Meet Your Dealer: Mike Cunningham of Criterion Audio
- Alan Sircom
- Dec 2022
We’ve been to Criterion Audio before, way back in issue 132. The Cambridgeshire audio retailer is one of those destination stores that has a catchment area that extends beyond the country and with a fine selection of stock that covers almost the full gamut of good audio, it’s always high on the list. However, there have been some marked changes since we last visited and it’s always worth a second look, just to play catch-up.
One of the most common questions between retailers of late is ‘what did you do in the lockdowns?’ For those who rely on demonstration, it’s often a grisly tale of layoffs and furloughs, shuttered stores and maybe (just maybe) a lick of paint and a new sofa for the ‘dem room’ when things began to open up. For a few, however, this was a golden opportunity to re-evaluate aspects of the store and make some big changes for the positive, and arguably few have done that with such panache as Criterion Audio.
The first component in this was to look honestly at what does and doesn’t work for that setting. “When you last visited,” said Mike Cunningham, Criterion’s Director, “we had a whole room given over to headphones. We still sell headphones but that ‘destination store’ for headphones thing just didn’t work for us.” The small room full of headphones and headphone amps is now an office.
For some, that would be enough. Not for Mike and not for Criterion. “We took a long, hard look at our main listening room.” He said, pointing to a room now given over to servicing, repairs and updates. “We spent a lot of time and money trying to make that room work, but it never sounded right.” But nothing really prepared me for where they went next.
In recent years, Criterion has taken over the entire building, and has gone to work remodelling significant parts of the back section of the store, which used to be warehousing. What was once the second smallest demonstration room was left more or less untouched, and in getting rid of the headphone demonstration suite, it became the smallest demo room on site. In fact, it’s the perfect size for the small-to-medium rooms for those on their first or second rungs on the audio ladder; approximately the size of a modern UK living room in a new‑build house.
The medium and large-sized listening rooms effectively didn’t exist until recently. They have been built from scratch as dedicated evaluation demonstration rooms retasking some warehouse space, with the middle room about the size of a medium-to-large living room or dedicated listening space, and the end room being capable of demonstrating even the largest full-range floorstanding loudspeakers irrespective of size or cost.
This is only the start. The rooms have been carefully designed to be sonically isolated from one another, although not with the kind of sonically‑damping soundproofing that turns living spaces into studio control rooms. Everything from the type of window blind to the standoffs holding the airflow ducts has been scrutinised to ensure it has the least impact on the sound. Simply using the same air system shared between two listening rooms was a challenge, because the potential for sound in one to bleed into the other is huge. What’s more, forced air circulation into a room can often create eddy currents in the room’s air, which can also undermine the performance of a system in ways not replicated at home.
The rooms are also slightly non-parallel, but not so much as to make them unrepresentative of a domestic listening environment. However, this non-parallel design helps make distinguishing different equipment that bit easier all round for the listener. Couple this with a vaulted roof in the largest room and you have listening spaces that give a ‘good, better, best’ evaluation space that’s more than good enough to help the discerning listener find the best systems.
Not change for change’s sake
The good part in this is the changes to Criterion are all based on providing a better customer service, so the entrance to the store remains unchanged, with wooden shelves of equipment in a brightly lit and extremely clean foyer. This isn’t meant to show off products per se, but a good collection of YG Acoustics loudspeakers lines one side of the entrance, with a host of Boulder, Moon, Naim, Cyrus, Linn and SME equipment, as well as loudspeakers from ProAc, PMC, Sonus faber and Spendor loudspeakers. Some names that weren’t on the list (AURALiC) are now firm favourites with the Criterion team, others (such as Devialet, Raidho and Vitus, as well as a number of headphone brands) are no longer part of the Criterion portfolio and some are in a state of flux.
There is, however, more consistency than fluidity in that Criterion product portfolio, which suggests good brand curation. End users don’t want to find the product they loved five years ago now completely unsupported by their retailer of choice and must drive across the country to find that brand’s new representative. So, I’m buoyed to see many of the same names still in Criterion’s line-up.
When asked what has proved a surprising success for Criterion, Mike Cunningham is extremely honest, “We sell a lot of ProAc. That’s probably not surprising as they are good loudspeakers, but it’s always surprising just how many people come to us thinking they are going to buy another loudspeaker brand and end up buying a pair of ProAcs.”
Loudspeakers aside, a consistent thread to Criterion’s sales has been updates and servicing Linn turntables. “We get a lot of Linn turntables in, both from our existing customers and new clients. A lot simply want a reset, but often also go for some of the updates in the process. We do also get regulars upgrading their LP12 with every new modification to the turntable.” Some of these regulars also look to Linn to provide their network streaming devices, although Criterion’s listener base isn’t quite so convinced by the brand’s loudspeakers.
When it comes to high-end audio, a lot of Criterion’s portfolio is still based around the nearby Cambridgeshire high-end distributor, Padood, with Aurender, Boulder, SME and YG all featuring strongly in the retailer’s line-up. And once again, this shows careful curation on both Criterion and Padood’s part. And with more attainably priced products from Boulder and now YG on the way, this working relationship looks set to continue.
But like all good retailers, there’s no sense of sticking slavishly to the output of a distributor and I suspect if a distributor took such a heavy-handed approach, Criterion would find that unacceptable. A good example of this is the company’s relationship with Fine Sounds UK; Criterion is keen to include Bassocontinuo stands and Sonus faber loudspeakers, but there are no McIntosh products on display and the Sonus faber lines on sale at Criterion end before you reach the company’s top level. It’s an intelligent way of building a selection of products for your market, and one that clearly works well.
No-one wants to appear to benefit from misfortune, but audio did well during darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to go to concerts, music lovers the world over improved their stereo systems during the lockdowns. But that success wasn’t consistent; some barely registered a sale while others had one of the best years on record. The secret to success seems to be positive mental attitude, both toward your company and in dealings with clients. Treating people as human beings instead of sales targets makes a big difference in your interaction with the public at large and Criterion was one of those retailers who respected their client base during the lockdowns and it paid dividends.
The same attitude applies universally. Criterion Audio are nice, honest people to deal with at any level, and it’s that attitude that means they are here to stay. It’s the kind of attitude that makes people keep coming back or recommending friends and family to visit the store. Criterion Audio is a destination for a reason, and thanks to its new and improved listening rooms, that reason just got a whole lot better.
Criterion House, Oakington Rd, Girton, Cambridge CB3 0QH
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