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Sound of Infinity, Zen of Sell : $45,000 Loudspeakers for the Few Help Pitch Less Costly Ones to the Many

February 02, 1988|BARRY STAVRO | Times Staff Writer

Cary Christie, executive vice president of Infinity Systems in Chatsworth, leads the way to the Mt. Everest of loudspeakers. In the back of his factory, towering above him, rest 7 1/2-foot-tall loudspeakers, each encased in hand-crafted Brazilian rosewood.

This mountain of sound, four columns in all, weighing 1,550 pounds, comprise a set of speakers called the IRS V. These are not speakers that the Grateful Dead haul around for concerts; instead they are designed to be state-of-the-art speakers for the living room. And they can be yours for $45,000 a set, retail.

"It's our ultimate R&D toy," Christie said. "It also provides us with a lot of free advertising."

Not that Infinity makes a living selling $45,000 speakers. In fact, the company sells only about 15 sets a year--although there is a six-month backlog. But that ultra high-tech image, Christie said, along with some of the exotic technology, help sell the rest of Infinity's wide product line, down to its $160-a-pair speakers.

You Could Buy a Mercedes

Granted, with inflation, $45,000 does not buy what it once did. But you can still buy a new Mercedes-Benz or 40 acres of land in Minnesota for that sum. Are these $45,000 loudspeakers 10 times better than a rival $4,500 system? "It's 1,000 times better," blurted out Arnold Nudell, the company's president and co-founder.

Christie, more restrained, said, "No. It's a small percentage better." He added, "Is a Ferrari for $100,000, is it 10 times as good as a Volkswagen? That's a tough call. It depends on what your criteria are."

One rival audio executive, who has no great affinity for Infinity, says the $45,000 speakers "are much ado about nothing. But about half the audio business is perception. If the perception is good, you can get away with it."

Welcome to the crowded loudspeaker industry, with at least 250 brands seeking the customer's ear. It is a very competitive business, but for those companies who can set their products apart as something special, profits can run as high as 10 cents per dollar of sales.

Infinity, founded 20 years ago by Nudell and Christie in a garage, is now owned by Harman International, a publicly held audio conglomerate with 1987 sales of $328 million, based in Washington. Harman also owns the JBL, EPI and Concord loudspeaker lines, as well as Harman-Kardon, a maker of receivers and CD players.

Although Harman does not break out sales for its divisions, analysts rank Infinity as one of the three or four biggest loudspeaker firms in the United States, along with JBL, Bose and Polk Audio.

Nudell says two-thirds of Infinity's sales are from speakers that cost at least $800 a set. The recent popularity of the compact disc player, with its precise sound, has spurred sales of higher-quality speakers. But Infinity has also moved into other areas. It has a deal with Chrysler to design speakers for its cars. And last year Infinity introduced a $5,000 big-screen TV.

It all adds up, Nudell suggests, to about $60 million a year in sales.

"I wouldn't believe it," said George Klopfer, president of Polk Audio in Baltimore. He pegs Infinity's sales closer to $30 million.

Nudell, now 50, is mercurial, intense, temperamental, and a skillful promoter, his peers say.

Andy Petite, chief designer for Boston Acoustics, a Peabody, Mass., loudspeaker company, concedes that Infinity "makes good speakers." But he suggests that Infinity's customers cannot always hear the difference in technology that the company so loudly touts.

Other Than Sound

Customers who spend more than $800 a pair for loudspeakers, Petite said, "do so for other reasons than sound quality. Other factors are the furniture aspect, the perceived technology, sometimes the arcaneness, of installing the systems," he said. "Infinity has been extremely good at catering to that kind of buyer."

Petite, for one, is not sold on the sound of Infinity's expensive models. "Their lower-priced speakers sound less tricked up and more musical to me than the high-priced ones," he said. "I don't believe Arnie actually believes they are doing things in a tricky way, or to hoke the sound up. They are searching for nirvana."

More than anything else, Infinity's reputation today stems from its $45,000 behemoth loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers work by passing an electric current through various diaphragms, which in turn moves enough air to create sounds. Nudell and Christie talk of wave-propagation formulas, harmonic-structural integrity, energy response and rise time. But this is audiophile talk. The goal is to recreate what a live concert actually sounded like to someone sitting in the sixth row, center.

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