“The way I do business is not about having a filing cabinet full of brands. I feel for us to do a really good job we have to focus on a group of products, and then go and work really hard at growing those brands... We’re in a positive place, we’ve got a business that’s structured to do all that business. Good brands, and good people.”

Geoff Matthews, Managing Director of Convoy International after more than 50 years with the company, passed away on February 28th 2019 in Engadine NSW, due to unexpected complications from a recent illness. He will be enormously missed in the industry, and by all those who knew him. At Sound+Image we last enjoyed his company at a big Convoy event last year held in Bowral, and our interview with him from then is reprinted below. He preferred straight face-to-face or telephone talk to email, but it was not unusual for him to take the time to thank us for a positive review or to comment on an issue: “Take a big drink as a reward for your great work on the streaming audio issue of Sound & Image!” he wrote after we conducted a big group test of multiroom systems which included Convoy’s Bluesound ecosystem.

And he never lost his passion for the music-making abilities of good audio equipment, even after more than 50 years in the business, having joined Convoy back in 1966/1967. Back in 2016 when Convoy relinquished the headphone and portable speaker business of JBL while retaining the higher-end operations of the brand, he was as enthusiastic as ever about Convoy’s ongoing business:
 

Entering our sixth decade in audio,” he said then, “I can’t recall a more exciting time for music and sound enthusiasts. We are witnessing an amazing transformation of our Component Audio business into a High Definition landscape. In addition to the familiar formats, we now have access to true HD digital audio content, coupled with incredible sonic improvements in amplifier and loudspeaker systems: it’s a very exciting time.

Convoy's Wolloomooloo premises in 1976 with a huge 'C' across the building.
Image from Electronics Australia, courtesy Silicon Chip.

Forty years earlier, back in June 1976, Electronics Australia reported on Geoff as the head of Convoy Service, “who has recently visited Japan, spending time with Nakamichi and Accuphase”. At that time Convoy was 11 years on from its founding in March 1965 by its then Chairman Malcolm Goldfinch, with son Andrew Goldfinch heading ‘Convoy Sound’, Neville Rayner the Wholesale division, and with Dennis Gowing as Managing Director. The company had recently restyled its premises at the lower end of Dowling Street, Wooloomooloo, with three showrooms and most notably a giant ‘C’ painted across the entire building (see image above, courtesy Electronics Australia/Silicon Chip).

Australian Hi-Fi magazine has covered more of Geoff’s history in its obituary this week on AVHub, which can be read here: Hi-Fi Industry Luminary Geoff Matthews Dies

 

An interview

In the last few years Matthews has led Convoy International through a series of major changes, including the move from longstanding premises in Botany to Convoy’s new home in Milperra, and the rebuilding of their raft of brands after Bowers & Wilkins ended their relationship of more than 40 years with Convoy to establish its own operations in Australia. When we spoke with Geoff last year, the Convoy team was presenting its new identity at a big event in Bowral, and Geoff was clearly pleased that the changes had reached fruition in a new and solid collection.

“The way I do business is not about having a filing cabinet full of brands,” he told us. “I feel for us to do a really good job we have to focus on a group of products, and then go and work really hard at growing those brands.

“But in this day and age, you know, you can wake up and these things have changed overnight. The B&W departure clearly wasn’t in my masterplan — having to change from Bowers & Wilkins, that was a big step. But I’m a realist, so that was that, and I think for us it’s ended up being a success story. I think a lot of people thought ‘What are Convoy going to do now?’ and ‘Will they survive?’ and all those things, and I guess we’ve been there, we’ve fixed all those things up and now we’re back — we’re where we want to be. We’ve got I believe a fantastic range of speakers, amplifiers — a good range of products that we can support internally with our own structure.”

Key to the changes has been the connection with Harman, with Convoy bringing in Harman’s Revel and Mark Levinson brands, along with JBL’s Studio Monitor and Synthesis product levels. We asked Geoff how the choice of new brands had been made.

“Well after B&W we must have spoken to seven or eight big speaker brands under a non-disclosure agreement,” he told us. “Some of them were interesting and some not so...

"But in the background I always had my relationship with Harman. My Harman journey started back in 1979 when we took on harman/kardon, so over the years I’ve always been interested in what they do and I understand their go-to-market strategies.

“I had realised six or seven years ago, I suppose, that they had this really interesting range of speakers called Revel. I’d see them at CES; I’d go to Northridge, their design facility, and we’d listen to them, and I thought ‘Hey, those aren’t bad at all’... the cabinets are beautifully engineered, and they use all their own drivers, Harman is an audio engineering company, they don’t race down to Shenzen and find an interesting driver and adapt it to work. So that was part of the story.

