Industry Profile: Steve Cohen, In Living Stereo (NYC)

This week's industry profile tells a story about beginnings and changing times, in a conversation with Steve Cohen, a longtime employee (he doesn't have a formal job title) of the New York based hi-fi shop In Living Stereo. I started our conversation by asking Steve how he got into hi-fi. What was his background?

Steve Cohen: My dad was into music, and getting a good hi-fi system to listen to was a project that we got to witness as kids. He went through a brief phase of buying equipment until he assembled his hi-fi system. He'd drive us to Lafayette Radio, an electronics store where the salesman let my dad try reel-to-reel tape decks at home, until he finally settled on a Wollensak tape recorder.

Much later, in 1975, I worked at my brother's stereo store on Long Island, where I mostly drove gear from one place to another. It was there that I first heard Magnepans, Magnaplanars, Audio Research, Nakamichi Tape Decks, and Linn Sondek equipment. The store also sold Marantz and Tandberg receivers.

It wasn't until the mid 1980s that I regained interest in stereo gear. A friend of mine had a Naim/Linn system, and I loved the look of the small Naim 32.5 Chrome Bumper series preamp paired with the 110 amp. To me, the Naim pieces looked like they came from a museum. Their simple, minimalist designs are still some of my favorites. I slowly built up a number of home audio systems, (both tube and solid-state) then spent plenty of time tweaking accessories while listening to my favorite music.


In the late '90s, I became a rep for Shunyata, Acoustic Zen, Analysis Plus, Gamut, Jean-Marie Reynaud, Harmonix, and Metronome +.

A couple years later, I heard about a store that had recently opened called In Living Stereo (ILS) and went to see the place. Somehow—and I can't remember how—I ended up working there full time. (Barring a stint at East Village Radio for a few years, I've since been working at ILS.)

I was friends with Jonathan Halpern, who had already worked with [ILS's] Steven Mishoe, and Steven was open to the idea of Jonathan working with us. Jonathan and I were also working the "rep angle" on a short-lived basis, and we started his brainchild, importing Shindo, together, but I soon left him to do the importing on his own, because it was a natural fit for him. Steven Mishoe had laid the foundation for an alternative hi-fi store to the more mainstream places in town, and it culminated with some truly unique equipment that brought a reputation for the store where sound mattered the most.

We three were all salespeople, and I tended to keep busy with inventory, ordering, and customer service, while Jonathan added to our catalog of offerings. These were exciting times because we were building a name for Shindo, Leben, and Auditorium 23 while also selling other more well-known equipment.

Today, I still manage inventory, sell, do a minor amount of repairs, and do plenty of turntable setups.

Jana Dagdagan: What's your personal system at home? And on-the-go?

SC: A Rega P3 2000 turntable with an Ortofon 2m Blue Cartridge, a Euphya integrated amplifier, a Denon DN790R cassette deck, an Alesis Masterlink CD burner and production studio, and Auditorium 23 speaker cables going into a pair of Tannoy 10" Gold speakers into two semi-homemade speaker cabinets. I use a Furutech power strip and am currently trying out the AudioQuest Niagara 1000 power conditioner. I also use a DIY RCA cable and a mix of original and aftermarket power cords.

If I listen to music on the go, which is not often, I just use some cheap Panasonic in-ears with my iPhone. I wouldn't even think of buying even a moderately priced pair of in-ears, because I'd just lose them immediately!


JD: In all the time you've been at ILS, have you noticed any changes in the industry?

SC: Regarding retail in hi-fi, I can only speak from my experiences at ILS, which in itself is an island as far as hi-fi stores go. On top of that, we are a specialty store and, as such, we do not have a large volume of quantitative experiences to talk in general terms about the market as a whole.

When I first started at ILS, we had more entry-level folks coming in for audio systems, and the store catered to two-channel and—man, I gotta say it—home theater. As our economy fluctuated from 2002, we lost plenty of our entry-level to lower-midrange customers to what I have to believe were just harder times. Then you'd have to factor in younger folks who've grown up with portable digital devices and have not (for the most part) followed in the Baby Boomers' footsteps of following the ritual of getting a more classically oriented hi-fi system.

To make matters even more complex, the role of music in many people's lives has changed over the years, and it would have regardless of what I am about to say.

The days of the Beatles, Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, are long gone. Back then you'd have an artist that really stood out as a singularity. Especially when I think about the Beatles. The Beatles, in my mind, were the band that probably caused the most controversy within our communities, because rock music was very controversial. You either liked it or pretty much hated it! The topic of rock music was often divided along the lines of parents and children, along with how long you could grow your hair—if you were a guy! This very singular topic of rock, personified by the Beatles, was an ongoing discussion (or non-discussion) for years, but what mattered most was that people were moved to their core about where they stood on it. In many ways, the issue of music is just not as penetrating or as important as it once was in our country.

Music had an important ritualistic place in the home, and the priority it took over the many ways you could spend your time was significant. Over the years, the importance of music has waned, comparatively speaking, because of the growth of TV and the Internet. Also, the music industry itself veered so far from their original willingness to take chances with truly new music, like they did in the '60s and the '70s—and I'm referring to popular music here. Anybody remember the song by Arthur Brown named "Fire", or Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming To Take Me Away", or Led Zeppelin's long version of "Whole Lotta Love"? These are all songs that would never get play on commercial radio today.

