Greg Borrowman: You’ve been Music Hall for so long that I really know nothing about what you were doing prior to founding that company in 1985.
Roy Hall: I was working for Linn Products. I grew up with Ivor Teifenbrun in Scotland. When I told him I was moving to America in 1975 he asked if I wanted to build speakers in America, because he wanted to start manufacturing in the United States. I told him: ‘No, you’re my best friend; I’ll never work for you, so go f**k yourself.’ Four years later, after having being fired by Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Bamburgers and every other major retail company in America, I phoned Ivor and asked him: ‘Do you still want to do something in America?’
The result was I went back to Scotland for training, then opened a company in Manhattan called Isobarik Corporation which built Linn speakers under licence. After four years the company was losing money because of a very strange thing: exchange rate loss. The pound kept dropping in value versus the dollar so we were having to drop our prices to keep parity with Scotland. There are financial strategies you can use to offset exchange rate losses but I didn’t know them 30 years ago—and neither did Ivor—so we kept losing money.
We tried a last ditch effort to stay afloat by importing a line of turntables called Revolver but after a while realised it couldn’t keep the manufacturing operation going so Ivor and I agreed to close the company.
I continued on as the US distributor for Revolver turntables, which was an insane move, because it was 1985 and everyone was chucking out their turntables and buying CD players. But ignorance can be a great asset, so I didn’t know how ridiculous the idea was, and just went ahead and did it. Then I managed to pick up Creek Audio and then Epos and all of a sudden I had a business. And to my great surprise, I’m still in business 30 years later, still making money, and still making a profit… and still completely perplexed by it all.
GB: So you’re saying that you never actually worked for Linn in Scotland, you just knew Ivor personally?
RH: I never worked for him until after I had moved to America. We grew up together as kids: he just lived around the corner so, as kids do, we used to hang out. As we grew older, we started to do all the stupid things teenagers do… get drunk, try to pick up girls… I have a story about that. When Ivor was a teenager he was devastatingly handsome, so with his personality and good looks, he had no problem getting whoever he wanted, so he’d always get the good-looking ones! We had a great time together and we remain very good friends.
GB: So which Linn models were you making in Manhattan?
RH: I was manufacturing Kans, Saras and Isobariks. I always got stick from Scotland that my speakers weren’t up to their standards, but I found out later that my speakers had a cult following in America, because the Americans thought mine were better. Every time I say this to Ivor he gets very angry and tells me it’s not true, that I’m talking rubbish. ‘You’re full of sh*t Roy!’ he says.
GB: So with only a turntable to sell, landing the US distribution rights for Creek must have been a life-saver for you.
RH: Yes, getting Creek was a huge bonus. It came about because I thought they had a lousy US distributor at that time because there was never any stock… you always had to pre-order. I went and visited Mike Creek in England and, through the oddest of circumstances, he appointed me as his American distributor.
GB: In what way were they odd?
RH: What happened was that I had met Mike and his wife Susan at their home, to discuss my becoming his distributor. Later I get a phone call from Mike saying: ‘Yes, you can be our US distributor.’ I didn’t ask him at the time, but I was curious, so years later I asked him why he’d chosen me over the several other US distributors I knew had also approached him. He told me that it was all because of Susan and my raincoat. I told him I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. ‘After you left, Susan told me that you must be rich, because you were wearing an Armani raincoat, so I should appoint you as the distributor,’ he explained. ‘I don’t own an Armani raincoat,’ I told him. ‘You must,’ said Mike, ‘because Susan says you do.’ After that, I went up and checked my closet and sure enough, Susan was right: I did own an Armani raincoat. I’d bought it when it was on sale while I was working at Macy’s and, until then, I really hadn’t realised it was an Armani. So that’s how I became Creek’s US distributor, all because of a raincoat. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true… you just can’t make this sh*t up.
GB: You started your business being exclusively two-channel equipment and you’re still exclusively two-channel. Was that a plan, mere happenstance, or do you just not like multi-channel?
RH: I think it was one of the more intelligent things I’ve done. When surround and multichannel started to become popular in the 90s I looked into it and said to myself ‘I know nothing about this stuff, and the technology is changing so rapidly that if I make one mistake I’m stuffed’, so I stuck with what I knew… two-channel. I once bumped into a manufacturer at CES who told me: ‘Roy, I’ve always admired you. You never went into multi-channel, you just stuck to your guns. I went into multi-channel and lost a million dollars.’
