TODAY'S AUDIO STORES
THE PRODUCT "HIERARCHY"
THE SHARED RESPONSIBILITY
WHEN SHOULD YOU BUY AN EXPENSIVE COMPONENT?
THE MODIFICATION STRATEGY
I owned and operated a small high-end audio store in Toronto, Canada, from 1981 to 1991, and more recently from June 1996 to October 2001, when I left the retail business for good.
I've been an audio hobbyist since 1967, so I have had considerable experience on both sides of the retail equation, as a customer and a seller. I've also visited many retail stores in my former city, Toronto, and during my travels to to other cities in the U.S. and Canada. Most of the stores were small and unknown, like mine was, while others were large and well known, like Lyric in New York City.
Visiting stores was much more fun in the "early days", up until the late 1980's. Around then, things started to change, and almost all of the changes were for the worst. I'm not referring to rude, pushy and obnoxious salesman, nor the ignorant and the incompetent. These types are always around, in any business. While there is more common incompetence these days, that's mainly a byproduct of the digital revolution. It's much easier to handle a remote control than to operate (let alone setup!) a high quality turntable. But this is not the problem that afflicts today's audio stores.Top
What is the real problem with the audio stores of today? The idealism, the tenacity, the courage, the passion and the guts required to be truly different and innovative are mostly gone.
What are most retail stores today?
To clarify the above, and be specific:
Most stores will no longer pick up a new line unless the product is reviewed, advertised and recommended by at least one or more of the main-stream magazines. Their strategy and goal is for the customer to be "pre-sold" before he even enters the store. In other words, they have become glorified "order takers" or franchisees. At most there is a superficial demonstration and then an agreement on the price.
They don't have either the confidence or the credibility to attempt to do anything more, and it gets even worse...
Even if a new component is well reviewed and advertised, it usually can't be allowed to compete with what's already in the store. Audio stores will rarely, if ever, jeopardize an "established" (profitable) line, no matter how much better the new line is, or how much less money it costs.
Most stores only want easy, profitable sales. They're much more interested in their manufacturers' "marketing plans" and component "hierarchy" (see below) than the actual quality of the products they are marketing. The effort to educate customers about newer, lesser known lines, with competent demonstrations, is becoming increasingly rare in today's retail scene. Audio stores fear angering or frightening established or potential customers, let alone established suppliers.
It is even becoming common for well known manufacturers to actually "call the shots" when you visit many stores, since they have the power to "veto" competing lines. It is not an exaggeration to state that if someone actually manufactured "the best speaker in the world", and it sold for "only" $10,000, most retailers (especially the large, established ones in the big cities) would never touch it. In fact, they would badmouth it, since it would be a serious threat to "the (and their) established order".
Virtually no one in the audio business honestly wants $10,000 speakers (or any other component) to be superior (in reality or just reputation) to the more expensive (or even similar) models, some of which now sell for $100,000 or more. It wasn't too long ago (the 1980's) that a talented, unknown "newcomer" could make a big impact with a high-performance component that was reasonably priced. Today they are actually considered an "enemy" by virtually the entire audio "establishment".Top
This term deserves a further explanation. Most retailers are very concerned with a product line's "hierarchy"; a series of similar components at popular and increasingly higher "price-points", that allow, and are designed to actually encourage, the established customer to "move up" on a regular basis.
This is a critical strategy for most stores today because they may have real difficulty attracting new customers with "the same old lines", so they are forced to re-sell to their existing customer base; again and again. The salesmen eventually know, within a certain percentage, how many buyers of "the bottom-of-the-line" models who will end up purchasing the "top-of-the-line" model and, if handled right, everything in between. That could mean 6 sales to just one person, with only one line! They are also acutely aware of the fact that...
A new line, with superior performance and/or less costly, can disrupt this long-term strategy by confusing the customer and creating some doubt over the wisdom of his past "upgrades", let alone those still planned for the future. Almost no retailer will allow this above scenario to take place. For some, it is their biggest nightmare, because it puts their self-declared omniscience and credibility into question, along with jeopardizing their sales and profit figures.
Their no-brainer "solution" is the avoid anything that is new and innovative.Top
Retailers are not the only, or even the main, instigators of this problem. The print magazines (and their Internet equivalents) are guilty as well, but I focus on their "sins" in other essays.
