Re-Tales #4: Bring service back

Walter Swanbon has had a lot on his mind lately. Like many dealers, he's been busy adapting to changes, but the pandemic has also offered time for reflection.

Swanbon is founder and president of Fidelis Premium Audio, a longstanding audio dealership in "tax-free" New Hampshire that serves a broad swath of New England, from Greater Boston to Maine. He also handles US distribution for several lines and sells records at his Nashua showroom, a 35–40-minute drive from Boston. During a conversation via Skype, Swanbon expressed concerns and even a few grievances about the state of our industry.

In the 1970s and '80s, hi-fi culture was deeply embedded in the New England college scene. There was a point in the early '70s, Swanbon told me, when seven or eight stores in the Boston/Cambridge area represented some 25%–30% of hi-fi sales nationwide. "Back then, music was king, and every dorm room had a system," he said. Swanbon attended Boston College on scholarship in the 1970s. He became a campus sales representative for K&L Sound, selling hi-fi systems to students and others. The company also had a pro-audio division, which supplied microphones, PAs, and amplifiers to rock bands and discos. Armed with a ReVox tape deck and AKG mikes, he and a friend started a business recording classical and jazz recitals at Berklee College of Music and the Longy School of Music at Bard College. "We'd charge, like, 50 bucks," he said. "It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about recording, about how to place microphones. We were into all kinds of music back then: rock, jazz, blues, classical."

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Swanbon (middle)

In time, he began doing studio work for pop and rock bands—probably the most fun he's had in the audio world, he told me. He and his friend put together a PA system and traveled with rock bands, including a group with an Aerosmith alumnus. Steven Tyler came to some of the concerts and invited them to his practice studios in Waltham, Massachusetts. "So, we got to experience the debauchery of the '70s rock'n'roll scene," Swanbon said with a laugh.

Swanbon gained hands-on experience building loudspeakers for a company called Davis-Moore Laboratories. He then worked for another Boston dealer, where, he says, he learned how not to treat people. "I'm a survivor of the hi-fi wars of the '70s and '80s," Swanbon joked.

Several months back, he lost his longtime friend and colleague, Bill Henk. Swanbon first met Henk in the late 1980s when he was a sales representative for AudioQuest, Paradigm, Sumo, etc. Swanbon described him as a soft-spoken salesman and extolled his extensive musical knowledge and his influence on Swanbon and Fidelis.

The pandemic pushed Swanbon to invest in his company's online presence—but he is not an unqualified Internet fan, calling it "a double-edged sword." It's good for getting product information out, he said, but it makes it harder to do what dealerships are best at: determining the needs of individual customers. People are buying expensive gear online, often impulsively, because they know they can send it back, he told me, but many high-end companies aren't set up for those kinds of transactions. Swanbon believes the Internet's biggest failures revolve around interfaces—between the room, amplification, and loudspeakers and between the salesperson and the customer.

"The customers need that service and expertise. They need someone to guide them," he says. He compares an audio consultancy to a good lawyer or travel agent, able to provide advice based on deep expertise and experience. "Instead of chasing the amp of the month or the speaker of the year, they should be chasing better synergies that work for their specific needs.

"It's fine to have all these reviews of wonderful gear," he explains. "But when it comes to putting it all together and making sense of it, and having a consumer really clue in to whether it's the right choice in the context of what they already own...that's the purpose of dealers."

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Lately, like many dealers, he's had more time to spend with customers, but interacting with them personally and usefully isn't as easy. Due to COVID-19 concerns, it's harder to go into people's homes to help fine-tune their audio setups.

Providing attentive, knowledgeable service may sound like an obvious formula for success, but Swanbon says it's becoming a lost art. In the '70s, '80s, and '90s, professional organizations provided training, testing, and certification for audio dealers, including the Society of Audio Consultants, the Professional Audio Retailers Association, and the British Audio Dealers Association, which provided a "seal of approval" akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal to trustworthy dealers that met certain standards. Nothing like that exists anymore. Even manufacturers are missing the boat, he says: They need to educate dealers, then make sure those dealers are presenting the products well.

