Re-Tales #10: Are You Experienced?

Change, it seems, is a byword for audio dealerships that aim to stay afloat, and Hanson Audio Video has seen its share of changes. Events and unconventional outreach are now integral to the company's approach.

I spoke with Greg Hanson and Showroom Manager Josh Gwin by phone then followed up with a (post-vaccine) visit to their Cincinnati showroom to find out what's going on there. Hanson and Gwin call the showroom an "experience center," because they want people who visit to have an experience, whether it's a new customer's first-ever high-end audio demo or a long-timer's regular check-in.

Like many audio companies, Hanson AV is a family business. It's helmed by Greg Hanson and his son, Troy; Greg runs the business, and Troy heads up sales and customer service and support. It started in 1999 in nearby Dayton, Ohio. After a few years of operating out of their home—mainly their garage—the Hansons began leasing to own their Dayton showroom, which they remodeled eight times and expanded in 2007.

Then, in 2017, a time when high- end audio was dwindling, Hanson AV did something surprising: They opened a second, larger showroom—5600 square feet—designed by Troy and built from the ground up in Cincinnati.

Why expand? First, they realized that 70% of their Dayton business was coming from Cincinnati, and Cincinnati customers kept asking when they were going to open a store there. "We want to make a commitment to the markets we serve," Hanson père told me. "Own the real estate, put our name on the buildings." As "Video" in their name indicates, Hanson, like many dealers, has expanded from two-channel into home theater—and also outdoor audio, custom install, and home automation, and Cincinnati was a big market.

Second, they wanted space to create more homelike environments for demonstrating their products. Mini "exhibits" throughout the Cincinnati store add interest, conveying information about hi-fi brands and their histories. For instance, all the parts of a Bowers & Wilkins driver array are mounted in a display case. Several of the tools used to handcraft Sonus Faber speakers are shown in another.

Another wall displays reproductions of archival photos of celebrities with their hi-fi systems: Sinatra, Hendrix, Connery, McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe. But Hanson is not about old-school cool; the company is working to expand its reach beyond the traditional audiophile market.

"Events are a good way to introduce new people, new groups, to two-channel and home theater, custom install, all of it," Hanson said. Hanson wants to expose people to great sound through their two-channel systems but also to find other ways to pique people's interest. In addition to regular dealer events with manufacturers' representatives, Hanson hosts events for realtors through a partnership with a residential real estate magazine. In Dayton, they hold large monthly "Coffee and Cars" events that draw regional auto enthusiasts. For these, Hanson sets up outdoor audio systems with as many as 18 speakers (plus subs) in big parking lots. "We also do some advertising, email blasts, stuff like that. ... Catering to new clients, it's kind of tough."

The pandemic hasn't helped to get new customers in the door, but it hasn't hurt business, either. On the contrary. "We have gotten busier during COVID," Gwin said. "If you'd have told me that 10 months ago, I'd have thought you were crazy. It's been wild."

Like much of America outside the major coastal cities, which many people appear to be fleeing, the Midwest has a hot housing market. "Home buying and building has gone through the roof," Gwin said. He surmises that the region's more affordable cost of living amounts to more disposable income. Some of the new customers have recently relocated to Cincinnati from Chicago or elsewhere, many of them younger than the typical customer. But not all the new traffic is local; some new customers have come from out of state—from, say, Nashville, or even Florida.

Like other dealers I've spoken with, the Hanson staff is seeing audiophile parents bringing in their teenage and early-20s kids. With time on their hands and no place to go—and no live music—some audiophiles are returning to the hobby. Some are digging out older components; others are starting fresh. Hanson recently introduced a trade-in program. They want to cultivate new customers across income brackets. Many are dipping their toes into hi-rez streaming. "They'll say, 'I have thousands of CDs, but I've been hearing more about Tidal and Qobuz,'" Gwin told me. "If you have a $100,000 system, you don't want to throw Sonos into it." Hanson does sell Sonos, so no slight is intended.

To accommodate a range of budgets, Hanson presents demos of "good, better, best, and ultimate systems." One customer might save up to buy a McIntosh amplifier; another comes in and buys whatever strikes her fancy. "It's just all over the map." Everyone is treated equally, Hanson says, whether they buy $200 headphones or $200,000 speakers.

Is two-channel audio becoming an afterthought? "Not at this point," Hanson said. "That business continues to grow for us every year. It's a key element of our strategy."

Hanson calls the store an "experience center" to make a point: "It's all about the experience," Hanson said. Customers "want to have fun. Most of our customers are people who just love music, and all of a sudden, they discover better sound is possible. There's a new generation of people buying this stuff. 'Two-channel' may be a foreign term to them, but people who like quality know and appreciate the difference."

_cruster's picture

How much did this “article” cost them?

Jim Austin's picture

How much did this “article” cost them?

Stereophile's occasional advertorials are always clearly marked. This is not one.

Jim Austin, Editor

thatguy's picture

While I do get that it can feel a bit like a "look how great our store is" write-up; at the same time we have fewer and fewer real stores left so insight into how some are doing it is interesting.

It is funny, a local store has two locations and we hit them on different days. At the first one I told the guy right off that we were just killing time on our lunch break and he was still happy to crank up their six figure system for us to listen to and gave advice on 'inexpensive' amps. At the other I asked about options for projector screens to replace my current one and my friend bought some clearance speakers; yet I felt like we were bothering the guy by being there. I haven't been back to the second location.
Just like in all businesses, they can have the fancy building, great marketing and everything else, but the person you meet when you walk through the door makes all the difference.

Julie Mullins's picture

No matter what the retail biz—audio or whatever specialty place—service and being treated respectfully make all the difference. I'm stating the obvious here but it's unfortunate how some salespeople can lose sight of this.

JoelDi's picture

Last summer I decided to finally, after several decades without a real hi-fi system, to jump back in. I have a bias for planar speakers and went to check out the Maggies at Hanson in Cincinnati. I would ultimately be buying a full system but wasn't intending to buy all of the pieces at one place. Beyond the preference for planar speakers, my only other leaning was totally away from physical media.

When entering, I asked the salesperson about Maggies and received a demo of a pair of 3.7i speakers. They seemed a bit "flat" to me, without life. I asked the salesperson about this and they suggested a different amp, which was then connected to the speakers. I didn't hear much difference. There was an offer to listen to a pair of 30.7 speakers in the next room. I didn't want to spend that much money and asked about music servers and streaming services and said that I didn't want any physical media. I received a "deer in the headlights" response. I was not yet familiar with Tidal or Qobuz and the salesperson attempted to show me these, but couldn't seem to bring up any of the music I suggested, despite it being fairly common works. There was no mention of any music servers. I took their name and left.

A few weeks later I thought I'd give a listen to some MartinLogan speakers at Audible Elegance in Cincinnati. The store is very functional, but not glitzy. I listened to a pair of 11A speakers and almost teared up at the realistic soundstage the system provided. I discussed different speaker models with the salesperson there, along with different amplifiers that would complement the speakers well, and then streaming services and servers such as the Roon Nucleus. Every salesperson at Audible Elegance was knowledgeable about components in general, and each person seemed to have specialty areas they knew more about. I ended up buying my entire set of equipment from these folks. No fancy building, just great, knowledgeable customer service.

Julie Mullins's picture

Thanks for your comment. It's good to know Audible Elegance is still around and doing business. Glad to hear you're back in the hobby!