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Sound Revolution: SVS's Gary Yacoubian

One night in late October a group of us were at IQ Home Entertainment in Fairfax, VA, listening as Gary Yacoubian was passionately explaining what he does best and enjoys most – demoing the magic of immersive, amazing sound. As the SVS speakers sprang to life, the music enveloped us. When we watched a streaming movie we were in the middle of a battle, almost ducking as bullets whizzed past. And the point was we could each afford to enjoy this experience in our own homes.

Yacoubian is a seasoned consumer technology veteran with a career that has crisscrossed the diverse map of the CT industry. With more than 30 years under his belt, he has seen the marketplace from multiple angles, particularly the AV channel. First, he served as president and COO of MyerEmco AudioVideo, a 10-store specialty AV retail chain and custom installation designer/installer in the Washington, DC, market. He was with the premier retailer for more than 20 years. In 2009, he moved on to Monster and Beats, gaining the manufacturing perspective. For two years he served as vice president, strategic development of Monster Cable Products and another two as senior strategic advisor to Head Monster Noel Lee. Yacoubian’s responsibilities touched every facet of Monster’s operations including accessories, power management, connectivity and headphones.

He also served as chair of CTA’s Executive Board from 2009-2010, gaining more insight into the inner workings of the industry. It was the first time in the association’s history that a retail executive had become chair. He also chaired CTA’s PARA Division, representing specialty AV retailers, and served on numerous committees and advisory boards including chairing CTA’s 4K Working Group, helping manufacturers, retailers and content providers define 4K standards, discuss options to deliver 4K content and educate consumers.

Today as president, CEO and managing partner of Specialty Technologies, LLC, the entity that purchased SVS in 2011, his company provides world-class audio experiences targeted to all demographics. The SVS design approach involves leading edge technology, precision engineering and testing for its subwoofers, speakers and audio accessories.

A graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in philosophy and an MBA in business from the University of Maryland, Yacoubian talked with i3 about enhancing the audio experience.

How have your varied experiences shaped you?

It has been a really cool journey. At MyerEmco I was able to really experience customer-facing behavior firsthand. I was in literally hundreds of customers’ homes, to see how they experienced technology and how it integratedinto their lifestyle. Then I got the opportunity at Monster, and also at Beats, to learn about the world of manufacturing and how products are created and brands are marketed. Watching Beats engage new audiences with technology – people that wouldn’t have considered buying a set of $300 headphones before – was great. And perhaps because of my background, SVS is very customer facing. We do direct market engagement, which is unusual for audio companies. We are also a manufacturer building a brand and creating channel relationships. Everything I have done has prepared me for the different things I do as president of SVS.

What is your business model?

When I bought SVS with two partners, it was exclusively direct market with an e-commerce website and we only made subwoofers. But we had this cult-like following for our products. We made the brand message more coherent and the products more broadly appealing. We have a market engagement strategy that is present facing and future facing, engaging new audiences in the way that they want to be engaged. Digital marketing and social media is in our DNA. You would not typically find a company of SVS’s size that had four million social media engagements last year. We also added speakers and created a total immersive experience. Now the fastest growing part of our business and our brand is via our channel partners.

SVS Prime Series Speaker System

Do you manufacture in Youngstown?

We design and engineer in the U.S. and Canada. We do marketing, brand building and market engagement out of our facility in Youngstown as well as quality assurance, product testing and evaluation and distribution. We build in China. The question is are we an America-facing company if we build in China? The reality is that when we bought the company, we made the decision not to bring manufacturing to the U.S. in order be more competitive globally. We went from a fixed number of employees to five times that number in just over five years. And employees make almost double on average what they made then per year in salary. China also is our number one market outside the U.S. I consider that to be a win-win when we are creating jobs in America but also engaging the global marketplace with very competitive products.

How do you define an audiophile?

