In Conversation with........Kieran Pickaver from Henley Designs

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Henley Audio is one of the UK and Ireland’s premier audio equipment distributors. Bringing together a variety of high-fidelity brands from around the world, and serving one of the UK’s largest specialist retail networks.

Hello Kieran, thank you for taking part. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the Hi-Fi business.

Thanks for asking me to take part in this Paul. It is great to be able to talk about the industry we work in and the passion we all share for it. My name is Kieran Pickaver, Field Sales Manager for Henley Audio. When I was 14, I was asked by my school to choose a placement for work experience for one week in the run up to Christmas. Not really knowing what I wanted to do, I saw an option for a 'music shop' and like most people, I have always loved music. It started with my mother who used to play records whilst she was cleaning our home - anything from The Sex Pisols to Bob Marley to classical music and more. I started my own collection after watching the film Wayne's World with a tape of Queen's Greatest Hits and it grew from there. So when I arrived at this 'music shop', the owner asked me what my favourite piece of music was - of course I chose Bohemian Rhapsody and he played it for me on the best system he had at the time and I couldn't believe my ears.

From there I was hooked and I started working for Zouch Audio after school on a Friday and on Saturdays. After a couple of years out, I returned to work there, in my early 20s,  full time until I joined Henley in 2011. It sounds cheesy to say I loved every minute of it, but I did - every day was different, meeting different people and helping them get that buzz from their music that I got every time I played a piece of music I loved on a great HiFi system. We focused around a good mix of Musical Fidelity, Pro-Ject, Ortofon, DALI, Quad, Chord Electronics and Roksan as well as brands from Metropolis Music who were distributors for brands like Hovland, Lumley Loudspeakers and many more. 

We played so much different music too, I found my love for The Doors there with Riders on the Storm played on a pair of DALI Megalines, Musical Fidelity KW750 with matching Pre and a Roksan TMS 2 turntable - an experience I will never forget. We also played music I knew too, from rock (I went through a fairly long System of a Down phase that does still return to the forefront on occasion) to drum and bass on systems ranging from hundreds of pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds and as long as the system worked together, regardless of price, that buzz was always there. I am very proud that my children share my love of music and it is a huge part of our lives. My son has his own record collection now (Queen's Greatest Hits also features in this) and my daughter loves streaming some Disney classics. It is fantastic to see them get such joy from music, as I still do. 

What is your job at Henley Designs?

I joined Henley in 2011 as Area Sales Manager, looking after our dealers in the Midlands and South Yorkshire primarily and over the years, my area has grown to include parts of the south and east and Ireland. My role has changed a little this year. In addition to being a salesman, I now work with the other members of our sales team and other departments within Henley to make sure we are supporting our independent dealers across the UK and Ireland in the best possible way - trying to share our passion for the different brands we are representing. This focus is not something new for us but as we grow and our involvement with more national and high profile multi branch groups increases, it was important for us to make sure we continue our work with the independents alongside the nationals. 

Henley distributes a lot of brands. Tell us about some of them. I imagine you have your favourites?

Favourites is a hard one! This is a long list as we distribute 19 brands at the current count, each brand having their own range of products which usually cover a number of categories (Pro-Ject for example offer turntables, speakers, electronics and accessories such as clamps, turntable upgrades and cables to name a few) but each brand does generally offer something unique within our range. We are probably most well known for Pro-Ject and Ortofon as we were formed as part of a management buy out of Ortofon UK in 1997 and at that time we were already involved in bringing Pro-Ject into the UK so these are our longest standing brands and considered very special for that reason by everyone in our team. I love both of these brands for probably the same reason, in that I can get so much joy from a relatively inexpensive turntable based system with a fairly modest Ortofon cartridge but then I can play our Pro-Ject Signature turntable with an Ortofon MC Windfeld or Verismo fitted and fall in love with a piece of music all over again like it was the first time. In my experience, it is rare to find brands that can offer something deeply impressive across such a range of price points. 

Musical Fidelity holds a special place for me as this was a strong brand from my time at Zouch Audio and I was very happy when we were appointed distributor in 2018. We are all very excited about the A1 but every time I listen to an M6si, I cannot imagine a better all round amplifier for the money. Since MF was acquired by Audio Tuning (the parent company of Pro-Ject), Heinz has been working hard on a vast array of new products which still hold true to the roots of the brand. 

Klipsch came on board with us in 2016 and this is a very important brand for us, they offer something very different from most other speaker brands and that is a rare thing to find (we speak from experience here). Klipsch also offer a range of active speakers and it is great to be able to offer products that allow people to get a great sound from their turntable and their TV (as well as other sources) for a fairly modest amount of money and taking up less space than a conventional separates system. 

I cannot not mention HiFi Rose, a brand which we first brought to the UK only a couple of years ago and we are very happy to see it grow and thrive. The functionality and sound quality is amazing but made all the better with a lovely touch screen that makes them so easy to use. This is brand that is definitely going places! 

