Where the Rubber Meets the Road Elliot Fishkin of Innovative Audio Video

Elliot Fishkin of Innovative Audio Video

Innovative Audio Video Showrooms, 150 East 58th Street, New York, NY 10155. Tel: (212) 634-4444. 76 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201. Tel: (718) 596-0888. Web: www.innovativeaudiovideo.com.

Steve Guttenberg: Elliot, how—or, better yet, why did you start Innovative Audio?

Elliot Fishkin: I started Innovative Audio in 1971 to feed my audiophile hobby, and as an alternative to going to graduate school. More than that, I wanted to create an enduring business that helped entertain people and promoted the arts. That really means a lot to me.

Guttenberg: Beyond the folks who read Stereophile, who are your customers?

Fishkin: Anyone interested in music or the visual arts. Sure, some people buy equipment to show it off, and that's not a bad thing, but my ideal customer loves music first. We're trying to get our customers to slow down, take a deep, cleansing breath, and decompress. I want to help them make music an integral part of their lives.

Guttenberg: That's great, but it's a hell of a lot easier to sell a $15,000 plasma TV than a $15,000 pair of speakers.

Fishkin: That's absolutely true—most folks trust their eyes more than their ears. But my expertise can act as a catalyst to help people determine the virtue of high-end video and audio systems. I welcome the interest in home theater because it brought in a whole new group of people. I expose my customers to everything—not only $15k speakers but also $80k speakers—so they can get a feel for what these systems can deliver. I want them to hear what the "next best thing" to live music can sound like. But they don't have to spend big money—we'll find the level of investment that works for them.

Guttenberg: And most folks are spending less and less on audio. Nowadays kids listen to their tunes with their computer hooked up to a pair of $30 multimedia speakers.

Fishkin: I'm not at all cynical about that; they have more things to buy. When we were young, we spent our money on two things: cars and stereos.

Guttenberg: And girls. People forget that audio was relatively expensive back then. In 1967, when I graduated from high school, my system was worth a third the price of a brand-new Ford Mustang. Today's affordable stuff is soooo much better.

Fishkin: The best thing is live music. The next best thing we can offer is a system built around a pair of Wilson X-1s, but there's a consistency on down to our entry-level systems. There's enormous virtue in a pair of $300 B&W 303s.

Guttenberg: Which reminds me—how do you pick your product lines?

Fishkin: I won't tell you I've listened to everything, but I go to all the shows, read the magazines, and I'll let any manufacturer tell me their story. I'm open-minded—the main thing is, what does it do and how does it sound? I also think high-end vendors should support their retailers when problems arise, and I have to make a judgment as to whether they will do that. A one-off in somebody's proverbial garage won't work out.

Guttenberg: Every year at CES we see so many new companies, and most of them won't make the cut.

Fishkin: It's quite Darwinian, but I've taken chances on small companies when they had a plan. But if you already have a relationship with a manufacturer that's working, you celebrate and nurture it rather than run through flighty changes in your strategy.

Guttenberg: I think it's interesting that most of those high-end companies were pretty much the expression of one man. They're entrepreneurial efforts.

Fishkin: That's how they start.

Guttenberg: High-end retailers are pretty similar.

Fishkin: Yes, they're not terribly corporate, and they're usually started by people who aren't businesspeople—like me. Running a business is an ongoing learning process.

Guttenberg: I don't know why this is so, but most of the public is completely unaware of the High End. That's not true for other high-end products, be they cars, watches, clothes, what-have-you.

Fishkin: Yes, that's the dilemma. Most people know only two audio brands, Sony and Bose. Back in the '50s, when McIntosh and Marantz made tube equipment, they were mainstream companies. Their stuff was expensive, but it was representative of the way you made audio back then. Things changed in the mid-'70s, when the high-end scene diverged and became more exclusive—the high-end companies were no longer household names.

Guttenberg: Well then, what exactly is that special something that defines a high-end audio product?

Fishkin: My notion is that a high-end product should take us from "the here and the now" to "the there and the then" of the recording's performance. It would be as though we're hearing the Guarneri Quartet at the recording venue—the listening room becomes that space. When you hear Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing with each other, you should feel as if you were right there with them. A great high-end system connects you to their thoughts, emotions, and ideas—you experience the "creative juice" of the performers. And that's before we graduate to the superfluous CD—I mean, SACD—or whatever. There's already enough information in our stereo CDs and LPs to take us there.

Guttenberg: [Laughs] I like that: the superfluous CD. Will SACD or DVD-Audio make it?

Fishkin: I'm not a reactionary, but I have a reactionary response to it: Here we go again. If every audiophile owned a Spectral, Mark Levinson, Naim, Linn, Balanced Audio Technology, or another high-end CD player with an HDCD chip, we wouldn't even have this conversation. I don't anticipate any further major improvements in CD playback technology because the focus is now on those new formats. We sell the high-end Sony SACD players, but I would never recommend one as a substitute for a fine CD player. If somebody wants both, fine.

