Feb. 29, 2008 -- New Yorker Mark Rosen is a well-heeled audiophile who makes his home in a stark, high-ceiling apartment in a Donald Trump building.
He chose the space two years ago not just because of its fantastic location — he works three blocks away — and the building's attentive staff, but because it had a room big enough for his planned entertainment system.
Rosen, who made his fortune as president and CEO of an executive search firm specializing in lawyers, enjoys watching the news, movies and his Super Bowl champion Giants in high definition, but his true love is music.
"I love it when people come over and hear [my home theater system] because they don't want to leave," he said. "These are not all audio experts; these are typical people."
An aggressive Swiss engineering company is making some inroads with people like Rosen — the super rich — by promising to deliver startling video and sound; that is, if they're willing to shell out the cash for perfection.
Goldmund, a 30-year-old company, is best known for its studio-quality Reference Turntable, which can be yours for a mere $300,000. (Records, if still available, are sold separately.) But Goldmund recently refocused its efforts to study the full home theater experience.
In the last two years, it has made more than 100 successful installations, complete with price tags ranging from $500,000 to more than $1 million.
"When I heard [the Goldmund] system, I knew I had to have it," Rosen said. "Initially, I invested $100,000 in the pre-amps and some components, but since then I have added some more speakers to the stack."
Chuck Mangione, Rosen's friend and a celebrated jazz legend, was skeptical of the money his friend spent on the system; the whole system set Rosen back about half a million dollars.
"[Mangione] thought I was crazy, so I bribed him with some Yankee playoff tickets," said Rosen. "Before the game he came to pick me up, and I put in one of his CDs. A tear came to his eye, because he had not heard that quality since performing the music live. In fact, when I close my eyes and listen, I feel like the musicians are in my house. It's a sound you feel."
Besides having the money to get into the game, you need a space large enough to accommodate the techno gadgetry. The company has yet to install its system on a private plane, but yachts are not out of the question as long as they are at least 150 feet long.
"It's a market that most people are not even aware exists," said Brent Butterworth, who reviews equipment for Sound and Vision magazine and reports on ultra-luxury goods for the Robb Report. "It seems crazy to a lot of people to spend this much money on a home theater system, but people buy $500,000 watches too. In the high-end realm of audio-video manufacturers most are dazzlingly excellent. Most of those companies focus on individual components, and most of them offer components at prices lower than Goldmund's, but the full system integration of Goldmund can't be beat."
Quality Not Bling
Unlike gold teeth, a fur coat or a blinged-out Cadillac, a Goldmund home theater is more about craftsmanship than status. The company's equipment has simplistic European styling, but most of the millionaires who own Goldmund equipment install their systems behind the scenes. One family in the Middle East is currently building a room that will accommodate an unfathomable 500 speakers hidden in the walls.
Customers demand simplicity, like a remote control with just five buttons, and they want correct sound that duplicates realism.
Goldmund's finely engineered audio components are created in its Geneva labs, and when the need for a component that the company doesn't manufacture — an Xbox, a Playstation or a traditional DVD player — arises, they'll buy one off the shelf, tweak it and then install it.
Don't expect to find one of its $300,000 record players or $16,900 High Definition Blu-ray disc players at Best Buy, Circuit City or Amazon.com. There is never a discount on these items, no matter how much customers spend — a nice byproduct of having wealthy customers who only want the best and can afford it.
According to Butterworth, Goldmund has never spared any cost in designing a device, and that expense is passed along to the customer.
"They are not just stamping out a bunch of black boxes where the cost is a primary concern," said Butterworth. "They make a lot fewer of each device, but spare no expense. They are using the finest materials and the best workers to get it made. If you buy this, you have a desire to own the best. You have to be an enthusiast."
Gold Standard for the Rest of Us?
About three years ago, charismatic Goldmund CEO Michel Reverchon recognized that the marketplace for home theaters was infantile, decentralized and relatively small potatoes, and the company has been charging full steam ahead ever since.
"Worldwide, people are spending millions of dollars a year on home theaters," Reverchon said. "That's nothing for the electronics industry, and we wanted to be a part of it before it becomes billions of dollars a year."
Goldmund's engineers created sophisticated modeling software that factors in the size of a room, the height of furniture and the room's materials to create a high-quality home theater. This also conveniently allows Goldmund to control all equipment sales and installation duties; 100 percent of the profits go back to the company.
Asian clients were the first to sign on, and in 2007 Goldmund started installing systems in the United States. All systems are tailored to what the customer wants, with one contact person who will work with your decorator, architect and even the neighborhood kid you'll call to help you figure out how to turn on your high-tech TV.
Goldmund's installation includes preventive maintenance and software that is constantly monitoring the system and alerts technicians to possible issues, hopefully before the owner even notices.
While Reverchon says it's possible for his team to scale down the technology, use less expensive materials, lower the quality threshold and make it more affordable for a more price-conscious customer, he has no plans to do that.
"Our strategy is to find the most expensive rooms, to show what our systems can do and get our name out there," he said. "Our customers are our best advertisers, because your senses need to experience what our systems can do."
Inside a luxury home located outside Los Angeles, Goldmund has created a showcase theater with 32 channels of audio — a good home system has five channels — delivered by 56 separate speakers. Audiophiles should expect a $1 million price tag for a similar system.
If the price doesn't scare potential customers away, the utility bill might. All the horsepower needed to run those high-end components would not make environmentalists happy. Goldmund's luxury theater uses 13,000 watts of power.
'Specifications Are B.S.'
Back in Rosen's home above Park Avenue, he spelled out, in his typical New York straight-shooter style, why the price was worth it to him.
"I've had lots of systems in my day. I read all the audio magazines every month. The truth is all the specifications are B.S.," he said. "It comes down to, you just need to listen to it, and with this system you just know you are hearing the absolute sound."
Goldmund's Brent Lee explains that Rosen's system is good, but it's not the best the company has to offer.
"Right now he has great equipment and he has been able to start off slowly and grow, but there is some room to improve if he wants to," Lee said. "He has the power to go from Dolby 5.1 to 16 or 32 channels for even more detail in the sound quality."
But for now Rosen is content.
"This is really my fun. I don't have too many bad days, but when I do, I come into this room, listen to some music for an hour and worries just melt away."