Roon is a brand we have been working with for a number of years, with our focus being on the hardware rather than the software. Roon is amazing for those who stream - there is so much you can do with it but the way that it helps you find new music still astounds me every time I use it. The team at Roon are hugely passionate about what they do and you can see this and how the software has improved over the years. 

We have an awful lot more in our portfolio too such as Sumiko cartridges, Reloop HiFi who offer a range of typically direct drive turntables, Jamo, Magnat and Heco loudspeakers.

I know the forum members have been excited about the new incarnation of the Musical Fidelity A1. What can you tell us about it?

The A1 is finally just around the corner now, launching with a pair of LS3/5a, and when we heard it for the first time at Munich it was frankly amazing! The design is essentially the same as the original 80s model but with modifications to the chassis including a wider footprint and venting in the side panel, meaning it deals with the heat better than the original. So it's an original A1 amp, improved. Being a low powered Class A amplifier, it will suit high impedance speakers like the LS3/5a or high efficiency offerings from Klipsch and others well, but we have seen some good results with 'normal' speakers too. We are very excited about this product but it's also great to see some new products from the brand. 

What do you look for in a brand? What makes you want to sell a product?

Our portfolio is already fairly well packed so we are looking for products and brands that don't conflict with brands we already represent. When we find a potential new brand or a manufacturer approaches us, we are looking at saleability in terms of how good is the fit and finish, what is the support likely to be like from the manufacturer and are the products priced appropriately? Once we have answered those questions then the big question is how does it sound? We have always said that everyone's perception of what is a 'good sound' is different so we listen as a team and as we all have slightly different preferences in how things should sound - we generally come to a team decision. The reputation of a manufacturer is also important but we tend to make our own mind up rather than listening to what everyone else says. Fundamentally, we have to like a product and believe it represents good value for money to the consumer. 

I know this is probably a team decision rather than a personal one but if there was one brand you’d wish to be added to the Henley Portfolio what would it be?

We all have a view on brands which would fit out portfolio well and a few that we should have gone for but ultimately our mix of brands is good and allows us to work with a variety of fabulous retailers and if we had taken on a different brand at a different time then our current mix might not be as good. I have great admiration for brands like Hegel and I believe Bill at Auden Distribution is one the class leading distributors in the UK (alongside ourselves of course!) but we operate on the basis of each brand having it's forte - MF for electronics, Pro-Ject for turntables, Rose for streamers etc. – even though each brand will cross over with another in some way. So if we had another excellent electronics brands then it would not allow us to focus the right amount of attention on Musical Fidelity and would draw some question over which brand is our 'preferred brand' within the same category so the honest answer is ,that right now, we couldn't be happier with the brand mix we currently have.  

How important is music to you? What was the 1st and last album you bought and what was the last gig you went to?

In short, very! Music plays such a huge part of my personal life; I listen to it when I am doing most things. Exercising, driving, working, relaxing, I listen on my own, either on headphones or a speaker somewhere in the house, and I listen with my family. In my work, it is the core of what we do. A good hi-fi system, regardless of budget, should bring your favourite music to life, it should inspire the strongest emotions and should be something you can share - so it is a hugely important part of my life! First album was Queen's Greatest Hits and the last concert I went to was actually an AC/DC cover band called Live Wire which I went to with my son and they were amazing, they got the sound and the theatrics so right. Before that, it was Mumford & Sons at the Sheffield Arena. This is the third time we have seen them. I'm a big fan of the early stuff and my wife is a big fan of the later albums. They were amazing each time. We saw Kasabian play at the King Power stadium when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and this is one I will always cherish - no massive album push or new song to plug, just them playing some great music and everyone having an absolute ball.

How successful are hi-fi shows? Tell us about your experiences and what you see as the good and bad aspects of them.

It depends on how you measure them. If you were to ask whether we can financially justify our attendance at shows based on sales made directly off the back of the show - then no! If you measure the viability of a show on customer interaction and an opportunity to show people products or combinations of products that they may not normally hear, then they are important. Customer feedback is hugely important and although we hear this on a daily basis when we are contacted by end users, shows do provide a platform to hear what customers want to say. 

There are a number of shows in the UK and many of them cater for people with different interests, the Northwest Audio Show is very different from the Bristol HiFi Show which is, in turn, completely different from the HiFi News Show, held at the Ascot Racecourse.  All important in their own way but all very different. It is important to say that no show is a cheap show, especially when each brand in our portfolio deserves some good representation at every one we visit so we tend to try to balance the products on demonstration with what we think visitors will be keen to see. So this year at Bristol, we had a large stand with loads of display space and a few active systems and encouraged anyone looking for a demo to visit their local dealer. At the Northwest show, we took a system consisting of a Pro-Ject turntable, a Rose RS250a, a Synthesis valve amplifier and Klipsch high efficiency loudspeakers. It was great to see other exhibitors using MF, Rose and other products from our stable. The plan for the HiFi News Show is still a little up in the air but MF will feature in some way, either the A1 or possibly the Nu Vista Pre and Power system. We will also have the new Rose RS130 streaming transport then too so we will be able to run that with an MF DAC too (M3, M6 or possibly the Nu Vista DAC?!).

