Where the Rubber Meets the Road Andrew Singer of Sound by Singer, Ltd.

Andrew Singer of Sound by Singer, Ltd.

Sound by Singer, Ltd., 18 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003. Tel: (212) 924-8600. Web: www.soundbysinger.com.

Steve Guttenberg: Andy, you've had the audiophile disease for ages.

Andrew Singer: Absolutely! I've been a rabid audiophile since I picked up some used Mac tube gear in 1964. Back then, I was an aspiring rock'n'roll musician, but too little talent and a dose of reality sent me to law school and I got a real job. I couldn't stand it, and after three years I quit. I started Sound by Singer in 1978 because I loved music and because it was a cool thing to do.

Guttenberg: It still is.

Singer: Music is an edifying experience. Throughout history it has always been an essential part of a person's education. Music has been recognized by philosophers, poets, and scientists to have a soothing and beneficial effect on the psyche. Music exists on a higher plane than other pastimes such as sports, movies, or TV.

Guttenberg: I would differ about movies...

Singer: We have an interesting divergence in the world of high-end audio. Back in 1978, most dealers were mere box-movers, selling commonplace Japanese boxes. Then high-end came along and these same dealers, knowing in their entrepreneur souls that they could make more money, started to sell it. But these dealers couldn't adapt to the new performance aesthetic—which was all about trying to create the illusion of live music in the home—and that made them less effective than they otherwise would have been.

Guttenberg: You were trying to fill that void?

Singer: Not a void, a nonexistence. I realized that you have to set up systems in such a way that they sound good. That was my aesthetic. One must create the best possible listening experience. If you can show a customer that A is better than B, even if B has every rave review going for it, they'll buy A.

Guttenberg: How has high-end retail evolved over the years?

Singer: As we move into the 21st century, two things have changed. First, video has finally matured. It's as good as—and some people might argue it's better than—film for the re-creation of a visual reality.

The expectations of a home-theater customer vs a music-system customer are really very different. We watch movies to be excited, impressed, or entertained, and that requires a completely different set of disciplines from re-creating an illusion of live music. Contrary to what our industry has said, I think that 90% of the audio-video experience is visual and 10% is audio, but we can give an experience that's as good as or better than what you get in a movie theater. Because the quality level of information coming at the home-theater client is, by definition, so much less real than it is in a high-end audio system, it has to be more spectacular on an audio-visual level.

Guttenberg: What's the second change?

Singer: Custom installation—for those customers who don't want to see the equipment or speakers. They want sound in every room and they want to control it with a minimum of fuss. It's no coincidence that the growth of the custom-installation field has paralleled the popularity of computers and the creation of the Internet. It is, of course, impossible to produce the best sound for x amount of dollars when I'm not allowed to expose the speakers.

Guttenberg: It's so weird—those systems are so damn expensive but they sound like mid-fi at best.

Singer: No, they can be very good, but most people don't appreciate the need to spend the extra money to make the system invisible and sound good. In the past, most of us had at least one room for the enjoyment of music, and that room would be allowed to take on the physical form of a musical room.

The goal of re-creating the live music experience has been sublimated—now we're creating a visually driven environment. "You don't need this outstanding"—and I mean that literally, in terms of its connotation and denotation—"this outstanding audio system." As if the human need for music is gone! Where did it go? I put it to you that we need it more than ever. It seems like now the goal is to integrate everything into one great amorphous bouillabaisse.

Guttenberg: What the hell is going on?

Singer: We don't respect our leisure time the way we used to—we don't see it as something that can improve our souls. Most custom-install customers have had their attention diverted from music to the rather mundane experience of flicking switches. I think these people will soon tire of this activity and return to what they really need, which is to listen to music.

Guttenberg: Will SACD and DVD-Audio be a part of that reawakening?

Singer: SACD seemed like it was going in the right direction, but then they announced multichannel SACD. Surround in home theater supplements the information lacking in the picture—the who, what, where, and how. Now that's been bastardized into music, or music has been bastardized with the same multichannel concept, which has no place in re-creating the "live" experience.

Guttenberg: The movie industry designed 5.1-channel and the home-theater guys followed their lead.

Singer: Exactly. Surround is great for movies, but it doesn't apply to music. I'm still in wonderment—I don't understand how the engineers can produce a multichannel recording and get the appropriate acoustical interface in someone's house. Ah, the answer is: digitize the signal and mess around with it some more! I'm not saying that we couldn't, in the right setting, with just the right equipment, get more realistic sound with surround. I'm sure we could, but only a very small number of people would ever want it.

Guttenberg: Why is it that high-end cars, wines, clothes—you name it—are known to their potential customers, but high-end audio is unknown outside the audiophile community?