"There needs to be a solid industry organization that professionalizes the process, that puts the gear into the right hands with the right skill sets," he said. "Good dealers are hard to come by."

Swanbon is also concerned about the younger generation's lack of appreciation for jazz and classical music, which, he told me, is now less than 5% of all music sold: "And that has an effect on high-end audio, because these forms of music were the backbone of the passion for good sound and trying to establish that concert sound in a home environment."

Swanbon remains hopeful about hi-fi's future. When people are able to attend concerts again, hopefully that will reinforce their interest in music—and in experiencing music at home, too. At the end of the day, he's here for the music, he says, and for making sure customers are happy.

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Only a small few Audio Reviewers manage to get a presence visit from a knowledgable and competent Factory Trained Field Representatives.

I have every reason to feel that Stereophile Subscribers read Stereophile Mag. for useful advice & direction in solving problems. ( John Atkinson being their leading source of wisdoms )

Home theatre folks get their gear installed by the Store and then struggle to learn the half dozen Remotes with 100 double purpose buttons. (phew)

Our little Audiophile hobby features diy trying-out things like Tip-Toes, Cable-Trusses, Fuses, Wires, speaker positions, suspension isolation feet and buying all the various RE-Masters of Rock&Roll favourites.

and then...

Upgrading, swapping out, blind testing, A-B Testing, A-B-X testing and on and on and on... It hasen't ever paused since it all began with the little AR turntable, LS3/5a loudspeakers and the Turntable Revolution. LINN NAIM & Flat Earth.

People get Good Service at the Car Dealer or the plumber, for a price ! Who wants to service the Neurotic/Psychotic Audiophile ? I shut the doors of my Esoteric Audio Salon ( 1985 ) and returned to the Transportation Industry where 2+2=4 every single day of the year and consistent Pay Checks include Full Health & Dental Insurance, Bonus & Cars.

However the Headphone World seems filled with USA Outfits that answer the phone and seem anxious and capable of being helpful.

Auidiophiles never had good service ( the McIntosh Tube Clinics of old being the possible exception ) so there isn't any good service to bring back. Try Europe where Dealers work hard for the folks in their little village.

The Greater Detroit Area had over a Dozen Audio Dealers that closed leaving only one Standing: Audio Dimensions - Harry Francis ( a great person ) Birmingham, Mi an original Audio Research & Magnepan Shop from waayyyyyy back.

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. I happen to have a thriving, Full-Service Pro-Audio Shop within one mile of my Florida home where mothers buy their 12 year old daughters various musical things. ( I was in the store today for InEarMonitors. )

dc_bruce's picture

I am of Mr. Swanbon's generation, and I applaud his effort to keep that going. The cost of dealing with an actual human being goes up and up, with the naturally predictable result that fewer people want to pay for it. Audio salons turn their expensive inventory slowly, so the markups have to be huge to pay the rent and so on. The high volume stuff is available on the Internet from online dealers or direct sales outfits like PS Audio, Schitt and, to some extent, KEF.

I share his concern about music, not because I have an overwhelming love for 19th and early-to-mid 20th century music but because it is produced by non-electronic instruments. So-called acoustic instruments are sonically much more complex than electronic instruments, and they are usually recorded in a real acoustic space of some sort. This makes greater demands on the playback system. In my opinion, what you're paying for in a good "stereo" is not bone-crushing loudness but the reproduction of nuance and shading. However, if your music doesn't really demand that, then there's no point in spending the big bucks for a stereo. That's my beef with John Darko, who takes a very sane approach to hifi and seems to be a careful listener. However, being a Gen-Xer, he loudly proclaims an exclusive interest in his music, to the exclusion of any of that "older stuff."

