In McIntosh Laboratory’s demonstration room, 7-foot-tall speakers flank a dual stack of monoblocks – a type of amplifier, for those unfamiliar with the hi-fi world – while additional units pump out sound behind seats and ceiling tiles. Young Charles – as McIntosh CEO Charlie Randall’s son is known at the Binghamton plant – cues up a song: Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.”
Each drum strike shimmers with reverb. Sting’s falsetto floats over the deep grind of the guitar in its famous riff. And while the music is loud – 7-foot-tall speakers will do that – the silences are as perfect as the notes, without the hum of the average stereo cranked high.
In the audio world McIntosh is both high-end and world famous; it’s the company that powered the original Woodstock, and the Grateful Dead’s signature “wall of sound.” The demonstration room’s top-of-the-line equipment totals around a half-million dollars, and a typical unit will cost thousands.
But for all its worldwide appeal, the company manufactures all of its audio wonders in the City of Binghamton, which it has called home for 70 years. At the head is President and CEO Charlie Randall – a native of New Milford, Pa., and a 1985 graduate from SUNY Broome’s Electrical Engineering Technology (EET) program.
He’s not the only Hornet there. Nearly two dozen alumni work in various capacities, from engineering design and manufacturing to finance. Randall rattles off their majors: EET, Engineering Science, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering Technology, Liberal Arts, Business. Some followed Randall’s own trajectory, going from SUNY Broome to the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Quite a few – including Randall himself – started their McIntosh career as student interns, landing permanent jobs as they earned their degrees. Randall considers it a smart strategy; for one, prospective employees already familiar with Upstate New York typically stay on, as opposed to those from warmer and sunnier climes.
“We get to test-drive the person and see how they do,” he added. “The ones that come out of SUNY Broome are the ones who usually stay.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, McIntosh had its start in 1949 – just two years after SUNY Broome, then one of five state Institutes of Arts and Sciences, first opened its doors. The war just ended, and the region’s reputation as the Valley of Opportunity began to take off.
Lured by the local industrial development corporation, which offered a tract of land for only a dollar, McIntosh relocated from Silver Spring, Maryland, to the Southern Tier. The company’s first home was on Water Street, in the upstairs of what is today a custom frame shop.
Perhaps the company’s most famous foray into the national consciousness came in 1973, when the Grateful Dead played in Watkins Glen. The band needed more amps for its trademark Wall of Sound, which McIntosh supplied at the last minute, transported by helicopter. Through the years, the company also sold units to many big names, including Johnny Carson, Brian Wilson and Barbara Streisand. And while McIntosh doesn’t pay for product placements, you can see their equipment in movies such as Knives Out, The Departed and the remake of The Stepford Wives.
Whether headed to a rock star or a music fan, every McIntosh unit is built in its 90,000 square facility on Conklin Avenue, which is staffed by 156 employees, mainly from the Southern Tier.
The production line typically turns out 1,400 units a month, all assembled in large measure by hand. At the start, circuit boards dance through a line of machines that install component parts, and emerge from a silvery ocean of solder. On the other side, workers attach additional components before the units roll on – each part installed, tested and tested again. The company stamps its own sheet metal and cuts its own glass, the latter using a waterjet with a slurry of garnet.
Before they end up in living rooms and home theaters, the units reside in the company’s warehouse, stacked high. Randall reads their ultimate destination in the shipping numbers: this one is going to Brazil, and this to mainland China, to Europe, to Japan.
About half the company’s business is outside the United States, and the market continues to expand; distributors are still being added to emerging countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. About 300 retail locations sell McIntosh productions in the United States and Canada, including Best Buy’s Magnolia line. Locally, their products are sold at Audio Classics in Vestal.
In the high fidelity world, however, newer isn’t always the most desirable, at least from the perspective of collectors.
“This business is quite unique because of the high resale value,” Randall explained.
Case in point: The longest-running item is the MC275, a tube amp that was first manufactured from 1961 to 1972 and then revived in 1994. While it originally retailed for $499, today’s units cost $5,500 and the original units retail for $10,000.
Nostalgia is part of the McIntosh appeal, but the company still has its eyes set on the future. One of its newer product lines consists of turntables, for example, although the company built the very first tonearm and sold phonograph cartridges back in the early days.
In an adjacent 10,000 square foot research and development space, future projects are imagined and designed, using specialized facilities. In the anechoic chamber, words fall from the speaker’s mouth into a deep, directionless silence that hurts the ears, created by a cavern of foam blocks that steal all sound. The echoic chamber – all hard surfaces and sharp edges – has the opposite effect, turning a sung note into a study in reverberation.
Charlie Randall’s own story begins not far from the McIntosh factory – just below the Pennsylvania border, on a dairy farm with a quarry and a truck.
Growing up in rural New Milford, Randall couldn’t see himself going to college. He thought he would follow his father’s footsteps, perhaps becoming a farmer, truck driver or quarryman. As a late-in-life child, however, he grew up precisely at the time that his father retired and began selling off the family enterprises. He needed to rewire his future, and decided to follow his interest in electronics at Broome Community College, as it was called then.
“Broome was a real eye-opener,” he said.
At college, he found inspiration in EET Professor Alan Dixon, and some of his most meaningful experiences were spent in SUNY Broome’s lab spaces.
During his electrical currents class, Randall remembered the professor breaking out the vacuum tubes – and cautioning students to be careful with the 1940s-era technology. This was the technology of the past, students were told, now obsolete in the digital age.
He smiles at the irony. As an audiophile could tell you, vacuum tubes have a second-order harmonic distortion, which contributes to a warmer sound. Solid state transistors provide a fifth-order harmonic distortion, producing a more clear and crisp sound. To take advantage of the unique benefits of these two seemingly opposing technologies, McIntosh recently came out with a unique, one-of-a-kind amplifier that uses both – – with vacuum tubes for the upper registers, such as vocals, and solid state for the bass.
“We’re using thousands of tubes every year,” he said.
It wasn’t all lectures and circuitry, however; he enjoyed campus life, and made friends outside of his immediate department. In fact, his roommate at the Rochester Institute of Technology was also a Broome graduate, although they didn’t know each other at the time.
He started at McIntosh as a college intern in the company’s engineering department, transitioning to a full-time job once he earned his degree. During his first three years, he calibrated test equipment; McIntosh makes its own “black boxes,” which test every circuit board in its products.
His first project on the design side was an amplifier: MC754. He moved officially to the design side in 1990, and then became vice president of engineering in 1999 and CEO in 2001. Through the years, the company has undergone multiple sales, but McIntosh maintained its unique identity. In 2014, Randall became CEO of the entire group of companies of which it is part, then called Fine Sounds and since renamed McIntosh Group, in addition to his post at McIntosh.
As a business leader, he appreciates the college’s commitment to addressing regional workforce needs, its use of local instructors and its appeal to those who plan to stay in the Southern Tier to live and work. He helped shape that commitment himself when he served on the college’s Industrial Advisory Committee.
“Community colleges are in touch with what the area needs to provide. The education is more tailored to what the area needs,” he said.
The applied learning aspect of the community college experience is also crucial. In fact, his SUNY Broome classes were more hands-on than those at RIT – giving him the experience he needed to land that internship, and ultimately his McIntosh career.
“It was life-changing,” he said about his SUNY Broome experience. “It’s not just about the education; it’s about the lab work. The hands-on training that Broome offered, as opposed to learning out of a book, was very advantageous. Book smart is not the real world.”