Singer: Me, I get a hard-on when I listen to a really great-sounding system. The watch industry went through its doldrums when the first digital and quartz watches were introduced. But watches have been valued as important keepsakes for a couple of hundred years, so the industry survived, and now the guy who buys an involved multiroom system also buys a very expensive, handcrafted watch. And why is that? Because those people were sick of wearing cheap pieces of crap on their arms!

Guttenberg: [Laughs]

Singer: Could it be that the mainstream companies have seen to it that the smaller, performance-oriented companies never get the publicity they need? Is the EIA [Electronic Industries Alliance] doing all they can to let the world know about what Americans do best—which is build the very best two-channel audio components? It sounds a little conspiratorial, but that's a potential answer.

Guttenberg: I don't know about that, but I know the general public wants the security of familiar brand names.

Singer: My response to those people is, "If you come to my store and I have a product you've heard of, you shouldn't buy it." You should be really happy I have things you haven't heard of, because—through no fault of your own—you have yet to be exposed to high-quality audio.

Guttenberg: That's pretty funny.

Singer: Back to my conspiracy theory. The commercial end of the consumer-electronics industry set out to give us a new format to bolster their, not our, sagging sales. Home theater was an American phenomenon—it didn't have the same acceptance anywhere else in the world. American mass-market retailers, not their customers, gave the Japanese the courage to come at us with home theater because it was something new, something they could pump out, something they hoped could win back market share they had lost to the two-channel high-end audio stores.

Guttenberg: That's some theory.

Singer: Home theater was—and multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio are—nothing more than desperate attempts by mass merchandisers to take back the high-end market. Is surround truly a high-end thing? No, it's not. But rather than sticking to our guns and saying our business is high-quality two-channel audio, we got into the quagmire of multichannel.

Guttenberg: Damn straight! Speaking of quagmires, how do you pick product lines?

Singer: I'm almost embarrassed to tell you how I pick lines, because I do it the old-fashioned way: I listen. I put the piece into a reference system of some kind and see what kind of difference it makes.

Guttenberg: Sounds like something a reviewer would do.

Singer: If the product is as good as or worse than what I already have, we won't go any further. If it sounds better, then I'll go to step two, and I'll check out the manufacturer—who they are, how long they've been in business, their financing, warranties—and if it's better than what I already have, I'll buy it. Fundamentally, it has to be good enough I'd want to own it myself.

Guttenberg: You've owned so much gear—any sentimental favorites?

Singer: The Audio Research SP6B was one of the greatest preamplifiers ever made. The Snell A3 was one of the best speakers—Peter Snell was one of the best speaker designers of the last 50 years; he was a true artist. Of all the speakers I've ever heard, the best are the JMlab Grande Utopias.

Guttenberg: What—no Linn LP12?

Singer: The LP12, sure. Before anyone else appreciated how important the source was, they did. For that, they deserve a place in history.

Guttenberg: Every year at CES we see more than a few upstart companies trying to join that pantheon.

Singer: Most of the time they don't succeed, but they're the people who put everything on the line. You have to respect that.

Guttenberg: You must love tubes—you carry so many tube lines.

Singer: We carry Lamm, Nagra, Hovland, VTL, Cary, Conrad-Johnson, VAC, and Rogue Audio. The people who still make tube equipment still make strictly two-channel audio. Most solid-state manufacturers have either completely abandoned two-channel or made it a stepchild. Krell is an exception; it still makes the best two-channel solid-state equipment.

Guttenberg: How are turntable sales holding up?

Singer: They continue on, but unless some miracle happens, it's obvious that turntable sales will cease to exist at some point. But if LPs continue, we should be thankful, because there will be some "record" of how music actually sounds.

Guttenberg: What are the satisfactions of your job?

Singer: Creating great-sounding systems and making as much money as I can doing it. That's become more challenging now that we have to fit it into a "lifestyle," visual-design-driven environment, but it can be done. I get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I go to a customer's house and hear an awesome sound. I kvell!

Guttenberg: There are folks out there who have a problem with high-end salesguys' attitude. What might a customer say that would set you off?

Singer: "I'm here for an education" or "I have no budget." The best thing is, "I want to buy a system in x amount of time, here's my budget, and I want to play music in x rooms." We just want to get you something within your price range and make you happy.

Guttenberg: I guess the Internet isn't going to take over high-end retailing.

Singer: Look, the Internet is a marvelous way of dealing with fungible items.

Guttenberg: Fungible?

Singer: CDs, books, cosmetics. That doesn't apply to what we do—being there for our customers and making their systems sound good.

Guttenberg: Which leads to my final question: Will the High End—make that the two-channel High End—survive?

Singer: Absolutely. When you close the job on a multiroom installation, all you can say is, "Which button do I push?" And they don't seem to enjoy their home theaters all that much—I don't see them dancing to X-Men! So I think two-channel is going to come back in a big way because people really enjoy it. What we used to do with drugs we now do with music.