Old Wine, New Bottles

These days, too many audio stores are like hushed mausoleums. Audio gear is displayed like dead art, and the sales staff, unless you're known as a regular customer, either greets you with a predatory gleam or, certain that you've wandered in by mistake, ignores you.

I had that experience recently—only it didn't happen in an audio store, it was a wine shop. Just before the holidays, I walked into a store on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn and looked over the Bordeaux selection, half listening to the clerk browbeat another customer for not knowing precisely what he wanted. After intimidating the guy into spending a few extra bucks for a "proper" wine, he set his sights on me.

I'm no expert. I know red from white and good from bad, and that's about it. But I think, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, that good wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, and I planned on entertaining over the holidays, so I thought I'd avail myself of the wine clerk's knowledge of his stock and get something a little better than the bargain reds I normally buy.

"How much do you want to spend?"

That was the point, of course. I didn't know what I would have to spend to have the experience I wanted. I reckoned that was his job. "Let's talk about the wines," I said, "and I'll worry about my wallet."

"Sir! I need to know whether you're looking for a soft Bordeaux like a St. Emilion or something flinty like a Pinchon Baron."

"I tend to—"

"I need to know if—"

"I've tasted—"

"And you must tell me . . . "

Jeez, all I wanted was a bottle of fermented grape juice. Life is too short to jump through hoops for a salesman who doesn't really want to sell (or listen to his customer). I walked out in mid-interrogation.

Remind you of anything?

A few weeks later, I wandered into Discovery Wines on Avenue A, after an early-evening turntable-setup session at my friend Larry's. Discovery is an inviting store, well laid out and pleasant to wander about. Its shtick is computer screens connected to barcode scanners and scattered around the sales floor. If a wine caught my eye, I scanned it and read all about it. There were maps showing the vineyard within its region, biographies of the vintners, and—this is the brilliant part—dining suggestions and sample recipes. (So, this is how I'd use a Riesling at my house . . . )

Also, the affordable stuff was out front where everybody could get to it, and there was a tasting going on in a comfortable back room, where people were trying four obscure Austrian whites under $20 and enjoying themselves immensely.

Do I need to say that I bought some wine? Wouldn't you? I'll go back to Discovery even though it's not even close to my neighborhood.

Now let's walk back into that typical audio shop. Is music playing? Can we touch the gear? Are we invited to fantasize about how we'd use that CD player (or preamp or power amp) on a daily basis? If the answers are "yes," we've probably walked into one of those rare hi-fi shops that are still doing pretty well. Those stores are fun to shop at because they remember that hi-fi is about fun.

The chances are, however, that we'll have wandered into a hi-fi emporium that's empty because it's forgotten that, in order to sell, it needs to connect to its customers in ways that make sense to them. After Stereophile published my review of the Apple iPod, Michael Fremer was harangued by the proprietor of a New York audio shoppe because he felt the magazine had no business reviewing products that he didn't feel were legitimate high-end audio. (Good thing I wasn't there—he'd have probably strangled me.) That outraged merchant could have taken all that energy and constructed a demo that made an iPod sound like a symphony. Or a slow jam. Or a groove thang. Isn't that what high-end audio is supposed to be about—enhancing the everyday musical experience?

Apple, by contrast, invited us audiophiles to the party by configuring the iPod so it could play uncompressed audio files. Later, it added a lossless compression scheme to its bag of tricks—and when Apple introduced its Airport Express wireless multimedia link, it even included a digital port so that an audiophile—such as Stereophile's editor—could network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. "Sounds okay," deadpans JA.

If the High End wants to survive, it's going to have to remember to invite folks in. We can't chase them away and then complain that they've left.