Re-Tales #32: Goodbye to Gatekeeping

Several traditional hi-fi dealerships have shuttered in recent years: NYC's Lyric Hi-Fi and Chicago's Audio Consultants are prominent examples. A few new brick-and-mortar shops have opened, but it's rare to see a next-generation owner breathe new life into a long-established dealership. Christopher Brewer (above) is doing exactly that with New England Hi-Fi.

New England Hi-Fi was founded as the New England Music Company by Derek R. Burt (footnote 1), in 1965—on the early side of hi-fi's heyday. Back then, the store carried the 1965 KLH line and other pioneering products, with a self-proclaimed emphasis on customer service. Founded in downtown Portland, Maine, the dealership moved to Scarborough in 1984 and then to South Portland, in a corner space across from the Maine Mall.

Before he became the owner, Brewer was an employee. Before he was an employee, he was a customer. While he was a customer, he worked at Circuit City, making, he says, $8/hour. Circuit City, which was located just down Maine Mall Road from New England Hi-Fi, is long gone: The chain went bankrupt in 2009. Good riddance, Brewer says. "I think I can safely confess that I spent a lot of my time in the audio department there advising customers to go to New England Hi-Fi."

Brewer, 41, took over New England Hi-Fi when Andy Keniston, the previous owner, retired. Brewer moved the store to a new location, in the Mill Creek area of South Portland. "I wanted to be in a busier, 'up and coming' area," Brewer said. "A total restart seemed like the best way to make the changes I wanted."

I wasn't around in 1965, and neither was Chris Brewer, but it's all but certain that customers have changed since the original store's Mad Men–era founding. Brewer sees a wide range of customers: men and women, old and young, hobbyists and "one-and-done." He describes his customers as "loyal." Their loyalty is likely attributable to his store's main ethos, which, he told me, is to treat customers (and employees) fairly.

It was not uncommon for those old-school high-end dealerships to be snooty; we have all heard stories of casually dressed customers being ignored, snubbed, or insulted, only to take their hi-fi money elsewhere (footnote 2). Brewer advises other dealers, "Don't shame anyone for not being as committed or high-budgeted as the ideal."

Brewer maintains one aspect of old-world service: equipment service and repair. That's no easy feat these days: Such skills are increasingly rare. "It's essentially impossible to find someone qualified to repair hi-fi," he said. "I was very fortunate to have a longtime friend with some skill—and to have had a 20-year–old wunderkind come through my door one day."

Brewer's prior hi-fi sales experience informs his selection of components to sell. His go-to word is "reasonable": reasonable build quality, reasonable design, reasonable reliability, reasonable performance in relation to price; ie, value. He is willing to take chances on new brands; sometimes they prove popular, sometimes not. "We sell a lot of affordable gear in this market, but we won't sell bad gear." "Bad gear," he clarified, could mean an unjustifiable price, a dead-end design flaw, glitchy software, misleading specs—or it could just mean bad sound.

New England Hi-Fi carries mostly new equipment, but the store stocks and sells select vintage gear, including items that might have been sold in the store's prior incarnation, such as a pair of old Klipsch speakers seen there recently.

Brewer faces challenges hi-fi stores didn't face in earlier decades. Back then, retailers had protected territories. Today, local retailers compete with larger online retailers; it's even difficult for a small local dealer to obtain and maintain product because bigger dealers get priority. That's why a loyal customer base is essential for survival. "It's hard, and I can't blame people for the convenience [of buying online], but I like to think we live in a place that values local business and community." So he focuses on developing relationships with his customers. That means offering affordable equipment alongside higher-end equipment. "Hi-fi should be accessible, and the fact that it often is not, whether by price or pretense, is too bad," he said. "I guess we're hi-fi socialists."

Brewer seems realistic, with feet planted firmly on the ground. He's a student of what works in his market and what doesn't. He has found, for example, that even including custom installs, surround sound is on the decline. New England Hi-Fi's focus on the lower- and midpriced parts of the market runs counter to opinions I've heard from some other sources in column after column over the last few years—though opinions have admittedly been mixed. "There are plenty of companies offering performance that's affordable, but a lot of dealers want to leave that to the big boxes and lean into the higher end. I totally get it, and I'm sure that's great in some markets....It's just not what works here. I think the future is in mid-fi and in earning the support of our communities."

