Sound advice

WHEN former Microsoft executive and audiophile Andrew Kennard first arrived in Singapore from the UK in 2008, high on his to-do list was to find a trustworthy audiovisual technician to help set up his home cinema and sound system. A check with his colleagues turned up one name: Oey Suryadi, who owned Norman Audio in The Adelphi mall, Singapore's mecca for high-end audio equipment.

Suryadi was not only forthcoming in helping Kennard set up his system, he also advised him not to spend money on new equipment, but on improving the acoustics of his room by adding curtains or potted plants to help diffuse the sound. Kennard was floored. Here was this audio retailer and expert who was not trying to push his product.

And Suryadi's call was spot on. "The sound improved by about 20%, and I only spent S$2,000. My system cost S$100,000, and to get a 20% improvement for only S$2,000 is the best ROI [return on investment] ever!" says Kennard.

Over the years, the pair formed an amiable customer-supplier relationship. The market for luxury audio equipment was then dominated by retailers focused on high inventory turnover. Kennard and Suryadi realised they had exactly the same ideas about the industry. If they started their own business, they could introduce a higher level of service and corporate techniques such as customer relationship management (CRM) databases that Kennard gleaned from his time in Microsoft, Mars Inc and several other consulting firms and start-up companies.

And so, in October 2010, AV Intelligence was born in a shophouse along Kim Yam Road. The showroom opened three months later, purveying a wide range of brands from Europe and the US, 10 of which are exclusive to the company, such as Devialet, Penaudio and Raidho Acoustics. Kennard says it wasn't a challenge convincing the brands to allow him to distribute and sell their products. More often than not, a phone call placed with the various manufacturers was all it took.

The shophouse setup was a deliberate choice: "We didn't want to be in a shopping mall. We wanted to be very different from The Adelphi. We tried to make it feel as much as possible like a home, with different domestic settings," explains Kennard. "What you'll find with our competitors is that they'll set up the room to create the optimal listening conditions — walls that are full of insulating material, special sound dampers, among other things. That's great, you're hearing the products as best as they can be, but it's not like that at home. We didn't want our customers to be disappointed that their sound wasn't as good as the acoustically treated showroom."

The pair pride themselves on providing personalised service and are focused on building long-term relationships. Consultations are by appointment, either in the showroom or, if customers prefer, in the comfort of their homes. "There's a much higher ROI if we give you this amazing experience from the moment you meet us, all the way through to purchase and afterwards. Whether you're spending S$5,000, S$50,000 or S$250,000, we want you to take your time and make sure the products are right for you. We want to do such a good job that you'll say, 'these are the guys to trust and this is the place to get my equipment going forward'."

Describing his customer base, Kennard explains that they generally fall into two categories: existing audiophiles and well-heeled individuals who appreciate the finer things in life but who have yet to discover the high-end audio universe, where S$5,000 would net you a pair of Atoll Electronique speakers from France, audio analogue electronics made in Italy and an integrated amplifier. Meanwhile, S$10,000 would land you a decent home cinema, with more speakers, an OLED (organic LED) TV, an AV receiver and a Blu-Ray player.

With his affable personality and audiophile background, Kennard is able to relate to the first set of customers with a fraternal familiarity. "Like us, they're slightly geeky, detail-oriented, read the technical hi-fi magazines, care about what chip set is in the digital-analogue converter and what sort of capacity transistors are being used. They know what they want, they go online to find out who supplies that in Singapore, and they find us. They tend to want extensive demos, perhaps two hours every weekend for three weekends, and a home demo. Then they'll say, 'that's the one for me'."

And while he's happy with the audiophile customer base, which accounts for 60% of customers, Kennard is keen to engage the second demographic, the ones who "love movies and music, but don't realise that things could be better", he says. Kennard offers an analogy: "It's like, if you were drinking S$30 bottles of wine all along, then suddenly discover a S$200 bottle of wine."

The AV Intelligence showroom has a wide repertoire of brands from Europe and the US, 10 of which are exclusive to the company.

Beyond Singapore, Kennard and Suryadi are eager to venture across the Asia-Pacific. They plan to roll out AV Intelligence showrooms fairly quickly, so as to generate economies of scale. The locations, however, are irrelevant; "The important thing is to find the right person to run the business," says Kennard, adding that he has already found a suitable partner to work with in Bangkok.

Recently married, Kennard is also an avid travel junkie and adventure seeker. He loves going on African safaris, and relishes the times he got up close to wild lions, leopards and elephants. He names Argentina as one of his favourite destinations because of the "stunning mountains and blue glacial lakes, rolling hills and rural scenery that takes your breath away. And Buenos Aires has an amazing energy about it. People just seem to want to have more fun."

Now that the business is up and running, Kennard can turn his attention to something that he's been meaning to do for a while: refurbish his apartment. "I still have the system that I had from four years ago. All my money has gone into this business! I'm finally getting round to renovating my apartment. I'm ­going to knock down some walls to make a bigger space, treat the ceiling and put the insulation in, then trade in all my old gear and upgrade to a Devialet D-Premier system." Spoken like a true audiophile.

AV Intelligence

#01-01, 73 Kim Yam Road

Tel: 6887 3789

www.avintelligence.sg

Aaron De Silva enjoys experien­cing the world, and relishes writing about it afterwards. This story first appeared in

The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Oct 29-Nov 4, 2012.

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