It’s a balmy afternoon on Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s artsy SoHo district. Just to the south, beyond Petrosino Square, is the old police headquarters condo that the likes of Cindy Crawford and Calvin Klein have called home. At the corner of Spring Street is The Dominick Hotel (until recently the Trump SoHo), where a one-bedroom “Sauna Suite” will set you back $769 a night. Sipping their $4 doppios from Café Select, Manhattanites sun themselves on the sidewalk benches, watching the designer dogs trot by.
More or less in the center of this urban milieu is a place that’s posh even by SoHo standards. It’s a retail showroom known to draw customers who touch down in private jets out at JFK. It’s accessed by a massive pair of hardwood doors hinged into a beaux-arts arch of granite. But good luck finding the place—there’s no sign over the door, which is locked from the inside in any case. An invitation is what’s required to get in here.
The place in question is called the World of McIntosh. And, before you assume it’s the latest minimalist showplace brought to you by Apple, a critical point should be made: This is the other McIntosh—in fact, it’s the first McIntosh. The name belongs to a super high-end brand of home stereo equipment, a company that’s been in business since 1949. In 1980, a long-haired hippie named Steve Jobs negotiated the rights to use the McIntosh name for a home computer he would introduce in 1984—but more on that later.
By any measure, the World of McIntosh is an impressive space—a 12,000-foot bachelor pad with glove leather sofas, a library and a roof garden, all housed within a late 19th-century former power station whose soaring ceilings and exposed brickwork create an industrial-chic expanse unlike any other in New York.
But if there’s one thing more ambitious than the structure itself, it’s the strategy behind it.
While it’s easy enough to find dealers that carry high-priced audio equipment, McIntosh is alone in creating an immersive showplace for its goods—and the audio punch they pack—in a setting that resembles the luxury row houses and country estates that many of its customers already live in. With the World of McIntosh, or WOM, the brand has taken the concept of experiential marketing and manifested it to the fullest degree imaginable.
“We invite and take appointments for guests to visit the WOM townhouse and experience the culture we designed here, with our artistic decoration and, most importantly, with our audio systems,” says David Mascioni, McIntosh Group’s senior marketing manager. “The idea is to immerse the guests in what the ultimate house would be with McIntosh Group products. We aim to inspire.”
The original McIntosh
At a time when internet discounting is the rule and millions of Americans opt to listen to music on a pair of $8 Panasonic ear buds, it’s no small feat that a brand like McIntosh has endured—indeed, prospered—for over seven decades.
Electrical engineer Frank H. McIntosh was a veteran of Bell Telephone who worked on radio and radar systems during WWII. After the war, McIntosh realized that returning GIs were rapidly creating a sizeable middle class with a keen interest in home electronics, in particular high-fidelity stereo. The problem was that the amplifiers then on the market didn’t come close to McIntosh’s ideal of a high-powered, low-distortion amps that would satisfy the growing market of American audiophiles. The only solution McIntosh could see was to create and build those amplifiers himself.
In 1951, setting up a small factory in Binghamton, N.Y., McIntosh began turning out a remarkable series of amps, preamps and tuners that were the best the market had seen. Among the company’s early breakthroughs was the MC-275 tube amp. Introduced in 1961, the blockbuster unit featured two 75-watt amplifiers on the same chassis. It won such acclaim with hi-fi enthusiasts that the company still makes it to this day.
Thanks to its pioneering technologies, McIntosh quickly established itself as the final word in high-end audio. It was McIntosh that rigged up the amplification system for President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address in 1965. And when the Grateful Dead debuted their famous “Wall of Sound” PA system in 1974, it was McIntosh that supplied the 50 amplifiers that powered it.
The aspirational stereo system
Today, despite there being a slew of high-end audio brands on the market, McIntosh still holds a place on the top rack, its reputation established in both two-channel stereos and home theater surround-sound systems. The equipment routinely wins ribbons (like the Diapason D’or 2017 Hi-fi Award) and accolades—“the Lamborghini of the home audio world,” CNET has written—and it has the prices to match.
As a starter piece of equipment, a classic MC275 will set you back $4,500, for instance. A 450-watt MC452 power amp retails for $8,500. And if you pine for an MC2KW 2,000-watt quad balanced monoblock power amp, you’ll need to be prepared to fork over $40,000.
It follows that home-audio shoppers will have no luck finding McIntosh at discount chains like Best Buy. They’re not for sale on Amazon or, for that matter, anywhere else on the web. The company sells only through authorized dealers, and there are only about 200 of those in the entire country.
And that creates a problem. “To be honest,” CEO Charlie Randall says, “the hardest thing is getting people exposed to the product.”
Audio stores can’t always stock the full array of products McIntosh has to offer. And those cramped, soundproof listening rooms don’t really approximate the sorts of home environments the equipment will be going into. The solution, at least for the customer who plans to drop serious coin on an audio system for the whole house or multiple houses, is the WOM, a private spot where would-be customers can experience the depth and breadth of what a serious stereo system can do.
Behind the doors of No. 214
The first thing a visitor to 214 Lafayette lays eyes on is a window of thick plate glass that looks onto the deep section of a swimming pool. (If the pool seems familiar, it may be because Beyoncé took a dip in it in the 2008 video for her song “Halo.”) The swimming pool is among the townhouse’s many extravagances, but it actually has a marketing purpose. Prospective clients invited to WOM are given a cocktail and invited to stroll along the pool deck and admire the hanging canvases McIntosh has commissioned from local artists—artists who, one is told, were listening to music on McIntosh systems while they worked.
