Sound Recommendation: Chris Leung on Constructing the Finest Bespoke Hello-Fi Techniques

Through his company Audio Exotics, Chris Leung creates bespoke hi-fi systems for some of the most demanding and discerning customers in the world. Prestige pays a visit to the respected economist and sound specialist at his flagship Divin Lab studio in Ap Lei Chau.

To some they’re eyesores, but to others the rows of multi-storey warehouses that line the backstreets of industrial areas such as Chai Wan, Cheung Sha Wan, Kowloon Bay and Aberdeen are fascinating warrens of enterprise, creativity and sometimes even luxury, places where art and photographic studios, galleries, luxurious showrooms and even smart restaurants rub shoulders with the prosaic premises of import-export companies, wholesalers, printing businesses and repair shops. Entering one of these concrete monoliths is invariably a journey of discovery – what on earth are we going to find here? – but we could hardly have been more surprised one afternoon near Aberdeen harbour on Hong Kong’s South Side when, after negotiating our way past the trucks and forklifts in the ground-floor loading bay, taking a slow-moving goods elevator to the 16th floor and eventually locating the correct front door along a featureless corridor, we found ourselves in what could well be the ultimate man-cave.

Unusual and evidently rare furniture lined one side of this large, high-ceilinged and carpeted room, original paintings and Chinese calligraphy hung on the walls (the latter probably covered in some state-of-the-art acoustics-deadening material), and a stunning scale model of a 1930s Bugatti stood in a glass cabinet beside the door we’d just come through, was. But what really took the breath away was the sound system, which not only dominated the entire space but was bigger than any we’d seen outside of a rock concert. At each side stood a huge dumbbell-shaped speaker, festooned with orifices and at least half as tall again as the average human, both flanked by huge bin-sized bass units and, mounted on tripods, tweeters that looked capable of piercing the eardrums. Thick cables ran between all these and the racks of amplifiers, pre-amplifiers and AC power filters that took up the space in the centre, the stacks topped by turntables on heavy plinths, each one delicately balanced and calibrated to the nth degree of precision.

Divin Labs Studio
Divin Lab, flagship space of Audio Exotics

This Aladdin’s cave of sound equipment is Divin Lab, the flagship space of Audio Exotics, a company founded two decades ago by Chris Leung, who, as well as being one of the leading economists in Hong Kong’s financial industry, is also one of the most respected domestic sound specialists in the world. Leung’s backstory is worth briefly recounting. As a school student at St Paul’s College more than 30 years ago, he’d been attracted to the subject of economics, but after getting poor grades in his public examinations his father had packed him off to the US to complete his further education. There, he’d turned things around so emphatically that by the time he arrived back home to Hong Kong in 1996, he had two master’s degrees under his belt, one from New York University and the other from Columbia. Indeed, he was all set for a high-flying career with an American-owned investment bank – until the Asian financial crisis intervened and he suddenly found himself out of work for six months.

What to do? Leung had been brought up with the sound of classical music ringing in his ears. “My father was an audiophile,” he told us as we chatted between demonstrations of jazz (Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage), classical music (the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony) and Broadway musical (Les Miserables), each rendered to perfection on this incredible system through which every delicate cymbal brush stroke or intake of breath was reproduced with crystal clarity. “He built his own equipment and was a big fan of classical music, especially Western opera and sopranos – he liked Mozart the most. So that was what influenced me growing up, a father who always played music.” Spurred on by his dad’s passion, he decided to go into the audio business.

“At that time I followed brands, just as women might follow Gucci and Chanel,” Leung explained. “But every time I bought something new and my father came and listened, he was always very discouraging. ‘This isn’t music, this is sound effects,’ he’d say. ‘There’s a difference between the two and you’re buying sound effects.’ I’d say, ‘No! This Mark Levinson brand is very famous and everyone says it’s very good,’ and he’d reply, ‘I don’t care what the brand is. The sound I’m hearing now is sound effects.’ Of course, at first I didn’t agree with him, because what he said wasn’t what the mainstream was saying, which was referencing everything to brand popularity. But then I began understanding what he meant, because whenever I played music it all had the same flavour.”

A rare vinyl turntable at Divin Labs
A rare vinyl turntable at Divin Labs (Photo: Alison Kwan)

Although by 2003 Leung was again working as an economist in the banking industry, he leveraged his growing knowledge of hi-fi to set up Audio Exotics, which specialised in tailoring systems for a most discerning group of customers. Working exclusively online, he built his business by sharing his views with a burgeoning audience through long and learned articles on internet forums and, later, his own website. “I began to get followers,” he said, “who share the same beliefs as I do.