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for reading and commenting, dc_bruce. Good points about listening to acoustic vs. other music. Personally, I listen to a very wide range of music from jazz to offbeat synth pop to indie/alt rock, folk, world, etc. Some classical, too. I also see all kinds of music live (including classical and opera). And yeah, I'm a Gen-Xer. I find that the acoustic music can often reveal more about a system's capabilities. But on some electronic music, the quick, clean starts and stops of say, synth transients that don't exist in nature can also be interesting to evaluate...along with a track's vocals, etc. Also sometimes I want a bit more bass if the recording's range allows for it. Some speakers and other gear arguably are better suited or intended for certain types of music over others I suppose.

dc_bruce's picture

And I didn't mean to slam Generation X, so I hope it didn't read that way to you. In fairness (and this is hardly a new insight), one of the big problems in lots of pop recordings is the excessive compression, which, despite the capabilities of the reproducing system, has the effect of reducing the music's impact. In the Washington DC metro area (of which I am an almost native), there's always been an abundance of free, live music of all types. One of those is on the parade ground of Ft. Meyer, which adjoins Arlington National Cemetery. A friend of mine, who worked in the Pentagon, got me to accompany him to some military band concerts held there. The band certainly generates "clean starts and stops" that you can definitely feel. Of course, marching band music is a case of "a little goes a long way" for lots of people.
So, when it comes to recorded music, lots of recordings of acoustic jazz or symphonic music may have more dynamic range than pop recordings. Good listening to you!

Julie Mullins's picture

No offense taken! Yes, a fair point. There's plenty of compression in pop music (and elsewhere), especially in earlier (and earlier digital) recordings it seems. I also enjoy seeing lots of live music, a pleasure that COVID has obviously put the kibosh on. Luckily we have our home audio systems to enjoy! I've been digging deeper into my vinyl collection AND more hi-res streaming, always eager to find new material and revisit my favorites.

audiolab1962's picture

...to write like a pro, this would now be a 10,000 word essay fit for submittal as my thesis. As an ex salesman from long long ago (as mentioned in another recent thread), I would love to return to retail in Hi-fi.

Here though we have two immediate problems, retail itself no longer really exists (as I remember it) and Hi-fi no longer exists in the wide panoply. The first point is very hard to impress on those that have not experienced it, understand its real importance in this particular field. You cannot simply buy on recommendation, review, specification, price etc. The second, that actually the public have little access to it.

The two or three mainstream electronic retailers that push mass market audio (multiple channels of mega watts with equal amounts of distortion and sub woofers that can barely woof let alone sub !) versus the real Hi-fi retailer that rarely appear on the high street, so to an extent do not actually exist. Should you find one, they can be down right intimidating. Windows displaying products that cost more than a years salary. Staff that think they are above you to the point of being rude. Shops that you cannot actually walk into, that require you to ring a doorbell or actually book an appointment. Having stood in one a year or so ago and listened to the absolute drivel falling out of the salesman mouth, maybe they should be extinct.

I am not sure that he general public do really know that there is an alternative to the mass market drivel, to many of my work colleagues the top is either Bose or Bang & Olufsen. Here in the UK the only big middle man is an outfit called Richer Sounds (Pile it high sell it cheap) other than this there is little to be found.

The industry needs to support and show that a base line system can be put together for sub £1,000. It is this start in to real world of Hi-Fi that will generate the customer of the future. We must also recognise that there is a need for general good quality sound systems, many will simply want something better than the mass market offerings but do not want to get involved at an enthusiast level (or so they think...). To a large extent I cannot stress this point enough and this is another area the industry is losing out on.

As that ex salesman, every customer no matter the sale value was of equal importance, once I created a customer I had them and their on going recommendations to others. I would have customers waiting to see me, not anyone else much to the managers annoyance. When I left, my customers followed me to the next store I worked at. Can this world that I once enjoyed come back... I fear not but would much like to be proved wrong.