That is a core question for SVS. The typical audio company believes their sweet spot is a 55-plus year old affluent male. That is the traditional vision of an audiophile. SVS absolutely does not subscribe to that notion. We are huge believers in treating the concept of audiophile in a very inclusive way. So an audiophile could also be a younger male or female, they could be engaging in music or they could be watching Blu-ray via their home theater or streaming premium video, or gaming. The average SVS customer is between 25-34 and 35-44 years of age – it’s almost a virtual tie. We are trying to bring new audiences to the idea of immersive experiences and great sound.

What makes SVS speakers special?

The first thing when you think of SVS is that our products sound amazing and they are very affordable relative to the performance that you get. I have painted a picture of us being a disruptive brand but the reality is we are also embraced by the audiophile community. Our vision for our products is that typically the audiophile needs to choose between what is in their budget and a speaker that is refined and accurate and create what we call a soundstage where you can visually almost see where the sound is coming from. But you may be forced in your price range to give up on dynamics, bass and low-frequency extension type of impact. We try to provide a total experience with our products where you can have your cake and eat it too. We are refined, accurate and musical but we also are fun, exciting and impactful and have great low-frequencies. The end result for the listener is that they sound great with music and they sound very believable with movies – you can get both experiences and that is an important hallmark of SVS.

How do you convince someone that your speakers are better? How powerful are demos?

SVS Ultra Series

That is a complicated question. First of all, younger folks use online user reviews as their virtual demo. When you go on the SVS website, you’ll see more than 5,000 user reviews where people tell you what it’s like to experience the product. But people also like to go into a store, so you need a multi-faceted strategy. Our first assumption is people care about great sound. People are going to movies and live concerts in record numbers, young folks are going to EDM festivals – so enjoying great sound is alive and well. If you give people a reason, make it educational but also fun and do some cool demos – people will come into brick-and-mortar stores. We have been going around the country doing consumer events at our retail partners. It creates a value-add for the retailer because we are bringing people into their store but it is also a huge plus for customers.

What challenges the audio industry?

As an industry, we need to stop believing that no one cares about great sound and instead paint a picture of the great sound that people love to experience in a movie theater or at a live concert. We have young people working at SVS who put our products in their apartment and their friends are totally blown away that a convincing immersive experience can be possible in their living space. Let’s get immersive experiences into the selection set of broader audiences because once they experience it, you see the smiles on peoples’ faces – they totally get it – it changes their perception. Three quarters of the emotional content, the excitement, the impact of a movie comes from the sound, not the picture.

Why should a high-end audio company be at CES?

We are not a giant company, but CES has created more opportunities for us to meet potential customers, high-level industry executives and make business relationships, than any other event. Those days in Las Vegas are easily the most action-packed that we have all year in terms of press, business development meetings and high-level networking. It always blows my mind the number of international customer and press opportunities we get at CES – more than any other event. The press alone is worth it.

What are your thoughts on CES Asia?

I am very optimistic about CES Asia. This is a huge opportunity for U.S. companies to engage in some vital markets. China is SVS’ number one market outside of the U.S. All of Asia Pacific is a vital region and CES Asia is a phenomenal facilitator to engage with that world. CTA did a phenomenal job finding a great upside opportunity for our industry inaugurating CES Asia and building it the way that they have.

What technologies are you most excited about?

I think there is going to be a renaissance of home technology. The Internet of Things is going to facilitate that and so will 4K and high-resolution audio. Millennials are buying their first homes and are interested in enhancing their living space with home technology. The first HDTVs created that single best viewing experience in the house that brought other home technologies along with it. We are definitely seeing that happen with 4K too – it is predominately a big screen experience. You have this 50-inch plus TV and it’s just begging to be enhanced in terms of its sound quality. Once you do that you have truly created a room in your house where you can suspend disbelief and actually feel like what is going on onscreen is really happening in the room with you.

What worries you?

I worry about an America that isolates itself from the world. I am speaking about America as a participant in the global marketplace that is a huge source of strength for American companies and the American worker. I hope that we don’t lose our standing as an important part of the global marketplace. A huge part of our business is selling what we build, brand and design in the U.S. worldwide. For U.S. companies to be successful, the best thing that they can ask for from government is an open lane to do that. I worry about a situation where trade hostilities could interfere with that open lane.

Cindy Loffler Stevens