Guttenberg: Considering the hubbub surrounding SACD and DVD-A, I'm a little surprised the American high-end companies aren't rushing to produce players.

Fishkin: I think that SACD represents an enormous positive effort on Sony's part to come up with a better delivery system, and they have clearly defined their standard. DVD-Audio is still in search of a standard. I don't think that either one is necessarily better than the other—and they're both undeniably interesting. If the high-end companies ever get their hands on SACD—work on the transports, power supplies, and D/As—you have to figure they would make even-better-sounding players. And I'm sure that if Sony ever really, really wanted to take SACD to the next level, they could.

Guttenberg: I agree. But Elliot, remember: It's a PCM digital world—most SACDs are recorded and mixed with PCM equipment, and that's not going to change anytime soon. Even analog recordings have some PCM processing in there.

Fishkin: I'll give you the best analogy: Macintosh computers. On the day Apple decided they were going to be a computer hardware company with a closed operating system, they lost to Microsoft. SACD's closed operating system may be its downfall.

Guttenberg: Beyond the technical issues, I don't see much support from the major labels for either format. New SACD and DVD-A titles are still just barely trickling out. CD and DVD-V production ramped up a lot faster.

Fishkin: The public now is in a different position. The Internet has already changed the playing field, and it may make any new physical format irrelevant. At some point they'll make downloads equal to or better than the quality of a CD. There may be an opportunity for the high-end community to offer D/A converters for downloaded music.

Guttenberg: Will audiophiles cross over to the dark side and embrace surround for music?

Fishkin: Believe me, play any great analog or digital stereo recording through a high-resolution system and multichannel doesn't mean all that much. It seems artificial.

Guttenberg: How are turntable sales holding up?

Fishkin: Turntables are still selling, but most audiophiles have moved on as the CD format improved. Up until around 10 years ago, I had 20 Linn LP12s on display; now I have three. But it's actually a good time for analog fans—there are plenty of clean used records, there's still a smattering of new vinyl from the majors, and the quality of the new remastered titles has never been better. There are a lot of very cool performances to choose from.

Guttenberg: Any favorite products from way back when?

Fishkin: Sure. I've used IMF ALS-40 Mk.IIs and Shahinian Obelisk speakers; the early SAE and Sequerra tuners; my Marantz 7C/8B and 10B—those would certainly be sentimental favorites. The Spectral DMC 20, APT Holman, and Levinson JC-2 preamps; the Nakamichi 1000 cassette deck; the Tannoy Dual Monitor Golds, Thiel 3.5s, B&W 801 Matrix, and Linn Kan speakers; the Linn LP12 turntable—and my own speaker, designed by Dick Shahinian: the Innotech D-24.

Guttenberg: How important is customer service?

Fishkin: Any entity that doesn't give great customer service will fail. I don't mean lip service, I mean a real attempt to provide great service. Innovative Audio Video is thriving because that has always been our prime directive. And if you promise great customer service, you better give it, or even exceed your promise. That also includes admitting if you made a mistake—we're not infallible.

I've embraced custom installation—it's the ultimate execution of customer service, just on a broader, more comprehensive scale. For example, custom installation might include something as simple as hooking up a TV and VCR—and making sure the customer really understands how to use them. Or it might involve strategizing a house-wide music, home-theater, or reference-quality system. We also provide Innovative On Call, our after-hours phone assistance. We schedule house calls in the evening or on weekends—our customer service isn't just a nine-to-five thing.

Guttenberg: High-end salesguys have a reputation—mostly undeserved, I think—for being rude or unhelpful. What do you look for in your salespeople?

Fishkin: I'm looking for nice people—ones who enjoy interacting with and helping people. They should have a healthy interest in music and want a career in this business. Many of my most successful people didn't start out as salespeople working at other stores. I never want our financial success to be the motivating factor in how we help a customer. Sometimes that means we'll sacrifice short-term success to make them happy.

Guttenberg: So I guess you're not exactly bullish about the Internet.

Fishkin: Having a strong presence on the Internet is important. The site should explain what you do and your philosophy, but I don't believe in selling on the Internet. We need to have face-to-face relationships with our clients. In addition to listing our product lines, our site offers a portal, the Cultural Connection, to all the museums and cultural events in and around New York.

Guttenberg: What's the biggest blunder customers make?

Fishkin: Hmm...maybe it's that they don't give us enough feedback...but we need to help the client ask the right questions. And then we need to find the right answers.

Guttenberg: So we're back to where we began this interview—it sounds as if you still have the passion you started with.

Fishkin: Beyond my day-to-day involvement, my passion is for Innovative to provide a future for my customers, staff, and vendors. I have a multi-generational lease for my Brooklyn Heights store, at 76 Montague Street. I want that store and my Manhattan store to last at least another 30 years, but I don't see myself working at Innovative when I'm 82.

Guttenberg: Come on...

Fishkin: No, I see myself enjoying the fruits of my labor, and spending more time at home listening to music and watching great movies.