Dealership proprietors must understand and serve the markets they're located in while running businesses they can believe in. "The gap between high-end prices and entry level is absolutely enormous," Brewer told me. "The aspirational became the impossible." That ultimately might not benefit the industry because it pushes some people away, so to Brewer it makes little sense.

"This hobby and industry is obviously in an overall decline from where it was, so don't gatekeep it against anyone who wants in," he advises. A dealership's success—and the hi-fi industry's health if not survival—depends on it.

Footnote 1: For more, see

Footnote 2: See Twisted Sister guitarist and former hi-fi salesman Jay Jay French's account of working at Lyric here.

Anton's picture

Where he swung and missed, to me:

"I think the future is in mid-fi and in earning the support of our communities."

Sorry, but this is an insidious bit of wrongness. It's Hi Fi. The minute we stratify like that, the hobby loses.

I'd go with, the future is in making Hi Fi obtainable by the middle class. He has a great opportunity to curate a high quality audio world for his customers, don't talk it down!


"The gap between high-end prices and entry level is absolutely enormous. The aspirational became the impossible." That ultimately might not benefit the industry because it pushes some people away, so to Brewer it makes little sense.

"This hobby and industry is obviously in an overall decline from where it was..."

I have a hunch that the start of this 'decline' is exactly timed to whenever the audiophile media coined the bullshit term "high end."

"High end" is simply a self congratulatory term that is a form of social signaling. Don't fall for it.

Kill that term, or make it apply to all Hi Fi.

What percentage of the citizenry is into good audio?

One percent? Two?

Just being into audio should make one feel "apart" enough from the hoi polloi without the hobby self segregating itself.

He's right, Hi Fi is aspirational. Don't confuse high prices with Hi Fi virtue.

End of rant. I would shop at this guy's shop!

Glotz's picture

Great coverage, Julie! Great rant, Anton!

I am 100% with Anton on this. We need to find conceptual levelers at every point in the industry! It's why I like 'high performance' audio or 'higher performance', but even that makes me cringe a bit when I think of non-audiophiles listening in.

I think when we stratify the hobby does, truly, lose. It's the same reason why home theater is declining as well. Both of these 'Sci-Arts' niches are important, and division is a very near a 'political' cancer for the industry. I believe it's a purely semantic issue, but my lord, people are hung up on semantics like never before! Let us bring them together.

As a past customer of Audio Consultants in Chicago, I wish Christopher the absolute BEST of business and blessings! We need more music-lovers running shops like this across the country. His very style is what the hobby needs right now, because cool is what gets people interested this hobby. And again, this hobby is about MUSIC, and the gear is a fun tool to bring us closer to that, not the inverse. GO Christopher GO!!

Julie Mullins's picture

I appreciate your comments. Music and and the gear for enjoying it at a higher level are (or should be) the hobby's raisons d'être—and what makes it cool.

cognoscente's picture

Trends come ... and go. Look at the average spending pattern of a family in the 1970s and today, and how much it was, and is currently being spent on electronics and specifically on music playback equipment? I don't know the exact numbers, but in the seventies it must have been between 10 and 15%. Now a few % if already. Government budgeting organizations have these figures. People nowadays prefer to eat out more often or go on holiday 4 times a year (look at the growth of airlines, number of tickets sold I mean, or car sales, increase in the number of restaurants, but also an increase in the number of live concerts or entertainment events in general, more activities outdoors than at home and the decrease in the number of sold units hi-fi sets in the past 50 years).

Nowadays most young people are already happy with their in-ears, that was really different in the seventies and eighties. All my friends and I at high school had jobs to buy hifi equipment en music. Also the trend of a shift from the physical world to the digital world, including AI (now technology is at the service of people, ultimately people are at the service of technology - with the exception of a small elite who rule technology, but that is another discussion) is irreversible. I haven't been in a physical clothing store for 15 years, even in a shopping street, I buy everything online, except food, although most of my neighbours here already buy all their food only online. I also bought my current hi-fi set online and both the clothing and the hi-fi set mainly abroad (although within the EU and someone from the USA will say "that's domestic"). Online you can reach the whole world.

