The XX Factor In High Performance Audio

Posted on by Mike Quinn

In the jazz world, one can count the number of major woman instrumentalists on a single set of hands and toes: Shirley Scott, Joanne Brackeen, Regina Carter, Anat Cohen, Geri Allen, Jane Bunnett, Toshiko Akiyoshi are a few examples.  It might appear that jazz is a man’s art. But the fact is, women love jazz—take a look around next time you hit a club or a festival, the gender ratio is likely to be quite close to fifty-fifty. Women indeed love jazz. It’s just that guys are geeks and like to read about geeky stuff: cars, model railroads, cameras, jazz and high-end audio. Women just want to listen to music.

The same holds true, more or less, in the audio kingdom which, like so many others is male dominated. Women just want to listen, they don’t want to compare amp size, they don’t want to read about gear. And, as in the jazz world, the number of woman playing significant roles in the hi-fi field is likewise small. But as this universe  continues to evolve, there are more and more spaces opening for women in all areas of the industry.

Though women account for a small percentage of high-end audio gear consumption, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, women now make a slight majority of electronics purchases overall. However  that category includes computers, clock radios and blenders, in addition to stereo equipment.

Terry Inman, Owner of Stereotypes Audio, Portland, Oregon

One energetic woman trying to help close this particular gender gap has taken the bull by the horns and opened her own high performance shop in Portland, Oregon. Teri Inman opened Stereotypes Audio (stereotypesaudio.com) more than 15 years ago after a long, dedicated association with audio that goes back to her days as a guitarist in an all-girl rock band. “In college, I had the best stereo in the dorm, but I still wanted something bigger and better,” says Inman. She eventually got a job in an audio store, but left to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree which she didn’t finish. She did, however, return to retail audio where she’s been ever since.

Despite the name, Stereotypes is anything but. “Our store is very ‘un-store-like’, so we get many women to shop here,” Inman states. “In our store, it’s not about the boxes. The boxes are just a vehicle to get you to the music. With men or women, you have to demystify the gear. If you can get someone to sit down and listen to the performance, to get them engaged in the music, then you can sell them audio. It’s just that simple.”

Inman has been in the audio industry long enough to see some progress for women. “There are now at least eight women-owned shops in the U.S. that I know of. It’s also nice that there are a lot more women with audio manufacturers than there used to be 20 years ago. No doubt it’s been a male dominated industry, though it has gotten a lot better. But it’s been slow, very slow. However, there are still not enough women on the sales floor.”

Her Stereotypes shop has strived to change the tide somewhat. She has noticed an increase in female clients, in part due to the more home-like ambience she’s created, but also because of the approach she and her staff have with women customers. “Women are treated seriously in our store. They want good equipment that performs well, but they also want it to be a good value, and that is the sort of product we feature, from affordable to more expensive.”

But the industry as a whole still seems to be missing the boat she thinks. “Women are not catered to at all,” Inman laments. “For example, hi-fi magazines are like car magazines, they are definitely after males, the way the ads are designed, the way they talk about things in general. They and the audio industry are ignoring 51% of the population base.”

By the way, Inman is also a huge jazz fan who frequents as many jazz road shows and local performances as she can. “I really love Cyrus Chestnut and I’m a huge Carmen McRae fan. Jazz has always been a big part of my life.”

Sally Goff, marketing and public relations manager for McIntosh Labs (mcintoshlabs.com) has been with that venerable company since 1981 when she snagged a job in their art department helping to design sales materials and advertising. She worked her way through the ranks to the top of her field and in 1994 she was the first woman McIntosh sent to a national trade show.  She comments, “Ironically, at that time, I didn’t feel any barriers from the male persuasion externally or internally, but I did from other women.”

McIntosh’s tight-knit organization and it’s longtime world-wide reputation helped solidify Goff’s stature and position within the industry, regardless of her gender. “We are like brothers and sisters. That’s how I feel about working at McIntosh,” she says referring to the McIntosh ‘family.’ “In addition, the respect that McIntosh garners as a brand and company can be a reflection or extension of the respect that I have garnered working at McIntosh for the past 30 years.”

Goff feels that women, indeed, have been ignored in the audio marketplace, but the industry is finally beginning to recognize the importance of courting the female customer, a market segment she says needs to be “reckoned with and taken seriously.” She sums up saying, “Sure, it could start with advertising with the female in mind but once you get her into a store it’s in the hands of the salesperson. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few negative experiences on this subject sent to me from women through our website.”

