Re-Tales #15: The Beat Goes On

Finding fresh approaches to doing business isn't easy, especially in the current climate. But now it's becoming essential. Audio manufacturers, distributors, and dealers must figure out how to attract new customers while continuing to provide service for existing customers. Neither thing is easily accomplished in an era of change. But failure isn't an option. People with something to sell must connect with customers, and vice versa. Access is key.

Access can be via the internet, plus UPS or FedEx, plus, ideally, a 30-day return policy with free return shipping. But for some large and expensive things, internet sales are not sufficient: Would you pay for a $50,000 car without a test drive? What about a $50,000 amplifier or pair of speakers?

For decades, dealers have been shifting toward home theater and custom installation, with traditional two-channel audio playing second fiddle. Many of the remaining two-channel shops—the successful ones—are now selling expensive equipment as luxury goods to a different clientele, not your traditional Stereophile-reading audiophiles. That system seems to work well enough, but even at the luxury end of the hi-fi spectrum, customers can be hard to reach.

I recently spoke with Bob Visintainer, who for more than 20 years ran Manhattan's Rhapsody Audio, selling Magico, Devialet, Constellation, and other brands. He recently closed the Manhattan showroom and did something he thought he'd never do: He moved to Brooklyn.

Visintainer now occupies a large, circa-1880 single-family home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. He lives there. The 8000-square-foot space is equipped with four listening rooms, each with two systems. Visintainer has become a home dealer, but on a rather grand scale.

Visintainer is also a distributor for exotic artisan brands such as Pilium, Kondo, Diesis, Bayz, Alsyvox, Vyger, and Vyda. He's a fan of tube amps and efficient speakers that don't require much power. "I love efficiency," he said. "The sound floats the images in the air differently than when you have to 'drive' something."

Visintainer refers to his Fort Greene residence/dealership as an RLR, for Rhapsody Listening Room. There are more RLRs to come: He is working with a few former Rhapsody customers to open appointment-only showrooms in cities across the US. Most, like his Brooklyn shop, are in private residences, although a couple are planned for commercial spaces. Several are ready to open, although the parts shortages and shipping delays that have plagued the industry lately are causing problems for the RLRs too. RLRs are set to open in Dallas, West Palm Beach (Florida), Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and Palm Desert (California). He is also establishing service centers in Brooklyn, Chicago, and San Francisco.

RLR dealers purchase equipment at a discount. They own the space and gear. Visintainer handles the transactions, importation, and shipping; the home dealer receives sales commissions.

When a customer contacts Rhapsody or a manufacturer they represent, Visintainer told me, the lead is passed to the closest RLR. Potential customers can also contact the RLR directly. Marketing is via social media, audiophile forums, online advertising, and sometimes local, traditional advertising.

Reaching customers may be especially challenging in the industry's middle tier—neither well-known luxury products, which reach customers mainly via a handful of destination dealers, nor cheaper, more portable products that are well-served by internet sales. Mid-tier products are expensive enough that most buyers want to touch and hear them before buying. From a dealer's perspective, they're too heavy and/or valuable to make shipping them out to strangers an attractive option.


Wendell Diller, longtime sales and marketing manager of Magnepan, is navigating this shifting terrain. Once upon a time, audiophiles who frequented audio dealers cared exclusively about sound, Diller said in a recent interview. "In the '70s, the cosmetics were unimportant. Now the formula is much more complicated." Most of today's dealers, Diller says, aren't serving those products or those customers.

"How do we cope in today's market?" he asked. "Our business model is still the same—sound quality is the same priority as it was then." But the market has changed. "We need an entity—some means of supplying what the stereo store supplied to the consumer back when stereo was king."

Magnepan doesn't want to go factory-direct, or not entirely. People need to hear the speakers—especially the big ones. Service and setup help is needed. "I know Magnepan will need some boots on the ground in the market. We have to address the customers' needs where there isn't a bricks-and-mortar dealer."

Having fewer dealers has led to the company's current "tag-team" approach: A customer contacts Magnepan via their website. Then Diller or another staffer either helps the customer himself via Zoom, for instance, or introduces the customer to a product expert or the nearest dealer. This setup, though, is missing some important pieces. Something akin to Visintainer's RLR network could be one solution.

A few years ago, Diller and his wife Galina took a road trip around the US demoing their 30.7 Magneplanar planar-magnetic loudspeakers at dealerships. "It was expensive and labor-intensive, but it far exceeded my expectations," he said about the tour.

"Most or all of the rules in my 48-year career have changed so much," Diller said. "We have to learn new tricks."

"It's different, unique, and interesting," Visintainer said, describing the experiment he's doing. "I'll tell you two years down the road if it works."

dc_bruce's picture

is how my late grandfather would describe any line of work that was difficult. So it is with stereo.