The retail customers themselves are also at fault, and in fact, you can argue they're the root cause, because they gave the magazines the undeserved power to influence all their purchasing judgments in the first place, instead of taking the time themselves to make the comparisons, even if that meant browbeating or even paying the stores to hear new and interesting components in their own systems.
The end result of all of the above is that the retail customer now has far less real choice, and most of that remaining choice of components are over-priced, over/under engineered and mediocre in sound quality. Ironically, this comes at a time when more products are available than at any time in audio history.
That above might sound overly harsh, but if it wasn't true, you wouldn't see literally thousands of components, many still current models, for sale on the Internet and in other places. That is an undeniable fact, and can only mean there are many unhappy audiophiles out there; those who have spent "big money" and didn't get what they were promised; first by the 'reviews' in the so-called "underground press", and then echoed by the retail stores.
Audio stores are finally feeling the consequences of their decades (plus) of cowardice and laziness,and have woken up to discover they have become...
Ask yourselves, what services are retailers offering to consumers to justify charging top dollar for a component that anyone may find (because it is so common) within a few months on the Internet for around half-price or even less? In effect, manufacturers (and their franchisee retailers) are competing with themselves as their previously (over) sold components come back on the market at a huge discount.
Their fear of the new and different has also caused an increasing number of start-up and small manufacturers and distributors to sell direct to the public (at wholesale prices!). This hurts the retailers by not only the loss of sales of those lines, but also by a reduction in sales of the lines they still carry at their much higher markup.
The worst long-term news for retailers is that an ever increasing number of audiophiles are now becoming accustomed to buying virtually new components at big discounts or new components direct at wholesale prices. It will be almost impossible for retailers to get these veteran bargain hunters back into their stores.
More and more consumers are justifiably avoiding audio stores, not only to save sometimes substantial amounts of money, but because the 'advice' they receive is either predictable and/or incompetent, and the "choice" of components they offer are the same old brands everyone else carries, which the potential, new customers rejected years earlier.Top
I've been asked this question a thousand times; in person, on the telephone or from readers of this website. It took me years to come up with an answer which takes into consideration the personal and subjective elements of the question, and has also now passed the test of time.
Before making a "serious" (risk of money lost) purchase, there are two "tests" that I recommended using. Both of them are subjective. The first test must be made and "passed", while the second test is a discretionary confirmation of the reality, and the degree, of the sonic improvement.
Test 1- Does this new component increase your enjoyment of the music to such a fundamental degree that "you can't live without it"? (In other words- You are not able to enjoy, and live with, what you have anymore?) If the answer is "Yes", then this is the only signal that this component will be actually worth the investment. If it is anything LESS than "yes", then it's better to be patient, and wait for the real thing to come along. This is the test that I use myself before making an expensive purchase.
Test 2- Are your NON-audiophile friends and/or family members sincerely impressed with it? When I say "non-audiophile", I mean the people in your life who have absolutely no interest in audio. Your wife, golf buddies, fellow employees or anyone you trust who knows of your great passion in life. If these dispassionate people can hear a real improvement, and are sincere about it, not just humoring you or trying to change the conversation, then the improvement is usually "significant".
*Note- I'm using the term "Expensive" in a highly subjective manner. I mean "expensive" in the purchaser's sense of what would constitute a serious loss of money if the item had to be resold. So, for one person, a $ 5,000 purchase, which could only be resold at $ 3,000, for a $ 2,000 loss, may or may not be "expensive". On the other hand...Purchasing a component used for $ 10,000, but with an easy, guaranteed resale for $ 10,000, is not "expensive" using this definition, because there is no "risk" involved in the purchase. Of course, getting the initial $ 10,000 is a different issue.Top
Personal Note- This short article below was taken from my complete V-Cap Teflon essay, which is now in The Modification File. It deals with the subject of when is the optimum time to switch components.
The arrival of the V-Cap Teflons has focused my thinking on both modifications in general and the more important issue of when audiophiles should change their components. These two subjects are now inseperable to me, and I want to explain my thinking, because this is what I've been doing for the last 25 years without even realizing it.
Like all serious audiophiles, there's nothing more exciting for me then finding a component that dramtically improves the performance of my system. It's that "excitement" and intense pleasure that makes us "audiophiles" in the first place, and is the reason why we are constantly on the look-out for something "better", regardless of whether it is new, used, cheap, expensive and difficult to find and set-up.