GB: I can see that it’s dangerous from a business sense, because it’s always changing, but what do you personally think of multi-channel?
RH: I think surround is OK when you’re using it to watch movies but using it to listen to music seems weird. Sound isn’t all around us, and the nonsense about hearing the music as if you were the conductor in an orchestra is just rubbish, because what a conductor is hearing is totally different from what the guy with two ears sitting ‘way back in the hall is hearing. I think surround sound is just an artefact but I stuck with two-channel because it’s what I know… it’s within my comfort zone.
GB: You’ve been in the hi-fi business a long time, and like everyone else, you’ve witnessed prices rising exponentially. It occurred to me that you might know the reason?
RH: Margin. If you’re in the real high-end market you make more margin, so if you can convince someone to not buy a $500 amplifier, and instead to buy a $5,000 amplifier, it’s possible to make a ton more money. When you have products that retail for two, three, four hundred dollars you don’t make much money on those products, even if you sell a lot, because you just can’t make margin selling at these prices. But I like that sector of the market, because I like selling good value-for-money products: it gives me a great deal of pleasure. I’d have a great problem keeping a straight face if I had to say to someone: ‘And it only costs $10,000.’ There are people out there who will sell you $100,000 speakers and think they’re doing you a favour.
GB: But do people appreciate lower-priced products?
RH: All the time I have people thanking me for selling such great products and for keeping my prices so low. That’s one of the other reasons I like this sector of the market. Mind you, it doesn’t always work that way; someone once called me a price gouger because I charged him fifteen dollars for an anti-skate weight.
GB: While it’s true that most of your gear is affordable, you do have some fairly expensive products in your line…
RH: We have a turntable that sells for around $4,500 but all of our real business is in the $250 to $1,500 price range, and it’s a range that’s built on a simple idea: Good, Better, Best. Each model is a step above the other. Others manufacturers which I won’t name, such as Pro-Ject, have a big one, a small one, a wooden one, a plastic one, a round one, a square one… they offer whatever flavour and colour you want. We have three or four models in a range. First there’s a basic one. When you step up (to the Basis 2.2) it has a better bearing, a better platter, a better arm, and a better cartridge. Step up again and you have an external motor, a split plinth with sorbothane damping, an acrylic platter and a better cartridge. Step up again and you get speed control, a multi-layer split plinth, a top-line Pro-Ject tonearm and a better cartridge. It’s a very coherent line, and there’s a simplicity to it: you can understand the line. I like to keep things simple. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old.
GB: Since you mentioned Pro-Ject, I will too, to ask why if all your turntables are made by Pro-Ject, why didn’t you just ask to distribute Pro-Ject in the US, rather than have them build turntables specifically for you?
RH: I met Heinz Lichtenegger, who not only owns Pro-Ject, but is also the Epos distributor in Austria, about 15 years ago at an after-show party at CES. He’s a really lovely guy and we really hit it off. I was telling him about my history with Revolver, and he asked me ‘How would you like to have a turntable?’ I replied: ‘But you already have a distributor in America.’ [Sumiko]. It turned out that his idea was that if I became competitor for Sumiko, with my own turntable, it would really stir them up. Well it certainly did that. First Sumiko tried to get rid of me. They rang Heinz, asked why he was supplying me and asked him to cut me off. Heinz said no. Then they changed their whole pricing structure for Pro-Ject, dropping all the prices… and so they should have, they were selling what should have been a $300 turntable for $800…they were just pushing their luck. In the end it worked out well for everyone. I ended up with lots of publicity for Music Hall because I was the new kid on the block, Sumiko ended up selling lots more turntables, and consumers ended up with better value for money. It was very clever of Heinz. Later on we teamed up to use the same strategy in Germany. Heinz wasn’t happy with the performance of his Pro-Ject distributor and asked me to start selling Music Hall in Germany, so I did… and exactly the same thing happened.
GB: You also don’t make your own phono cartridges, so where do you have them made?
RH: In the past we have had them made in Japan by Nagaoka, but right now all our cartridges are made for us in Denmark by Ortofon.
GB: You started out distributing Mike Creek’s electronics, yet now you’re building your own electronics. What does Mike Creek think about that?