I'm seeing three different categories here (in addition to the stuff you can buy at Crutchfield and Best Buy): (1) the ultra-expensive stuff that sells on reputation, like Wilson, D'Agostino; (2) artisanal audio, usually employing "classic" technologies like tubes and horns and often manufactured by folks who seem to produce in lots of 10 or less; (3) traditional high-end from the likes of Krell, KEF, Levinson, PS Audio, Magnepan, Revel, etc. that are a clear step up from the mass market stuff.
The first category supplies enough per-unit margin to support individualized sales and service.
The second category require a customer who had been exposed to it or read about it and thinks it might be cool. Selling involves persuading the customer that the often unique characteristic of the resulting sound is good and directing his attention to the craftsmanship evident in the physical appearance of the product.
The third category would seem to be the toughest. There, the customer has to be persuaded that the extra cost provides a sonic step up from the so-called mass market brands. The best way to do this is to have a store where the sound of two systems can be compared . . . and then getting the customer to come into the store.

Finally, any of these potential customers have to see listening to music as a primary activity, like watching a video, and not just a pleasant background for daily activities, having guests, or throwing a party.

Not easy.

thatguy's picture

It isn't easy but if you do it right you can post youtube videos comparing your two high end Porsches or buy an 8,000 sqft home to sell out of :)

_cruster's picture

Yes, this person truly understands my needs.

dsnyc's picture

They said he occupies the space. Different from owning. Either way, living in a hi-fi showroom may be an adolescent wet-dream, but as an adult I bet it gets old fast.

Julie Mullins's picture

As mentioned, Mr. Visintainer had already been in the business as a more traditional dealer for decades. His other guys with the RLRs are already fans (and owners of) the equipment he sells. So that seems hopeful.

dsnyc's picture

It's sad, really, to see Bob still hustling after all these years. But I guess that's what hustlers do.

Glotz's picture

If music lovers could hear the differences between mid-fi and hi-fi (by comparing a mass market system with their own offerings), the contrast would be stark!

That is the freshest idea I've heard in a long time.

And I fully agree that it's a very tough racket these days... many longstanding reasons as well as new ones with the chip shortage and logistics issues globally.

Ortofan's picture

... I bought, as a young teenager, was a pair of Advents sold to me by the grandfatherly proprietor of the local McIntosh dealer. Both product lines were sold by the same personnel in the same showroom, so I became aware that there were other products whose price tags were well beyond what I could then afford. Yet, both of us had the expectation that, once I had completed schooling and began working, I would return to acquire some of those much more expensive products. Indeed, that eventually happened.

Today, how does someone used to buying the offerings from those available at a Best Buy or a Crutchfield even become aware that there exists a business selling higher end products out of a private townhouse?

stereostereo's picture

Here we go again. Yeah it's hard but it ain't complicated. To be successful in any retail business it's about passion, the customer experience and service. I don't care what one is peddling. I am opening a new high end audio/video and automation retail experience center in Pittsburgh. The majority of my customers have no idea who Wilson Audio, Audio Research and Rega are. They know Bose. It is my job, (or should be) to be so passionate about my love of music that I want to share my systems with them so that they can experience this as well in their home. The business needs to be fun, colorful and the people who work there need to be smiling and happy. Be community minded. I feel as though the luxury goods retail landscape, no matter what they are selling (yes that is my target market) has become this snobby privileged industry. And a business that is welcoming, knowledgeable, passionate and understands real customer service will be successful.

thatguy's picture

If people are passionate about their product and what they are doing it spreads to the customer.

If the salesperson, cook, waiter, front desk, etc. isn't into what they do then the customers will stop coming.

We've all left businesses after dealing with bad people and thought 'when this fails, the owners will claim they have no idea why'

Julie Mullins's picture

To be successful in any retail business it's about passion, the customer experience and service. I don't care what one is peddling. ... The business needs to be fun, colorful and the people who work there need to be smiling and happy. Be community minded. I feel as though the luxury goods retail landscape, no matter what they are selling (yes that is my target market) has become this snobby privileged industry. And a business that is welcoming, knowledgeable, passionate and understands real customer service will be successful.

Thanks for your good points, stereostereo. I agree these principles are basic to any retail endeavor, but it's surprising how many people miss them.

Benko's picture

When will your store open?

stereostereo's picture

Thanks for asking. Very soft opening in the middle of December. Should be ready for prime time by the middle of January. Tough getting everything that one needs...but thankful that I can open soon. See you there.

jimtavegia's picture

So many small businesses have been terribly impacted by this pandemic and robbed many potential customers and dealers of the exciting new connection of new gear. It is sad that those dealers whose wares would have brought much enjoyment during the extended times at home was a lost opportunity for all.

For many of us it has given us some additional time to connect with music that sat on our shelves in our LP racks, and cd storage that we pulled out and listened to for the first time in a while. I have often thought how much time it would take to actually play all the music I DO own and not worry about what I don't have. Of course Amazon has partially filled this void as I eagerly await a new arrival by mail.

The gear is definitely more problematic as most large purchases need to be made in person after an audition. That enjoyment is certainly missed.

We have been blessed in that the folks from the 1918 pandemic were not as lucky as we have been with either health care or the blessings of wide ranging entertainment available to us. I am hoping this is not the new normal for all of us.