Blue skies and green grass.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Bay Bloor Radio. Toronto’s premier audio/video store was my Disneyland and the late-Sol Mandlsohn was a tremendously warm host who became my mentor. Sol was also a poet; customers were often handed (or sold) a copy of his poetry and he was larger than life. High-end audio retail would not exist in Canada if not for Sol, and the chance that he took in 1946 turned his small radio repair store into one of the top stereo stores in the world.
The other thing that was larger than life was the McIntosh room.
Very few stores had the space or financial resources to carry a full lineup of McIntosh equipment in the 1980s and Bay Bloor Radio became a mecca for Canada’s rich and famous; hockey players, baseball players, and musicians like Rush front man, Geddy Lee.
Sol would always laugh when his sales team tried to push me out of the McIntosh room, but my curiosity was piqued and I spent countless hours listening to those magical music making machines with the blue meters manufactured across the border in Binghamton, New York.
Blue skies and green grass.
Binghamton and Toronto are not far apart from a driving perspective; unless you consider 6 hours too long of a drive to visit the world’s premier manufacturer of high-end audio components.
We made the drive from Toronto to New York City a lot. How my parents survived the ten hours of torture with 5 screaming children is something that only a therapist could explain but we drove through Binghamton more than 30 times during my childhood – and not once did we stop at the McIntosh factory.
My parents came out of the Holocaust; my mother was the child of survivors and born in a DP camp in Stuttgart, and my father’s family lost dozens of men, women, and children in the camps.
Frugality was part of my upbringing and while we were often the first people on our block to enjoy the latest in technology – McIntosh was far too expensive for my parents to even think about.
That changed after my Bar Mitzvah in 1983 when I was handed the keys to the camper; Yamaha CA-2010, Thorens TD-145, and a pair of Celestion Ditton 33 MKII loudspeakers.
My father came home one afternoon and asked me to play interference with my mother while Bay Bloor made a “delivery.”
Having been raised by a prosecutor who put serial rapists and child molesters behind bars for decades, I was genuinely fearful of getting on my mother’s bad side. Not even for a McIntosh stereo system.
I was genuinely shocked that he finally did it; what didn’t shock me was his order that nobody ever touch it.
Dad owned one of the largest pizza chains in Canada at the time and I’m pretty sure the scene from Goodfellas about stuffing the mailman in the oven was partially inspired by him and the people he worked with in the food and beverage industry.
Unlike Joel Goodsen, I did not take the McIntosh system for a spin and dunk it in Lake Ontario.
I’ve pretty much been envious of everyone who owns a McIntosh stereo system for most of my life; the irony is that I’ve spent the equivalent of 10 McIntosh MA-352 Integrated Amplifiers on hi-fi since 1988 and not one component had blues skies and green grass.
You’re probably wondering why I keep saying that.
Blue skies and green grass.
When McIntosh Labs finally invited me for a factory tour a few weeks ago, I picked up the phone to tell my beloved father in Florida that it was happening. He laughed but I could tell through the chewing (Jewish parents), that he was beyond jealous.
“Have fun. Don’t break anything. Don’t touch anything. Don’t embarrass me.”
Most people wouldn’t spend 7 hours in the car to visit a factory, but my kid also attends SUNY-Binghamton, and it was a perfect excuse to drag her home for the weekend.
McIntosh CEO, Charlie Randall, commands respect in the world of consumer electronics and quite evidently, in his factory as well.
Mark Christensen, Marketing Coordinator for McIntosh Labs, was a phenomenal host and I must confess that I was quite nervous when he left Charlie Randall and I alone so he could give me a proper tour of the factory and to answer some questions.
Like having Enzo Ferrari take you around to see all the magic.
McIntosh has been around for over 70 years, and the first thing that sticks out about the company is the culture.
I’ve visited a few dozen consumer electronics companies over the past 23 years, but none of them felt remotely like McIntosh Labs; not just from the perspective of scale but also how intense the operations felt; Binghamton is not exactly Silicon Valley with big tech on every corner and the pressure that comes with that, but the employees inside that building know that they are building something special.