RH: What do you think he thinks?
GB: I think he’d be pissed off!
RH: Let me enlarge on that whole subject. When I became the Creek distributor, I became Mike’s main man—we did a lot of business. Then Mike sold his company to TGI, after which I continued to be the US distributor for Creek. One day TGI called a special meeting of all Creek distributors at Tannoy, which was owned by TGI, in Scotland. We thought we were going to be shown a new line, but Alex Munro from Tannoy got up and said ‘Which one of you would like to buy Creek, because we want to get rid of it.’ Several of us formed a consortium, bought the company, appointed Mike Creek as CEO and gave him shares for free. So I was a part-owner of Creek for about seven or eight years. I did it because Creek was my main product, so it was important to keep the company alive. After about eight years, when Mike wanted to buy the company back, I sold him my share for about fifty per cent of what I paid for it. Some people tell me that that wasn’t good business, but it was actually the best investment I’ve ever made in my life, because by keeping Creek alive, I kept Music Hall alive. It was at that point that he bought Epos, so I started distributing that as well. Anyway, one morning, in a fit of genius, I realised that every product I sold was made by Mike Creek, so if he keeled over, I would be out of business. That’s when I decided to diversify by building my own line of electronics. Mike was certainly pissed off… he still is... but I keep my price points ‘way lower than his, and that’s my fealty towards him. He’s also pissed off with me because I don’t sell as much Creek as I used to, but that’s because my main business is now turntables… I sell upwards of 7,000 a year… and that means that unfortunately for Mike, his products don’t get as much effort as they deserve.
GB: What’s the story behind your lowest-priced turntable, the USB-1?
RH: The USB-1 is the only turntable we have made in China. Basically a stripped-down version of the Technics SL-1200, it’s a great little table. The reason behind it is that I read an article that said Crosley sells a million Executive Black turntables every year—it’s a table that sells for $US109 dollars with arm and cartridge that in my opinion is just a heap of rubbish. Hearing this pissed me off so much we went out looking for a solution. We couldn’t make that price-point, but what we have is pretty good. The USB-1 is a really lovely turntable: it looks good, sounds good, is totally reliable, and it has a USB output.
GB: Do people use the USB output to convert their vinyl to digital so they don’t have to fuss with their LPs?
RH: Some people do the USB thing, and I can see the convenience of having a digital music library, but I think it’s a silly thing to do. The whole point of vinyl is so that you can listen to it playing back an LP. Call me old-fashioned, but music is very important to me.
GB: What system do you have at home?
RH: I have the latest Creek amplifier, the 100A, driving a pair of Epos K3s… plus of course, I have one or two turntables including an LP12, which is just a fantastic table. It’s actually my reference, so when I listen to one of my new turntables I always compare it to the Linn. I don’t think I’ve yet made one that sounds as good but my wife thinks my 9.1 sounds better. I can’t agree with her… to me the sound of the LP12 still has something magical about it.
GB: What would your desert island music selection be? Three selections only please!
RH: I’d certainly have some Dvorak, because he really speaks to me. Over the years every time I’ve heard a piece of classical music I liked but didn’t know, it has always turned out to be by Dvorak. I’d probably have a Beatles album… actually I’d take the boxed set I already own… that surely counts as one selection. My third disc would have to be Joni Mitchell’s first album, ‘Song to a Seagull’… you know, the one with Michael from Mountains on it. I met her once: my wife introduced us.
GB: Do you have a particular song you use when you’re comparing your turntables against the LP12?
RH: I use River, from Joni Mitchell’s album ‘Blue’ for testing a lot, because I’m really familiar with it. I have a story about that. I was visiting my Korean distributor and he wanted me to audition one of his customers’ system. He had these huge Tesseract Statement speakers, Boulder amps…I forget what else, but I asked him to play River for me and it was a f*cking travesty. Whether it was the gear, the component matching, the room… I’d don’t know, but I am constantly amazed at how people spend so much money yet their systems don’t sound any good. For me the test of any system isn’t how much you spent on it, or what components are in it, but how good it sounds—and for me a system either sounds good or it doesn’t. It’s dead easy.
GB: So how do you personally judge whether a system sounds good?
RH: If you find your body reacting unconsciously, so you suddenly realise you’re moving your feet or your hands, then you know you’re listening to good sound. I’m sorry to say that I hear very few systems that rock my boat.