“But of course I already had a brand at that time, so I filed it under ‘interesting, over there’, you know. And then of course that changed. So Revel was the loudspeaker range we ended up selecting, and I’m delighted with it, it’s probably their best kept secret.”

The B&W departure also took with it Canada’s Classe electronics marque (though B&W has since abandoned the brand). But Harman had the ideal replacement in the recently rejuvenated Mark Levinson brand.

Harman's Todd Eichenbaum with a system of Mark Levinson and Revel, at Convoy's 2018 Bowral event.

“So Mark Levinson is one of those iconic names that have always been associated with high-end audio,” Geoff told us. “Then about six years ago they revitalised the brand — they realised they had a signature sound, the engineering is all made in America, everything was top-notch, but the technology had changed. They realised they had to start including streaming, D-to-A converters, and those had to be at the same level as the rest of the technology. And of course devices have improved — output transistors, capacitors, and resistors, even wire — they all need to have a synergy inside the chassis that works. The guy that did most of that work is Todd Eichenbaum [Todd, Director of Engineering for Harman's Luxury Audio division, was also at the Bowral event with Harman colleague Jim Garrett], so he understands the whole system, and they’ve set up a full Mark Levinson system here with top-of-the-line Revel speakers, and it sounds glorious.  So Mark Levinson, it’s an iconic brand and a brand that represents technology and is unashamedly expensive. It fits perfectly at the top of our electronics.”

Convoy also offers Cary Audio electronics, out of North Carolina.

“Cary Audio been around for 15 to 20 years, and it sounds glorious. They come out of North Carolina, all manufactured in America, and I think the fundamental difference for me is that each product is designed for Australia, they’re set for 230/240V. A lot of American amplifiers just use two 110V windings and make it 220V — that’s a big difference. between 220V and 240V.”

Especially, we offered, when Australian sockets regularly drift up towards 250V..

“Exactly!,” said Geoff. “So I think that was an important part of why I chose Cary — it’s designed to be used here, so it’s more reliable, the longevity of the components. And it sounds good.

“And then of course NAD — 45 years in the business, for a very good reason, it’s just a damned good product. Again I think the difference there is that it’s built by audio people, people that have grown up with audio as being the fundamental building block. It’s still got that, but also the streaming and network playback, the BluOS system — all those new things we need to have in the portfolio. All of them have got good Bluetooth implementations so they have the convenience if you’re storing a lot of music on your smart device, and there’s internet radio.

"To me the smart money with that system is that the chassis have on the back these MDC [Modular Design Construction] slots, so you have a product that’s bulletproof in terms of sound and reliability and can add BluOS or for the receivers 4K and Dolby Atmos, just by plugging some modules. That’s a valuable tool, and a testament as to how they’ve built their products. So the technology is really good, from the affordable range of integrated amps all the way up to their Masters series, which is really high technology.

Roy Hall of Music Hall turntables, also at Convoy's 2018 Bowral event

“Then we’ve got Roy Hall’s turntables, Music Hall — he’s got some beautiful turntables, wonderful, and a range that makes sense! He’s an amazing man. And the recording quality of LPs coming out now is really high.

And we’ve added IsoAcoustics isolation products — that’s another good story, a product built on sound engineering, and you can do a no-brainer A-B test with isolators on the speakers and no isolators, and the difference is dramatic. No hocus pocus about it. Dave Morrison does a lot of research in the National Research Council labs in Canada and that’s where Paul Barton from PSB also does stuff; they cross paths."

Geoff Matthews’ pride in Convoy International came through clear and strong during our interview. He spoke to us about the importance of Convoy’s Technical Centre, and about his service manager of 16 years, Theo Lyras, and his “offsiders” with their specialist areas.

“One guy fixes amplifiers because he just loves amplifiers!” said Geoff, “and our technology centre is capable of taking multileg devices off boards, down to that level if we want to. We also have an IT guy, a young guy, that lives and breathes IT, and with so much streaming technology and these things in the marketplace now we need someone who talks IP addresses and so on, so dealers have a good line of defence when someone says ‘I can’t get it to talk to my network’, all those sorts of things.

“And we’ve always prided ourselves in having good stock inventory and taking care of business. Our new premises are great — we had a lot of warehousing space in Botany, but in Milperra we have about 97% of the same space though we’ve gone up, shorter aisles but nine metres high. We bought a amazing fork-lift that bends in the middle, it’s amazing. I haven’t learned to use it… I barely got used to using a telex machine, I don’t want to have to learn these things any more!...

“So that’s where we’re at. I think we’re in a positive place, we’ve got a business that’s structured to do all that business. Good brands, and good people.”

Geoff Matthews passed away on Thursday 28 February 2019.