Today, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Greg Chapman, the founder of VAL HiFi, to discuss boutique HiFi brands, his passion and what customers look for in such brands. VAL HiFi is based out of Ashford, Kent, United Kingdom, and deals with boutique brands such as AGD Productions, Line Magnetic, Hora Audio, and many more. Before we get into the interview, a bit about Greg:
Greg Chapman is the founder of VAL HiFi, a boutique HiFi specialist based in Ashford, Kent approximately an hour outside of London.
Predominantly online-based, VAL HiFi also offers by appointment only demonstrations in a dedicated studio as well as in-home demos. Greg tries to create a community of like-minded audiophiles that is spearheading a movement towards the boutique and esoteric, that puts craftsmanship, quality, and above all, a passionate love for music above shifting boxes.
How and when was VAL HiFi founded? What motivated you to start VAL HiFi?
Greg: VAL HiFi takes a curated approach to HiFi retail. Our passion is for discovering, supporting, and championing boutique brands that give our customers a transcendent audio experience. The very best in HiFi does not always come from the most well-known brands and we believe we have the ultimate alternatives.
We are the exclusive UK retailers for AGD Productions, Line Magnetic, Hora Audio, Rosson Audio Design, Lu Kang Audio, Aretai, Orchard Audio, Supravox, and Wattson Audio.
We’re also very proud to represent Boenicke, Moonriver Audio, Merason, English Acoustics, borg.audio, 432 EVO Music Servers, German Physiks, The Wand turntable and tonearm, Hana cartridges, Silent Angel, Puritan Audio Laboratories, True Signal Audio cables, and Lateral audio stands.
Music is a lifelong passion that naturally opened up into the world of HiFi as I entered my teens. Firstly, meeting my equally-obsessed brother-in-law twenty years ago kickstarted the audiophile bug. He has wonderful Vandersteen speakers and a record collection to make you weep!
Once I heard a system like his, I couldn’t go back. Over time, I have slowly bought and upgraded system after system and fallen in love with the process, especially finding boutique, off-the-radar brands. I felt there was a gap in the market for customers like me, who want a truly high-end audiophile experience without the big, well-known brands – VAL HiFi was born in Jan 2020 to fill that gap.
Describe your typical customer. What are the top 3-5 things that a customer expects from your HiFi boutique?
VAL HiFi customers are typically looking to experience the best sound their hard-earned wages can afford but also want to feel more connected to the products and their makers in the same way many today are looking to shop differently with any purchases in their lives. Shopping locally or more thoughtfully, perhaps even more sustainably, and with a story behind the brand. I personally would rather buy a beautiful amplifier by a hands-on craftsman whose creations are built with passion and love and not with an eye on their shareholders.
There is also a pride of ownership that comes with esoteric brands – you become one of a small group of people to own, love, and appreciate that product and that too is unique to boutique products.
Many people buy TAG watches, but some gravitate towards the likes of Nomos Glashutte or Junghans – that’s me
I started VAL for customers like myself and my tastes and I’m glad to find there seem to be many who want the same.
Can you talk about one interesting interaction with a customer who was venturing into this HiFi realm, straying afar from the usual suspects like Marantz, Cambridge Audio, Audiolab, and so on? What did he think he was getting at VAL HiFi that he couldn’t from the usual suspects?
Greg: I look to boutique brands for innovation. As I’ve said, their lovingly hand-crafted products result in a real pride of ownership but best of all, a truly transcendent high-end audio experience, often without the huge price tag of better-known brands.
My customers are often upgrading from those “usual suspect” brands and looking for the next step up. I think often they can effectively step up two or three notches on the audiophile ladder when they go off the beaten path.
I have had lifelong “off the shelf” valve amplifier customers upgrade to AGD Class D monoblocks, as they offer all the positives of valve topology with none of the downsides. The build quality and sound quality are out of this world and would normally only be experienced with the upper echelon of the high-high-end. AGD, although by no means cheap, is sold at real-world prices that should worry the competition.
How do your customers start their journey with you? What do they typically buy? How do they upgrade; do they accommodate future upgrade paths when making their first purchase?
Greg: Most customers call or email me and we discuss their current system and listening space and what they’d like to achieve next. Once we have established that and their budget, we then decide on a particular product or set of products. All of us Audiophiles tend to upgrade in the future at some point – it’s part of the bug – so we can look to a particular line of products that have a potential upgrade path. Boenicke is the perfect example.
The standard W5 at the beginning of the range is spectacular but then you can move through the SE and SE+ versions and then onto the W8, W11, and finally W13 models – each with an SE and SE+ themselves. Of course, you may never need or want to do that but it’s good to know that if you love the signature Boenicke sound the option is there.
What is your take on subjective listening tests vis-à-vis objective measurements? (For example, folks look up at objective measurement websites like Audio Science Review but still go with what pleases their ears.)
Greg: I’m not particularly interested in measurements. Of course, they can be useful to highlight an issue or potential flaw in the design but for me, HiFi is about getting to the heart of the music you love and only your ears can tell you that.
I have heard valve amps that have measured “inconsistently” which sounds glorious.
I’ll take that over numbers and graphs any day! For me, a deep emotional response to a stunning track by Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, or Max Richter is all you need when you hit play or cue up a record.
VAL HiFi coordinates over here.