Be thankful that I cannot write 10,000 meaningful words, and just hope that from my meanderings above you get some idea of my general annoyance at the industries self ability to destroy itself. By industries, I mean manufacturers, retailers, enthusiasts (yes us) and last but no means least the Media.

Kal Rubinson's picture
Quote:

I am not sure that the general public do really know that there is an alternative to the mass market drivel, to many of my work colleagues the top is either Bose or Bang & Olufsen.

That has always been true. It is unlikely to change even if......

Quote:

The industry needs to support and show that a base line system can be put together for sub £1,000. It is this start in to real world of Hi-Fi that will generate the customer of the future.

Hasn't happened despite past efforts.

Availability and approachability are essential. Audiophiles (us) self-select for various reasons and will seek out their particular entry points.

Julie Mullins's picture

Availability and approachability are essential.

Yes, and just exposure to what a great-sounding system can do for your preferred music (no matter what you like to listen to).

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes. I can remember individuals and shops in each of the places I have lived, over the years, who have nurtured my appreciation of music and audio. For me, it was as essential as finding the best local bakery, butcher, bookstore, car mechanic, plumber, etc.

CG's picture

Here's the odd thing...

Back in the 70's, in the Boston area, college students usually purchased their audio systems from Lechmere Sales, Tech HiFi, or from their campus K&L salesperson.

You could certainly visit your local Tech HiFi store to have a listen. Within some limits. The system matching expertise wasn't really a big part of the transaction - you got that when you went to the local McIntosh dealer or a place like The Music Box in Wellesley, just outside Boston. (Later, you could go to Goodwin's over by the BU campus)

Lechmere's was a big box store. Yeah, the gear was on display, but you couldn't get a better idea of how it worked than you could of the dishwashers three aisles over.

If you bought through one of Louie's (L of K&L) reps, they'd pick up the boxes, take your money, and that was pretty much that.

Isn't that pretty much like the internet transactions of today?

I'm not saying that's good or bad. It's just the way it is. The music industry is not the same now, either.

BTW... I came across a K&L flyer on ye olde internette:

http://tech.mit.edu/archives/VOL_096/TECH_V096_S0031_P008.pdf

From a quick look, a middle of the road system seemed to average about $300 or so. At least, when on sale. That equates to about $1400 in 2021 dollars. (1000 GBP) About the price of a student laptop or fancy cell phone. Priorities clearly have changed.

partain's picture

I ordered a set of KEF LS50 Meta Wireless lIs that I had promised a friend an audition to see if they fit his room. Every review mentioned a quik-n-ezy 20 minute set-up.
It took my friend two days and help from his college-aged sons to get them up and going. They sounded magical.
Back at the ranch with them , I never was able to coordinate the router/app/device match-up.
I spent hours on the phone with router sites and Best Buys and KEF and never got near a human.
I returned them to BB , noting that there was likely nothing wrong with them. A near $3K return got no attention.
One hour or less of knowledgeable aid would've done it.
Ultimately I bought a pair of original LS 50 refurbs from Amazon and saved mucho $$$ , sounds good , too.
Those speakers docked marvelously with my amp via spade lugs , no help necessary !

thatguy's picture

"It's fine to have all these reviews of wonderful gear," he explains. "But when it comes to putting it all together and making sense of it, and having a consumer really clue in to whether it's the right choice in the context of what they already own...that's the purpose of dealers."

There are so many youtube 'reviewers' that hype nearly every product like it is the best thing they ever encountered. The comments following those reviews are generally filled with "I've got to get one!" and people on forums link to the videos as an argument for how great the product is. This drives a ton of sales but, I would guess, not so much long term satisfaction.
I used to have the gotta-have-it response to those videos until I realized that every product can't be the best. Sure, they shoot down a couple here and there to make it seem real but too many of the reviews feel like infomercials. But it works because the products they talk up tend to sell out.