Lucette Nicoll of Nicoll Public Relations

That problem is echoed by another industry luminary. “When I started in the industry in 1972,” says Lucette Nicoll, “women in the industry didn’t hold high profile positions. They were not taken seriously—much like it is today when women go into a store to buy a system. Back in the day it was not common to have a woman in a management position, so that’s been the driving force that has kept me focused on being taken seriously,” proclaims Nicoll of her 14 years experience working for Acoustic Research, makers of the famous AR 3a speakers and the legendary AR turntable. Nicoll is now president of Nicoll Public Relations, one of the leaders in the audio world representing such firms as Rotel, B&W, Classe, JL Audio, Meridian Audio, and Sonnance, among other notables. Nicoll’s energy and dedication seem boundless—so much so that she conducted her interview for this column from a bus in Sicily.

In spite of her obvious success, she says men are often surprised by her interest in audio, “When they hear that I appreciate a good aftermarket car audio system, many are completely baffled. But it’s my life and always has been! Music has always been at the center of my life so getting a job within this area was my goal early on.”

She wishes more women could be attracted to high-end audio and thinks that education through proper advertising in appropriate magazines might help bring more women into the fold. “Most women don’t understand it, don’t know what the difference is in the sound of a high-end system and wonder why they would have to have a big honkin’ system in their homes,” she concludes.

In addition to the women involved in retail and various management positions, there are also designing women, albeit a far more rarified group. Kara Chaffee, chief engineer of deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company (dehavillandhifi.com), is at the forefront of these, creating some of the most lauded amplifiers and preamplifiers of the last decade. Interestingly, she’s made her mark in the relatively esoteric world of single-ended tube amplifiers, typically low-powered amps, sometimes rated at three watts and even lower, that often require very, very efficient speakers.

deHavilland GM70 Single Ended Amplifier

“We decided it would be easier just to build a bigger amp so buyers could use normal speakers,” Chaffee says, explaining how she began developing deHavilland’s current designs. “A lot of people have speakers they really like and eight watts just won’t cut it. So we set out to build some 30-, 40- or 50-watt amps that worked well with a very wide variety of speakers.”

Chaffee got her start building amplifiers at age 13 when, in high school, she began three years of electronics classes which included a year of tube theory. “The teacher loved tubes and that was contagious,” she says. She also tinkered with speaker building and continued to build and improve her electronics skills as she pursued other careers including a stint as a manufacturing engineer. Years of playing acoustic guitar allowed her to learn the nuances and secrets of acoustic instruments, helping her perfect equipment designs that accurately and naturally reproduce music, especially the tonal character of instruments and voices. This knowledge allows her to create the lifelike quality of sound offered by her deHavilland products which are now sold around the globe. These include a variety of single-ended tube amplifiers and several critically acclaimed preamplifiers, each exhibiting the acknowledged deHavilland hallmark, the ability to create a believable impression of live music.

It’s often said that women have better hearing than men, particularly in the high frequencies. Chaffee feels this ability gives her an advantage over male designers. She explains it this way, “When I listen, I step back and ask myself ‘Is any of this sound painful? Is it making me uptight? Is it making me wince? Are the highs too piercing? I think I am more able to ask those questions about what I’m hearing than men. So then we can ‘breed’ all the bad sounds out of the amplifier. I think that’s an advantage brought about by this gender difference. Sometimes at audio trade shows, I will put my head in the door of a demo room and hear a blast of harsh highs, but inevitably there might be four or five men sitting in the room listening intently. That bad sound makes me move down the hall. I want a system that sounds good at modest levels,” Chaffee says, driving home her point.

In addition to her love of acoustic guitar, Chaffee admits to a long period of devotion to Bach and, in the last few years, “I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Louis Armstrong. He’s like the genius of American music as far as I can tell. And none of his music is mean-spirited, he got his message across with just the joy of playing his music.” That same kind of joy comes across as Chaffee discusses her passion for tubes and electronics and their ability to make great music.

While making their mark in a man’s world, not one of these women has even flinched at the potential challenges, nor have they ever seemed to give their gender a second thought as they pursued their dream of succeeding in the field they love. Certainly there are many others, to name just a few:  EveAnna Manley, owner of Manley Labs; Karen Sumner, founder and president of Transparent Audio; Sue Kraft, equipment reviewer for The Absolute Sound; Kathy Gornik of Thiel Audio Products, and Sallie Reynolds, an editor and reviewer for Absolute Multimedia. All these, and hundreds of other women are making significant contributions to an industry that promotes the enjoyment and appreciation of music in its finest form. And they just want to listen.

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