They also love working for the company. Most people I asked, were in their second decade or starting their second decade at McIntosh.
Everyone acknowledged the presence of Charlie Randall as we stopped in front of their workstations and were almost proud to explain what they were doing and how they contribute to the overall finished product.
The technicians in the back by the lunchroom surrounded by racks of vintage and used high-end McIntosh products were the happiest people in the building.
“Imagine driving across the country with your amplifier on the front seat because you’re too afraid to ship it via FedEx or UPS. Our customers value their equipment that much. They even drive back to pick it up,” explained Randall as we looked over a table of equipment about to be serviced.
“It’s a testament to the quality of what we make and our customer service, that our customers never want to sell what they have. If something must be replaced or serviced, they do whatever they need to do to get it here. They also ask for a tour and we oblige,” remarked Randall as we walked from one giant manufacturing area into another.
“We’re so busy right now, we can’t even keep up with the demand. Our biggest challenge right now is hiring more people. Everyone is having the same issue and it’s more than just supply chain problems,” explained Randall.
I’ve heard more than a few audio manufacturers make that claim over the years, but in the case of McIntosh – it’s 100% true. The pandemic and lockdowns created a surge in orders and the company is growing on a global scale. The McIntosh Group is expanding into new markets and it’s fascinating to see such a huge level of demand for their products which are not exactly inexpensive.
There is a specific focus each week on different categories, and I was lucky enough to visit on a day when power amplifiers were being assembled and it wasn’t exactly quiet as machinery in different parts of the factory cut metal, stamped boards, or glass panels were cut, images printed, and products assembled and tested.
The factory shows its age but that’s also part of the charm. McIntosh was shuttered for almost 10 weeks at the start of the pandemic when COVID was tearing through New York and New Jersey, and it took a Herculean effort to get things back on track and by accounts – the building is running 5-6 days a week without pause.
What’s also clear walking around the factory, is the level of investment in both machinery and people.
Running a factory of this size requires a few hundred people working as part of a well-oiled machine and millions of dollars invested in the tools to make it happen. McIntosh makes many of the components in-house (heatsinks are made elsewhere) and nothing gets wasted.
It was quite clear that the staff love what they do – the enthusiasm of the lady who winds the transformers was palpable. She started bragging when asked by her boss how many she had made this month.
“I’m going to make over 1,000 transformers this month by hand,” she laughed before flipping her mask back up over her face and focusing on her work.
That’s a lot of expensive audio components going out the door.
Audiophile manufacturers are a funny lot; they are almost always universally smart engineers but not all of them are great marketers or businesspeople.
What sets McIntosh apart is just how large of an enterprise they’ve created and how important the marketing side of the business is. You don’t become a global brand without some marketing and sales acumen and it’s clear that Randall has enormous faith in David Mascioni, Marketing Director for McIntosh Group.
Will McIntosh Group be taking a cue from Focal and Naim and launching “Sonus faber powered by McIntosh” retail boutiques?
That’s not going to happen and it’s clear that the folks in Binghamton and Italy have both enormous faith in their existing dealer network, but also learned a few things from the WoM Townhouse in New York City and I would expect to see even more innovative things from them going forward.
The McIntosh Group is the global leader for a reason and I suspect they are about to put even more daylight between themselves and the competition.
The home theater room at the factory is a 17,000 watt experience that left me almost breathless (I took my mask off) after watching the “Live Aid” scene from Bohemian Rhapsody.
It didn’t even feel like the system was breaking a sweat as Freddie Mercury and Queen stole the show in London’s Wembley Stadium. I was seated in the middle of the room and it was definitely overwhelming in terms of the clarity and scale of the sound. Mark Christensen and I both exhaled before laughing together at the insanity of the scene.
As we were concluding, I asked Charlie Randall about the McIntosh blue meters and illuminated green logo on all their components.
“Don’t quote me on this 100%, but there was definitely some psychology behind it all. Something about creating a very special feeling for our customers that nobody else can deliver,” Randall replied with a smirk on his face.
Blue skies and green grass.