My first experience with an audio shop helped me end up with a system I used for 20 years. Nothing I've bought from a catalog or online has had that kind of staying power and I've spent quite a bit more that way.

Audio components are so dependent on other components and the room and placement so one person's perfect speaker would be another person's worst speaker.

Old Audiophile's picture

Just wanted to chime in with my two cents. I've spent several hours at Fidelis doing critical listening of speakers. They are a first class operation with first class service! Definitely worth a visit if you are anywhere close! Stores like this need to be supported. I, too, fondly remember the good 'ole days of Tech HiFi in Cambridge, Lechmere, Tweeter and much smaller operations right in your own neighborhood. Manufacturers, large and not so large, of good audiophile gear should do everything within their power(s) to support operations like Fidelis and even promote others like them or risk becoming irrelevant. After all, supporting good audio shops like this is good for everyone's bottom line; not to mention music. Perhaps there's an education component to be explored here for the generations who still think MP3 and ninety dollar boom boxes are the second coming? Maybe an adjunct to music appreciation classes? I don't want to be around the day high fidelity music dies.

generubinaudio's picture

Congrats Walter on your years of service, I am hanging in there with you! Nice to see that picture of us, great evening in Irvine, CA. Damn my Model S was shiny that day!

One thing about covid and people spending more time at home is that there is an increase of turntable and cartridge sales (especially Palmer and Koetsu). Customers are telling me they are re-discovering their record collections big time. As a big fan of analog, this is pleasing.

Sam Tellig's picture

Walter makes it work by working hard. In the past, not so many high-end dealers have done that. He also makes his business viable by his careful choice of a location, in an industrial park well outside of metropolitan Boston. My Uncles Stan and Harold (yes, TWO audiophiles in the family) put me on to hi fi before the term audiophile was invented, back in the 1950s. That's the way it often is -- a father, an uncle (or two!), a close family friend. But most people don't care. It was that way back in the 1950s, when my Aunt Emily (Stan's wife) referred to "high fly." I differ with Walter in that I do not WANT the hobby to be popularized. If it is, we'll lose it, like FM radio or black and white photography (and cinematography). I would put a big KEEP OUT sign on the front door or the cover of Stereophile. As it is, I think that high-performance hi-fi is doing quite well, thank you, thanks in large part to dedicated dealers like Walter. Things work for him and his customers because HE WORKS HARD.

Poor Audiophile's picture

"THE" Sam Telling? Where have you been?

Sam Tellig's picture

But maybe not much longer. I am plotting a comeback, on a limited scale. Anyone for an occasional short column, The Audio Geezer?

Poor Audiophile's picture

I am for it! I'm now 58(where DID the time go?) so I am a geezer too! Please keep us posted!

John Rutan's picture

The Audio Geezer one of Brown University's finest "says JohnnyR the gentleman of Verona." Tom, you're unique descriptions of audio, the people's, Characters, adventures, with real-world inter reactions were always wonderfully entertaining and now sorely missed. It's time for a comeback...
Best JohnnyR

BluesDog's picture

Great article by Julie Mullins. As Old Audiophiles stated, Fidelis is a class establishment with patient, kind and knowledgeable staff (Mark, this means you.) As a freshman runner in the early 1970's Walter was one of the best 2 milers Massachusetts ever produced. He inspired my generation. One can see that he applies an eelite runner's stamina and will to his craft. Fidelis is a store highly worth exploring. As long as places and people like Fidelis and Walter exist, there is always hope that the Eternal Audiophile Flame ill not perish from the earth.

Julie Mullins's picture

Glad you enjoyed my article. It was fun to talk with Walter and write about what he had to say, and so on.

13stoploss's picture

I try to do things on my own. I break stuff. A lot. But sometimes I get stuff right, too. These are rewarding learning experiences.

But you know what would also be great? If not a mentor, then at least someone to come into my house (for the future vaccinated "aftertimes") to say, "This is all wrong, Dummy. Let me show you how to fix it."

