Linn Products’ managing director is keeping the firm focussed on quality audio – with a digital twist
YOU don’t have to spend long in the company of Linn Products’ affable MD to realise that music flows through his veins.
Within moments of arriving at the hi-fi manufacturer’s plant, nestled in the rolling Renfrewshire countryside just south of Glasgow, Gilad Tiefenbrun is enthusing about the internet messageboard projected on the wall above the reception area.
The “music moments” submitted by customers, staff and other web users from around the world highlight song lyrics and concert performances that have proved to be life-changing for their listeners.
From The Proms to Bruce Springsteen, these musical snapshots are both absorbing and enlightening. They also chime with Linn’s core philosophy.
Since its formation 40 years ago by Tiefenbrun’s father, Ivor, the company has placed accurate music reproduction above all else. To that end, it has frequently been at odds with the industry establishment.
Its first product – the now iconic LP12 record player, which remains in production – turned conventional hi-fi thinking on its head. Eschewing bells and whistles in favour of solid engineering, the deck neatly defined the maxim, “garbage in, garbage out”. Suddenly, it made more sense spending the bulk of one’s budget on the device for spinning discs and rather less on what came next – the amplifier and loudspeakers.
Fast forward to the middle of the last decade and Linn looked to be unassailable in the world of high-end audio. The firm boasted a royal warrant, its products featured in penthouse pads, luxury yachts, even Aston Martin cars, turnover had soared to more than £30 million and the workforce numbered about 300.
But it faced a rapidly changing marketplace, with downloading hurting sales of conventional media. Rising costs and a failed succession plan also took their toll, pushing the privately-owned group into the red.
In 2007, there was a sweeping restructuring involving the loss of scores of jobs and a dramatic fall in annual turnover.
These days, the slimmed-down company, which has a headcount of about 160, appears in rude health. Gilad Tiefenbrun says profit and revenues are set to rise in the current year, which ends in June, while the balance sheet is free of debt.
“We have worked so hard to get the business back in a strong profitable position,” stresses Tiefenbrun, as he flicks through the tracks on his mobile phone, which is sending sound wirelessly to one of Linn’s sleek digital streaming devices.
“This will be the fifth consecutive year of profit growth and we don’t want to jeopardise that. We are not under pressure from shareholders or bankers. We are a family business and are in charge of our own destiny.”
Tiefenbrun, who studied electronics and electrical engineering at Edinburgh University, was instrumental in the rebirth of the business. Overseeing a restructuring of Linn’s research and development activities, he refocused efforts on building a state-of-the-art music streaming platform.
Once again, the firm was ploughing its own furrow, ditching the manufacturing of CD players in favour of a digital networked future. Now, the latest generation of its groundbreaking “DS” music players are attracting plaudits from every corner of the world’s hi-fi press.
Tiefenbrun, who took over the reins as managing director in 2009, looks to a near-future where compatibility and inter-operability are both givens – where “everything works with everything else”.
He says: “Linn are leading with that message. We are taking our retailers in that direction and we are building a business network with other manufacturers that are like-minded, who all see the future on ‘the network’.
“It starts with audio, because that is our core area of expertise, and that’s what we love, but there is more that can be integrated over the network – lighting systems, heating, energy management, medical monitoring.
“Something different is going to emerge and we believe that it is the connected home – that is the new playing field. It is the biggest companies that are pushing this concept, the Googles of this world. As a hi-fi company you have to be careful that you are not marginalised.”
For an organisation that places such emphasis on musical fidelity and is at the forefront of “studio-quality” 24-bit downloading (compared with the CD’s 16-bit), Linn is not dismissive of seemingly “inferior” formats.
Tiefenbrun accepts that many people, particularly a younger generation raised on iPods and the internet, see the MP3 digital file as the de facto standard for music listening.
To make a point, he chooses a track from his mobile which has been recorded in just such a highly compressed manner, with much of the detail missing. Via a few thousand pounds worth of Linn electronics and speakers, it manages to get the foot tapping.
“The hi-fi industry has made people feel wrong for listening to MP3s,” Tiefenbrun argues. “But you will never have heard iTunes sound that good before. After demonstrating to people what an MP3 is capable of, you can push things to another level.”
At the opposite end of the quality scale, Linn has a deal with music publishing giant Universal to access its 24-bit catalogue. And discussions with another label have taken Tiefenbrun across the Atlantic to meet legendary singer-songwriter Neil Young.
International growth features large on the company’s priority list. The last set of financial accounts showed sales in the Americas, including the key US market, almost doubling while the firm is ramping up its Asian business to help offset weaker demand within the eurozone.
“China is the one that we really have to take seriously,” concedes Tiefenbrun. “We have had a business partner in Hong Kong for many years and have been working on building a sustainable route into the vast Chinese market. We are building relationships in key cities with key partners.”
He adds: “Russia has also been growing. We have a partner there who has opened a Linn-branded retail shop in St Petersburg. And through that we have recently seen a Linn-branded store launch in Moscow.
“The standards of retailing are very high. In the past, hi-fi retailing has been all about shelves of equipment and a wall of speakers, but this is like walking into a five-star hotel, very minimal.
“Hi-fi clearly needs to come out of the listening room and into the living room,” asserts Tiefenbrun.