On the floors above, visitors wind their way through a warren of posh, dimly lit rooms—a library, a lounge and a cavernous living room that a century ago housed the hulking rotary converters that fed electricity to the neighborhood. The furniture—leather sofas, hardwood desks, crystal lamps—comes from designer Timothy Oulton, who also designs for Restoration Hardware. Antiques and original artwork, such as the Keith Haring that adorns the bare brick, are both rare and original.
Amid all this finery, it can be hard to see why these indulgences serve the purpose of selling stereos, but WOM’s head of experiences Josh Dellinger is happy to explain.
“We try to create beautiful vignettes all over the house,” he says, because they help customers envision what the McIntosh equipment will look like in their own houses. “It helps to show what [the equipment] looks like fully integrated in a beautiful environment.”
Mascioni adds that prospective customers will often come with their spouses or significant others who may not share their mate’s rapt enthusiasm for pricey stereo equipment. In a case like this, design can help make the sale. “Maybe one has a love for audio but his or her partner loves art or design,” Mascioni says. “We need both of them to feel inspired by their experience.”
Amplifiers as art
In this respect, McIntosh is well suited to a backdrop of art and antiques, since heritage is a core part of its branding. McIntosh equipment (still assembled by hand at its facility in Binghamton) remains compatible with units the company built decades ago, thousands of which are still in faithful service in dens across America. The company has taken pains to make sure that the new equipment is aesthetically compatible with the older stuff, too. Even the latest components feature the signature black glass consoles, chrome trim, exposed vacuum tubes and atomic green glow emanating from behind the McIntosh name and rendered in an old English font.
“The customer can buy a player, put it on the rack and have a modern twist—but it’s guaranteed to match the [older] product,” CEO Randall explains. “Part of our hallmark is the look. People can either love it or hate it, but it’s true to form.”
Getting on the guest list
Securing an invitation to 214 Lafayette St. isn’t as hard as it may seem. Most customers who come by are invited by a local dealer, who wants to show off specific pieces of equipment.
“Let’s say your normal McIntosh customer visits New York City,” Randall explains. “Those people aspire to the brand, and they want to go see it. That’s one way [to get invited].”
Even so, a space this lush obviously doesn’t justify its existence by catering solely to your casual, affluent audiophile. Occupying center stage in the big room is McIntosh’s just-released XRT2.1K, a four-way loudspeaker with 81 drivers and a list price of $130,000 for the pair. Obviously, the rich and famous are a big part of McIntosh’s business and, for this crowd, privacy is the order of the day.
“There are a lot of customers who don’t want to go into Joe’s Stereo—affluent people, famous people,” Randall says. “These people have multiple houses, [or] maybe they’re going to do a house in New York. They trust the dealer. They don’t have to show up at a showroom.”
For clients like these, McIntosh will sometimes hire a chef who will cook a multicourse dinner and create an entire evening that includes cocktails on the roof garden and, of course, listening to music. “Our goal is to have a guest who feels inspired,” Mascioni says, “and who enjoyed a one-of-a-kind experience.”
Making the marketing grade
To be sure, the WOM experience is pretty unusual—but does it make sense from a marketing perspective? Andrea Mestrovic, partner and vp of brand strategy at the Very Polite Agency, says yes—but only just.
“It’s wise that they’re providing another environment for customers to experience the product [since] this kind of customer requires more than a standard retail environment at the mall,” she says. Even so, Mestrovic believes that the townhouse’s environment limits the profile of customer that the brand appeals to.
“The place is incredible, but it’s targeted at a very specific, particular guy,” Mestrovic says. “If they had a surprise and delight component beyond a leather couch, you’d have more things to talk about.”
For his part, branding and marketing consultant Hayes Roth, founder and principal of HA Roth Consulting, believes the WOM affords plenty to talk about.
“This is all about brand experience, and a [high-end] experience is very tough to deliver properly except when you can totally control the environment,” he says. “So what McIntosh is able to do—and they should do it, since they’re one of the top brands—is go beyond creating a story. They’ve created an entire brownstone where you can live the environment from room to room. It’s quite inspired. It’s going after your customer with a full commitment.”
But what cost, that commitment? How does even a luxury brand justify the cost of running what amounts to a five-story club in the trendiest neighborhood in Manhattan?
The answer is that the WOM, while not cheap, costs less than it looks. First off, the high-end interior furnishings and many accessories were installed free of charge by McIntosh’s many partner brands, which benefit from the face time they get with McIntosh customers. Designer Timothy Oulton, home-cinema brand Barco, landscape lighting Coastal Source—all are brands that installed their wares at the WOM gratis.
Second, McIntosh didn’t purchase the townhouse—it rents. (The property is reportedly owned by German-born horror director Marcus Nispel, who brought us the 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” among other films.) And while the rent on the property is considerable—“we look at it as a marketing expense,” Randall says—it’s largely offset by subleasing.
McIntosh rents the WOM to other brands—Google and Microsoft, for example—to hold events for their own clients. These companies aren’t just renting a cool space, they also benefit from the association with a storied, high-end brand like McIntosh. And, of course, the’ll pay top dollar.
“With the co-branding we’re able to do, we can recoup 60 percent of the cost [of the rent],” Randall says.
One company that seems unlikely to rent the space is Apple, with whom McIntosh has a cordial if rueful relationship. Thirty-eight years ago, Apple was a brand barely out of Steve Jobs’ garage in Los Altos, Calif., when it approached McIntosh for the rights to use the name on a personal computer. McIntosh management was charitable to the tiny Apple Computer.
“They bought [the name] for a year for a little bit of money and then came back about bought it for the next five years—for about five times that little bit of money,” Randall says. “But it’s still nothing. The agreement still exists basically as it was.”
If he dreams of royalties that will never be, at least Randall has a townhouse where he can mix a drink, settle into a leather sofa and contemplate lower Manhattan through the huge casement windows.
And the music coming from the $130,000 speakers sounds pretty good, too.