“Because I was small and wasn’t well funded, I began to represent small manufacturers who do things meticulously, but nobody knows about them. I began with the internet and then I started attending the international audio show in Munich every year. After a few years of doing everything behind the scenes, I also began to take part in local exhibitions. I did things differently: I didn’t want to mingle with lots of other people, but wanted to have my own show, so I partnered with a local magazine Audiotechnique. I said I wanted to have them represent me and facilitate ticket sales, but I didn’t want other people there – just me – and I did that for seven years. And that’s how I built my reputation, from this solo exhibition.”

He also realised the experience he’d gained in his “day job” was equally applicable to the world of audio. “There are similarities between economics and hi-fi,” said Leung. “It’s all about balance. It’s easy to walk to the extreme, and it’s easy to amplify certain attributes. So you try to reach there – but when you get there you feel it isn’t the area where you wanted to be. Advanced equipment needs someone with knowledge and experience to manage it because the sound system has to sound balance in order to replay all type of music correctly. You need to develop a holistic mindset, and that’s a function of experience.

“I found myself asking why people in Hong Kong spent so much money [on equipment] but only to listen to a few CDs – the same music was always being referenced and their music libraries weren’t expanding. And I realised it was because their systems were only capable of reproducing the vocals properly. Partly it’s due to education, but it’s also because homes here are very small, so as a result you can’t play music loud, which drives you to play smaller-scale music.”

Chris Leung
Chris Leung (Photo: Alison Kwan)

Leung said he looks at sound reproduction from a macro perspective, again probably because of his economics background. “Room acoustics are crucial,” he told us, “so even if you’ve spent a million dollars the system won’t perform properly unless you do something to treat the room. I also started looking at noise filtration, because there’s so much of it coming from the electricity, air-conditioning and other kinds of noise – ground noises, electromagnetic noise, AC noise, radio-frequency noise – all of which require different custom solutions to deal with them. The mainstream-consumption mentality says you should spend the most on the speakers, the amp and the stuff that everybody can see, but without dealing with the noises it won’t perform to its full potential.”

Assuming you’re interested in engaging Leung to create the apogee of audio systems for your home, how would you both go about it? “If you have some idea [of what you want] but don’t know how to venture into this whole area, I wouldn’t usually ask how much you want to spend. This is a very low priority,” he says. “I’d first ask: what kind of music do you like the most? What would you like to experience? Because what I’m offering you is an experience – an immersive experience in your own home. But before that happens, let me see if I can bring you that kind of experience [at Divin Lab], using your own choice of music. If the client is moved and it’s beyond their expectation, then the next thing they’ll say is, ‘But Chris, my home isn’t as big as here.’ So we’ll then talk about configuration. Only at the very end would I talk about the budget – and usually the client is the one who brings it up. I’m selling an immersive experience that only I can provide. And even if I brought all this,” Leung says, pointing to the array of equipment in front of us, “if I didn’t build it for you, and listen for you, and adjust it for you, it’s meaningless.”

Leung’s approach has brought him customers from around the world. Audio Exotics has 10,000 Facebook followers, the majority of whom are living overseas, and during the recent Art Basel in Hong Kong Leung had several calls from visitors to the fair who were also keen to visit him. He now has three locations in Hong Kong – the flagship Divin Lab in Ap Lei Chau, a second and smaller Audio Exotics store in Sheung Wan, and one in Central, which features two studios as well as sales of rare vinyl; there’s also the recently opened AE Singapore, which he set up with a former client as his local partner who “bought into my philosophy so much he paid a franchisee fee. The analogy could be that I have three restaurants, all with a different type of cuisine. Divin Lab is bigger-scale, symphonic, theatrical, whereas the others are smaller in scale but still cutting-edge delicious.”

Chris Leung and Elliot Leung at the premiere of the latter’s Metaverse Symphony No 1
Chris Leung and Elliot Leung at the premiere of the latter’s Metaverse Symphony No 1

Indeed, although Leung counts the likes of Aaron Kwok among his clients, many of whom he now regards as friends, he thinks Divin Lab is a resource so unique it should be better known in Hong Kong – and even celebrated. When early last month Audio Exotics sponsored the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s premiere concert of local composer Elliot Leung’s Metaverse Symphony No 1, “Elliot came here and he was shocked,” Leung said. “‘Whoa, Hong Kong has this kind of place?’ was his response when he came through the door. It was quite a milestone for me. He brought some members of the orchestra here, who were also amazed by the depth and clarity of sound.

“People in Hong Kong often think this industry is all about expensive toys,” Leung said. “But I’ve reached far beyond that.” 

Source: Prestige Online

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