As we move from the year 2002 to the present day, we've seen the sale of CD players decrease to nearly none, turntables have become the most popular as the Baby Boomers' kids are showing more interest in them, and D/A converters sell more than CD players, but nowhere near as much as turntables do. Speakers are the most popular purchase and, to a certain degree, still the first item that our customers look for in an upgrade.


JD: Has the traditional hi-fi salesman role evolved (or devolved) in any way?

SC: At ILS, we really try to have something for almost everyone, but we are viewed as a high-end audio store. People expect to get attentive service and nuanced answers about gear. They also expect direct answers about the other logistics involved in buying an audio system.

Over the years, I'm sure that audio salesmen have had to evolve with the times. Today there's digital and wireless streaming, and turntables are back again, which is all new to many of us, so yes, the job description has changed, but, as salesmen, our fundamental willingness to help our customers should not have.

JD: What do you love about this industry?

SC: The audio industry strives to make music more engaging, which is great. It's a very competitive industry so there is a steady stream of small improvements along the way. Of course there is no generalizing because there is so much equipment out there. I get to hear a lot of music and get to meet so many wonderful people, while working at the store.

JD: Conversely, what do you not love about this industry?

SC: What I don't love about so many industries today: what inflation has done to the prices of everything. That said, we are always selling from our own experiences in curating quality gear to meet the complete needs of our customers.

fetuso's picture

Interesting that an audio salesman is content with his 2000 Rega p3. Perhaps having access to so much new gear has acted like a vaccine against "upgradeitis?"

cgh's picture

Maybe. When I was reading the text I was reminded of the musician profiles we've seen lately from Jana and others. This is 99% stuff (I don't mean in a "not 1%" way, or anything political-cum-socioeconomic... I mean it doesn't take much money or resources to get the majority of the way to the best we can do for music reproduction, but it takes a ton of money and resources to get that last bit.) I know a bunch of audiophiles that I'd say, mainly for effect, hate music. This statement is hyperbolic, but it contains a nugget of truth. There's this category of 'philes that own well curated systems and they listen to music. They go out and see live music.

If I had to ring-fence audio tribes there's a whole category of 'philes for gear with character. The Shindos, Devores, low-power SET crowd that skip to the Dudley pieces when the mag arrives in the mailbox. They live in the boondocks or Williamsburg NY or Fishtown Philly. They aren't looking to own Magicos. They want Devores and DIY open baffles. They like their music lush and they go and see live music more often than not. Analytical speakers and complex higher-order crossovers all sound wrong.

la musique's picture

You are just right on everything.
As a music lover, i have found some of those HI END systems to sound very in your face and live less the same way home theatre does with big bangs and all.
Just listen to any real sound instruments being played and soon notice how natural the sound emerges from that or those music sources.
A simple system well balance can take to nirvana.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice writing as always, Jana.
I am really digging this series via Stereophile. These kind of article are of both interest and help to me. I have no local dealer/retailer. Hell, I have to travel out of my home state just to get demo time. I plan on visiting NYC in 2017 to see the 9-11 Memorial. Perhaps you can point me in several directions around the 5- boroughs for excellent Audio shops? New/used CD shops too!

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Allen Fant's picture

Almost forgot Jana- I want to have a glass of the city's finest Scotch, with you ;)

Vinylfan3's picture

With the Jana fawning on her every post. Getting creepy buddy.....

fetuso's picture

I'm so glad you said something. I was thinking the same thing, but didn't want to start trouble.

tonykaz's picture

Well, where else could this survive?

NY is one of the few remaining Vinyl hotspots on this planet.

The Store ILS is certainly nice, I even like the raw plywood floors, not too pretentious for me.

Steve is wrong about DAC sales though, bet he doesn't realize it. Every person entering his store has already purchased a few DACs ( in their phones ), every civilian walking down the street is carrying a DAC, every Car has at least one DAC ( probably two, maybe more ). DACs are the most common Audio devices and biggest sellers ( on the Planet ). They probably won't sell well for Vinyl Shops, I understand his statement. His niche is that he isn't selling DACs ( like evvvvverybody else ), his niche is that he's Old School when we all are exhausted from trying to keep up.

After reading this interview, I have the feeling that I'd like to stop by ILS and collapse in one of those chairs and let go of this 21st. Century whirlwind life.

This should've been part of a Video interview, done with your DAC equipped iPhone ( of course ). You are including us in your discovering adventure, we all would be delighted to tag-along and YouTube will pay you for your efforts. ( plus Manufacturers will provide you with all the help you need )

I hope you interview Dave Wasserman at Stereoexchange, I worked with him in the 1980s, good person.

Nice work,

Tony in Michigan

Lennie Trystero's picture

Great people, great shop. Also worth mentioning they have a terrific record store in front, all the more valuable now that Other Music, which used to be a block away, is gone...

Anton's picture

He puts a real human face on retail!

If you see him again, a request! Would you ask him whatever happened to SSDR (single speaker demonstration rooms?)

It used to be a big thing, now it's not. I'd be curious to see what his experiences were!

He seems like the kind of person who would discuss it.

bdaddy60's picture

I clearly remember Arthur Brown, NapoleanXIV,and Whole lotta love. I get it. What is a concern is I heard that music and of course the Beatles, Jimi, on and on.....via mono AM radios of all sizes. And of course suitcase style record players with detachable speakers and a pull down tray with a turntable attached or a big console.
I can say I connected more emotionally,spiritually, and less stressfully with that or any other music prior to being introduced to the "entry level" of "high end " electronics. Entry level to what ? Years of format changes and thousands of hours spent dissatisfied with my present playback equipment. Ahhhh.....