However, as our system improves, our personal priorities come into focus and the choices slowly narrow over time. Then the shrinking "degree" of potential improvement becomes, along with the increasing cost, the limiting factors effecting our never ending desire to "move up". How does one deal with the inevitability of "hitting the wall"; both technologically and financially? There is no one answer for everybody, but here is my own method, evolved over decades of constant upgrading, which successfully combines an unlimited quest with a limited and unpredictable budget.
I always "Go all the way" with what I have, thus creating my personal "Reference", and then try to improve on that standard. To "go all the way" means modifying your existing (reference) component as far as you reasonably can. This is what I've done with the Jadis JP-80* phono stage.
Let me be more step-by-step specific;
Once I found the electronics that I really liked ("stock"), I continually improved them with modifications. All during this time, now 25 years* with the Jadis, I've compared it to various "competitors", with almost all of them "stock", meaning the competitors were NOT modified in ANY way, let alone "all the way", like my reference. Though this would appear to be (and is!) blatantly "unfair" to the challengers (like using steroids), I made this decision (to cheat) for a very specific reason;
By definition, only a component that is fundamentally superior (by its basic design and/or execution) can improve on the performance of my "artificially enhanced" reference component. Once this (highly desirable) event occurs, I'm in the highest state of ecstasy as an audiophile; I will have found a new reference that will eventually, and inevitably, be FAR superior to my former reference. Why, when and how to get to that "far"? When the new reference itself* is modified "all the way".
*Personal History-The stock Jadis JP-80 had proved to be superior to my previous reference, the highly modified MFA Luminescence.
The conventional alternative to this "going all the way" strategy is continual "upgrading" (switching components). This is what the audio industry, including almost all of the audio magazines and 'reviewers', recommends to audiophiles, directly or indirectly. This alternative "strategy" is highly costly in money terms, and also in consuming valuable time and focus. Worst of all, most of these "upgrades" end up being small and insignificant improvements, or even "downgrades", in the long run, making them frustrating and spirit draining as well.
This can't happen with the "Modification and Upgrade Strategy". The small (fun) improvements, which are normally also small in cost, will occur naturally with the modifications. Any component change must provide a large audible improvement in the long run, since it will be the accumulation of both:
1. The original improvements heard during the comparison of the two components,
2. Plus all of the future improvements that will take place after it is modified itself.
While it was lengthy to explain, the "modification and upgrade strategy" is easy to understand and even implement, especially if the audiophile is capable of performing most of their own modifications. If not, this is where a friend and/or a competent and local technician will, once again, come in handy. (All serious audiophiles need friends, and most need technicians.)
The keys to making this strategy work are finding (tube) components that you really enjoy to begin with. That's the start. Then they are slowly modified until you feel their full potential has been realized. Only then, and after you are familiar with them and feel you are ready to appreciate an improvement, can the search for a new component begin; looking for one that is stock, but still appears promising. Finances and system requirements are also obvious factors that must be taken into consideration during the hunt.
They bottom line benefits of this strategy are twofold;
1. It prevents the audiophile from investing in a new (electronic) component if and when it is premature and NOT necessary.
2. Any new component passing this difficult test will have to be a significant upgrade in the long run, making "buyer's regret" a thing of the past.
Even though it's less relevant and more difficult, it's still in most audiophiles' best interests to establish a solid relationship with at least one local store. There are a number of reasons for this...
They may be helpful with general advice, repair service and, occasionally, you may get "a deal" on some used equipment, demos, closeouts etc. It's also a place to meet other audiophiles, find out about new equipment, software and accessories. Even the gossip may be helpful at times. It is almost never wise, or even practical, to totally depend on anyone, especially a store. On the other hand, it may be difficult for some audiophiles to put together a modern audio system without them, though it can, and has, been done many times.
Just remember, they have to "make a living", but when visiting them, don't forget to turn your "B.S. Detector" on "High", especially at the beginning. If you have to keep just one basic thought always in mind when dealing with audio stores, this is it:
Ultimately, the search for a better audio system is in many ways a personal discovery of your deepest needs: "what really turns you on". You must experience many different components and systems, while keeping an open mind and heart, if you want to reach your unique destination.
THE REFERENCE COMPONENTS
THE RECENT FILE
The Supreme Recordings
Reviewing the Reviewers
My Audio System
My Audio Philosophy
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