Magazine article Gramophone

The Best Thing Samsung Can Do with the High-End Brands It Now Owns Is Leave Them Well Alone: The Twists and Turns of Who Owns What in Hi-Fi Continued throughout the Past Year

Magazine article Gramophone

The Best Thing Samsung Can Do with the High-End Brands It Now Owns Is Leave Them Well Alone: The Twists and Turns of Who Owns What in Hi-Fi Continued throughout the Past Year

Article excerpt

So it wasn't quite the deal we were expecting, but it it was quite a deal! Back in November a story surfaced in the Korean business press that Samsung, the enormous family-owned company with interests in everything from cars to supermarkets to the consumer electronics for which it's best-known outside its home country, was considering buying the French speaker manufacturer Focal. Of course the rumour was swiftly denied--as seemed perfectly sensible to those of us wondering what on earth a company the size of Samsung would do with a relative minnow such as Focal--but not before those fanatical about both the French company and its British stablemate Nairn had tied themselves in knots about this being the end of the world as they knew it.

However, when it emerged exactly what Samsung was actually buying--the US-based electronics giant Harman International--there was just as much hand-wringing about the future of the specialist audio brands in that company's fold. After all, while to some the company founded back in 1953 by Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon is synonymous with the audio components still bearing their joint names, these days the Harman group also encompasses the likes of AKG, Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson and Revel, each of which has a place in the hearts of huge numbers of audio enthusiasts.

One of the more recent Harman acquisitions was the in-car audio operations of Bang & Olufsen, which still operates under its new owners from within the walls of the B&O factory in Struer, Denmark, and this gives you a clue not only where a large part of the Harman business is focused, but also what attracted the bid from Korea of around $8bn. Almost all of Harman's brands have an involvement in car audio, from JBL and Infinity through to Mark Levinson, and the company also owns German-based in-car 'infotainment' specialists Becker.

Indeed, a significant part of my interaction with the greater Harman group in recent years has been with its in-car operations, from a demonstration of its Lexicon-based surround systems for BMW at Bray Studios here in England to a visit to Stuttgart to see how Mercedes-Benz audio systems are developed.

The list of companies with which Harman works starts with Audi and ends up at the other end of the VAG group with Volkswagen itself, taking in brands including BMW/Mini/Rolls-Royce, Fiat/ Chrysler/Jeep, Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Toyota/Lexus along the way. These brands either offer systems bearing one of Harman's brand names, such as the Mark Levinson systems available in the Lexus, for example, or simply use the company's technology as part of their own-brand offering, such OEM systems being an enormous part of the worldwide consumer electronics market. …

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