The History of British hi-fi; abridged.
As Sonneteer, established in 1994 in the County of Surrey in Britain, blaze the current hi-fi trail getting there they have trodden the path travelled by many before them. British and High Fidelity have been synonymous since the dawn of electronics. British designed and made audio electronics have left their distinct mark on the world of sound reproduction, be it for home used equipment or in the professional arena. Names like Tannoy, Quad, Rogers, Marshall and Leak were, and some still are, regarded worldwide for their great sound in much the same way Rolex, IWC and Omega are regarded for time pieces in Switzerland. The British ear has been considered to be so particular that many of the larger Japanese manufacturers have seen fit to mark some their audio products as “UK sound tuned”.
The Golden age of British hi-fi came in the 1960’s and enjoyed a second wave in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the arrival of names like Linn, Arcam and Naim amongst others. Many of the early achievements parallel the emergence of the BBC as the respected force in broadcasting most of which is, of course, audio. As consumers found an ever more hungry pallet for electronics equipment British products came to signify the quality performance end of the market. These were times when Britain built up a reputation in a sector where British truly was best. Japan and the US were the kings of the mass market and most certainly graced more homes. However, in the same way Swiss watches adorn the wrists of the discerning and Italian Sports cars sit on the drive ways of the successful, British hi-fi products filled the chambers of music lovers with their signature sound. A sound Sonneteer were to inherit and enhance with their own quill and ink.
The 1990’s saw another transition. Hi-fi separates were still strong as other home entertainment products had yet to take hold though midi hi-fi (smaller integrated music systems) mainly Japanese were starting to erode sales. The middle to late 1990’s saw the beginnings of major deflation in pricing in the consumer electronics markets as a whole. The main driver was the move of manufacturing, in the commodity sector, to China and other far east emerging manufacturing economies. Some more established hi-fi brands were consumed by these emerging markets and have remained British only by their history and a few sales offices parked outside of Cambridge. Some brands navigated the changing trade winds well and maintained their roots firmly in British soils.
The 1990’s also saw the emergence of an even healthier cottage industry. As larger brands were tackling the middle market with the Japanese “Tuned for the UK sound” imports a troop of young designers and audio enthusiasts were setting up workshops and predominantly doing their own thing. Among these were the guys behind the Sonneteer brand who also had a hand or two in the products if a few others’ as well as their own. At this time the classic British hi-fi products still had enough of a cache to draw in traders from all around the globe to hi-fi shows in the UK, the most famous of which was held at the former Penta Hotel at Heathrow for most of the decade. Despite the loss or the erosion of some former great brands the core and the spirit of the ‘Great British Sound’ was still alive and well and bodes well for the time to come.
Sonneteer, as many did, started by keeping to the spirit of hi-fi separates developing hi-fi amplifiers and moving onto CD players and pre-amplifiers. These units formed the classic core of a traditional hi-fi stack found in a music lovers’ living room or listening room. Unlike others Sonneteer were one of the first to feel the vibrations of the distant oncoming train on the tracks to home entertainment’s future. So while others were beefing up the output transformers on their amplifiers and up-sampling and de-dithering their DACs on their CD players Sonneteer had other ideas.
Sonneteer were to go and pioneer the adoption of Digital amplification into high end hi-fi with the Bronte amplifier. They were the first to adopt high definition wireless audio transmission with the Bard audio range of products and even brought Vinyl LP record playback into the modern age by adding a USB connection to their Sedley phono pre-amplifier and so dragging the record player into the digital age. All this was, of course, done with their soul still hot with British sound fever.
As a host of hi-fi products have evolved from, ‘made in the UK’ to ‘designed in the UK’ a healthy core of British made hi-fi and other specialist audio products still remain and Sonneteer is amongst them. When it comes to sound and particularly music, the UK has always been at the innovative forefront. This is particularly apparent in popular music and, of course, broadcasting with the BBC. High Fidelity craftsmen and women have also made their fair contribution and Sonneteer carry that baton into the future.