As far as good and bad experiences go, we all tend to enjoy working at shows - it gives a rare opportunity for us as a team to spend some time together. It is also great to see others from the industry for a chat (over a beer if you're lucky), many who I would consider friends too. Happily, there are rarely any really bad experiences.

My favourite shows are generally the ones we present in dealers. These are usually far more focused on one area but allow us to present a really nice, bespoke experience and spend far more time talking with groups of people about their own experiences and music they love.  When we have presented the Ortofon comparison events, we always see a great mix of opinions and some great conversations - and some great music! 

I get the impression that you still enjoy your job. IMO that’s vitally important in our industry because it’s all about people and relationships. What do you like best about your job?

In short, yes I do and once again, it's hard to put it down to one thing! In nearly twenty years, I have had two jobs - Zouch Audio and Henley Audio. The people I work with is a huge part of it. Zouch was founded with a purpose (much like your own), to make good music accessible to people at a variety of budgets. That goal didn't change whilst I was there. Henley was founded by Laurence and Nick, ultimately because they believed in the analogue format,  and is still privately owned by those two directors. They believe in the brands we represent and this is shared by our entire team and this makes the job much easier and far more enjoyable. We have a good time too! Laurence and Nick generally arrange a team get together once or twice a year as part of team building and it's always great to catch up in person rather than over the phone or via teams. 

Our dealers are also a huge part of it. I would consider many of my customers to be good friends so whilst it isn't all fun and curries - it is far easier to work with people who you get on with and generally want to spend time with. Everyone expects our job to be sitting down listening to music all day long and you know yourself that it is not the case but this job does afford some opportunities to listen to some great music and also be introduced to new music on a regular basis, which can't be said for many career choices out there.

Do you have listening facilities at Henley Audio?

Yes we do, it is important we listen to our products to understand how they sound and how they work. We have always welcomed dealers and end users through our doors but we do operate a dealer first policy. We know that a good dealer can generally offer a far better demonstration and consultation service than we can so our aim is for customers never to need to visit us but we have them should anyone wish to visit. The only thing we ask is for anyone wanting to visit is to book ahead.

What equipment do you use at home? Are you analogue or digital

So for many years, I have been using Pro-Ject electronics at home with great success - initially chopping and changing speakers until I settled on some Jamo Studio 8 speakers as they were front ported and were placed closer to the wall. I chose Pro-Ject's Pre Box RS Digital because I essentially used lots of digital sources and one analogue and went with the matching power amp and upgraded power supplies. They have brought me many years of joy and have worked very well with whatever I have thrown at them. I stream and spend most of my weekday listening using Tidal but have always made sure I've had a turntable in my system too as this is what I really love - playing records and thumbing through album sleeves and notes. As I said earlier, it is something we do as a family too. So for streaming, I've a Sonos Port connected in for when we want to play something throughout the house but I've also got Musical Fidelity MX Stream for ‘proper listening’. On the analogue front, I fell in love with a Roksan Xerxes many years ago and this love affair is still going on - although the turntable is nearly as old as me, it’s still going strong with the occasional rest for some restorative work. For this reason, I've added a Pro-Ject Debut Evo to the roster, with a few upgrades as you would expect. I've added an upgraded sub platter and main platter and upgraded the cartridge to an Ortofon 2M Black. The phono stage is a Lehmann Black Cube II and I'm playing around with power supplies for both decks (different ones for each deck). 

I love my Xerxes but added the Debut for more simplicity so my children could enjoy their records when I wasn’t necessarily at home and I have to say, the result of this relatively modest setup is outstanding. 

Lastly, I’ve also been playing around with a HiFi Rose RS520 all in one - I use my HiFi system to power my TV sound and the 520 has HDMI ARC built in so this is much easier and it sounds awesome to be honest. Streaming sounds fantastic using Tidal and we’ve taken to using Rose Tube (a skinned version of YouTube to finding new music or trying out recommendations from my friends. I think this is going to become a permanent addition. 

My son uses a Pro-Ject MAIA amp with a WiiM Mini for streaming, combined with a well loved pair of DALI speakers in his room and my daughter has recently been gifted a Klipsch The Three for her room so she can play those Disney classics in peace. We tend to bring kit home from work so the setups can be a little fluid but these are what we go back to when I have to begrudgingly give back some tasty piece of MF or Synthesis!  

Please join me in thanking Kieran for sharing his experiences, his passion and his love of music.

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