House Calls & Home Auditions

Conventional wisdom has it that you should listen to an audio component, preferably in your own system, before you decide to buy it. But who, these days, has the opportunity to do this consistently? Even an audition in the store isn't guaranteed; I have to drive two hours to get to the nearest dealer with decent customer service and a good inventory of interesting gear. And though he generally stocks a fairly wide range of components, like any dealer, he carries only a small sample of all the hi-fi gear that's currently, in principle, available.

Early last year, a shop here in Maine refused to let me audition in my home a pair of Vandersteen 2Ce Signature loudspeakers. This shop, which handles mostly car audio and mid-fi brands, had the Vandersteens badly set up in a poor room with mediocre components. I called the manufacturer to complain and ended up chatting for a while with Richard Vandersteen himself.

He took the dealer's side, more or less. He regretted the lousy customer service I received, and the poor setup in the shop. But Vandersteen speakers, he argued, are well engineered, and will perform well in any well-engineered and reasonably well-matched system. Hence, a home audition isn't necessary. Furthermore, it's disadvantageous for a manufacturer to have a lot of "B stock" floating around, undermining the prices of new gear and complicating efforts at quality control. Bottom line: Vandersteen thought the shop's policy on in-home auditions was just fine. This, he said, is how they do business, and it has served them well over the years. Take it or leave it, on their terms.

I might have been put off, but I wasn't, or not by much. I found his amiable arrogance compelling; he wasn't derisive, merely blunt. Also compelling was a long history of consistently strong, if not always glowing, subjective reviews, a flat frequency response, reasonable impedance characteristics, and two rare features that to me just make sense even if I'm not sure I can hear the difference: time and phase coherence. Why spend so much money and effort on source components, amplification components, and wire, I reasoned (as Richard Vandersteen had reasoned years before), only to have the audio signal distorted beyond recognition—by design—by the loudspeakers? I held my nose at the stinky dealer—the only Vandersteen dealer for many miles—and bought the Vandersteens without an in-home audition.

If, as Richard Vandersteen argued that day, a well-engineered component is likely to give a pleasing result when used with other well-engineered components—and if opportunities for in-home auditions are as rare as they seem to be—then measurements like the ones that accompany most of Stereophile's equipment reviews have an important role to play in buying decisions. It's true, of course, that good sound can't be measured, that lousy measurements provide no assurance of lousy sound; and that components that measure badly can sound great. But if a component sounds good to subjective reviewers and the measurements reveal solid engineering and compatibility with your current system, the odds that it will sound good in your home system are much higher.

Some high-end shops make loans to established customers who have already dumped tens of thousands of dollars on gear there, but for those playing at the lower end of the market and for those just starting out, this is rarely possible. This is one reason, probably, that a lot of folks who could afford and appreciate better-quality gear end up buying at Circuit City: They can take it home for 30 days, and if they don't like it, they bring it back. With nothing better at home to compare it to and no experience to guide them, they're likely to find its performance okay.

It's a hard problem, but the industry could do better than they currently are. They could, for example, show more competence in setup and system matching, even for modestly priced gear, so that in-store auditions would be more meaningful. Maybe dealers, the industry, and consumers could relax the distinction between new and slightly used gear. I once had a rich friend who was mortified when she learned that I had bought my house used—but what's wrong with buying a component that was in someone else's house for a while, as long as it's in perfect condition, comes with a good warranty, includes the latest design updates, was demonstrably built within the last few months, has a 30-day or longer audition period, and is sold at a fair price? Why not let someone else break it in for you? Maybe if consumers were more willing to buy previously auditioned components, dealers and manufacturers would be willing to send them home with us more often.

In the meantime, what are the options for consumers and enthusiasts? We can shop the mid-fi retail box stores. We can limit ourselves to mail-order components that offer in-home auditions—an increasingly appealing option these days, with a wide range of high-quality gear now available over the Internet—and be ready to return components that prove less than superb. Or we can take our chances on the used market, buying at prices we can sell at if we don't like the way a component sounds.

But if we want to buy new, and we want stuff that's marketed only through high-end dealers—and if we're among the 99% or so of humanity who don't have a buddy working at a high-end store—it's not realistic to expect an in-home audition. This is where review magazines such as Stereophile have an important role to play.

But unless you've got total confidence in the ears and integrity of your favorite subjective reviewer—I respect many reviewers, but have total confidence in none of them—well-conceived and -executed measurements can be very reassuring. The combination of subjective reviews, effective in-store demos, and measurements that reveal the quality of engineering can combine to reduce the risks of a major hi-fi purchase.