GB: You’ve been quoted as saying that you’re happy with any review of your equipment, so long as it’s a fair review. What, for you, constitutes a review that’s ‘fair’?
RH: A fair review is one where the reviewer isn’t an idiot. (Laughs) Let me qualify what I mean by that. I know journalists. I grew up with journalists. My wife was one. I have friends with three or four Pulitzers between them. And what I know about journalists is that they’re all just a lazy bunch of bastards looking for a story. And if you give them a story it saves them from working. The one talent journalists have is they have is that they can turn a story into something magical, because they’re wordsmiths, and that’s a great talent. But in hi-fi, people who do hi-fi journalism for a while start thinking they know something about hi-fi, but what they don’t understand is they know f*ck-all about hi-fi… all they know is how to write. So my beef with most hi-fi journalists is that they know nothing about hi-fi. If I give them something amusing or outrageous to say I’ll get press, and I’m not above doing that. I can tell from a review whether the writer actually has listened or understood what a product’s about and when he doesn’t… it’s very obvious to me. Maybe it’s not obvious to his readers, but I’m in the business: I know about this stuff. When I read something that someone has obviously written just for the sake of doing 1,000 words, then I’m going to get very nasty, so most of my responses to reviews are either directly or indirectly saying: ‘Go f*ck yourself’. I often end up reviewing the reviewer. There’s a bit of conceit in there, because my responses get me noticed, and there’s no harm in that. It certainly doesn’t hurt sales.
GB: You’re famous for doling out Scotch whisky at hi-fi shows. Why?
RH: I look at publicity as a totality. A listing on a ‘recommended list’, a review, an interview, a mention… and I get mentioned more for giving out Scotch whisky at shows than I do for my hi-fi. It came about because when I first started I took a bottle of Scotch whisky—because I like whisky, and I’m Scottish—around a hi-fi show and gave people glasses of whisky. It was my first show and I wasn’t even an exhibitor! Then, when we did start exhibiting, one bottle became two bottles, then three. Vegas is now an 8–10 bottle show, which means I’ll be spending over $US1,000 on whisky, because I don’t buy cheap whisky. If you’re going to put it in your mouth, it should taste good. So the whisky is a part of the totality of the publicity, which means you become part of the zeitgeist of the industry. I think my products speak for themselves, but a little bit of extra publicity doesn’t hurt.
GB: So what Scotch whisky would you recommend?
RH: I’m a big fan of Islay malts, they’re very peaty, but let me tell you a story about whisky. I was in Bowmore, in Islay, and saw a bottle that cost £1,000. So I went in and said: ‘I’m Scottish, you’re Scottish, so what’s with the price?’ He smiled, and told me that it was originally £500, but because they never sold any they’d doubled the price. Since then, they’d sold three bottles… all to Japanese tourists!
GB: There’s a moral there about people’s perception of value vs. price that could just as easily apply to your products.
RH: It’s true that some people don’t take me seriously because my prices are too cheap. But it all depends on what I want to do as a company. I don’t know if it’s a moral obligation, but I do feel that it’s incumbent on me to make sure my products are value for money. So as long as I make a margin, I don’t need to price gouge… unless it’s with anti-skating weights [Laughs]. I also like that my pricing means I kind of f*ck with the competition.
GB: How do you decide what products will be in your line? Is it market research, or consumer demand, or inspiration?
RH: Desperation, usually. I have a guy, Leyland, who’s worked for me for 20 years. He’s got good ears, and we just talk about what we might need. Our new phono amplifier was the result of us discovering that about 30 per cent of older LPs have their phase inverted… they’re out of absolute phase. That’s why most phono amplifiers built in the 1950s used to have a phase inverter switch.
GB: What’s your most memorable musical experience?
RH: In recent times, probably Leonard Cohen when I saw him at Madison Square Garden. Even aged 78 he was so, so amazing. I have always been a fan, and seeing him live was an unbelievable experience: I’d see him again in a heartbeat. But the most memorable concert I ever saw was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth by the Scottish Symphony at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, which I saw with Ivor. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up almost from beginning to end. I’ve never forgotten it. # Interview by greg borrowman
Pictured Below: Roy Hall (left) pictured in Australia in 2016 with Michael Thornton-Smith, of Convoy International, Music Hall's Australian distributor.