and it’s not just entry-level kit we’re talking here. The average dealer is packed so tight that taking any kind of photograph would require major physical contortion and a lens with a much wider angle of view than I possess. However, by way of illustration, I’ve included a shot of Digital Pavilion (below), one of the more relaxed retail environments I visited. I apologize for the quality of the photography, but it’s worth including the image just to make the point.

Yes, those are Avalon times, along with a complete Goldmund setup, including several different pairs of mono amps, not to mention Thiel, Burmester, Jeff Rowland, Esoteric, Sonus Faber and a ton of other seriously expensive kit. And just get a load of that speaker wall; you’re not exactly starved for choices -- although actually making a decision could be quite a challenge. Like the lady sang, ". . .mountains and mountains of things."

But in amongst these more "traditional" dealers, new approaches to retail are beginning to emerge. KEF have their own "concept" stores spread across the island, showing their entire range of product in a variety of A/V and two-channel systems -- and interior environments that would be wholly familiar to US or UK consumers, and with a host of mid-range electronics on tap, as well as high-end offerings from Krell, Marantz and Musical Fidelity.

Perhaps even more interesting is Aura, a store that has grown out of the headphone/personal-audio market. Occupying spacious and uncluttered premises, perched in a technology mall on the highly desirable Kowloon Waterfront, the shop is spacious, relaxed and stylishly uncluttered. A diagonal "fence" of glass cases displays high-end ‘phones the way Cartier do diamond necklaces -- single audio artworks, each in its own dedicated space.

One wall shows an array of micro-systems tailored for iPod or computer audio sources, but includes tube designs, the funkier speaker options and more inventive solutions. The Ferguson-Hill ovoid, horn-loaded desktop speakers and transparent spherical subs, are just one example, with the likes of Fatman, Focal, Final and Lehmann Audio filling out the roster. On the other side of the shop, there’s an array of some of the more stylish or just downright satisfying loudspeaker systems (you know -- the sort we all used to listen to in our youth).

Open until 9:00 PM every night, Aura makes life easy for its customers while building bridges between the music solutions they already own and use and options that offer higher-quality or alternative presentation -- all while still embracing the ethos and style/brand consciousness that make Beats the hip headphone of choice amongst switched-on (or just plain showy) younger listeners.

The other big difference you immediately notice in Hong Kong is the shifting role of the distributor. Okay, so each business is serving a geographically tiny and incredibly concentrated customer base, but they are virtually all acting as both distributor and dealer for the brands they carry. Some of the lower-end lines or more affordable models will find their way out to other outlets, but for a lot of the more exclusive or eclectic brands, the distributor also represents their sole retail outlet. That means a distributor's offices/showrooms have to double as retail space, meaning that the interiors of many of them have far more in common with the sort of high-end dealerships you find in the US and UK than the office cum shipping operations that typify distributors in those markets.

But that’s the insides; the shop fronts are another matter altogether -- there generally aren’t any! Most of the distributors -- and even a lot of high-end dealers -- are located in high-rise blocks. The street entrance can often be nothing more than a narrow doorway wedged between offices and shops and leading to a lift lobby. Follow the name plate, push the button and when the doors open you step straight out of the elevator and into a reception area that more often than not doubles as a listening room. There’ll be other rooms leading off it, but only the most luxurious of premises can afford to give over costly space to nothing more than meeting and greeting. But once you step across that threshold, you are entering the high-end equivalent of Aladdin’s cave.

Hong Kong distributors come in just as many shapes and sizes as they do in more familiar markets (at least in terms of equipment; physically they invariably seem to be younger and slimmer than their US and UK counterparts). Let’s take a look at a cross-section. Almost next door to Digital Pavilion you’ll find Radar, long-established distributors for Naim Audio, dCS and ProAc. This was possibly the most Euro of all the distributors I visited, with modest rooms that avoid being overstuffed with their merchandise. Even so, they quickly established the basic ground rule I was to see repeated everywhere I went: if you are distributing a product that means you have it in stock -- all of it, everything the company builds. So in the Radar listening rooms you could see not just the entire dCS range, including the flagship Scarlatti setup, but everything that Naim make (including the speakers) and pretty much everything available from ProAc as well as the other brands they represent. I didn’t actually conduct a head count, but there were no obvious gaps I could see. That might seem like an obvious thing, but you’d be amazed to know how limited the stock is that many UK and US distributors hold, their tendency being to cherry-pick ranges and not restock units that move through more slowly. Just go looking for review samples and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum, Excel occupy a suite of offices above a luxury shopping mall. It’s an address that fits in well with a product lineup that includes Siltech and Crystal Cable, speakers from Vivid, EgglestonWorks, Magnepan and Ktema, and electronics from D’Agostino, Dartzeel, Audio Analogue, Graaf and Mimetism. They also supply racks from Grand Prix Audio and Basis turntables -- although that was one range that wasn’t fully represented. Once again, though, the depth of stock and both the space and its presentation were first class. Maybe it’s the physical constraints on operating premises, but I don’t think a single shop or listening room I visited in Hong Kong had less than thoughtful and in some cases pretty extensive acoustic treatment, something that’s not entirely uncommon in the US but almost unheard of in the UK.

But in many respects, perhaps the most individual yet representative distributor I met was Ernest Lau of Ernest Audio. Ernest is an accomplished guitarist, both recording and performing, as well as a distributor of high-end exotica and a legendary collector of analog front-ends. His store is tucked away in a typical high-rise location, but that’s as far as anything straightforward goes. Once you get past the reception area/listening room, populated by high-performance/high-value brands such as VPI and the smaller VTL models, you enter the inner sanctum. This is a golden ratio space constructed within the building itself, wood paneled and virtually covered in Michael Green tuning products -- all those squares in the photo.

The urbane Mr. Lau is charm personified, his gentle manner quite disarming until one glance at the installed system leaves you with a sneaking suspicion that inside that cultured exterior lurks the mind of a power-crazed audiophile. It’s not the massive Rockport Arrakis speakers -- the only part-active set in existence -- although Lord knows those are impressive enough. Nor the two VTL Siegfried monoblocks and the S-400 stereo amp doing the driving. It’s the lineup of turntables behind them. There’s a spiral Groove SG1, a massive Clearaudio Master Statement and a Pierre Lurne model I’ve never seen before. It’s the Rockport Sirius III lurking quietly in the rear left corner that arrests the attention. The air-everything Rockport is an engineering work of art. Back in the day it sold for 54,000 in the UK -- and looking at the rash of $100,000 turntables out there today you have to conclude, on engineering grounds alone, it was an absolute bargain. It is also extremely rare, which is what makes its presence here so significant -- that and the fact that it is one of four Rockport ‘tables that Ernest owns.

Hong Kong is an extreme environment, and it rewards and entertains extreme consumption, extreme personalities and extreme expertise. If anything summed up the strange mix of stratospherically priced equipment with the ultra attention to detail that’s necessary to really make it sing, then it was my visit to Ernest Audio and the long chat I enjoyed with Ernest himself. As they say, any fool with money can buy a fast car, but you need to learn how to drive it.

The Audio Beat • Nothing on this site may be reprinted or reused without permission.