And the online reviews help you to make your choice. If you read carefully between the lines (reading comprehension) and know who-and-what to trust, then it works. I am very satisfied with my purchases, they have not been bad purchases. And AI will help you in the future with making online choices as well (NOT! Be carefull, don't let you fool you by those ad's based techno / media gaints). BUT having said this, I did buy everything from a so called local physical store, just not the one around the corner from me.

I agree that from the middle to the absolute top of the hi-fi market prices have been absurd in recent years and that development seems to continue only as an attempt to continue the turnover growth with a declining number of units sold. By increasing the (absurd) profit margin, turnover growth continues despite lower numbers sold.

We also see this in food. Especially with the so-called A-brands. Due to inflation, customers are buying more and more B-, or house brands and to guarantee more profit for the shareholders, the A brands are not raising the price by 5% based on increased costs, but by 12%. More profit with fewer units sold. In clothing too. Although the "high-end" brands there now seem to be paying the price for their disproportionately high prices and they have to come up with offers already during the high buying season in order not to be left with too much overstock (they always calculate overstock, they consciously produce more then they know they will sell, that's all calculated into the price you-and-I pay). The hi-fi industry is not as bad as the clothing industry. Or ......?

And the differences worldwide are big. The situation in Japan, a traditional hi-fi minded country (for example, they do not stream music, but still buy music, like me, although I do not buy physically CDs or LPs, but I buy and download my music - I am against the so -called platform economy, ownership is influence and gives freedom, in addition only the platform earns from it, not the makers / musicians, and the quality of purchased downloaded music is better (data traffic are the highest costs they make, and by far, so they have all reasons not to sent your the best quality, as they don't, don't fool yourself) and then the environment aspect, downloading once costs just as much energy as it streaming again and again and again.), and newcomer China is different than in the USA and the EU, and there are differences between them. I estimate that the hi-fi market in the EU is stronger than in the USA. What the USA and EU share is more and more true enthusiast has also become the dealer, and that is a "profit". Only selling online is irreversible, but you can also excel and distinguish yourself there. The same buyers who like a small reliable local dealer also like a small reliable local (which is also an) online dealer, and buy there ... online.

hiendmmoe's picture

Though it maybe true the traditional audio shops are dwindling, I must point out I have seen more new audio companies jump in the High End market than I have seen in a long time. It’s not all doom and gloom for the High End market.

Marc P. Mailhot's picture

I lived in the Portland, Maine area for 65 years and knew Derek quite well. I also was friends with 2 of his employees...Danny Barter and Joey Casale who played in local Bands along with my Band...Love, Inc. They had a very nice store on Center Street in Portland from 1965...then in the 70s moved farther up Congress Street (main street in Portland) where a life-long friend and Assistant Manager and Soundman for Love, Inc...Dale Moreau... worked at the store at that location. For my new Technics SLP 3200 Semi-Auto Table...Dale suggested a pair of Advent 1 Speakers which I purchased from him. They sounded beautiful and I hung onto them about 35 years before getting some KRK Rockit 5's for my Studio. Derek was wonderful to everyone and the store was usually quite busy. Everyone working there knew their stuff. I went to the new location in South Portland, Maine early in 2022 looking for a used turntable dust cover and the owner gave it to me for free. Long history of this store...service and employees. Happy to share this with all of you...and be and eyewitness too!

Marc P. Mailhot
Marco Polo Music
Lisbon, ME USA

barfle's picture

IMNSHO, “high-end” audio is aimed at those with more bucks than brains. I can’t see spending five or six figures on differences I can’t see or hear, so a decent audio shop is something I would patronize in order to determine if the differences among various products was audible (and if so, pleasing).

From my beginning purchases of in-place A/V gear (as compared to portable), my goal has been “pretty good.” I’m not in competition with anyone for the best-sounding or loudest system. I just wish that we had a similar store in the Boise area, but the closest we get is BB.

I certainly hope that a B&M store is successful enough that it shows others how to make a go of it in other cities.

hifijohn's picture

Hi end audio died a good 20 years ago.

hifijohn's picture

So glad to hear lyric hifi is gone, went there some time ago and found them to be condescending obnoxiousness and down right insulting.I know it NYC and new yorkers are well know for there terrible attitude.Personally Im surprised there are any hi end store even around,Products no one wants at a price nobody can afford.