Look, I'm just saying that I respond as well to drill sergeants as I do learning from breaking things. I figure I've got 20-25 years until I'm the old fart lamenting "the kids these days."

Hoping to be around to show them--if anyone can help me master what's worth showing.

- Jason

jaypederson@yahoo.com's picture

I'm a customer of Fidelis AV and I can attest to their dedication to service after the sale, and good customer service on top of that. I grew up in the '70s and I remember the days when record stores and stereo stores were the coolest place to be on Saturday afternoons. (Now it's the Apple store!) Fidelis definitely harkens back to those days and is still carrying on those glory days. So I walk in one busy Saturday and told Bill Henk (very sorry to hear of his passing) my budget was $2000.00, this would be my first serious 'table, and I don't own a phono stage. Bill gave me not only a $2000.00 turntable, but also a $100 starter phono stage and a $25 record brush at no extra charge. When I got everything home and set it up, I was getting a ground hum. Bill immediately sent me a grounding cable at no charge. Problem solved. And later on, when the record mat ended up drying out and warping like a potato chip, Bill sent me a new one, again at no charge. Some where along the line Bill also sold me a $1300 phone stage which has been a good match for the 'table. Finally, I'm embarrased to admit that I dropped something heavy on the 'table. I brought it to Bill to inspect and he said it was still good. Again, no charge. These are the kinds of customer service stories we used to hear about more often, back in the day. So I've been very happy with Fidelis and I hope they stick around for years to come. Jay

jaypederson@yahoo.com's picture

...I forgot to mention, the afternoon I picked up the 'table, I forgot to take the phone stage with me! So Bill called me halfway home. He stayed an extra half-hour after closing so I could go back and pick it up. He said he knew I would want to set it up that Saturday night, which of course I did want to, and I did set it up! Bill was a good guy. What big box store would have done that for one of their customers?

Trevor_Bartram's picture

In 2000, as a part of the dot.com boom, I got my first sizable bonus check. I bought some nice jewelry for my wife and embarked on a hi-fi upgrade of my fifteen year old system. CD and amplifier were easy to choose. The speakers required I traipse around Boston area dealers with familiar CDs. It was exhausting, as I had to memorize the sonics of each design. After two weeks and a half dozen dealers I settled on Paradigm Studio 20 monitors from Q Audio in Cambridge, just down the road from MIT. The in store demo of the Paradigms (versus my existing Snell Js) using Monarchy audio electronics threw a highly seductive holographic image (on the better performances). I'm not sure I ever achieved that level of performance in my home with my NAD electronics but the new system was an improvement over my previous system, that was the point of the exercise. I still have the Snells (re-foamed recently), Paradigms and NAD amplifier. So I feel sorry for many of today's audiophiles, stuck with equipment bought based on reviews, without the help of a local dealer to fix sonic mismatches and achieve synergy.

Old Audiophile's picture

I, too, have spent several hours at Q Audio doing critical listening of speakers, an amp and a turntable. Outstanding shop with an owner who couldn't be more accommodating and helpful! He really knows his stuff, as well! Q Audio is definitely worth a visit from any audiophile within proximity... say, a couple hundred miles, or so? A few other shops also worthy of a visit in that area, relatively speaking, are Audio Visual Therapy in Nashua, NH and Natural Sound in Framingham, MA. Further west but also deserving of a visit is Safe and Sound, Inc. in Chicopee, MA. Makes me wonder if readers should start a forum to laud great shops? Maybe reviewers could occasionally review a shop or two, similar to Julie's review of Fidelis? Sounds like a worthy endeavor, to me.

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for your comments and suggestions, Old Audiophile. We'd been thinking about possible visits. Perhaps after the pandemic eases up this could be more feasible. I'd be interested in visiting/reporting on stores, but we'd have to see about reviews, etc.

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